Ravens and Doves

all these rode my Mother and sat on her shoulders like a roosting of ravens and doves.”

from Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee.

Ever since my teenage years, when I stopped seeing a mother and began to see the woman that my mother was, this quotation has stayed with me.

In her later years, my mother’s life was shaped and changed by my brother’s mental illness which manifested during his teenage years. I now find it hard to remember what she was like before. I only know now that our childhoods at least were beautifully normal.

The diagnosis came when he was nineteen. I was sixteen. Some faulty wiring buried deep within his brain had begun to make his behaviour irrational, volatile, socially unacceptable. Suddenly, in all of  the most vital ways, his life was over before it had ever really begun and there would never be any release for him, only years of mental torment.

Mum knew that then. It was thirty years ago and during those years she showed her true colours, the most enduring one, her vehemently protective mother-love for her most vulnerable son. At times this would be to the detriment of all else, and anyone else, but someone had to put him first.

I think it’s fair to say that from that time on, my mother was never truly happy again. That may sound dramatic. It was. I never fully understood the depth of her pain until I had children of my own and understood what maternal love is. A love I had learned from her.

So, she was not happy, but I know that her life was fulfilling. And I know that she knew joy.  She was intelligent, and wise from experience and she taught me in many situations what to do, and in some situations, what not to do, and that’s okay too. That is progress and all part of her teaching. Hopefully I have learnt not to make those mistakes with my own children. I do not need to repeat hers, I make enough of my own.

She loved and was loved by her children, and adored by our father. She was blessed in so many ways and yet there was a sadness in her which I could never fix. I still feel it now that she’s gone. When I think of her, I see the amazing things and the terrible things she carried with her. I still see ravens and doves.

Bernadette ∗ 1933 – 2011

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Elvis Has Left The Building

These words have been running through my mind on repeat lately. They have the power to make me laugh one minute and cry the next.

I have touched on parenting before in The Pride and The Pain. But it occurs to me that parenting comes in many guises. Over the last few years, the man I had turned to all my life with anything that mattered – good or bad, began to struggle, and as the tables turned, I found myself to all intents and purposes parenting my father. We managed pretty well for a time, the roles still swapping back and forth as Dad had good and bad days, but eventually we reached a point where he needed more help than I was able to provide.

A tailored home-care arrangement came next and plugged the gaps for a couple of years but eventually that was not enough either. I had put off the day when we would have to “give in” and move Dad somewhere more secure, but that day did come and finally, at New Year he moved into a local care-home.

Now as I walk through the flat that was supposed to be his last home (carefully chosen as a manageable space for the end game) the same words keep running through my brain on a loop – Elvis Has Left The Building. That’s the only way I can describe how it feels.

All the things which I thought mattered, the ‘essential’ gadgets I had acquired to help Dad manage alone, the treasured items my mother chose, an artist’s work, a family’s history, all the things that made up those lives are still here – untouched. But now they are redundant, meaningless because he has left them without so much as a backwards glance. When it came to it, he just went like a lamb, and there’s the rub – they are redundant because the only thing that really matters, is absolutely fine.

Elvis is alive and kicking, and ripping it up round the corner in the local Order of St John’s Trust care home. And he’s more than fine. He’s better than he has been in long time. It’s me that needs to adjust, and that might take a little longer.

So, the message here is this: to anyone facing a similar decision on behalf of a loved one; don’t be afraid. It’s a tough call, but do the research, make a good decision and roll with it. Decent elderly-care homes do exist and for some people, are the solution.

What I can’t tell you, is what to do with all of the left over things and all of the left over feelings you may have, you’ll have to figure that one out, but my suggestion might be: go and visit your loved one as often as time allows. Go to them with anything that matters – be it good or bad, and you never know – you just may get an encore.

“Elvis has left the building” is a phrase that was often used by public address announcers following Elvis Presley concerts to disperse audiences who lingered in hopes of an encore. – George Plasketes, Images of Elvis Presley in American Culture, 1977-1997: The Mystery Terrain.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, “There will be one million people in the UK with dementia by 2025”. 

Why teen fiction?

