Friday, 25 February 2011

Administration – I love you

Confession time. I am an admin geek. Think I'm over exaggerating? Ok, you asked for it:

One of the highlights of my career thus far has been learning to make databases in Microsoft Access – to advanced level. Yes. I spent about twenty hours in training and have left a trail of databases in my wake at my various employers since then - a bit like fairy dust but in shiny, time saving database form. It even reached the level where I seriously considered creating a database for my books, CDs or (God forbid) my wardrobe, such was my intense obsession with databasing. I understand that this is almost certifiable geekiness.

I particularly love admin when an admin geek hasn't been present before me. Piles of papers, mailing lists out of order – this is like discovering gold to the admin geek. That heady sense of:

'Oooh it's all out of order...where are my sticky notes...let me list my do lists! files....a new pack of polyfiles!....yessss!'

Do you see? This is worrying behaviour.

I liken it to cleaning a really dirty piece of silver (intensely satisfying by the way). Suddenly you reveal the wonder of what is underneath and you just feel so pleased with yourself! My Granddad used to get me to clean his silver when I went to visit so I partly blame him for these strange tendencies. He positively rewarded them with chocolate and fizzy Ribena – what's a girl to do?!

This week has been intensely satisfying for my inner admin geek as I have been given the administrative reigns of the church and free reign to go admin crazy. This afternoon I am going to format new documents for my monthly reports and update my new master contacts database. Yesss! I'm really sad aren't I? :(

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Strawberry beer (aka the wonder of new possibilities….)

In one short hour I will be off for a strawberry beer to celebrate the end of my last day at my job. This isn’t an ordinary change though just as the mighty strawberry beer is no ordinary beer. This is the first job that I have accepted on the basis of how I want to spend my time rather than how I have to. It’s a bit risky (as was adding strawberry puree to larger, are you seeing where I’m going with this?!) but the thing is, it might just work out into a truly fabulous medley of beery fruity goodness (in life form).
I’m not sure if I’m going to wake up tomorrow full of hope or horror, all I know is that my day is going to look a whole lot different. Tomorrow I’m spending the day literally saying ‘More tea, Vicar?’ as I figure out the admin I’m going to be doing for the church to keep it ticking over while we’re vicar-less – a bit different to arriving at half nine to my desk and staring at a pile of papers and wondering where to start.
This change is also elevated to strawberry beer status awesomeness because it is bigger than just a job change because of what it might lead to. There are so many paths that could open up from where I am standing now and I wonder if I will look back and remember this moment as the start of something VERY exciting. Whatever happens this journey is going somewhere and what is life for if not to mix it up a little and see what results?
All I know is that this is the most excited I have been in a very long time. I’ve always tried to muster up enthusiasm for a path that isn’t mine mostly because I’ve seen others around me being so efficient at it but we can only be ourselves and I’m the kooky randomer who packs up a conventional career path for what makes me smile. So I wanted to mark this day out somehow and I decide to do it here - here’s to tomorrow and everything that brings!

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Hello boss....and boss....and boss?!

In my entire adult life I have had just one boss at a time. Identifying said boss is easy and could be done at 100 paces. Even the gentle footsteps of your boss on scratchy carpet are well known to the office dweller, alerting you of their approach so that you can screw your face up in an expression of extreme concentration. Even your tea drinking is intense and thoughtful. 'I am worth the money,' you say, 'every penny.'

This arrangement is quite simple to compute, one boss, one set of footsteps to identify, one role to fulfil in life, one task to be intensely interested in – easy. But what happens when you have more than one boss? More than one task? This is the crazy world into which I have been thrown.

No sooner have I reconciled myself with doing good things for boss number 1 than boss number 2 phones and I am spun into a world of confusion – I have two jobs? This is most unfamiliar! To add to this confusion I also have project bosses for my freelance work who contact me in the middle of working on another job. This is confusing enough right now with just one full time job but what about when I am knee deep in books and someone phones about an article about squirrels that I’m writing (I’m not actually writing about squirrels, but you see my point). My brain is not capable of dealing with this level of complexity.

It seems I am actually going to have to follow that old favourite ‘take every day as it comes’. I’ve also become an even more compulsive list maker, stashing away ideas for the time I have set aside on a particular project. In truth I’m not sure I’ve ever been that good at routine. By about day four I’m dragging my knuckle along the floor to my desk like some sort of cave dweller. So I’m looking forward to the excitement of a new challenge every day and will just have to live with a permanent look of expectant enthusiasm on my face. Plan!

Monday, 14 February 2011

The perils of homeworking

I’ve begun to understand more fully what I am letting myself in for with this ‘homeworking’ malarkey. Last Thursday I was struck down with hideous snot inducing virus (yummmmm) and so decided to isolate myself and work at home to ensure the on-going health and wellbeing of my work colleagues. At first I could blame my slovenly ways on the illness. Pyjamas are mandatory when you are feeling under the weather and by not showering or getting dressed I could do the ultimate bed to computer transition and be from sleep mode to work mode in a matter of minutes. Score.
This is when the penny dropped. I could do this every day. There is no need for clothes anymore. No need for excess laundry. Who likes laundry anyway? And what about the environment? Do I really want to kill the pandas or do I want to save the planet and STAY IN MY PYJAMAS. I chose the pandas. I chose life. I chose my pyjamas.
By 2pm however I was presented with a problem.  I had to go outside, my food levels were at a dangerous low and the choice before me was this:
1.       Go to shops.
2.        Eat a tin of kidney beans for lunch.
The thought process that followed horrified me especially when I realised I was standing in my living room, debating with myself out loud about the necessity of a shower to go to the shops and if dark pyjamas could legitimately pass for jogging bottoms? Friends, it was a low point.
 I enquired on Twitter if this is the normal state of affairs for ‘homeworkers’. Apparently so. Nationwide there are people having conversations with their kettles, dressed in outfits with ‘sleepy time’ written on them at midday and doing all manner of inappropriate things at their work station. It was a frightening premonition of what is to come but for the good of the two minute bed to work hop I’m willing to take it on, just please don’t visit me at home in the daytime.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Once bitten….

Or as the case may be for me this week - once burnt, twice shy!  Ever since I burnt my arm with boiling water this week during the art of tea making (well actually my husband burnt my arm with slapdash tea stirring, I know! Outrage!) I have been nervous of making cups of tea. For a tea addict this is a serious, life hindering issue. I may have to go under urgent and prolonging psychotherapy to resolve this or there is a very real danger that life may no longer be worth living.

But what this has made me realise (very handily, for blog writing purposes) is how easy it is to carry this fearful attitude in other areas of life. I like to think I’m pretty brave, not in a lion taming, sky diving way (I’m not mental, you know) but in that I go for opportunities as I see them, I don’t hold back on what life has to offer (unless it’s lion taming or sky diving). But now that I have some really exciting opportunities ahead of me I’m realizing that where I’ve gotten a bit burnt this year I really am feeling a bit shy.

So I’ve been mulling over ways to rectify this. Confidence is so important when taking on new challenges, particularly creative ones where you have to put your ideas out there and not crumple into a ball of human goo when people don’t like it (a challenge, I can tell you). For a brief moment I considered becoming one of those people who yells affirmations at themselves in the mirror.

N -  Go for it, Nicola! You’re a winner! You’re book is awesome, it rocked my world!

