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The First Four Words….

One of the most interesting and useful tips I gained from a recent creative writing workshop was the ways in which the writer can catch the reader’s eye. After all, without these, it would be impossible to differentiate between all the books being sold and read. Generating sufficient curiosity in the reader to turn to the next page, and the next, and the next after that is what commercial writing is all about, surely? 

Of course there is also the dramatic book cover that leaps at you from the bookseller’s shelf, the neat little back-cover synopsis that intrigues you enough to want to look inside, and sometimes a heart-stopping book title which challenges you to find out the reason behind it. The former seem to me to be eyecatchers after the fact, the domain of the publisher when all is said and done. Those are all, as far as I can gather, very useful ways of SELLING a book but what about READING the book once you have it. The tip I latched on to was simplicity itself but not easy in practice. 

My course teacher, a wonderful gentleman by the name of Christopher Lee (not of the blood-sucking vampire clan in case you were wondering), suggested that it is actually the initial four words on the very first page that grab the reader’s attention. Those words should elicit some form of response; whether that is raising a question in the reader’s mind; invoking an involuntary emotion or shocking the reader with their impact. Those first four words, from a commercial point of view, could be the most important ones you ever write.

So, with that in mind, I have been making a stab at a different type of subject matter (for me) and wanted to share my first chapter with you here. Look at the first four words – they took me the longest to consider. They’re intended to grab your attention. I’m not a published novelist, so these are my own unedited jottings. For anyone who doesn’t already know, I like to scribble a bit! I hope you like them and the rest of it. Please let me know if you do or you don’t – all feedback gratefully accepted!

1951

The house was unremarkable. It looked like any other in the road save for the heaviness of the net curtains at the windows, preventing any outsider from looking in. These and the printed wooden sign by the front path denoting “The Presbytery”. The numbers on the door said seven and five; the boy knew this because he and his mother had been learning him his numbers. He could remember all the way to ten now without stopping or getting stuck so he recognised the seven and the five – he knew those.

His brown leather shoe had a large hole in the sole, and the ground scraped harshly through his threadbare sock against bare skin right where the black spot was. He had a few of those on his feet and sometimes they ached and pinched something awful. He had no shoelaces because he had swapped his last one for two blackberries his friend had found poking through the fence in the lane behind the lodge. He didn’t miss the lace because those berries had been so tasty and nice. Like happy in his mouth. He still remembered them. But it meant his shoes were a little loose and he dropped the heels as he walked.

His scuffling feet kept time with the click-clack of his mother’s wooden ones. She wore clogs, not shoes, because they stopped her slipping in the laundry, she said. But the boy saw as she rubbed her feet with a rag dipped in water at night to soothe away the angry red marks left by the clogs; to try to stop them blistering and getting infected by the pesky flies that were always in the bedsheet; buzzing and mithering, keeping them awake. His mother said them flies was a pain; he was to show them no mercy and kill them on sight but the boy struggled to catch them at all most times.

The door to the house was black with the seven and the five, and a shiny brass claw for a knocker. He wasn’t tall enough to reach so he pestered his mother to lift him high enough so he could grasp the claw firmly and give a sharp rat-a-tat-tat. The sound echoed harshly in the quiet street, so much so that a woman kneeling to scrub her doorstep opposite looked over but didn’t smile or acknowledge them in any way; just turned back to her bucket, her carbolic soap and brush.

They waited, fidgety, near a full two minutes before the sound of approaching footsteps came from inside the house. An older woman, probably around fifty years old but to the boy she may as well have been a hundred, answered “Yes?” in a flat clipped voice through a crack in the door. She opened it a little wider and cast a cursory glance at the boy; his shabby shirt with the ends missing from his frayed collar.

“Father Rafferty is expecting us.” His mother muttered quietly, her eyes cast down at the doorstep and not on the woman herself. His mother did not seem to be happy to be on a visit, thought the boy, she had hardly said a word on the walk here. But he did like being out of the lodge for a while. His mother said they lived there because she didn’t have a husband. He didn’t know what a husband was and had never really been concerned enough to ask. The lodge fed them and provided a set of clothes to wear; that was all he knew.

“Come in.” The woman opened the door wider to allow them to enter. “Mind you wipe your feet, young man.” She admonished, motioning to the rag rug on the tan and ochre tiled floor. As she pointed, he noticed she had only half a finger on the third finger of her left hand – it ended just before the knuckle. He wanted to look closer, fascinated by the knarly end of it, but she ushered them on into the house.

