What This ‘Real’ Writer Does

I am an avid reader of blogs and sites offering advice on how to write, when to write, and what to write. I’ve read so many now, that I am well aware that there are some pieces of the advice that will always pop up as standard: write everyday, write what you know, write what you love – as well as some that are controversial: ‘write lots of bad writing to improve’ versus ‘write carefully from the beginning, craft every word’ etc. Unlike many of those other posts, I am writing strictly about my own personal experience, so there isn’t going to be much in the way of pontificating advice; rather, I’ll just tell you what worked for me and why…

Growing up in Zimbabwe, I have always wanted to be a writer. I did want to be a vet for about two years between the ages of seven and nine, but I realised that I wanted to be a vet so that I could write wonderful anecdotes about the job, a la James Herriott…

I always had something published in the annual school magazine – usually poems in which every line rhymed – and was the inaugural editor of the weekly school newspaper in high school. This meant that I was quite confident that I was good at writing, and I began to hunt around for work in that field. In those days, and in that place, there was precious little going. Any commissions were snapped up by journalists  and writers who had all the right connections, and my many, many letters of enquiry received multiple ‘no thanks’ or ‘we will keep your info on file’.

My first paid commission was an interview with a local news anchor.  I was paid something like ZW$45 for the piece, but ended up spending ZW$35 on a lunch for myself and the anchor in question. I also slaved over every word, coming in at exactly the requested word count, and including lots of interesting information about the man. When the piece came out, it had been slashed to about two-thirds the size, my carefully crafted words had been pruned massively, and the editor had switched around several paragraphs. After a couple of hours sulking I read through the piece as published, and then compared it to what I’d originally written. The printed piece was better; easier to read and the layout, in some indefinable way, looked more professional than my school-girlish offering.

This was my first lesson: Don’t be precious over your work. Editors know their onions!

Now, the way I got that first commission was an eye-opener too. I met my now-husband when he was renting a granny-flat on a property. The landlord’s daughter was the editor of the magazine, and it was my boyfriend telling her about me, and how I wanted to write for a living, that got me the job. My next commission in the world of writing was for a bunch of weekly crosswords for an independent newspaper. I compiled ten small crosswords and one big one per week (one small cryptic and one small easy for Monday to Friday, the big one for a Saturday being something of a mix of all types of clues) for the paper which came out daily, Monday to Saturday. I got that job through my tried and untested system of writing and offering my services. The only difference with this letter was that it landed on the editor’s desk at exactly the right time – his current compiler had been becoming more and more unreliable and had just arrogantly demanded an immense increase in pay for his work, believing that the editor would struggle to find a replacement. He phoned me on the spot and said ‘If you can submit two weeks’ worth of puzzles in three days’ time, you have the job.’ I said, ‘I can do it,’ put the phone down and, sweating nervously, set to work, getting them submitted to him with half a day to spare.

Second lesson: Be aware that work will come up in weird and wonderful ways – look out for opportunities and seize them. Traditional methods of finding work DO work – but often it’s very much a case of being in the right place at the right time…

I compiled crosswords for a few years, and it was great! I began work on a Monday, completing the weeks’ work on the Tuesday evening and submitting it on Wednesday. I worked from home, so I could look after the children and do the school run, using their nursery and nap times to get my work done and dusted. It was great, and for that two days’ work, I was paid about the same as a fairly low-level, but full-time secretary – more than enough for our needs, until rampant inflation made a mockery of the economy.

It was around this time that we gave serious consideration to moving to the UK – my mum was British, as was hubby’s dad – as our whole way of life were at risk. The children were rapidly approaching school age, and we  would need to raise school fees for them. Our home was a rented cottage on a farm that had been designated for seizure, and farm violence was breaking out all over the country as the economy tanked. And my crossword job was for an independent paper, which meant that they were a nuisance to the government who were making threats to shut down the independent media. The decision was more or less made for us: it was a case of move or starve, so we sold up everything in order to be able to afford our tickets, and set off.

Once we were settled in the UK – a matter of around a year, time made longer thanks to the vagaries of a viciously nutty sister-in-law (a story worthy of its own blog post one day!) I once again looked into writing for a living, sending out emails and letters offering writing and crossword services. However, my efforts came to nothing, and I (reluctantly) went back to work as a secretary/ admin assistant.

