Guest post: ‘LILAC’ by Alex Jones

Mental Health, Writing

A short piece about mental health, self-discovery, and reaching out for help through counselling. Guest writer Alex Jones shares his story in this profound piece of autofiction.

~

“And stay, my dear

stay…

forever, as my quiet song,

in my lilac dawn.”

Sanober Khan, A Thousand Flamingos

~

Lilac by Alex Jones

Every Thursday at 7.30pm, I would climb the stairs of the Cowley Children’s Centre, following my counsellor up to a beige room. I would always very visibly keep my eyes focused down on the way up, I did not want to appear to my counsellor that I had been staring at her bum. That week was the first time I noticed the sign ‘Lilac Room’, a laminated, lilac lettered sign stuck to the wooden door. 

I have been working to rebuild myself for four years now. Mindfulness, counselling and hobbies all in the pursuit of re-finding the identity I had lost under the collapse of my ex-girlfriend’s mental health. Six brutal years of caring had taken their toll and I found myself an insecure shell, shattered and delicately dancing on the edge of a dark depression. 

In the ‘Lilac room’ I found myself sat upright, switching from gently stroking to tugging my arm hair depending on the levels of discomfort I experienced journeying into the folds of my personality. In all the personal delving that was done, I found myself reminiscing on someone who, for a short while when at my lowest ebb, sat at the centre of my world. 

I remember the excitement of sleeping on a dirty brown sofa on a bitterly cold night in November. It was exciting because she was there, and I lay next to her with my face at her waist height. As I needily tried to hug her, probably unsuccessfully, my mind became caught up in the excitement of how I adored this woman. My nostrils seemed to fill with a distracting sweet and heady scent of flowers. The drone of fear my mind was usually preoccupied by had halted for that moment.

Being around her reminded me I was still an interesting person, with passions and an identity that wasn’t just a ‘carer’. It was inevitable that I would have fallen for her; I adored her beautiful dark brown hair and her love of film. I had tried to kiss her a few times, failing miserably. We played a game of pretending it never happened. By Christmas, I decided I had to remain the only possible ‘saviour’ for my much in need Girlfriend. I had chosen to remain alone in a battle for someone else’s survival, at the expense of my own. I concluded that I would purge this wonderful new woman from my company and thoughts.

My approach to that was simple, I hunted out every flaw in her behaviour and amplified them with my general contempt for human behaviour. I remember clearly late on Christmas Eve, sitting up in bed, writing in my little green ring-binded notebook. ‘Not very intelligent – not Oxbridge enough for you,’ ‘she is only friends with you because she is lonely’, ‘she has no friends’. I didn’t believe a word I wrote. 

The words I wrote were bloody useless. The part of me that lay wounded from the previous years craved to be seen and affirmed by her, and come January, I again found myself with her out on a drunken night. This one was to end with a lot of pain and ultimately the unravelling of any closeness we had. 

On that night we found ourselves floating from bar to bar swigging bottles of red wine we had managed to buy barely before the bell of last orders rang. The world spun, I fell off Nelson’s column at one point and eventually we found ourselves in a tourist trap bar on St Martin’s Lane, near Leicester Square. I barely took my eyes off her or my thoughts away from how to impress her. I didn’t want to go home that night or her to leave.  She didn’t seem to either, but perhaps that was for very different reasons. 

Things went downhill from the point when I had returned from the bar to find her passed out. Panic set in, and I took up the mammoth challenge of booking a cab on my phone with drunken eyes and fingers. I dragged her into a cab and ventured through the orange flashing lights of south London to Brixton. But we didn’t get there before I decided to vomit the contents of my drunken guts into my own favourite leather postal bag. On arrival, the passed out woman miraculously rose from the dead and ran into her house, I just wanted to clean the mess I had made in the bathroom upstairs. 

I was struck by sinking feeling in my gut when the misery of scooping cold sick into the sink suddenly turned to fear that water was no longer going down the plug hole. Time exponentially expanded  as I tried to scoop the already scooped sick from the sink to the toilet. It was chaos. The things covered in sick, including my favourite copy of Ernest Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast, workbooks and headphones, were bagged up. For the life of me I am not sure why I didn’t bin them, but instead I put them on the side in her bedroom. 

