Coffee Helps: The Novel?

Throughout the month of November, I shall be setting out to do one of the things that would have been near the top of my Things To Do Before I’m 30 list, if I had such a list, which I don’t. From November 1st-30th, I’m going to be writing a novel. In its entirety. In one month. If blog posts become few and far between, you’ll know why.

As crazy as this undertaking may sound, I’m not alone in my madness. November is National Novel Writing Month, where everyone who has ever dreamt of writing a novel and said “One day…” is encouraged to finally sit down, set a deadline, and just write. Write and write and write towards a goal of 50,000 words. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a plot worked out, it doesn’t matter if you haven’t got a clue what the ending is, it doesn’t matter if everything you write is pure, undiluted tripe. “It’s about quantity, not quality,” says the NaNoWriMo website; the idea is that by lowering the standards, you’re more likely to go for it and get it done without spinning around in circles (as I’ve been doing for the past year or two), certain that there’s a novel in there somewhere but with no idea where to start or how to go about it, and stopping after every paragraph to review your text in an angsty, critical way that ends with you hitting delete and starting all over again.

With the NaNoWriMo project, you just write. At 50,000 words, they recognise your achievement and list you as a novelist. You’ve done it! This is precisely the sort of encouragement I need – the knowledge that I can, in fact, write an entire novel within a short period of time. That’s what I need in order to be motivated enough to start in the first place: the knowledge that I’ll be finished in a few weeks and not still flapping around in a disorganised mess 5 years later, with one chapter perfected.

Of course, it’s most likely that what you’ll end up with is 50,000 words of genuine rubbish. This does not matter. I mean, somewhere in the midst of that, a story’s bound to take shape, isn’t it? A plot is certain to materialise, characters will appear, something has to happen, right? So my theory is that at the end of the month I’ll have a novel that I’ll never want to let anyone read, let alone show to a publisher. But I’ll have a novel, all the same. Which will make it much easier, come December, to say “OK, time to think about writing my second novel. And this one’s going to be published next year.”. I’ll go back over my manuscript, pick out the decent bits, and do it properly, no longer starting from scratch but with a proper story in place.

I realise that this is a mammoth project, but it’s only one month, and let’s face it, I can write and write and write all the live-long day if quality isn’t a requirement. I reckon that this is the sort of kickstart I need to get started.

Small problem. I have absolutely no idea what to write about. The NaNoWriMo website (and delightfully encouraging email) assures me that this is not a problem, but I have a horrible fear of sitting down at the computer and staring despairingly at a blank screen for the entire month.

So here’s the deal. If you’ll be so kind as to give me suggestions, I’ll use them in my novel. Imagine the satisfaction of reading a book that includes your character or your plot twist; the smug “this wouldn’t exist were it not for me!” feeling. You’d love it. And I’d love some inspiration. In fact, I need it! So go on. A setting, a character, a plot, a twist, a random object (however small or apparently insignificant) or quotation to be included, a sentence or phrase, anything to start the creative juices flowing. I found that when I was short of inspiration for blog posts last year, throwing it open like this provided me with more material than I could ever have imagined. Fancy doing the same this time and giving me a nudge into the world of novel-writing? If there are a few suggestions, I’ll try to use them all in some way. If there are loads, I’ll pick at least three suggestions and work them into my story somehow – or, if your suggestion really grabs me, maybe it’ll actually be my story!

Leave a comment and help me out – the clock is ticking! The novel commences on Saturday…

Silly Hats

I went to the Russian market today, in search of some cheap winter clothing.

It was foolish of me to leave home with only summer clothes simply because of the fact that it was nearly summer then and warm clothes were (a) unnecessary and (b) too bulky to pack. I can’t fathom why it didn’t occur to me that it would be winter at some point, and that the strappy tops and light jackets would be of no use whatsoever in the prevention of frostbite, hypothermia and so on.

