June 2013

Left at the lights

by Suw on June 23, 2013

Woodstock SquareSometimes, just when you think you’ve got everything nailed, when your plans are coming along nicely and all the pieces of the jigsaw are slotting neatly into place, something comes along and blows everything out of the water.

For some years now, Kevin and I have been plotting our move to the US. A few years ago, we both applied for various journalism fellowships with ideas we thought were really strong, but we didn’t make the final cut. In the following years, we talked a lot about where we might eventually move, even though we knew by then that Kevin had to get citizenship here in the UK first, so that we would be free to come and go. But without something to guide us in choosing a place to live, like perhaps a job, it was hard to imagine moving.

Kevin’s from west of Chicago and last year we realised that we really loved the area where he grew up, and that it ticked all of our boxes: it has an international airport, we both have friends in the area, the countryside is very picturesque, and – this might just be me, but – the area isn’t seismically active or prone to extreme weather events. (I think it was Scott Adams who said that he didn’t want to live in a place where his cause of death might be “went outside”.)

A friend of mine familiar with the upheaval of moving from the US to the northern states of America advised me some years ago to make sure that I visited in the winter, as winter in the Midwest is in a whole different league to winter in the UK. Kev and I did that properly in January when we went out to his parents’ place and enjoyed -21C temperatures where your breath freezes in your nose with an odd sort of crinkly feeling. (Two days later it was 16C and frozen ground was steaming – go figure.) One does need the right clothes to cope with such cold, but it certainly didn’t put me off.

We fell in love with a town called Woodstock, where Groundhog Day was filmed. The town square has barely changed in 20 years, so if you’ve seen the film you’ve seen Woodstock pretty much as it still is. It’s a gorgeous town with some beautiful Victorian houses and a walkable ‘downtown’ area with real character, not to mention an opera house, cinema, arts centre, and some lovely restaurants and even a pub that is more like a proper British pub than anything I’ve ever seen in the US. Woodstock is 1.5 hours from Chicago on the train, so it would be easy for me to get in to visit the Chicago Centre for Book and Paper Arts, were I would be able to do courses, volunteer and get studio time. Kevin had a job that was geographically independent, so we would be able to quite simply pick up our lives and transplant them to this wonderful little town without too much of a hitch.

We found a lovely house in January, a 1940s place with a lot of room and a lot of potential. We put an offer in and signed a contract. Unfortunately, the house survey came back with a laundry list of things wrong, including a gas leak, dangerous electrics and plumbing that was ‘at the end of its useful life’. Oh, and the strong possibility of asbestos in the roof. And squirrels in the garage. And it’d need a new furnace. Minor points. We pulled out of the sale.

We returned in May, found another gorgeous house, put another offer in, but this time, the vendors weren’t quite ready to sell and fell off the face of the earth. Negotiations over price didn’t even get off the ground and, although we were disappointed, we knew there were other houses in the town that were just as fantastic. And oh my word, the houses! We could get a three or four bedroom house, walkable to the town centre, with large basements and multiple bathrooms for £100k – £120k. And if we wanted to go for a foreclosure, houses were going for £40k – £50k – the very definition of affordable, and in stark contrast to the south east of England.

In Woodstock, we’d be able to afford the kind of house we’d always wanted, in the kind of community we’d always dreamed of living in. We’d be near Kevin’s parents, and the train from Chicago to his brothers’ town takes 22 hours and is a wonderful journey. Poor Kevin left the US in 2005, expecting to be in the UK for a year. He certainly didn’t expect to meet the woman who would become his wife and end up becoming a British citizen. Rather, he put all of his stuff in to a climate controlled lock-up in Maryland with the expectation of being back to pick it up within 12 months. He has been able to check on it just once in the last eight  years.

We dreamed of him being reunited with his stuff, and me getting all my stuff out of my parents’ loft and, eventually our stuffs would meet, fall in love just like we did, and have little stufflings. Our books would nestle next to one another on the bookshelves and produce pamphlets. Our audio cassettes would find solace in one another’s spools and have tangles together. His junk and my junk would become our junk.