The other housemates approached me just as I was about to finally let this painful night end. They didn’t know who I was, and their housemate was passed out on her bed. The kind smaller Welsh guy tried to counter the aggressive taller guy by explaining why I should consider just sleeping on the lounge sofa. But my drunken impulsive brain only felt only irrational self-pity and accusation, so I stumbled out of the house into a taxi home. I ended the night seventy quid down, hung over and full of existential dread. 

The month that followed that night was painful. The initial thankfulness for getting her home morphed into annoyance about the sink and then finally developed into a confusing anger directed at me. We left it with her messaging me about what to do with my sick covered items left in her room, before she started to act clearly angry at me. I retaliated with my old passive aggressive tactic of ignoring her to her face. The truth was I just felt deeply sad, it was painfully confusing as to why I was being punished. I just wanted to be close to her again. I missed the beautiful dark hair, the exploration of film and art, but most of all I missed feeling affirmed and alive. 

The month came to ahead when we ended up, despite actively avoiding each other, sat next to each other at work drinks. We sat back to back to each other, and did not speak until we realised we had decided to get up and leave at the same time. As we walked to London Bridge tube station, our mutual anger grew in to a shouty argument. I can’t remember everything that was said that night, but I remember her back against the entrance wall, looking into my eyes and saying something very odd and out of place. “I guess I am just too stupid to get that, Alex!”. The argument travelled down the Dantean layers of the station, it would develop into a point and then she would run away to the next layer and shout something like “This isn’t a movie, Alex”. By the time we reached the platform, where we would part for the tube home, I begged her to tell me what I had done wrong. Her tone changed and her frustration changed to something more vulnerable…”

“You don’t get it, do you?”. 

“I don’t get what?”

“You don’t get it…”.

“Then just tell me…” 

“I read it Alex, I read your notebook….”

I cringed as the words I had written that Christmas Eve shot back into my mind, along with the memory of putting the notebook safely in my brown postal bag. Fuck.

The truth is I have never told this story to my therapist. It never really felt relevant to things I was working on in sessions. This is not to say that this person was not part of the 26 weeks of exploration and healing, of course they were. But this has always been a story better to tell new friends in the pub; you get to enjoy the notebook shaped penny drop in their eyes, whilst letting the humour misdirect them from asking how I really felt about this awful time.

The reason this story really matters to me is not because of the drunken antics, the story’s notebook punchline or even because it was a night out with the woman I desperately wanted to be with.  But because of the path that this ruinous time in my life put me on. At the same time the drama of this story was taking place, by some coincidence, I was really into Jeff Buckely’s album Grace and listening to it on repeat. Track 4 was Lilac Wine, a beautiful song about being intoxicated with the memories of a lost love after drinking a heady lilac wine. The meaning of this song became more and more pertinent as I also became intoxicated by the memories of a lost love that I wanted back. 

One afternoon, I went with the dark haired woman to explore an exhibition at the National Gallery. I felt completely engrossed by the unusual feeling of excitement and fun I was experiencing from joking and playing around the paintings with her. Suddenly, and very unexpectedly, we were joined on the staircase of the gallery by someone I felt I knew. He was attractive, fun, very curious and passionate. I found him entirely likeable, and not just because it was determined by the neediness of those around him. He was stirring to be around, and yet just like me he was surrounded by unending destruction. It occurred to me that perhaps I used to love him. 

She and I eventually stopped hanging out, but he stayed around. His presence turned into intoxicating nostalgia, and acknowledgement of my painful present. Being with him was powerful, and I allowed him to be with me more often, to care for me, and to guide me. First he encouraged me to start learning mindfulness and to enter into a short therapy course with the NHS. These built the foundations that led me to a longer term therapy, where four years on he was still there holding my hand in the ‘Lilac room’ as I struggled through. I had regained my lost love, he was I, and in remembering and not letting him go I started to care about myself once again.  

Therapy recently came to an end, and I no longer have to worry about averting my eyes on that staircase every Thursday. When I left the Cowley Children’s centre, walking to the bus stop for the final time, I reflected on everything I was taking away with me; an education on self-care; a brighter world to inhabit and a story of progress worth sharing. I boarded the number 5 bus, climbed the stairs, sat down and as I continued to reflect on therapy I reached into my bag and found a small bunch of lilac flowers. I proudly pinned them on to my lapel, decorating myself like a Victorian widow intent on being reminded of a love lost. In that moment I decided I would wear lilac every day, for never again shall I forget that I am someone worth loving. 

