Sunday, 21 October 2012

A sharp intake of breath


Sorry about that. I've been doing it a lot recently. But look on the bright side. I am now an expert on coughs and coughing.

No, really. Ask me about coughs. I'll happily wow you with my insane levels of expectorant-related knowledge. It's the sort of thing you pick up when you've been doing anything for five weeks, I suppose.


I mean, it's not as if I wanted to be a coughing guru. Back in mid-September, which is when I must have signed a contract to become a full-time cougher, I never thought I'd still be making a noise like a bull sea lion all this time later.

It's not just the technique side of things. I now have lots of cough theory floating around my head, too. After all, when it's 3.30am and you've taken yourself downstairs - on the not unreasonable basis that at least one person in the house should sleep - there's not much else to do than to read up on the subject. The Wikipedia entry on coughing is a good place to start. It'll be my specialist subject on Mastermind.


I know what causes a cough itself, the various mechanisms involved, even a rather natty colour-code you can employ on the end product.

I'm sorry, were you enjoying your soup just now? I guess Coughology isn't for everyone.

Even Katie has become a bit of an expert. She can tell when there's another one on the way, and tenses up appropriately. There's the sharp intake of breath, the cross-eyed look, then a bark like an overweight German Shepherd that rattles the window frames, lifts the curtains and dislodges small ornaments.

She's a lucky girl, and no mistake.


My poor work colleagues are beginning to suffer, I'm sure. In an open-plan working environment, there's nothing worse than The One With The Cough. It's the middle of the flu season anyway, so the office is already doing a passable impression of a Victorian home for consumptives. But my respiratory system provides the rumbling undertone. Why I haven't been quietly poisoned in a team meeting is anyone's guess.


Frustratingly, and despite the combined efforts of several doctors, we haven't yet pinpointed a cause that can be combated. I am a latter-day enigma as far as modern medicine is concerned. We know what it definitely isn't (before you start putting two and two together), but other than that we're all a little stumped.

And here's a tip - never use the Internet to self-diagnose. So far, I've travelled the sputum highway from viral bronchitis to beri-beri, with a detour to Collapsed Lungsville along the way. It's a good job I wasn't sleeping anyway.


Cough medicine, by the way, is worse than useless, which should be obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of human biology. How can something that you swallow sort your breathing apparatus out? Taking cough mixture is pretty much the same as pouring bleach down your drains and expecting it to clear your chimney.

As a direct result of my consumption of gloopy, syrupy Covonia over the last month, I reckon I can look forward to diabetes in my near future. I also know the difference between a non-productive and a productive cough:
  • Non-productive cough - dry, tickly, wheezy. Red face, bulging eyes. Ladies, form a queue.
  • Productive cough - completes that report you needed to do for work, while hanging out the washing and putting next week's shopping-list together.


I've tried steam. I've tried menthol vapours. I've tried swearing very loudly. Actually, Katie has helped with that last one. Maybe I'm just destined to be one of those blokes who has a cough? There always used to be one man in every room that fitted the description, back when everyone smoked. Perhaps that's going to be my lot in life?

Oh well. It's a living, I suppose.


Sunday, 7 October 2012

Onwards and upwards

I think I might have had a bit of an epiphany. Don't worry, It didn't hurt.

Last year, as those few followers who are still here might know, I wrote a novel in a month. Well, I say 'wrote a novel.' In truth, the word 'month' is probably the only accurate part of that sentence. What I actually did was to put some 62,000 words together that roughly followed a half-plot. I did manage to do it all in November, though.

Since then, people have asked me what I intend to do next. When can we read it, they ask? When's it coming out? What the hell do you think you're playing at, Sawyer?

Actually, I get asked that last one a lot. I used to be asked it long before the novel, if I'm being honest.

But despite all this interest, I didn't want to face the draft novel and look at what I'd written. I was uncertain about climbing back on that particular horse. First of all, I was pretty certain it would be ugly. After all, no-one can write a novel in a month that you would actually want to read. Trust me on this. And the second reason was one of scale. Although 62,000 is actually a relatively low word count for a modern novel, it's still a big chunk of writing to re-work. And you've done the fun, creative part already. Where do you start?

Well, my answer to that final question was simply not to start at all. I let the thing fester on my hard drive. (And on a USB stick, my other hard drive, my Dropbox folder - at least I back things up). I looked at it briefly in January this year, shuddered and put it away again.

There were always things to do. Unfortunately, none of those things looked like 'writing a second draft'. Instead, quite a few of those things bore a resemblance to 'pratting around on Twitter'. Trying to come up with witty and amusing 140-character messages - and getting instant feedback - was attractive. When I realised I couldn't do it, watching others succeed was almost as much fun.

But it wasn't writing. Not really. That was beginning to slow down. The short stories, articles, blog posts - they began to dry up. And with every passing week it became easier to carry on doing nothing. I decided not to bother continuing my writing class. And all the time, the 62,000-word elephant in the room loomed large. Which, by all accounts, elephants are wont to do. I couldn't really start anything new. After all, when people asked me what I was doing, I could say I was editing my novel, couldn't I? Even though I plainly wasn't.

A good friend of mine also wrote a novel last November. Since then she's re-written it, self-published the thing, sold some copies and got great feedback. She's now done a sequel and is about to start a separate trilogy. Every time I read an update from her I felt like a neglectful parent.

Then a few things happened. We lost my grandmother not long ago, and the funeral brought together brothers and cousins. These are people who are not easily misdirected, so when they asked me the same questions, they weren't convinced by the whole 'I'm still editing it' line. I think more than one person told me to stop sitting on my thumbs and just publish the bloody thing.

I should add that we weren't having this conversation during the service.

I sat down a few days later and wrote a new short story based on my grandparents - I posted it here last month and people said nice things about it.

I ended up renewing my writing classes for another year. Having the need to submit a new piece every week might help to get the writing muscles going once more.

Last week we went away to a remote Welsh village. There was no broadband - in fact, hardly even a phone signal. So I took a pen. A loose-leaf pad. And the printed draft of a novel I wrote at break-neck speed last November. Look - here's the proof:

Writers using illicit substances is such a cliche, isn't it? In my case, it was a cuppa and Sudafed nasal spray. I'm like a latter-day Hunter S. Thompson, aren't I?

So this is what I did. I read my novel and made notes as I went. I noted how long each 'scene' was, as if it was a screenplay. What worked well, what didn't. I saw what was overdone, what could be cut and what was missing. Which characters needed more work and where the plot holes were (and there were some doozies, let me tell you).

After that work, I actually had a plan and a to-do list. It might not seem wildly, romantically creative, but I'm no longer scared of my draft. I came home yesterday with my notes, several new character studies and a completely new beginning to the first chapter. I'm motivated to get cracking with this book.

The funny thing is, it's not even as if it's some great ground-breaking piece of literary greatness. It's just a silly story. It's not intended to change your life. So perhaps I can just stop stressing, yes? Anyway, hopefully you'll have something else to read soon.

Don't say I didn't warn you.


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