I don’t know why I have to be an American cheerleader on E numbers to do this, but there we are. The mind wants what it wants. Ultimately I realised that I couldn’t maintain my respect for myself if I became one of those people, so I mentally meandered over to plan two – some sort of holiday. The danger here is that with time to think I may sink deeper into my fear pit and end up wading into the murky waters of reminiscing so I would need some kind of preppy, motivational element to the holiday to be certain that this would be successful. Luckily before signing up to a cheerleading, lion taming holiday a friend of mine assured me that the strengths that I have are still there even if I’ve been bashed around a bit workwise in the last year and I think that’s true.  So I have decided to go easy on myself and trust that my positive, creative, bouncy self is just waiting for an outlet and I’ll be back on full form before you know it. So to celebrate my new found confidence in confidence I am drinking a cup of tea made confidently. There! Have it world!

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Time for tea

Today I spent a lovely afternoon hosting a ‘Time for a cuppa’ afternoon for Dementia UK. I love to bake (and to eat!!!), so it was no hardship. Plus it was an opportunity to gather together my lovely friends from the local area and spend an afternoon chatting over a cuppa and a slice of cake. When I saw that Dementia UK were asking people to host tea parties across the country, to raise money for specialist dementia nurses (Admiral Nurses), I knew it was something I would love doing not only for the sheer joy of a baking extravaganza but also because it’s a cause that is close to my heart. A couple of years ago I spent six months working at a hospital in the orthopaedic trauma ward as a Nursing Assistant, there were plenty of sad things to be seen but dementia was one of the worst of them. 
Recently my Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my family went through the heart-breaking decision of having to move her to a nursing home. I think the worst thing about dementia, particularly for family, is the way you lose someone over a protracted period watching parts of the person you know and love drift away. It can end up in what feels like an extended grieving process, they are still here but yet somehow they are not. It’s hard to know what to do with that, the right thing to say or do. You end up in a limbo situation, packing up their house as if they are gone and then popping down the road and finding them there sitting in their chair, looking just the same - but different somehow.
Working in the hospital was sometimes like a magnified version of being a bewildered family member. I found that in the most part even medical professionals have no idea how to treat people with dementia. They are as clueless as the rest of us as to what to say or how to calm down someone who just cannot understand your intentions. That’s why I think Admiral Nurses are so wonderful and so necessary. We need people to teach us how to care for people with dementia and how to get through it ourselves as loved ones. I remember one particular day in the hospital when I was caring for a lady with dementia, we sat and had a cup of tea together before I helped her to bed and she looked up at me and smiled as I tucked her in and said:
‘My dear, I’ve had such a lovely day.’
And so that’s why ‘Time for a cuppa’ made such sense to me, because even with dementia, we can have a really lovely day with a good friend to sit with us and nice a cup of tea.

Friday, 4 February 2011

A new dawn, a new day and a new blog!

Hello friends! This is all a bit exciting, isn’t it? Here we are on this new shiny blog that has a floating book in the background! How marvellous! So as you may have gathered I have moved home to a new space in that wonderful thing we call the World Wide Web and my blogs will now live here. Never fear, should you be bored enough at work to need it my back catalogue of witty repertoire is available here too! What can I say? I’m a giver!

But it’s not just the blog that is new, oh no. It is so much better than that! As of the end of the month I will be leaving my current job (yippee! *sorry current job*) and starting a super new shiny job as a Deputy Bookshop Manager for Oxfam. This is VERY exciting. However the fun does not end there, oh no! This post will be part time, so people, I am going to have the rest of my time to write! Yippee! This will be a chance to real nail the novel and get a new project started that I have been mulling over for a while now. I’m also hoping to expand my non-fiction repertoire and as I mentioned in a previous blog I will be working with Tearfund on a very exciting project in the Mekong Sub region.

On top of this I will also be doing some hours in my lovely church, St Michael and All Angels in Summertown, which I LOVE and rumour has it I will get my sticky paws on the website, fab! So all in all I am going to be one happy chick. The most exciting thing about this (can you tell I’m excited?!) is that I at last feel like I’m moving in a good direction, developing the skills I need for what (I think!) my future holds but at the same time having the chance to really enjoy myself and achieve something great now. I think I’ve only really began to figure out what I’m really good at and the way I like to work in the last year or so – better late than never! – and I hope this will give me a chance to be doing that every day. Sometimes I think we just do what we can do, rather than what we want to do and it has been scary to step out of that into a more free-style way of living. I’m confident it will be worth it! A new dawn and a new day indeed!!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Hello Procrastinators - 2nd Feb 2010

A quick post today – I’ll be back later in the week with my usual mix of chat n’ that but today I saw this really funny cartoon (while procrastinating) and I thought I would share it with you…

You can find more at

In which I take my pen back - 27th Jan 2010

I have a confession to make. No, I’ve not gone off on a mad stealing rampage (Hulks amok in Co-op) or poked a small child in the eye (why would you, eh?!) but I have….gulp…..not been writing. Ok, now for the mass of self-justification:
  1. I had to write that big short story collection, remember? And then I had to edit it and proofread it and typeset it. Yes I had to typeset my own book (this may not strike you as a great surprise if you have seen the book, ahem). And that was all reeeeeally hard. Sigh.
  2.  I’ve been job hunting, which as we all know takes every waking moment to think about jobs, apply for jobs, chew nails nervously about the outcome of applications for jobs etc etc. That makes for one busy schedule….
  3. It’s dark in the mornings and I don’t like getting out of bed.
  4. Greatest confession of all:  I’ve started to wonder what I’m doing it all for. Gulp.
Earlier this week I saw a really cool doorway (yes, a doorway) and I thought to myself: ‘something very exciting would happen past that doorway’. I don’t know what it was, the way the stone was crumbling or the way the ivy looked just a touch too overgrown, but my imagination went into overdrive. I have been trying to supress such things because I am not writing, but then I overheard a really interesting snippet of conversation and there it goes again, the great desire to make a story rears its persistent little head again!

Getting good feedback on Stars in Unexpected Places was amazing, I loved that people  connected with it. That’s why I enjoy reading so much and to think that something I wrote resonated personally with someone is tremendously exciting.  BUT the world of publishing is so…draining! I don’t want to think about agents and royalties and sales and jacket covers but I do still really, really want to create new stories. I can’t help it – it’s so seemingly pointless and yet I love it! So what now? It seems a shame to let the fear of the big publishing monster get in the way of a good story, so I think I might start again. Take my pen back, as it were, and accept that I am indeed a crazy person and I will just have to live with that. There are worse compulsions I suppose?! And at least I’m not running amok in Co-op?

Rollercoasters and brand new projects - 21st Jan 2010

I’m job hunting at the moment and that is leading to me feeling a bit like I’m strapped in to a rollercoaster. I generally think change is something to be thankful for but going up and down, up and down all week long and never really being sure what is coming next can be extremely tiring! It is into this crazy scenario that this week’s events came. The highlight of the week by far was a visit to the Tearfund head offices in Teddington.  I haven’t been there in about five years, since I did my gap year with Teafund, but I’ve supported them, in one way or another, since then.  One of the off shoots of my recent short story collection, which raised funds for Tearfund, was being asked to get involved in a new project. So on Wednesday I found myself trotting along to hear a little bit more about what they had in mind.

The wonderful thing about Tearfund is that you are always greeted by smiley people. I think that comes with spending your days focusing on those that are less fortunate than yourself, you become grateful and so happy by default!  I was due to meet with the Country director of the Mekong Sub Region who had been looking for someone to help him with some writing tasks to promote the region and through a number of different people, he found me.  I’m pretty glad he did because it’s an exciting project. The essence of it is promoting the excellent work of Tearfund partners in the region through written communications (articles, blogs etc) and we had a great time brainstorming what those might include.

