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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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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“New year, new me!” and other lies we tell ourselves

Lifestyle, Mental Health

Before you sign up for your gym membership and book yourself onto the next skydiving course because you’ve always wanted to do it, let me offer you some advice on why changing yourself probably ain’t going to change your year.

Look, we hear the same thing every time it gets to this time of year. It’s routine by now. New year, new me! we all chant, arms laden with all the useless crap we’ve picked up in the Boxing Day sales; crap that will surely aid us in our self-development come January. We convince ourselves that it’s absolutely necessary to kit out our wardrobes – start the new year in style, right? The healthy eating kick starts then, too, so lets stock up on salad and those plastic water bottles with fruit filters.

We go through this whole charade every. Single. Year. And I swear – by February the gym membership is gathering dust and we’ve already lost the filter-thing for our water bottles. With this in mind, here’s how I plan to set realistic ‘resolutions’ that I might actually be able to keep… and ones that don’t require changing much about myself. If I did the New year, new me! every year, Christ knows who I’d be by now.

  1. Focus on realistic things that I want to do.

Not things that I think will make me a ‘better’, ‘prettier’, or ‘more accomplished’ person – just things that I want to do. Simple. If the things I choose to do help me grow as a person as a result, then wonderful. But I want to pick things that I feel genuinely excited about, rather than stuff like ‘Run a 10k.’ For some people, this is a huge source of happiness: for me, running a 10k is the equivalent of torture, so it’s staying far away from my list.

Beth’s List examples: Learn to drive, visit another country, find one dish that I like that involves avocado (I hate avocado).

2. Set several short term goals, rather than one end goal.

Okay, so, if your aim for 2018 is something like loosing weight, then you don’t want to stick ‘Lose 2 stone!’ on your resolution list. Because, let’s face it, your weight is going to fluctuate throughout the year and make you feel like a failure come NYE 2018. Set little goals that will change your behaviour and help you to lose weight – like ‘Drink at least three bottles of water a day!’.

Beth’s List examples: read a book every fortnight, write something small everyday, stop drinking coffee late at night.

3. Realise that NYE is just…. another day.

It’s great that many of us can channel our energy into this fresh start – a great change for us to start anew and really focus on our goals. But not everyone succeeds in seeing the new year as a blank slate. Let’s all sit back and realise that, despite the fact we now change one number when writing the date down, it’s just another day. Focus on the positives and don’t crumble under the pressure of what 2018 might become, or how you’re supposed to change yourself this year in order to make your life better. You’re great as you are; and regardless of how much you change, the year is likely to be wild and unpredictable either way.

My advice to you, then? Reflect on the year, party the night away, and carry on with your life the next day. Write your New Year’s Resolutions with your own happiness in mind, focusing on who you already are, rather than this elusive person you think you should be.

Party hard. See you in twenty-eighteen!

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In a lemon-honey-ginger haze: thoughts on being home

Lifestyle

You know what’s fun? Travelling home for the holidays to find your family have come down with a seriously nasty chest infection. You know what’s even more fun? … When you feel like you’re starting to catch it.

So, I made the 200 mile journey back up North a couple of days ago – a hellish series of train journeys that landed me in Worcester, then Birmingham (neither of which is where I live) until finally my mother picked me up from Moor St and we drove home. I’d been working all day, dragged my heavy suitcase to the train station and then spent the rest of the evening navigating delayed and cancelled trains until I ended my journey (and promptly fell asleep) at 2am. Needless to say, I was tearful, exhausted, and mentally drafting a letter to Great Western Rail by the time my day came to a close. Not the best start to a trip back home.

It was, however, beyond perfect to have all of my little sisters in the same room for once. Particularly Lauren, my oldest little sibling, because we rarely get to see each other – what with me living in Bath, and her in Newcastle. I only got to soak up her attention for a few hours as she was catching her bus back, but it made our time together more precious and we managed not to bite each other’s heads off (!!). There were some emotional farewells at the end of the night when Lauren’s boyfriend drove her back up to Manchester to catch her bus: we will all miss her dearly, but I’m going to plan a trip up to Newcastle ASAP. Distance won’t keep us apart for long, kiddo.