All this time, I wrote fiction in my spare time, occasionally entering competitions or submitting to magazines – but quite halfheartedly, I wasn’t terribly confident in my creative writing abilities any more after all that time raising the children and not having much in the way of adult conversation, never mind stimulating repartee…

As I could only work part-time because hubby’s job made the school run impossible for him, the jobs I could take were rather limited – and then I was made redundant twice in a row. After the second time, I decided that the ‘security’ of salary was maybe not as secure as it should be, and began to cast around for any kind of work that could be done at home, with a special eye out for any writing work.

I found work at home as an online call-centre operator, and it was alright. It paid the bills and offered advancement, but after a very short time I found the work soul-destroying. We had a very limited script, weren’t allowed to chat to the customers (and for some, I very much had the impression that these calls represented a large part of their total human interaction every day…) and had a fair number of hard sell products to persuade customers to purchase. It was during a particularly trying period that a couple of the other ladies who worked for the online call centre were chatting on Facebook, when one of them mentioned that she had just found an online writing site that she had signed up with for extra pennies.

It had been about five years since I had last looked for work at home as a writer and I was amazed! There was writing work available by the score! I signed up with Textbroker, the site mentioned by my friend, and pretty soon, I was writing so much that I was neglecting the calls. I was able to write up to 8 pieces a day, and this made me almost enough money to get through the month… Enough, anyway, that I was able to stop taking the soul destroying calls and write instead.

Lesson 3: Choose your compromises. I was happy to write for less money, but would have needed a lot more money in order to continue with the (better paid) phone calls… Ensure your sacrifices are manageable.

This was in 2011. I worked purely as a freelance writer for the next three or so years, and thoroughly enjoyed it, although the money  was highly unreliable. Some months I would do well, and pay all my bills and be able to treat the children; other months were a trial, constantly scrabbling to make sure that minimum payments were met and that there would be milk and bread in the house.

One thing I noticed pretty quickly was that I got very much faster at typing. I would begin to plan out what I would write as I read through the brief, and was able to strip down my research so that it didn’t take up too much time – when you are paid by the word, you learn to put words down faster!

Lesson 4: You will acquire skills without intending to, simply by practising your craft.

Then, in 2014, our eldest son was ready for university. My husband asked, out of the blue, ‘Have you never wanted to go to university?’ Well, yes, I had. In Zimbabwe I hadn’t been able to afford it, and I’d been working full time, or looking after children – but now… Our youngest was in high school, and I no longer needed to be home for the school run in either direction – I was suffering something of an almost empty-nest-syndrome. So I applied for a place at the local uni and was fortunate enough to be offered an unconditional place, which I accepted immediately.

While I was taking my degree, all the hard work on the writing sites started to pay off. I scored a couple of private clients, who are wonderful and send me work when they can. I still write for Textbroker and a couple of other sites as and when I have time, in between my on-campus job and my private writing.

My degree was fantastic, so good that I’m currently waiting to start my master’s in October. I’m much more confident in my creative writing once again, and have recently started writing a blog for another private client – he essentially buys our groceries these days! I’ve started work on my portfolio, and hope to have a good solid base of work that I can improve on and workshop  during the master’s.

Lesson 5: Write whenever you can.  If you have fifteen minutes and an idea, write. if you are on the train for half an hour, write. If you have a it of time while dinner cooks, write. Don’t say things like ‘Oh, I’ve only got twenty minutes, that’s no good.’ You will be quite surprised to realise just how much writing you can get done in a very few minutes, especially over time. At first, you might not manage any more than one sentence or the ghost of an idea, but with time and practise, you will soon be able to rattle out a couple of hundred words in that twenty minutes.

And, one piece of advice that still rings true comes from Jodi Picoult: You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’ Write. Write a lot, but write with purpose. I’ve never been one for meaningless exercises – being paid by the word taught me to put a value on my time, and I won’t waste it unnecessarily.

As I said at the beginning (of this rather longer than expected blog post) this is not exactly advice – it seems to have turned into a ramble along how I got into writing instead of how I manage the process!

I hope you’ve found it interesting, and here is a link to my latest story that has been published by the University of Chester’s Pandora’s Box – click here. 