Fortunately I am residing in a country where winter is Very Cold Indeed, which means that the choice of winter attire is vast and varied. Fluffy things are particularly popular: coats with fluffly hoods, fluffy scarves, fluff-lined boots, that sort of thing. This pleases me. There should be more fluffy clothing in the world, I feel. However, choosing the appropriate winter accessories is proving to be a long and intensive task for me – partly because of my limited funds, but also because I want to try the sorts of things that I would never have the opportunity to wear in normal (i.e. non costume party) circumstances.

Estonian people like to wear hats. Incredibly silly hats. And the sillier the hat, the more serious the expression of the Estonian underneath it. Which somehow makes it even sillier. It’s wonderful, actually. They start them off at a young age, too. The schoolchildren don’t wear uniforms, as far as I can tell – they wear hats. A different hat for each school, and oh, what a wonderful variety of hats! Peaked caps, coloured hats, jaunty berets, you name it and they’ve put it on a kid’s head. Despite my firm Anti-Child stance, I have to confess that I think it’s dead cute to see all the primary school children skipping down the streets wearing their quaint little hats.

I want a silly hat. A hat of some description is probably going to be a necessity in the winter here, so it might as well be a silly one, don’t you think? And yet a search of the Russian market today did not lead me to the perfect silly hat. I saw a nice fluffy one, but it didn’t have any horns or ear flaps or tassels or pompoms or pigtails or anything even remotely silly, so in the end I decided to leave it and purchased a nice fluffy scarf instead. Be warned, though. The day is fast approaching when a picture of me in a perfectly silly hat is going to appear on this page.

I can’t wait.

The writing’s on the wall

I’m terrible at keeping a photographic account of my travels, to the annoyance of friends who keep requesting pictures. Dutifully, I’ve snapped as many shots as I could remember to of famous landmarks, impresssive buildings, cute little cobbled streets and so on, but it seems like a chore to me. I’m not a natural photographer, and normal touristy photographs tend to bore me.

Then again, it would also bore me to have to write normal touristy descriptions of the places I visit. I like to write about the little details, the amusing conversations, the silly moments, the misunderstandings, the unusual sightings… which probably explains why the only things I really like photographing are the things that would be of least importance in a proper travel photo journal.

“SALE – 100 CHILDREN: 2 for 100”

Mostly, I like to take pictures of things that appeal to my sense of humour and my love for the obscure. And throughout my travels, nothing has kept me more entertained than the wonderful variety of signs – both official and unofficial – in each town and city. There are hundreds of these, if you have sufficient appreciation for this type of humour. Like this sign outside a shop in Stockholm, for example.

But much as I love to giggle in a superior manner at shops offering special deals on the purchase of infants, and menu errors resulting in the tempting option of Fried Unions with one’s steak, I find that the very best of this genre is signage of the less official variety: that is to say, graffiti.

Graffiti in Europe is brilliant for its utter lack of sense or purpose. I always get a little thrill of anticipation as I approach another wall with a promising scribble in the corner.

From the high intelligence of graffiti artists in Rotterdam…

Science lesson at the train station

…to a simple chalk drawing on a bridge to the beach at Lake Balaton, Hungary…

"THE CROW"

"THE CROW"

…there’s always something to keep me amused. I have to say, though, that as with most things, Tallinn is once again the clear winner for me.  And there’s not even a need for me to write any more on this: I merely need to show you the examples. And so, my friends, I give you… The Writing On Tallinn’s Walls.

“DO SOMETHING ILLEGAL!!!”
"BITCH! MAKE ME A SANDWITCH!!!"

"BITCH! MAKE ME A SANDWITCH!!!"

Website on a wall

Website on a wall

This is probably symbolic... I don't get it, but I like that it's on a wall for no reason!

This is probably symbolic...

And my own personal favourite to date, the ramblings of a genuinely happy, contented, and utterly loopy graffiti artist who just wants to make the world a better place:

"IT'S BETTER BIRD IN HAND, THAN ALL OF THEM FLYING"

"IT'S BETTER BIRD IN HAND, THAN ALL OF THEM FLYING"

Well said, my friends. Well said.

Tickets, please!

