#Secondthoughts : Raised Expectations

When something is hyped, is that the kiss of death for you?

Something happened recently which made me ponder a while on this subject. For one reason or another, more time than usual has been spent chez nous, resulting in much catching up on TV box sets, a fair bit of reading, a whole slew of YouTubes and the odd film. One of those films has caused many a friend to spout superlatives so, when Himself unveiled it, my mood took a little lift. Sadly, that didn’t last long. I’ll return later to the who and the why, but first I’d like to take a look at the subject of raised expectations as a whole.

Where books are concerned, I feel I’m generally pretty good at managing my expectations, because I’m well used to not liking the same books as most of the people I know. That said, I have to admit having recently written a couple of reviews where I’ve admitted being disappointed … following high expectations. Two which fell into this category – where I was the only guilty party in the expectation raising – were Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage & C J Samson’s Tombland. I’m a big fan of Murakami and just love his crazy style and I’ve found every one of Samson’s Shardlake books to date a real treat. Yet both, somehow, lacked. Could it be that – in both cases – I’d spent too much time in anticipation, something neither could really live up to?

Live events are another area where there can be hype and expectations. Not a fan of football, I’ve nevertheless had excellent experiences on the only occasions I’ve attended live games. Manchester United featured in both, so you could posit that the play wasn’t at all shabby, or was it that I found much to praise about the experience because I went expecting so little?

Therefore, I have to ask, is disappointment a foregone conclusion when expectations are raised? Not always it seems. I caught up with modern classics All Quiet on the Western Front and Things Fall Apart absolutely eons after everyone else.  Yet both totally & utterly blew me away.

On then to The Greatest Showman – where Hugh Jackman plays the great P T Barnum. A successful stage musical, now transferred to celluloid, this is the film which trigged my train of thought. Multiple friends professed their love for it, posted about attending the cinema multiple times to watch it, to have purchased the soundtrack for repeated listening … yet I found it entirely forgettable. And I consider myself a fan of musicals.

So, what was wrong with it? Leaving aside the fact the film did nothing to develop the stage show visually (by which I mean that the scenes still looked like theatre sets) the songs were unremarkable, as were the singers, and the choreography was simply frantic. Worse, the story was pure hokum. Whilst I don’t object to some bending of the truth, this played fast & loose with the true story, was utterly laden with trite tropes and filled with plot holes. I’m sure the aim was for it to be fluffy, feel-good, family entertainment – so perhaps as a 60-something wannabe writer, I’m not the target audience.

Still, I’m glad I’ve seen it. It reminded me that taste is very personal and to trust reviews only from those I know share mine. I’ve given considerable thought to whether I’d have enjoyed it without having my expectations raised … and the answer is still no. But it would probably be true to say that I wouldn’t have felt so deeply disappointed.

© Debra Carey, 2019


My mother’s home

There’s a muffled sound, rhythmic and regular, but I’m still in that land between sleep and awake. There’s also a light breeze drifting over my left cheek, my left shoulder, my left arm. My eyes open and close, just a crack, but enough to allow a faint glow of light to enter. The light is bright, but with a covering of haze. I close my eyes and turn over, turning my back to it. That light breeze drifts over my right cheek, shoulder and arm instead. But the light is fighting its way in and forcing my eyes to open more and close less.

I’m lying in a small iron bed right under an overhead fan. Ah, that’s the source of the muffled sound and the light breeze. But what of that light? When I turn again and open my eyes for a few seconds, I see that white wooden shutters are still covering the windows. Slowly, I roll onto my back and open my eyes once more. This time I see that small upper windows are uncovered. They are high, very high when you are only 10 years old and still lying in bed. But the sunlight is streaming in through them from two sides of the room. The light is coming into the room in what looks like beams – the sun is highlighting the dust in the air. I’m not at home, I’m in Shirlyn – in the house where my mother grew up, in the big upstairs bedroom.

Lying there is bed, covered with a sheet and a light blanket, all is peaceful. I watch the hazy light, the dancing dust which is whirled around by the air of the overhead fan as they mix. I become aware of the sound of my parents in the upstairs sitting room. They are probably having coffee waiting for my sister, or me, to wake, before we go downstairs to breakfast. My sister is still breathing regularly, as is my grandmother in her big bed behind me. My grandfather will have been up for some time and will probably already be at work. He will be back later to join us for breakfast, – he always is. I leave my parents to enjoy the early morning alone together. I know they are talking – I can hear the low hum of their voices through the huge tall wooden double doors – but I can’t hear what they’re saying.