Again, the click-clack of his mother’s clogs reverberated in the silent hallway as they were led to a drab parlour. The room looked dull and brown, thought the boy, like it had been dipped in too much tea. It was warm in there and smelt funny, making him cough a little. The same net curtains the boy had seen outside now prevented his view of the street. There was a cross above the mantelpiece with the Jesus man looking sadly back at him.

“Father will be with you shortly.” The woman turned her back on them and left the room. She had not invited them to sit and, indeed, the boy and his mother did not expect to be asked. They stood awkwardly in the centre of the room, their breathing the only soft sound. The boy reached tentatively for his mother’s hand; the quietness and the sad Jesus man making him uncomfortable.

“Now stop all that baby stuff, you!” His mother snapped at him. “You’re not a baby anymore, are yer?”  She batted his hand away. He put both of his hands in his trouser pockets instead. In the right one he had a hole all the way through to his leg, and he fingered the skin anxiously.

“Ma? Why are we seeing a Father?” He asked. He had decided he didn’t like it here after all and hoped they were not staying long.

“None of your business” His mother hissed sharply. “Now, shut up…just…hush up a minute and let me think!” Her voice cracked a little and glancing up at her, the boy saw that her eyes seemed wet; her hand agitated, smoothing and smoothing the same spot on her tatty old coat where her new belly bump was. For all that, it didn’t seem to smooth the wrinkles out, he noticed.

“All right.” He said softly and fell silent. He didn’t like seeing his mother upset. Maybe the belly bump was hurting. The next moment, the door opened and Father Rafferty entered. A stocky man: he was not much taller than the boy’s mother. Two, sometimes three, chins strained his collar below a waxy complexion; he had very little hair left on his shining head. His head looks like the moon, thought the boy, but he didn’t laugh. He didn’t think he should.

“Good afternoon.” Boomed the Father, his voice fullsome and too loud for the small confines of the room. “Come….sit.” He pulled forward a straight-backed wooden chair and indicated to the boy’s mother that she should be seated. He did not offer the boy a chair but instead plunked himself down at a small, wooden bureau; taking out some pre-written papers and an ornate fountain pen.

“You understand why you are here?” He attended to the papers, but the question was directed at the boy’s mother.

“Yes.” She answered quietly, her hands tightly clasped in her lap. She did not look at the boy.

“Normally, there would be a notary with me, you understand?” The Father continued. “But he is detained on business inLondon, so we will obtain his signature later. It’s of no consequence.” He shuffled the papers together and placed them on the edge of the desk.

“Can you read?” He asked, peering at the mother directly for the first time.

“Some.” She said.

“And the boy?” He asked, his eyes sliding to the boy’s face.

“No….not yet.” She replied.

“I can!” The boy blurted suddenly. “Your door says seven and five.” He finished triumphantly.

“So it does, young man, so it does.” Father Rafferty looked him square in the eyes for the first time since entering the room. He reached out and took the boy’s hand, drawing him forward so he was eventually pressing against the Father’s knee. The Father’s hand felt warm and damp; almost sticky. The boy did not like it much, especially when that hand tightened uncomfortably around his own. The boy was unsure whether to cry out. He was not a baby anymore, after all. He looked sideways at his mother but she was not looking at him or the harsh squeezing hand; she was staring at the floor.

“But you’d do better to remember your manners and not interrupt your elders and betters, hmmm?” The Father squeezed even tighter; the boy’s hand reddened in his grasp. Suddenly the Father let go, snorted a laugh and chucked the boy under his chin, for all the world as if the previous few moments had not occurred. The boy blinked hard, trying not to cry. Still his mother’s eyes remained focused on the floor.

“Don’t look so concerned, boy. A spot of discipline and education is probably just what you need, eh?” The Father smiled slightly at the mother and turned back to his papers, all professionalism once again.

“Now then.” He addressed the boy’s mother, leaning his lunar face towards her. “Just so there is no misunderstanding later on, you understand…..Repeat after me, all right?” He picked up the first page.

“I certify that I have…” The boy’s mother repeated the phrase, her voice dull, tone subservient.

“…..handed over my son to custody.” The Father intoned. The mother dutifully repeated it.

