Let’s Stop Self-Defecating (…yes, you read that right)

DSC_0046.JPG

Happy April Fool’s Day!  I don’t know about you, but I’m absolutely useless when it comes to playing practical jokes… and telling jokes full stop, to be totally and completely honest!  I either give the game away by giggling too soon or I screw up the punch line, and my go-to joke is the one about the panda who goes to a restaurant and eats shoots and leaves.  The one thing I am good at, however, is laughing at myself.  A couple of weeks ago, I managed to play the most ridiculous practical joke on myself while I was refilling a cook’s blowtorch.  When I (stupidly) decided to check whether it was working and pulled the trigger, the lighter fumes ignited and I was momentarily consumed by a ball of fire that not only burned my fingers but also singed off most of my eyebrows and a lot of my hair.  After the initial sobbing shock and cries of “my hair!!!” (and the call to NHS Direct to see if I needed to hop it down to A&E…) I did what I always do after I’ve done something stupid; I laughed long and hard over what an utter nob I was.

There’s nothing better than having a good ol’ chuckle, is there?  Even when times are tough having a laugh about it – y’know, a proper tear-streaming, snorting, rib-aching, gasping for air kind of laugh – is better than any kind of medicine.  And self-deprecation (or “self-defecation”, as I used to call it until someone stepped in and corrected me… yeesh…) is the one woman stand-up routine I’ve been performing since I can remember.  I slip into it so easily these days: if someone compliments my anything, I’ll launch head-first into a bit where I take out a metaphorical magnifying glass and hover it over every flaw I have and can think of.  Like, the dog hair clinging to my brand new black jeans, or my vampire skin that’s hilariously allergic to fake tan, that ketchup stain on my new shirt, my flat chest, my misbehaving hair and *tap tap* “Hey, is this thing on?”  I’ll downplay my own achievements and shrug them off as pure luck – as simply being in the right place at the right time – because – come on now – there’s absolutely no way this train wreck is capable of achieving anything on her own other than maybe inhaling three cream eggs in thirty seconds.

Har de ha.

And I know I’m not alone in this.  We’re all guilty of slipping into that old routine in social situations, aren’t we?  Whether we’re with our mates or with a whole crowd of new faces – it’s an easy way to seem more human – more relatable – to come across as humble instead of arrogant and therefore more likeable.  In theory!  But are we harming ourselves in the process?

If I’m constantly poking fun at myself and telling other people that I can’t cook to save my life, that I only wear flats because I look like drunk giraffe in heels, or that the reason I got that big promotion was completely down to luck rather than my own hard work, I’m going to start believing it myself.  And for what?  To spare someone else’s ego?  To be liked?  At that point we’re not self-deprecating anymore, we really are just self-defecating – shitting all over ourselves and our achievements!  And that ain’t cool, my friend!

I came across some sage words of advice on how to own your achievements and talents a while ago and it really stuck with me.  It’s basically all down to learning how to self-deprecate in a self-aggrandizing way.  I mean, you’re still poking fun of yourself – but you’re doing it in a much kinder, more positive way.  For example, instead of rolling your eyes and telling yourself and others “I can’t cook to save my life”, laugh at that burned slice of toast and declare proudly, “I clearly need my own cookery show – watch out Nigella Lawson!”  Next time your eyeliner’s wonky or you’ve gone in too hard with the blush, don’t pull the ol’ clown face gag out the bag – just have a chuckle and say, “Nailed it.”  Or the next time you send out an email full of mistakes (and to the wrong person – yikes!), instead of coming down hard on your writing skills just laugh and say, “Hey, I was clearly robbed of that Pulitzer.”  It’s a small switcheroo that’ll help change your mindset and have you owning both your flaws and achievements in a more positive way.

Let’s have a good ol’ laugh at ourselves without being the fool.

Anyone played any good April Fools pranks today?  The closest I got was Sunny politely informing me at 6.30am this morning that our toilet was backed up and spilling over – hilarious!  NOT.  Have a great week!  🙂

Preparing for Nanowrimo 2017

DSC_0115

I LOVE this time of year. Crunchy leaves, chunky scarves, fairy lights, fireworks… and Nanowrimo! If you’re a fellow writer then you’re bound to have heard of it, but if you’re unfamiliar then let me fill you in. November is National Novel Writing Month, or Nanowrimo, where writers from all over the world come together online and vow to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days (that’s roughly 1,600 words a day). This will be my first time back in the Nanowrimo writing chair in two years (last year I planned to do it but managed to catch the flu instead – grr!) and I’m so excited to get going! If you’ve ever thought about writing a novel, or have an idea for one then Nanowrimo is the perfect time to give it a go. Not only is it a great exercise in disciplined writing, but since we’re all in it together it’s a great opportunity to meet other writers, chat and get help when you hit a wall or fall down a plot hole! 🙂

Since I’m writing the second book in a series that I’ve had cooking away in my head for a while, I feel more prepared than I usually do (…famous last words!) – but how else am I gearing myself up?