I also heard a lot from the Country director about what the partners are up to and it was pretty eye opening; people travelling across borders in a desperate search for work, uprooting their whole families and making themselves vulnerable in the process. The list of issues in the region are intense -  drug smuggling, child trafficking, HIV/AIDS. I never leave Tearfund without a profound sense of how lucky I am and a fresh commitment to do what I can to help the partners who give up comfort, security and a huge amount of time to support people in unimaginable conditions. It puts my little job hunt into a stark light. I’m worried about a commute, not about migrating my whole family across borders!

I’m really looking forward to getting to know the partners better and helping them to make their stories heard. It’s exciting for me to be branching out (or rather back into!) non-fiction writing and to promote the kind of work that I love the most. I shall keep you posted on any articles etc as they arise and, of course, my own little rollercoaster ride -  you lucky thing!

Pink tutu enthusiasm - 14th Jan 2010

Today on the way to work I was trudging through this drizzly, mediocre January morning when I saw a little girl, about three years old, come zooming out of her house on a scooter wearing a pink glittery tutu. Her Dad was dressed in jeans and a jumper and looked thoroughly bland stood next to her. Crikey, I thought to myself, this girl is ready to face the day! It made me think about having a level of enthusiasm that, when you wake up in the morning, a pink tutu is your garment of choice. I would love that! Getting out of bed is effort enough and even selecting clothes is, quite frankly, a massive chore. I don’t open the door to a cold, dull morning and say ‘Hello world, I coming for ya!’  and wizz off down the driveway on my scooter. Ah if only!  

But though a pink sparkly tutu may raise a few eyebrows in the office, and perhaps not fit in with the general attire at the departmental meeting, it did make me think that at the start of a new year, when everything can seem a little grey, we could take a leaf out of our young friend’s book. I’m sure she wasn’t heading off to the day of her lifetime, probably just off to play group to hang out with her chums, then maybe a spot of lunch in front of In the Night Garden (yes, I’m soo up on kids telly) followed by a little afternoon nap. Actually, that sounds pretty darn good, perhaps I would be wearing a pink tutu if that were my day - but anyway, I digress. What I am trying to say is that perhaps it’s the little possibilities that each day holds, the pink tutus of this world, where the real enthusiasm for life is to be found.

As regular readers and chums will know, I am a firm believer that everything is made better with a bit of glitter and as such use it LIBERALLY. I genuinely fear that I may start serving up bowls of pasta topped with ‘Disco Hologram’. It’s a real, and disturbing, possibility.  However, in a desperate attempt to justify myself, perhaps sprinkling your day with things just because they are pretty and good is the way to go. Perhaps it’s about making the most of opportunities to do exactly what you feel like doing that is really important when it comes to facing life with enthusiasm. So off you go and apply a liberal dusting of enthusiasm to your day, even if it is January. I shall expect to see a dramatic national rise in tutu wearing as of first thing tomorrow!

Queen Nicola's Christmas Message! - 23rd Dec 2010

On Sunday evening Ben and I trudged down the road in the snow to our local church for a candle lit carol service. Sitting in the church with our coats on, singing carols with all our neighbours, I realised quite how lucky we are and how much has changed for us in 2010. This time last year I was living alone in Oxford while Ben finished off his teacher training in Aberdeen, he didn’t have a job yet to come down to and I was working somewhere completely different where the people were lovely but the work wasn’t quite for me. We knew immediately that Oxford was the right place for us to be but those first few months of being apart were hard.

My hope has always been that I would have an open house full of friends and laughter and 2010 has brought much of that. We have met lots of new friends and got closer with life long ones. Our family have been dropping by loads (now that they don’t have to get on a plane to see us!) and we have new upstairs neighbours who share our love of vintage homeware and gossip girl (me) and football (Ben!). Yes, sing along children - that’s when good neighbours become good friends! Ha! One of the things I am looking forward to most in 2011 is another year in our lovely new community, kicking off with a visit from the Bishop of Oxford at church and a community barn dance!! Aren’t we quaint!

Like every year this one has had its ups and downs, celebrations and sad times both. I have discovered the sheer joy of edible glitter, successfully grown a plot of vegetables and finally written my book, but what I am most thankful for is that I will be ending the year as I started it, surrounded by the people that I love. Who knows what 2011 will bring; this year has brought many surprises! My prediction is that it’s going to be a big one! But for now may I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and that you find everything you hope for waiting for you in 2011.

A Snowy Story - Part 2 - 22nd Dec 2010

Part two of 'A Snowy Story' for your reading pleasure! If you missed it you can find part one below and more shall follow! Happy Reading!

The cold hit Molly squarely in the face.
‘Darn milk,’ she hissed into her scarf, taking her first tentative steps onto the snow.
It wasn’t a long walk to the shops but Molly knew it could be treacherous enough. The problem was that no one cleared the pathways outside their houses anymore. She could hardly be expected to, she was a woman alone after all and hardly had a shovel handy, but the others, well, it was enough to convince you that community spirit had gotten buried right there under the snow. She shook her head at number 27 in evidence of her dismay.

Molly kept her head down as she walked, her gaze fixed on the next patch of snow ahead of her. She was wearing an old hat, made of itchy grey wool that was infused with the distinctive smell that knitwear acquires on being shoved, unloved, to the back of the wardrobe for twelve months. She could feel her skin warming up at an alarming rate beneath her many layers and she suddenly though better of the forth jumper she had enthusiastically put on.  It was as Molly rounded the corner onto the high street that she found herself nose to chest with a fellow pedestrian.
‘Goodness, watch where you’re going!’ she said, taking a step back in an effort to regain her so hastily stolen personal space. The face looking down at her was wrapped in a thick black scarf, just two grey eyes peered out at her through the snowy haze.
‘Molly?’ the swaddled face said.
Molly squinted through the snow, trying to recognize the personal space intruder.
‘Yes, it’s me!’ Richard pulled his scarf from his face and smiled at her. Just the very act of removing his scarf seemed to unsteady him, causing him to reach forward and clutch her arm to regain his balance. ‘Woooh there!’ he said, laughing and still holding onto her arm.
Molly stared at his hand pointedly. Though she now knew who the offending man was she no more wanted him to be clutching her arm on the street than if he had been a perfect stranger. She had last seen Richard in early November, a pleasant autumnal day for the time of year. He had asked her to go for ‘a drink’, a glass of wine of all things, and she had accepted in what she now considered a moment of sheer madness. They had had a lovely time, as it turned out, and one glass had become two. It being one of those fancy new bars the glasses were the size of small buckets and Molly could barely fathom where she’d put it all. Richard had returned her to her house and had shaken her hand as he said goodnight, her hall light illuminating his gentle smile. He had held on to her hand for just a fraction too long, quite like he was doing now, but then she hadn’t heard from him again nor seen him until now, near on six week later.
‘I’m so sorry, Molly. Here’s me holding you up in this dreadful weather and using you as a leaning post! Can I take you for a drink?’ he said, smiling that same smile down at her.
Molly looked up at him, adjusting her hat slightly and thought, who on earth does he think he is? Before promptly saying ‘Why yes, that would be lovely.’

A Snowy Story - 21st Dec 2010

Hello lovelies! As we are all snowed in and stressed about our Christmas plans AND as it is National Short Story Day I thought I might write you a snowy story. Part one is below (to be continued...). I hope it brings you a moment of happy calm with a cuppa, next time we shall find out  what becomes of poor Molly out in the snow!!