~

I really love this piece by Alex. I think capturing experiences that mean something to you and managing to pin down past emotions on paper is a really powerful therapeutic tool. One of the things that makes this piece so evocative is Alex’s sheer honesty: his admittance of the mistakes he made and his ability to evaluate the situation – after time – to have a more objective view. ‘Lilac’ really does explore the positive impact that counselling, therapy, and being brave enough to reach out for help can have. Throughout the narrative, it’s clear that the once hesitant, second-guessing voice of Alex develops into someone who knows themselves. Who trusts their own voice. And, as Alex says, someone who is ‘worth loving’.

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seeking permanence in creativity

Lifestyle, Mental Health, Writing

For most people, deciding on a career path will often determine their physical location – or at least give them a nudge in a certain direction. If I was pursuing a career in nursing, for example, my location might be determined by which hospitals are closest to me geographically, or maybe which institutions, regardless of distance, had vacancies. With writing, it feels a little different. Particularly freelance writing, or writing when you haven’t yet been published, means that – as long as you’ve got somewhere to write and something to write on – it doesn’t really matter where you’re based.

Hence: impermanence.

It’s the same kind of deal with freelance writing (or, let’s be real, any kind of freelancing): there isn’t often permanence when it comes to steadiness of work or financial income. Most of the writers I know in this situation, myself included, pin down a few different jobs a year in order to support their creativity. But since these jobs often come second to writing, the permanence of part-time work is often not really necessary.

For me, impermanence is something that I’ve struggled with for about a year now. My housing situation is rarely secure (I’ve stayed on countless friends’ sofas and even when I had my own flat it was short-term), my financial situation is rarely secure (between cafe work, festival work and teaching, I don’t often know when the next load of cash is coming in) and my creativity is not always reliable (I sometimes have weeks when words just… don’t work). But permanence – however temporary – is really important in order to have a baseline for good mental well-being so that we can juggle everything else life throws at us.

So, how can we seek reliability in something which is, for the most part, pretty unpredictable?

Something that I started doing this year (new year, new me or whatever) is trying to create some kind of accountability for myself and my writing. Each Sunday, my friend Callen and I (Callen is a wonderful writer and one of my closest friends) are sending each other a weekly email. Our weekly email updates mean that we’re constantly creating a structure for ourselves and keeping each other in the loop with our writing progress. This doesn’t mean that we have to have written a hundred thousand words every week, but it does mean that we have to have done something that contributes to our creative work. For example, this week Callen sent over a really beautiful mood-board for one of his characters, and I sent back a blurb and a couple of chapters of a new project. Knowing that every week I’ll be telling Callen what I’ve been up to means that I’m mindful during the week. When I have a spare couple of hours, I feel more motivated to get something creative done, because I know I’ll be catching him up about it on Sunday.

Finding friends in similar situations and staying in regular contact is one way I try to find some stability in my writing and my creative life – but it’s not the only way. Setting realistic goals is also a great way to create creative structure. I’ve never been a fan of the ‘x amount of words a day’ approach, but looser goals that involve less pressure and more motivation. For example – I want to have at least 2 hours of creative time a week. I can spend my creative time planning or doodling or writing – being creative in whatever form I feel like on that given week. Finding writing competitions to enter or setting time aside to read books that have been on my list forever are also ways of managing my creative time.

I guess the thing I’m trying to change this year is my own mindset towards how I feel about my creativity. Maybe writing will never bring me financial or geographical stability, but there are ways I can make it a constant driving force in my life. I can afford to work five days a week as long as I have time to commit to my creative life. I can afford to say no to going out for a drink if inspiration strikes, as long as I’m managing my creative and social life well. For me and so many others, my mental health is dependent on having a handful of constant things that make me happy and bring out my inner passions. I feel motivated and committed and more like myself when I’m writing: surely this means I should make time for it among all the other things life demands I make time for?

Let me know how you’re finding permanence and structure in your creativity this year. (On another note, tune into my Instagram to join my girl gang and fight against toxic diet culture / the patriarchy / whatever else I feel like rioting about).

