The Gilead Game

In my restless Brexit-induced waking hours I’ve come up with a fun new game for a rainy day. Or an endless, sleepless night. It can be played in a group. Or on your own during those endless, sleepless nights.

All you need is a dice, some imagination, and a basic grasp of Margaret Atwood’s nightmare, dystopian vision of our future (or an appreciation that Brexit, Boris Johnson and Steve Bannon amount to much the same thing).

Are you ready?

It’s called The Gilead Game. (I’ve chosen Atwood’s fictional setting, but feel free to come up with any similar theonomy/ethnostate…simply base it on your own country, but with added far-right, hysteria. These days, it’s easier to picture than ever).

Let’s play!

First you make a list, 1-6, of your favourite Handmaid’s Tale parts.

You might, for example, have chosen the following:

1: Handmaid. 2: Commander. 3: Martha. 4: Eye. 5: Aunt. 6: Gender Traitor.

Then you roll the dice and imagine how your life would be in the Gilead of your making. Simple.

Actually, you don’t even need a dice. You could just place yourself in one of the categories. For example, my husband and I would both have to pick “Gender Traitor”. Our lives in Gilead would then involve a period of running from the authorities; hiding out in cold, dark places; before being rounded up and publicly executed. Such fun!

By the way, if you’re a writer, thinker, journalist, liberal, socialist, feminist, etc…you might as well just choose “Gender Traitor” too. The end result is the same.

An alternative, but no less fun, game occurred to me the other night. During dinner at my in-laws, my niece (15) picked up on one of my regular rants. She interrupted me and asked what I’d meant by “the rapid rise of the far right”. I thought for a moment, then did what any self-respecting uncle would do: explain exactly what the far right is, and the danger it poses. This then led to a discussion on Brexit. All conversations end this way these days.

We talked about the possible (likely?) food shortages and that we might all have to rely on local food sources to survive. In Scotland, we decided, this would result in a diet based solely on rhubarb and turnips (or swedes or rutabaga, if you must). This, assuming Scots are willing to go into the fields and collect the food themselves. Remember folks, there’ll be no migrant labour this time next year!

And thus my other diverting game was devised. I’m calling it, quite simply, “Live or Die?”. In this game you split into two teams to come up with as many tasty, nutritious meals as you can made solely from these two ingredients. Give your teams names why don’t you? Turnip Tops and Rhubarb Fools, perhaps?

I can promise you that this game is easily as much fun as my Gilead game. Although the end result is basically the same, because if a diet based on mashed turnip and boiled rhubarb isn’t a dystopian nightmare, then I don’t know what is.

Sweet dreams everyone. (Not that there’ll me any sugar to sweeten that rhubarb, mind).

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Beat This Retreat

I’ve never retreated anywhere – unless you count retreating to the sideline in PE class in the eternally optimistic view that the teacher wouldn’t notice my absence (really, I was doing them all a favour). So when a wise and encouraging writing friend suggested a writing retreat to Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands, I’ll admit I was in two minds.

Would I be locked away in a cell-type room with a narrow bed and room only to swing my pants?

Would everyone be earnestly writing away 24/7, too preoccupied to pass the time of day?

Would there be an enforced vow of total abstinence (from the sauce, I mean; I certainly didn’t go on a writing retreat for anything else)?

Answers: yes; no; definitely not.

My accommodation was indeed a cell-type room.img_20180507_181524775_hdr202652813.jpg

And I know it was big enough to swing my pants because I tried, – in lieu, you understand – of an actual cat. Although I doubt I could have swung my jeans. But here’s the thing: despite Moniack Mhor having numerous other writing spaces – communal lounges by wood stoves; a straw-bale hobbit house where a writer can go the full Tolkein and forge works of wonder to throw into the fires of publishing;img_20180507_205347522177698084.jpg

a stone, story-telling circle – I found that I gravitated back to my little room. It was here that I wrote the most words (9310, if you’re counting. I was). It was here that I found inspiration to begin a first draft. It was here I felt energised to keep going. I was content in my confinement. Ideas seemed to expand beyond the constriction of my four looming walls. There might not have been space on my desk for more than a laptop, cup of tea and pack of regulation Tunnocks caramel wafers (these are essential for Scottish-based writers who include them in their retreat riders), but, I reasoned, if Oscar Wilde could turn out great literature from Reading Gaol, then I could turn out a first draft of something that might or might not escape my laptop one day.