Catching up with everyone and seeing my mum, her partner, and my very many sisters again has been lovely. I still have a few more days here (and lots of other catch-ups scheduled with various pals – and my Nana!) so I’m excited to have a little more time to chill. It’s been nice to wake up in the mornings without knowing that I’ve got work to do in some form or another; I’m so used to early mornings by now that my body still naturally wakes me up around seven. Heartbreaking when you want a lie in.

My mum and her partner are both dying with this horrendous chest infection; my mum has now properly lost her voice and coughs about every three seconds. After feeling the beginning tickles of a cough last night, I texted Callen for the recipe to his emergency fix-it lemon drink:

B: how do I make your magic lemon ginger water stuff? dying x

C: *responds in less than a minute with huge essay on how to make magic lemon ginger water*

I have never been more thankful for our friendship. I got lemons, ginger, honey and boiling water and washed / peeled / chopped everything in keeping with Callen’s meticulous instructions. I distributed mugs of magic lemon water to every contaminated person in the household, myself included, and I can honestly say that I think this might be a breakthrough. I love this magic water! I think I’m going overboard on the honey, Callen, if I’m honest, but it tastes great and I’m probably going to drink this every day for the rest of my life.

I’m all cosy-ed up for the night, ready to do a little bit of writing before bed. Tomorrow is my little cousins birthday, so it’ll be lovely to head out and celebrate with the family (all wrapped up warm, of course!). I hope you’ve all had a lovely Christmas if you celebrate it and are looking forward to a fresh new year!

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A Different Kind of Christmas

Lifestyle

If I’d been asked to work in retail over Christmas last year, I would have point-blank refused. Christmas is the one time of year that it seems totally necessary to travel the 195 miles it takes to get me back home and be with my family. However, I am so in love with my job at a local bookstore that I agreed to work Christmas Eve and Boxing Day without a second thought.

But that second thought always, eventually, comes.

“I can’t go home for Christmas Day. I’m going to be alone, pulling a Cameron-Diaz-in-The-Holiday kind of stunt, drinking mulled wine from the bottle and dancing around to The Killers.

Fortunately, that was not entirely the case.

I’m very lucky to live with my best friend (also conveniently named Beth), and she was also roped into working over the festive season. Discovering that both of us would be sharing Christmas together was a wonderful moment, and immediately the preparations began. We did our Big Food Shop a few days ago, buying vegetables and pigs-in-blankets like we were soon due an apocalypse and might never eat again. After we’d set ourselves back at least sixty quid, we’d stocked up the cupboards (though we still managed to build up our anxiety thinking about everything we might’ve forgotten…)

I was woken up on Christmas morning by a phone call from my mum, her partner, and my four glorious sisters back home (who had somehow managed to open all of their presents before 7.30am), which was just like being there with them. Beth woke up shortly afterwards, and we had our morning brews to a soundtrack of Wham! and the rain on our conservatory roof. We paced our presents throughout the morning, first opening our presents from each other, then Beth’s parents, then mine.

We skype’d Beth’s mum and grandparents, called other family members and friends, then opened the little shoe-boxes of presents my family had sent down for both of us while video-chatting them. Between us, we cleared a bottle of mulled wine by midday – and I don’t know why we ever thought we’d run out of chocolate on Christmas Day; we have at least enough to share with the rest of our street (not that we will).

We’ve binge-watched First Dates, our current guilty pleasure, and watched The Muppet’s Christmas Carol while we ate our absolute feast of a meal – all thanks to chef Beth. Too tired to do anything else (aside from squeeze in some Christmas pudding), we then proceeded to nap for an hour or so and are now eagerly awaiting the Eastender’s Christmas special.

I’ve had a lovely day with one of my favourite people, and although I’ll be working tomorrow and the following day, I get to go back up North on the 27th for a week to see my family and have Christmas Round Two.

They say you should always be with family at Christmas time – and I’m very lucky to have family down here in Bath in the form of Beth.

I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas and (if you’re not working in retail like some of us) get to enjoy the rest of the festive period! Eat, drink (exclusively mulled wine if possible) and be merry.

