Sunday, 12 May 2013

Plug of the Month - Ten Things I've Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler

I usually use this slot to plug books by friends and family. But I'm making an exception this time. Partly because I met Sarah Butler at the January Short Stories Aloud &  she was absolutely delightful, but partly because I think this is a great first novel, and in this  day and age, first time novelists need all the help they can get. I was lucky enough to get the last copy that was on sale that night which meant I read it before publication day, which is always a bit of a thrill. And I'm delighted to say it lived up to the all my expectations.

Ten things is my kind of book. It's set in  London, and perfectly captures both the murk and the magnificence of my wonderful home city. In addition, it deals with fathers and daughters, grief and loss, the complexity of family life, the meaning of home: all subjects close to my heart. It alternates between the viewpoints of two protagonists, Alice and Daniel. As the novel opens Alice is returning from Mongolia to be at the side of her dying father. We discover that she has always found it hard to settle, struggles to connect with her sisters, and is mourning the loss of a relationship that was always doomed. The second narrator, Daniel, is a homeless man, with angina. Obsessed by the thought of the daughter he has never met, he criss-crosses London in search of her. A creative, sensitive person, who is also synaesthetic (seeing names and people in colour) Daniel too mourns lost love, as he seeks out the daughter who doesn't even know he exists.

I don't want to say anymore, as this is a novel that should be read with minimum pre-knowledge. Suffice to say,it is a finely crafted book, with believable, sympathetic characters. Though there are moments of total heartbreak, I found it ultimately hopeful - however transient we may be, we can always connect with each other if we are willing. Ten things is my choice for my book club this month - and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Coincidentally, Sarah Butler has literally just tweeted her latest short story, check it out - it's brilliant

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Summit in my Sights

If you've been paying attention to this blog, you might have noticed I've been writing a novel...and for rather a long time. It is just over nine years since the original scene of Echo Hall popped into my brain - a woman overhearing a conversation at night time, only to discover the participants are not there - and I've come a long way since then. It took seven and a half years to complete my first draft  and take a rest half up the hill. That version was  65,000 words too light, full of narrative inconsistencies, weakly drawn characters and rather too much melodrama, but it gave me something to work with. IAfter a short break, I  ploughed on upwards with energy and vigour, finishing my second draft last November. At that point I could see I was nearing the summit and now I am happy to report, I definitely have it in my sights. It has taken me a mere four months to redraft the latest version, which is nothing short of miraculous for my work rate. Thanks to wonderful critique at the York Festival of Writing and from my lovely twin Julia Williams and lovely friend Anne Booth, who both read the whole thing, I've had plenty of advice about how to improve it. And it's been a lot of fun.

After Christmas I was full of energy and focus. Throughout January and February I rose at 6 most mornings, completing an hour's editing, before waking the household up. I was particularly inspired by a writing challenge set down by a twitter friend Imran Siddiq (@flickimp) who kept me on track with a weekly review of our mutual achievements. And at the end of Feb, I was lucky enough to have a  fantastic weekend in the Gladstone Library. I promise to blog about  the marvels of that wonderful place, but for now I will say I had a fab time working for 3 days flat, and came back with only 1 part to revise. Life being what it is ( I did run the Reading 1/2 marathon in March) I slowed down after that, but by the end of April I finally completed the draft.

This time round has all been about re-shaping. Having worked pretty linearly before, I decided it was time  to take each separate story and look at them as a whole. So I worked on  Parts 1 &5, 2 & 4 and 3 in succession.

Part 1 & 5 are written in the first person, and tell Ruth's story in 1990/1.  The opening needs to be the strongest part of the novel and my feedback suggested it wasn't quite cutting it. Ruth was too weak and wishy washy, her husband Adam too mean,  and his grandfather mellowed far too quickly. So Part 1  has had a complete make over and a whole new chapter. Chapter 1 has moved to Chapter 12, and Chapter 2, to Chapter 1 (which funnily enough restores some of the original material back to the beginning again).  The remaining chapters have moved forward to compensate, and  been spliced and diced to change the narrative pace .This has made it easy to fill out the chapters that were a bit light in Part 5 and rework some of that material. . Though it was only just as I was finishing that I finally worked out something crucial to Ruth's back story which explains a lot about her indecisive nature. . There's a lot of work still to do, but I think most of the criticisms have been dealt with.