A Snowy Story
Molly looked out of the window and marvelled at the wintery wonderland that confronted her. She could barely see her path anymore and chuckled to herself at the man sliding along the pavement as if he were on roller skates. Molly was tucked up inside and intended to be so for the foreseeable future, so the wintery weather didn’t bother her a jot. No, she had what could feasible be a lifetime's supply of books and most importantly her electric fire, after all who can be bothered with wood these day? And anyway the wood would be covered in snow, so what good would it be now? More fool real fire snobs, she thought, stretching out her fingers to the fire.

Molly lived alone and had done for some time. She preferred it that way. The bed was hers to stretch out in any which way she liked and she could stay in her dressing gown all day if she liked, which of course she didn’t - she had a life to attend to after all. It was a genuine joy to Molly that she never found a dirty cup by the sink unexpectedly or a pair of underpants on the bathroom floor.  She had heard from her married friends of the places they found underpants. What was wrong with men, she mused, that they discarded underpants about their home so liberally? Molly had once been for tea with her dear friend Elizabeth and pulled out the dining room chair to discover -  underpants! Molly shuddered at the thought and the memory of the poor red faced Elizabeth hurriedly stuffing her husband’s draws into the front of her apron. No, she thought. It was better to be alone.

Molly checked her wrist watch and saw that her stomach was not misleading her; it was, in fact, time for lunch.  After retrieving her kitchen slippers Molly made her way to the fridge. First things first - a cup of tea, she thought, reaching into the fridge door. She soon found herself patting the back of it and knelt down to take a closer look. No milk! Molly straightened up, her eyebrows knitted together in a frown.  This, she thought, is where living alone falls down. No one to blame for drinking the last of the milk.  Molly opened the door to the utility room to locate her freezer. She wasn’t a big one for freezer food, preferring fresh, but she always kept an emergency supply of the essentials in stock. Molly opened the freezer and stopped. She kept the emergency milk on the top of the freezer but it didn’t appear to be there. She rustled through the packs of peas and suspicious looking cuts of meat wrapped in sandwich bags, her hands going numb, before finally accepting her fate. There was no milk. Now had this been any other product perhaps she could have gone without but as we well know, tea is a basic need and one cannot go without. Molly sighed and looked up to the window. The snow was falling heavily again. She would have to go outside….

Ginny and Me - 29th Nov 2010

When I was 14 I was going to be a pop star. I think this was mostly fuelled by a desire to meet and marry Taylor from Hanson. This developed into some more serious singing in my sixth form years (some of which I even look back favourably on!) before I went to University and finally relinquished both my love of scary long haired singers and my glittering future in the world of pop. I have mentioned it before, but I am so grateful that the X Factor wasn’t around at that time. I just know there would have been some hideous video of me that would have surfaced at every monumental occasion in my life courtesy of my nearest and dearest. There really is enough to be privately embarrassed about without video evidence.

It is into this turbulent teenage world that we enter in the next story of our blog tour, Ginny and Me, from my short story collection Stars in Unexpected Places.

“Me and Ginny sat on the bridge, halfway between the houses with boarded windows and the spiral towers housing the public school boys, and set the world to rights. The road was quiet beneath us, the commuter traffic having long died down. Now there were just the yells of kids in the park on one side and an eerie silence from the boarding school on the other.
Ginny and me, we knew each another inside out. Most of our Saturdays were spent singing in my parent’s bathrooms to a backing track we brought for £4.99 in Hooters Music Store. We were convinced the acoustics were just right in there. Something to do with the tiles, Ginny said. When we played the tape back on the stereo it didn’t sound much like a recording studio, as we had hoped, more like two teenagers singing in a bathroom.
‘We’re going to get out of here, right?’ Ginny said, turning to look at me. The sun was setting behind her lighting her hair that was in transition from bright red to mousy brown, the red dye she used a few weeks back seeping out with every wash. I looked back at her, and believing it to my very core, I said,
‘God, yeah. For sure.’”

Ginny and Lucy’s story isn’t mine. None of the stories in the collection are autobiographical, you’ll be pleased to know, but there are parts of it that come from my own memories of what it felt like to be a teenager. When I was in my teens, just like Ginny and Lucy, I used to frequent Hooters Music Store (to fuel my aforementioned dreams of stardom) and I had my very own bridge where I sat in a cloud of teenage angst thinking about ‘the future and stuff’ and how much I wanted ‘to, like, get out here’. Now I absolutely love my home town (it has a castle, for goodness sake!) and would happily live there which goes to show how confused those times really are.

Ginny and Me is about those teenage years when you’re not really sure what is going on and yet you are making choices that affect the rest of your life in the midst of this hormone riddled haze. Scary stuff. The thing is that those years really can affect everything, just one choice, one mistake even, and the rest of your life looks very different. In the most part we emerge a bit embarrassed and not much worse off than that but the possibility is there, which is where we journey to in Ginny and Me as both girls make choices they’d perhaps rather not have on the other side of being a teenager.

For me, Ginny and Me is also about friendship, particularly childhood friendships. I’m lucky to be close with a lot of people I grew up with. These poor souls have the video footage in their heads of all my cringe worthy moments. I really cherish the people who’ve seen all of that and are still kind enough to be my friend. You know it’s for the long haul when they’ve seen you with self bleached hair clad head to toe in polyester and dusted liberally with glitter and yet can still take you seriously enough to be friends with you. So to all my friends who’ve tolerated me for decades now, thank you! And remember, I know as much about you as you do me so keep your peace…!

If you would like to purchase a copy of Stars in Unexpected Places and read Ginny and Me for yourself you can do so here -  for the bargain price of £5.99!

Chalk Horses and Heavy Rain - 26th Nov 2010

As promised my blog tour of my new short story collection, Stars in Unexpected Places, begins here with....Chalk Horses and Heavy Rain!

Chalk Horses and Heavy Rain is about every family holiday you’ve ever had in the UK. You know the ones - you hire a caravan on the South Coast in mid summer, full of enthusiasm for the long country walks and ‘fresh air’ you will enjoy. Oh, you naive Briton! The time for your trip comes around and you try to be enthusiastic, you’re on holiday after all and the opportunity comes but once a year, but the fact cannot be escaped that being holed up in a confined space with your nearest and dearest is not all it’s cracked up to be. And it’s the UK. It rains. A lot. Then some bright spark, usually your dear spouse, suggests a country walk to some random monument or mythical Stone Age carving. This is exactly the situation we enter into with Mr and Mrs Bordoloi in Chalk Horses and Heavy Rain.

“‘It’s nice to get away, though,’ Mr Bordoloi said.
Mrs Bordoloi looked up, her husband's face was crinkled with earnest enthusiasm. He had his summer look, the beginnings of a scratchy blond beard along with his normal wiry moustache. All these years and she still didn't know why he only grew a beard in the summer. Mrs Bordoloi was almost carried away with her husband’s enthusiasm, the beginnings of a smile appearing on her lips, when a fat blob of rain landed on her forehead and proceeded to roll down her face and off the end of her nose. Mr Bordoloi emitted a sharp squawk of laughter, quickly covering his mouth when he saw the thunderous look on his wife's face.
‘I’m sure it will pass,’ said Mr Bordoloi. And with those fateful words he unleashed a significant proportion of the Atlantic Ocean down onto their picnic.
Mrs Bordoloi scrambled onto her knees, trying to re-pack their picnic but the sandwiches were dripping with water and disintegrating in her hands. There was jam everywhere, even the wasps flew away in disgust.
‘Quick!’ she said. They were miles from anywhere that they could find shelter and the hillside was completely clear of trees, probably so people could see the stupid chalk horse better, Mrs Bordoloi thought. She carried their sopping picnic bag in one hand while Mr Bordoloi buried his camera under his jacket.
‘It’s July!’ Mrs Bordoloi yelled at her husband.
‘What?’ He yelled back.
‘It’s July!’ She said, pointing up at sky.
Let’s Fly? Mrs Bordoloi was giving up easily, Mr Bordoloi thought. It was just a spot of rain after all. He looked up into the sky, blinking as the rain came down even harder and lost his confidence slightly.”