So, I lie there and drift …

© Debra Carey, 2019

Numbers IV and V

They’d never been able to explain it – your parents that is – why you have the roman numeral IV on the back of your hand. It seems they’d tried everything too, taking you to doctors, psychologists, even a psychic, before eventually realising it was something they’d need to accept if you were going to. They’d done a good job of implementing that decision too, for it’d never bothered you. Sure you’d been a little curious, but that was it.

Until the day you’d spotted him that is. OK, not so much him, but the roman numeral V on the back of his hand. You’d tried to engage with him, but there’d been a queue and both he and the people waiting in line were seriously unhappy; some even started yelling abuse, so you’d taken your coffee over to the corner, and sat there watching him work.

Now the morning rush was over and you were still there. Why hadn’t you rushed back to talk to him? Well, because what on earth were you going to say? “Cute tattoo!” “Is it a tattoo?” “Were you born with it?” Or the question you discover to your surprise is the one you really want to ask “Do you know what it means?”

Problem is, you’re not sure what you’d like the answer to your question to be. If he says “yes” do you want to know? I mean, what if it’s something awful – I dunno, like that’s the order in which the city make sacrifices should one ever be demanded. OK, that’s a tad extreme, but you know what I mean. And if he says “no”, what then? Perhaps he’ll be all “so what?” about it, and you’ll have to slink away feeling like a real dork … and he’s pretty cute, truth be told. But if he’s curious, do you want to join him in some big old quest to find out? I mean, yes, he’s cute ‘n all, but what if it turns out to be dangerous? There’s just too darn many questions – and you don’t have the answers.

In all honesty, you were beginning to wish you had some sort of magic wand and you could chose to go back to your days of ignorant bliss.

© Debra Carey, 2019

#FF Prompt: Enough

A drabble – how could I resist with such a prompt! It being April’s A-Z Challenge time, this seemed like a good time for something short & sweet. Any style, any genre, just nothing NSFW.

Word count: 100
Deadline: by 2pm (GMT) on Friday 12th April 2019

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page

Post your story on your site and link to it here in the comments below, or drop us a line via the contact us page and we’ll post it for you.

#secondthoughts – co-authoring

Good grief.  How is it April again already?  It’s a year since we joined forces to write what is starting to turn into ‘The November Deadline”, a full length novel based on the story that we presented over the course of April, as part of the AtoZ challenge.  We’ve been running this website for a while, but this was our first co-writing project, our first, shared world-building exercise.  As a bit of a throwback, we thought it would be fun to write a little bit about our experience of co-authoring…

Debs writes:

I remember reading an article by Neil Gaiman about his experience of writing “Good Omens” with Terry Pratchett, in which he talked more about the “how” than the decisions around the “what”. And whilst the exchanging of floppy disks featured heavily in the article, I have to admit that our process in co-writing our A2Z Challenge tale wasn’t greatly different.

I felt there were four aspects which made this work …

  1. Despite having very differing tastes and voices, we selected a genre we both enjoy reading.
  2. The chosen time and place were known well enough to us both and we were interested in researching further.
  3. Four primary characters were clearly defined before we started writing (for which kudos to David).
  4. We had a ready-made structure and had chosen 26 word prompts around which to weave our story.

This list is formed totally with the benefit of hindsight by the way. For example, we didn’t start out with the realisation that it would be a good idea to chose a genre where our tastes converged – it just happened that way, seemingly in an organic fashion. Selecting the NATO phonetic alphabet as the theme also led to our decision on time-frame – it couldn’t be earlier than its inception and anything later than Cold War felt dated. Additionally, the fun we’d had playing with the idea of the cockney rhyming slang alphabet before discarding it surely influenced our decision to base the story in London’s East End.

As for the four primary characters, I’ll leave David to elaborate, but from my perspective, it meant I could dive straight in to the story telling, leaving the development of minor characters to come along as and when needed. Although many might consider the structure restrictive, for me it provided the bones on which to plan, to prompt what direction the story could take and what minor characters might be needed to flesh out the story. For example, Juliet started out as a simple device to meet the prompt for J, but ended up being a character who demanded more than the originally planned bit part.

But any thoughts you may be conjuring up of multiple lengthy discussions and detailed planning sessions have to go right out of the window. There was a fair bit of talking, although perhaps not as much as you might imagine. We had one or two face-to-face sessions before we started, but thereafter it was snatched moments during the working day to exchange thoughts and ideas (Twitter DMs in the main), with a few evening phone calls for more substantive discussions.