Parts 2  & 4  follow Elsie's story in 1942/3. These too have had quite a re-write. One of the most radical changes is to place it in the present tense. These sections are supposed to be based on diaries and alternate between Elsie and Daniel (her husband's cousin) points of view. I tried writing them as diaries but that felt wooden. So I wrote them in the third person in the past tense. Changing this to the present has livened them up I think and given the sense of immediacy I was after. The other major changes here have been to do with pacing. Some key scenes have switched from part 4 to part 2 which gives a better shape to the arc and I've fleshed out some chapters that were a bit thin.  This part of the novel was always the strongest and I think the changes are all to the good.

Part 3 is  all about Rachel, and covers the longest period, 1911-1924. This has been the hardest section to write. It's narratively important as what happens to Rachel, her sister Leah and their husbands Joseph and Jacob, lay the foundations for the resentments, conflict and tragedies that follow. But it's been difficult to get the narrative voice right, and pacing has been much more harder over thirteen years then  two. I think I've solved both. I always had the idea that Rachel's son Daniel was telling this story, so last time round I made him the narrator.  It was OK but the voice wasn't right, and I wasn't quite convinced he and Elsie could have sat on a hillside long enough for him to tell it. I've found a plausible reason (I hope) to locate them indoors, and by making it clear that this is his imagined reworking of his parents' past he is able to be the omnipotent narrator I need him to be. The last draft ended in a rush. I was so glad to finish and get on to the next section that I killed off four key characters in the space of a few pages. It was all a tad melodramatic, so this time round I've added four new chapters, allowing the ending room to breathe. We reach the same conclusion but I hope it's more satisfying to the reader.

I've also intentionally worked on improving connections between the three stories - some obvious (repetitions of locations, seasons, events) and some less so (odd lines, emotions). I've added some more political speeches which might need toning down but I think  are necessary, and after reading Adam Hothschild's moving To End All Wars  remembrance has become an important theme.

So all in all, the view from up here is looking quite good. The sun is shining and I can see I'm closing in on the top, though it'll  take some effort to get there.  I still have narrative defects and character flaws to iron out, and I'm a long way off the language doing justice to the story I want to tell. But I've come this far, and nothing is going to stop me now.

I can't wait to get going again.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Blogging Against Disablism "Never forget where you came from"

I grew up in a world where disability was hidden. There were no accessible buildings, buses, or tube stations. Disabled people didn't feature in television programmes. They weren't comedians or actors.  Insults like "mong" and "spaz" were acceptable. I never knew any disabled people till I was into my teens and I did a bit of voluntary work with children. But outside the special clubs or holiday programmes, I never saw the kids I helped in day to day life. It was as if they were invisible or lived in a parallel universe.

When I was 18, I went to live in a L'Arche community and my life changed completely. In 1984, L'Arche, though 20 years old, was still a revolutionary concept. The majority of people with learning disabilities still lived in decaying, Victorian hospitals isolated from their families and the places they had been born into.  L'Arche started in France and soon spread round the world, to provide places for people to live in their own communities, supported by live-in assistants. It was in L'Arche that I first appreciated, disability is an impairment, with the right support, any disabled person can find their place in the world. And it was in L'Arche that I discovered the brutal horror that many people with learning disabilities experienced in long stay hospital.