Mr and Mrs Bordoloi then proceed to get thoroughly drenched as they make a mad dash back to shelter. Exactly the same thing happened to me with my husband when we decided to take a nice summer stroll to the ‘Copper Horse’, a statue at the top of the long walk (or road from the Castle to non Windsorians!) in Windsor. We not only encountered heavy rain atop a very steep hill, miles from any shelter, but also angry deer in rutting season. Not so much of a midsummer dream as we might have hoped! I don’t know about you but sometimes in life I can take myself far too seriously. It is a wonderful moment when we can see things as they are, suspend the grumpiness and see the funny side. 

“She stopped and looked at her husband, water cascading down his face. His waterproofs were stuck to his head and strands of sandy hair trailed down his forehead. Even his moustache was holding little droplets of water. She felt her own clothes. Her whole body was wet, as if she had stood under the guest house power shower fully clothed.
Mr Bordoloi looked hesitantly at his wife, wondering about the strange look on her face and the reason for stopping so suddenly. And then Mrs Bordoloi laughed. She laughed so hard that she had to grip her stomach and tears were squeezed from the corners of her eyes, mingling warmth with the cold rain that covered her face. She looked up at Mr Bordoloi who was staring at her now, open mouthed.
‘I’m sorry,’ Mrs Bordoloi said, gasping for breath, but she couldn’t contain herself. Mr Bordoloi’s serious face, wet in the rain, was making it even worse and now they were just standing in a field, staring at each other getting wetter and wetter. She felt another tide of laughter rising up inside of her.”

I love these moments. You want to be grumpy but you just can’t. No one is to blame; you are just two damp people in middle of a field on what should be a perfect summer’s day. Mr and Mrs Bordoloi have their own little moment (I won’t spoil it for you – get a copy and read it for yourself!) and that is what this story is ultimately about for me. It’s about someone’s soppy face in the rain being the funniest thing you have ever seen and even if they do drag you to see chalk horses in heavy rain you could never imagine, nor would ever want to, seeing anyone else’s face looking back you.

You can buy a copy of my short story collection and read this for yourself by clicking here.

Drum roll please! - 22nd Nov 2010

Crikey. I’ve just made my book buyable online. Argggghhhhhh! You can buy it…..HERE!
This is very scary for the reasons mentioned in my last post but lets not think about the scary lets look at the many reasons why this is EXCITING.
  1. The cover is designed by Hannah Beatrice, who is super talented. The cover in itself is enough to gaze upon in wonder and awe. You need never open the book at all!
  2. All profits (60% of the cover price) go to Tearfund who are absolutely fabulous in every way. I have visited one of their projects in Zambia and it was the most inspiring thing I have ever experienced. Tearfund work through a partnership scheme where local people set up and run projects to help the neediest in their communities. This means that your money goes direct to the people who need it and is spent by local people who know the best use of the finances. Owning this book should make you feel reeeeally happy about the good thing you have done today.
  3. It only costs £5.99 which is well cheap, right? As my wise friend said over lunch this weekend, ‘You can’t even get a pie and a lemonade for a tenner these days.’ Too true, toooo true.
  4. It has ten whole stories in it which I wrote over two years so you practically own me.
  5. It has funny stories, sad stories, make-you-think stories and the stories span over a truly mental timespan -  thousands of years, I tell you! What’s that I hear? Bargain? Yes, you are quite right!
  6. You can peruse it online to check you don’t actually hate it before you buy! Excellent stuff!
  7. Even if you do hate it you can comfort yourself with the fact that you are supporting a British printer and the aforementioned awesomeness of Tearfund. Also it is a nice size to use to wedge open doors when the summer comes.
So what are you waiting for? I shall be back a’ bloggin’ in a matter of days with the first instalment of ‘Nikki’s blog tour of Stars in Unexpected Places’ with the story behind the story – ‘Chalk Horses and Heavy Rain’!

Baby bird prepares for flight - 18th Nov 2010

The only problem with writing a book is that people want to read it. I know! Would you believe it! I was secretly hoping that these books would go no further that being expensive doorstops or boosting the stocks of the local recycling plant. But no, no. It seems people are intent on purchasing them! In all honesty this is lovely, but extremely terrifying. I’m probably at about 50/50 just now.

This week the first fully printed version of the book arrived. It looks lovely, all shiny and proper. I was excited for all of about five seconds until I flipped open the pages and there were my little stories staring up at me, so innocent and unassuming and I thought – what have I done? Releasing my little darlings into the world so haphazardly?!

Those little stories each represent a moment over the last two years of me learning to write (you can judge for yourself how much I’ve learnt or not learnt, blame my tutor- ha!). Lots of them are based on experiences I’ve had (often the emotion involved  -  I don’t claim to have been a man living in the Gambia!) or remind me of the time when I wrote them. And now I’m afraid to let them go.

The book should be available to buy any day now (I will make the necessary announcements and associated fanfare when the time comes!) I am just in the process of making the final amendments and it will be good to go. So then I have to push my baby bird from the nest and let it fly, poor little thing. I don’t really know if it's ready yet. No scrap that, I don't think I'm ready yet. I'm developing empty nest syndrome already!

So in an effort to ease my separation anxiety I have decided that in the run up to Christmas I will blog about each of the stories: where they came from, what they are really about and what they meant to me when I wrote them. If you’d like a sneak preview of this you can read the interview I did with the Cadaverine Magazine about the first story in the book ‘When I grow up I want to be a Prophet’ here.

Happy Reading!

The A-Z of winter - 8th Nov 2010

Today is one of those days where I retract, tortoise like, into my shell, moaning all the way. I am starting to be concerned that my body is confused as to what species I am and is leading me into a winter of hibernation. Oh how wonderful that would be. Crawling into bed for four long months - wake me up when the winter is over. Ideally my husband would not hibernate so he could keep the house running, put the occasional Snickers by the bed and go to work so the gas board don’t cut us off. Yes! That would be perfect!

But alas, no. Instead I am battling against the wind and rain with Zena warrior princess-like effort and just a flimsy umbrella to defend me. ‘Short of hibernating, what can be done to survive this season?’ I pondered as a bus drove past, splashing me with murky rain water and leaf gunk. Well here is my small and silly contribution to the general cheering up of society on this dismal Monday. May I present: The A-Z of Winter.

