“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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Writers for children should cling onto their imagination for as long as they can

Writing

An important question: can adults still act like kids and get away with it?

(An important answer: yes.)

I’m lucky enough that two of my closest friends are following the same career path as me. We are all aspiring children’s authors, which is wonderful and wild and an awful lot of fun, but sometimes it’s easy to slip, from writing kids stories, back into adult mode. Particularly when you have to flit from thinking of a great name for a magical kingdom, to wondering what date you’re supposed to pay council tax…

This weekend, my two budding kids lit writers and I had a sleepover. It was wild. I think – particularly if you’re writing for a teen (11-14) audience – having grown-up sleepovers is hugely important. It’s wonderful to forget how old you are for a second and immerse yourself into the nostalgia of your teenage years.

Of course, there are little details that remind you that you’re still kind of in the adult world. For example, rather than getting our mum’s to drop us off at Callen’s house, Sophie and I drove to Sainsbury’s to pick up all of the necessities (junk food, face masks, etc) and then dropped ourselves off at his house. Weird. But, still.

When we arrived, it was an immediate let’s all get into our PJ’s and listen to Taylor Swift on repeat moment, which is obviously the moment we’re all waiting for at a sleepover. We watched Beauty and the Beast (the new one, obvs! Emma Watson is stunning) and then took a ridiculous amount of photos – most of which ended up looking like awkward family portraits.

The point of this is: after we all went back to our respective houses on Sunday, I sat down to immediately write. There’s something about acting like a bit of a kid that will really open up your imagination, and suddenly it’s as if you are literally fifteen years old and you can delve right into the head of your character.

Getting into the heads of your intended target audience is a very common (and practically compulsory) technique when writing children’s literature. If you are writing for 8-12’s (middle grade, for American readers), then why aren’t you outside making magical ‘potions’ in the garden – or curled up in a makeshift sheet-den watching Spongebob Squarepants?

Maybe it’s easier for those writing for young adults (14+) because that’s the age we were most recently… but even so, get out there and do whatever your character does on their average evening. Go roller skating (if you’re skilled enough), or shopping with your friends, or go drink smuggled alcohol in a bush or smoke behind the bike sheds (no judging – if that’s the kind of character you have, roll with it).

Allow yourself to be a kid, for as long as you need to be. Think like your character, become your character – and then you can write in their voice so much easier.

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Read Callen’s blog here.

Interviews with Aspiring Writers: Soothing Sense

Aspiring Writers Series, Writing

The author of soothingsense.com talks Nanowrimo, favourite writing places, and the importance of seeking out a writing community to feed your inspiration.

So, first of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself as a writer?

The first time I really learned about the craft of writing was at university, where I began to find my writing voice through my undergraduate essays. I then stayed to complete postgraduate studies, including a PhD. Writing my thesis gave me a taste of the challenges and rewards of completing long writing projects, with the final piece totalling around 70000 words. There were so many times I thought I wouldn’t complete it but I’m glad I stuck with it now!

It was just as I was finishing my PhD that someone sent me a link about NaNoWriMo. The aim of NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month, is to write 50000 words in the month of November. Having just finished my PhD, the last thing I wanted to do was to embark on another long writing project and so the email sat in my inbox for the next eight years or so! Happily, I completed my first NaNoWriMo in 2016 and I’m just preparing now to have another attempt at it. Taking part in NaNoWriMo has helped me to rediscover my love of writing and, although it’s difficult to fit in around work, getting in touch with this creative side of myself again has been life-changing. It gave me a sense of purpose at a time when I was feeling quite lost.

Tell us about your novel! How are you finding the process of writing and editing a longer piece of fiction?

The novel I wrote last year was a young adult fiction with a working title of Imperfect. It’s about a girl called Ella who is struggling to deal with the pressures of school and exams. Food is her only comfort but even that isn’t straightforward and, as the year progresses, Ella’s feeling of inadequacy grows stronger. The book explores Ella’s struggle with confidence and the conflict between wanting help and the fear of letting people into her inner world. I am editing Imperfect at the moment and hope to have it completed in the spring. NaNoWriMo was a great way of getting a basic outline and it really helps to be able to participate in sprints online. The editing process is feeling brutal in comparison! However, I am working with a writing mentor and her support makes such a difference! It keeps me focussed and is teaching me a lot about how to improve my writing too.
This year for NaNoWriMo, I am aiming to complete the first part of a story that examines a client’s journey through therapy told from the perspective of both the counsellor and client. The working title for this is Stupid Clocks because I always hated it in counselling sessions when we ran out of time!

What is your favourite age range / genre to write for?

I like writing for lots of different age ranges and this can sometimes make it hard to stay focused! Generally, everything I write has a strong emotional component to it and I love to write things that can perhaps inspire self-care and make it less scary for people to seek support from others. Even my PhD had a lot to do with emotions so this is a theme that has been there from the start and I continue to explore it in my blog, Soothing Sense. Although all my work has been for adults so far, I would love to write something for children one day.

Do you have any favourite places to write? Where do you feel most inspired?

I tend to write at home but I’m most productive when I’m on holiday and don’t have to juggle writing with work. One of my favourite places to go is Brighton. I’ll sit on the beach, find a lovely cafe in the Lanes or go to the local library. This is my idea of heaven!

Finally, do you have any advice to share with other aspiring authors?

My main advice would be to think about getting support in your writing journey. That could come from a process like NaNoWriMo, which can connect you to other writers online or in your local community, a writing group or from a mentor. It really helps when your confidence is low to have other people to support you! The other thing would be to think carefully about the software you use because it can make a real difference to the ease of the writing process. For most of my writing now, I use Scrivener but OmmWriter is a beautiful piece of software, which I use on days when I feel I need something a little more gentle. Finally, don’t be afraid to say no to things in order to create time to write. If you’re like me, creativity is perhaps an important part of your self-care so it’s worth an investment of your time!

You can follow Soothing Sense’s writing journey next month at https://nanowrimo.org/participants/soothing-sense, or visit their blog at soothingsense.com. A big shout out to Soothing Sense for their honest and thoughtful responses!

If you’re an aspiring writer and you’d like to be interviewed on Quills and Coffee, drop me an email at quillsandcoffeeblog@gmail.com. And if you’ve felt inspired by, or have a response to this interview – leave a comment below!

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