And, to be fair, I doubt his view could match this:

And although my room was next to one of the communal bathrooms (actually useful when you’re waiting, towel over arm, ready to pounce when vacated), I’d imagine Oscar was required to ‘powder his nose’ somewhat less comfortably.

Of course, folk were there to write, as was I. But my fears that my fellow inmates retreaters would be locked away all day, every day, were unfounded. There was always someone to chat with over a cup of tea (at least ten sorts of tea – and I love tea inclusivity…or inclusivitea, if you will), or to take a stroll in the forest with, or to stoke one of the log-burners with.  And it was this aspect of the retreat that I most appreciated: the community of writers.

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A tribe of scribes. (Flyingscribbler: top row, right)

We were all there because we love to write, love to share our writing experiences, and love to support and encourage each other in our writing endeavors. It was a joy to meet such a diverse group of writers; between us we had most genres covered: children’s, YA, adult, crime, script, memoir, plays, poetry…Writers don’t always get out much, but when they do, they like to talk.

Which brings me on to point three.

When the cat’s away, as they say…

Moniack has an arrangement that the writers cook dinner for each other in teams. This means, at 4pm, after a quick briefing on what/how/how much to cook, the staff leave the building. We only realised the significance of this on the final evening, when, after an astonishingly delicious Haggis dinner (OK, I was on Team Haggis), washed down by most folk with wine, and a wee dram, and whisky sauce with the haggis, and whisky in the cranachan dessert, we all realised we were home alone. Did we polish off the single malt? No, we did not. Did we dare each other to read aloud from our hard-earned word-smithing? No. Did we turn in for an early night? No, of course not.

We toured the site, room-by-room, on a giddy comparison quest. Whose room was largest; whose desk the widest; whose view the most panoramic. Childish? Yes! Writerly? Who cares! What a laugh. And, dear reader, I won. Not the largest, widest or most panoramic room prize. No. To the delight of a fellow writer who had laboured all week under the impression that she was installed in the least commodious room, I proudly showed off my small, perfectly-formed, and highly productive cell room.  “Lady Bracknell herself,” I didn’t say (but wish I had), “couldn’t have swung her handbag in here.” My new writing friends concurred, and I won the smallest room sweep stake.

And so we returned to the lounge to celebrate our week of writing, community, and celebration.

Moniack Mhor is a glorious place in a wonderful location with amazing staff and an atmosphere that inspires. I’m going back, and if the only room left is what I shall henceforth call “The Oscar Wilde Suite”, then so be it.

Although the double bed with ensuite would be nice too.

 

 

The Beast From the East…and other stories

I’ve been thinking about the weather. Ok, so I’ve been procrastinating by thinking about the weather (we won’t talk about the plot outline I’m supposed to be putting together…I’ll blame the snow…it has caused a lot of trouble this past week).

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about The Beast From The East.

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Very beastly weather Image: itv.com

My initial reaction when the media comes up with a name for a “weather event” is to recoil in anger and horror. “Why is this necessary?” I want to shout. Actually, I do shout; it’s just that no-one can hear me, apart from my husband, but he’s probably shouting too, so that’s both of us shouting at the radio/TV. Why do they have to give weather events a name? Why give them a character? It’s Disney-fying the weather. It’s as if they don’t trust regular people to understand the concept of a weather front moving in from the Arctic. When I see “Beast from the East” pasted on the front pages of the right-wing press, it all feels a bit Brexit. There’s no excuse for it in the more moderate media.

Plus, there’s the underlying suggestion that anything from the east is, you know, beastly….a big, hairy, snarling, drooling bear, swiping at poor, defenceless Brits, shivering in our tumbledown thatched cottages, trying to boil our kettles on fires that won’t stay alight.

Of course, this naming of the weather isn’t a new phenomenon: they began naming storms a few years ago – badly, in my opinion. I mean, storms shouldn’t be called Amy or Barbara or Clive. They should be called Adolf or Barbarossa or Clytemnestra. If they have to be called something at all…which they don’t.  I’m surprised they didn’t just go for it and call this one “Vladimir”. It’s what everyone was thinking.