Winter is good for…..
A Apples! Toffee apples, yum!
B Books! Like my short story collection which is winging its way first proof stylee to my house, woo!
C Christmas! It’s legitimate to start getting excited, friends. You heard it here first.
D Dogs! They look funny in little winter jackets, much merriment!
E Elephants! They too look funny in winter jackets (ok, that one is just plain silliness -  or is it?!)
F Fires! Toast your tootsies!
G Greenery! Evergreen trees topped with snow, ahhhhh!
H Hot water bottles! Toast up your bed before you climb in, mmmmm!
I Igloos! If you are very far north….
J Jackets! Fluffy ones, duffel ones, parka ones, doggy ones, elephant ones…
K Kaleidoscope of autumn leaves! Yes, I struggled with K…
L Lovely hearty meals: stews and crumbles. Baked goodness all around. This is the time to eat cake with abandon.
M Mittens, or even better glittens!
N Noel, noel! See C…..
O Oranges with random dolly mixtures on cocktail sticks stuck into them at Christingle! What is that all about….?
P Pies! Mince pies, chicken pies, fruit pies, turning into a pie…it’s all good.
Q Quangoes! I just like that word…..
R Reindeers! Especially as my lovely friend Rudo thought that they were mythical creatures like Unicorns! Bless you Rudo, you made my year!
S Santa! See C……
T Toast! Hot buttered toast on a winter morning with a nice cup of TEA! Wooh, double whammy!
U Umbrellas! When it doesn’t go inside out on you that is. I plan to buy a new one from Cath Kidston so that I will actually be excited when it rains (The same, I believe, applies to novelty welly boots.)
V Vans? No? Very nice evenings in the pub with glass of Merlot?!
W Welly boots! (see U…)
X  Xylophones! Because you always have to have Xylophones in an A-Z
Y Yule logs! Chocolate cake coated in chocolate, need I say more?
Z Zena warrior princess like battles with the elements which we shall ultimately triumph over, victorious!

See, Winter is lovely!

The power of nonchalance - 1st Nov 2010

What is it with life that when you relax about something the offers come pouring in? Offers you would have sold your grandmother for a few days back. And you just sit there and think crikey I should be jumping up and down like a leprechaun at the base of a rainbow having discovered his first pot of gold. Not sure why I’m a male in this leprechaun scenario. Err Dr Freud…

But anyway, what I’m saying is that is very odd how attracted everyone is by nonchalance. I’ve had writing on the back burner for the last few weeks as I’ve had my mind on other things. Other thoroughly exciting/terrifying things, but certainly things that have commanded my attention. So the only thing I have done is to badly format pages of my short story collection and have lie ins. I know! What kind of dedication is that? But there is a season for everything and this is autumn. The season for lie ins and watching re runs of Dr Who in your jammies.

This general laziness seems to have attracted all sorts of attention however! I am being profiled (like some sort of mafia don) and asked for opinions on things. Me, opinions! Remarkable. It all reminds me of when I became Head girl at my secondary school. Again, yes, me. I honestly believe that the main reason they gave me the post is because I was so relaxed in the interview that I was almost horizontal. I remember sitting there, legs crossed, chatting away like I was the MD of the world. I just didn’t think I’d really get it, to be honest I wasn’t too fussed either way, and so spoke (apparently) so confidently that they thought I was the right gal for the job.

Now I’m finding the same thing happening with writing. I’m not too worried about it really, what with the aforementioned terrifying/exciting life events, and this seems to have resulted in more interest in my work and, when I actually get down to it, me producing much better work too. The horrid critic on my shoulder has left the building. He is jobless. Because I don’t give a monkeys what he is saying and quite frankly I think he has gotten bored.

I should probably take advantage of this sudden burst of enthusiasm being directed my way and the easy productivity brought about by my own nonchalance but well, I’m too busy being nonchalant. Tisk. It’s a crazy old world.

Baby, Think Twice - 26th Oct 2010

I have moaned about this before but now I feel I must offer you a health warning. Perhaps you are sat at home this evening, laptop on your knee, a cup of hot steaming cocoa beside you and you think to yourself: I know what I should do, I should write a short story collection and sell it for my most favourite charity ever. The idea comes to you like a flash of inspiration from on high. You’re tingling! But oh people. Put on an old Celine Dion album and baby, think twice.

I could tell you how much blood, sweat and tears has gone into each story. I could tell you about week upon week of stressing out over page breaks and section breaks (eventually, praise God, a wonderful woman at Completely Novel has relieved me of this task and is sorting my mess out for me for the delightful fee of a tenner– THANK YOU!!!!) I could tell you about marketing, when marketing is scary but you know what, even as I’m writing this I know that it will all seem like nothing when I send my first cheque to Tearfund.

Because then I think about the amazing people I met when I was on my gap year with the organisation, in the UK and abroad. The people who give up their every day to make strangers lives better. To revolutionize their communities, their whole nation even. And I feel amazed and privileged and very, very excited to be doing this. To actually have people who want to spend their hard earned cash on my stories and to be able to do the most wonderful work in the world with that cash.

 I think happily about Pastor Nelson whose family I stayed with in Zambia. How he rolled out his plans for me on his kitchen table of a new church with a medical centre above it and a workshop below. Plans that he had drawn up with his own money and that he really believed in. A place to train and to heal. And I think of his youngest daughter Taylor who wants to be a teacher and then this all feels really wonderful, to be part of making that happen. Page break dilemmas and all.

So I’m going to do my best to have it ready to order for Christmas. The files will be going this week for sure. And when it’s ready, you’ll be the first to know. Please bear with me and above all I hope you like it. It means the world to me and will hopefully change the whole world for someone else.

Fear. Faced. Bosh! - 20th Oct 2010

I am a terrible person. Please don’t start listing mentally why, my faults are mountainous. No, I shall enlighten you. I haven’t blogged for EONS. Now for the mass of self justification. Prepare yourself.

The most important and magnificent reason for this is related to my previous post on facing your fears. Yes peeps, I have been fear facing!

Last Thursday off I toddled to Leeds and then on to the Ilkley Literature Festival. As I mentioned in my previous post I have developed a very irritating and life stunting phobia of public speaking. There were many reasons for this but in the last few months it has become quite plain that this was stopping me from doing important things. It was also becoming a source of irritation for me as I used to love it so much. I was running out of reasons why I couldn’t do it anymore. It needed sorting.

So I set about a genius, fail proof plan to conquer said fear. I offer it to you as a model which you may or may not wish to replicate (probably the later).
1. Agree to speak at a festival, hurrah.
2. Actually go to the festival and book in to see lots of friends so that backing out would be unforgivable (and expensive).
 3. Read to lots of friends until it seems likely that you will stumble over only every other word.
4. Give oneself a stern talking to about chilling out.
5. Get lots of Year 10 kids to pray for you at your husband’s school - like prayer child labour, if you will – because God likes the prayers of kids. I’m thoroughly convinced. Granted this may be more difficult if you don’t have a husband and he’s not an RE teacher. But you can borrow mine.
6. Have a large glass of wine.

Result? I was a beacon of serenity. I sat in my dressing room (Yes, I had a dressing room -  I give you permission to laugh) and floated down to the stage on a cloud of relaxation, an enigma of calm. I read my story. My legs did not shake. My voice did not shake. And…..I had fun.


So now it seems like a good idea that I have been absent – huh?  Worthwhile indeed.

Sneak Preview - 27th Sept 2010

Today I am offering you a cheeky sneak peek of one of the stories from Stars in Unexpected Places - my upcoming short story collection. After my friend Rudo (who read this to make sure I wasn’t making up lies about Southern Africa) you are the first people to read this story (well, part of it!)  I wanted to share the opening paragraphs to give a bit of background about the collection and the point of this whole exercise for me.

When I was 22 I went to Zambia with the international aid and development charity Tearfund. It woke me up and set me straight in equal measures. I have never forgotten it, never stopped thinking about the people that I met and never lost the sense of thankfulness for everything that I have. It’s not just about material possessions. It’s opportunity, freedom. A child being able to say - I want to be a doctor - and it being a possibility.  

