The tail in the tales

When I saw this tweet, I immediately knew I had a story to submit. A story of a mermaid lost in the wrong world. Of a girl searching for her place. Of a little guidance when you least expect it.

This year has been A YEAR. Personally, professionally, all of it. And if my writing has come second to all of that, then submitting has been at the bottom of the list. So, I tentatively pushed Bridget, Lucy and Una out into the big bad world.

Apart from I had a little bit of safety. I knew that my river girls would be safe in the hands of the Dancing Bear Books team – even if they didn’t want to publish their story.

BUT THEY DID!

As you can tell, I was a tad excited. It really did make a huge difference when the big bad world was just a bit too close for comfort.

So why I am I telling you this?! Well. BECAUSE THE BOOK IS HERE!

You can order it direct from the Dancing Bear website NOW! It’s full of weird and wonderful stories, empowering tales, wholehearted goodness. The team are also working for it to be available via Amazon and Waterstones (stores too!) but supporting Indies directly is always lovely.

And as the foreward says – the magic starts with you…


A little note about Little Book of Fairytales

The Dancing Bear Books team created an opportunity for this book because they could see the need for diverse content. We live in a time where fairy tales have never been more relatable, a time where pantomime villains seem to be pulling strings and in consequence, each one of us has become an underdog hero. This book is for voices that have been silenced and stories that have been brushed aside. Little Book of Fairy Tales welcomes everyone; their tragedies, their successes and their love stories.

This book is written for and by minorities. DDB made an extra special effort to make sure that voices who don’t usually get to speak have a platform. Having these voices and having them tell their own stories was hugely important to DDB, and as minorities, they wanted to create something that was for minority groups. This representation isn’t a last thought or tokenisation. Something I respect hugely and it’s why I wanted to get involved.

As the fairy tale Queen, Kirsty Logan says:

Fairy tales and folk tales are darker, stranger, messier and more satisfying than people might remember. They’re not just about being pretty or winning princes; they’re about loss and betrayal, regret and confusion, joy and fulfilment. They’re about us.

Kirsty Logan, interviewed in Why long-lost folklore still matters to modern listeners

A story that took flight

The following comes with a proviso, or a few.

Firstly, there are going to be spoilers in this so if you haven’t seen The Aeronauts as yet, please come back once you have – I really would love to hear what you think of the film or indeed other films that have inspired you and your writing.

Secondly, I am an inconsistent reviewer. This is mostly because of time (there’s always a more pressing deadline for me to write), or mindset (why-would-anyone-want-to-read-what-I-have-to-say-itis).

Thirdly, I’m not a film critic. I generally leave that up to my brothers who would have much more intelligent (or at least long-winded) things to say no doubt.

But with all that in mind, I realised that it wouldn’t work as a very long twitter thread (often how I share my thoughts about various things that have inspired or fired me up) so instead, the thoughts are going to get put down here.

Neither of us rushed out of our seats, instead we let the credits roll before starting to discuss the experience of the story we’d just been a part of. We came out of the cinema into freezing fog that felt so otherworldly and yet so close to what we had just watched that it gave the right atmosphere to keep up our conversation all the way home. We often talk about the films we see on the way home, but this felt different somehow.

Having recently plotted out my novel, to try and find my way through the story I wanted to tell vs what came out in a few drafts many moons ago, the awareness of the typical story structure was very present in my mind. The joys of being a writer and a critical reader. It tends to mean that I can see where a film or a TV drama is going too, which can spoil the experience somewhat when you’re looking for some kind of escape. The Aeronauts didn’t leave me feeling like that.

Instead I felt taken by the hand, invited into the basket of the balloon to explore with them. I loved how it started in the middle, stepped back for what felt like the briefest of moments to explain how they got there, before continuing. This isn’t a new thing, or something I haven’t seen or read before, but it worked so beautifully.

I loved that it wasn’t a love story. That there were human drivers for the characters, but that wasn’t the end goal. There wasn’t a magic wand for the grief both main characters felt – her for her husband, him for his father, both for not being heard or understood by those around them. Everything was waiting for them when they landed again, but in the time that they rose to the extraordinary height and back down again it was just them.