Write a Chapter Outline

This is the first year that I’ve actually written a chapter by chapter plan, usually I keep it all up in my head and then make things up as I go along. I used the step by step guide from this website, and then used a mixture of the W-Plot Model and the Dramitica Table to plot my story.  From that, I then created a chapter by chapter bullet point list of scenes to write.  I fully expect to deviate, but at least I’ve got something to start with!

Research

I think I enjoy researching my books more than I enjoy writing them – is that bad? But it’s that exciting time after you get a story idea and just want to live in that world for a while. 🙂 I tend to keep a notebook for each book I write where I gather together all my research, so when I write I can look back and refer to it like a reference book. I also keep a folder full of useful websites bookmarked so I don’t get stuck Googling things when I should be writing!

Create a Pinterest Book Board

As well as pinning pictures of clothes I can’t afford and recipes I’ll never be able to recreate, I make a Pinterest mood board for every book I write. Since I write historical fiction, it’s handy to have a visual guide when it comes to characters, settings, clothes and colours.

Clean the House

I try to get all my chores out of the way before the first of November rolls around. I clean the house and empty the washing and ironing baskets. Now, I know by week two the sink will become a swamp of dirty dishes and the washing basket will probably be overflowing… but it’s nice to start with a clean slate, right? I also make sure my writing space is tidy and organised with everything I’m going to need.

Inform Family and Friends

Just so I have an excuse for looking like a slob and having a dirty house. It’s also a good way of motivating yourself to reach that 50,000 word finish line. The more people that know you’re taking on the challenge, the more accountable you are for getting the job done.

Create a Spotify Playlist

I always listen to music when I’m writing, and in particular I’m a huge fan of soundtracks. For every book I create a playlist that helps me visualise and capture the mood of what I’m writing about and whack it on repeat. And not just when I’m writing; I hit play when I’m in the car on the way to Tesco’s, doing the washing up or having a nap. My favourite artists are Thomas Newman, Rachel Portman, Trevor Morris and Hans Zimmer.

To-do List

The last thing I want happening when I’m behind on my word count is to find something important lurking on my to do list demanding immediate attention. I write a big to do list during the last week of October and tick things off one by one.

Let me know if you’re doing Nanowrimo this year and how you’re preparing for it. If you fancy following along, you can keep track of my word count through the nifty ticker to the right, or find me here. Have a great weekend everyone! 

Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours

I picked up Helen Oyeyemi’s short story collection, What is Not Yours is Not Yours, just before Christmas.  I love short stories – particularly ones that dip their toes into magical realism – and having finished Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (…for the third time…), I was on the prowl for something new.  Can’t lie, I was half drawn-in by the cover – it’s a beautiful looking book – and when the blurb on the back promised me “a collection of towering imagination, marked by baroque beauty and a deep sensuousness” I was sold and snapped it up.  (Baroque!)

From the back: “The stories collected in What is Not Yours is Not Yours are linked by more than the exquisitely winding prose of their creator…  The reader is invited into a world of lost libraries and locked gardens, of marshlands where the drowned dead live and a city where all the clocks have stopped; students hone their skills at puppet school, the Homely Wench Society commits a guerrilla book swap, and lovers exchange books and roses on St Jordi’s Day.”

Sounds amazing, right?  Yeah.

Unfortunately for me, I spent the whole book feeling like I was locked out of it and didn’t have a key to get in.  Don’t get me wrong, Helen Oyeyemi’s prose is beautiful at times, but despite that I just couldn’t seem to connect with either the characters or the stories unfolding in front of me.  I found myself getting confused a lot and having to flick back to see if I’d missed something, only to find I was still out there on the doorstep.  It’s a shame; so much of what I wanted and what I like as a reader was right there in front of me, but none of it was digestible or recognisable.  Like doughnuts served up in a blender.  Oh well.  😦

Have you read anything lately that you thought was going to be amazing but ended up disappointing you?

Review: Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

You all know by now that I’m a massive history nerd and so it’d be fair to assume that I lap up historical fiction like vodka on a Friday.  Yeah, I don’t.  Don’t get me wrong, I love it – I’m just really fussy. I’ve been disappointed too many times.  I’ve picked up books expecting to be transported hundreds of years into the past with detailed descriptions of people and places only to find that the writer hasn’t done their research – I want to know all the gory details, people.  I want to know what people ate, what the air smelled like, how they used the toilet.  I want to feel like I’ve just hitched a ride in a Delorean.  And that goes for characters too; characters who act OOE  (Out of Era) annoy the hell out of me.   Oh, and when writers use real historical figures as characters, I tend to get a little bit nervous. (*cough* The Other Boleyn Girl *cough*) 

Anyway, I was looking for a book to take on holiday and doing my usual Amazon click-around when I came across Queen of the Night.  I was taken in by the blurb straight away; “Paris during the Second Empire”OOH – “Mysterious Past, Betrayal” – YESyoung woman’s tumultuous trajectory from circus rider to renowned soprano at the Paris Opera” – OH YES.  I love stories about women who struggle on and survive, but I was a bit nervous about throwing it into my basket.  The book’s close to six hundred pages, what if I hated the main character and had to, you know, struggle on and survive with her for that many pages?  Phew!  Also, the reviews were… mixed.  The one that most concerned me was the one that warned that there were absolutely no speech marks in any of those six hundred pages, and as that reviewer pointed out, understanding which character was speaking and when became really confusing after a while.

