Category Archives: Blog

Having babies can seriously damage your relationship

There are certain things the ‘baby books’ don’t tell you. For instance, that you might not fall instantly in love with your child; that your body will almost certainly never return to its pre-childbirth state; and that having babies can seriously damage your relationship.

 

I’m a slow writer. Not so much with the actual writing, which when it finally comes, comes pretty fast, but with the germination of ideas. The first idea for Hush Little Baby, a story about the impact on a family when their injured baby is removed from them, came in 2010.

It was the first year of my own son’s life, and two things happened that set the pulse of a story beating: I read a feature, in a Sunday supplement, entitled ‘What it feels like to be accused of hurting your baby’; and I attended infant and toddler First Aid training. In among the standard anxiety-inducing advice about choking, burns, etc., someone asked about broken bones. The nurse replied: ‘Babies and young children hardly ever have fractures. Their bones are too soft.’ He went on to say, heartbreakingly, that any time he read of an abuse case in which a young child’s bones had been broken, it upset him because he knew real force must have been applied. We all shuddered and I gave my sleeping son a few extra kisses that night.

 

By the end of that first year, by the time he was ten months old in fact, I had other breaks on my mind. My son’s father and I had separated. Our seven-year relationship (clichéd itch, anyone?) and three-year marriage were over. Our still-tiny son was no longer the member of a family unit; he was the subject of ‘shared access’.

 

What led us to that point? Our relationship had been far from perfect, at worst stormy, at best ill-matched, but what caused it to splinter when it did?

When our baby was born (before, in fact), I read all the books. I know they say babies don’t come with an instruction manual, but that’s what I do, what I’ve always done when I’m stuck: I find solace, guidance, in the written word. We had The Baby Whisperer, What to Expect…, The Contented Little Baby, a veritable library stacked up at the back of the bed, but none of them really offered answers. And I needed answers.

I needed answers to why I felt so broken. Why I adored my new son but failed utterly to understand him or read his cues. Why I couldn’t seem to feed him; why he wouldn’t sleep; why he cried, it seemed, all the time. Why I cried quite a bit too, for that matter. Why none of it seemed to ‘come naturally’.

I have friends who endured post-natal depression. I don’t believe I had PND but I was in shock, I might even go so far as to say I was traumatised. It’s my belief now that a lot of new mothers go through this, but they don’t talk about it to anyone. Worst of all, they don’t talk about it to their partners.

 

We both changed in that first year of parenthood. I became Not-Me. And it was Me my husband had fallen in love with. To be frank, the main things that had drawn us together at the start were sex, and going out getting drunk. There aren’t much of either in the first year after childbirth. That might sound glib, but it’s true. And we stopped communicating, except in games of one-upmanship (let’s play “who’s the most tired?”) or resentment-fueled arguments driven by a total lack of understanding of what the other was going through. We looked only at each other’s behaviour, without pausing to wonder what might be behind it. I thought he was selfish and immature and couldn’t handle the new responsibility and the fact that someone was more important than him now. I never considered that he might be anxious too, might feel threatened or inadequate when I seemed to be coping, or frightened when I didn’t. We slipped into the classic, sad cycle: I didn’t want to have sex because I wasn’t getting any tenderness or affection; he didn’t feel like giving me affection because I wasn’t ‘giving’ him sex.

 

I eventually found and ordered a book (of course!) about the impact of having a baby on your marriage. There aren’t many books of this type, I suppose because it feels a bit like blaming the baby for your problems, which is grossly unfair, obviously. It’s not the baby’s fault; it’s the fault of the two people you have become, who have failed to grow together at this crucial stage and have instead grown apart.

Unfortunately, by the time my latest manual arrived, my husband had already moved out. And in all too short a time, he was in love with someone else.

 

The greatest pain of that time, and the only part of the pain that endures several years on, was the fact of being separated from my son. In among my gratitude that his dad, unlike some divorcing parents, wanted to be involved to the extent that he demanded 50/50 access (and, to his credit, became a better parent post-separation), was a deep, yearning sense of loss.  In the throes of the divorce I remember saying angrily, ‘However unhappy we were, the difference between you and me is there is nothingyou could have done in our marriage that would have made me choose to cut my time with him in half.’