In Tallinn, as in most European cities that I’ve visited, public transport fares are paid using an honour system – that is to say, you buy your book of tickets at a kiosk and then it’s up to you to be honest and stamp one of them once you’re on board.

I always do this, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I’m a good girl. Honest, obedient, law-abiding – a model citizen. Secondly, I like using the machines. I think it’s fun. And thirdly, I could not handle the fear of being caught riding without a ticket. Despite my declaration that I always have a ticket, I’ll never forget the one occasion when I made quite a lengthy bus journey without one. I was in Bratislava, and it was not at all my fault, obviously. Bearing much luggage, and having just arrived from Vienna or somewhere like that, I stumbled around the decidedly frightening and smelly station, engaging in my favourite pastime of asking random strangers if they spoke English.

Absolutely no one did. Not even enough to understand the question, which was a first. All I wanted was a bus to the airport, but not even an intensive gaze at information posters was any help to me, since the Slovak word for airport is nothing even remotely like it is in other European languages. Normally you can at least take a guess, or they’ll have a helpful little plane symbol next to the word, but not here! I stood there, surrounded by rather scary, greasy men in Rab C. Nesbitt vests, and regretted having given up smoking several hours earlier.

Thankfully, as I was purchasing cigarettes (by way of pointing, miming smoking, and nodding frantically), I overheard a backpacker couple leaving the shop and talking in French about the airport bus, which left the station every half hour or so from stop 45. Having completely abandoned all hope of ever figuring out how to purchase a ticket, never mind where, I located the stop and got on to the next bus without the faintest idea if it went to the airport or to a small impoverished ghetto where I would be stabbed and eaten by hungry locals upon my arrival. I sat there, becoming increasingly nervous with every stop the bus made. Never mind the fact that I might have been on the wrong bus; there was also the deep fear that an inspector would appear and throw me into a very scary prison cell with cockroaches and a crack addict called Marge, for not having a ticket. The sight of the locals dutifully stamping their tickets – to the extent where, if it was not possible to get through the crowd to the machine, a ticket was solemnly passed along from hand to hand until it reached the person nearest the machine, who stamped it and passed it back to be returned to its owner – did nothing to reduce my terror. I spent the entire journey playing out all the possible Getting Caught scenarios in my head and trying to come up with a better defence than bursting into tears and playing the clueless foreigner card. I was never so relieved to get off a bus and enter the relative familiarity of an airport.

Anyway, to return to the present day, on my way back from the supermarket I saw the Tallinn tram police for the first time. Since July, they’ve started conducting random spot checks to ensure that people aren’t abusing the system. Sneakily, they park by the tram lines and stop the tram between two stops, so that nobody can sneak off out the back door or anything. Nosily (and almost getting run over in the process), I watched as several luckless stowaways were hauled off and – to my horror – taken into the back of the ominous-looking green van. The door was slammed shut. Filled with morbid curiosity, I lingered for a while, but no one emerged, and I reluctantly left the scene. What do they do to you if you haven’t punched your ticket? As a deterrent to fare-dodging, this sighting has certainly worked on me. Online sources say they fine you, but this definitely looked a lot more worrying than that.

I’m going to be so nervous when I’m on a tram now. There’s the added complication, you see, of the machines being different here. Unlike the electronic ones to which I’ve become accustomed during my travels (which make a reassuring BEEP and spit out your ticket with the date and time clearly printed across it), these ones are nothing more than glorified hole punches. Insert ticket, pull lever with some force, remove punched ticket. I always worry if my ticket doesn’t punch properly. Sometimes I attempt to repunch it, and inevitably find that this makes matters worse, since the holes don’t line up properly and it looks as if I’ve reused an old ticket, and the whole thing just makes me panic horribly and wish I had a car. In addition to this, the pattern of holes on the ticket is different every time (I believe they have a different pattern for each tram, so that you don’t just use the same ticket over and over again), and I have an irritating habit of shoving the ticket back into my pocket, only to realise to my dismay that there are also half a dozen old tickets in there, too, all with different punched-hole patterns, and there is no way of knowing which one is the right one, which would be difficult to explain in Estonian to a ticket inspector torturing you by inserting sharp things underneath your fingernails in the back of a van, when you’re still struggling with the present conditional tense.

