Saturday, 31 March 2018

Being True to Toddler You

Slimy pants!

I was looking after my favourite three-year-old this week. We made Slime – the blend of PVA glue, bicarb and contact lens solution that miraculously forms a blob of viscous, squeezable joy. Flobbery, bouncy and endlessly stretchy, it is surely the best stress-buster since Valium.

Charlie threw the Slime into the washing basket. ‘Ughh!’ I said. ‘Slimy socks!’

This led inevitably to more ‘accidental’ throws and to slimy pyjamas, slimy pants, slimy knickers, a slimy bra… Soon, Charlie was laughing so hard that he could hardly breathe.

Teddy Bunkles watching TV

Now Charlie is nearly four, his sense of humour and mine are very much on a level. He delights in word-play and nonsense rhymes, slapstick, cheekiness and the world’s funniest thing: farting. All jokes I have never grown out of.

If you are bringing up a toddler (or can borrow one, like me), you will know that at three a child’s personality shines out. Three-year-olds have got over the two-year-old’s struggle for self-assertion and world domination. They are beginning to know – and to show – what makes them tick.

My son, Ben, aged 3

My Mum has photographs of her three grandchildren at the age of three, and I can see why she preserves them at this golden age: though baby-cute and still malleable, they are already fully-formed versions of themselves.

In later life, we lose sight of this. I recently found myself a married, church-going, middle-class woman with two children, a mortgage and a very settled career. Life yawned ahead of me, a well-worn path through child-rearing to moderate career advancement to pension.

Was this the real me, living this life – contemplating this future?

No. As a toddler, I was a thrill-seeker. I’d be coming down the biggest slide in the play park while mum was still explaining that I was too small for it. I loved puddles, getting dirty and going for walks in storms. I would go exploring on the beach and bring tar back to the picnic rug. I made funny faces if people peered into my pushchair.

I was fiercely determined: I wanted to skip like my older sister before I had even mastered jumping. I stayed out in the garden with the skipping rope until I was red-faced and exhausted.

I had a vivid imagination and wild dreams I still recall. I made up gods and loved stories.

At fifty, in mid-life torpor, toddler Sophie re-emerged. I left my full-time employment to write, freelance and volunteer, and finally achieved my life-long ambition, publishing my psychological thriller Unspeakable Things this year. I am loving writing my second novel.

Photograph by Craig Matthews

Do you feel like a stranger in the life that has formed around you? Does time trudge by, weighed down by things you must do, but don’t care about? Are there too few moments in the flow of deep, fulfilling enjoyment, when the real you is out there, doing what he or she does best?

If you’re dancing to someone else’s tune, the music you could be making is silenced.

What did you dream of as a child? What excited you? You might have fallen into a life that doesn’t reveal that little person. It seems safe, particularly in later years, to stick with the status quo. But oh, the sad toddler inside, stifled, unexpressed – the real essential you that you were created to be.

Courtesy of JustMommies

I have reconnected with my imagination, my need for new challenges, my love of adventure, learning and discovery. The red-faced determination of three-year-old Sophie got me through the anxiety of starting a freelance career and the stress of self-publishing.

I’m at peace now with toddler me. And I love my mornings with Charlie.

Friday, 9 March 2018

What do people really think of your work? Meeting the critics face to face

Disaster and a consolation

Feedback about my psychological thriller novel Unspeakable Things has been wonderful. This was a great consolation after the disaster of my blog tour – Facebook blocked me for spamming.  I was in fact sharing unique content in groups with which I had built up relationships over months and years, but try explaining that to a broken algorithm! 

Feeling that I had failed to reach out to a readership I don’t know personally, it has been lovely to receive the encouragement of people I do know, and to share their excitement and kindness.

I just need to know more people…

Into the reader's den

I was delighted to get my first invitation to speak to a book group.

All did not go entirely to plan. I waited in the wrong place (they had moved to a different bar) and when I found them and went to buy a drink, I found that I had lost my purse. A lovely group member bought me a drink, but as I launched into my talk about how I came to write the novel, I was picturing thieves running amok with my bank account. I may well have been talking rubbish.

They were a great group – lively, interesting, intelligent and all really focused on discussing the novel (which has not always been my experience of book groups).

It was fascinating and enlightening hearing their thoughts. They had plenty of positive things to say – many had been gripped and read avidly to the end. 

One young man, usually a reader of Fantasy, said it was out of his comfort zone, but he really enjoyed it, particularly the character of David. His interest and insights into the character were very encouraging. As usual when receiving compliments, I tried desperately to erase them from memory to avoid embarrassment, but I did treasure up these gems of approval.

There were of course things they weren’t sure about – moments they felt stretched credibility or left them confused. Once one person is brave enough to bring up such points, others tend to wade in too. When something comes entirely from your own head, it is a revelation to hear how it reads to others. They all thought, for instance, that the injection John attacked Sarah with was the reason for her collapse. I had left this open, intending the reader  to fear this, but later realise it was her high blood pressure that led to the crisis.

Some questioned why Sarah would stay in the house after what happened there. I explained that she wanted to restore the past, making new memories over the terrible ones. But as with a joke, if you have to explain it…

What really struck me was how often the points brought up were ones already raised by my literary consultant, which I thought I had dealt with.

Top tip for expert feedback

When you have professional feedback, the advice is to leave the rewrite for a time, and ponder on it fully. Writers are all very excited at this stage, thinking, ‘If I just fix these things, it’s finished – I can publish it!’ The risk is that we rush in with quick fixes, following each suggestion. Perhaps it is better to wait for a solution to come from our own imagination. This might mean a fuller rewrite, but you will avoid the same issues being raised in future. In other words, don't do as I do, do as I say...

Dealing with  (ouch!) criticism

We all know that writers need rhino hide – if your work is published, it’s out there for the world to judge. But I’m not really a rhinoceros, and let’s be honest, any criticism of your creative baby is like a stab in your self-esteem.

Nevetheless, I was determined to keep a cool head, and learn from this. I made sure I discussed all the issues rather than becoming defensive, and the result was an open and interesting talk, with a lot of warmth and laughter.

The vexed issue of Codeine Linctus

The trick with criticism is to separate the useful from the … less useful. One woman, having heard that I am an editor, took issue with my capitalisation of Codeine Linctus. Having aired this grievance, she had other matters to get off her chest. But we are never going to please everyone.

It was a privilege meeting this book group. I am hugely grateful to every one of them for buying the book and reading it. Their feedback was invaluable, and so was the drink that they bought me when I was flapping.

I found my purse later in the car. And as for Codeine Linctus, look – I’m still giving it capitals!