‘Selfish’ and other swear words

Mental Health

Here’s a hard pill to swallow: I’m not interested in how amazing your life is. I don’t care how many novels you’ve written in the time I’ve been trying to write one, how great your boyfriend is, or how your wonderful holiday was. Getting ready to call me bitter and a terrible friend? Hear me out first.

In hindsight, these past few months feel like some sort of sick social experiment I was playing on myself. It began by being bullied into joining a group chat with everyone on my course, to ‘keep in the loop!’ and ended with me having a breakdown over my Twitter feed. I’ll slow down, shall I? Let’s really walk you through why I’ve come to the end of my tether.

It’s a tough truth to learn, but sometimes people don’t always have your best interests at heart. Sometimes people will do things (inadvertently, often not because they’re the devil incarnate) to undermine you, because it makes them feel better, somehow. Whether people realise they’re doing this or not is not the point – the fact is, we all do it, or have done it at some point. But it has to stop.

This isn’t an attack, trust me, because I have been one of these people. Remember that girl who did really well in your high school English lit exam, and came out on results day asking everyone else what they’d got because she knew she’d beaten them? Yeah, that was probably me (or some other weedy, bushy-haired lookalike). But then, you know… I kind of grew up. Even now, I’ve had so many big things I’d love to announce to the world – on Facebook or Twitter or something – but not because I really want to. Just because my successes don’t feel like successes anymore if I’m not sharing them publicly.

Anyway – back to the story: the worst writing months of my life. I’m usually very committed to my writing; I treat it like a job; I set goals and targets and I sit down and write every single day. Yet, over these last few months (months!!) I’ve likely only sat down to write about five or six times.

“Why?” I hear you cry. Well, reader, because of the pressure.

The pressure that isn’t usually there, because I’m not usually so obsessed with what everyone else is doing. It started with the damn group chat, where people (wonderful people, who I imagine just genuinely wanted to support and share with each other) would post how many words they’d written, how many great writing days they’d had, etc… But then, when there weren’t messages waiting for me on my phone to tell me that everyone else had done more work than me, I was compulsively checking Twitter to see what everyone else was doing. Are they writing today? Does that mean I should be writing today?

I watched everyone else’s word counts climb up to our 40,000 goal, ready for our September deadline, and I was stuck on 12,000. I was hurt that some of the people so willing to remind me how well they were doing knew how well I wasn’t. The rest of my peers were swimming off ahead, and I was just bobbing on the surface, fighting to keep my mental health, university work, two jobs and finances afloat. Soon, I was drowning. And even when I reached out to peers and reminded them that hey, I’m not actually doing that well, I think I’m going to go AWOL for a bit and just focus on me, I was in turn reminded of how selfish that decision was.

So here’s my plea: can we stop considering it selfish to, uh, focus on yourself? In fact, scratch that, let’s call it selfish if that’s what it is. Maybe it’s not a bad word like we’ve been pretending it is. But don’t demonise people for wanting to take care of themselves. I’ve lost months of writing time, right before my deadline, because I allowed myself to care so deeply about everyone else’s successes. I had forgotten one very important thing:

People rarely post their failures online.

It’s true, right? Let’s take this out of a creative setting for a moment, and just all focus on our Facebook timelines: on all the wonderful things happening in everyone’s life. Sure, sometimes, we get something a little more truthful, but most of my time is spent scrolling through everyone’s vibrant successes and allowing myself to forget that these people must have other things going on. We do it all the time, but let’s be real: nobody’s life is that absolutely cracking all the time.

I don’t think this is the fault of our friends and family. I think we’ve been conditioned to behave this way. It often feels like (fight me on this because it’s true) if something isn’t posted publicly, it doesn’t really count.

Why did I type and retype and then delete the I have an agent now! status that I really wanted to share with my friends and family? Because I knew how self-centred it sounded, and although it was something I’d worked really hard to achieve, I kind of thought that maybe people would think I was just lucky or that I didn’t deserve it (Imposter Syndrome, much?). Which, hey, might’ve been true. But I could have shared that status and made the rest of my writer friends feel like shit, if I wanted to. I didn’t. You know why? Everyone that I wanted to tell could be contacted either by phone or face-to-face.

This is a hard point to argue, because there are certain things that we want to share on social media because it’s important to us, we don’t have any other way to contact people, we need to promote something, etc… I have nothing against it. Hey, I love seeing pictures of your new babies. Your beautiful weddings. The picture of your first book, shiny and fresh off the print – really, I love it. But I think we can all tell when someone is just boasting, brass and insensitive, about everything they’ve achieved. We can just tell.

