Showing posts with label tracy alexander. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tracy alexander. Show all posts

Friday, 24 November 2017

You need friends by Tracy Alexander

I started writing by accident. I was on my way home from the supermarket when I stopped to look in the window of the bookshop and saw an advertisement for a writing group. I'd been electively unemployed for a few weeks – after twenty years of working – and was already bored by being at home. I went to the class. And my writing life began. For a fuller version of this story see: Sliding Doors
For a blissful year I spent every Wednesday morning with writers of all shapes and smells, sharing our attempts at the homework and throwing ourselves into the exercise of the day. It was great. I still remember certain pieces that had us all silenced be it by their power, their insight, their rolling gait. Trevor's personification of an Old Master, the life support machine, Joan's description of standing on a London train station in a red dress, Dawn's cleverly clipped poetry. But it wasn't the outputs, it was the relationships that were buoying. We all know how vulnerable it feels to give voice to something that has only ever lived in a word file. Being the recipient of all of those first airings was something to treasure.
The next school year came and I reluctantly left the class to enrol on the University of Bristol's Creative Writing Diploma. A new group to bob along with. We spent two years crafting both our writing and our criticism of others. Naturally there were those I looked forward to hearing from, and others whose words didn't ever resonate. The feedback was similar, much was helpful but writing isn't meant to please everyone and you choose your critics. All good learning. The twenty or so who started the course fell to just eleven by the time we graduated. Eleven souls that I'd seen the inside of.

A lull after that. I became a published writer and sat alone in my study. Years passed.
Until an invitation in that same supermarket to join three other writers in a supportive group. Marvellous. It was the smallest group I'd brought my writing to and the most intensive because we were all writing novels. What a plus to have people to remind you that you've missed a trick, or gone off at too great a tangent, or lost the plot. We laughed. We occasionally forgot to be kind and assassinated each other's darlings. But we celebrated our union at the book launches, giving credit for our writing friends' strokes of genius when we'd written ourselves into the bottom of a dark, dank well. We met for many years and then, in the way of things, we started to meet less, circumstances changed and contributions became more sparse, and, slowly, the group dwindled away.
And here I am.
Life has got in the way of my writing these last couple of years and it's dawned on me that to get my mojo back I need writing friends. I need the discipline that comes with a regular meeting where you're expected to contribute. I need the kind words and the cruel. In fact, any words. I've spent too long inside my own head and it's crammed full. So, it might take a few weeks, but I'm going to find my new family. I'll study their faces and tune my ear to their cadence and, as the weeks go by, I'll start to know who they are, whether they intend me to or not. And they will see the truth of me. I can't wait . . .

Monday, 24 April 2017

Why do you blog? by Tracy Alexander

It’s publicity.

I started blogging in 2009 to create some presence as a newly published author. I fashioned a website with the usual pages – about me, school visits, books, contact, and ‘the blog’. And so the ramblings began. It would appear that I was quite conscientious for a few months, posting regularly, finding visuals to entertain. Thereafter, random would be the word. And random described the content too – occasionally writerly, sometimes personal, anecdotes from the family, pics of birthday cakes, book and school events, holidays . . . whatever came to mind. It dawned on me some way down the line that I should have had a theme. Oh well, too late.

Hardly anyone ever looked at my website. I used to check the data but it was dispiriting and then I forgot how to do it. I never knew who I was writing for. Or who my (few) visitors were. My books were for ages 7-11 and I suspected my blog readers were teachers from schools I’d visited, librarians and my friends. My interest dwindled. The blog seemed pointless.

When my two YA novels arrived in their oh-so-happening jackets my enthusiasm for an online personality was renewed. I made a new site because, from a scan of the 27 pages that occupied, I decided I didn’t appear edgy enough to write thrillers. I had also been reincarnated so was born. But my heart wasn’t in it. It’s a largely empty embarrassment.

And now I only blog on ABBA. Being part of an interesting and lively multi-author channel with a loyal audience is great and I can see the point. (And it's a commitment.) Good.

And yet . . . all those posts from 2009 . . .