I didn’t know how it was going to end, and that was a thing of beauty in itself. There were no huge pointers, no over explanation, no over-the-top twist. It unfolded, yet it was no where near as straightforward or plain as that sounds. I breathed a sigh of relief when they landed, I let go of my wife’s hand which was pretty much crushed out of fear for their not getting to earth again, but I didn’t foresee it. It could have gone either way right up until they both were standing (just).

The balance between the two characters was extraordinary. That they were able to save one another (although, let’s face it, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) did a lot of the hard work). That the writers, the film makers/ directors/ producers, the actors, gave enough space for the words they did say and those they didn’t. In a novel or a short story, that space is often more present than in films especially mainstream feature-length, yet it was so important. It felt like we were watching an two-hander play, the intimacy was so immediate – most likely because of the confinements of the balloon itself.

Most of all, that feeling has lasted. Long enough for me to stay up and immediately write this. Long enough that I know I’ll wake up tomorrow thinking about this story. Long enough to think some more research about aeronauts is required because I want to know more. Long enough to understand how I want to write a story as good as the one that we were just part of.

Listen to the Whisper Network

If only you’d listened to us, none of this would have happened.

Chandler Baker’s novel, Whisper Network, starts and ends with a call to be heard. For the women at the heart of the novel to be heard, for the voices that inspired their stories to be listened to.

The novel is not straight forward, stories like these rarely are, and it’s suitable that it doesn’t fit in the narrow boxes that publishing houses like it squeeze most into. In parts, social commentary, thriller, women’s fiction: dark humour edges it but with the bite of reality that stops you laughing too hard.

It’s a story of how one man’s actions affects the lives of multiple women. It is the story of how the world sees the action of few women that would change the course of one man’s life. It’s the story of how the world views one story as more important than the others. It’s the story of our mothers, sisters, daughters. Our bosses and our assistants. The invisible and the seemingly seen. The story of how all actions will have consequences but they’re not always in our control.

I don’t want to deep dive into the story, pick it apart and re-present it for you. Because that’s what happens. I want you to explore it and find your own story in it, as I did, and as the author wants you to. Her notes on why she wrote the book are as worth reading as the novel itself.

One thing I will say, is that I went into reading it with this marketing bi-line:

Big Little Lies Meets #MeToo in THE Must Read Book of 2019

I often avoid the books that come with the hype, the order to read it, and to be honest for the first chapter or so, it tainted my reading. I was looking for the clever cinematic reveals and the self-reflected story. Yes, that does come with it but it’s a carefully told story with excellent literary devices. And they are all more the satisfying when they happen to you rather than you looking for them. Let their stories take you in, as hard as it is hear all of them.

Whisper Network is published today. I hope women, and men, will read it, discuss it, and continue to learn with it.

A place to retreat to

This is not a review I want to write. You’re going to find out my secret and then I’ll have to share. I’m terrible at sharing.

To be totally honest with you, with myself, I share ‘me’ too much. So much so that it leaves very little time for ‘me’. Urgh. Just writing that sentence makes me cringe.

However, it’s true. I needed an escape. Not a complete run for the hills (my wife needed to escape too) but to be away. I saw someone recommend Catherine McNamara’s writing retreats in Italy. Cat and I met long ago at The Word Factory, and she’s often said we should go out there.

The thing was, she runs writing retreats. I wanted to go away to write, but I also wanted to go away to think, to read, to have enough head space for possibilities. Also, my wife doesn’t write (she tells people that. Actually she’s a damn good poet but she keeps it on the quiet). So would it be fair?

She went along with my plan, when Cat said of course she could do a retreat for the two of us. Because that’s what Cat can do – make it fit for you. The writer who stayed a week or so before us had spent her week mostly holed up in a choice of inside and outside spaces working. But Cat gave her the space to unplug too, to discuss work and life and the universe over beautiful meals and excellent drinks. I imagine anyway, because that’s we did, a lot.

