There’s Something about Cranes

I’ll admit that, when I first began watching construction work, it was just to accompany three little boys who had an insatiable curiosity about how roads were dug up and relaid, and how buildings were put together.

My sons have long since grown into men. I don’t even know if they bother watching diggers any more. But I’m busy gawping at cranes.

Construction has many downsides, one of them being that much-loved buildings may need to be demolished first.

Strachey building, Newnham College, Cambrirdge

When a crane installed itself outside my flat, I was a tad concerned, as was Mishmish.

Mishmish with crane

But then I had the chance to observe the beauty that is a tower crane at different times of day.

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While the crane operator got to know the colour of our pyjamas and what we liked for breakfast, we got to know the crane and the things it picked up.

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Eventually, it was time for the tower crane to be dismantled. The operators waved goodbye.

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Sad? Not really. There are other cranes. London is full of them, as are other booming cities. 

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Of course over-development is a worry. But now, when I see a crane on the horizon, I no longer think of it as just a blot on my photo.

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Eight Things that Newbie Fiction Writers Get Wrong

I’ve lost count of the number of the people who’ve told me they’re writing a novel. I’ve also met more than my share of successful novelists. Let’s just say that first group of people is a lot larger than the second.

While there are many ways in which a newbie can go wrong, it often boils down to one or more of these common mistakes. old-books1

1 Using stock characters

The tart with a heart of gold. The tall black dude who plays basketball. The gruff schoolmaster. The academic with thick glasses. While stereotypes can occasionally be useful as shorthand, they’re only two-dimensional characters, and that’s not enough to engage readers.

2 Writing real-life dialogue

Yes, you read that right. Realistic dialogue isn’t an echo of real conversation. In everyday life, people use a huge number of filler words and meaningless sounds. Like this.

“Oh, hi, Debbie. Lovely to see you. Yeah, come in, come in. Well, no, I wasn’t really doing anything. Just the ironing, again. It’s OK, no need to take your shoes off. I’m not fussed about the carpet, honest. Right. Now. Um, how about a cup of tea? Or, er, maybe coffee? No, I mean it. I’ve literally just put the kettle on.”

At this rate your reader will be in a coma long before Debbie gets to hear about Mary’s cross-dressing husband.

Realistic dialogue, on the other hand, is a pared-down version of a word-for-word conversation. So it’s more like this.

“Come in, Debbie. Kettle’s just boiled. Look, there’s something I want to talk to you about.”

FreeImages.com/Jay Neill

3 Scenes with overlong description

These usually creep in because the author thinks the writing is so brilliant that it can’t possibly be cut.  Sometimes it’s reams of beautiful description or essential back story. If so, find other ways to get the information across. It’s best to drip details elegantly into your story rather than dump them in bucket-loads onto the reader.

4 Stretching the reader’s credulity

Your college student heroine is a virgin, and has no laptop, or indeed any device connected to the internet? In present-day USA? You’d need your reader to be as gullible as your heroine. There are always exceptions, though, as you’ll know if you read Fifty Shades.

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5 Using clichés

Maybe your principal character laughs like a drain at her friend’s jokes, goes green with envy at her sister’s new dress, or sweats like a pig at the gym. If so, get rid of hackneyed phrases. Clichés should be avoided like the, er, plague.

6 Ignoring rules of grammar, spelling, or punctuation

Because an editor will fix it all, right? Nope. Your magnum opus may just get binned. Please don’t insult your reader by mixing tenses of verbs, or mistaking it’s for its.

7 Telling instead of showing

His pulse pounded and the words he had rehearsed stuck in his dry mouth gives readers a better feel for your character’s predicament than ‘He was scared stiff about the interview.’

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8 Shifting points of view

Some books are written from just one character’s perspective, whether it’s in the first person or the third. Others may have two or more. The convention, which I suggest you stick to because it helps the reader no end, is to have just one point of view per scene, or per chapter. Whatever you do, don’t switch a point of view during a scene.

But none of that is a reason to give up if you’ve got a story to tell. The most worthwhile things take effort. Ask a drummer if a drum roll is easy. It is, after the first ten years.

Here’s a selection of books I’ve found useful or inspiring.

Steven King: On WritingThere’s also a blog post from Jon Morrow about it here

Dorothea Brande: Becoming a Writer 

Jessica Bell’s Writing in a Nutshell books, including Writing Workshops to Improve Your CraftShow and Tell in a Nutshell, and Adverbs and Clichés in a Nutshell.

Roz Morris: Nail Your Novel: why writers abandon books and how you can draft, fix, and finish with confidence.

Good advice or not? Please let me know.