It turns out that it’s lucky we didn’t quite get our house bought. It turns out that we may well be hanging around Woking for a while longer. Any move to the US relies upon Kevin having a job, rather than freelancing, as without one my immigration paperwork becomes a bit more awkward. And any move to Woodstock requires him having a geographically independent job, a rare thing these days, even with the internet and remote working.

Last week, Kevin’s job got redefined out of existence. So did all our plans, and our dreams of moving to Woodstock (unless by some large miracle, he gets a job in the outer suburbs of Chicago, which I think we both know is unlikely). Pffut goes my plan to set up a nice little book binding studio in my basement, and my plans to transition my consulting business to the US market.

We didn’t talk much publicly about all these things were were hoping to do. Close friends and family knew what we were up to, but it seemed premature to talk about it openly, even when we were getting so very, very close to making it all a reality. So I now find myself in the odd position of grieving for a plan that I had become emotionally very attached to, but having the destruction of that plan come as a complete surprise to most people I mention it to. It’s strange, this feeling, this wistfulness for a future that will now not come to pass, this death of a dream we’d held on to so tightly over the last few years. We came so close, but it now feels so far away.

We’ll roll with the punches, of course. Kevin’s got two months to find a new job and already has applications in. If we’re going to stay here, we might try to buy, but the houses we can afford are mean and small and cramped and not very pretty and don’t have a basement I can convert into a studio. I’m trying to ramp up my consulting, which means lots of meetings (do get in touch if you’re interested in being one of those meetings!) and hopefully now that my op is done and I’m mostly recovered, I can get a lot more work done.

I’m also going to focus on ramping up my writing, which means ditching the idea of doing a Kickstarter project for Queen of the May and, instead, releasing it as an ebook and cracking on with the next project. Kickstarter projects are fun and great at coalescing a community around a book, but they are also fickle and time-consuming, and time I am short of right now. It’s more important that I write more than spend time making books, sad though that makes me.

We’ll come out on top, without doubt, because we’ll make the best out of how things turn out. That might sound horribly clichéd, but what other choice is there but to carry on searching the gold buried in all the muck? We won’t give up on the dream of one day moving to the US, and there is a possibility that Kevin’s dream job might even come up somewhere across the Pond, but the probability that it would be within spitting distance of Woodstock is slim to nonexistent.

So for now, I must cultivate a zen-like calm. I am a leaf, being blown on the wind and the fates will take me whither they will. I must let my dreams of Woodstock fade, to be replaced one day by other dreams of other towns and other Groundhog Days. Meantime, I mourn the passing of our oh so well laid plan.

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I’m slowly working my way through the final stages of preparing Queen of the May for publication. At the moment, I’m thinking about the new Kickstarter project whilst my beta readers get back to me with typos and other bits of final polish for the manuscript. I have to say that I’m very excited about getting this finished and published, not least because I think it’s the best thing I’ve written, and far better than Argleton!

I am trying to avoid falling into my usual trap of leaving the pitch video planning to the last minute. It’s a bad habit, but it’s an easy one to fall prey to as the pitch video is the one bit of the crowdfunding process that I loathe. I’m not a filmmaker, if I was, I wouldn’t be writing books. So to make my life a little bit easier, I thought it was worth asking you what sort of thing you want to see in a pitch video. What works for you? What information would help you make up your mind? Or don’t you care either way? (I know I rarely watch pitch videos, but maybe that’s just me.)

Anyway, here’s a short list of stuff to pick. Feel free to discuss in the comments and add your own ideas. (If the embed below doesn’t work, try this link instead.)

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Last Monday, at the hideous hour of 7.30am, I went into Ashford (Surrey) Hospital to have my partial oophorectomy, the removal of my left-hand ovary and the 8cm chocolate cyst that was attached to it and still growing.