 

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Nine Months Later…

I’ve been away from my blog for nine months this time – long enough to have a baby! (Don’t worry, I haven’t!) But it does serve me right for saying that I would do better than leaving three months between posts… in a way I did ‘better’, just not the way I meant!

In the interim, I have graduated uni with a first class combined honours BA, and have signed up for a Masters which will begin in October 2018, running for a year. After that, the real world beckons, but hopefully with a job in publishing, editing and/ or creative writing of some kind.

I’ve also completed my detective novel, the writing thereof anyway, but am struggling to find the time to read it through properly. I’ve gone through the grammar and spelling and so on, it’s seeing if the story hangs together on paper the way it does in my brain – that’s a bit harder to tell as I *know* all the bits that I might not have made clear in the book… Anyway, it’s pretty much done and when I have a week to read it through I will then start the slow, steady hunt for a good agent.

Preparatory to the masters, I’ve recently been going through all my writings to try and get all my bits and pieces of creative work in one place – there are hundreds of short stories and flashes mainly, but I’ve also found that I have a number of long stories – ten thousand words plus – and even two or three that are, or will be, novel-length when they’re finished.

So, despite my lack of blogging, I have not been unproductive – and my plan (ahem, please note ‘my *plan*’) is to send off many of the short stories and flashes to online publications, and then blog about the successful ones. Of course, that might not happen, so all I can say is: I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last blog and I hope to leave less time before the next.

But no promises!

I’ll leave you with a picture of tonight’s handicap to writing – you try typing with a solid furry body resting entirely on your dominant arm…

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Learning as I Go!

This blog’s been quiet for over three months this time – the longest gap since I began the blog. I do have a good-ish excuse though, among other things, I’ve been proofreading and editing my biggest piece of writing to date.

(Quick side note: the ‘other things’ mentioned above include finishing third year of a combined BA, including sitting an exam which involved writing two full length essays as well as revising for said exam…)

All of the above has taught me one thing: don’t leave all the editing until the end.

I generally keep an eye on spelling and grammar as I go anyway – I cannot physically leave a typo or misplaced comma once I’ve spotted it – but a lot of writing advice blogs* say that it is best to write the whole story down as fast as possible without making any corrections or doing any proofing. This is the way I work with short pieces of up to, say, about three or four thousand words, but I’ve come to understand that this is not how I am going to be comfortable working with longer pieces.

They say that the reason for writing straight through is so that you don’t lose the flow of the story, and I can understand that. However, for me, when I have a story on the go it tends to stay fresh (touch wood!), and – as long as I don’t leave it too long – I can pick it up quite smoothly after a break.

What I do struggle with is proofing. I don’t like the tedium of going over my work critically, and I find it very draining if I have a lot of text to go through. I managed the first read through fairly easily. The second was tedious, and took much longer than it should have – I tended to start reading the story, rather than scanning for sentence structure and errors. The third – and hopefully last, for a while at least – draft is almost ready, at which point I’m going to start scouting about for an agent. Any further drafts and amendments will be in response to the agent’s (should I succeed in finding one) suggestions.

For my next big piece of writing (calling it a ‘novel’ before it is ready for publication seems a bit pretentious) I think I will write it as I did this piece, in natural sections, but this time stop to edit each section as I go. As long as I make a note of any ideas I want to incorporate into the narrative (which I do anyway) I won’t miss any important pieces of information or leave out any crucial clues.

In hindsight  – 20-20 as always! – I should have realised that this would always be a better way for me to work. With my academic assignments, I very quickly learned to reference and footnote as I went along, to save the frustration and time-consuming agonies of trying to re-locate that really good quotation, or find the page number by trying to skim read the whole book again! Putting in quotes and references while the book/ article/ online source was in front of me, meant that a) I saved time and b) that when the essay was complete, so were the references, leaving just the bibliography and proofreading to do.

So there you have it: the reason I haven’t been around very much the last few months! Hopefully, it won’t be so long before the next blog post. I’ve attached a little anecdote-type flash narrative below, based on, as they say, true events… Enjoy!

Until next time

Liz

*There are many writing advice blogs out there, some good, some bad, some excellent, some awful: pick the good ones that relate to your writing style and ignore the ones that advise you to make huge and drastic changes to the way you work. Some of these bloggers seem unaware of the fact that everyone is different and that what works for one might not be ideal for someone else!