I’ve come in circles a bit here, so maybe this is more of a rant than a post with a goal, and I’m sorry for that. But this is my PSA: I have to focus on myself now if I want to achieve my own goals. It’s doing me no good reading about how great your life is, for the time being anyway. The frustrating thing is, I know certain people are jealous and bitter and are literally trying to make me feel this way, and I know I’ve kind of let them win by wasting all of this time obsessing over how far ahead of me they are. But not anymore, pal. We all need to be more selfish once in a while, and take time to take care of ourselves, first.

The era of bragging is over. There are exceptions, of course, and sharing your success and allowing others to celebrate with you is rarely a bad thing (in fact, it’s a beautiful thing). But boasting for the sake of bringing yourself up and everyone else down is, to be frank, really bloody nasty.

Be kind, be creative, be selfish once in a while.

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2 weeks of tent living: things we’ve learnt so far

No Fixed Abode

Today marks the two week anniversary of our transition from city-living to, uh living-in-a-field living… Here are some things we’ve learnt so far.

Washing clothes is hard

You might think it seems simple. You have a bucket, some water, and some hand-washing detergent from Sainsbury’s. They did this in the olden days, right? Only, it doesn’t seem so simple when you can’t get all the detergent out and your white T-Shirt is tinted blue, or when you’ve scrubbed your clothes but they still smell vaguely of sweat and grass… Drying your clothes is a whole other kettle of fish: I washed a shirt a couple of nights ago that was still soaking the next morning. I ended up holding it out of the car window on our commute to work, praying that mother nature would be my tumble dryer, and it was still kind of damp when I got there…

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Finding things is… also hard

How does everything get lost so quickly? It’s just one tent! Yet somehow – even when we’ve tidied – it’s a chaotic pit of shampoo bottles and plastic cutlery. Where is the hairdryer? A pen? Those earplugs you lost last week? We may never know.

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Don’t. Leave. Chocolate. In. A. Hot. Tent.

Seems obvious. Let me tell you, it’s easy to forget you’ve left that bar of Lindt under the table. (Though you do then get the absolute joy of watching your friend try and lick it all off the packet).

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Always put the bug net up

I can keep telling Beth but she’ll never listen and, at this point, I’m as bad as she is. Remember to put the damn bug net up or you will spend half an hour of your evening trying to chase a cricket out of the tent (it’s hard. They jump a lot).

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Learn to shower with spiders

It’s not that bad, really. They just want to hang out. Side note: don’t get attached to the spiders in the bathroom and start giving them names and saying hello to them every time you go in. Some other camper will squish that spider and leave out his body in a grotesque display of power. It will break your heart.

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There are many different ways to make salad

For reals. You can put salad with anything, and you’re going to want to make lots of cold evening meals to save you having to struggle with the gas cooker. (Beth chants Quiche! Quiche! Quiche! in the distance).

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Ear plugs are your friend

I did not realise this was a thing, but Beth gave me a pair last week and I’m never going back. Don’t get me wrong, the campsite is beautifully peaceful and quiet — but there are noises that seem much louder when you’re trying to sleep. Sheep, for example. Cows. Birds. Nature in general gets pretty indignant when you’re trying to catch some Z’s.

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Make friends with other campers: they might have dogs

Campers come and go all the time on our little site, and I would say a solid 90% of them have brought adorable doggos with them. If you want the opportunity to cuddle with someone’s cute dog, you make friends with them. Simple.

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Take lots of reading material

I finished my last book (it was so wonderful it barely felt like reading at all) in less than a week, then Beth finished the same one in a few days. So, now we’re out of reading material and have to actually talk to each other in the evenings (ugh, gross). The struggle is finding a book that was just as good as that one… Recommendations welcome.

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Do not expect to be satisfied with city living ever again.

We moan a lot, but it’s wild really. I love living in our little tent in our beautiful corner of the Mendips, and I don’t know how I’ll ever go back to living in a house in a bustling city again.

Luckily, we haven’t made plans to do that anytime soon…

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the wednesday wind-down: day 6 of tent life

No Fixed Abode

It’s the sixth day and, so far, nothing terrible has happened (touch wood). The weather has been glorious – almost to the point of being suspiciously glorious – and Beth and I have managed to navigate this country-living thing pretty smoothly. We’ve figured out what time we need to leave in the morning to both get to work on time (the crack of dawn, by the way), how much time we have in the evenings to cook, shower and wash up before the sun goes down… Our days revolve around how much light there is, and it’s a surprisingly peaceful existence. If I’m honest, I expected our new lifestyle to be one of those things that gets real dull real quick. Like, camping holidays are fun, but I thought that as soon as we moved into a tent, it would kind of take the fun out of it.