The staff at Ashford were lovely (once I found the right department!). I was rapidly seen by the anaesthetist, the staff nurse and then the consultant, and then whisked off as the first patient of the day. I’m not sure how long the operation was, but I have a feeling I went to theatre about 9.30am, and when Kevin rang at find out how I was doing at 10.30am they said I was still in, and I didn’t come round till something like 12 noon, so it could easily have been a couple of hours.

If you want the full description, from my notes, I had:

Left salpingoophorectomy and bilateral ureterolysis, resection of endometriosis and both uterosacral ligaments.

salpingoophorectomy is when they remove the Fallopian tube along with the ovary. A ureterolysis is “exposing the ureter in order to free it from external pressure or adhesions or to avoid injury to it during pelvic surgery”. And a resection is the “surgical removal of all or part of an organ, tissue, or structure.” The uterosacral ligaments are part of the uterus, “fibrous tissue and non-striped muscular fibers which are attached to the front of the sacrum and constitute the uterosacral ligaments.”

(I’m learning as much about this as you are at this point!)

The reason that the operation took so long was that they found a lot more endometriosis than anticipated. Not only did my left ovary have an endometrioma (cyst containing endometrial tissue, aka chocolate cyst), it was also adherent to the pelvic side wall (PSW). There was endometriosis on both the right and left PSW as well as under the right ovary, which was also stuck to the PSW. Both ureters were also “closely involved” with endometriosis. I suspect that doesn’t mean that they’ve been having romantic trysts and long, late-night telephone calls.

So that meant not only removing the ovary, Fallopian tube and cyst, but separating my ureters and right-hand ovary from the endometriosis and removing as much of the endometriosis as possible. I’ll learn more about the ramifications of this when I have my follow-up appointment in three months.

Interestingly, reading up on endometriosis again, one key symptom that I have that I hadn’t realised was related was lower back pain. The last two months especially have been hell on toast for pain in my lower back, and I had assumed it was because I had lost muscle tone due to doing less intensive workouts at the gym, and possibly also inadequate stretching. I now suspect that it was directly related to the endometriosis. Of the other types of pain that one can experience (some of which I had last year), I’ve thankfully not had any, so if this is restricted to just back pain going forward, well, I’ve had back problems my whole life so there’s nothing new there, and pain can be managed.

The last week has been spent napping, watching tennis, and occasionally checking Twitter and my email to make sure that nothing exciting is happening. My three small wounds are healing nicely, though it’s hard to explain to the cats that they can sit on my legs, or next to me, but mustn’t poke me in the stomach with their paws!

I now have an enormous bellybutton – the first incision is made through the bellybutton, then they inflate you with CO2 so that they can get a better view of proceedings. I left hospital blown up like the Hindenburg, though thankfully less flammable. The gas slowly dissipated, mostly through farts, I think, and I’m now back to my normal size, ignoring inflation due to chocolate.

I had hoped to be back at work, just part time, today, but a bad night’s sleep means I’m probably only good for two blog posts and then it’ll be more tennis and possibly some crochet. I’ve blocked out two weeks for recovery, but it will take as long as it takes. This morning I was reminded that it’s not just the external incisions that have to heal, but all the internal ones too. No picking things up for me for a while longer!

Kevin has been, yet again, fantastic in looking after me, for which I am incredibly grateful! I’m also very grateful to our friend Terry who drove us to and from the hospital, taking us just half an hour each way instead of the two hours that public transport demanded. (That’ll make the follow up appointment fun!)

And finally, I cannot emphasise enough just how fantastic the staff at Ashford were. Everyone was friendly, informative and helpful, especially when I was in recovery and at my most woozy. The kindness of the nurses was outstanding, and I was delighted when they called to see how I was doing the day after so that I could tell them just how brilliant they were.

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On Thursday 30 May, I went to the Futurebook Innovation Workshop, organised by  The Bookseller and The Literary Platform. It was a fascinating afternoon of talks from a wide variety of speakers, and one person that really stood out was Bobette Buster, a Hollywood story consultant who gave a talk on the mechanics of storytelling. I took copious notes, as I normally do, and posted them here.

