Reading Round-Up: November 2020

Another month, another round-up! Apologies if this comes out a bit garbled, a bit disjointed, or just straight-up mental this month. I’m exhausted. You will see why shortly. It’s been a weird month here in the UK, with Lockdown 2.0 going on. There’s been more open and fewer restrictions than during Lockdown 1.0, so you’d think November would have gone by far faster than March or April, aka the longest months ever in human existence. But looking back at my calendar and seeing everything that’s happened in November… it feels like it’s lasted about twelve years.

And I think I’ve quite excelled myself this month.

It’s not been my best month for reading, but nor has it been my worst. It’s been thoroughly respectable, actually.

I’m just rather proud of myself because of the other things I’ve achieved as well as doing a sizeable chunk of reading.

Firstly, and most importantly, I’ve been kind of temporarily promoted at work! I’m still doing the same job (violently blowing a whistle and waving at trains) but I’m doing it full-time now, until at least the end of July. This is the first time I’ve worked full-time since I went on maternity leave over four years ago, so it’s a bit of a shock to the system to say the least. I’ve just started my first run of early shifts in a long time (my normal roster only involves lates) and let’s just say, I’d forgotten there was a six o’clock in the morning.

I’m knackered, but I’m loving it. I love my job, it’s a genuine pleasure to go in every day. And now that my small boy is getting less small by the day, I’ve got a lot more time to actually progress in my career. Career. Christ on a bicycle, when did I go and get myself one of those?!

In a similar vein, I also passed my Rules again this month – that being the railway refresher to make sure I can still do my safety-critical job. Being a massive nerd, I properly revised for it complete with colour-coded notes (rest assured I have already been thoroughly mocked for this). So that ate up a bit of time too.

Aaaaaand I did NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, where you set yourself a personal challenge to write 50,000 words in thirty days. I started doing it in 2008 and I used to smash that total every year without fail – The Bean Jar is actually a NaNoWriMo novel, at least it started out as one (several incarnations later, it’s on Amazon). But then my son was born on November 1st 2016, which put pay to my winning that year (aah, I fondly recall past me optimistically packing a notebook and pen into my hospital bag, thinking I’d snatch some writing time), and every year since.

But apparently despite all the collective hell 2020 has thrown at us, it’s been marvellous for my productivity, because I actually finished a challenge this year!

I’m really proud of myself for this one and I got a bit emotional when I finished, a couple of days early. I made a vow at the start of this year that 2020 was going to be the year I started to claw a bit of myself back, rather than falling into a void of just being ‘Teddy’s mum’. This has been a massive leap towards that; the Jess of years ago would never have let a NaNoWriMo beat her.

I could ramble on about this all day, but this isn’t a writing post, this is a reading post.

So those are the things that were standing in my way this month (along with a certain small boy’s fourth birthday and, you know, a national lockdown), let’s see what I managed to get read in spite of that!

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Reading Round-Up: October 2020

Coming in a day early with my round-up this month, to tie in with the photo challenge I’ve been doing on Instagram throughout October. I’ve been doing #RFABOct20 – a very bookish challenge that has been rather fun and has made me want to reread a fair chunk of my bookshelves. Of course, I took a ‘#TBR’ picture at the start of the month, with a lovely little selection of books to both read and reread, and… er, I have read two out of the five. One reread, and one new book. Oh well!

Quotation on the cheesy board is from one of my favourite Rainbow Rowell books, just FYI.

However, if we pretend that little reading wish-list didn’t happen, I’ve actually done reasonably well this month, reading-wise. I’ve had a fair chunk of time to myself – I went up to Edinburgh and locked myself in a hotel room to get some writing done (successfully), which entailed a total of just over six hours on trains over the course of a weekend. Plus, with the nights drawing in, curling up on the sofa at the end of the day with a good book has been particularly appealing. Of course, I’m not getting anything close to my lockdown numbers, but considering the UK could well be thrown into Lockdown: The Sequel any day now, things could be different in the next couple of months!

Anyway, let’s talk some stats.

I have read nine new books this month, and reread three. Like I said, I’ve had better months for reading, but I’ve also had worse! And, of course, this brings my total for the year so far up to 115 new books completed, which frankly amazes me every time I update it. I’m starting to wonder whether I should aim big in 2021 and set 100 books as my goal for the year, or whether that would be shooting for the moon in a year that may or may not be quite as locked down as this one. Something to ponder over the last couple of months of 2020.

