The gift of giving (the non-book one)

Around this time of year, I’ve normally given out enough book recommendations to make me think a post about it would be a useful thing to create. This year is no exception, but this blog won’t be that one. That’ll be the next one, probably tomorrow – I know, two blogs in two days after six months of silence. Shock. Horror.

So what’s this one about?

I’ve recently taken up a BuddyBox subscription from the Blurt Foundation. It’s a little self-care based gift to myself once a month. A surprise (because I always forget when they send them) often appearing when I need it the most. I wish I’d thought I was deserving of this sooner, and I’m glad that I’m buying it for myself although I’m sure it would make an excellent gift too. This month, the box included Blurt’s new little magazine. In it, was an article about what to do with your empty buddy box. It suggested refiling it to give to Give and Makeup.

Give and Makeup is a non-profit initiative whose sole purpose is to get everyday essentials into the hands of women and children who need them the most.

We are currently running our Shoebox Campaign for the Christmas Season 2016.

To donate, please send a shoebox/small box filled with appropriate gifts to:

Give and Makeup
PO BOX 855
LONDON
W4 4AW

They can have anything – pyjamas, clothing, slippers, books, crayons, colouring books, suitable dvd’s (they will be checked), toys, sweets, chocolate, magazines, comics, dolls – pretty much anything that you know a child/young person will appreciate.

As always please ensure the following:

  • gifts are suitable for ages between newborn and 15
  • no toy weapons
  • no items of a religious nature
  • new or nearly new please
  • boxes can be packed according to one child/gender or a mixture across all ages.

I’ve been struggling with the thought of Christmas this year, more aware somehow of those who don’t have all we do – the safety of a home, the warmth from love as well as heat. It’s been a growing feeling in a year that has turned the world on its head in so many ways, not just because of the upcoming holidays. There feels like there is so little one can do to make the world a better place when I think of all the atrocities.

This article reminded me of the smallest things can have an impact on someone, if not many. Helping one is better than none. So I’ve filled my small box with as much as I can which I hope will help a teenage girl somewhere out there.

Box for Give and Makeup

If you would like to join me in this, please do. There are so many causes, but reaching out and connecting with someone could make a difference to 2017. I hope.

On time, gratitude, and new views

A year ago I let my voice be loud enough to tell the ether that my debut short story collection would be published. Deadlines were placed, my work began. Today, my work continues. The deadlines have moved, publishing schedules being as they can be, and there is now more time. Yet to be Determined will be in your hands in 2018. The irony of the title is not lost on me.

At the moment it is in my hands, but I am not alone. Thanks often comes at the end of the process, but in the steps we take for a book to live in other peoples’ lives, it’s not just down to the author. The encouragement from my friends, writing colleagues, and particularly my wife is not forgotten at any stage. Thank you, you know who you are.

I did not foresee this extra time but I am now grateful for it; the space in which to continue the journey, both for the book and myself. I’ll try not to question talking about this now, and last year, before the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. I could try to pass over it, hide. I’m not going to. I will remind myself of the gratitude for the honesty that my writing peers have been kind enough to share; and I can hope that it will helps others as well as myself.

Often the question of ‘right’ comes up – right words, right time, right way. I’m a believer in fate, but don’t always have the patience for it. I’ll keep reminding myself that it’s worth the wait. For example. This. Was. Worth. The. Wait.

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My thanks to Cathy Galvin (that blissful woman on the right who founded the Word Factory) is unending. Not least because she gave me the chance to help Neil Gaiman with his signing, and generally hang around with his amazing assistant Clara before the masterclass.

Being on the other side of the desk with this ‘literary rock star’ gave me a new view of being an author that I am yet to experience. So far there has been one person who took note of my name when I was at the Cinnamon Press fest last year and came up to me to congratulate me on my story ‘Once there was a bear’. I was so taken aback that I quickly thanked her but couldn’t think of the next thing to say. Like a normal person. Neil Gaiman, like many authors of course, has his stage presence – the rock star Neil – which slips into place and off again when he then becomes Neil the writer who still gets excited about seeing the work he is most proud of in front of him. I feel very fortunate to have been able to witness that, in someone I am so in awe of.

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So this weekend I spent time talking hard things and writing hard things. I allowed myself to crash into innocence (waking up in a bed full of cuddly toys will do that), enjoyed the sunshine on my face, learnt how to make origami stars (my new stress relief), and dipped into Neil Gaiman’s collection of non-fiction The View from the Cheap Seats. A wise woman (Caitlin Moran) said this of it – and I feel it’s the perfect sum up:

“If this book came to you during a despairing night, by dawn you would believe in ideas and hope and humans again. This is a beautiful, beautiful book.”