I haven’t been a diary writer since my early twenties. Decades exist only in my memory or through photographic evidence. But the eight years since I began writing are documented and, for me, compelling reading. In that way that authors show themselves in their work without meaning to, regardless of the topic my life is charted through my posts. Passing comments, dotted about to give flavour, assume a new significance as I look back. My children start off small, dependent, comic and then move out of focus. We see that I have no idea my dad is going to die.  The early forays into the public eye are fraught. The joy of being published morphs into a journey of highs and lows. The gaps speak too. Of months where writing seemed an indulgence life couldn’t afford. I would have forgotten the clay mummy ‘clummy’ without my blog. I would have forgotten Charlie’s picture of Bee - the girl in the Tribe gang - given to me at the Appledore Book Festival. Brian Moses, walking with his iguana, would also be lost to me. I would not be, as I write, reliving my role as narrator at the Babar concert – unable to read the music being played, desperate not to miss my cue.

I may not have furthered my career, but I’ve captured a period of my life where my children became adults and I became a writer.
Maybe all that time I was writing to myself . . .

Tracy Alexander

Friday, 24 March 2017

My Writer's Body by Tracy Alexander

As I typed the title my attention swept over my body, like a CT scanner, giving it a quick once-over. It’s not good. We’ll start at the bottom.

I sit with my feet crossed over at the ankle, tucked underneath my chair. This is not a helpful position. Your feet, I understand, should be flat on the floor. Grounded. Supporting all that lies above. My only contact with the earth is the big toe of my left foot, pointed, ballerina-style. Ready to fight or fly. The dog is lying in front of said big toe. Everyone knows you can’t disturb a sleeping puppy. So the little voice telling me it would be beneficial to shift about occasionally is muted.

This does not help my knees. These joints are very comfortable locked in position. No pain. No sense that they are there at all, in fact. Until some basic human need demands that I stand up. I untie my feet and find a space between paws to press down and therefore lever up. But my knees have a very special glue, only for special people. The glue bonds tight in the time it takes to realise you’ve been sitting without moving for too long. I unstick myself, slowly.

Source: Washington Post
And now we come to the back, starting low down. I cannot seem to straighten up. The little dip above the curve of my bottom is not a dip. It’s an angry person in a car park who can’t find a space and when they do some rotter in a nicer car swerves in without a care. I speak to the little dip, calming it down. It decides to relax enough for me to notice its friend, the mid-back. I know the mid-back quite well. No point reasoning with it. I lie down on the carpet embellished with forage the puppy brought back from his walk. Breathe deeply as though I’ve had my head under a duvet. That’s better.

As I regain the vertical I allow a glance in the mirror above the fireplace. My right shoulder is jauntily two inches above my left. A fine look. Rakish. I pull my shoulder blade down my back. Unfortunately my shoulder appears to be attached to my neck, surely bad design . . . The guy ropes keeping my head in place tauten – it’s unattractive. I resume the rakish look.

Shall I try a shoulder roll?
That was a mistake. My chest does not want to be made to stretch, it wants to hunch. It is happy hunching. It is already wondering when we are going back to the study to assume the frozen zig-zag that is its favourite position.

I make tea, ignoring the twinge in my elbow when I lift the kettle. Must have been all the tennis I played in my youth . . .

Human need answered, I am in situ again. Slumping nicely. I notice that my chin is jutting forwards, shortening the back of my neck. I tip my chin down to allow swan-like length, but can’t see the screen. I consider lowering the screen, or raising my chair. But won’t my desk be wrong then . . . Definitely a job for another day.

As I begin to type, all sense of my body is forgotten.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Transition by Tracy Alexander