So what have I actually been reading?

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A Coffee and a Catch-Up

It’s occurred to me that I haven’t really talked much about me lately, at least not without being in the middle of a review or a more topical ramble. In fact, I probably haven’t really put my life in much context since we left Manchester, or even before. Plus, if I’m writing anything at all I should really be working on my Camp NaNoWriMo, so of course I’m going to find something else to write until inspiration rears its beautiful head.

So while Teddy is happily distracted by Thomas the Tank Engine, let’s sit down and have a coffee and a catch-up!

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Bisous, Tilly

It’s that time of year again – Camp NaNoWriMo! I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo challenges in various forms for nearly ten years now (pause for a slight age-related scream of horror) and my last couple of efforts haven’t exactly gone to plan. My writing in general has hit a bit of a stall – I’m brimming with story ideas, but finding very little connection to the characters I’m coming up with, making writing from their points of view very difficult. So, for Camp NaNoWriMo this month, I’m not setting myself a strict wordcount challenge: instead I’m going back to a story I’ve been writing on and off for even longer than I’ve been attempting NaNoWriMo, and I’m pledging to get it finished once and for all. That novel has gone through several titles, but is currently known as… ‘Bisous, Tilly’.

I’ve been writing this novel for so long now, I know its main character, the eponymous Tilly, better than I know myself.

I know, I know, that sounds totally trite and cliché as all hell. But it’s true. I barely know which way is up in my own life at the moment, but Tilly? I know her inside and out, every inch.

You’ll have heard me talk about this book under its various titles throughout the years. It’s spent most of its time as ‘Etouffé’, but I thought ‘Bisous, Tilly’ might be a bit more appropriate. It’s the journal of a sixteen-year-old French girl as she’s uprooted from her cosmopolitan life in central Paris, and moved into her new stepmother’s house in the depths of the English countryside. Tilly has to deal with the major culture shock of suddenly being surrounded by horses, dogs, and wholesome blonde step-siblings, while navigating a posh new sixth form and the uncovering of some unpleasant family secrets.

I started writing in a fit of temper while I was an aupair in France – the house was attached to a riding school in the middle of the countryside, and the adorable blonde children I was supposed to be taking care of were tiny hellions, determined to get in the workshed and find a saw or a drill to play with. To a lazy teenager fresh off her first year of uni, aching for adventure, the idyllic countryside was a stifling trap that smelled like manure.

Over the years, the story evolved from just a direct self-insert rant, albeit one that had swapped countries and situations, into an actual plot. I kept thinking to myself, ‘what if?’. More and more situations kept being added onto Tilly’s life, and more and more characters. I did bits and pieces on and off, then did a radical rewrite for the 2014 Camp NaNoWriMo that got it to nearly 100,000 words.

Since then, I’ve been adding and adding to it, and now (after some brutal edits and a concerted effort alongside another unfinished novel for the November NaNoWriMo 2014) it’s hovering around the 150,000 word mark and I can finally see the end. My target for this Camp?

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NaNoWriMo 2017: What Happened?

Oh, when I look back on that post I made in September, I can’t help but laugh.

I was so determined.

After missing NaNoWriMo 2016 (bit busy having a baby) and failing at Camp NaNoWriMo 2017 (bit busy being lazy), I wasn’t going to let myself fail again! No way. Never. I’d never failed a November NaNo and I wasn’t about to start.

To be fair, if I hadn’t had to move across the country in the middle of November, with all the resulting stress and sheer lack of time, I might have actually made it.

I managed a healthy 22,092 words. I didn’t start until the 4th November, and I rattled to a halt on the 13th November. I’d say that’s a pretty good total for such a short amount of time.

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Customary shot of the stats-graph.

I’ve used the word ‘fail’ a few times there, haven’t I?

But do you know what – I don’t feel like I’ve failed.

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Where Have I Been?

I know, I know, I’ve done it again.

Promised to be a good blogger and get my good old rambling in at least twice a month.

And as always, I’ve lasted a few posts then tootled off into the ether. Right at NaNoWriMo season too!

