This is the fifth in a series of posts describing my recent trip to England, Ireland, the Netherlands and Wales, from writing course to school reunion and more.

This is where I get to tell you something amazing.

I met Nicola Morgan!

Yes, I did. Really! She had 45 minutes free before she had to catch her train back to Edinburgh and she spent them with me. And she is even nicer than her Internet persona. I was a little nervous at first, but she put me at ease and the minutes flew by. Wow! Thank you, Nicola!

After that, I had planned to go on to meet the travel writer, Jo Carroll. That didn’t work out because she had scaffolding problems. Although I’m really sorry we didn’t get to meet this time, it would have been hard to be ready in time. As it was, I had time for a proper night’s sleep the night before (needed even more after I was scratched by the cat), and I was able to return after meeting Nicola to organise my suitcase, leaving behind stuff that I could meet up with later, before making my way to Staines. S, whom I knew only through folk dancing, had very kindly invited me to stay with her and her husband. One of her daughters was there, too, and they all made me feel very welcome. The heatwave was still on, so we ate outside in the garden. The evening air was pleasantly cool and the food delicious.

The following day, I used the time I had alone to go for a surprisingly beautiful walk by the river. I say “surprisingly” because I lived near Staines for three years while at university and never realised it was worth visiting. Since I was alone, I was able to jot down notes describing the scenes, making me feel like a real writer. I even wrote the rhythm of a cuckoo’s song:

Cuckoo sound in Staines

On hearing a cuckoo in Staines
(with apologies to Frederick Delius)

At least, I assumed it was a cuckoo, but I’m no bird listener.

In the evening, S took me to her folk dancing group in Slough, which couldn’t have been more different from the one I’m used to. There were about seven people, instead of over a hundred. They were all very friendly, but obviously the atmosphere was very different – much more calm and sedate. And at the end I didn’t feel as if I’d had much exercise, whereas usually I struggle to go up the stairs. Still, I recognised most of the dances and had a lovely time.

To round off their wonderful hospitality, S’s hubby drove me to Heathrow’s Terminal 1 early the next morning (but not early for him) for the next stage of my trip.

I’ve read two recent blog posts about foreign settings in books – one by Rachelle Gardner, the other by Nicola Morgan.

In my son’s English class, when he was about nine, the pupils were made to read an American book written totally in a dialect I found hard to follow. My son didn’t understand it at all. When the same book was suggested for my younger son’s class, I complained and the book was changed.

There’s no point in reading a book you can’t understand, but as long as you can, does setting matter? Personally, I like to read about places I’ve never seen. I also like to read about places that are familiar.

What about other readers? Are they usually interested in books set in foreign places? Apparently, Americans are less willing to read books with foreign settings than readers in other countries.

I have another question about setting. I generally set my stories in England, where I used to live. I would like to write stories set in Israel, where I live now. But I think readers generally expect specific topics to appear in any book set in Israel: war, political conflict, etc. I think they believe Israel is one of those countries where it’s impossible to lead an ordinary life. Am I wrong?

Yesterday morning, I read Nicola Morgan’s blog post about  a tweetathon being organised by the Society of Authors as a protest against BBC Radio 4’s plan to cut the number of short stories it broadcasts. It seemed like a worthy idea and a fun activity, so at one o’clock my time I read the first line of the story and composed and tweeted my suggestion for the second line. At two o-clock I read the chosen second line and tried for the third line. Then the fourth. At four o’clock I tweeted my suggestion for the last line and took my laptop down to the kitchen to listen while I cleared up. Soon after five I thought I’d better check to make sure I hadn’t won  and discovered that I had. My last line was chosen to conclude the story.

Here’s the completed story. I’m thrilled.

Later on, I played Scrabble with my husband and my son, both good players, and I won easily.

Good things always come in threes, right? But there was no more time left yesterday. So, early this morning, I met my friend Marallyn and we sat outside in a quiet little cafe and discussed writing. We’ve often done this before, but not recently as Marallyn was away all summer. I’m looking forward to writing with her next week.

Are the only people who want to read a story in which one of the characters suffers from social anxiety those who have the disorder themselves?

 

Why did this come up now? Well, yesterday Nicola Morgan posted an excellent piece about why selling books, and not just publishing them, is important. In the comments, I agreed, mentioning that for me selling a lot of books would be a big step towards my goal of raising awareness of social anxiety. Nicola responded:

tbh, you will probably raise awareness more by your blogging and other work. After all, the book would be read mostly by people with the condition already.

One response to that, which I didn’t make clear in my comment, is this: I think that even if I sold a lot of books that had nothing to do with social anxiety, becoming known would help towards that goal.

But what if I did publish a story that involves social anxiety in some form? Would that be of interest only to people who have experienced it? Why?