The big question was always would our different writing styles and pool of ideas blend into something coherent, or end up as a horrible mess? Aside from the four key points I listed, David really has to take the plaudits for getting the ball rolling and putting the first words down on paper. Whilst I was having hysterics over learning new software, he wrote the opening section of Alpha, together with the initial drafts of Bravo and Echo. So, with the scene set, all I had to do was pick up the baton and get writing. There’s also no doubt in my mind that having our primary characters so well defined allowed us to write in their voices, rendering our own less noticeable.

With the beginning written, and an ending in mind, the story development was addressed in chunks. Keeping the detailed planning down to sections allowed the story to develop, to hit minor targets, all while keeping the known ending in mind. This suggestion from David was a real winner as, despite being a planner in life, I’m a writing pantser. It successfully averted that overwhelmed feeling I’m inclined to get when looking at 26 unplanned prompts.

The other thing that Gaiman described in his article was the discussion process. How the exchange usually involved either a “I’ve had this great idea” or a “I really love the direction that new bit of writing you’ve done has taken”. There was genuine to and fro, with some ideas taking shape and flying, whilst others withered naturally under new or better ones. But it sounded like they had huge fun with it all, a feeling I definitely shared.

In short, if you’re going to co-write, you need to plan and to talk. But you must also respect your partner, so that ideas which don’t spark for you both are stepped over without fuss, while you trust that new and better ones will emerge from the process.

David writes:

I can’t remember the context now, but I remember a joke (perhaps that should be with bunny-ears) where there are two children praying.  One really goes to town, asking for blessings on parents and friends, world peace – the. whole. nine. yards.  The other one waits until the first has finished and says “Ditto!”.  It would be easy just to  say “what she said”.  Easy, but not entirely fair, given that Debs has been so kind to me, and also that it’s my fault that I dragged her into this co-writing malarky.  (Although Debs got me started on the AtoZ thing, so I think that we are probably even).

It’s probably a good thing that we didn’t have to manage this via the sharing of floppy disks, although we’d have probably managed.  Maybe.

Back to saying nice things about Debs.  I really couldn’t have done this without her.  Like most writing projects, we’d anticipated writing about 1000 words per letter of the alphabet, but by the end of the month we’d actually wracked up more than 40,000 – there is no way that I would have been able to get that written in the time available, nor would I have been able to edit them.  But a problem shared truly is a problem halved.  Debs also provided a huge amount of motivation, both directly and indirectly: directly by saying nice things about what I’d written, and indirectly by turning up with a blog-post or three and making me feel like I wasn’t pulling my weight.  I’m trying to avoid words like ‘goad’ and ‘annoy’, because there was never any malevolence to this, and I never took it badly, but it still kept me to the straight and narrow path of getting words out of my head and onto ‘paper’.   There were a couple of times when the added pressure of not wanting to let Debs down kept me at a writing session longer than I would have done if it had just been for myself.

Debs has picked up on the characters: initially Jack and Billy were sort of one character.  There were a few ideas floating around in my head, one of which was to do with Bert from Mary Poppins – what if he really did have magic powers?  What if he wasn’t quite human?  What if…?  Debs had mentioned something about a lob-lie-by-the-fire, and we had a conversation about that, and this led to Billy in due course, while Jack went down a different route.  As was shown in due course, Jack is very much the man of action, in some respects the heart and soul of the operation.  I thought that the Echo team should be a triumvirate at the top, and a planner and a tinkerer rounded things out.

The other thing that I thought worth mentioning was our approach to getting the posts written.  Our styles seemed to merge quite convincingly, and I’m not entirely sure how that happened except that we both batted ideas back and forth and we both edited the whole thing (multiple times).  More importantly, whilst we were a bit tight on some of our scheduling of posts, we had a plan.  We divided the alphabet into thirds and roughed out what needed to happen in each third.  Some things ended up being moved about a bit, especially with a couple of posts which really were overly long, but on the whole this worked very well.  We also divided up the month fairly evenly – intially on straightforward basis, but there was some horsetrading.  It became obvious that certain posts needed to do certain things, and some ideas meant allocating a post to one or the other.

But to close: what she said.


© 2019, David Jesson & Debra Carey

#SecondThoughts: Bridge of Spies

One weekend a while back, Himself put on the film “Bridge of Spies” telling me he was interested to see how they handled this piece of Cold War history. Now Himself being a military history buff and the Cold War being his specialist area, I’m entirely used to being less knowledgeable than he, so I watched the film as just another spy thriller. Tom Hanks puts in a good turn – doesn’t he always – and I thought no more about it.

To be honest, there’s long been a large vacuum around the Cold War for me as, having spent my childhood in the third world where we had actual conflicts to deal with, the Cold War mostly whooshed by. But a person can’t spend as much time as I do around Himself without that Cold War knowledge rubbing off and, bit-by-bit, it did just that.