 

I didn’t write at all during that period. Friends thought I would, that it would be cathartic. But I’d stumbled from Baby Fog to Divorce Fog and there was no clear space for my writing brain. In time, though, the idea of a family breaking, a hurt child at their centre, solidified and became a cast of characters, and a story I had to tell.

That story became Hush Little Baby. It’s not ‘about’ what happened to us, but it is honest. A lot of the feelings in it are real. Thankfully our son was never hurt, or taken from us; but I did feel the pain of the empty cot. Even now, on the nights he’s with his dad, and I know he’s happy and safe, I stand and look at his made-up bed and feel sad, and miss him.

 

It sounds funny, but my divorce is among the things I’m most proud of in my life. Not in itself, because it’s obviously not what anyone hopes for when they get married, but in the way we handled it and, in the end, put our son at the centre. The way we continue to share access, communicate, and don’t badmouth each other or use him to score points. Out of an awful situation, the best possible result for our son emerged. He has two loving families now and we both put his needs ahead of our own. As it turns out, in the end, that part did come naturally.

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A Brief History of Us

 

When he was asked what existed before the big bang, Stephen Hawking explained that as space and time are curved, somewhat like the earth, you might just as well go to the South Pole and look for a point further south. At the end of the earth, there is no more south. South is meaningless, there. In the same way, it is meaningless to ask what was there before time began.

Some of us struggle to wrap our heads around this just as we can’t conceive of a world without us in it. Before you existed, you simply were not.

My son asks me was he always in my tummy. I start to say no, then hesitate, and tell him yes, in a way, you were. I was born with my thousands of eggs and one of them, one day, would become you. (It will be a much later conversation when he asks ‘How?’ and ‘What did Daddy have to do with it?’)

The answer pleases him – you were always in me – and it pleases me, too. I imagine my ovaries crammed with constellations from which magic would one day explode, in the shape of a boy with worlds in his eyes and so many questions on his tongue.

I also read somewhere recently that when you have a baby, part of their DNA stays in you.

So in a way, I tell my son, you were always in me, and you always will be. Before your time began, and after mine ends, when I will send our sparks into the sky.

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Why running a half marathon is a bit like writing a novel

When running (or in my case, shuffling) longer distances, your mind goes to funny places. I recently completed a half marathon and I found myself reflecting, not for the first time, on the similarities between running and writing.

(You could probably argue that writing a novel is more like a marathon than a half, but since I’m never likely to attempt 26.2 miles, bear with me.)

 

There are loads of obvious similarities. It’s exciting at the beginning and at the end, but in the middle there’s just a long, grueling, slog. Sometimes you feel like stopping but you keep going because you’re afraid if you don’t you’ll seize up. There is ALWAYS someone better and faster than you.

 

In case you’re wondering where you are in your own metaphorical race, I’ve created the following handy checklist of symptoms:

 

Mile 1 (page 1)

 

Woo-hoo! We’re off! How exciting! With the challenge of the blank page, the open road, ahead of me, I feel strong, I feel talented, the world is my…oh hang on –

 

Miles 2-3 (first 10,000 words)

 

Wait, this is hard. It isn’t supposed to get this hard this early. Oh shit. I can’t do this. There’s ages to go. Everything hurts. I am useless.

 

Halfway through (30-40,000 words)

 

Oh, the crowds are thinning. I suppose it’s getting a bit boring cheerleading, or asking me how the book is going. My response to both at this point is little more than a wave and a weak smile.

 

Mile 8 (50,000 words or so)

 

I need jelly babies, and I need them now.

 

Mile 10 (60,000 words)

 

Surely this is far enough. I could just stop here, couldn’t I? I mean it wouldn’t technically be a half marathon, or a novel, but it’s a bloody long way towards it and I really ought to get some credit. I have literally no idea how I am going to get to the finish line.

 

Mile 13.1 (The. End.)

 

Thank God that’s over / I’m a hero / I am NEVER doing that again / that was amazing, and so much easier than I thought. Really, what was all the fuss about?

 

Good luck everyone – keep running / writing!

PS Next for me: the Great South Run. I’ve decided 10 miles is my favourite distance. It’s still a challenge but 13 miles is the wrong side of crazy. I always knew I was a novella writer deep down.