The National Childbirth Trust group I joined for my pre-natal education wasn’t made in heaven. The woman of Amazonian height carrying twins had no sense of humour (and hardly any bump because her babies didn’t need to curl up). The neat and tidy controlling one was disquieting. (She went on to start an inflexible routine as soon as her wee baby was born that meant we all had to listen to plaintive mewing until the clock struck the appropriate hour. Very stressful.) The couple that looked about seventeen, but were in fact thirty, were as unintelligible as The Clangers. The pair who looked like each other were dull, dull, dull. The horse vet and his perky wife we liked! The other two I’ve completely forgotten. (I am self aware enough to know the feelings were probably mutual.)
So, not a great hit rate. It didn’t matter. We were there to tick the box called Learning How To Have A First Baby. Job done. Except I came away less equipped for labour than when I’d started.
            There are lots of aspects to fixate on when you’re pregnant. Your vastness. Your poor sleep. Your joy. Your due date. Your birth plan. Your vagina. Your baby. Its gender. Your indigestion. And your labour, of course. How painful is painful? How long will it be? Will you cope? Episiotomy or tear?
But what obsessed me was transition. The hinterland between dilation and pushing. The NCT teacher made the phase sound like an ever-darker tunnel. Like being enveloped by an endless bleakness. It was the door-less cell. It was locked in the basement with the floodwater rising. It was obstetric dystopia.
Thanks to the vividness of her description, I read the chapter on transition in my birthing book again and again to make sure I would recognise when I was in it. In transition you can lose hope, feel like you can’t do it, give up. My imagination filled in the rest. The baby would get stuck . . . I would be paralysed by overwhelming helplessness . . . the baby wouldn’t be all right. 
The fear escalated.
I schooled my husband so that if I didn’t realise what was happening, he might. If I became despairing he knew to, parrot-like, tell me that it was a phase. The sign of the positive change from preparing to give birth, to actually doing it. But would he recognise, in the middle of the worst protracted pain ever, that I was lost?
When it came to writing my birth plan, it was simple: to not disappear into the abyss that was transition.

The transition described by the NCT guru didn't materialise. Whether it was the skill of the midwives or the drugs (yes, drugs) or being pre-warned, I didn’t experience a wave of petrifying doubt. I moved on to the next phase, which is essentially trying to poo in public, and was rewarded with a baby.

But . . . walking the dog against the ferocious winds this morning, the much-read chapter reappeared, unbeckoned. Twenty years on. Minds are funny.

I’ve recently finished the nth draft of a novel that has taken twice as long as usual. At the moment some of my friends are reading it because that’s how I work. I like a sense check, and all feedback is useful if only to confirm that I’m sticking to my guns. Knowing there is no point tinkering with the document at this time is lovely.
But lovely didn’t describe my demeanour a few weeks ago, still in the thick of the novel. As I typed the end of the first draft, instead of satisfaction that I could now improve the story, I felt incapable. The screen was a mess of indulgent waffle. The immensity of trying to smooth the journey, unkink the plot, deepen the drama, and give my heroine her freedom was beyond me. So I didn’t even try. I walked the dog, cycled to Portishead, made chocolate brownies à la Nigel Slater. (very good chocolate browniesThere was no point wasting any more time on it. I was not a writer. I should get a job like I used to have, with other people, where there are desks and canteens inside buildings, and PAYE.
Transition can be the most emotionally challenging part of labour, despite being the shortest, when women are at their most vulnerable and susceptible to suggestions of intervention. I was most definitely in the feared transition phase.

Thankfully phases are exactly that. It passed. One day I sat back in front of the computer, less demoralised, and began to chip and shave and bolster and slash. Solutions to awkward conversations piped up, clunky links got oiled, my heroine began to feel herself. Transition was over, it was time to push the manuscript out into the hands of my volunteer editors.

In a few days I’ll have all their feedback and it will be time for the final edit before it goes to my agent. I’m excited, not debilitated. It’s the end of the birthing process, the delivery.
And if I’m ever in transition again, I’ll know that it’s all part of the process. A process which is as individual as giving birth.

In case you’re interested, the NCT group met up regularly that first year, and maybe a couple of times after that. But we didn’t have NCT anniversaries. We didn’t bond over anything outside the common ages of our children. We don’t know any of them now. However, the friends I made at the NHS equivalent, Parentcraft, are still my pals. Just the luck of the draw.

Tracy Alexander

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The makings of a book launch by Tracy Alexander

I opted for a couple of weeks after the publication date for two reasons, because things have been known to not run smoothly at the printing stage, and because if I left it too long I'd lose the high that seeing the spines of your new book produces. I can never imagine people wanting to come at the end of the week when they could have a wild night out, so I picked a Tuesday.

Previous launches had been at Borders (such a shame it disappeared), and View Art Gallery in Bristol. This time I thought it would be more businesslike to go back to a bookstore so I chose Foyles in Cabot Circus. Robb, the events organiser, is also a drag queen so if you want a rather fabulous intro, he's the go-to man.