Unfortunately, whilst recovering from my partial oophorectomy I had an email in from Miranda West, publisher at The Do Book Company who published Buster’s book, asking me to remove the post. West said that “the post shares many of her [Buster’s] key concepts – which will be appearing in her next book – she has asked if you would please take the post down. Her view is that in parts it is more a transcription of her talk, rather than review/comment.” That’s a shame, because the talk was great and certainly a good advert for Buster’s book.

I want to be clear, though, that when I write up talks, I do it in good faith. For years now I’ve taken detailed notes of talks that I find interesting and share them via one of my blogs, not just so that those who weren’t there can get a taste of what they missed, but also to promote the work of the speaker. This is the first time in 11 years that I’ve been asked to take down a blog post and, whilst it makes me sad, I am obviously going to respect Buster’s wishes. It is, however, the second time that I’ve had someone query my blogging recently, and both times have been after publishing-related events.

I suspect my experience is down to a clash of cultures: the publishing industry doesn’t seem used to having bloggers attend their conferences in quite the same way that the tech industry is, my previous stomping ground. In fact, in tech, conference organisers often woo bloggers, giving them free entrance to the event and sometimes even paying for their travel and accommodation in order to get coverage. The idea that your talk might be blogged, in considerable detail, as well as recorded and put online, is par for the course and speakers prepare with that in mind.

When delicate conversations need to be had, the standard is to hold a conference under the Chatham House Rule, which states that:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

But the applicability of the Chatham House Rule is always, always stated up front, clearly, to all participants, and reiterated as needed.

Publishing industry events need to get to grips with bloggers attending, because it’s only going to happen more and more. That means that speakers need to be aware that their talks may be blogged, tweeted, Facebooked and disseminated in many other ways online. They need to be careful to ‘sell the milk, not the cow’, to make sure they don’t give everything away. Think about what it is that you’re promoting. Is it a book? Then give people the hook, don’t tell them the ending. Is it your consulting service? Then prove your understanding of your subject, but don’t give them your framework. But whatever you do, don’t assume that because you are communicating via the spoken word that it’s ephemeral. Don’t share stuff you don’t want to be made public.

And event organisers need to either make sure that speakers know that blogging and other forms of dissemination might happen, and that they should adjust their talk accordingly, or be clear with the audience that the event is being held under the Chatham House Rule. If they really want to batten the hatches down, then tell the audience that no form of communication to people outside the event is allowed at all – that might be a bit extreme, but there are situations where that is entirely appropriate.

However, for conferences where essentially anyone can come, the default position should be openness. The publishing industry already suffers badly, in my opinion, from a lack of openness. Lack of communication is allowing, even nurturing, the development of extremes of opinion which neither represent reality nor help the industry develop. We’re seeing too many simplistic, bimodal sets of opinions, for example that traditional publishing is bad and self-publishing is good, or that copyright is too weak vs copyright is too strong. If we had a more open and honest discussion about these things then we’d be more likely to reach a better understanding of what is workable and beneficial, as opposed to what is ideologically drive. Conferences play an important part in such dialogue, though obviously the problem is much, much broader.

In my years of covering tech events, I never once felt that I had to check beforehand about whether or not blogging was allowed. After going to just a handful of publishing industry events, I now feel that double-checking ahead of time with the organisers is the only way to avoid such unfortunate outcomes.

To my readers: I apologise for taking down a post that I know many of you found interesting.

To Bobette Buster: I apologise that my well-intentioned actions were contrary to your wishes.

UPDATE: Reading this back when I’m no longer operating from within a haze of painkillers, I realise that it might come across as a direct criticism of The Bookseller and The Literary Platform, which is isn’t. They did a fabulous job of organising a brilliant and fascinating afternoon, and had no way of knowing that there was a problem brewing. Instead, this post is a call to action to the whole industry to consider events as public and on the record unless very clearly stated otherwise.

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