As I was fuming over the naming of what is just some weather, I wondered how long it would take for someone to use The Beast from the East as the basis for a novel. There’s probably a writer scribbling away already, setting a story in or near or under…or inside…(now there’s an idea) a snowdrift.

And THEN I got to thinking how often weather events crop up in literature. I don’t mean when the weather gets a mention in a story; a novel which never refers to the climate or the rain or the heat or clouds would feel a bit empty. Weather details are the sort of details which add depth and realism without the reader realising they’re there. They’re the sort of details which, if absent from the writing, would leave the reader feeling short-changed, without them necessarily working out why.

No, I mean big weather events; or significant weather events; weather events which change the course of a story. Or maybe they ARE the story; without them, there is no story.

I suppose the biggest weather event to feature in a story would be the flood to end all floods. Every kid in the West, and a lot in the East (not THAT East…the Orient East) grow up with the story of Noah and his ark and the animals going in two by two – including those terrifying bears from the East, no doubt.

Noah's ark...actually, it's Playmobil's ark...but you get the idea

Where’s the beasts from the east?

This is a great story idea – yes, I said “story idea”…what do you expect? I’m a lefty, atheist, gay, children’s writer – disaster flood threatens life on earth, leaving one man to save said life by building monumental vessel to ride out the storm. I wish I’d thought of that.

Another major climatological event which acts as a catalyst for an entire series of books is that cyclone in Kansas. Without it, Dorothy would never have made it to Oz. 15203561487141665449114246597058.jpg

Without it, her house would never have crushed the Wicked Witch of the East (why is always the East? See what they’re doing? It’s a conspiracy), and our Dorothy would never have skipped her way along the yellow brick road in those Ruby…actually, they were silver in the books… slippers.

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If you’re going to be crushed by a farmhouse in a tornado, you might as well be wearing a GREAT pair of shoes.

A quick browse through the children’s books on my own shelves turns up several stories which rely on the weather for the main event:

Where would Raymond Briggs’ Snowman be without the, er, snow? Nowhere.152035541937717070412601273304913.jpg

Without an eternal winter being cast over Narnia by the White Witch, there would be no battle to be fought in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.152036598641720189739021905078738.jpg

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is totally about a weather event. An unusual one, I give you, but it’s based on a meteorological happening.15203643471284916558219293652.jpg

Then there’s the wonderful Last Wild trilogy from Piers Torday. This dystopian future is set in the disastrous aftermath of catastrophic climate change. 15203563119011316076789228213252.jpg

In the strange and inventive Heap House – book one in the Iremonger series by Edward Carey – a storm rages outside on the heaps of trash and curios, almost drowning the young hero Clod Iremonger. 15203564286376998940341270004858.jpg

And in Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, our hero and his insect friends discover the weather is actually controlled by the Cloud-Men, who then nearly destroy the peach by producing a hail storm. 15203643845261527510696953651610.jpg

In my own writing, I’ve included a storm – which is definitely not being given a name – through which I send my protagonist and friends. It isn’t essential to the plot, but it adds drama and tension and excitement; it’s a hurdle they have to get over…or never make it to the main event.

The Beast from the East produced stories of its own last week: folk stuck in trains, in cars, in snowdrifts. Babies delivered by the side of the road. Flights cancelled; weddings cancelled; school cancelled (yay…more time for sledging!). Lives were changed forever; lives were lost forever. People everywhere were forced to stop and stay still and do not much at all. Who knows…in that time, stories will have been thought up, written down and maybe told to children warming up by the fire after the snowball fight of the century. I hope so.

Look on your shelves – I bet you’ve got some favourite books which are about the weather, or which feature the weather, or which only exist because of the weather. I’d love to hear about them.

And now, a new idea just occurred to me. It’s about a storm…what shall I call it? How about…The Pest from the West?

Conference concentrated

Having just arrived home from the annual SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, I thought I’d break my almost pathological blog silence with a post-conference piece. Unfortunately writing and flying commitments are currently syphoning off almost all my free time, so I am left with a one hour window whilst sitting on a flight between Edinburgh and London to share my thoughts. 