There were two recent triggers …

For the last few years, Himself and I have visited a Nuclear Bunker in Cheshire where they hold a Cold War themed re-enactor event. I’ve had a brief wander around indoors but – for me – it’s mostly been about keeping warm and dry. This year the owners invited the re-enactors to set up stall indoors … and the bunker was brought to life. For the first time it was clear how it would’ve looked should the worst have happened. The owners asked those re-enactors who were young (and so looked realistic) to pose wearing their historically accurate uniforms at the sensors and monitors. That – combined with the large images lining the corridors depicting recreations of city streets before, during and after ‘the blast’ – had a somewhat chilling impact.

Attending that same event was a podcaster – Ian Sanders from Cold War Conversations. I’ll not pretend otherwise, I initially engaged with him to pick his brain on podcasting and the equipment which would be necessary and/or recommended, as it’s something I’m considering getting involved in. But then we got talking, exchanging cards (as you do), when he mentioned “Bridge of Spies”, Gary Powers and the downing of the U2 spy plane in the same breath. Naturally, I nodded knowledgeably, only admitting to Himself later that I’d not really remembered the Gary Powers bit at all. So, we listened to Ian’s interview of Gary Powers Jr – son of the downed pilot who now runs a Cold War museum in the US – and then watched the film again …

There is no way I’ll have the same feelings as someone who grew up in the UK during the Cold War, who lived through the fear, the warning leaflets, the everyday stocism, CND, the Aldermaston marches, the cuban military crisis – for all those cast a shadow that I never got to feel. But the second time I watched “Bridge of Spies”, I looked at it with a new set of eyes – as something that had happened to real people and not just characters in a spy novel, as a time my contemporaries had experienced first-hand while they were growing up.

It’s still a good film, but now it’s also a film I’ll remember … for I’ve had a chance to take a walk around in their shoes.

© Debra Carey, 2019

#FF Photo Prompt

The Shrine

They’d followed the path for what seemed like hours. Even though they’d been going only just over the hour, the mutterings and grumbling had grown to a level which had begun to infect even Jim’s famous positivity. He’d really wanted to get them out of the wood before nightfall, but had to acknowledge their current pace wouldn’t get them close to achieving this aim. Accepting he’d been a touch over-optimistic, Jim suggested they stop at the next clearing for a rest and a brew. Almost immediately, the mood of the group raised and the pace picked up, which was just as well as the next clearing was further away than Jim had expected. They’d been appearing at what he’d started to think was suspicious regularity, so this last leg had both covered more distance than he’d expected and settled his concerns.

The clearing was larger than any they’d passed previously and there were signs in the middle of previous fires. Jim quickly nominated the freshest to gather wood, reminding them not to stray out of calling-out distance, before he turned his attention to settling down the older and less fit of the group as comfortably as was possible. He got Jen to distribute a square of chocolate to each member of the group, with a little extra for those who needed the boost, while he sorted out the kettles and flints, and reassembled the little framework he would erect over a portion of the fire for boiling kettles. Jen returned earlier than expected and gave him the bad news that there was no way their little group could travel further that day. Time was needed to dress sore and blistered feet, and some proper nourishment would be needed to fuel any further walking.

Sighing, Jim nodded his assent, before diverting a few of the returning wood gatherers and setting them to gather ground covering in order to provide the group with more comfortable bedding upon which to place their sleeping bags. With the wood gathered so far, he laid a fire and got it started. Having filled the kettle from the stream on the other side of the path, he got them boiling for tea. Leaving Jen to manage the fire and tea with a few helpers, he assembled their foragers for a foray into the woods. Grabbing a few decent-sized branches, alight from the fire to guide their way, he split the group into pairs, each setting off in different directions to see what they could find. They found mushrooms, a wide variety of berries and something that looked – and smelled – like rosemary growing on the higher and drier bits of ground. His foragering partner had him dig up some tubers which she decided would be safe to eat, and they collected some bones and two carcasses of recently dead small birds off the ground.

On their return, the kettles were removed, all but the one which made tea for the returning foragers, and large pots were placed over the fire. Other members of the group refilled the kettles and soon the mouthwatering aroma of mushroom soup filled the clearing. Wary of attracting wild animals, Jim ensured that lit branches were placed at intervals around the clearing, before settling down to his own bowl of soup. Hunks of bread from various backpacks got handed round, and the group settled down for the night with relatively full bellies. Having checked the supply of wood was plentiful enough to keep the central fire and the circle of lit branches going through the night, Jim divided the group up into sentries for 2-hourly stints throughout the night. The elderly were excused this duty, although old Josh insisted on taking his turn. That made Jim smile. Josh had been a great leader in his time and Jim had hoped to rely on his wisdom and experience on this trek.