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How to Alienate Your Doctor in 10 Easy Steps

Articles in newspapers and magazines often give advice on how to get the best out of your doctor. The idea is to maximize the benefits of a consultation and to relieve pressure on the NHS at the same time.

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But where’s the fun in that?

With a little planning, you could properly annoy your doctor instead. Here’s my advice based on decades working in the NHS, together with one or two favourite tips from my fictional GP colleague Geoff, the doctor in Hampstead Fever.

Hewlett Packard Rapaport Sprague stethoscope

I like to think these are steps almost anyone can take.

1 Prepare for your appointment by not showering or washing for two weeks. Don’t wash your clothes or change your underwear either. With clean clothes, you’re just not playing the game.

2 Bring a list. It should include all the symptoms you’ve had in the last five years. Aim for about 20 or so different complaints.

3 if you don’t have enough symptoms of your own, bring the family. A babe in arms, a couple of hyperactive toddlers, and a deaf granny should do the trick.

4 Kick off the consultation with, “This won’t take a minute, doc.” Which is true. It will take an hour.

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5 To help your doctor’s diagnostic skills, offer a couple of well-chosen newspaper cuttings or internet printouts. You know the kind of story: Vaccines Kill Millions, or New Miracle Cancer Drug. On no account must you allow your GP to dissuade you. After all, Dr Google is so much better than a living breathing doctor with actual qualifications.

6 When the baby’s nappy needs changing, leave the soiled one behind in the doctor’s bin. This ploy is a good one for the summer months.

7 It’s only polite to take your chewing gum out before saying, “Aah.” Leave it in a tidy blob on the GP’s desk.

8 Exhibit your verrucas, ingrown toenails, chilblains, or bunions at every consultation (what do you mean, you don’t have any?). Before you put your sock back on, it’s de rigueur to get it the right way round by shaking it vigorously at your GP.

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9 Don’t ask for an antibiotic for your cold. Demand one. You know your rights. If necessary, remind your doctor that you pay his or her wages.

10 Save your best symptom till last, and mention it only when you’re about to leave. Thus, hand on the doorknob, you can say, “While I’m here, doc…”

FreeImages.com/Robert Eiserloh

With a bit of practice, you should be able to piss your doctor off without even trying.

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For the really perverse who actually want to get the best from their doctor, here’s my advice, along with some wisdom from fellow GP Mark Porter in The Times.

What Do You Want to Know about Twins?

Everyone’s interested in twins, especially now that Beyoncé and Amal Clooney are each expecting a double bundle of joy.

Twins fascinate me too. Here’s a clue.

twins at the soft drinks dispenser

Sensibly, parents-to-be who read my book Twins and Multiple Births, or who join TAMBA, want to find out what’s in store for them. But other people only seem to care about secret languages, ESP, and other freaky twins stuff. Like this.

“Fun fact 1”: twins reared apart may have habits in common, like nail-biting or drinking the same brand of beer.

“Fun fact 2”: some twins have sexual relationships with the same person.

But are the similarities in behaviour and thinking really that extraordinary? It could just be chance.

Take twins who independently come back from the shops with the same coat, for instance. If a coat is widely available in a store like Marks & Spencer, nobody, twin or not, would have to go far to find someone else wearing exactly the same thing. Add in the fact that identical twins are the same age, and usually similar in colouring and general appearance, and bingo! No wonder they find the same garment suits them.

twins in school uniform

Sometimes twins are so close that, even as adults, they finish each other’s sentences, must work in the same office, and are incapable of truly independent living.

I always encourage new parents to raise their twins as individuals. That’s best route to healthy development in so many areas, including speech, behaviour, and social skills.

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My wishes for parents of twins (and those like grandparents or others who help care for them) include these tips.  

1 Learn to relate to each as an individual from early on. That means being able to tell them apart easily, and using their names instead of lazy shorthand like ‘Twinny’ or ‘Pinky and Perky’.

2 Cherish each child for what she is. You won’t necessarily raise two Nobel prize-winners.

3 Avoid comparisons. One of them is not ‘the good one’ just because he sleeps through the night first.

4 Recognize that fair treatment doesn’t mean equal treatment. You’d be surprised how many people think twins must have identical birthday cards or presents, even though it ruins half the fun.

5 Make time to enjoy your children. Sure, there are twice the number of chores, and work beckons too. But, before you know it, they’ve grown up.

How do you make time when you have twins or more? I may cover this in a forthcoming blog post. If I can fit it in, that is.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Twins-Multiple-Births-Essential-Parenting-ebook/dp/B004WOE6VY

If you’re expecting twins or more, you really should join TAMBA. It’s the only UK charity dedicated to improving the lives of families with multiples.. Click here to find out more.