A distilled 60 minutes means I’m going to distill my thoughts…. and so, in no particular (read: undrafted, unorganised, probably unreadable) order, things I learned/discovered/didn’t expect to learn or discover from my weekend in Winchester….

*SCBWI conferences are great.

*It’s always worth getting up early to make the keynote sessions. And to take Instagram worthy photos of early morning cemeteries.

*Alex T Smith partly based his wonderful comic dog creation, Claude, on Larry Grayson. The joy of knowing this could keep me happy forever.

*When you’re dressed as your favourite cartoon dog at the Saturday night conference party, people are more likely to talk to you. Or pull your tail. Or both.

*A children’s writers and illustrators conference isn’t the best place to try and keep a top secret publishing deal to yourself. These people can smell good news a mile off.

*The lunch queue is as good a place as any to chat to award winning YA writers and whisper that you’re joining the same publisher as them. (See what I mean…just couldn’t help myself).

*There’s always time to discuss the calamity of Brexit…even 1.30am after a bucket of wine.  Especially at 1.30am after a bucket of wine.

*Marauding drunks are as noisy at 1.30am in well-heeled Hampshire as they are anywhere. (The last two points are not entirely unconnected).

*British provincial hotels are every bit as disappointing as they always were. A selection of tea bags, a creased city guide, and a wall-mounted fan heater, do not a luxury hotel experience make.

*Writers are the best people on earth to rely on for: support, words of wisdom, congratulation, consolation, encouragement, sharing a joke, advice….helping you attach a dog tail…anything.

*Friends made at conference are for life, not just for conference.

*There’s always time, even at a writer’s conference, to discuss vegetarian haggis recipes.

*You can never have enough conference badges and pens.

And now my top 5 things I learned from Scbwicon17:

1. Never travel without my pillow. A breeze block in linen is not a substitute, are you hearing me Mercure hotels?

2. Children’s writers and illustrators are the best people. 

3. A day without tea and cake, is a day not worth living.

4. Get in the queue early for tea and cake.

5. Finding the funny and giving kids something to laugh at is more important now than ever. It’s also what I love to do more than almost anything.

That’s it. One hour of flying combined with an hour writing. I don’t call myself the flyingscribbler for nothing.

The Devil’s in the Detail.

Part of the writer’s work in creating believable fiction is to include just enough detail to make a setting or scene believable. Details add interest, but too many, and your story becomes swamped; too few, and your story feels empty. Details can bring a story to life; they can add authenticity; used well, they can transport the reader onto the page, and beyond.

Like any good writer, I’m always on the lookout for a detail I can scribble down in my notebook. I might not need it now; I might not need it next year. But the detail is there, waiting for its turn to be used.

I currently have no plans to write a story set in the medieval Scottish Borders (historical fiction authors have nothing to worry about just yet), but on a day out last week to expand my acquaintance with Scotland, I found myself swamped with exciting snippets of history to hoover up and empty out later into my notebook.

Melrose Abbey is a fantastic old ruin. It gains bonus points for having a sole surviving spiral stair to the top of a tower which offers dizzying views and close encounters with pained-looking gargoyles; it gains more for the absorbing details it shares about the life of its medieval retinue of Cistercian monks.

Spoiler alert: the rest of this post goes a bit lavatorial from here….

Folk – by which I mean me – always seem fascinated by the ins and – mostly – outs of an astronaut’s personal needs. It’s one of those questions you can guarantee someone will ask an astronaut giving a talk: “How do you go to the toilet?” I imagine its got something to do with nappies.

Likewise, people – ungallant, treasonous people – often wonder how the Queen deals with those prolonged visits and royal functions. I mean, at her age… you know… things don’t always function as well as they once did. I’m not suggesting the monarch’s solution has anything whatsoever to do with nappies; but she must have some means of dealing with the royal ablutions.

So imagine my joy when I discovered that the Cistercian monks of 14th century Melrose Abbey had an ingenious solution to servicing their bladders, and, more importantly, one which wouldn’t impinge on their duty in servicing their Lord. Not only is this snippet of medieval history utterly fascinating, but it also gains entry into the “intriguing details to be used (or not) in a piece of writing sometime in the future” section of my writer’s notebook.