It’s not easy being me.

Workin’ 9-5… or 11ish-7ish (with long breaks).

It is Friday night, the dinner is simmering on the hob, and I’ve just poured myself a nice drink and put my feet up.

For probably the first time since… hmm… April, I’ve just had something that very much resembled a working week. This was inspired by the cash machine’s recent (and rather impolite) refusal to dispense any cash into my hopeful hand, which brought about the somewhat depressing realisation that the gallavanting all over Europe without a care in the world, earning a tenner here and there from random and irregular writing jobs, really can’t last forever. Sigh.

A panicky hunt for work online ensued, and still nothing. Until Sunday night, that is, when approximately a million jobs landed simultaneously in my inbox. Not one to panic unnecessarily, I coped very well with this, seeing it as a happy answer to a series of desperate prayers.

Arrrrrghhh! I wailed, gazing at the screen in wide-eyed terror, I can’t do all this work in time!

This was inaccurate. I couldn’t have done all the work in time if I’d faffed about for most of the day in the laxidasical manner to which I have become accustomed in recent months; however, with a work schedule in place and deadlines noted, I managed it quite nicely, thank you very much. I got up in the morning, sorted out my remaining jobs, wrote and emailed articles, stopped, had dinner, relaxed, went to bed, and repeated the process. It was almost like being a normal person! And now it is Friday. And I am happy.

I’ve even had a comment demanding a new blog post, and several people have remarked on the less frequent posting of late, but, you see, I have no money and occasionally I have to leave blogging aside to write a series of articles on Tasmanian Devils and the like. It means that at the end of the working day, I (a) have no energy to write any more, and (b) have nothing to write about. As illustrated quite nicely by this particular post.

I have earned about half as much this week as I was earning in my admin job in Ballymena. But then again, when I was in Ballymena I was bored and sincerely hated my job. Now, I’m happy, writing for a living, living in Estonia (Estonia! You just never think, when you’re sitting at your desk, that before the end of the year you’ll be living in Estonia, do you?!) and exploring medieval underground tunnels in my spare time. Yep, I’ll take the lower paid job, methinks.

Cheers!

The Devil and Big Things

It’s amazing what you can learn in the course of a day’s work.

I’m in the middle of writing a series of articles about tourist attractions in Australia, and I have to say I’m very much enjoying it. Not least because I’ve only just discovered, to my genuine surprise, that the Tasmanian Devil is actually a real thing. I was previously unaware of this, and am now starting to wonder what other apparently fictional characters might be Actual Animals, too. I’d love to hear about a small colony of Fraggles living in the Outback, for example.

The real life Taz is, it seems, the size of a small dog. The pictures I’ve seen, however, indicate that it looks like a very large and scary black rat. I would not like to meet one of these things, delighted as I am to find that they really exist. They’re aggressive-looking devils, and it’s not surprising when you hear the story of how they come into existence. The mother gives birth to about 30 of the critters, but they have to attach themselves to a nipple inside her pouch for a hundred days before they start to properly grow and develop. A thirty-nippled creature would be a little bizarre, one would imagine; and indeed, the Taz ladies only have four. So, into the pouch tumble up to thirty gross little slimey things, somehow instinctively knowing that they have to claim a nipple as their home for the next hundred days, and also that they have to fight all these other gross slimey things in order to have a chance of finding said nipple and actually surviving. What a great introduction to the world.

Obviously the four that survive are going to be the strongest and most vicious of the litter. Add to that a set of teeth that keep growing throughout their entire lifetime, alarming screeching and screaming noises, a skunk-like defence system, and the ability to dispose of an entire animal carcass in one sitting (bones, fur and all), and you’ve got a creature that you really wouldn’t want to mess with. They’ve also just become an endangered species because of Devil Facial Tumour Disease: they actually have their own fatal disease, and I didn’t even know that they existed!