Well, I’ve got good reason. I’ve been using this blog to talk about good things, happy things. And to be honest, I’ve just not had the words to sit down and admit what’s been going on for the past couple of months. Properly sitting down and dissecting it has just seemed… exhausting. Time, to be honest, that if I was to find it at all, I wanted to spend writing other things, retreating into a proper fantasy world.

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NaNoWriMo Musings – WHAT ON EARTH AM I GOING TO WRITE?

Have a totally unedited ramble. I’m sitting in Starbucks waiting to go and see Marian Keyes talk about her new book, and get said new book signed. I am buzzing on far too many coffees, and the novelty of being out without a tiny Ted bouncing up and down in his pram trying to shout at passersby. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on in my head on a day-to-day basis, this is it.

RIGHT.

I am doing NaNoWriMo this November.

Correction. I am DOING NaNoWriMo.

I have failed a Camp and missed an actual NaNo because, you know, baby. I think of myself going into hospital on that final night, knowing that I realistically wouldn’t be leaving without a baby in my arms, packing a chunky notebook and some pens into my bag among the tiny hats and mittens. “I might be bored!” I thought, optimistically. “Surely I can at least get a few thousand words down while I’m waiting for my induction!”

(See Teddy’s birth story for the reasons why I found my notebook and pens three days later and laughed very darkly and bloodlessly to myself).

I tried to do Camp in April, but it was a bit of a disaster. I was far too unmotivated at the time – I started a whole new project as well as trying to finish some old ones, to deal with my current attention-span-of-a-gnat, but it didn’t help. I still didn’t get anywhere near 50,000 words.

But! November. November is coming closer, and I’ve got a good feeling about it.

Baby and childbirth and the like aside, November has always been a crazy month for me. It’s usually full of gigs, trips abroad, and work stuff. And yet I’ve never once failed a November NaNoWriMo, once I’ve started it. I’ve done 20k-days. I’ve done 10,000 words in three hours on November 30th. I’ve never failed. And I’m not about to start now.

And yes, it’s another crazy month. At least, the first bit of it will be. It’s Ted’s birthday on November 1st, and we’re going to be in Disneyland Paris for it. That’s the first few days of writing time essentially scuppered. Even though I haven’t got any gigs lined up for this year, there’s still going to be the usual Teddy routine of baby groups and play dates and walking round and round Chorlton in circles to get him to have a nap in the pram. He’s still going to be at the age where he needs constant supervision and entertainment: I’m not going to be able to sit in a soft play and let him run wild, or sit him down with some crayons while I type away on the laptop. Maybe next year. Realistically, that stage probably won’t come until the year after next. Or never: already I can’t quite see Ted being the kind of kid who will sit quietly with a colouring book!

It’s not going to stop me though. I’ve already booked in for my own private writing retreat: in other words, me and Ted are heading up to my mum’s house for a few days while Kev works. I’ll be throwing a delighted Ted in my delighted mum’s general direction while I scoot off to Durham to park myself in my old Caffe Nero haunt (without which I’d have never learned a single bit of German vocabulary, best working environment I’ve ever been in) and write like the wind. This will serve the dual purpose of getting me some writing time, and giving Mum and Ted some alone time. He already loves her, but I want them to get more time on their own together so they can build up to having Teddy and Grandma’s Excellent Adventures when he’s a bit bigger.

Then when we’re home there’s also the fact I’m back at work two days a week. You’d think that would be an impediment to writing time but it’s actually helpful: I can go into town a couple of hours before my shift, hole up in Starbucks, and crack out a couple of thousand words.

It’s all perfectly doable.

If. IF.

If I can think of something to write.

Oh my goodness, I’m so uninspired. I’ve got two giant projects that desperately need finishing – The Hummingbird and the Timepiece, my last successful NaNoWriMo project, is crying out to be finished, the main characters left in a limbo-esque loop of unrequited love. I’m 50,000 words into it and I still haven’t introduced one of the focal characters. Much writing and editing is waiting for me there.

My diary-type novel from the point of view of an uprooted French teenager is coming to its end after no less than nine years of being in some form of progress, but the main character has currently shut me out of her head and I can’t get back in. The new book I started for Camp, about a twenty-two-year-old unwilling to grow up and forget her obsession with Disney, is languishing somewhere on my hard-drive, the main character tossing her hair and pretending not to know me.