The extract linked to below is from a story called ‘My name is Waceena’. I named it this partly because I met a wonderful Waceena in Zambia and wanted to dedicate the story to her, but also because of a Twitter conversation I found myself in the middle of a couple of months ago.
Now, I’ll set the record straight before I start – I don’t wish Malaria on anyone. I did, however, find it remarkable how upset all the magazines and papers were when Cheryl Cole contracted Malaria (and I said so on Twitter). It’s not that contracting Malaria isn’t terrible. It is. My point is that it’s equally terrible that a child in Zambia contracts Malaria and yet no one is writing (or tweeting) about that. In some ways you could say it is much more upsetting for the child in Zambia as there is no chance they will be flown to the London Hospital of Tropical Medicine, or receive any healthcare at all unless their parents sell everything to get it. A life in the public forum is not more valuable that one lived out in the slums, or at least I don't think so anyway.

One person on Twitter said ‘Well I don’t know these people and I know Cheryl’. Ok. Whether seeing someone on the X Factor constitutes knowing them is a question in itself, but in so many ways I just don’t think that cuts it. So I wrote this story as an attempt to give a voice to one of the many stories that I encountered in Zambia. Stories that I think matter and should be heard. If we need to know names and stories, well then here we are (see the short stories tab above!)

Train-pocalypse - 24th Sept 2010

So yesterday I went to London to learn to proofread. I set off at 6am with my red and blue pens like a model student. Little did I know that I was going to experience another ‘Train-pocalypse’. Yes. A Train-pocalypse. Loosely defined (by me) as a disaster brought about by the hideousness of our british weather combined with our inability to run a proper train network. I really should expect this by now, but there we are. It seems I am slow in both proofreading and predicting a Train-pocalypse.

There is something about me and trains that causes these ‘last days’ type scenarios to unfold. I am going to Edinburgh in a few weeks and one of my friends is actually concerned that my arrival will cause some massive flooding/high winds/snow storm to occur. Either that or it is 99% certain that they will be doing blessed ‘engineering works’ and she will have to drive several miles out of the way to retrieve me.

About this time last year I was on a train that had to reverse out of flood waters and then deposited me at a random station two and a half hours from my house in the middle of the night. Last night I managed to add another disaster scenario to my list - lightning strike!
Yes, about five minutes from Reading station our train suddenly slammed on the breaks, much girlish shrieking ensued (err, that so wasn’t me) and then the train guard’s harassed voice came over the tanoy to say that Reading station had been struck by lightning and we had all ‘best find another way to get home.’ Hmm.

This was when I realised I had three pounds and an array of coppers to my name and my phone battery was dying. But the station would have amenities, I hear you cry! No. Nothing. Just random houses and no cash machines. There were lots of taxi drivers hanging around, vulture like, waiting to prey on our insecurities and charge us hundreds of pounds to drive us home or to Reading station which, presumably, you couldn’t get in or out of anyway.
After much waving of my phone to gain signal while its life slowly drained away and a slightly embarrassing shrieking moment as lightning cracked right over the train (I think the phrase was ‘we’re all going to die’) I managed to get hold of friends in Oxford who launched a rescue mission to get me home. Lovely people!

 So this is what happens if you try and learn to proofread. Not so glamorous, eh?
And people, next time you hear lightning or see heavy rain, think of the poor soul who is stuck in a train-pocalypse. It could be you.

Brain Implosion - 20th Sept 2010

I’m now in the final stages of finishing off my short story collection. This means that I am struggling through the misery that is formatting the manuscript and trying desperately not to make some hideous error that anyone who knows anything will through their hands up in horror at. It’s mightily difficult, I can tell you. Turns out that people are subconsciously extremely picky about the layout of their books. Yes. I mean YOU (in the nicest possible way.)

I recently had to change the font of the whole book which sent me into a spiral of intense anxiety and hours of traumatic reformatting. I won’t be doing that again in a hurry. You’ll be getting Times New Roman and I’ll hear no more about it. But it doesn’t end there. No. I learnt about hyphenation, justification, capitalization of titles, copyright pages, title pages, half title pages, numbering, headers, footers, sectioning documents and then my brain imploded.

I never wanted to know about these things. In all honesty I wish I still didn’t. I feel like it might have pushed out some other extremely valuable information from my brain, will I go home and not remember how to turn the TV on? I’ll just be poking at it with a fork, my tongue lolling from my mouth until someone comes to rescue me? If I am victorious I think I will climb a mountain and emit some kind of war cry to claim the surrounding lands. I will have earned it (and it will appeal to my delusions of world domination.) Then I will go home (land conquered) and write something new. Oh sweet relief, NEW things! How marvellous!

It’s been so long since I wrote many of these stories and they have been through so many edits that I can’t read them for what they are anymore. I just see lines and lines of poorly hyphenated text monsters. So I’m really looking forward to you all reading them and telling me what you think (and providing a shed load of money for Tearfund in the process.)

Around launch time (soon I hope) I am going to do a series of blog posts on the stories behind the stories which I hope will make the book even better to read (and will give you a sneak preview if you haven’t ordered your copy yet - why you wouldn’t have is unfathomable but there we are, it’s what they call marketing I believe.) The main question people ask me is where all the weird and wonderful ideas (mostly weird) in my stories come from, so I’m going to tell you, en masse! Crikey, you’re lucky right? No need to thank me. Just get in touch when you have the book saying how, in particular, you were touched by the quality of the formatting. Ta!

Feel the FEAR - 13th Sept 2010

I am most definitely feeling the fear. In approximately four weeks I will be reading at Ilkley Literature Festival. Even that statement sends me into a spiral of anxiety and finger gnawing. I used to be a really confident public speaker. In previous incarnations I worked at Bristol Zoo and gave the daily keeper talks in the giant tortoise section (complete with comic timing humping from the tortoises, never work with children or animals.) I absolutely loved charging around the zoo with a Britney microphone strapped to my head. It was marvellous.

This, however, feels different. It’s not just fun facts about Aldabran Tortoises (though they are very fun), this is personal. There is the crippling fear that I will either read it rubbishly or I will see someone grimace in horror at the crapness of my writing. Or both. At least if people read it in their own time, they can grimace away and I’m completely unawares. I prefer it that way. The only person I physically read my stories to is my husband and he would smile, nod and say it was wonderful even if I were reading the back of a cereal packet.

These fears are further compounded by a terrible experience I had of public speaking during my gap year. I won’t go into details but by the end of it I never wanted to speak publicly again. I did, but the next time I spoke my knees were actually knocking together with fear. Seriously, I could hear them clanging away and the whole audience was staring at my face so as not to have to acknowledge my wobbling legs. Half way through I took to leaning on a pillar but even that didn’t stop them. It was mortifying. Since then I’ve not avoided public speaking (where it is absolutely necessary) but I’ve hardly sought it out.

One thing I know is that I need to get back to the confidence of my zoo days and that public speaking is not only an important skill but one I know I have been good at before, so in theory I could be good at it again. It’s either that or I convince the event organisers that an Ebola-like virus has broken out in Oxford and the whole city has been quarantined so I can’t possibly travel… No, I will be brave and roar like a lion (see previous post…) RAAAAR! (but perhaps not during the reading, that is unlikely to help matters…)

 P.S. If you would like to come and smile encouragingly at me while my knees knock together (and listen to many wonderful young writers) then all the info is here.

What are you, a man or a mouse? Mouse, I squeak! - 6th Sept 2010

Actually I am neither a man nor a mouse, but there we are. It was a catchy title and introduces you to the theme of this weeks blog post -  courage. Go on, roar like a lion, raaaaaaah!