Invitations aren't my job. Luckily I live with clever people. Guest list was my job - I invited friends, teenagers aplenty, librarians, and every teacher I know. I didn't count the replies because I didn't want to set my expectations high and be disappointed. This is a head-in-the-sand approach. Robb asked me how many people were coming so he could order the stock. I answered with a well-considered lie.

Food and drink
I don't like messy food and books - it doesn't seem right. Majestic delivered red and white wine, fizzy pop and ice to the shop. I brought Maltesers and Flying Saucers (because there are drones in my book).

What to wear
Charity shops are the answer to everything. I invested £5 in a wee silver skirt.

There's something tricky, for me, about an audience of all ages, some that know you really well as a friend, and others that have met you briefly as an author. I was a bit nervous, despite being in the middle of a tour of secondary schools with audiences of up to 250 teenagers. Adopting the usual head-in-the-sand, I scribbled some notes at two in the afternoon, and arrived at Foyles at five with a postcard of drivel. 

How did it go?
Like a wedding, in a blur, but there were lots of people, lots of books sold and a satisfying level of laughter. By half-past seven the crowds had thinned and a group of us headed over to Giraffe for something with chips.

Was it worth it?
I know not everyone has a launch, but I think the arrival of a book, knowing the ups and downs of the process, is something worth celebrating, but that's not to say I'm not pleased when it's over.

Tracy Alexander

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Queen, Eeyore, Dylan and me, Muttley

A typical meeting of the writing group starts at two o’clock on a Monday or Tuesday at the Queen’s house. There are four of us.

The Queen – in overall charge.
Eeyore – in charge of doom.
Dylan – anything goes.
Muttley (me) – in charge of disruption.

As we approach the door, we all stop to admire the garden. Hollyhocks, black pansies, trailing clematis and shrub roses, all line the route to the porch. It’s hard not to feel envy. The Queen has fingers greener than the Hulk.

Once assembled, we share news. Of family. Of films seen. Of food eaten. Of builders. Of fellow Bristolians. At some point the Queen guides us onto matters of writing. We are reluctant, like a book group where no one has read the book. Dutifully we report any happenings. This element is short. We move on, taking it in turns to read aloud our latest work. There should be a method in deciding who goes first, but no, we argue about it. Every time.

Eventually, one of us sighs, brings out a few sheets of A4 and the process begins. One voice. Three scribblers, pens at the ready. We mean well, all four of us, truly we do. But it might not seem that way. The reader, sharing her tortured words with us, is rewarded by giggles, sly glances, outbursts . . . There is a rule that we don’t interrupt, but we break it gaily.  Whether it’s Eeyore’s made-up words, my endless internal monologues, Dylan’s love for continuous present or the Queen’s arty descriptions, we let rip. Small tears and then often huge great gashes. The problem is that we don’t agree. Hardly surprising if you consider our books. We have a plotter, a dreamer, a lover of tangents, a repeater, a spiritualist, a pragmatist, a weaver, a schemer, a joker . . . We like first person, third person, omniscient, accents, fantasy, reality, the past, the future . . . We all think the pace is too fast, too slow, non-existent . . . We’d all write the scene differently . . . although not necessarily any better.

The feedback is only about a quarter useful – we ignore the comments we don’t like. (They’re the same every time anyway – old dogs, new tricks.) However, the relationships, support and conviviality are invaluable. Tea and sweet things add to the pleasure.
When we’ve all had our moment in the spotlight, we try to arrange the next meeting. This takes some time. The Queen likes to holiday. Dylan has a roundabout to play on, Eeyore doesn’t know when she’s free, and I cannot plan ahead. But we manage, noting the date, and then emailing the Queen a week later to ask what we agreed.

I was invited to join the group after a random chat in an aisle at the supermarket. I barely knew the Queen, and had never met the others. The first few occasions were nerve wracking. Not only did I have to produce a few hundred words I could bear to read, I had to try to make clever comments. I failed at the latter, but they let me stay. Three and a half years later, I still look forward to going. In a world with no structure, the discipline of stumping up the next chapter – because turning up empty-handed is just not the deal – has been a huge part of getting my latest book in shape.