We also got guided tours of two cities that are now firmly in our hearts. I read almost three books (probably the same I managed in the first half of the the year) and took the time to discuss them at length. I thought a lot, but not the worrying thoughts that plague the day-to-day about work and family and life on the whole. I thought about my writing, what was working and wasn’t. I even talked about it, which I hadn’t felt able to for a while because my focus has been on the work that can pay now, rather than hopefully later. I thought and talked about that work too, and how it’s going to play out in the second half of my first year as a freelancer.

We slept in, we stayed up late, we got up early, we crashed out. Whatever worked on that day. The only ‘order’ was ours to decide.

I run retreats, much shorter, one day retreats for Writers’ HQ writers. I know the power of saying – “don’t worry, whatever you do today is yours to do. You don’t have to do the washing up, and you don’t have to think about what’s going on at home, you just need to be in the room writing.” I watch writers leave with big grins and new ideas. I forgot what that feels like myself. Until Cat gave us that, or maybe just the space for it. New ideas, hope, and relaxed grins.

I’m going back, next time, as a writer writing rather than a writer in need of a break. I’m going back to sit in the sun-warm outbuilding to write more of the next draft of my novel where Cat wrote her first. I’m going back to continue to reform ideas when the head space is lacking. I’m going back to be in great company and to be looked after in the way I hope I look after my writers (if only for a day and not a week!). I’m going back because I promised Voss (the pup) I’d kick the ball some more.

I didn’t want to share, because I know that Cat’s weeks get booked up. There’s some availability left in late August/September I believe, and if you fancy being part of a taught group then Cat will be running a tutored retreat with Tom Vowler in September (which I’m gutted to miss). She’s taking bookings for 2020 too if you like to plan ahead.

You can find all the info about the retreat on Cat’s website, as well as more about her award-winning writing. Just leave me a week, eh?

A day to be marked

Yesterday, I got to the six month mark of working ‘alone’.

Yesterday, my grandfather past away.

Yesterday, was my last day of full work before I go on holiday. A proper holiday for the first time in two years.

Yesterday, I took a deep breath for the first time in a while.

The call finally came that we’d waited for, for so long. I passed the point that I’d been looking to. I breathed.

I could breathe because it hurt a little less knowing that he wasn’t suffering now. I could breathe because I’m proving myself with every day of freelancing. I could breathe because I’m never alone, not really. Life and work intermingle so closely now, I can’t untie them. And actually, I’m okay with that.

I am my work, I am what I produce, but I’m also how I think and feel and act and react. Working 9-5 wasn’t working, but freelance has offered me flexibility and a chance to break the mould. Freelance has also offered me the chance to work with more brilliant and kind people than ever before.

I have family members who lift and support me whilst allowing me to help develop their baby at Writers’ HQ. Without Sarah, Jo, Natalie, and the team, daily life would be gif-less, giggle-less, and with fewer swear words.

Alongside this role, I’ve been fortunate enough to join teams at multiple companies via We Are All Connected and I love being part of the Brighton scene again via Robin’s brilliant company. I’ve been lucky to get calls out of the blue from people who seen that I’ve moved on. I’m lucky enough to see now that I made a good impression on them, and it’s led me to working with exceptional female leaders like Anne and Fiona at HighNetWork.

I learnt that I can work all night when I say yes too many times, but it’s better not to. I’ve learnt that I can say no, and I’ll be respected for it not criticised. I’ve learnt that things will come along when they are needed because I have faith: in my network, and in my ability to reach out, support others, and in my work. I’ve learnt not to squirm too much when writing self praise.

I’m learning that I can box-up and un-box life and work to form some sort of balance. I’m learning what patterns work for me, breaking old habits and forming new ones. I’m learning that my clients have my back, as much as I’ll have theirs. So that yesterday, I felt able enough to say “I’m feeling this” when I got the news about Granddad, and they knew I meant it when I said I’d finish up my work before I go away.

I have learnt more about faith and trust in the last six months than any other time before. There are so many to thank for that, none more so than my wife who has always believed in the woman I will become and am already becoming.

There is more to unpack in the grief, in the joy, in the every day of life. But. This blog marks a change. And I’m proud that I’m marking it myself.