Someone asked me recently why I write teen-fiction and why I like to read it. I could have said that most teen-fiction is written by adults and if you want to write it, you need to read it, but it’s more than that.

As an adult reader and writer of teen-fiction, I can tell you it will have you re-connecting with the teenager you once were. I can also tell you that re-engaging with some of those emotions, some of those firsts, can be a heady thing.

But does that make it worth reading? Does that make it good writing?

If, as an adult you get to recognise some fragment of your teenage self, be it the angst, the elation, the wonder of a first love, a first kiss, that first fall, isn’t that a good thing? It doesn’t matter if that first is set amidst a dystopian future-scape, the line between organised chaos and anarchy beautifully blurred, or an inner-city school where adults are fallible and bullies win. If it makes you feel something, it’s good fiction.

The trick with teen-fiction is to get inside that teenage head and stay there. It needs to be emotionally credible. Your character has to think and feel with the experience and skill-set of a teenager, not an adult. The subject matter is almost irrelevant, what matters is the emotional response and the character’s emotional arc, the learning. That is what is at the heart of the best teen-fiction.

I strive for that in my writing, but all too often the adult voice creeps in. If you think writing teen-fiction is easy, think again. It’s not. Capturing a teenage response to any given situation requires really getting inside your character, and getting it wrong will cost you that emotional truth. It won’t ring true.

Luckily, there is a small part of me which remains firmly rooted in those teenage years. Mine were remarkable (I’ll explain another time.) I had great freedom, but also great anguish, with family tragedy striking during some very key years. That pain, that learned experience is something I draw on when I write and I’m not ashamed of it. It’s mine. I earned it. It’s perhaps is why I return to those years in my writing now.

Teen fiction shouldn’t shy away from difficult subjects, they need exploration. The benefits of reading about a situation before having to tackle it for real, are obvious. For some teenagers though, it will be something they are already dealing with, and to find it on the page will be cathartic, perhaps liberating. It might just lift them out of isolation and empower them to change something, and therein lies another characteristic of teen-fiction –

No matter how dark it gets, there is typically a ray of hope. There’s always a reason to carry on, the belief that no-matter what happens, the sun will rise and tomorrow is another day. I don’t mean that flippantly; I’m not talking about a Disney ending. I’m talking more about a way out, a solution that the protagonist can steer. A future.

That is why.

First Draft

Watching my writing-group friends prolifically turn out credible work, week after week, in a vast range of formats and genres is always inspiring and their encouragement in my own project is without doubt what has driven me to complete my first draft. The majority of my story has been literally wrung out of me a sentence at a time and has taken years, with the last and by far the most difficult chapters becoming the greatest challenge of all.

I had the plot down from the beginning and always knew where I was going with it. Amongst the writing fraternity, I would be classed as a plotter (one who plots) as opposed to a “pantster” (one who writes by the seat of their pants, unfettered by pre-conceived story arcs, hooks or plot points).

The plot for Pandrimogene did not magically come to me fully formed, but the concept of the story always felt whole. That said, having spent seventy-five thousand words, tacking up that challenging mountain of story arc, in fear and trepidation of having a soggy middle or a damp squib for an ending, I confess I nearly fell at the last hurdle. I had no idea the last few chapters would be so difficult to get down and I now realise that after all that effort, a paralysing fear of an anti-climatic climax threatened any closure and those key chapters almost never made it onto the page.

If I have learnt anything from the process so far, it is this. Just get it on the page. It doesn’t matter how – plot or don’t plot, run or crawl, type or scrawl, it doesn’t matter, just keep going until you get to the end. Then you can mess with it. Then you can change it, shape it and ruthlessly edit it. And now that I’ve got there, I can tell you that’s the fun bit!

The Pride and The Pain

It is a complex thing, parenting a teenager. Knowing when to step back and let them try, and recognising the occasions to stop carrying them and let them manage, are not easy things to judge. A fledgling young-adult still needs support and guidance, but they also need the space and self belief to begin making larger decisions for themselves without interference.

That’s a fine balance, a tight-rope for parents to walk when only yesterday, parenting revolved around making sure they were warm and fed and loved. Checking spelling homework is easy. Making sure they’ve brushed their teeth and answering questions like “when will it be tomorrow?” are not taxing. Knowing when and how to let go? That is much harder.