Another book to add to your list. If you want to read the Once Upon a Time article pictured, its available here.

On Awareness

First tip for giving books on World Book Night…do it when you have a voice!

The conversations I had yesterday whilst fulfilling my book giving duties (see yesterday’s post if you haven’t already) where somewhat limited due to my voice petering out within seconds but I loved the challenge of speaking to complete strangers about reading and it’s importance.

From the women in Harvest Moon with the amazing jumpers who were engaged and wanted to know more (thank you for allowing me to slope of when my voice stopped!), to the man who was fundraising whilst showing off his tractors (only in Hitchin) whose non-reading confession came from his friends rather than himself.

 

Thank you to the owners of Chilli B and Groundworks who let me talk to their customers and leave books on tables.

And now it’s a case of waiting. I’ve explained a bit more about my relationship with with Reasons to Stay Alive, the book I gave yesterday, on my previous post. Without a voice, and with some nerves, I decided that explaining that personally to each recipient may be a bit much so I wrote a letter and popped it inside each book to explain why I was a book giver, and why this book. You can read it by clicking the image. I’ve invited those who found or were given the book to get in contact to let me know where it ended up…here’s hoping for some news soon!

wbn

As I explained yesterday, my giving of this book was well timed with Depression Awareness Week. This book has helped so many people, and although there are a lot of resources out there, I’ve collected together some of the articles I’ve read during DAW this year:

If you have any articles, blogs, quotes, and of course books, you think I should add, please let me know. I’d also really recommend checking out the #WhatYouDontSee campaign on Twitter.

I was scared of the title

WBN_logo_in_headline.jpgWorld Book Night is here again! I’m so pleased and proud to be a volunteer book giver for the third year in a row. Two years ago I started bold; talking to strangers on a quiet night at my local pub about reading and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Last year I went even closer to home, reaching out to non readers at my 9-5 with Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit. This year is personal in a different way.

This year, I’m giving Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. The team at World Book Night explain it as

Full of warmth, humour and life-affirming wisdom, this is an incredible little book that offers a lifeline to anyone who has ever suffered, recovered from or encountered depression. Matt Haig recounts his own experiences with delicate precision and tells a compelling story about how reading and writing helped him out of his darkest period.

I did not want to have depression. No-one has ever wanted depression, it is a ridiculous statement to make, but yet this is how simply I thought about it. I was scared of the label. Of the indelible ink tattooed on my face, on my actions, on my very being, once those words were said. I was scared of what it would make me without even realising I was neck deep in being/feeling all the things I didn’t want to face. I was scared of what it had done to people I love. I fought for too long, for too many people I couldn’t help. Including myself.

I was scared of the title. I had heard lots about Reasons to Stay Alive, about how it helped so many people understand or explain an illness that is often inexplicable. The title, the book, doesn’t allow you to run and hide. It confronts the very fears by presenting itself as the ‘pro’ list when the ‘cons’ are reasons not to stay alive. No one wants to hear those words, see those words, and yet by just opening that door to that conversation lives can be saved.

Confession: I hadn’t read the book when I applied to be a book giver and selected it as my choice. However I brought myself a copy earlier this year. I wish I had read it sooner. I wish someone had handed it to me. So far it has opened up conversations with loved ones who have dealt with their own anxiety or depression, and/or support me. I’m sure this blog post and the giving of these books today will open up even more. Timely as it is almost the end of Depression Awareness Week.

Today I’ll be facing strangers and handing them this book. Or I’ll be leaving it in places for people to find in the hope that they will let me know where it ends up. I will try to focus on those who may not read, but I think with this book I can be a little more open and aim to speak to those who could be helped by this book in some way.

IMG_20160423_100708To end this on a lighter note, I’d like you to imagine me out there with these books. I have been ill with a cold/flu bug this week which has left me with no voice. I can only whisper. Imagine me walking around a nearby town, wrapped up in a ridiculous number of layers, speaking to strangers in a whisper about depression and reading. I’d laugh already but that might start a coughing fit.