Throughout all my works-in-progress, there have been guest appearances from a metal band of my own creation: Karin Cluster. In some books they’re just mentioned in passing – say, a secondary character has a one night stand with the keyboard player and the main character has to watch them run past in their underwear in the morning, or even just that there’s poster of them on a character’s wall. In others, they provide a big plot point – a MAIN character sleeps with one of them and causes all kinds of repercussions. There’s a tiny voice in my head saying they deserve their own story.

Maybe this is the year for that.

Karin Cluster actually came about when I was trying to write something for my best friend: we’d just started our heavy metal jaunts around Europe, and I wanted to make up a funny little story about what could happen to us if certain coincidences happened to happen. All names changed, an entirely new band created, of course, that band being Karin Cluster.

Then, funnily enough, the events of the story I wrote… actually happened. Not everything, not every single detail. But enough that I was freaked out and shut down the project, a bit scared of what I could conjure up. It was just too creepy: my main characters (expys of me and my best friend, of course) were invited onto a tourbus by a roadie. The roadie even had the same name as the roadie who actually invited us onto a tourbus a few months later. That wasn’t the only similarity, but it was the weirdest.

Throughout my other projects, I’ve hinted enough about Karin Cluster that the bare bones of their backstory has formed in my brain, and I’m pretty sure I could get an actual novel out of it. One that’s not quite so autobiographical, at any rate. But can I put enough passion into it that I can get a full fifty thousand words out of it?

I think this calls for some planning.

And do you know what planning calls for?

NEW NOTEBOOKS!!

…I sense a trip to Paperchase in my future.

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A Week In The Life: Part 2

Ooh, look at me actually sticking to a blogging-resolution for a second week running!

First of all – massive congratulations to the new Mr and Mrs Buchberger! My dear friend Monica got married this week in a gorgeous fairytale German castle – I wish I could have been there but finances couldn’t stretch to it, sadly. It looks like they had an amazing day and I wish them the greatest of happily ever afters.

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Me and Monica in the German sunshine a year ago

Right, onto my life. Well… not a lot has gone on this week, to be honest.

Teddy and I are turning into a right pair of creatures of habit. Same pattern of baby groups, coffees (for me, not Ted, though he has a good go at getting the cup out of my hand), and tearing round the house on a mission to get every single cupboard bare by the end of the week (Ted, not me).

This past week marked the end of Camp NaNoWriMo for 2017. And, um, I failed.

I know. I failed a NaNoWriMo. First time for everything, I suppose. I’m not counting November 2016 – I never started. Bit busy having a baby on November 1st, you see. I was determined to make up for it by doing Camp, which I very rarely do. I thought “Oh, this’ll be fine. Ted naps. He sleeps through the night. Plenty of time to do some writing.”

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Look at that shameful stats graph.

I could make plenty of excuses. I’m not inspired while Ted’s asleep. I went back to work and that took a lot out of me. I have to use the time while Ted’s sleeping to clean the house and do other things.

All valid-ish, I suppose.

But in reality, I was just too lazy. When Ted’s asleep – like when I do most of my blogging, I wrote most of this post in my local Starbucks – I want to chill out. I started writing a new book; I was too lazy to put the effort into properly establishing the characters. I went back to an old one; I was too lazy to get back into my main character’s head and sort out her problems. I tried another old one; I was too lazy to deal with the two main characters and their romantic entanglements and unrequited love situation.

I only managed 15,494 words in the end. I’ve never dipped below the 50,000 word mark before, even in 2011 when I wrote over 10,000 words in about four hours on the last night.

Maybe by the time proper NaNoWriMo comes around in November I’ll be a bit more disciplined. Though I’m not going to count on it; we’re in Disneyland Paris for the first three days, for Ted’s birthday. Not exactly a NaNoWriMo-friendly environment!

Anyway, in other news, Ted turned nine months old – I’ve done a whole blog post about his various triumphs and increasing big-boy-ness. He really is speeding towards toddlerhood; he even did some standing unsupported the other day. Admittedly, he didn’t know he was doing it – he was very distracted by some singing at the Waterstones baby group. But I was very proud anyway.