For teenagers, the stakes are high. They are potent years. For some, the pitfalls will become chasms, for others, doors open onto the world and if the encouragement and the appetite are there, anything becomes possible. If they are lucky, they get to try these things with the safety net of home still in place. Many are not so lucky.

When writing teen-fiction, these are the moments of risk and wonder that need to appear on the page. These are what make it such an exciting time to write about – creating characters and putting them through so many “firsts.” Watching an identity emerge, a sense of self that is ready to take on young adulthood.

So, writing about it is one thing, but for me this week, it got personal. This week, my eldest along with many eighteen year-olds, received her A level results. She romped home with a perfect score and I am prouder than I can find the words for, but I am also just a little bit heartbroken, for now she will leave and open the door to her own world.

That she is strong and ready to fly, that she is ready to go and start making some mistakes and achieving some greatness on her own, fills me with unparalleled joy and pride. At the same time though, she will take one chunk of my life work with her which won’t come round again, one which is irreplaceable, her childhood.

Why Night Writer?

I’m not a complete insomniac, but I am good friends with the early hours. Why is it that the ideas come then?

It’s not an uncommon predicament. A quiet space without distractions is hard to achieve during the day. Night-time brings with it a natural pause, and as the responsibilities which dictate over and shape the day, lose their hold, there is a space for ideas to form. It’s more than that though. Night Writing is more than simple time mechanics or logistics.

For me, writing has often felt like a clandestine affair, a guilty secret, something I indulge in when I should really be doing something else, something sensible. It is an unusual perspective, I know. Most writers will tell you the opposite. Most writers lament the fact that they have not written on a particular day, and will express guilt at not having achieved their chosen word count.

A little voice in my ear (yes, I frequently hear Them) tells me that this is because they are proper writers, and have earned the right. With such fine writing credentials, of  course they should be writing. What else could possibly be as important? I know even as these words hit the page, the nonsense of that sentiment. We all have the right. Get writing!

Then there is that amazing ability which our brains have, to continue working while we rest. We check out for a few hours, and our sub-conscious continues to compute in our absence. It works on, composting all of the thoughts we have been processing, perhaps struggling over, until we wake (very early in my case), somewhat revived and ready to make use of all that beautifully ordered data which only yesterday was chaos.

A friend from my writing group (let’s call her Doc) swears that when she struggles with a scene or is missing that vital plot point, she goes to bed repeating the scenario to herself along with the mantra…..

“I will solve it, I will!”

Invariably she wakes with the solution.

Finally, there is also the power and the romance of Night itself. For a fiction writer, Night is a most versatile companion. One of the greatest tools in our armoury, it falls dependably, reliably, giving rise to a wealth of opportunities just begging to be composed. Night can be fashioned into either a timely pause or an escalation of action. Darkness and intrigue are a given, but it is also a time to dream, to star gaze. It is a time for fear to manifest, or for worry to emerge, a time to love, to lust, to reflect. It is a time for revenge to burn, for jealousy to seep, or sometimes, just a time to sleep. The possibilities are endless and for me – that is why.

So, the question I have is: when do your ideas come? In the car? Whilst you are washing up? Walking the dog? I’d love to know.

The Beginning

As I begin this post, I am also in the throes of finishing the first draft of my book. A teen fiction novel about a boy, a girl and a flu epidemic that gives rise to super-humans, gifted with strength and highly tuned senses.

Writing is a time consuming thing, it steals your attention like a newborn, the idea refusing to leave you in peace until you give in to the nagging and breathe life into it and finally, tearfully, it is born on the page.

At which point, you may think your work is done? I am told not. Now I need an Author Platform, an internet presence, a whole public persona and a following. I need a platform from which I may springboard myself into the waiting arms of an agent or publisher or, should I go the self-publishing route, my readers. How exciting is that? I get to re-invent myself in cyberspace.

As my first task reaches completion, this is the journey I invite you to join me on. These first lines go out to my nearest and dearest (you know who you are) who put up with me and do without me when I’m “busy,” my book widow and now sadly, my blog orphans.