 

 

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How to enter a writing competition

 

 

Please note I haven’t titled this blog ‘How to win a writing competition’. Because, let’s get this out there at the start, the truth is (whisper it) I don’t know. Even though I won one of them, a few years ago, which turned out to be A Very Good Thing, I can’t tell you exactly how it was done.*

 

What I do know, and can share, is how to enter a writing competition – with style. How I believe you can give yourself and your work the best possible chance of shining. How I think framing your attitude helps. And, probably, a few heavy hints on how not to win.

Shall we get going?

 

For the last few years I’ve had the joy of being involved in reading for the Bath Novel Award, in the early rounds, up to shortlist stage. In the last two competitions, I’ve correctly identified the eventual winner from the very first 5000 words – now this is partly luck (I don’t read every entry, so I was fortunate they happened into my inbox) but maybe some judgment too. So I’ve been thinking about what it is that made those particular entries shine – and what other aspiring entrants could learn.

 

Stand out for the right reasons #1 – AKA follow the flipping rules.

I know this might seem boring, but seriously. It’s the same with entering a competition as submitting to an agent – if they ask for 5000 words, send 5000 words (or a little under, obviously – find a natural break). If they ask for 12 point Times New Roman, then…how much effort is it, really, to use the right formatting? If you don’t bother following the rules, it doesn’t make you look wacky or interesting, it makes you look like you don’t care, or you don’t think that you need to care, whereas the other hundreds (even thousands) of entrants do.

Of course, sometimes we all make mistakes – and not all competitions will automatically disqualify you for these, but some will.

 

Stand out for the right reasons #2 – check, double check, and triple check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Again I’m aware I’m coming off like the fun police here, and it’s true some readers will forgive you a few errors in the SPAG department if the story and the characters are strong, but…personally, I find if there are too many it’s really distracting. And when the standard is very high, even if you have a killer idea, your consistent typos and missing commas could send your entry into the ‘no thanks’ pile. Ideally get someone else to check your work over for you – it’s easy to become blind to our own mistakes.

 

Remember the power of the hook – a compelling opening scene is all-important. Get straight into the action and pose a question – quickly. To do this you must know what your characters want. Kurt Vonnegut said every character must want something, even if it is just a glass of water. You need to establish what they want early – and ideally put something in their way. Conflict is the lifeblood of fiction. But being a bit thirsty isn’t much of a hook, is it? Unless, maybe, your character is lost in a desert, miles from anywhere, in a dystopian world where water has become more valuable than gold. Maybe they have water, or the means to create it, and someone is pursuing them to get to it. OK, it’s probably obvious I’m not a science-fiction writer, but you get the idea. The hook is the question(s) your reader will be asking themselves as they turn the pages: it’s how, what, why, or when? The hook is the thing that could only happen in your world, to your character. And if it doesn’t show up in the first 5000 words, you probably need to do some trimming of those opening pages.

It might seem a bit like you’re playing to the audience by being deliberately ‘hooky’, but there are two things to consider: one, if your manuscript is longlisted, the rest of it absolutely must deliver on the extract’s promise. Two, writing for a contest is no different to writing for a reader – there’s a lot of competition out there and readers can be fickle and impatient. If you don’t grab them from the opening pages, they’re not likely to pick up your book in the shop, or if they do get it home, they’re not going to keep reading it and then tell everybody they know ‘You have to read this book’. Which is what we want as authors, right? (Pretty sure this is not just me…)

 

Pay attention to voice – I’ve read lots of terrific entries to the Bath Novel Award. When I look back over the notes I made on my ‘yes’ votes, my most common comments had to do with voice. Voice is, in my opinion, the quality that makes good writing great. It’s what makes a book sing from the page. It’s also unfortunately the hardest quality to define (I could probably write a whole blog post on this topic alone…and still not have a definitive answer). It’s the quality that makes your writing yours. It manifests in confident, consistent writing; a narrator, be it first or third person, that I want to spend time with (note, I don’t have to like them – I just have to find them interesting); a world or a way of looking at the world that is somehow unique, even startling. Good voice can be funny, it can be reflective, it can be angry or wry. Voice is tone. It’s style, choice of language, rhythm. Told you it was hard to pin down, didn’t I? If I had to put it into a word though, I would say simply this: good voice sounds real.