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#FreedomFriday: a new movement on quills & coffee

Mental Health, Writing

Calling all writers, bloggers, and people who have something to say. From January 2019, I’ll be starting #FreedomFriday here at Quills & Coffee. Here’s a bit of info on what it is, and how you can get involved.

What is #FreedomFriday?

It’s a project I’m starting that I’d like to begin in the New Year. The basic concept is, every Friday, a blog post will be published on Quills & Coffee about something free and liberating. Feminism, mental health, and global activism are some great topics to start with, but all-in-all, I’d like to have a collection of personal stories and articles that will encourage, inspire, and motivate others.

How can I get involved?

If you have an idea for a story or article that you’d like to share, drop me an email outlining your idea, and we can chat more about featuring your writing on Quills & Coffee. Alternatively, if you meet one or more of the following criteria but don’t have an idea for a post, email me anyway and we’ll brainstorm together!

If you…

  • are a young person (17-25)
  • are able to write about independence (solo travel, finding a job, your take on university life, your struggles & achievements as a young person)
  • are interested in sustainability (talk to me about your sustainable lifestyles, from upcycling to veganism)
  • are a feminist (talk to me about being an advocate for equality, tips for those who aren’t sure how to speak out, stories from women about injustice they’ve faced, stories from men who are helping to fight the good fight)
  • are able to speak about mental health (particularly interested in stories of recovery, volunteering and raising awareness, or personal essays that are able to invoke strength and courage in others)
  • have something to scream and shout about (this is #FreedomFriday for a reason. What is that burning topic inside of you that you need to tell others about? There are no limitations here, as long as you write honestly and with kindness and intelligence. It would be great to hear stories that are able to bring out a fire in your readers. Anything that can make people feel something is great. Want to start a revolution? Your time has come.)

The deadline for dropping me an email is 20th December 2019 for January’s #FreedomFriday’s. After that, submissions will be taken on a monthly basis.

As a side note: if you are creative / artistic and have poems, artwork, photography, or flash fiction that you’d be interested in displaying on #FreedomFriday – I would love to see it.

Once again: tomlin.bethany@gmail.com . I look forward to hearing from you soon…

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Mental Health in YA: Top 5 Picks

Mental Health, Writing

I’ve had a lot of time to read this week (whoop! Unemployment!), and with my shiny new library card, I’ve been scouring the shelves for some beautiful, funny, and searingly honest YA reads to share with you. Unemployment ends soon (hopefully – keep your fingers crossed for my trial shift tomorrow…) as my bank balance is seriously dwindling, but hopefully I’ll keep finding time to read some of the wonderful YA that’s being churned out left, right and centre.

Side note: there’s so much great young adult fiction that’s being produced at the moment – a lot of it focusing on mental wellbeing – and I haven’t yet found the time to read them all. These are some of the books I’ve read recently that I loved – but don’t doubt there is so much more out there to be explored.

  1. Are we all lemmings and snowflakes? by Holly Bourne

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“I think real kindness, real compassion, is having the strength to stop and try and see where another person is coming from. To try and work out why they’re being the way they’re being. It takes time and patience. It’s not as easy, but that’s real kindness.”

Holly Bourne has been one of the big names in YA for many years now, and is really a spectacular writer who brings so much knowledge and experience of young people to her writing. I loved reading It Only Happens In The Movies a few months ago – so much so that when I was working as a bookseller, I was constantly recommending it to young girls. I’ve heard so many great things about Are we all lemmings and snowflakes? that I was a little wary going in to read it; but trust me, I wasn’t disappointed.

Now, I’m a big fan of ‘summer camp’ narratives. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s because, as a kid, it always seemed like such a far fetched, American thing (look, I went to Brownie camp, but it really wasn’t the same, okay?). The novel follows Olive as she heads to Camp Reset; a clinical trial aiming to benefit those suffering from mental illness. Olive’s narrative is so easy to get wrapped up in; I found myself empathising and hugely relating to her. One of my favourite things about Olive – and this whole novel, if we’re being real – is that her symptoms, behaviours, and thought processes are not glamorized in the slightest. This is a raw and honest novel about inner turmoil and overcoming psychological boundaries – and it’s also going to make you laugh ’til you cry. I was super emotional when I finished this one; it truly deserves it’s Bestseller spot.