He’s been doing a bit more ‘walking’, too. He’s been walking while holding things for ages, pretty much since he started crawling at about six months old. He used to like holding out his hands so I’d grab them, and he’d toddle along towards me. But since he decided he’s a fully independent grown-up baby, he’s refused to do that. If it wasn’t his precious VTech walker, he wouldn’t walk across the floor, only holding onto the sofa or shelves (or the wall, or the door, or a table…) but this week we hit some kind of breakthrough. He’ll walk holding my hands, or Kev’s hands… as long as he’s going away from us. Which leads to a very inelegant shuffle from me as he powers along on his little legs.

candle

Here’s a picture of my wonderfully daft child playing with a spoon and a candle. Because apparently they make the most beautiful music together. I would like to point out I did not give him either of those objects. Niffler.

Other than that… I shall freely admit that the high point of my week was Game of Thrones. Yes, every week I get up at two o’clock in the morning and watch it ‘live’, as it were – streamed at the same time as in the US at any rate. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start spoiling things all over the place, considering it’s literally just started its normal-time stream here in the UK but… wow. Just wow. It’s not really a Game of Thrones spoiler to say that there’s a battle scene, but it was a bloody immense battle scene. And one of my favourite characters (hint: not Robson) had a major part in it.

Oh, it was glorious.

Usually the big awe-inspiring moments of Game of Thrones tend to come in the penultimate episode of each season, with the last episode reserved for mopping up. I can’t wait to see what those episodes hold this season, if that was only episode four.

Anyway, that was my not-so-exciting week. Hopefully this coming week will be a bit more lively – we’ve got a few things planned, including – drumroll, please – Ted’s nine month check-up with the health visitor! Told you it was going to be thrilling. I bet you’re all on the edge of your seats.

NaNoWriMo 2015: THE END

FINALLY.

50, 508 words.

Well, I couldn’t bear to get to November 30th without 50,000 words under my belt. It would feel wrong.

It did hit me sometime mid-afternoon yesterday that I still had 10,000 words left to write… and I was lying in a bath feeling like a freshly reanimated corpse, only one more day left with that wordcount bar merrily open.

Then I rallied. At about 2 o’clock this morning, to be perfectly honest.

I’ll come out and say it right away: I’ve done NaNoWriMo every year since 2008 and this was the hardest one yet.

Things that have joined forces to sabotage my NaNoWriMo 2015

1) Moving house – my husband and I now live in a beautiful flat, so beautiful I actually want to spend time cleaning it and keeping it nice. It’s oh so easy to use it to procrastinate. Tricky chapter to write? Nope, can’t, I need to polish the stainless steel bin.

2) The Third Person – Fuck the third person. Fuck it into exceedingly sore oblivion. Admittedly, I’ve done a lot better with it than I thought I would. Even with the other procrastination, this has been a constant rock around my ankle. Every time I’ve been stuck before, in my first person stories, I’ve just been able to peer into my characters’ head and see my way around thing with their eyes. Having to keep to just one character’s prospective at the time has been somewhat exhausting.

3) Apocalyptica and friends – my two lovely friends came to visit this weekend and we went so see Apocalyptica play live at the Manchester Academy. It was such a good night out (we went right from headbanging to semi-clothed cello players to bopping along to Cher within twenty minutes) but I certainly didn’t want to spend any of it wrestling with my stubborn protagonists.

4) The common cold – I haven’t had a damn cold all year. Yesterday morning, I woke up after the great night out and thought “This is a weird excuse for a hangover”. It wasn’t a hangover. It was a fucking cold. It meant I didn’t write a word yesterday – I was far too sick and drippy to want to go anywhere near the laptop. Though it didn’t remain such a procrastination point…

5) 30 Rock – I’ve only just got into it and I love it. I need to be physically prised away from Netflix.

Anyway, last night – well, the early hours of this morning – thanks to the cold of doom, I couldn’t sleep. I tried to snooze in bed, but my nose wouldn’t stop running and I thought I’d drive my husband mental with all the honking into toilet roll. There was some truly attractive snorting going on. I couldn’t prop myself high enough off the bed to clear my chest, so I just gave up and pottered out to the living room.