 

A word on the ‘dreaded’ synopsis – I think ‘dreaded’ must be the epithet most commonly applied to ‘synopsis’. Yes, we all hate doing them. Yes, it’s one of the bizarre ironies of writing life that it’s harder to summarise your book in 500 words than it was to write the whole damn 80,000 words of it. So here’s my advice: don’t get overly hung up on it it, because it’s not that important. If your writing is absolutely stellar, it seems unlikely (though I can’t swear to it, obviously) you’ll be rejected on the basis of a weak synopsis. Personally I read the extract first and then go to the synopsis to see if you can carry the story, if your novel seems to be paced well and have good character arcs, and so on. Which brings me to the second piece of advice, which is: spoilers, please! The synopsis must tell us how things turn out. Don’t try to tantalise us…we need to see that you know where you’re going (and how you’ll get there).

To be honest, I know an extract is really special when I don’t want to read the synopsis because I don’t want to know how it turns out.

 

Attitude is all – you might argue that the odds of winning a competition that receives hundreds or even thousands of entries are not great, so why bother entering? Well, my answer is twofold: you still might win (someone usually does), and if you don’t, just being a part of the process could be huge. You’ll likely make links with a supportive community even if only via Twitter; you could get useful feedback from the judges; and putting your work ‘out there’ can be a powerful step. Even if you have a great book, there’s luck and personal taste involved, too, but you are best to make friends with those now if you hope to be published in the future.

Frame your attitude, manage your expectations, and dive in.

 

One last thought. There are loads of qualities that make a competition entry stand out. But the thing the recent Bath winners have in common is that they stayed with me when I wasn’t reading. Why not consider getting a trusted, honest friend or colleague to read your entry…then ask them about it a week later? If they’re still thinking about it…if they can still tell you what they liked about it…you might be onto a very good thing.

Happy writing, happy submitting, and good luck!

 

 

*I did once appear on a panel called ‘How to win a novel award’. But it was a group effort; I wasn’t claiming to have all the answers. The other panel members in particular have some interesting and useful things to say, though – check them out here:

HOW TO WIN A NOVEL AWARD

 

The Bath Novel Award 2018 is now open for entries, closing date 30th April. Other writing competitions are, of course, available. You can find useful lists in the back of good writing magazines, and all over the interweb, like here:

https://www.creativewritingink.co.uk/writing-competitions/

 

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Good and Not Good things about living alone*

(*caveat: I know I’m not always alone, because my son is here half the time and he’s pretty close to perfection, human being-wise, but he’s 7 and therefore I can’t watch Broadchurch with him)

 

Good:

 

  • Falling asleep in front of the TV without anyone poking you and saying every 30 seconds ‘Wake up, you’re missing it’ and ‘Why don’t you go to bed?’
  • Leaving the washing up until morning sometimes because NO-ONE WILL KNOW
  • Cooking your famous ‘pasta with pesto and anchovies’ AGAIN, just because you fancy it, without anyone looking at you strangely
  • Watching Friends re-runs, Gogglebox, anything at all on TV in fact, without shame or argument
  • No men’s socks ever found on dining room table or other inappropriate places
  • Spending entire day writing (translation: 5+ hours of alternate staring out of window and walking aimlessly around house, plus 45 minutes of frantic scribbling / typing in manner of one possessed) without having to entertain anyone else or indeed explain your bizarre behaviour
  • All choices regarding décor, pets, hoarding or disposal of possessions, being yours and yours alone in manner of mini-dictatorship
  • Having the entire, king size bed to yourself

 

Not good:

 

  • Cooking AND washing up, every night. In fact every household task being your responsibility alone, especially…
  • Putting the bins out. Yes, it only takes approx. 45 seconds once a week, but I resent it so much I would consider living with Hannibal Lecter if he promised to do this one job for me
  • Having no-one to watch Broadchurch with and so having to dramatically gasp and air your theories to an empty room
  • Getting ill and still having to deal with life admin, for example on one memorable occasion, simultaneous chest infection (me) and nits (boy). Combed them out in the bath, exhausted, then cried and went to bed. Would have been nice to have someone to bring me a Lemsip, at least
  • Sometimes really shit things happen, like someone dies, and although you have lovely friends who you know would drop everything to receive a ranty, tearful phone call or come over and hug you, you feel very, very alone
  • Having the entire, king size bed to yourself

 

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Happy Mothers’ Day?