 

2. What I lost by Alexandra Ballard

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“You have been through a war. And you’ve won.”

Here’s what Elizabeth has lost so far: 50lbs, a boyfriend, and her peace of mind. Then, she’s sent to a mental health unit for young people with eating disorders. Obsessed with being a size zero, and constantly influenced by her mother’s own eating difficulties, Elizabeth is in a constant back-and-forth narrative when it comes to her recovery. I think this whole narrative was hugely accurate when it comes to disordered thinking, particularly about food and weight, and it’s written in a very sensitive way.

After completing my MFA dissertation on eating disorders in young adult fiction, I’ve done an awful lot of research on this topic and was excited to read this one and really see how the author had chosen to approach it. Elizabeth is a relatable and fully-rounded character, and the other girls in the hospital were all so likeable and became some of my favourite characters. The only flaw in this novel would be the lack of diversity within this kind of environment – something I also researched into last year – but I don’t think this takes away from what this novel has achieved at all. The major demographic for eating disorders (particularly AN and BN) is young, white, women – and this is what we see in this novel. I’d like to see more diversity in the future of YA fiction exploring more men and BAME demographics: but Ballard has written a beautiful novel here. It’s heart-wrenching but often light-hearted; equal parts delicate and fierce.

 

3. Colour me in by Lydia Ruffles

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‘No such thing as just friends,’ says Mizuki. ‘Friends are more important than anything else.’

I know I don’t have to bang on about good old Lydia, because The Taste of Blue Light is still one of my all-time favourites and I know I’ve raved about it plenty to you guys. Needless to say, when I found out Ruffles had written a second novel, I snatched that UPC right out of the Waterstones staff room quicker than you can say, well… anything. Colour me in is such an important read – particularly  for lads, for once (down with toxic masculinity!) and I would recommend it to any teenage boy in a heartbeat.

We start the novel with unemployed child star, Arlo, who is living far away from his mum, and with his best mate. It’s clear from the get-go that Arlo is struggling mentally; he seems to be falling back into a pit of depression, but he’s desperate to keep up appearances for his fans and family. The only person that seems to understand is his best friend, but when he suddenly dies, Arlo is left alone. Grieving and mentally unravelling, he catches the next flight to wherever, and ends up on an unexpected adventure.

This one’s about friendship, and talking openly about mental health, and learning to ask for help, and letting go. It’s so very moving, and Ruffles’ descriptions and dialogue are as flawless as ever. It’s definitely worth a dabble (and look at the gorgeous cover!).

 

4. After The Fire by Will Hill

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“Bad and good, False and True: they’re the opposite ends of a whole spectrum of behaviour, not the only two things a person can be. Because life just isn’t that simple. People aren’t that simple, even though I’m sure things would be a lot more straightforward if they were.”

Okay, hear me out. This one isn’t technically focusing on mental health at all… But it’s about a girl who has recently left a cult, and trust me, the girl has got issues. From Chapter One, I was utterly confused about what had happened to poor Moonbeam, and this feeling will stay with you for quite some time. Determined not to give anything away to her new therapist and the FBI agent that accompanies him – the ‘Servants of the Serpent’, as she calls them – Moonbeam is constantly arguing with herself in her head.

This is a story about breaking free from what you’ve been conditioned to believe, and that’s why I think it fits in well with the list I’ve compiled here. This is a story about a girl who has been following the words of a false prophet for so long, she can’t distinguish between what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. The supporting characters as well – particularly Luke – are all so realistic, and haunting in their actions and beliefs. This book opened my eyes a lot, and I think it’s important, uplifting, and empowering. After The Fire is Moonbeam’s story, and her journey to, finally, finding herself.

 

5. The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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“Feelings don’t try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for its consequences, you’re responsible for treating it. But…you’re not responsible for causing it. You’re not morally at fault for it. No more than you would be for a tumor.”

A friend of mine read this a while ago and wouldn’t stop singing it’s praises, but it took me a long time to get round to actually picking it up. When I did, however, it was finished within the day. Because… well. It’s pretty incredible. If you pick up this book and read the blurb like I did, you’re likely to be confused by the concept (I definitely was), so I’ll do my best to explain.