There are novels about people with asperger’s, depression and other mental health issues. The people who read them haven’t necessarily experienced these things and don’t necessarily know someone who has. Why not social anxiety?

That voice in my head, the one who would like me to give up, says this: In real life, other people don’t want to know those with social anxiety. They see them as boring, stuck up, stupid, weird. So obviously they don’t want to read books about them.

But a story can show they’re not boring or stuck-up or stupid or weird. (Well, maybe they are weird.) A novel can look inside a character’s head at the thoughts locked inside. Couldn’t that be interesting to anyone? Does a reader need to know the sort of thoughts that might be there? Does a reader need to have encountered the sort of  incidents the character might experience in order to want to buy the book?

Do you need to have it to read it?

—000—

And that, in a way, brings me to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, which I just read. But I’ll leave that for another post.

Edit: Do read Nicola’s clarifying comment.

Yesterday was an unusual day on Twitter. Or maybe it wasn’t. I don’t usually look at the trending topics. Yesterday I did. I looked at a topic called #lessinterestingbooks, because it was started by the author Nicola Morgan.

This is what happened: Nicola started a topic, just for fun. The idea was to change the names of existing books to make them, well, less interesting. The idea spread like wildfire, and in a very short time, people all over the world were composing less interesting book titles, and Nicola’s hashtag was at number one. (If you want a fuller explanation of what happened, you can read about it on Nicola’s blog.)

Of the many titles I looked at, I saved one of them: The Da Vinci Assembly Language by @lukedones, whoever that is. I really liked that one, but possibly you have to be a former computer programmer to appreciate it.

Anyway, apart from the fun of reading the titles, I think there are some interesting lessons to learn from all this:

  • Twitter, used in the right way, is a very important tool.
  • There are a lot of bored people out there looking for a new game or any excuse to do something other than what they’re supposed to be doing.
  • I, of course, was much too busy to spend my time making up silly titles or reading them. Well, I only wrote two or three and read … hundreds.

And not just that. Some people used the hashtag incorrectly. Instead of making up names, they tweeted real names of books they found less interesting, or they wrote something like “all school history books” or “book name, which I was made to read at school” or “all books” or “I don’t read.” From which I deduce:

  • Some people just don’t get it. But then it’s possible that the use of the hashtag changed somewhere along the lines, a bit like the game, Chinese Whispers.
  • A lot of people don’t read (but we knew that anyway)
  • A lot of people are put off reading at school

I was put off reading at school. I was made to read books I wasn’t mature enough to understand, and so I found reading boring. I thought it wasn’t my thing. It took me years to get back into the habit of reading again and longer to believe I could write.

So I think the education system – every education system – needs to be changed. It needs to acknowledge that pupils are all unique. It should stop insisting that all children in a certain class/form/grade have to read the same books. I realise that would make the teacher’s job harder, but wouldn’t that be better than churning out people who never want to read again?

Note: I wrote this post yesterday. Today, after receiving that news over to the right, I’m feeling much better.

Recently, I wrote a post entitled Guilt. It was about guilt in Nicola Morgan’s YA novel, Wasted, and the way it spawns dangerous behaviour in one of the main characters. This current post is more personal, and it’s also influenced partly by Nicola Morgan. This time it’s her post about emotions and writing. She writes about events that can render a writer temporarily incapable of writing, especially fiction writing. She mentions emotions that stump creativity.

By chance, that post appeared exactly two weeks after my mother passed away, an event that caused emotions in me, although not the ones you might expect.

People, when they heard the news, started to talk to me or send me messages. They all said one thing: you must be feeling so sad. I said thank you and felt awful because I didn’t feel sad. And, because I didn’t feel what everyone expected me to feel, I thought there must be something wrong with me. It took me some time to work out the truth.

My mother was 98 and had suffered from dementia for at least five years. I felt sad five years ago when I realised I no longer had a mother I could consult with or converse with. I lost my mother five years ago, when nobody said how sorry they were. Working that out made me feel better but didn’t completely wipe out the guilt, because there were other reasons for it.

My mother and I were never close. I never shared my life with her, neither events nor feelings, especially as a child. There was a reason for that. She was over-protective of me. She worried so much about the little things that I felt I couldn’t tell her about the big things. In particular, I never told her that I was bullied at school. I wanted to protect her from further worry and also felt that telling her wouldn’t help me and could make things worse for me. I don’t know how much that was true. By not sharing, I drew a wedge between us that remained to the end.

When, late in her life, a suggestion was made of looking for a home for my mother near to where I live, I made enquiries and decided against it. I won’t go into my reasons for that here. They relate back to a way in which my mother made my childhood very difficult for me, although she didn’t intend that at all. The decision not to have her near me put more of a burden on someone else; perhaps that was wrong of me.

So, although I’ve found logical reasons why I don’t feel as sad now as people expect, I still have reasons to feel guilty where my mother is concerned.