I was about halfway through writing Hush Little Baby when I realised I was writing a book about mothers. It’s about lots of other things – family dynamics, secrets, societal pressure on today’s teens – but in its pages, mothers – flawed mothers – abound. Not just the main character, Sally, fighting to win back her baby from social services, but also her own mother, hypercritical and distant; her mother-in-law, judgmental and controlling; and the ‘first wife’ Zoe, too inconsistent and self-absorbed to properly parent her troubled daughter.

I hadn’t realised how much I had to say on the subject, but I had long been aware of the strange dichotomy in society’s attitude towards mothers, even before I became one myself. Mums are simultaneously fetishized and demonized. The gender gap, while it might be narrowing in some places, is alive and well in parenting. A ‘bad’ mother is extra vilified precisely because she’s a woman, while men get brownie points for even basic parenting. How many times have you heard ‘He’s so good with the kids,’ offered out as a kind of awestruck gong when a dad has taken his offspring to the park, or changed a nappy, or helped with the homework? My response has always been ‘Well he should be, right? They’re his kids.’ And yet nobody ever says it about a mum, because, well, she just ought to be good at it; and if she isn’t, she’s a freak. Similarly, I have lost count of the number of (otherwise seemingly well-adjusted) men I have heard refer to looking after their own children as ‘babysitting’. My stock reply is ‘The word you’re looking for is parenting,’ and they laugh, but I don’t. Because I’ve never heard a mother say, ‘I can’t come out tonight, I’m babysitting.’

Oh, I know, it stems from the days when men went out to work and women ran the household, and children were to be washed and presented to their daddies at the end of the day, along with his slippers, a large scotch and a perfectly coiffed wife. But come on, we’ve moved on, and the parent narrative needs to, too.

But if the misogynist message is insidious, it’s nothing to the pressure we women put on each other. It starts even before your baby is born; you join the NCT and competitive mothering begins (so subtly that you hardly notice it – you’re mainly there to make friends, after all, because you’re pretty sure your workmates won’t want to know you when you can’t drink Sambuca and dance on tables any more and all you can talk about is sleep and poo). You’re sold the ideas of a perfect birth – one that you can actually write a plan for, ho ho ho – and blissful breastfeeding, and these are served up to you by other women, mainly (alongside my other personal favourites ‘You’ll love your baby as soon as you see him’ and ‘Oh, you’ll just know what to do when it’s your own’). And when these things don’t happen in actual real life, it begins: you start to get tipsy on the heady cocktail of guilt, anxiety and, if not exactly failure, then not-quite-good-enough-itis. Fast forward a few years, and it’s bake sales and bloody Easter bonnets, and offspring who demand to know ‘why there isn’t a Child’s Day’, to which you smile even though you are screaming inside: ‘BECAUSE EVERY DAY IS CHILD’S DAY, YOU UNGRATEFUL LITTLE SH*T!’

Oh dear – just me? At any rate, this leads me to acknowledge what I see as a backlash against the ‘perfect mom’ fetish: the comedy parenting blogs / books. Pages like ‘The Unmumsy Mum’ and ‘Hurrah for Gin’ lampoon the ‘perfect’ mother with her ruddy-faced, outdoorsy children and expertly constructed craft projects, and gleefully admit the hitherto unspoken facts, that sometimes our kids piss us off, and more often than not our partners are thoughtless and, well, a bit useless, and sometimes we are just TOO DAMN TIRED.

The trouble is (and I hesitate to say this, because I really, really love Hurrah for Gin), even these books / blogs are a teeny bit of a smug club and however horrendous the tale (one involving a small child being sick in their parent’s mouth made me feel considerably better about my own day – large helping of schadenfreude, anyone?), in the background there is usually, actually, a hapless but ultimately supportive partner. There are usually understanding friends to laugh / cry into the prosecco with at the end of the week.

Now, this is all as it should be, of course, because it’s comedy, but we should keep in mind that there are some women for whom it’s not funny; women who are properly sinking, not just sinking into the sofa on a Sunday night with a large glass in hand and Call the Midwife on the telly.