Reader, follower, lover of fine historical detail, I give you the medieval, male, portable urinal:

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Hidden beneath their monk’s robes, this handy, totally portable peeing pot, would enable the abbey’s residents to maintain their composure, and a comfortable bladder, throughout their long daily devotions. And there were a lot of those. Eight trips to the hassock in all, beginning at 2am with matins, following which came lauds, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers and compline, after which the monks would retire for the night. With that many devotions to attend, imagine how grateful they would be to have to hand a convenient, transportable, personal urinal. Although I’d imagine they would have required a certain degree of skill, not to mention dexterity, to hit their target with 100% accuracy, all the while communing with God and definitely not drawing attention to the activity beneath their robes. Still, probably preferable to the communal latrines.

Who would have thought a wee trip to the Borders would have turned up such an intriguing and interesting item?

I’m not intending to write a historical novel at the moment, but if I can’t find a way to insert a monk’s portable urinal into a middle grade story – especially a comedy – then I’m not the writer I hope I am.

Remember writers, the devil’s in the detail. But hopefully not inside a monk’s pot; because then they’d have been spending rather too much time peeing, and not nearly enough praying.

Happy detailing!

 

A Moving (Re)Discovery

Manuscript Status: On Submission

Writer Status: Impatient, nervous and a little bit stressed. Pretending not to be all of the above.

So, being on submission doesn’t mean the writing stops. Of course not. I’m ploughing on with a first draft of a new (if by ‘new’ I mean nearly a year old already…I had edits to work on for my agent, plus, like, loads of other things…) project. The aim is to get the whole draft completed as soon as I can. I’m hoping to get the call saying “drop whatever you’re working on, you have more edits to do!”. And I’d quite like to have punched in the final full stop on draft one by then; you know…for the sake of tidiness.

But of course, this writer still needs a break from the… er… stress of writing. I’m always on the lookout for a break (and I heard that, whoever just shouted “procrastinator”!). Yesterday’s procrastination, I mean break, came in the most unexpected and delightful form.

My husband is currently assisting his parents with a house move from the family home of thirty-five years. Naturally, this means some artefacts from the dig have found their way into our house, and how we’ve laughed at his year six story-writing workbook, (be warned, husband, there’s material there for a whole new blog).

Along with his childhood scribblings and doodlings have come some gems of children’s literature that he read as a child, including this wonderful book:

IMG_20170719_180906525This charming – and somewhat defiant – story (a Philippe Fix creation, with story for pictures by Janine Ast and Alain Grée…I assume it to be French) features three characters: the eponymous Beebo, a chap in his later years; Mop, his friend; and Hector, a hamster. I haven’t worked out who Mop is in relation to Beebo; he seems to live in Beebo’s flat whilst Beebo works on the Paris Metro, walking through the towering streets of Paris every day.

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In our era, I doubt we’d see a story about an older man and a young boy being friends make its way to the book shop shelves. And Mop’s origin is never explained. Nor is the reason why Beebo inherits a run-down old mansion (which they turn into every child’s dream fantasy house). There are inconsistencies aplenty, none of which would jar with a young reader.

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I like to think that Mop is nothing more or less than Beebo’s younger self, or perhaps the childhood friend Beebo never had…because as charming as Hector is, a hamster is a poor substitute for a pal.

But if we fail to work out who Mop really is, there is no mistaking what the story wants to say – at least, not to my adult eyes, (is it even possible for an adult to read a children’s book with a child’s eye? We know too much. We’re tainted by the horrors of life. We can only lament the loss of innocence).

This is a story about friendship – real, or imagined.

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This is a story about the evils of unconstrained capitalism and supposed progress. Yes, even a picture book can deal with the heavy-weight subjects. In this respect The House That Beebo Built is a story for all time; especially poignant right now.

This is also a story about the triumph of hope when all seems lost. And if that’s not a message we want kids to read about, I don’t know what is.

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It is a story about escape. From those that would destroy that which you have worked for. Escape from a world gone mad and bad. Escape from the disappointments and strain of life. Actually, it might be about escaping from life itself.

I think it might be a story about death.