Do feel free to comment on this post, whether you think I should be feeling guilty or not. I wrote it to let out my emotions and (hopefully) free my creative tubes.

Wasted by Nicola Morgan

My head is still reeling. I finished reading Nicola Morgan’s Wasted this morning. Usually, I don’t have a chance to stay in bed and read in the morning, but today, by chance (or luck), I had the opportunity and decided to take it. I didn’t toss a coin to decide; I just did what I wanted because I could.

Much has been said about chance, luck and predicting the future with reference to this brilliant story. I don’t think so much has been said about guilt, but this is also an important factor. Jack has found a method of coping with his feeling of guilt over an event that occurred when he was very young. His method of leaving decisions to chance, of tossing a coin, is unhealthy and only hides the guilt which shouldn’t be there at all. He couldn’t have known what his actions would cause.

We’ve probably all felt guilty at some time. I know I have. I’ve even felt guilty about decisions that have caused harm only to me. But now I realise that I couldn’t possibly have known what my decisions would cause.

Wasted is a YA book, which perhaps explains why I was able to read it so quickly. But I suspect I’ll be thinking about it for a long time, and that’s a sign of a good book.

Since getting interested in the business of getting published, I have discovered several published writers who genuinely want to help other writers to achieve this status. I’m going to mention four of them. There are others.

Tania Hershman has compiled a list of UK & Ireland Lit Mags that Publish Short Stories and often blogs about upcoming short story competitions.

Nicola Morgan has posted lots of helpful advice about writing and getting published.

Sally Zigmond is posting a ‘hands on’ short story tutorial.

Karen Gowen is holding a contest and has something to offer to everyone – published, non-published or reader.

On the occasion of her blog’s birthday, Nicola Morgan wrote a comment on my post. First, she sent me to heaven by praising the way I wrote about SA. Then she wrote:

“It’s interesting to think about how shy children … sometimes become gregarious /extrovert and sometimes don’t, and how shyness can sometimes become SA and sometimes not. I wonder what the triggers might be that would make the difference between the common shyness that comes from all sorts of natural fear reactions, and the one that then tips over into something hard to live with?”

My first reply to this is that the basic premise is wrong. Social anxiety doesn’t always grow from shyness and I’ve never been shy. But I wrote about that before, so I’ll get off my high horse now. The fact is that in most cases social anxiety does stem from shyness.

One reason for this is that both are fed by sensitivity. Anyone who isn’t sensitive isn’t likely to be afflicted by either of them. Also, children who are shy might get teased for being shy and this can exacerbate their shyness and cause them to refrain from participating in activities that could help them to open up.

My answer to Nicola is that it all depends on what happens to the child during childhood. While shyness is usually a trait that’s inherited, SA can come later or alternatively the shyness can vanish. If the child is born into a loving, warm and supportive family and goes on to be popular and make friends, any symptoms of shyness are likely to disappear. If the child is made to feel different or inferior and is shunned or worse by other children, self-confidence will leak out and SA could take its place.

Not all sufferers of SA were bullied, although many were. But most went through things that lowered their self-esteem. This in turn caused them to abstain, voluntarily or forcibly, from parties and other social activities so that they didn’t know how to behave at such activities. The resulting embarrassment lowered their self-esteem even more. It can be a never-ending spiral that doesn’t stop at the SA barrier.

If you’ve been reading my blog from the beginning, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you’ve just arrived here from Nicola Morgan’s wild birthday party, then I’m sorry to be the party pooper but I think it’s very important that you should know. I’ll tell you why in a moment.

SA stands for social anxiety, which is a fear of people and especially of what those people think of the sufferer. I’ve seen SA defined as extreme shyness. While this is probably true for most sufferers, it doesn’t apply to everyone.

The origin of SA is a mixture of nature and nurture. Two people can go through the same experiences and only one will get it. Two people can start off with the same characteristics and only one will get it.

SA has been recognised as a disorder since 1980. A lot of people suffer from it. Yet most people haven’t heard of it. Even some of those who have it don’t know that there’s a name for it. That’s a shame, because not knowing the name means missing out on treatment, and support from other sufferers.

Of course, the best cure is prevention, and that’s where you come in. Even today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, quiet children are ignored. Children who disrupt classes or are violent are sent for therapy while quiet ones are simply ignored. SA is allowed to fester instead of being nipped in the bud.

So, if you’re a teacher, a therapist, a parent, a family member, a friend – in other words if you’re anyone at all – please do something to help a child who is on the path to SA.

And if you know someone who suffers from SA – someone who is quiet, appears to be shy, behaves awkwardly – please try to include them and draw them out. If it’s done tactfully, they’ll usually appreciate it.

Now I’ll let you return to the party. Do come back here any time. I’m not always this serious.