ARH reviews: The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

So it is no secret I am an admirer of Logan’s writing. I started getting excited about her first collection of short stories, The Rental Heart and Other Stories, back in 2015. I use the title story as an example in workshops – I cannot forget the protagonist in that story. In fact I cannot forget so many of Logan’s stories. I ate up her first novel and her second collection soon after and have been waiting impatiently for more stories.

The Gloaming novel Kirsty Logan

The Gloaming is packed full of the stories that I had been waiting for. The magic within them, the unsettling dark and light of the island, the weight of myth, legend and the elements.

The Ross family grows and changes with the tide, pulling you in and along with their unfolding. Although Mara leads, the multiple perspective allows you to weave in and out of views to see the full picture. Piece by piece.

The novel is a mesmerising dive into what it is to belong, loss and grief, the turn and tumble of love, how sexuality belies what ‘should be’.

I want to write more about Mara, Islay, Bee, Peter, Signe, Pearl. Having read their story quickly, gulping in words that bring wonder and often don’t fit my sasanach mouth, I want to tell you everything.

Instead I will say this. Read The Gloaming now.

On the 365th day

In September 2016, I started getting buddy boxes from the Blurt Foundation. They were a little thing to look forward to, a gift just for me. The buddy boxes were great at promoting selfcare and I began to realise how much this could help me. In fact I started to realise how much I had been ignoring my own care in the years before my depression was diagnosed 2.5 years ago and even through my treatment and management of it in the year plus following diagnosis. However, alongside the buddy boxes, I began making other positive changes, like finding a new 9-5, which helped set-up 2017 as a year to tackle selfcare.

I read that Jane and the team at Blurt had started a campaign for selfcare that October; #365daysofselfcare. By the end of December I was in that reflective/resolute type of place and I decided to start the challenge on the first day of the year. Not much thought other than, this might be good for me, went into it. I didn’t think about how it would be a whole year (even though the name of the challenge gives that away), and I didn’t think of the real impact it might have on me, let alone on others.

Friends, loved ones, strangers alike have asked questions throughout the year, like:

  • Why are you doing this?
  • What does it mean to you?
  • Are you finding it easy?
  • Will you keep doing it?
  • Should I do it?

Answers have varied, but mostly;

  • Because I need to.
  • Right now? Everything.
  • Nope. Well sometimes, but more often it’s a slog.
  • I did. I’m so very glad I did.
  • If you want or need to. In fact, if you don’t think you need to then maybe do it anyway. Prove to yourself that you’ve got selfcare down. And then tell me the secret.

You don’t need to be depressed to need selfcare. Everyone needs care, love, kindness – and if you can give it to yourself then that’s the greatest gift ever. To not just survive, or slap a smile on. To recognise what you need, ask for it, get it, give it. That’s what selfcare is about. It’s not about how much you spend. It’s not always about bubble baths and facials – although sometimes, that is the care that you need. On my worst days it’s about letting myself be cared for, doing the bare minimum but the minimum that will help – which can include just getting up to brush my teeth. It’s about recognising what you need and giving yourself the permission to have that.

On the best days, that has meant making the most of everything around me, spending time with my loved ones or happily on my own. On bad days it was about listening or reasoning what I needed as a bare minimum. At my worst this year, I went through two weeks of panic attacks due to a change in medication where I didn’t listen like I needed to. I finally reasoned with myself that I couldn’t wait another two weeks for the appointment I had with my doctor. I listened because it’s not what I would have let anyone go through if I’d known it was them not me experiencing the panic.

The bad is horrific but the good is great. Selfcare has enabled me to learn and remember how life is both, how I can be both or multiple inbetweens. My lowest points don’t have to define me.

That is this biggest lesson of all that selfcare has taught me. That I can be a good writer and have depression (I know I am not alone there!), that I can be a writer and have a career in marketing too, that I can have a career in anything and have depression. Because if I care enough about myself then I can achieve whatever I damn please, in spite/because of/independent of having depression.

If you’re thinking of doing #365daysofselfcare, I’ve got a few tips.