Graduate Job Seekers Training Session

We gather in a small room, with rectangular desks arranged in a square. None of us speak, except to the friends we’ve come with: business major remains with international business; creative writing with English lit. stays with English lit. and creative writing, and the criminology single honours ignores the microbiologist with an interest in brewing. Or is he a biologist with an interest in microbrewing?

We sit in near silence, and wait until 10am, when the session will begin.

The lady in charge begins, running through her planned timetable, promising to be done by 11, rather than 11:30 as advertised. (A latecomer slopes in, sits down in the nearest seat, self-important and unapologetic.)

‘To give you time to ask me private questions, should you wish to,’ she continues. ‘But for now, let’s go around the room and you tell me what sort of graduate jobs you’re looking for.’

‘Marketing.’

‘Marketing, lovely. That’s a huge field. Huge. You’ll have to narrow that down.’ She writes it on the wipe-board.

‘HR.’

‘I started in HR!’ She rattles off a potential career path that has the HR hopeful scribbling down lengthy notes. The rest of us allow our attention to drift.

‘Editing, publishing.’ The wipe-board pen makes soft squeaks.

‘Business.’

‘Microbiology-’

We are interrupted by the sight of the campus cat strolling past, tail held at a jaunty angle, tortoiseshell fur gleaming in the sun.

A whisper of excitement rises, fades, swells as the cat comes into the room. We have been chosen.

The microbiologist and the latecomer bend to stroke the cat. She ignores the latecomer, favours the microbiologist. The microbiologist scratches under her chin, caresses her ears. She approves, moves closer.

Then. The latecomer, bastard, grabs at the cat. Hauls her up, undignified. Puts her in his lap, holds her there. She wriggles. He tightens his grip.

She meows loudly, fights him, scratching. He releases her, with the air of one humouring an ingrate. She runs off, will not return.

We stare at him.

The lady asks, ‘What are you studying?’

‘Uh, psychology.’

‘You won’t be a full psychologist until you have your PhD, so you’ll be an assistant psychologist for some years.’

He nods, but she’s already writing.

Psychology, Ass.

We all nod in silent agreement.

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The campus cat

 

 

A Box Inside a Box, Inside Another Box

A Box Inside a Box, Inside Another Box

I’ve got a friend who is beginning to get slightly creeped out by my excitement whenever she joins me for lunch. The reason for my enthusiasm isn’t because of her food – no, that tends to the fairly mundane; healthy enough, but there’s not much excitement to be garnered from a sandwich, a few grapes or a cereal bar and a satsuma. The satsuma is important. Yes, really.

My interest is in her food containers. She has the most beautiful set of plastic boxes, that range in size from ‘generous sandwich’ (say four slices of medium-cut bread with a little headroom) to ‘not really big enough for anything’ – until she found that it can *just* hold a small to medium-sized satsuma. Told you it was important.

Anyway: she will sit and unpack her bag, laying out sandwich box, cereal bar or grape box and satsuma box, and then nibble her way through her meal.

Then, when she is done, she puts the lid on the smallest box. This goes inside the medium-sized box, and the medium-sized lid goes on that. Repeat for the largest, until you have what is apparently one box to carry home.

Mere words cannot describe the satisfaction engendered by watching this packing-up operation. It is partly that it is an attractive set – aesthetics are important – but it is more the way they fit together so neatly: so much storage space manipulated into such a small footprint. It is just pleasing to watch them clip together, almost like a magic trick. But a magic trick where you know how it is done, and it is still magical.

I think the reason I like flash fiction is the exact same reason that I am enthralled to watch my friend packing up her little boxes: there is a sense of something much bigger on the inside, so much more to be explored than what can be seen on the surface.

This analogy occurred to me tonight, as I sat reading my newest acquistion: Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief (more about the collection below). Each story takes up a page or two, some only half a page. But you cannot rush through these stories as you would through a volume of ‘Dad Jokes’ or ‘The Bumper Loo Book: 1001 pieces of trivia’ (ahem, currently to be found in my loo, being enjoyed in instalments, so to speak) – each must be savoured, read over two or three times and digested, before moving onto the next. Read five or six stories, and you have visited five or six worlds, met five or six strangers and made them friends (or not!). You will also find yourself considering things from a different point of view, wondering why, exactly, you’ve never seen things this particular way before now…

And then, when you are done, you marvel at the apparent slightness of the story – it seems like magic that you haven’t actually travelled as far away as the moon. But it is magic that is understandable and no less magical for that. Just like the boxes.

Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief

Published by Flash: The International Short-short Story Press; edited by Ash Chantler and Peter Blair.

Profits to Comic Relief.

A wonderful collection of sixty short stories, by acknowledged masters of the form: from David Gaffney to Tom Hazuka to Calum Kerr (and many more) there is something for everyone. From Superheroes suffering erectile dysfunction to parents trying to retrieve some kind of a sex life to foreshadowing the nostalgia of future empty nest syndrome, these little tales cover everything from alien invasion (cunningly foiled with the gift of rat-poison-laced cookies) to a day in the park with the kids (partly spoiled by loud sweary families): the full range from fantastical science-fiction to everyday mundaneity.

Do your bit for those in need by getting a copy (or two or three, they make great gifts!) of Funny Bones: not only will you be helping a great cause, you will enjoy the pleasure of reading the works of some of the finest short-short story-writers in the world!

Read more about how the book came about and buy it here: https://www.chester.ac.uk/node/40000

And here is some information on Comic Relief: http://www.comicrelief.com/

I’ve been working on a long piece of writing, what I hope will be the first in a series of detective novels, so I’ve not had a lot of time for flash. But here’s a link to Pandora’s Inbox which I am co-editing this year: browse through and click the links to read poems and short stories (including a couple of mine!) Teaser: one of the authors listed is the friend who owns the little boxes of joy! https://www.chester.ac.uk/node/23972

Oh and! Happy WordPress Anniversary to me! I’ve had my blog for a whole year, according to WordPress. Yay!

Checking in!

Hello everyone.

First things first: Happy New Year and I hope you all had a good one!

Next, many apologies for my lengthy silence, which is only partly due to the horrific fact of what happened in the USA on the 20th January. (And has continued to happen ever since – someone take his pen away, please (and his phone too, but at least his tweets just cause outrage and despondency rather than having a concrete, dismaying and potentially lethal effect on the very people he’s sworn to protect.)

Enough of him (only for now – I’m firmly in the ‘never normalise, never accept, never be silent in the face of atrocity’ camp) what have I been writing?

Well, a short story for my crime module is the short answer. I mulled it over and mused about it and finally got a spark of inspiration – the how of the murder. Once that had arrived, the other details kind of fitted themselves into my imagination until I was ready to write.

I’ll have to quickly interrupt myself here – I normally don’t know how my stories will end. I generally come up with a character who, having formed him or herself, then begins to say stuff and do things: all of which colour their personality and lead to the action and conflict that make the story. Often – nearly all the time – the ending of the story comes as a surprise to me, and I have even discovered, as I write, that the guy I’ve been rooting for as hero has turned out to be the villain on one or two occasions!

So the thought of writing a crime story to which I already knew the answer felt exceedingly strange. But it is the only way, I think, to write an honest crime story. You must know the ending and the perpetrator in order to fulfil the requirements of a detective story. Clues must be left for the reader, odd and random instances of happenstance or coincidence must be explicable (even if only becoming so once the grand denouement has taken place) and the crime must not have been committed by a random stranger who never otherwise comes into the narrative. There are more rules, laid out much more eloquently than I can say here, but these are the very basics.

 

So I thought, as it was my first ever crime story, that I would just write it, letting it be as long as it needed to be. A couple of days later I had 4,560 words and the first draft was done. A bit of tidying up and redrafting made it easier to read, but didn’t vastly reduce the number of words – something of a problem as I only need 1,500 and will lose marks if it’s over 1,650! While I mulled over the problem, I handed the story round to a couple of friends. One of them, handing it back to me, said, ‘I don’t know about making it shorter, but this could be the outline for a novel.’

I took the story home and focused on getting it to the required length, eventually achieving this by making it a story told to someone by my detective. This enabled me to cut through all the detail of post mortem and witness statements, just giving the results, rather than the process. Once the story was down to a manageable 1,700-and something words, I put it aside to mature.