Protagonist Mikey lives in a town that seems to be affected by weird supernatural things. So much so, that everyone is just kind of used to it. There’s references to this ‘vampire outbreak’ they had last year, and weird things are always happening, and there are the “Indie Kids” (think, the “Chosen One’s” of Mikey’s town) who are running around fighting battles. But Mikey isn’t one of the Chosen One’s. He’s actually pretty normal – or he wants to be anyway. One of my favourite things about The Rest Of Us Just Live Here is that there’s an equal mix of contemporary, honest, deteriorating mental health plot, and supernatural, ‘we’re off to save the world!’ plot. It really helps lift the darker parts of the novel, and also offers so much in the way of subplot that there isn’t a single sentence in the novel that isn’t pushing the narrative forwards.

The idea of this book is: if you’re not the chosen one, and you’re kind of on the side-lines… what’s your story? Mikey’s story is full of obsessions and compulsions and heartbreak and sibling bonds and this desperation to just be good enough. I personally think this is Ness’s best book yet (fight me), and I think the characters and their delicately intertwining lives have been masterfully created.

The thing I took away from this book is: we are all the chosen ones, really. Even those of us blending into the background will always have a story to tell.

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Reminder: if you find yourself in Oxford, my ‘Mindfulness Writing’ masterclass runs every Saturday until December 1st at Common Ground Workspace, Little Clarendon St.

Reckless & resourceful: powerful women in young adult fiction

Writing

I loved celebrating International Women’s Day yesterday, but let’s face it – one day just isn’t enough to celebrate all of the strong and influential women that help mould our lives. In honour of International Women’s Day and – hey, why not? – just women in general, I’ve picked out three female-oriented and wonderfully written young adult novels to celebrate with you guys.

These three young adult novels hold such a close place in my heart, and I wanted to share them with you all. Each of the following novels was written by a talented female author, with intricate and beautifully written plots and equally intricate female protagonists.

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The Taste of Blue Light by Lydia Ruffles

This novel is Ruffles’ debut, and it’s written in such an incredibly visceral way that she’s bound to have set herself up for a successful authoring career. The story follows Lux – a student at a prestigious art school in London, who has recently developed synaesthesia, a condition that makes her taste, feel and smell colours rather than see them. The narrative of this piece is so disjointed and often disturbing, but never so much that the reader can’t follow Lux’s journey. Through Lux’s panic attacks and repressed traumas, Ruffles really captures the reality of mental health conditions for young people.

“If Sylvia Plath wrote a novel for young adults, The Taste of Blue Light would be it… Beautiful. Visceral. Gripping. I loved it.” – Louise O’Neill

Lux is strong, resourceful, and often too independent to accept help and support from others. As readers, we’re very much in Lux’s head as she tries to come to terms with her condition, uncover the mysteries of her past, and navigate school and home life. One of the more refreshing elements of The Taste of Blue Light is the supporting characters: Lux’s wonderful female friends that never waver in their support, even when they aren’t sure how to help, Lux’s teachers, her mother – the women around her that hold her up, even when she doesn’t think she needs holding.

I can’t recommend this novel enough – there are so many lines throughout the novel that are so poignantly phrased that they may as well be poetry. You can purchase the novel online here. (Content warning: Lux is a complicated girl, and the book does include depictions of drug use.)

 

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Clean by Juno Dawson

I’ve always been a fan of Juno – a female writer who is a huge advocate for the LGBTQ+ community – but I think she’s really outdone herself with Clean. Protagonist Lexi has grown up living the life of a celebrity, hanging out with Victoria’s Secret models and her father’s limitless credit cards; then her heroin addiction lands her in an exclusive rehab facility in the middle of God-awful nowhere.

It’s only in rehab that Lexi learns about her addiction and can grow into the person she truly wants to be. Everyone she meets in the facility is struggling from their own addictions, whether it be food, sex, or drugs. The supporting characters – particularly the females – in this novel are just as inspirational as Lexi herself becomes. The female owner of the centre is strong, successful, and has turned her grief into something beautiful with all that she has achieved. Kendall, a transgender girl suffering with anorexia, teaches Lexi the values of being non-judgemental and open to support.