  • Go into it open hearted and with a growth mindset. Or be willing to grow.
  • Want some knowledge and/or support from the experts? I suggest reading Daring Greatly by BrenĂ© Brown (vulnerability goes hand in hand with recognising you need to care more, she’ll help. I also suggest her latest book, Braving the Wilderness. Watch her Ted talk if you’re unsure), The Selfcare Project by Jayne Hardy (I wish I’d had this in the beginning. I’m reading it now and it’s teaching me loads and helping me recognise what I’ve achieved in this year), and lastly, if you’re a creative type then Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
  • You can do selfcare in whatever way works for you. You can do it for a year and keep a diary of it. Like me, you could post photos and comments on it on social media. You could just tweet or write statuses. I only suggest doing this on a platform which you find supportive. For me, I am glad I did it on Instagram because I’ve found people like makedaisychains (who helped so much with her #boringselfcare drawings) kay_ska, and planetprudence. But do what works for you.
  • Don’t be afraid to not post. It helps, it really does, to physically put out into the world what you’re doing, but also it’s just as fine not to. I found by around half way through that it helped me more to be offline. So that meant I did catch-up posts, because even though I wasn’t posting, I was still doing the selfcare.
  • Not sure where to start? Check out this free starter-kit.

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So, that’s it. I’m ending this year, in my pyjamas with a glass of prosecco in hand, and a smile on my face. I’ve looked at all my photos and I can’t pick my best. Each day has helped me, and I hope the next year of selfcare helps you too.

 

On being a letterer*

*no not the comic book kind. My kind of letterer. Deal.

Today I have written three letters, the first ones for a while. It takes something out of me, which I can’t always tap into or give. I hadn’t noticed when writing one or two a time, but when I wrote four one Saturday, I realised how much energy was going into each one. Just as much as a story. More maybe. They quite often become more personal that I aim for, especially knowing that there won’t be a response. I often get more philosophical than I mean to too, but somehow that can make me work out what is buzzing around my head in that unreachable space. The process is a little like meditation.

Letters

I started writing letters for From Me to You in March. I already sent irregularly timed letters to friends which is why Alison invited me along to their letter writing workshop at Waterstones Piccadilly. Working with From Me to You, I often write to complete strangers who are currently dealing with cancer. This was something I wish I had done for loved ones in the past but these letters have provided so much that I couldn’t have foreseen.

When you’re ill and dealing with the onslaught of treatment, having some escape is vital. You may not have the energy to read a whole book, or the conversations you have with friends may have a habit of coming back to your illness and the limitations it can bring. I have written about my fears around depression, and I can only relate in that way – having never had cancer, but there have also been frank conversations with loved ones who have had cancer who didn’t want to talk about themselves but wanted to hear my stories about my day, or what I was passionate about right in that moment.

So that’s what I try to share with the recipients of my letterees (yes, I just made that word up. If you can be a letterer – I know it’s not the right context, who cares – then you can be a letteree). At first I used to try to justify why I was writing. I felt selfish because I couldn’t ask and listen to what was happening with them, until I realised that was part of the point. This way, the letteree gets to access a whole other life in a moment. Occasionally From Me to You send me the name and a little info about someone who has been nominated to receive letters. I’ve been writing to one man for a little while now, and it was so rewarding to hear that what I’m sending is making his days easier and making him smile. We both have a love for Marvel so I’ve been sharing my theories about the current Netflix series and the latest films. It doesn’t have to be Plato-level philosophy!

The fact that I get something from it also feels selfish, but it’s a thought I’ve learnt to put aside. I give more than I would if I were just making a monetary donation, and instead of a sticker or a badge I get some insight back. If it’s not something that person wants to read, I can’t stop that or fix it – but there is something beautiful about the serendipity of just sending words out into the wider world. That in turn has helped me relax about the stories I write and where they will end up finding homes. See, it is the gift that keeps on giving.

If you’d like to find out more about From Me to You, and how you can become a letter writer (or letterer in my world), then visit their site.

Shhh. Top secret plans afoot.

