2012 in review

So here we are at the tail end of the year. For me and my family, 2012 has been a year of spectacular highs and one or two crushing lows – a weird year in some ways, but it’s been creative and funny and scary and challenging and all of that stuff. In summary:

January was the month of snow, walking to work across drift-covered fields and nervy preparation for our first ever skiing trip in February, which was terrifying and exhilarating and expensive and fabulous and a thing to be repeated when we have saved up again. Real life, school and editing seemed terribly dull on our return.

March disappeared in a blur of school and work stuff (seriously, I’ve been back over my diary, and nothing happened. NOTHING), so we’ll move swiftly on to April, which was Book Club month, the inaugural meeting of a small group of friends from work. We have kept meeting, and during the year we have read a variety of books – not always ones I would have chosen, but isn’t that the point of Book Club? We’ve also had some truly memorable conversations, and not always about the books. Reading ladies of AHS, I salute you and look forward to more in 2013.

April was also the month when I was, rather astonishingly and out of the blue,  commissioned to write a book of my own. Therefore, writing and research in May, burying myself in the ancient and splendid Sussex dialect and peppering my conversation with words like sureleye and pathery. Turns out writing a book is actually quite hard work. Who knew.

June was more writing and great joy when I turned in the manuscript on time, but also sunshine, our brief warm summer, spent at school and guiding Molly through the first real round of her GCSE exams. Not that she needed much guidance; if ever a girl deserved to do well by dint of organisation, application and sheer gutsy hard work it would be my Molly. So proud.

In July I concentrated on getting to the end of the school term without collapsing or killing anyone (dropping my hours to four days a week certainly helped with this), and had a week at home on my own when Tom took the children to the coast (they had already broken up, I was still at school – happens every year). This was at the same time dark, empty and dreadful, and blissful, liberating and QUIET. Then, of course, came the Olympics – a fortnight of marvelling and weeping and laughing and marvelling all over again.

August was Big Theatre month, when we sang and danced and played and acted until we (literally) dropped, and between us produced The Blue Dress, the best show we have ever pulled off. So proud of all the Big Theatre babes, but (naturally) of my own children most of all. We also camped in Yorkshire, spending five wet and windy nights under canvas wondering where the tent was going to spring a leak next (once – memorably – under my bed).

Back to school in September, but as always the bitter pill was sweetened considerably by my birthday on the 11th. Also, I took part in a community performance of Carmina Burana, accompanying an 80-strong choir as part of a semi-pro orchestra brought together for the day. I’ve never been prouder to call myself a violinist.

October was theatre again, recalling the Big Theatre cast and reprising The Blue Dress from the summer for a triumphant three-night run over half term. I also worked through the final edits for the Sussex book, involving lots of to-and-fro between me, the commissioning editor and the designer before we finally arrived at the print draft.

Eventually in November  Sussex Dialect was published, amid a great deal of pink-cheeked grinning on my part. Pity my poor friends and family, who have been forced to read the wretched thing over and over again and answer questions about it. (They haven’t really.) I also took part in my first podcast recording, having a total ball with Dion, Barry and Clo from the Scrolls book group at Geek Syndicate. I definitely want to do more of this.

December, as always, was a frenzy of concerts, school performances and preparations for Christmas, but also, out of nowhere, Wandering Weeds was published, containing a short story of mine which I had more or less given up for lost. Unbelievably happy about this, especially since fantasy fiction is what I really want to be writing. In the absence of any further ideas, though, I also signed a contract to write a Norfolk dialect book. Something of a pattern here.

Through this all I have edited, and written, and knitted, and edited more, and edited a LOT more, and generally wondered where all the work is coming from. If my freelance work continues to gather momentum in 2013 I’ll have to take serious stock of whether my current school commitments are sustainable, but that’s for the future. For now, I’m looking forward to going back to school and getting my teeth into writing Norfolk and editing a couple of novels which are lined up for the early part of 2013. Also, the last two months of 2012 showed an impressive average of a book published a month; I know I can’t sustain this over the next few weeks, but if 2013 can match 2012’s total in terms of publications with my name on (or in) them, I’ll be delighted.