The night having passed without incident, Jim had agreed the kettles could be refilled and a brew enjoyed before they set off once more, but not before he’d made clear they wouldn’t be stopping again until they’d cleared the woods. The foragers distributed the berries gathered the night before to provide some energy for the day ahead, before carefully storing the remaining herbs, mushrooms and extra bones around the group’s backpacks.

It was a tired and footsore group who finally broke clear of the wood as the sun was setting. Ahead of them the plain seemed to stretch out for miles. Despite the golden light of the sunset, it seemed barren and overwhelming. Jim ensured that wood was gathered, a fire lit and a surrounding circle of lit branches set up once again. Tea was brewed, a soup made after the foragers had returned, and Jen with her team of helpers had re-dressed the wounds and tended to the old and unfit. Even after soup and bread, and more of their valuable chocolate was distributed, the group remained unusually quiet. The sight of the vast plain had struck fear into all but the bravest of hearts. The night’s sentries found they weren’t alone in their wakefulness, for most of the group found it hard to sleep that night.

In the morning, old Josh took Jim aside for a quiet word, after which Jim invited Jen and the most experienced of their foragers – Cecilia – to join them. While tea and berries were distributed among the group by the remaining foragers, they discussed the problem of what lay ahead from every possible angle. In the end, Jim had to agree – they’d hug the edge of the wood for it provided them with abundant wood for fires, a stream for fresh water, and a source of food to be foraged. It would take them in a different direction to the one Jim had set his heart upon but he realised, now, that this group didn’t have the strength and stamina to cross that terrifying plain.

By the time this decision was made, most of the day had passed, so a decision was taken to make it a rest day. Mid-afternoon, Jim told Josh he’d scout ahead as this was a different path to the planned one and, leaving the group in the care of Jen and Josh, he’d set off, promising to be back in time for the evening meal. He’d made good progress alone and had soon scouted two days ahead. Then realising it would be dark soon, he rushed into the woods to find a suitable branch – both to light his way back and to signal to the group that he was returning.

Stopping at the stream to drink his fill, he noticed the far bank was now rocky. Gathering up some brush, he’d applied a spark. The burning brush lit up the area allowing him to notice the shallowness of the stream. Rolling up his trousers, he’d crossed the steam to investigate. The rocks were higher and smoother than he’d expected but as he cast his branch around, a greenish glint caught Jim’s eye. Moving in closer, he found an alcove, inside of which sat the greatest surprise of all. In the middle of the woods, miles away from civilization, was an extraordinarily beautiful bottle. Triangular in shape, with multiple sloping facets, Jim guessed it was made of crystal. Some of the surfaces glinted green, others blue, while most were clear. There was a large round stopper and it sat on a delicate square base.

Jim was drawn to touch it and, finding it cool, he’d moved his hand all around it. Finding no booby traps, he’d picked it up. Surprisingly heavy, he realised it was filled with a clear liquid. Removing the lid, he’d poured a small amount into his tin cup. Smelling it, he was surprised by the scent – it was entirely natural, not chemical, so he risked wetting his lips. Although it’d stung the cut on his lip, he’d swallowed a small sip. Instantly it warmed first his throat, then his stomach. Knowing he couldn’t delay without causing tremendous concern in the group, he’d poured the remaining liquid into his flash and, replacing the bottle, he’made his way back to the group with a decided spring in his step.

Having apologised for his delayed arrival and supped his meal, Jim was keen to take Josh aside to share his tale. Having offered Josh his flask, he’d been surprised when the old man had burst out laughing. Calling over Cecilia and the other foragers, Josh‘d asked them to smell and taste the liquid in order to identify the ingredients. Citrus offered one, coriander another, liquorice a third, angelica and juniper berries Cecilia stated firmly with a grin.

Jim looked at them puzzled “What are you lot on about?”
“Gin” said Josh, “it’s gin m’boy. You never tasted it before then?”
“Bombay Sapphire, if I’m not mistaken” chuckled Cecilia, taking another sip “it was my mother’s favourite.”
“But what’s it doing out here?” demanded Jim, trying to drag them back down to earth. “Well, from your description of the bottle, I’d imagine some uneducated savage thought it was the elixir of the gods and created a shrine for it.”
“Be serious you lot, are we in trouble do you think?”
“If no-one saw you take it, they’ll probably never notice it’s gone. Let’s hope so eh?”

© Debra Carey, 2019