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Quick Fire Questions: Sophie Victoria Rowe and Callen James Martin

Aspiring Writers Series

Sitting in their favourite writing spot, budding authors Callen James Martin (Type Write Read) and Sophie Victoria Rowe (write me wild) answer a series of writerly questions over several rounds of tea and poached eggs. (The tea was for Sophie… the eggs were for a slightly hungover Callen, who channelled his inner Gaston).

What is your favourite genre to write?

S: Contemporary, because I feel I can connect more with the characters. They’re more vivid in my imagination.

C: I’m not really fussy. I like an element of Gothic in my stories; the aspects of mystery and the need to solve something really resonate with me.

 

If you could be any fictional character, who would you be?

C: I’d want the bookish smarts and moral sense of right and wrong of Hermione Granger, with the fierce loyalty of Katniss Everdeen.

S: Sophie from the BFG. She was my childhood goal, and I saw her ambitions as my ambitions.

C: Could I also have Matilda’s independence and her… what do you call it?

S: Gumption?

C: I’d have her gumption. Her go-get-it attitude; here is an issue – and I’m going to solve it.

 

What is your favourite age range to write for?

S: Definitely Teen. I feel like I know a lot about being a teenager, and I know a lot of teenagers who are able to help me make my characters as realistic as possible. When I was a Teen reader, I’d look for books that had protagonists that I could see parts of myself in – whether that be physically or emotionally.

C: It used to always be YA… recently, though, I’m discovering a passion for Teen and Middle Grade. I’m really liking Teen at the moment. I like realistic characters making their way into unrealistic worlds.

 

Do you find it easier to write protagonists that are the same gender as you are / that you have lots in common with?

C: Absolutely not. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to write a male character, and in a way… I’m finding that harder. I keep wondering whether I’m writing this male character from my own experiences, rather than something that will be relatable to a wider audience of young boys.

S: In some ways, I find it easier. I can imagine it, and I know what it’s like to be a girl. Particularly when covering female topics or issues. When it comes to teenage boys, I find myself struggling to create a realistic character. I’m more likely to slip into stereotypes to write my way through.

C: See, I only had girl friends growing up, which is why it’s probably easier for me to relate to a female readership. Like Sophie said, I do worry about slipping into stereotypes.

 

Can you both give me a brief overview of your current writing projects?

S: I’m currently working on a contemporary novel, for a Teen readership. It dabbles with a variety of conflicts that arise at that age; social hierarchies, first loves, friendships and personal development. The novel follows Piper and Erin, two fifteen-year-old’s who used to be best friends, but have grown apart over the years. They are forced back together when Piper’s mum becomes ill and Piper has to move in with Erin and her family (including Erin’s brother – Piper’s crush, Ethan). Throughout the plot, the girls have to figure out how to deal with the situation, whilst trying to retain their social boundaries.

C: I am studying an MA in Writing for Young People, and my current project is a contemporary coming-of-age novel for a Teen readership. In a nutshell, my novel is about choosing to be who you are, not who others want you to be. It follows Noah, aged fifteen, as he deals with his sexual identity, his restrictive home life… and a stalker who knows everything about him – things he doesn’t even know himself. (Oh – and there’s a dog, called Chestnut!)

S: …who I named.

 

Who is your favourite children’s author at the moment?

S: Sara Barnard. Without a shadow of a doubt. She just has such an elegant way of displaying such personal disasters. Her characters are my friends by the end of the first chapter, and I’m hooked on their journey until the last page. You never know what’s coming next with Barnard, and I’d love to be able to take readers on the same journey. Characters in Teen fiction are so important – so having ones that a reader can really identify with really makes a difference.

C: My current Oh My God author is Robin Stevens. She has a knack for creating fully-rounded antagonists that, as a reader, you can’t help but feel things for. Not only that, but she’s not afraid to comment on cultural and social differences between characters. As an author, she deals with the Big Things – she makes you laugh, cry, or feel whatever you need to feel for the characters at that moment… Like Sophie said, she creates characters that I want as my best friends. Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells — where you at, gals?!

 

Finally, do you have any advice for young aspiring writers?

S: Write, write, write. Read, read, read.

C: I agree. For myself, the biggest learning curve that I’ve recently realised is sometimes, you can plan a novel and everything seems to flow… but other times, you’ll sit there with a blank piece of paper and nothing will come. Some ideas can’t be planned, you can only figure them out by diving in and blindly writing them.