“Compulsively readable and touching – I loved it.” – Marian Keyes

This is a novel that is as deep and gripping as it is light-hearted. There are tear-jerking moments, but Lexi’s sarcastic nature will always leave readers feeling warm. I was given an ARC of Clean, but it will be out in stores April 2018, and it’s worth pre-ordering! (Content warning: those currently suffering with addiction might want to avoid due to triggering situations. Mild drug use, anorexia, binge eating disorders, abuse and death are all mentioned in this novel.)

 

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We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Firstly, I think we can all agree that the cover art for We Are Okay is overwhelmingly stunning. Can I pretend I didn’t buy this one just for the cover at first? Anyway, LaCour has published many novels for young adults now; another favourite of mine is the novel she co-wrote with David Levithan, You Know Me Well. This novel, however, is one of the best young adult novels I can think of for female YA readers.

Protagonist Marin is at college in New York, far away from her old life on the Californian coast. It’s winter, and every other student has gone home for the holidays – except Marin, who doesn’t have a home to go to. When she is visited by her best friend from her old life, Marin has to face up to some truths and confront her past.

Short, poetic and gorgeously written. . . . The world LaCour creates is fragile but profoundly humane.” — The New York Times Book Review

The entire novel is set over the space of a few days; Marin and her friend are snowed in, alone, and forced to explore their past relationship and why they’ve both been so distant with each other. This is a novel about sadness, grief, loss and love. And it’s the right time of year to read this one – We Are Okay is a novel to read while you’re curled up with a hot beverage and snow is falling outside. Perfect for readers looking for realistic and sensitively written LGBT fiction. Buy it here. (Content warning: grief, loss, death.)

Buy, read, enjoy. Although I’ve attached Amazon links to the above novels, please support these wonderful authors by buying through your local bookshops if you can!

 

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An interview with ‘The Doll House’ author, Phoebe Morgan

Writing

Phoebe Morgan, debut novelist and author of psychological thriller The Doll House talks writing, editing, and her advice to young authors with Niall Cunniffe.

Could you give readers a brief introduction to what you’ve published, and what you’re currently working on?

My first book, The Doll House, was published last year. It’s a psychological thriller about two sisters who find themselves the target of a stranger seeking revenge. I’ve just sent my second book to my publisher after doing a structural edit with my agent, so it’s all quite nerve-wracking! It’s another psychological thriller, but the title hasn’t yet been confirmed as yet. Watch this space!

You’re a commissioning editor for a trade publisher by day. Do you think this has helped you improve your writing or editing process and, if so, how?

Yes, definitely. I’m an Editor first and foremost. I work with a long list of authors, so I see both sides of the process. Working as an Editor in publishing has given me a wider understanding of the commercial market, I think, and seeing it from both sides helps me empathise more with authors, and gives me a different perspective. I’ve found comfort in the fact that I know how the publishing process works, all the ins and outs that go into making a book and getting it into readers hands. There’s a lot of work involved!

Do you think aspiring authors should get some experience in the publishing industry to help with their writing and career?

No, I don’t think that’s necessary. I would suggest they read widely and read around their chosen genre. They should keep an eye on what’s doing well and becoming successful – and figure out why certain books are more appealing or gripping than others. But writers should always be true to themselves, too – the market is an ever-changing beast so you’ve always got to keep your own voice and write what you love.

Do you think it’s becoming increasingly common for writers and authors to also have a full time job nowadays?

I think this depends on what stage of the journey they’re at, really. I know a lot of writers who balance writing around full time jobs, some of whom have children as well which is awe-inspiring! As a general point, writing isn’t always the most financially rewarding career in the world, so it’s very common for people to juggle multiple jobs, especially when starting out. I love my job – I always wanted to be an Editor, and I wouldn’t want to simply write on my own, I think I’d go mad! Of course, some authors do write full time; I think it’s a very personal choice.

Do you have a place you always go to write, or somewhere you feel most inspired?

I can write anywhere, though I’ve got a new desk recently which I’m really excited about. The shelves above the desk have some little reminders – a plant my agent gave me, a poster with an inspirational quote, my books about publishing. It’s really nice to have your own space to write, so I guess I’m lucky. However, I wrote most of The Doll House while babysitting in the evenings, or sitting in cafés at night.