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This is what I expected, anyway, but it isn’t even the case a little bit. Driving onto our little field at the end of a busy workday is such a lovely feeling, and being able to sit outside and watch rabbits run around your home is pretty darn cool. I think both of us got so used to this busy, repetitive, city monotony, that we almost forgot how quiet the countryside can be.

Not only is there physically nobody else there (aside from the other campers, of course), but there’s mentally fewer people there as well. Back in our house, even if it were just the two of us there, we’d be thinking about paying our gas bill – or the electricity, or water, or council tax… – there’s always someone who needs something from you. Out here in the wilderness (I’m so dramatic – we’re not that isolated), there’s only the campsite owner to pay once a week, and petrol to put in the car. Our minds are clearer, the streets are quieter, and there’s a whole lot more sheep.

Of course, there are always a few things that you totally forget to factor in when you’re doing the ‘hey, let’s move into a tent!’ thing. For example, we had a mad and wild panic the other day about leaving our electrics on, and now we have to make sure we turn the electricity off at the socket before going to work. Lighters can’t be left inside the tent, in case they, uh, explode… We had a great experience the other day where we left some butter in an empty lunchbox and came back to a nice oily mess. But we’re working our way around it. The chocolate we bought last night is currently sitting in Beth’s fridge at work, so that we can properly enjoy some solid food later.

We’ve learnt ho36326970_10212063864180826_1268439322957185024_nw to make salads interesting – and so far have made three or four different varieties for our dinners. Buying just enough fresh ingredients for the both of us on our way home from work is so much easier than trying to cook hot food on our gas stove (though we do still have that as an option!). As always, Beth cooks and I do the washing up — which is a perfect arrangement; if I were in charge of food, it would be far less impressive than some of the masterpieces Beth creates.

Another thing that tends to slip your mind when you’re spontaneously deciding to live in a field is washing. We briefly discussed the concept of washing our clothes before we moved here, and picked up some hand-wash detergent from the supermarket to keep in our supply box, but we didn’t really have to face it until we both ran out of underwear. Then we were digging around for plastic tubs and figuring out the best way to hang our knickers out to dry whilst still maintaining some dignity…

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Last night we met a lovely couple (and their adorable puppy, Sky) on site whilst filling our kettles, and they gave us lots of helpful advice for when we move to Oxford. We’re likely to be the campsites longest standing occupants, so it’s nice to see the other campers come and go, and hear all about their travels. Even nicer when they have cute dogs for you to spend your evening cuddling.

On another note, I’ve discovered I’m much more of a scatterbrain than I originally believed myself to be. Three days in a row, I’ve forgotten to take my bank card out of the tent with me, I’ve walked to the shower block only to find I’ve left my shampoo behind, and I struggle finding my toothbrush every single morning. But, to be fair, I think I was like this before we moved into the tent. Maybe I didn’t notice my disorganisation as much when we were in an actual house…

We’ve gotten into the swing of things over here in the Mendips – and I’m not sure I’ll ever get tired of sitting out with a brew and watching the sunset each night. If anything, I’m kind of disappointed that we spent four years miserably throwing a grand and a half a month at a private landlord, for a house we were only in a few hours a day… when we could have been living like this the whole time.*

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*Maybe not in the winter months. That’d be daft.

Emptying my house: a voyage of discovery

Lifestyle

For those of you that don’t know, my tenancy for my house in Bath is ending in a couple of weeks, and my wonderful friend and current housemate, Beth, and I will be moving. Where to? I hear you ask: well, we’re still not sure. But we’ve bought a tent and we’ll take it from there.

Beth and I are polar opposites of each other when it comes to collecting physical ‘stuff’; she’s very minimalistic, whereas I am a huge hoarder. There is clutter in my bedroom that I can’t even remember the significance of, yet still seem to have some emotional attachment to. But because we don’t know where we’ll be moving to, or for how long – and we know we’re likely to be living in a, uh, tent… Well, I’m having to be firm with myself on how much actual ‘stuff’ I can take with me. So, I’m clearing out.