I realise that only a very special type of person will appreciate my enthusiasm on the subject of Tasmanian Devils: the existence of, and so I wish to share with you my other favourite thing about Australia. It is a Wikipedia page entitled Australia’s Big Things. I had previously been introduced to this phenomenon by a friend whose travels in Australia led him to several Big Things, most notably the Big Mango of Bowen, Queensland. The Big Things are basically, well, big things. No real reason. Oversized sculptures of everyday objects, scattered all over the continent, which tourists will happily set off in search of, often driving for hundreds of miles just to get their picture taken beside something like the Mango.  While I’ll admit to being slightly alarmed by the Big Mosquito, I have to say that I am generally in favour of the Big Things. The Big Prawn, for example, is nothing short of a work of art; the Big Wine Bottle is mightily impressive, too, with the neck forming a chimney for the open fire inside. I can’t find pictures of the Big Macadamia Nut or the Big Paperclip, but I have no reason to doubt that they are every bit as impressive as the Big Cow, say, or the Big Scotsman.

My job is more of an education than school ever was. I love it!

Priorities

Having decided to stay in Tallinn for a while, and quite content with the flat-sharing-with-Riho set-up, I’ve been looking on in fascination as he trawls through estate agent pages in search of a cheaper apartment for us to rent.

I am famously clueless at this sort of thing. I will never be able to forget some of the places I saw in Glasgow when I was flat-hunting during my student years: damp patches on ceilings; scary crazy men sleeping in stairwells; things growing in the dirt-filled gaps between ovens and walls; random loose wires hanging out of walls. That sort of thing. I remember arriving at one of them, taking a solitary depressed glance at the boarded-up window and rotting door, exchanging a glance with Red, and both of us walking away without a single word. And then there was the time I was looking for a house to rent by myself. I ended up in a really grotty little hole of a place in Cullybackey, with huge, wind-whistly gaps between the windows and their frames, where it took me approximately half an hour to get out of my parking space in the mornings, due to the fact that there was a previously unnoticed high school at the end of the street.

I don’t think things through, nor do I have even half the amount of common sense that would be needed to ask a question like “Is there any heating?” in a country where winter temperatures reach -25°C. And so it has fallen to Riho to single-handedly seek out the right place for us to spend the winter months. I have merely observed with great interest, making occasional constructively critical remarks like “I know this one is 2000EEK per month more expensive, but it has a dishwasher and a coffee machine!”. Someone has to consider the important matters, you know.

Tonight, though, having viewed a lovely city centre apartment that was already gone by the time we got home and decided to take it, and a beach apartment in Pirita that appeared to be falling down around us, I decided to have a little look-see for myself. I immediately decided that I was an excellent apartment-hunter, as the first place I found was absolutely perfect. It was compact (and therefore easily cleaned – these things are important to me). It was in the city centre (close to the Old Town, no need to spend a fortune on public transport). It was Seriously Funky. I mean, look at this. Click on veel pilte underneath the kitchen photo, and you’ll see all the pictures. How cool is that? A funky little microwave in a cool blue unit! Bar stools! Floor-to-ceiling windows with a harbour view!

I found myself rolling my eyes as I thought about how long it had taken Riho to find appropriate places. And here I was, finding The Place in a matter of seconds! Honestly – men. I called him over to look at it.

“Yes,” he said patiently, in response to my confident This Is The One assertions, “but you see, the problem here is that it has no bedrooms.”

And it doesn’t, you know. How can a flat have no bedrooms?! It’s not even like it’s a studio, with a bed in the living room. There are no beds whatsoever in this apartment! This was a little embarrassing, as realisations go.

“We could sleep on the floor…” I suggested meekly, staring wistfully at the funky blue kitchen. Riho looked pityingly at me for a long moment, and returned to his own, more practical flat-hunting.

I think I’ll stick to making helpful remarks about dishwashers and proximity to Chinese restaurants.