Okay, so it might seem like I’ve been ignoring you all for some time, or more to the point ignoring this blog, but there are lots of secret squirrel plans coming together whilst I piece together my short story collection.
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Most secret (not so secret anymore) is the news that I’m becoming part of Team WHQ. I’ve spoken highly of Writers’ HQ in the past (used to be called Brighton Writers, until they decided to take on the world). From July I’ll be running monthly retreats in Cambridge – so get signed up here for when all the details are confirmed when you’ll get official type invites with discount codes and everything!

It’s also worth knowing that I’m running short story workshops at the Evesham Festival of Words on Friday 30th June, and at the Jersey Festival of Words at the end of September – so I hope to see you at one of these events too.

The books your tokens are waiting for

As we all know, book tokens are second only to carefully chosen books, when considering the best gifts one can get. I had planned on putting together a list like so many others to recap on my reading this year to inspire gift choices, but I’m a few days or even a few weeks too late for that. These recommendations are the books I’ve loved this year, the ones Santa was kind enough to drop into my stocking, and the ones I’m looking forward to in 2017. That should be enough to be getting on with…

The one that outshone all the rest: novel category
Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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Lorrie Moore has said this debut is ’cause for celebration’, and she’s not wrong. I read an interview with the author, who said that every time she sees the novel in a shop, she wants to rescue Yuki. I thought I understood that feeling, of an author who has put their first baby out into the big bad world. But that wasn’t quite it. Having read the novel, it’s a maternal ache that won’t go away when you see Yuki’s portrait splashed with paint, her unseeing face lined up in rows on a shelf. This is a book of opportunities lost and gained, the chances that you miss or when fate takes your hand and pulls you away. It’s a book of relationships, the hard must haves, the fleeting passions, and unknowing unbound love. As the novel concluded, I cried. Not a solitary tear, but body convulsing sobs. Yuki had got in, and I was with her, with all of the gains and all of the losses. That, is something not many writers can do, but I implore you – take this journey with Yuki. It’s worth it.

Close seconds: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon. Reasons She Goes to the Woods – Deborah Kay Davies. Two very very different child perspective novels which bring light to the worlds we encompass. Read them, they are brilliant.

The one that outshone all the rest: short story collection category
A Wild Swan and Other Tales – Michael Cunningham

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The short story category is always a tough one for me. I’m still writing /editing /rewriting /adding to my own collection, so I’ve found myself dipping in and out of collections over the past year. This collection was a gift last Christmas and it found its way to the top of the pile over the summer. These stories are retellings; subverted, twisted, and yet so close to the fairytales that should make you shiver.’Crazy Old Lady’ and ‘Little Man’ are two of my favourites, but it’s hard to have favourites in a collection of 11 stories that you wish wouldn’t stop at just 11. Even if you don’t like fairytales (what kind of strange creature are you?), try this.

Close seconds: Lightbox – KJ Orr. One Point Two Billion – Mahesh Rao. The Isle of Youth – Laura Van Den Berg. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July. Public Library – Ali Smith. Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood. A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin. Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman. Fen – Daisy Johnson. I told you I’d been dipping in and out of collections! All amazingly talented writers. Read them, even if you think you prefer novels (what kind of strange creature are you?).

The ones I have lined up next (aka Christmas Haul):

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The Accidental Dictionary – Paul Anthony Jones. The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises – Brian Kiteley. Angel Catbird Vol. 1 – Margaret Atwood. Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood. Fantastic Beasts: The Original Screenplay – JK Rowling. Autumn – Ali Smith. The Wonder – Emma Donoghue.

 

 

The one you should be pre-ordering now:
Ink – Alice Broadway

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I had the fortune of winning a copy of this book, which isn’t out until February. Order it. Order it now. I believe it will be categorised as YA, and it is a coming of age story, but it doesn’t matter your age, this book will get under your skin and leave its mark. The strong themes of story telling, what we leave behind when we’re gone, and the art of tattooing, make this a compelling read. Leora is a character that may believe she’s yet to be formed, but her sense of self is clear from page one. This is a beautiful unfolding of a life. I’m not sure if there will be more, but I can see this challenging the likes of Hunger Games for its ability to shine a mirror on the world we live in currently for a new age of ravenous readers.

The others I can’t wait for: Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman, Winter – Ali Smith, House of Names – Colm TĂłibĂ­n.