There’s Something About Old Books

A glance at my bookshelves today reminded me of some great reads. Just look at these little beauties.

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Is sex necessary? I think the answer can probably be found here.

Origin of Species

I have two medical titles that are period pieces. I’m no longer using a 1951 handbook of surgery. And luckily these days no doctor believes that ‘floating’ kidneys and other organs cause disease, though plenty did in 1930.

two old medical books

My childhood came back to me instantly with this well-loved copy of The Wind in the Willows.

The Wind in the Willows

..swiftly followed by my teen years.

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I’ve got rid of a lot of books, but kept some by the wittiest writers (including my mother).

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And I still like Jefferson Airplane.

The Jefferson Airplane

Why all these images in my blog post? Well, this week I find myself too busy writing books to blog as well. Besides, gazing at my bookshelves makes the perfect displacement activity.

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Just a little reminder: until Thursday, you can get the kindle edition of One Night at the Jacaranda completely free. Click here.

Remember the Days of the Old School Yard….

If you too love reminiscences about school, this post will fit the bill perfectly. Author Jo Lambert wrote it a year or two ago, but since when does nostalgia go out of style? I give it 10/10.

JO LAMBERT - A WRITER'S JOURNEY

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Our school days are supposed to be the best days of our lives – right?  Well I guess that very much depends on who you are.  Certainly I enjoyed college a whole lot more – freedom to dress how I wanted, lecturers who treated you like an adult and a far more relaxed teaching regime.  Having said that, there were many memorable moments during those school uniform years – and after.

Woodborough SchoolI grew up in a tiny Wiltshire village on the edge of Salisbury Plain which had no shop or post office, no pub and no school.  So from five to eleven years of age I attended school in the next village three miles away.  There was nothing remarkable about those first six years of schooling – fifty pupils, three class rooms and three teachers.  That same school today has a teaching staff of over 25, the building has been…

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Feedback Frenzy

My pocket chirrups as I descend the steps from my bank. The text message asks me to rate my recent customer experience. This happens to be one of a hundred or more perfectly routine transactions I’ve made at that bank.   

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Irritated, I delete the text.

At school, there was a girl who was forever checking what people thought of her. Sadly, the answer was ‘not much’, but this didn’t stop her beaming at everyone and trying to decipher their expressions.  When she couldn’t read the emotional temperature, she would ask what we thought. I wince to report that we thought our classmate stupid. Looking back, however, she was well ahead of her time.

These days, Waitrose sends me emails asking how my groceries were. Would I rate and review them?

waitrose-redcurrant-jellyI get similar requests after almost every commercial interaction of the day. If not during it. A text thanks me for travelling with Addison Lee, and invites me to rate the driver. I get this message before I’ve even reached the destination.

Ditto Moonpig, who want to know how everything went with the card I ordered. It’s not even scheduled to be delivered till next week. Stop asking me!

Now an email thanks me for collecting my parcel from the Spar in Chesterton Road, and asks me how I would ‘rate the service in store’.

The bottom line? It was fine. I got my parcel. Had the guy behind the counter not found it, or handed me a damaged parcel or something entirely different like a Mars Bar or a lottery ticket, you can be sure I’d have let someone know, loud and clear.  FreeImages.com/Tony CloughFeedback can certainly be useful. Book reviews, for instance, help guide the author as well as people looking for their next read – though it’s worth noting that the most useful reviews have actual words in them, not just a star rating.

Evaluations from the students I teach can also be valuable, if they help improve the outcome for the next lot.

For feedback to be most useful to others, it pays to ask the right questions. One pension provider invites me to rate my recent dealings with them. A more pertinent point might be whether I was happy with the return on my investment.

Nowadays, detailed feedback from patients is an integral part of a doctor’s appraisal process. It’s a two-page form that demands a certain level of literacy and attention. That makes it difficult for many patients, especially those who’ve just had bad news or been sent to hospital.

Feedback from colleagues is even harder to come by. In smaller practices, family doctors may resort to asking people they haven’t worked with for years, just to make up the numbers.

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Feedback shouldn’t be just about collecting all the data we can, because we can. To have any value, it needs to be more selective, and to ask the right questions at the right time.

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If you’ve read a book you enjoyed lately, please think of leaving a review on Amazon or your favourite reading site. It doesn’t have to be long, just your overall impression and anything you’d like the author and prospective readers to know.

Here’s more detailed guidance, should you feel like it: How to write critical book reviews – and why I think you should, by Debbie Young.

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