It’s a lonely business, but less so, thanks to the camaraderie in the kitchen of the house with the garden to die for. Long live the writing group.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Synopsis as Friend by Tracy Alexander

 As I contemplated cracking on with my novel this morning – I’m only on Chapter Three – I had a comforting thought. The exact words in my head were Synopsis as friend. My mind’s circuitry led me straight to a case study from my long gone life as a marketer. The subject was dog food.

For ten years I was a proper PAYE employee, selling the likes of frozen food, tennis shoes and booze. For the next ten years I was freelance, selling money in the form of mortgages and investments. At some point I was invited to give a guest lecture at the Chartered Institute of Marketing. Given that I was seven months pregnant, I probably should have declined. Instead I pulled on a pair of black trousers with an oh-so-attractive stretchy panel fetchingly topped by an elastic waistband (for that little known waist that is in fact directly beneath your breasts), buttoned the matching black maternity waistcoat (what joker thought of that) and drove to Cookham.

I wasn’t nervous, until I opened my mouth and realised that my lung capacity, whilst adequate for conversations where you only have every other turn and the person is close by, wasn’t up to the job. I cut short my introduction, offering the delegates a chance to say a little about themselves while I recovered my composure.

My subject was segmentation. Bread and butter stuff. I had all sorts of examples from the world known as FMCG (fast moving consumer goods), from retail and from financial services. All I had to do was teach the theory, show examples – the brilliant dog food slides were ready and waiting – and then relate it to the fields they were working in. I could do that with or without oxygen.

The first attendee mumbled her name and said that she worked on treated mosquito nets. My mind gave a sarcastic ‘yippee!’ Never mind. The others were bound to be working on cars, shampoo, biscuits . . . something I could relate to.

The conch was passed round the room. My confidence ebbed. My smile became as fixed and unresponsive as my twenty-something pupils.
It turned out that I had a global monopoly on marketers of mosquito related products.
Inside I did the equivalent of a refusal at Becher’s Brook.           

Whether it was the peppering of the content with irritating little breaths, the hideousness of my maternity waistcoat or my lack of engagement with the mosquito market, by the time I got to the segmentation of the dog food market, I’d lost them. A shame, because it was my favourite part.

Here’s the gist:
Categorising dog food in terms of form – dry, wet, raw – or flavour – lamb, rabbit, chicken – didn’t help marketers understand how to make their products attractive to dog owners. Nor did using the breed, age or size of dog. Research showed that the most meaningful way of sorting the market was by looking at how dog owners thought about their dogs.
Four segments were identified that most influenced the type of dog food chosen:
Dog as grandchild – indulgence
Dog as child – love
Dog as friend – health and nutrition
Dog as dog – cheap and convenient.

My audience woke up slightly. Proof that a pet can always be relied on to liven things up, be it in business or school visits. We had our first interaction of any length, a welcome reprieve for my pulmonary gas exchange. The treated net marketers had never considered the relationship between dog and master.
Had they not read The Call of the Wild? Seen Bill Sykes mistreat Bull’s Eye?  Or Hagrid berate cowardly Fang? Timmy was surely as much a friend as Anne, Dick, Julian and George. 

They eagerly volunteered product names and quickly slotted them into the four segments.

Cesar Mini Fillets in a foil tray – Dog as grandchild
Asda Smartprice Dog Meal. – Dog as dog
Pedigree Chum Chicken – the clues in the name . . .

In what was overall a pretty grey-with-clouds lecture, I enjoyed the little spell of sunshine. Motivation wasn’t something mosquito experts thought a lot about. They thought about geography and insects and shelter and disease and mosquito net fixing kits. They didn’t think about what might be on the mind of the traveller, setting off alone to try and find traces of the Hairy-nosed Otter in Borneo, or maybe the traveller’s nervous father, buying the very best treated mosquito net for his passionate but impractical son.

Marketers often end up segmenting by demographics e.g. age, gender, income, despite the power of psychographics like motivation, personality and attitude. Perhaps writers should lecture at the Chartered Institute of Marketing instead . . .