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Our friends end by building an ingenious stairway to the sky, which can only be a metaphor for the final journey. And they don’t forget little Hector: he gets to play in the vast hamster wheel in the clouds. At least, in my mind he does.

Naturally, we can make of this story whatever we will. And it doesn’t really matter, because what charms the most, what grabs the attention, what makes us smile – and it’s what my husband cherishes so much – are the beautiful, joyous illustrations. And it’s those that I really wanted to share.

I hope you enjoy them too.

PS. Amazon have a copy for £185. And no, husband, it’s not yours! Because your House That Beebo Built is now our House That Beebo Built.

Turning chaos into order…or pin-board procrastination.

I reached peak pin-board yesterday.

I ran out of cork to pin to ages ago; instead, I’ve been layering ideas. Thought upon thought. Plot upon plot. Names upon names. I’d begun sticking post-its to each other; sellotaping scraps of paper to more scraps of paper. So many ideas – some good, most bad – that the weight of them threatened to bring the pin-board crashing down.

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I know there’s a best selling concept under there…somewhere…

It had never been a big enough board, and of course I’d always intended replacing it with something more suited to the creation of fabulous stories. And yet….

You know how it is: I just never got round to it. But then came yesterday.

Yesterday, I blithely began another attempt to plough on with a first draft (it’s taking so long, my very patient boy protagonist will be sporting a hipster beard before he finally, if ever, wins the day). A few minutes into the writing session I was in need of a name; not a new name, but one I’d given to a character some months ago. I’d scribbled it on a post-it and…er…posted-it on the board. Somewhere. Carefully, almost forensically, I began lifting edges of post-its and scraps of paper, peering hopefully under layer upon layer, month upon month of hastily scrawled moments of inspiration. A kind of foolscap archaeology; leafing through the recent past of my writing. Eventually, I found the name I was looking for. I also found other names. Character names; street names; house names. And plot ideas. And spanners to throw in the works. And motivations. And…loads of really good stuff which I’d forgotten about, and not written in to my draft, because…I COULDN’T SEE THEM RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME WHERE I NEED THEM TO BE!

I made it to the end of that chapter and then downed tools. Time for action. To order my thoughts I needed to bring order to the chaos in front of me. A quick click here, a double-click there, and a double-quick delivery later, my new, super-sized, super-smart, and super-empty pin-board arrives.

Down comes the old. I peel away the layers; slowly revealing months, no years, of thoughts and memories. It’s like stripping wallpaper in a listed house. Who knows what marvels lie beneath that 70s flock? I find: postcards from exhibitions I’d forgotten I’d been to; a list of potential character names; a picture of me jumping for, what appears to be actual joy on my fortieth birthday; my delegate card from my first SCBWI conference.

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Where there once was chaos…

And so to my new pin-board. Is this how great artists feel when presented with a blank canvas? Did Picasso have a moment of hesitation as he contemplated a new masterpiece? Possibly. I know did. How to order my post-its? Where to place my protagonist’s family tree and the town plan? Do I place my ideas horizontally, vertically, or inspirationally in a circle? Should I clear my board of anything that isn’t related to my work-in-progress?

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Order from chaos. At last.

After some deliberation and, ok, yes, some deliberate procrastination (we all do it; don’t pretend you’ve never fallen prey… organising your books, again… nipping down for one last coffee before really, actually, starting work… sorting the washing… grouting the tiles…) I’ve done it! I finally have a well-ordered, easy-on-the-eye (and brain), useful pin-board. Ideas found with a single glance. Place names located with a flick of an eye. Plot twists remembered in seconds, not hours; remembered at all, in fact.

Yes, my pin-board upgrade might have taken all afternoon to complete, and who knows what I might have written in those hours? But the potential for better-structured, chaos-free writing hours tomorrow, was worth the hours lost today.

If your pin-board has become a post-it graveyard and you can’t see the cork for a tree’s worth of paper, it might be time to remove, refresh and re-pin your ideas. I’m hoping it will kick-start my writing and re-gear my first draft; time to move my story into the fast lane with the help of ordered thoughts and easy-to-see ideas.

Until I reach peak pin-board again. And then I’m in trouble: I’ve run out of walls.