Book Club – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

One Monday night in the month is Book Club night, when I meet up with a group of chums from work to eat nachos or deep-fried Brie, drink beer or hot chocolate (whichever suits), complain about other work folk who aren’t there and maybe, a bit, sometimes, talk about a book we’ve all read. We meet here and annoy the other patrons with gales of cackling laughter and shouts for more hot chocolate, interspersed with occasional insightful and pertinent comments about the book in question.

This Monday we met a little earlier than usual and all ate together by way of a nod to the festive season, which was lovely, and then the serious ones who’d actually read the book got their copies out of their bags and we got down to business. This month’s book was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – I can’t remember who suggested it but it may have been me, on the basis of a half-remembered perusal as a student in my early twenties. I remembered the powerful allegory and the spare prose, and I remembered being haunted by the book for some time after I read it.

All things considered I did enjoy the re-read, but I think the intervening twenty years have taught me enough about myself that the simple story, with its emphasis on destiny and striving towards one’s goals, seems less of a fable and more of a fairy story. The message was still powerful and clear, and I found moments of great clarity in the text – dumpout points when I had to close the book and leave it for a while in order to let the precise wording of a sentence or phrase resonate in my head. However, I did not find the haunting beauty in the storytelling that I remembered, and I was left with a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time in my life, when everything was bright and shiny and destiny seemed like something that I could simply reach out and grasp.

Now, in my early forties, I have a more complicated view of destiny and spirituality, and Coelho’s prose in The Alchemist felt too naive, too simplistic to reflect that. Being aware of omens is all very well, but the book had no shading, no rise and fall, and little in the way of nuanced character development – instead the reader is led by the nose past a sequence of Messages, and especially as a non-Christian, by the end of the book I did feel rather like I’d been beaten over the head with a Bible wrapped in a fluffy black-and-white blanket.

The rest of the group had a mixed response – some loved it, some were ambivalent, and a couple hated it so much they threatened to burn it. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say, I think, that this is a book that hasn’t aged with me.

Next meeting is on January 14th; we are being daring and reading two books this month, because we all have a fortnight off over Christmas so lots of time for reading. (Yeah, right.) The books are The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson (don’t ask) and A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett – we wanted light and non-depressing, and I think we’ve chosen wisely.

Juggling – or how I combine work, work and life

This week has seen us (myself and the children) facing the dreaded return to school – some of us with more stoicism and good grace than others. I’ll readily admit I was hugely unwilling to get up and out on Monday morning, especially because the kids didn’t start back until Tuesday or Wednesday – INSET days are so much less attractive now that I’m one of the unfortunate trainees.

For the children, the return to school means routine, regular hours, a social life – all things which they lack during the summer holidays, living as we do in a semi-rural village with few or none of their friends close by. It means much the same to me too, of course, but with the added complication that I must resume juggling the day job with my freelance (writing and editing) work.

Most writers will, at some point or other, have combined writing with another job. Unless you do it as part of another occupation (if you’re an academic, say, or a journalist), writing will rarely pay enough by itself to support a home and family – and those lucky few who do hit the big time and make their writing PAY are the envy of the rest of us.

For me at least, freelance editing is much the same – I work regularly, but not frequently enough to be able to depend on my earnings to support my family. For the first couple of years of my editing career this was not a problem because my partner was working, but when he lost his job very suddenly in early 2009 I needed to start bringing in regular money, and in June of that year I started working as a TA at a local school.

Since then I’ve combined editing and writing with working 8.30am to 3.30pm during term-time, and mostly it has worked well. I’m able to be at school during the day, at home with the kids between 3.30pm and bedtime, and then I work into the evenings, and I suspect most of my editing clients don’t even know I also have a day-job. (They do now…) Of course, as long as I work with them professionally and efficiently there’s no reason why they should know, or why it should matter, and since I’ve been working at school I’ve continued to build a freelance client base and have also written a novel, a novella and numerous short stories and articles. Some of these have even been published.

This is not to say it hasn’t sometimes been difficult, but in fact the problems have usually occurred when I haven’t been at school – during holidays, when manuscripts arrive for editing and publication deadlines loom while the children wreck the place for lack of entertainment. However, with a bit of forward planning (and a few late nights) those times can be kept to a minimum, so that we can all take time out together. Which, after all, is the whole point of flexible freelance work in the first place.