I wanted to write a blog post about all of the interesting things I’ve found in my bedroom so far, but I’ve just chosen a couple of them to write about today because it’s late and I have a lot of packing to do. Beth and I have been living in this house together for three years now, so I didn’t actually think there’d be many surprises. But wow. The underneath of my bed is a treasure trove of well-read Creative Writing textbooks, socks, and cereal bar wrappers. There was a whole draw in one of my cupboards that I’d completely forgotten about, and I somehow managed to discover some kind of weird parallel universe of old matching pyjama sets.

Amongst all of the absolute rubbish, though, I have found a couple of gems that I’d like to share with you. The first: a diary from 2014. This diary is absolutely brimming with weird dreams I’d had – I must’ve been in a phase of writing them down – so it’s been interesting to read through how gloriously disturbed my mind was back then! I was also far more creative than I am with my notebooks now (there are lots of pretty quote pages… I was probably procrastinating.)

IMG_0739As well as those, I found a piece of writing from when I was stuck in Tamworth station on Christmas Eve, waiting for my delayed train home to Manchester. I remember I’d been in this station for hours and there was still no sight of the train. It was getting close to midnight. I was at the end of my tether. Here’s a little snippet:

My day has already stretched over sixteen hours. I’d take a quick nap, but I know the minute my eyes close, the train will come. It’ll be like that episode of SpongeBob, where he’s waiting in the rough end of Bikini Bottom for a bus home, and every time he goes to get a snack, a bus goes past. I think it must’ve mentally scarred me as a kid. It’s all I can think about, staring at the vending machines opposite me. If I go and put a quid in the machine, a train will pull into the station and leave without me, I’m sure of it. The twix isn’t worth it.

Another wonderful find is the soft toy I grew up with: Tutu. Tutu is a little pink monster that I used to carry around as a kid. I don’t know why she was in my wardrobe or how the hell she got from Bolton to Bath at some point over the last three years without me noticing, but we were happy to be reunited.

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There’s so much more that I’ve stumbled across during my ‘clearing out’ and I am absolutely useless at throwing things away (how am I going to reduce my room into just a few boxes? how?) but I haven’t time to write about everything. Stay tuned and keep up to date with the blog to read about the whole process: moving house, living in a tent and, uh… living in a tent.

Things are about to get wild.

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Turn your ‘should’s to ‘could’s: and see results in your motivation

Lifestyle

Research for my latest novel has me delving into therapies, recovery activities and exercises for motivation. One particular activity I was introduced to yesterday was, “Write down your rules for life.”

Your rules for life, so to speak, are not necessarily rules that you stick to all the time. Your rules can be things that you feel you should be doing, or maybe things you feel guilty if you don’t do. Here are some examples:

  1. I should go for a run every day.
  2. I must not be selfish
  3. I should always text back straight away
  4. I must never be late for work
  5. I should always put make-up on before leaving the house

In my research environment, we were then told to change these negative, authoritarian words like ‘should’ to something that was kinder to ourselves. I thought this was a really interesting phrase to use, and noticed that many of the others in the environment were changing their rules to more tentative words: I could, I can, I might…

After speaking to my housemate later that evening, she pulled up an article she’d read about the impacts of using the word ‘should’. As the article says, although should’ may occasionally give good guidance, more often than not it “induces guilt, and decreases the desire to do something you might otherwise want to do.”

In this article, psychologist Susan Heitler suggests to use the words ‘could’ and ‘I would like to’, rather than ‘should’ – and the more thought I put into it, the more it made sense. Even from a simple, stripped-back perspective: if you tell yourself you would like to do something, rather than you should do something, you’re surely more likely to do it, right? It just makes more sense.

Similarly, if you use the word should when addressing others, you’re very likely to make them feel guilty for not already doing said thing. Therefore, they’re less likely to feel motivated to do said thing because, let’s face it, nobody likes being told what to do. Telling others that they should be doing something is appealing to that little bit of rebel we all have inside of us: the voice saying, “If I should, then I ain’t gonna. Don’t tell me what to do.”

For example, if I said to my housemate (which would never happen, by the way, because she is far cleaner than I am): “You should have done the washing up today. You should really help out more.”

(God, it felt weird even writing that.)

She’s not going to do it. Actually, she’ll probably be pissed off that I’m telling her to do something. But if I said, “Could you do the washing up today?” I reckon she’d be more likely to pick up the sponge.

Using the word could implies that you have an option. You could do the washing up, but there’s no pressure. You could also not do the washing up, no biggie. Similarly, if I’m speaking to myself (happens a lot), I can change I should go for a run every day, to I could go for a run every day, if I feel like it. Hey, no pressure. If I don’t feel like going for a run, I’m not going to bother, but I have the potential. I totally could, if I wanted to. But I don’t need to feel like I should be going for a run, even when I don’t want to. I tried this technique out on myself this morning, because I have a whole host of things to do and very little time to do them in. I wrote myself a little list of things that I should be doing / have already done, but used the phrase would like to instead.