Quite why my inner voice chose the words Synopsis as friend, inextricably linked in my hippocampus to Dog as friend, who knows, but it made me reflect on my changed relationship with synopses.

My first few books grew in a free spirit sort of way, meandering towards a vague nirvana shrouded in uncertainty. The synopses written afterwards, if at all. 
This was: Synopsis as bureaucrat.

My new book, Hacked, out in November, was the product of a synopsis I HAD to write because the publisher, Piccadilly Press, was interested in an idea I’d mooted and wanted it fleshed out.
This was: Synopsis as unwanted dependant.
I developed the beginning, middle and end of the story, my lovely publisher made a few suggestions and then I forgot about the four-page plan until there was a problem, at which point I reluctantly referred to it.

The synopsis for the sequel, however, is printed out and has its own space on my desk. It feels reassuring. Trustworthy, but not prescriptive. 
857 words in, with 50 000 ish to go, I’m glad that I’m not alone.
This is: Synopsis as friend

I even enjoyed the discipline of writing it.

Tracy Alexander

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Dino-Boy Abroad

 So, my eldest child, aka Dino-Boy, trotted off to Canada back in December to work with wildlife, and in exchange reports came back via Skype on Sundays – his day off. Daily life seemed to be along the lines of: prepared the feeds, cleaned out the cages, mended a fence, went to town to fetch the donated food, ate stir-fry.

The content started to vary dramatically as, having learnt how to handle wild animals, Oscar was given responsibility for his first creature – a snow hare with a limp, AND allowed to go out on 'rescues' – what a word!
             The most dramatic was catching two skunks, stuck at the bottom of an eight-metre well. There’s a video of him dangling on a rope, more Mr Bean than Ethan Hunt, and being bitten and sprayed before he can grab the skunk. The scent was so strong that people turned and stared for a few weeks afterwards. 

Oscar and Meisce
When a beaver was spotted swimming in salt water in Vancouver, Oscar was given the job of detoxifying the very sick animal. They don’t name the newcomers – too distressing if they have to be euthanised. Happily, Oscar called him Meisce after he responded to the treatment. He’s now back in the wild. 
Check out the feet!

More animals arrived at the centre and more bites. I only found out that an angry raccoon had taken a lump out of my boy when someone else tagged him – hand wrapped in ice, on Facebook. I demanded a close-up – it didn’t look too bad.

This raccoon is back in the wild
This adorable cub will be released next year

Oscar was due home last weekend, but at the end of March he texted saying he thought he might stay – he’d been offered the chance to look after the 2013 bear cubs, about to wake up after the winter but needing care until their release in summer 2014. No brainer, as Kevin Bacon would say. No surprise either, that April saw me boarding a plane with my daughter, Honor, to go and visit him.
He was big.
The same size, but bigger.
We had an amazing holiday, spending days off with Oscar and the rest of the time doing tourist stuff, but the best part was seeing him at the wildlife rehabilitation centre. It wasn’t the fabulous animals, or even the lovely people he works with, as much as the sense that he was in his element, absolutely.
White Rock B.C.

Wandering one evening along the beach at White Rock with Oscar and Honor, a bald eagle flew over. Further along a blue heron lazily flapped a few times to move out of our path. Ten years earlier, there’d been a similar scene. That time we were in Tofino, on Vancouver Island, as part of a six-week escape prompted by my husband losing his job. Bald eagles were as common as pigeons, black bears were everywhere – one crossed the road as we were walking to the beach, whales were blowing, seals collapsed on rocks.

I wonder whether that once-in-a-lifetime trip, Oscar aged nine, tipped the scales, turning the little boy fascinated by dinosaurs into the one living the life in Canada, where wildlife is truly wild (and let’s face it, bigger).

And the raccoon bite, well . . . the photo he sent was of an entirely different finger with an old wound. This one swelled up like a pumpkin, leaked pus, was as shiny as Downton silver, and had to be sliced open by one of the supervisors.
'Didn’t want to worry you, Mum.'
Me, worry?
My son currently goes into the bear den, picks up the poop, feeds them and jangles about to keep them wary of humans. The bears are around a hundred pounds each. There are four of them. Who’s worrying?

Halo - turning blacker as she sheds her winter coat
Tracy Alexander