I promise photos, stories, and more World Book Night celebrations on here later…

On being ready to tell

20160312_182813I first went to the opera eleven years ago. I vividly remember the train journey into London, the panic on my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s face as we arrived late to find the doors closed, the view from our first seats and the move to our actual seats during the interval, the little bar in Covent Garden where we drank champagne and de-constructed ourselves on our first valentine’s. I do not remember anything about the opera itself.
On revisiting the Coliseum for Philip Glass’s Akhnaten last weekend, I explained that I couldn’t remember the finer details of the opera, or even the building, from the last time. I feel I wasn’t emotionally or mentally ready for the experience, that it was too big for me to connect with. After the second opera experience I was left with the memories of how the music made me feel, the way the symbolism on stage fulfilled the story in my mind, my relation to the height of the seats and the grasp of a hand in mine as we waited for the next act.

So why am I telling you this on a writing blog?

I have found myself drawing parallels with this experience and my current writing processes. Stories need to be given time to be told but the story teller has to be ready to to tell the tale.

I have never been a “one draft wonder” and I don’t really believe there is such a writer. Developing your characters, understanding the story’s theme, time, place, all takes redrafting. Some stories take much longer, the ones where you think you’re finished and then you get a hint of something misplaced or missing. If you find that happening, this is my advice.*

Look inwards. Try not to get lost in there, just look. What does this story mean to you? Who is this protagonist to you? What do they mean to you?

This is where that creative writing “rule” comes in – write what you know. I don’t think that it’s true for everything and finding out about new things or writing from a perspective utterly different to your own is part of the creative process but understanding what you know about yourself, your characters, those emotional and mental connections, is vital.

You don’t have to literally put this in the final draft – you just need to know. When you’re redrafting with this knowledge you will connect with the story you’re telling – that’s where the readiness lies.

What did the * mean above? This is advice for myself too, I tend to forget. I have been writing a story that I already thought was flying. Turns out it came back, and sat pecking at my feet until I really began to understand what the story meant to me. Stella Duffy gave me this advice last year at her masterclass for Word Factory – Stay at your desk until it’s all out. It won’t be comfortable, you may find yourself crying it out, but it will be worth it. Sometimes it takes time for advice to sink in. It will always be worth it.

Dear Library

 

This is one of my prized possessions. I’ve wanted to share it and my letter to libraries for a little while but today is the right time.

Happy National Libraries Day!

LibraryCard

I’m not sure what day or year I was given this, but I do remember it.
I remember the librarian saying this is yours.
I remember feeling the weight of the responsibility – I would be responsible for the books I borrowed, it said so on the card.
I remember the day that I realised that I could read the smaller books on the grey metal shelves rather than the bigger books wedged in colourful hand-height wooden boxes.
I remember reading competitions in the summer holidays that encouraged me to lie in the sun and read all day.
I remember late fines because I didn’t want to give certain books back.
I remember reading books on all the things I couldn’t dare to ask about.
I remember the first time I moved from the children’s section into the corridor between there and the adult part of the library. This in between space would now be called young adult. I think I may have read every book on those shelves.
goodbonesI remember finally looking on shelves I had bypassed for years for another Margaret Atwood book because I had craved more after reading The Handmaid’s Tale at A-level. It was this book which would become the first short story collection I asked for as a present because I had taken it out of the library so many times.
I remember hours lost and so much gained.

All of this in one building. A million worlds. I wouldn’t be a writer without libraries. What I understand about myself, the world, my past and my future, would not be possible without libraries.

I first wanted to write a post about my relationship with libraries since I listened to Ali Smith talk so animatedly about her own relationship with libraries just after new collection of short stories, Public Library and Other Stories, came out in November. In the time that it took her to write and collate these stories, seven years, over a thousand libraries have gone. It is a fact that never ceases to astound me.

I could be called a hypocrite. I don’t visit my library as often as I could. The one in my small town is tiny but serves the community very well. I do however have cards for libraries in three counties now so I have access and I know how important access is to so many of us. I am lucky that I can afford to buy as many books as I do. I am immensely proud of my own shelves at home. But I see libraries in new ways now. It has always been a place to ‘be’ and I do use them for writing as well as reading but now I can see how it will shape new lives in my life. From the sing-alongs on a rainbow of carpet with my best friend and her little one, to the conversations with my 12 year old god-daughter about the books she is exploring whilst we educate each other on the great and good of various canons.

The #libraryletters are flying in now, but my favourite so far is Meg Rosoff’s which the Guardian featured in their article yesterday. Please feel free to share your letters in the comments.