Things I would like to get done today:

  • Finish off my publishing portfolio
  • Edit my manuscript submission
  • Write another synopsis & query letter

Things I could also do, if I want to:

  • Email various people waiting for work and thank them for sticking with me while I’m busy
  • Call a lady about renting a tent pitch

Just seeing these little lists already makes me feel like I’ve no pressure to complete any of my tasks – but that makes me want to do them even more! Not because I should, but because I could – and why waste that potential?

Susan Heitler’s article Should You Use This Word? on Psychology Today explains this concept far better than I can, so go and give it a read. Also thank you to my housemate, Beth, for pointing this out to me! It was too helpful of a concept not to share.

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It’s okay to be a total flake: reassurance from a total flake

Mental Health

Recently, it feels like there’s always someone who needs a bit of my time. There are emails to be answered, appointments to be made, catch-ups and study-sessions and coffee dates to be scheduled… I’m starting to understand why my lecturer’s always seem to have their ‘Out of Office’ automated emails switched on.

It isn’t a bad thing when this happens. I feel very loved and grateful that there are so many people that want thirty minutes of my time, but there aren’t really enough hours in the day for me to do everything I want to do as well as everything I need to. So, if you’re one of the people who feels like I’ve been ghosting you or being one of those friends that forever says, “We need to catch up, it’s been too long!” but is never actually available: I’m sorry. I’ll get round to you, I promise. In the meantime, I need a little time.

Anyone that regularly reads this blog will know that I’m currently trying to juggle a Master’s degree, a part-time job in my local bookstore, and getting manuscript edits sent to my agent so that we can try to sort the novel for publication soon. There are always things on top of this happening as well: meetings with lecturers and authors and doctors that I really can’t postpone. So, yeah, I’ve been terrible at replying to messages, and equally bad about re-arranging our catch-ups to later in the month when I’m convinced I’ll have a little more free time. It even took my mother a few days to get a call back from me. It’s not just you.

But the point of this post wasn’t for me to rant and bitch about how much work I have to do and how annoying it is that I have so many friends – trust me. The point of this post is to call out all of the flakes and ghosters and say hey, it’s cool. We need time for ourselves, time to recuperate, time to think and reflect and pretty much just get our acts together.

It’s really easy for me to catch myself in a web of guilt when it comes to my friends, family, and other commitments – and I’m sure I can’t be alone. Sometimes I’ll spend an evening writing, Netflix on in the background, wondering how I’ve managed to turn down so many plans with people when this is all I’ve ended up doing. I feel like I’m prioritising the wrong things, neglecting friends to stay at home, trading in human contact for the company of my laptop screen… But I have to remind myself: some people work nine to five in their careers, and this is mine. I don’t have your average working hours, but as a writer I have to find time to commit to my writing. It’s so important.

I have to remind myself that when friends message at six or seven in the evening and want to go out for drinks or just come round for a coffee, that’s kind of the middle of my workday. And alongside my career of writing, I’m also having to support myself by working part-time and also do, that, uh, university thing we’ve talked about. I can’t let myself continue to feel guilty because I’m working doing the thing I love most.

“But, Beth,” I hear you cry. “You need time to socialise – to have a life!”

I do, I promise you. I tend to schedule my phone calls and quick catch-ups in my lunch breaks at work or on the occasional evening, but if I haven’t found time for you, please don’t be offended! Please understand my lack of time and total disorganisation! I know I always end up neglecting my friends that live far away, but that’s only because I’d have to commit more than an hour to come see you (and, in some cases, a fair bit of cash that I don’t have either). I’m so grateful for the friends that understand I’m useless at keeping in touch; the friends that are fully aware of my busy life and accept the fact that I care about them, I’m just a big ol’ Cadbury’s flake most of the time.

And I’m grateful to my mum, for coming to terms with the fact that I’m probably alive and well regardless of whether I answer her phone calls or not. Probably.

So here’s a message to all of my fellow flakes: you’re not alone. We all do it, even those of us who seem like they’ve nothing better to do with their time than spend it with you. Every so often, everyone needs time to just go MIA. Ignore your phones, turn on your ‘Out of Office’ emails, and try not to feel too guilty about it. Your time is valuable and it’s always, always, up to you how you spend it.

Stay flaky,

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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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