(Just a point: in my old house that would have been impossible without finding a nice squishy slug trail to stand on in your bare feet, or maybe even an even nicer bit of mouse poo.)

I sat on the sofa, propped up with every cushion and pillow in the house, grumbled to myself a fair bit, snorted and honked to my heart’s content, and wrote and wrote.

I got over 3000 words done before I drooped and fell asleep, for a little while at least (I was up at five for work).

In true NaNoWriMo tradition, I’ve spent all day with the novel firmly in my head, determinedly spewing out as many words as possible whenever I could. I wrote a relatively impressive 9848 words today – not anywhere near my record, but not half bad. Though it wasn’t a single marathon; it’s come out in bits and pieces since 2 o’clock in the morning. And now with less than five hours to go, it’s done!

…the 50,000 words are done, anyway.

This book is going to be a monster. I’m 50,000 words in and I’m not anywhere near halfway through. Remember how I’m writing a time travel story? How my time travellers were going to spend the most significant part of their story enmeshed in the complex, dirty underworld of Victorian London?

They are nowhere near bloody Victorian London. My two protagonists are, for some reason that I’m not one hundred percent sure of, getting drunk in Manchester’s gay village.

So what’s next for my writing?

I hate to say it… but I’m not going to be carrying this story on for a little while. I have NaNoWriMo fatigue, and if I have to write about bloody Watchmakers for another five bloody minutes, I will find a pocket watch from somewhere purely so I can stamp on it.

Oh, I still love the story and I love my characters.

But my other books are yelling for my attention. I have editing to do. First person editing. I have two books that are finally, finally almost ready to get out into the world, and another one that isn’t anywhere near finished but makes me really happy when I’m writing it.

I’ll be quite happy to say goodbye to The Hummingbird and the Timepiece for a little while. I’ll go back to it one day… but for now, it’s not the project for me.

Now how about a final look at my stats graph… traditionally batshit as always.

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*taking my final bow from NaNoWriMo 2015*

NaNoWriMo 2015: the halfway point

…or, you know. Not quite.

My NaNoWriMo stats graphs are always a bit erratic – almost every year, I have a massive word-cushion-making couple of days right at the start, then do sod all for a few days before another giant jump upwards.

I mean, last year I practically embroidered my word-cushion, it was so substantial. The same thing the year before.

*blows loud raspberry at the word cushion*

For the first time since 2011, I am running behind with my NaNoWriMo.

Good lord, it's not been going well

Just look at that for a crock of shite!

Nah, honestly, it’s not that bad. I’m miles behind everyone else, but I just did 4000 words right off the bat in two hours before my shift today, so I’m not that crazily worried. I’ve got a day off tomorrow with nothing planned but writing and dyeing my hair, so I think I can catch up.

No; I know I can catch up.

I’ve not got any problems with the actual writing part any more, it’s just been finding the time to write, with all this house-moving and working business.

Yes, I’ve beaten this third person business down, now. I am on it with the third person. The third person is my bitch, etc etc etc.

And I don’t half love my characters.

I was worried at first that I was turning Lucian Ruby (my main dude) into a creepy creep rather than a charmingly naive anachronism. But he’s got there, he’s worked himself out (and I’ve worked him out) and I think I can now get his parts written without making him sound like he spends his spare time hiding in bushes with a pair of binoculars. He’s not going to kidnap anybody and keep them in his cellar.

Ooh, maybe I should give him a cellar. That would be useful for other plot points about his past, actually… *blog post vanishes so I can scribble maniacally in my big folder of notes*

Anyway. Yes, I’ve got over all my third person blocks now. I’m getting into my characters’ heads just as well as if I was writing in my usual first person format. Their thoughts are still getting across. And for the first time in a long time, it feels like I’m telling an actual structured story, rather than just haphazardly following a fictional someone around and letting them ramble about their eventful life.

I’m twenty thousand words in now, and time travel wise, my characters haven’t gone that far yet. One of them went back to a Merseyside suburb in 1999 to prove a point, and now the pair of them have just landed in Hyde Park on the morning of Princess Diana’s funeral. Not the most inspiring of times to visit so far, but they’re getting there. In the next couple of chapters, the real adventures are going to be starting.

Tomorrow is going to be a very fun day of writing for me, let’s just say that.