S: Yeah, I never plan. I know the basic idea of what I want to write, and then I just write. It’s never in the right order, my scenes don’t match… and sometimes they don’t even get included.

C: –very true. When you’re blindly writing, be prepared to throw away thousands of words – not everything is going to be included in the final cut. It’s important to have done it anyway, though – through it, you’ll get a better sense of character. It’s all part of the world building.

S: No matter whether it’s included or not, it gets you into the routine of writing. Even if it is rubbish. It’s words on a page. It’s something. Write, write, write.

C: …read, read, read.

 

You can read Callen & Sophie’s blogs here.

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Editing your manuscript: how to start and what to look out for

Writing

So you finished your manuscript! Congratulations! Now comes the hard part… editing that bad boy to high heavens. *Taylor Swift voice* Are you ready for it?

The first thing to do when you’ve finished your manuscript – when you’re sitting in front of that final page wondering how the hell you managed to do it – is make yourself a brew and revel in your achievement. You’d probably benefit from leaving your manuscript for a week or two and just enjoying that life you weren’t able to have whilst writing it… But, if you’re like me and you just want to leave it a few hours and get cracking – here’s what you want to do.

Identify the elements you need to look for. Good ones to start with are the broader elements: plot, characterisation, setting and voice.

  • Plot – When you’re rinsing through your manuscript looking at the plot, you’re focusing on plot holes and inconsistencies. Sometimes it helps me to write a timeline as I’m reading through, so I can see exactly what I wanted to happen to the characters, and what actually ended up happening.
  • Characterisation – Time to whack out those character profiles – you know, the ones you drew up six months ago…? Get them out, pin them up, and make sure that you’ve been consistent with each character throughout the novel. This is not just about your protagonist! Every little walk-on or secondary character needs their own individual plot-line and motivations. (Top tip: look at your protagonist in the first and last chapters — have they developed enough? Or not at all?)
  • Setting – Setting is something that you don’t need to get too caught up on, but you still need to give a significant amount of thought to. Have a rinse through the novel and see how frequently the setting changes, and when it does – have you been consistent in your descriptions? If you’ve described an empty church at night-time, make sure it isn’t sunrise five minutes later – that kind of thing.
  • Voice – This is a big one. There are some incredible novels that use the voice of their protagonists to show character development (see: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff). Does the voice of your protagonist employ this technique? Do they start off with an accent that slips a few chapters in? Is there a certain phrase you wanted them to use throughout the story? …You get the gist.

When you’ve had a look through and narrowed down the broader aspects of the plot (and bear in mind, this might take anywhere from a week to several months…), you can move on to looking at the smaller elements. I say ‘smaller’, but these things are equally important. Grammar, syntax, layout… Allll the boring stuff that is actually ridiculously vital if you want a publisher to even pick up the manuscript.

There are standard formats and layouts that most publishers or literary agents will be comfortable with (clear fonts like Arial or Times New Roman, double spacing…) – but it is 100% worth checking the website of who you are likely to submit your work to. Its almost a guarantee that the few agents you pick out will be asking for the same kind of thing, but it’s always worth checking. Always.

If grammar isn’t really your thing, this is where you want to get your beta readers involved. These are a few people that you trust – and nah, this doesn’t mean your mum. Often, you can just drop a tweet into the inter-webs and see if anyone is up for reading your work. If you’re writing YA, for example, you’re going to want someone who likes to read YA and might be a potential reader in the future – these are the kind of readers who know what they’re looking for in a character or plot. You want to choose a few people (I’d suggest 3-5) who have an impartial opinion (aka not your mum or granny) and might actually know what they’re on about.

I, personally, wouldn’t bother paying a professional editor if you have people in your life that are decent with grammar and punctuation that could help you out. Don’t waste your cash. If you can get your formatting and syntax sorted for agent submission and manage to bag an agent on the quality of your plot and characters, an editor is something that they will sort out for you further down the line.

I hope all of this makes a decent amount of sense… good luck, guys! Happy editing – and if you have any questions about editing, manuscripts, or the whole process of finding beta readers for your novel, drop them below.

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