Voice - 30th August 2010

I've been thinking a lot about 'voice' this week. This is partly because my novel is written in the first person so it very important that I have the voices of my characters nailed down (particularly when you see some of the comments on my earlier post about what makes a great book.) I'm reading The Angels Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon  at the moment which I think is a great example of 'voice' done well (The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is also a brilliant set of first person accounts if you are interested in these things.)

Inspiring people - 23rd August 2010

I’ve spent time with some very cool people in the last week. This was aided by being on holiday and therefore having freedom from the default position in which I spend my life:  hunched over a desk. But anyway, I digress. I was telling you about some inspiring people I’ve met, much more interesting….

Great Books - 19th August 2010

I'm reading a fantastic book and I am pleased to report that it was part of the aforementioned (in my previous post) 3 for 2. You see, buying books is a good idea. Justification, if it was ever needed. The book I'm reading is Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. You must read it. I've been trying to put my finger on what is so good about it, not as some high brow critic (which I am clearly not!) but for me, as a real reader (and book buyer). It's an incredibly simple book in many ways. I haven't had to re read sections, or wonder where I am in it or forgotten who any of the characters are. This may make me sound like a bit of a dumbo but I, like most of the population, read when I'm exhausted from a full day at work and usually fall asleep after one page. Something about this story is jumping the hurdles to reach the place all books aspire to be, it is becoming un-put-down-able.
 This got me thinking about what exactly it is about this one that is hooking me in (I have discarded many, many books recently) and how I can use these lessons in my own story. I have lots of polishing to do and still a big chunk left to write so this is all very topical for me right now. So far I've narrowed it down to a few things:

The Great Escape - 10th August 2010

This Saturday I went to Waterstones to participate in one of my most favourite activities: an afternoon of book browsing. I went alone, the only way to go, and perused each shelf at a luxuriously leisurely pace, tempting myself with what I might buy, what I could buy in the future and hurrah, what I WILL buy today! I began in the children's section. I want to write a children's science storybook (more on that another day!) and got distracted en route to the education section by a collection of poems for children by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It was hard backed with a robin on the cover and the title etched out in swirly gold writing. Oh, beautiful book. It made me want to have a child just to be legitimately able to buy it (probably not the best reason ever to embark on parenthood). If you have children, you must buy it. For yourself, yes, but you can pretend that your kids will get a look in too.
Rather than continue with my frightening thoughts on premature parenthood I decided it was safer to head to the newly expanded fiction section (how foolish of me!) My grubby paws were soon piled high with goodies. I was high on the potential of my purchases. This could be the book that redefines me. The book that makes me cry (again). The book I can't put down for weeks. The book that says, yes Nicola you’re right to want to go back to Africa, go for it! The book that makes me a better writer, a better human! And most of all, there in my hands was a ticket to another world for the next few weeks. Do I want to solve mysteries in Spain? Yes! Do I want to go to New York in the 50s? Of course!  The blissful possibility of living another life, just for a little while. Escapism? Absolutely. That’s what I read books for. And so I selected them, my 3 for 2, three books I had long coveted and they were mine! MINE! (Sorry, going a little Gollum there…my pretty…)
Sometimes I think I might be an escapist kind of person. I cannot escape my escapist tendencies, you could say. Perhaps that's why I write. If I don't write for even a day then I get all tetchy, as if all these thoughts are barging around inside my head, fighting to get out. I wonder what I used to do, how I used to get by when I didn't write every morning. Where did all those thoughts go?  The most wonderful thing in the world is to pick up a book and find that someone else is saying the very thing that you would say if you had the words. Something resonates. Someone has put a story to your own experience. Someone has written about the person you want to be. The adventures you’d love to have. Is there anything better than that? Is there anything more unifying than to know that someone out there feels the same? Dreams the same, even. That's why I write and that's why I read. And that's why I think there is nothing better in the whole wide world.

A Room with a View - 24th July 2010

There is something inspiring about a space all of your own. Somewhere that is separate and decorated with things you’ve pulled out of magazines (a bit like being a teenager in the 90's when you papered your room in Smash Hits). My first tentative step towards this was ‘Poetry Corner’. I started small so as not to scare my new husband. I needn’t have bothered, he learned that he was living with a crazy person soon enough. Poetry Corner was a space on the sofa at my house in Aberdeen from which you couldn’t see the TV (essential) but you could easily reach to the corner bookshelf where all my poetry lived. The sun hit it at about 4pm. It was a blissful place. Then when I moved into my new house in Oxford I went one up and I bought a desk. It is tiny but perfectly formed and has a pin board hanging above it where I pin up images that inspire me (out come the magazines, no half naked boybands now though. I've totally grown up...), quotes and plans for stories. It may sound totally selfish but no one else is allowed to work there. I make my husband sit at the kitchen table to do his work (I know, I’m mean) but it’s very important to me that my scribbles and research have an undisturbed home. So I was understandably delighted to discover that I am not alone in these strange habits and, even better, to discover a long term solution used very close to home by a fellow book-ish bod.

Halfway Party! - 21st July 2010

Guess what! As of yesterday I am half way through my novel! Hurrah! I can tell you, dear readers, that it has been an almighty slog. I liken it to climbing a mountain of epic proportions, one of those ones that lives under the sea and spews out molten lava all the time (Scientific FACT. Errrrr….)
Firstly, there is the mountain of doubt to climb. Standing there at the bottom, that mountain is very tall indeed. There are so many people telling you of the great trials ahead, warning you that you may never get there. And then there is little old you, with nothing but an A4 piece of paper in your hand with your random scribblings to guide you (that you made up anyway). It’s like climbing Kilimanjaro with a sketch you knocked up sitting at the bottom of it. I can tell you it feels plain stupid at times.
Secondly, there are all the early mornings, the extensive training. So many days have I sat, staring bleary eyes at the computer screen and thinking ‘Why?! Why won’t you write yourself?!’ before staggering to work, narrowly missing being hit by traffic in my comatose state.
Thirdly, there are horrible set backs where you realise you’ve wandered down completely the wrong path and, suddenly, you’re at the bottom of the mountain again. How is that even possible? But it happens, time and again. And so you get up extra early the next day to start again, weeping silently the whole way (ok, perhaps that is slightly dramatic). But the view from half way up is so lovely that I now can’t wait to see it from the top. I’m having such a great time and I have completely exhausted my mountain metaphor, so that in itself is a job well done.
The half way point is also a very exciting point of the story to be writing, so I’m glad to have reached it. It is what I have been building up to and what the rest of the novel will recover from. I won’t drop you a spoiler but I will say it had me near on weeping over my toast this morning. I hope to make you cry in due course.
I will, however, give you a little sneaky peak of the star of the show, Isobel. Isobel is the main character in the novel and there were two major points of revelation for me that really brought her to life. The first was what gave me the idea for the story in the first place. I went for an interview at Buckingham Palace (I know, randomness) and one of the rooms they took me through had boarded windows and dust everywhere. It was so run down that I couldn’t believe that I was in the Palace at all. Even I wouldn’t keep my house like that! And in the midst of that chaos (and interview panic) I saw in my mind, clear as day, a girl about my age sitting bolt upright in a chair, staring at the boarded windows. I thought about that image for six months and then wrote a short story, a poem and a play about it, finally culminating in this novel. The whole book is based around that girl and what brings her to be in that moment.
The second major incident was when I went to an amazing print shop in Oxford and found this image.
 I have no idea who she really is but when I picked it up, I saw Isobel. This picture now sits on my desk, next to my plan for the novel and reminds me of who she is when I try to write in her voice every day.
I know there is an awfully long way to go but for now I’m going to celebrate because, in case you hadn’t picked it up already, I’m halfway there!!!!