Mother’s Day is probably not that welcome today for a whole load of people: those who’ve lost beloved mums, or maybe had shitty relationships with them that they’d rather forget; those who can’t have children, and those who maybe could but choose not to and would rather not see the relentless portrayal of the mum as a kind of goddess, which won’t be helped today by social media streams clogged with pictures of breakfasts in bed and teary blessing-countings for idyllic relationships with mums and children that, well, aren’t really. Maybe for those of us who are mums, it’s a bit annoying if we congratulate ourselves just for the fact that, by accident of biology, our ovaries worked ok while someone else’s didn’t. And for those of us who are sons and daughters (ok that’s all of us), at the risk of sounding like one of those rubbish husbands who uses it as an excuse for forgetting Valentine’s Day or an anniversary, maybe we should appreciate our mums every day, not just once a year. And that doesn’t mean idolize them, it means value them – for all their faults and flaws as well as the qualities that make them brilliant. It’s time to get real, and reject the dichotomy: mothers aren’t angels or demons, they’re human beings. They make mistakes, and they kick ass. Sometimes they even do both on the same day. Just like everyone else.

Happy Mothers’ Day to all of us.

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Childhood dreams and Moomins: how writing things down changed my life (and it’s not how you think)

At the age of 9, I won an international writing competition and as a result, had a story published. Nearly 30 years later, the same thing happened again, albeit on a larger scale (the first was a short story, called A Journey Through Time, published in an anthology; the second was my novel Precocious, published in 2015 by Ebury).

 

That’s a really long gap, but something happened in between, you see: I grew up.

 

Now that I’m a mum, I’m struck every day by the extraordinary creativity and self-belief of children. My son, who’s 6, strongly believes he can grow up to do and be whatever he likes (even if his most fervent wish, currently, is to join the Ninja Turtles). When I was not much older than him, I started to write stories and my dream was to become an author.

 

And then life got in the way. I did an English degree, and a Creative Writing masters, but I also got a job, a house and bills to pay. Life brought many exciting and wonderful experiences, but my dream receded.

 

In June 2012, I woke up on my 36th birthday to this epiphany: ‘I don’t want to be 40 and still have the same kind of life’.

 

I was divorced with a small child and disillusioned with the career that had once brought me satisfaction (not to mention a very good salary). The idea of making drastic changes was terrifying, but the four years until I turned 40 seemed like a reasonable timeframe within which to start doing things differently.

 

At just the right time, a lovely friend (and mentor) came to see me and helped me to formulate my vague wishes and dreams into what became known as The Four-Year Plan. We bought a notebook in which to document the plan, and I chose deliberately: a hardback book with a Moomin on the front.

 

The 9-year-old me, you see, loved books and used to read Finn Family Moomintroll aloud to her mum (along with the Secret Seven, but I couldn’t find an Enid Blyton notebook, sadly). I wanted to recapture that 9-year-old’s dreams, and the certainty and clarity that little girl had about what she was going to be when she grew up.

 

Within the pages of the Moomin book, I started to write down, in a vague way at first, all the things I might like to do. Write (this was always top of my list, although I still didn’t believe at this point that anyone would ever pay me to do it). Help people. Teach, maybe. Within a few months I’d written down what I thought the 40-year-old me might have become. It reads: Writer. Counsellor. Doula.

 

So crucially, as I turned 40 in June this year, where am I now?

 

I’m a published author with one book in the world, another ready to be published next year, and a third germinating in my little brain. I’m in the final year of a psychotherapeutic counselling course. I’m not a doula, but I have qualified as a hypnotherapist and as part of this I offer hypnobirthing, so I’m helping pregnant women in that way. From January next year I will be leading the So:write women’s writing group in Southampton.

 

I don’t think any of this would have ‘come true’ without me writing it down. Now, I’m not particularly spiritual, I don’t believe in ‘sending wishes out into the universe’ and that kind of thing (I haven’t even read The Secret). But something happens when you write down your dreams, goals, call them what you like. They become real, somehow. You’re making a commitment to them. You’ve got a reminder, in black and white (especially if you revisit them often, which I recommend). And if you’re good at detail, it helps to break down the plan into yearly, monthly, weekly chunks. Make the dream part of your to-do list. Do one thing, however small, every day, to get you closer to where you want to be.

 

In the wake of something wonderful, people often say ‘I never dreamed this would happen’. That’s rarely true. No-one ever won the lottery without buying a ticket.

 

So my advice is buy the ticket. Hold onto your dreams. And, with or without Moomin help, write them down.

 

 

 

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