The snow in Amsterdam
As I flap my flippers at my new tiny keyboard (see picture with keys – to give you some kind of context, in case you think I’m exaggerating), it’s snowing and for some reason it isn’t having the usual effect. Normally, I’d be decking the halls with boughs of holly but this year, my main worry is slipping and doing myself an injury.
I’m fairly used to the odd mishap now and then. It wouldn’t be life if everything ran smoothly. I expect to lose umbrellas, scuff favourite shoes and spill cups of tea over white sofas (Top Tip alert, – Don’t bother with stain removers; if it’s white and stained use Mr Muscle oven cleaner – works a treat). But the last six weeks have been exceptional even by my standards.
It all started when the cold weather set in at the start of November. Mr Fanning and I cranked up the heating. But nothing happened. Our boiler had lost the will.
A sharp intake of breath
Repair man after repair man did sharp intakes of breath and offered to take money to ‘do what they could’, warning that any repair would be temporary. I took temporary to mean it would last through the winter. In each case by the time they were in a cosy café spending my money, the Fanning household was plunged back to sub-Arctic conditions.
After a week of shivering around a one-bar electric fire and washing with a bucket of water, we gave in and shelled out for a replacement.
Then the fridge went wild and decided that keeping things cold wasn’t enough. All food should be frozen at all times. Lettuce, milk, it didn’t discriminate. Cue another patronising Mr Fixit (“oh dear, it’s two weeks out of guarantee”) and another bill.
Things do go in threes, of course; so when Mr Fanning called to say the computer had exploded in a sort of post-Guy Fawkes cloud of sparks, my response was muted acceptance. Of course, it had.
I arrived home to the set of a late 70s horror film. Lights flickered and shorted. Electrical items randomly emitted pops and smoke. By the time everything was switched off, we were down one washing machine, one satellite box, one (expensive) iMAC, a kettle and an electric garage door. Cue more repairs and, to sweeten the pot, insurance forms.
Throughout the whole period, Mr Fanning developed a series of colds and infections. He never said so much, but I knew he wanted it to be swine flu. Just so he could tell everyone he’d had it.
Internet health checks
I consulted the Internet. He had the cough, the sore throat, the runny nose and aching joints. But what of his temperature? It had to be above 38 degrees to qualify. I rushed to our local chemist – one of the most miserable places on God’s earth; which is a shame, since I’ve always quite liked chemists, but our local is staffed by the most miserable bunch going.
Mr Fanning sat and waited the requisite two minutes. Together, we peered at the result. 37.4. Officially, nothing more than a bad cold.
I could tell he was disappointed by the way he kept checking every hour or so to see if things had changed.
The next day, satisfied he wouldn’t die if left alone, I set out to work. Hours later my mobile rang. It was Mr Fanning, beside himself with excitement.
‘I’ve done it, I’m 38.2,’ he bragged.
I was so proud. Then I caught it and my competitive streak took over. I only ever managed 37.4 – which although I felt ghastly, is apparently normal.
I did however trump Mr F by putting my back out not once, but twice, necessitating the sort of painkillers that could fell a grizzly bear – and several days off work watching daytime TV and losing the will to live.
Who has that much crap in their attic, and why can’t the owners of said crap blow their profits on a decent night at the pub? Why does there always have to be a crippled relative or an only child demanding an exchange visit to Japan?
The producers seem to need a worthy angle for avarice, thereby missing the point. TV – daytime TV in particular – is a modern-day opium for the people. Without the X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing or similar mindless fluff, we’d all be out waging wars.
The long and short of all this is that I’m starting to feel old. Maybe I’ve finally reached the sort of age where I’ll always have something wrong with me. When people stop me in the street and ask how I’m keeping, I’ll be able to regale them with tales of my latest ailment. Part of me likes this.
Anyway, that aside, several thousand euros later, I’m in a warm house, with a working fridge and a big shiny new iMAC.
OK, so maybe the 27’ screen was a mistake – it’s so HUGE.
Oddly though, it’s strangely satisfying to pound away at the tiny keyboard, churning out my trademark light and fluffy meisterwerks.
Finally – some writing stuff
Talking of writing, I’ve hit a strange crossroads. Part of me wants to write something new, but the stuff I’m churning out feels like a series of detached scenes. The narrative drive isn’t there. I have a notion where I want to take it, but I’m still getting to know the characters.
I often hear new writers claim their characters get in the way of well-laid plot plans. ‘I thought I knew what was going to happen, but Suzie surprised me,’ they say. My response is simple. You shouldn’t let her. This is your fault. You don’t know Suzie well enough.
Having said that, I’m as guilty as the next writer.
I plot, I stick post-its to the wall and scribble copious notes.
30,000 words in, half the little yellow notes are crumpled and tossed aside. A family wedding becomes a funeral. A passionate affair meant to end with a dream wedding fades into a suicide bid, and the mousy office secretary develops a penchant for global terrorism.
When characters interfere, it’s the fault of the writer. He or she started writing too soon.
So my new way is to riff. I write scenes. I get to know my people. I put them in situations to see what they might say or do if offered a Digestive biscuit or a chance to kill their worst enemy – and get away with it.
Forget the family trees and relationship webs. This is the stuff that matters. This is where the guts of a novel lie.
Tossing stories aside
Stories I write and tossed aside. Stories with which I was never really happy. But – importantly – stories I finished, populated by characters I knew and understood.
I’ve found myself dealing with two aging soap queens who’ve spent their entire careers at war. They find themselves thrust into a very public situation where they have to get on or perish.
I wrote the first draft two years ago. 80,000 words came together in a single month when I was laid up with a bad back. It has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese (some of the dialogue smells worse) but the characters are sound.
Already 10,000 rewritten words in, what has emerged feels tighter, funnier and believable.
It’s refreshing to let two older characters take the lead; I can hand them all the camp bitchy lines a regular chick-lit 30-year-old main character can’t carry. But Fanning followers need not worry; the sub-plot offers a romantic twist. There’s also a fair bit of swearing and few breathy sexual encounters, something for the whole modern family.
So, to sign off, I wish you a great end of the year – Deity rest ye merry gentlefolk (see how politically correct I can be). Don’t get so drunk you end up telling your boss you love them/hate them and want them to die in pain. It only makes January awkward.