“I surrender him completely to charge.” He continued his sermon-like delivery. “I solemnly promise that I shall never…”

“….I shall never…” She replied flatly.

“…..interfere with him in any way in the future.”

“…..in the future.” The mother finished and bit down hard on her lip, drawing a little blood, as the Father passed her the pen and she signed her name in a shaky hand – once, twice, three times – on the pages in front of her. Still, she did not look at her boy.

“Now…remember you have made this promise before God as I am his servant.” The Father paused, then went on quieter. “And to be sure, don’t you have enough sin heaped on your shoulders already without breaking a promise, hm?” He looked pointedly at her midriff for some moments. Then he stood up. “Let him be now. Go on back to your work. We will take it from here.” The boy’s mother stood. Even now, she wouldn’t look at her boy; just stared at the Father for a moment, mouth slightly agape as if to say something then changed her mind and moved silently to the door. The shadowy figure of the woman who had let them into the house earlier stood in the opening, and handed something to the boy’s mother as she passed. She did not once look back. The boy called out, “Ma?!” in some confusion, but all he heard in reply was his mother’s choked sob, the front door close softly and then only the fast and fading click-clacks back down the street from where they had come.

The parlour door was closed quietly from the hallway side. Father Rafferty turned back toward the boy, who stood with eyes huge in his little face. He had not expected to be staying here without his mother.

“So, you know your numbers do you?” The Father asked, placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder and turning him full face towards him. “Do you know how old you are?” The boy nodded slowly.

“Four.” He mumbled, his lip trembling a little as he realised he was here alone. Sad Jesus still looked on.

“Four.” The Father repeated. “Is that right? And such a beautiful boy…all that God-given yellow hair…” He murmured, his other hand reaching to brush a forelock of the boy’s hair back from the anxious blue eyes. The boy tried to pull away but Father Rafferty’s hand stayed firmly on his shoulder, his fingers digging into the soft skin beneath the thin woollen shirt, pinning him there. The silent room waited. The Father cleared his throat loudly.

“Come now.” Father Rafferty’s tone returned to its usual booming volume. “Let’s get you something to eat. Do you like jam?” The boy looked puzzled for a moment. He didn’t know what jam was, rationing not extending to such luxuries in the unmarried mother’s home where he had been raised. “What’s that? You’ve never tasted jam? Well, you’re in for a treat, son!” The Father coaxed him toward the door, one hand on his back propelling him forward. “Come now. Then we’ll have a little chat, eh? There’s something I want to show a clever young man of numbers like you later. Downstairs.”

(C) Sarah Stratton 2011

Photo credit: oilersnation.com

Longings and Lattes

Around 3.00pm on any given afternoon, I am usually at the mercy of cravings for a creamy latte. Some people smoke – me, I take on liquids. This necessitates stopping work, wandering the 100 yards or so to the nearest barista where I tickle him under his milky little armpits until he delivers what I require. I then walk back to my office, sit down and….well, basically contemplate my future for 10 minutes. It’s an indulgence, I know, and those of you out there with proper jobs and toddlers under foot are probably screaming at the screen right now. But I like to do it, and everyone is advised to reduce stress. It’s this or crystal meth.

I am a blessings-counter in my day to day life as it is, and believe I have been extremely lucky to have what I have: the kids, the husband, the job, the lifestyle etc. It is not discontentment that prompts these thoughts. Rather a naïve belief that, having got this far, what’s stopping me continuing in pursuit of an ideal? We all have to have goals, don’t we? Or have I been indoctrinated into the “performance review” mould of work for too long?

In my defence, the boss knows about it and woe betide him if he interrupts during this afternoon hiatus. It started after I once read a book called “The Secret” which encouraged me to try “cosmic ordering” – thinking positively about the things you really want and then they will come to you. So far, fingers crossed/touching wood/good morning Mr Magpie *spit* *spit* it’s been spookily true on a few counts. Not last week’s Euromillions, obviously, but then one must not be cosmically greedy – it negates all the positives apparently.

So in pictorial terms, if I could keep all the good things I already have, but given free rein and endless money/time/good karma just “swap” a few bits around, how would I cosmically order things to start living the – modest, not greedy – future that I desire?

Number One: This is the current view from my office.