In the meantime, I was on holiday from uni, and had a lot more free time than usual. The suggestion about making the story into a novel drifted back and, this time, took hold.

So I began. I started by expanding each paragraph out into chapters, then found places where more chapters needed to be inserted in order for events to make sense, or to bring characters more authentically to life, or just to pass chronological time in the novel. I rattled through splendidly, getting up to 30,000 words in a mere four weeks, with the whole novel plotted out in rough notes from start to finish. Since uni has been back in, my output has dramatically slowed down, but I am slogging through one to four thousand words a week, and am now up to 50,000, with a target of another 20,000 to get the novel up to an acceptable length. I know what I have to say, and I’ve actually already written the ending, which – so far – I’m very pleased with.

As you’ve probably gathered from this long, rather rambling post,  I haven’t been writing here, because I’ve been writing up a storm elsewhere! I have had time to write a new drabble, which I’ve included below, please do let me know if you enjoy it?

Hopefully, the next time I post, I will have a complete first draft of a novel, and will be thinking about trying to get myself an agent or a publisher, depending on which seems to be the easier/ most logical option.

Until then, take care, look after those who need it and stand up to those who need that.

 

x Liz

Medusa

They say I turn men to stone as if that’s a bad thing. They’ve made me into a monster, with snakes for hair and eyes that petrify. But that’s wrong.

It’s a different hardness they experience – you know what I mean. Yes, that.

I was hot. Sexy, daring and willing to do anything at all. That’s the truth of what they saw in my face and it worked on them. every. single. time.

So next time you hear someone talk about the Gorgon’s head, or my supposed ugliness, you just tell them.

You say, ‘No. I know the truth.’

 

What’s in a Flash?

Any regular readers will know that I’m something of a fan of the phenomenon known as flash fiction, the short-short story. To those unfamiliar with the art – and it is an art – of the tiny tale, it can seem like something of an easy option.

Paying markets for short stories are few and far between and those that do pay tend to pay in magazine copies or cash amounts so tiny that the kindest name for them is ‘token’ (‘joke’ would be an example of an unkind one…). Most publications don’t pay at all, and rely on the delight at ‘being published’ felt by authors to keep themselves in business.

This is because, I suspect, there is a tendency to believe that flash is easy to write, that anything so short must be whipped off in a matter of minutes and ready for publication within half an hour or so. As such, short stories are given little literary weight and are treated as amusing bits of fluff, lacking worth, importance or merit.

This dismissive attitude is unfair to writers of good flash fiction. Good flash is small, but perfect, as carefully crafted as a sculpture and takes up a great deal of time and effort. Because the word count is so small, each and every word must count and be chosen with precision. A true flash has a complete story arc, complete with characters, action and conflict. It can include dialogue, location and more.

But what really distinguishes a good flash from a poor one (or, in the spirit of fairness, from a prose poem  or story snippet) is compression. You should be able to read a flash and know that there is more to the story than the superficial narrative. By analysing words and sentences, you should be able to deduce and infer information: information that is not spelled out but merely hinted at or alluded to.

And yes, flashes can be written fairly quickly, and the low word count does make it easier to proofread, draft and polish. However, there is more leeway in longer pieces of writing for, not errors exactly, but for words that aren’t precisely right. The longer the piece of writing, the more you can get away with, simply because the higher word count hides any flaws. In flash, they’re always visible.

But a good flash  is like an inflatable life-raft: you should be able to read it and have a whole huge world explode into being in front of you, complete with everything you need to get you safely back home.

That’s enough from me for now: here’s another little story that I’ve had a go at – if you like it, you can read more from me here and here. Let me know what you think in the comments below?

Frankenstein in Brief

‘Ooh… I’ve got an idea!’

Several blood-drenched months later, after visiting morgues, hospitals and even the odd unguarded grave, Victor stood back, eyes wide with anticipation. He made the final adjustments and stood back, waiting…

‘Oh God, what have I done?!’ Victor fled through the doors, running away into the night, back to his mum’s house.

Some time later, Victor’s baby brother died in mysterious circumstances. Victor knew it was his creature. He decided to fix things…

‘We meet at last!’
‘My creator. Why did you make me?’
‘I wanted to make a man…’
‘But – that’s women’s work, fool.’

x Liz