Meg Rosoff
To Whom It May Concern:

Welcome to the library
where
no one will tell you what to read
or tell you what to think.
No one will bother you
Or bully you.
No one will require a report;
you don’t have to revise.
You can spy
Draw a picture.
Or sleep.
You can write.
Or wander.
Ask advice
ask for help
think anything
everything
or nothing at all.
No one will stop you.
No one will even try.
Meanwhile
a book
over there
on a shelf
will be glancing at you sideways
getting up the courage to
ask you out
make you laugh
make you cry
make you fall in love.
I’m trying to write a book like that now.
In a library.
Love,
Me

Waiting for stories to fly

Most short stories take time to write. The one I have finished a new draft of this morning as evolved over the past year. A year of thinking about it, writing it in part of another story, and then thinking about it a bit more. And a bit more. Then playing, seeing it from another view until the story I was trying to tell, became the story I am telling.

It is only an initial draft. It has gone through another filter by my reading it aloud to my wife, who I am grateful to have in so many ways but this morning mostly as my first reader. An honest first reader really helps. Then it will be off to the critique group I belong to who will give their invaluable feedback. After any further redrafting with my editor, its next journey will be as part of my short story collection.

I am an incredibly impatient person when it comes to myself, my work. Allowing my stories time feels like an impossible task. But when it works, when it clicks into place, it feels like how I imagine these Jackdaws feel.

 

The story is about a Jackdaw among other things.

Christmas stories from Word Factory

Here’s a little present, from me to you. Or maybe it is a present from them to me. Either way, I am grinning.

At the start of December, Word Factory took part in the Waterstones Piccadilly Christmas event. The store was packed with shoppers, writers, entertainers, lovers of all things book shaped and more.

So here is the recording of my story. If you missed it, enjoy. If you caught it, thank you for supporting me and everything that Word Factory does.

And after you have watched this one, please watch the rest of the team and their wonderful readings. It really was a gift of a night.

Taking on Ben Nevis for Tom

If you are linked to me on social media sites, you may have noticed that a few of my writing/reading/life in general updates have been replaced by cycling routes and photos of me half way up mountains. This isn’t a normal occurrence, and it’s for a really good reason.

tomI’m going to take on Ben Nevis (and then cycle 25 miles and canoe for 3km – in one day) for this little guy and plenty more like him.

Brain Tumours are the biggest cancer killer of children under the age of 15, most people are not aware of this fact. One of my bosses, Andrew, and his family were unlucky enough to have it written in bold and underlined in November 2010 when their son Tom passed away after a gruelling 7 month fight against a particularly deadly type of tumour.

Tom would have been 14 tomorrow. I wish I could have known him, his energy and fearlessness that I’ve heard so much about from his family. I’m proud to support Andrew and the work that Tom’s Trust does in Tom’s memory.

Whilst nothing can take away the pain of losing him, their work is making a real difference to the lives of other children currently fighting or recovering from this terrible disease.

brainbowIn partnership with Addenbrookes Hospital and two other charities, Tom’s Trust has funded and launched “Brainbow” – the UK’s first rehabilitation service dedicated to children with brain tumours. Tom’s Trust is currently raising funds to expand and continue this service so that all affected children in the East Anglia region can be given the best chance to achieve their true potential.

TomsTrust LogoThe companies I work for as a marketing executive have put forward three teams so that twelve of us will take on the Ben Nevis challenge for Tom’s Trust. Each team will raise at least £2000 by the end of the challenge. On 12 September, I will trek to the summit of the tallest peak in the British Isles (Ben Nevis stands at 1344 metres and we start pretty much at sea level), then cycle 25 miles and canoeing a 3km course on a loch. In one day. Preferably in under 12 hours.

(I hope these figures have made you smile now, perhaps even giggle. I’m hysterical.)

There are more details on Just Giving where you can also donate.

It goes without saying that all donations no matter how small will help make these children’s lives better and go a long way to helping them in their recovery from this life-changing disease. If you can spare any loose change for this brilliant cause and to support the team and I in our efforts, I would be very grateful.

To those who have already donated or will do, I am so thankful.

News. Of the big variety.

My debut short story collection will be published.

There. No messing about. No, what should I say. No, it’ll be small – nothing to worry anyone about. No, looking at my feet. Because essentially that has what I have been doing for the last couple of months.

The details, which will be fleshed out over the next year or so, are that it will be published by Liquorice Fish (whom I have spoken of in previous posts) who continue to provide a wonderful home for my short stories.

And now I am getting very excited about it. Not least because I just told Ali Smith. And she grinned and gifted me the title of my collection.

In truth she wrote down the words I gave her, when I floundered over what I had been considering as possible titles in the small hours between sleep. And you know what, this is perfect.

Yet to be determined (for those who can read Ali's handwriting)

This is happening. To the people who I have should have told by now, offline, please forgive me.