And as views of London go, its not bad. Lots of light and space. I even get to see Queeny’s chopper going over from time to time back to her bungalow over by the park. Here, however, is the office view that I would like:

This is Salcombe, or as I prefer to call it, Nirvana. The ultimate goal – sad to some who aspire to Caribbean islands etc. But my own private dream town. It’s got sailing, surfing, beaches, gig rowing, shops, restaurants, a decent coffee shop and is only 20 miles from a major town for shoe shopping and handbags. I’ve been going there for a few years now and never yet heard anyone burp in public. Heaven.

Number Two: This is the home I live in now:

And its lovely – we are very lucky. Country location, friendly locals and perfect for us and the kids. It wasn’t always like this, mind. Not sure what the “rear elevation” motto is on the pic – except I know it’s from some old estate agent details from a time when things were not as financially rosy as they could otherwise have been and we had to put the family homestead up for sale. We didn’t sell it in the end, needless to say. And in truth I always said I would never leave it – I love it – but there is a house I have seen in the right location (with the view above) and try as I might I can’t get it out of my head:

Six bedrooms and a basement. Sleeping quarters for us grown-ups, one each for the kids, one spare to kick the snoring nightmare that is my husband into when it becomes unbearable, one for guests (which in a location like this I am expecting many of) and a writing room (see below – there is a theme developing here)

Number Three: Here is what I do for a living now:

But I have better hair, I think. And here, with a lot more time and space, is what I would like to do to earn a crust:

Number Four: This is my current body image (That’s not a real beard, before you ask, being facially hirsute is not one of my issues – yet):

and here’s the figure I aspire to (if only the LighterLife people would stop pfaffing around with Pauline Quirke and return my call):

Number Five: Oh, and I’d like lots more of these types of things, purchased if necessary (well, I am 44), but ssshhhhh don’t tell the husband:

Ah well, coffee’s finished now. Back to the real world. All I know is I need a lot more dosh and time and less lattes to get it all done! Onwards and upwards! There’s a cosmos to order about!

What is your perfect world? What motivates you to keep on going in the face of distraction and routine? Would love to know how others navel-gaze from time to time.

Photo Credits: Some to Google, the others are my own.

I Write Therefore I Am…

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I entered my first writing competition yesterday – one with actual prize money if you win. It was a drumroll moment – I have never had the confidence to date to submit anything I’ve written. I just came to the conclusion that I have all this stuff lying around from years of indiscriminate scribbling – why not submit it and see what someone else thinks?

 I also recently submitted a dark little ditty I wrote at 2am one heartburn morning in bed when it became a clear case of sit up or throw up. I chose sit up and while waiting for the Gaviscon to take effect, I wrote down what I saw. It’s a little surreal, and not to everyone’s taste, but it’s mine and like a newborn baby duckling, I love it dearly. Luckily I realised a long time ago that not everyone will think what I write is interesting, informative or funny (my poor blog stats are clear evidence of that!).  That’s OK.  In any case, my piece went up on a flash fiction website on Tuesday and I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a bit chuffed to see my name in print – even if only for 24 hours on the internet.

At the same time, I seem to be having something of a creative Renaissance. I have been working hard on my “novel” – I don’t want to put too much pressure on it by actually calling it that yet, hence the quotation marks. The words are leaping easily and smoothly onto the pages, and after almost three months I have made a breakthrough in the plotline that might just see me with a first draft in the next couple of weeks if I can maintain the pace. So. Exciting times!

I promised myself in January that I would make time to write this year, and I am surprising myself and my slightly bemused family with just how much I really do enjoy doing this. I found myself really “in the zone” the other evening – the house burble and family mutterings dissolved completely away and there was just me and my flying fingers at the computer, doing my thang! It was brilliant  and weird in equal measures. Like discovering I can play the organ over a quick cup of coffee one morning. Or suddenly wearing a beret. It’s not what I do, surely, but apparently IT IS! My son told me I looked very sweet, tip-tapping away and lost in the moment; doing something I love. Bless him!

The children have, of course, laid claim to any potential literary prize money much as they do any spare salary, coins left unattended on the dresser and most of my meagre savings. The prize money is the focus of their excitement, not mine – I just want someone who knows about these things to like what I’m doing. I must admit though that I now feel duty bound to win the competition or I will be “letting the kids down”. No pressure there then!

 I don’t yet know if I have what it takes to make anything commercial of this writing malarkey but I’m sure as hell enjoying trying to get there. So, watch this space and who knows?  There could be two very happy and slightly richer little noseminers in the house come the end of August. Or not.