How much planning and outlining do you undertake before beginning to write your novel?

I don’t plan at all, to begin with. I find it really difficult. I did write a synopsis for my agent and publisher for my second book, but that’s the extent of it. Everyone works in different ways. I prefer to get the first draft done and then edit it. I’m not one of those writers who can plan out a whole novel with sticky notes and spread sheets. I probably end up writing more drafts. I’m an editor by nature, so I’m most comfortable editing a lot than extensively planning.

Do have any other hobbies and passions, outside writing and publishing?

I’ve very passionate about the Society of Young Publishers; I’m co-chairing the London branch this year. Writing and publishing are where my main interests lie – I’m fairly terrible at everything else! Although I am trying to learn how to cook… with mixed results.

If you have one piece of advice to offer to young aspiring authors, what would it be?

Be persistent. You have to keep going. It’s a good idea to perhaps have your writing read by other people and be prepared to take editorial feedback. Focus on your own journey, and make sure you’re doing the best you can. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others – just keep your head down, do the work and make the most of every opportunity.

Keep up with Phoebe’s journey on her website, where she frequently posts about writing, editing and the world of publishing. You can also follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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A big thank you to Niall for organizing such an insightful interview with Phoebe! Keep yourself in the loop with Niall’s work by following him on twitter and checking out his blog.

 

 

 

laughing on the outside: rainy day writing, manuscript soundtracks & more

Lifestyle, Writing

When I was doing my A Levels, my best friend Amy would send our group of friends an email every single Friday wishing us a good week and linking us to The Cure’s Friday, I’m in love. That was my soundtrack this morning, when I was cleaning my house; I danced around with my mop and vacuum and thought of how simple life was back then… As it stands at the moment, I have edits to do on one of my novels, plotting and writing to do on the other, a part-time job, and a Masters degree to contend with. Oh, younger Beth, you really did have it easy, kid.

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After blitzing my house (a regular past-time whenever I get a day off work), I escaped to my nearest coffee shop – which is now, amazingly, about three minutes walk from home. God bless Costa for opening a store on every street corner. My laptop is fully charged, which is a miracle in itself, and I’m armed with notebooks and iced tea – all the necessities for a good writing day. My background music for today is the soundtrack of The End of the F**king World, which, by the way, was a pleasure to watch. I’ve already stolen several songs from the soundtrack to add to my own manuscript playlist…

Speaking of, manuscript playlists are something that I find hugely helpful when writing. My current work of progress has very dark vibes and a confusing and fragmented narrative, and I find it so much easier to get into the head of my protagonist when I’m listening to music with the same kind of twisted undertones. I’m forever trawling through Spotify and YouTube for more songs to add to my playlists: I always feel better when they’re 2+ hours long, so that I’m not distracted by hearing the same songs over and over and can focus on my writing.

Yesterday was deadline day (hooray), which means the first five chapters of my latest novel have now been submitted to my manuscript editor for review. I don’t have to think about edits for that one until the end of February now, so in the meantime… I’m writing. Beginning a novel is always my favourite part of the process: probably because I’m not really a planner so when I’m writing, I tend to have little to no idea of where my characters will be taking me. A little uncertainty is always fun.

Anyway, I’m 14,000 words in at the minute and really enjoying the motifs that keep cropping up and the characters that kind of seem trustworthy to start with and are slowly becoming less so as the plot thickens. I’m hoping to reach around 70,000 for this particular manuscript, as it’s for a YA audience. My first draft of my first novel ended at around 55,000, but now I’m discovering that I have far more words to play around with and probably should have written way more to begin with – while I was in the flow of that particular story.

I’m thankful I headed to Costa when I did, because it’s just started pouring down outside and I didn’t bring a coat. It was sunny earlier! Unpredictable British weather. You’d think I’d have adapted by now to living in the South of England by carrying an umbrella or bringing a spare jacket or something, but that rarely happens… I think when you’ve come from the North, there’s a certain element of pride when it comes to cold weather. Duh, I’m from the North. I can hack it. Brolly?? ‘Course I don’t need a brolly.

I should probably get back to working on the manuscript. I hope everyone has a great day! It definitely feels like a day to be creative, if you’re that way inclined. Enjoy.

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