Two of my friends John and Doris, had previously lived in a hospital in Caterham called St Lawrence's for over 30 years. Both had been sent there aged around 10, by professionals who advised their families it was for the best. Both John and Doris told me many many times, that such a life was not the best for them. John's disabilities were mainly associated with being able to understand his emotions and manage social interactions, yet he was highly intelligent. In the hospital, no-one believed in him, like all the patients he was considered "stupid". He hated the place. He really loved our home, being able to have his own room, to walk to the sheltered workshop, buy his own clothes, sit on the wall and chat to the neighbours.  But though he was able to escape the walls of St Lawrence's he never quite escaped the damage of institutionalisation. He was a gifted, sensitive man, yet he struggled to accept that he was capable of any achievement. He often created beautiful art, or rugs in the sheltered workshop,  but if you praised him his emotions would sometimes spill over, and he would lash out in anger at himself or others. Though he stayed in the community for over a decade, in the end he became unable to tolerate living in an environment that offered so much freedom. He found it harder to control his behaviour and the community found themselves unable to support him. John ended his days in a residential care home, whose more regimented environment provided the familiarity of the institution, though thankfully not the cruelty of St Lawrence's.

Doris, too was immensely damaged by St Lawrence's. I hated that place, she would always say, telling me stories of staff that never used her name, of never being allowed to keep any possessions, have her own money, and the greatest trauma of all, losing contact with her parents, and not being told when they had died.  She too, experienced bouts of anger (I was often on the receiving end), but unlike John, as she grew older, she was able to reconcile with her past. She proudly gathered a room full of possessions around her, made friends with the neighbours on the street, came to terms with the death of her parents, became a vital member of her local church and the grand dame of the community.  She was an avid lover of the Royal Family, and when she died, her coffin was piped down the High St to the same music as the Queen Mother. In death, she became the matriarch she should have been if she'd lived in another time.

L'Arche changed John and Doris, and it changed me too. After I left, I went to University, intending to be a Biologist, but after three years, I knew that wasn't the life for me. I began to apply for jobs in social care, and within months of leaving was back supporting people with learning disabilities. I've not looked back since.

I'm telling these stories today because today is Blogging Against Disablism Day.  A lot has changed in the last thirty years, and the majority of it has been good. Today people with disabilities are visible, buses and buildings are accessible. There are disabled actors, and comedians, disabled people appear in TV programmes. The world is a richer place because of it.

I'm  proud to have been part of the revolution that tore down the hideous institutions of the past and freed people with learning disabilities. I've been proud to stand beside disabled friends at rallies, to support campaigns for better access, opportunities for employment, independence. I've been proud to work with self-advocacy and campaigning organisations, and to help make self-directed support a reality. For most of the last thirty years, the journey has been hopeful, exciting, a chance to break down barriers. The last thirty years have been about progress, improvement, greater opportunity.

And yet, this year, I fear for my friends with disabilities like I never have done before. I fear about the impact of cuts and welfare reform that will curtail people's freedoms and independence. I fear about the effect of a relentlessly negative media which is resulting in an increase in hate crime. I fear about the minority of bigoted politicians who don't mind anyone knowing they think disabled people are  worthless. 

This year, it feels like this country is on the brink of turning back the clock thirty years: trapping disabled people into lives of poverty and grinding dependence at the top of a slippery slope which ends in  institutionalisation at best, and at worst a world that accepts eugenics is a reasonable social policy. It feels like we are on the brink of a nightmare, and it frightens the hell out of me. And yet, I don't believe the majority of people in Britain are like that. I believe we are better than that, as individuals, and as a nation. Today, we mustn't forget where we've come from, and the future we are still trying to achieve. Because, no matter how much progress we've made, there's still plenty more to be done. We mustn't let austerity stop us.

Which is why I'd like to urge everyone who reads my blog to stand up on the side of disabled people and get involved in some of the campaigns I support:

Please sign the Wow Petition and use twitter to spread the word.

Follow these brilliant bloggers to educate yourself about what is happening. Sue Marsh, Kaliya Franklin, Steve Sumpter,Centre for Welfare Reform

Contact your MPs and councillors to let them know you won't stand for it.

Write to your local press pointing out what is happening.

Stand up to every snide comment, wrong assertion and outright lie you hear about disabled people.

And never, ever, forget where we came from. We can't go back there. We just can't