Either way, there will be one very contented Mum. For the moment obviously – this is still ME we’re talking about!

PS One last thing, must mention picture credit to Freshverse.com

What about ME?

I’m including here today a couple of the beautiful paintings created by my friend, Pippa. She moved to France a few years ago, and we got to talking on email one day about life, the universe and everything, as you do.  Turns out that, while France has been great and renovating a lovely little farmhouse, raising three gorgeous boys and learning an entirely new language has been fun, frustrating and immensely challenging in equal measure, she was struck by the same sense of something not quite right that affects all of us mums at some point.

Another friend wants to start a business, buying and renovating old furniture. Using craft skills she has, but cannot use in her day to day life.

Yet another wants to learn to water-ski. Whatever floats your boat, I say, pardon the pun.

The fact is the “What about Me?” moment comes to us all – even if you don’t, can’t or won’t admit it.  Something about motherhood, and in my case working motherhood, takes us over and we become like an escalator, constantly pushing and carrying other people forward to their destination, but somehow always ending up behind them, back at the bottom again, and wondering when is it our turn to get off?!  And don’t say you haven’t thought it, because you have. Even if you then felt guilty for thinking it, like I have.

In truth, thinking it is nothing to feel guilty about. Thinking that there is something you would like to do – just for you – is not saying that we are not grateful for and enjoying the lives we have. Being wives, partners, lovers, mothers, workers, businesswomen and all of the other important elements of our lives does not preclude doing or wanting something that no-one else in the family does. 

We most certainly do enjoy our lives. Even when its difficult. Even when the 3am high-temperatured and vomiting child is upon us and we have to get up for work at 6am the next day! Even then, we are not unhappy with our lot necessarily.  It’s just that somewhere along the way, at least in my case and that of some of my friends, something got forgotten. Put on the back burner. Left until later.  But just when is later in this busy life?

So one day Pippa, like me and so many others will before and after this blog, woke up and decided to start painting again – something she enjoyed and trained for in her past that had got buried in the mists of time passing. And as you can see, the results are amazing! Although I am not sure about the chicken theme, but peck – what would I know? The best part of all is that it appears to have brought a sense of fulfillment to my dear friend, and it does not at all detract from the rest of her life and achievements, which continue along their path in much the same way.

In my case, I took off on a madcap sailing adventure – learning to sail from scratch and then undertaking a 6,000 nautical mile journey across the Atlantic in a racing yacht. Six weeks away from home, and a million miles from the day job. I’m not alone – roughly 400 people do it every two years, and frankly, I thoroughly recommend it.  I did not realise it at the time, but it was the first time since I was a teenager that I was a) by myself, and b) able to spend the time thinking about my life and more importantly, me.  A little mid-life health-check , if you will.

I discovered, much to my great happiness, that there is not a lot wrong with either. Yes, I yearn to live by the sea (the subject of another blog which I will reveal to you shortly) and yes, I would like to stop commuting 3 hours a day to work that can sometimes not be as fulfilling a job as I would like it to be. But in general, despite niggles that arise and problems that have to be overcome, I am happy with my relationships, friendships, lifestyle and enormously proud of my children. Pretty pleased with the direction in which everything is moving. Without being horribly smug, I hope!

BUT, there was something which had bugged me for a long time. The thought that arose while administering Calpol at 3am in the morning. The wish that crept up on me while throwing a roast dinner together. Long ago, when I was a young girl (!) I had always thought I would go to university and study English literature and learn to write; had perhaps even toyed with the idea of a degree in journalism or similar. Circumstances conspired to make that impossible, but still I have always wanted to do something with writing and have never quite found the time. Now I am doing something about that, and like Pippa, I feel good about it. It’s not selfish to take a little time for yourself in this crazy merry-go-round we call life. And I am convinced it will make me a better person – broaden my horizons, give me an outlet etc.

So watch this space. Because that novel wants to be written (and Pippa will provide the jacket cover and illustrations although she doesn’t know it yet) and I want to do it. Lasagna will still get made, kids will still be cared for, the dog will get walked and sadly, work will still have to be a priority – but that bit, that little bit of satisfaction in a page written one day soon, a start made – that bit will be just for me. 

If you would like to know more about Pippa’s pictures, just comment and let me know! Thanks!