I’m not sure what made me take the plunge in the end.  Maybe it was because I was catching a plane in less than 24 hours and had to pack something, or maybe it was because I so desperately wanted it to be good that I was willing to take a chance on it.  You can probably see where I’m going with this, but I’m so glad I did go with my gut on the book because I completely and utterly fell in love with it.

Lilliet Berne is a legendary opera signer, the toast of Paris at the dawn of the Third Republic.  Known as La Generale in the ballrooms and newspapers, she’s rumoured to throw out diamonds and have a rare “Falcon Soprano” voice that is cursed.  When she’s approached by mysterious writer to appear as the lead in new opera about an American orphan who achieves fame as a circus rider she realises with horror that the libretto is based on her own past, a past that she thought was a secret and that is capable of ruining her reputation.  As Lilliet attempts to uncover the truth about who betrayed her she recalls the truth about her past, a story that begins in a ranch on the American Frontier and ends in the glittering salons of Paris during Second Empire.

Kudos to Alexander Chee, he spent over ten years researching and writing the book and the evidence of that pours from the page.  Everything you’d expect to be in a book set in Paris during the Second Empire is there; the Opera, Worth ballgowns, Can Can Dancers and Courtesans, the Franco-Prussian War, Commune and Seige… it’s all there, entwined with Lilliet’s adventure as she makes her way from orphan to circus rider, from can-can dancer to courtesan to maid of the Empress, as well as people of the era like – my all time fave – the Countess de Castiglione.  They’re written with respect, and fit well into the story.  It’s beautifully researched and written, and by the time I was a hundred pages in I found that the lack of speech marks weren’t the problem they’d been made out to be and that at the rate I was reading it, 600 pages wasn’t going to be enough!  It’s all very Phantom of the Opera (…uh, minus the Phantom).

Now while it’s pretty damn good, it’s not without its problems.  I think part of the reason I loved the book was because I’m a big fan of French history and music – I knew the era and the characters well before I’d even picked up the book.  I’m not sure if someone who was completely alien to it all would enjoy it as much as I did.  It’s beautiful, but probably not everyone’s cup of tea. And as much as I loved it, once Lilliet’s past caught up with the present, I lost interest a little.  The last fifty pages or so didn’t have the pace of the rest of the book.  As for the speech marks?  To me the fact that they were missing wasn’t a problem at all – but I couldn’t work out why they were missing in the first place.  It wasn’t a publishing mistake, so clearly it was a stylistic decision, but I wondered whether it was a worthwhile one as I’m sure there are readers out there who would be irritated by it.  Lastly, I couldn’t make my mind up about Lilliet as a character.  Even after 600 pages, I didn’t feel like I really knew her.  It felt a little bit like she was modelling the setting and era in the same way that a runway model shows off the clothes.  She was a bit… plain.  But I think that’s just me nitpicking because on the whole I absolutely adored the book 🙂

Nanowrimo 2016

Halloween is almost over, and so is October!  And while most monsters roll out of bed on November the 1st as normal human beings (y’know, minus the fangs and hollow eye-sockets) I’m the exact opposite.  I’ve just started turning into a monster.

Over the next 30 days I will forget to shower and brush my hair on more than one occasion, and my skin routine will, well, cease to be a routine and become more like an afterthought.  Drunk on more cups of darjeeling tea than at any other time of the year, I will be up late into the night.  And during the day I’ll be a sallow-faced, hunched zombie with bad hair (what’s new?) hissing at bright lights and muttering conversations between invisible non-entities.  I will snap, and I will bite.  A spell will fall over my home; dishes will sit in a swampy sink for days on end, and the fridge will cease to store fruit and veg and instead will become storage for half-eaten takeaways and pizza boxes.

All this and more awaits, but by November 30th – if all goes to plan – I will have written 50,000 words of a brand new novel in the series I’m currently writing (/slowly going mad over).

Yes, November is Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), where aspiring writers around the world pledge to forgo their sanity in favour of writing 50,000 words in 30 days.  Back in 2012 I signed up for the very first time as a wannabe writer who’d never even completed a story before let alone written 50,000 words in a month (was it even possible?).  I didn’t think I could do it.  But I threw myself into it; I carried a notebook to work and scribbled during my breaks (luckily there was a lot of testing in the school I was working at during November and I sometimes wrote during class).  I stayed up late to make sure I reached the daily word count target.  I finished with a completed book and a word total of 87,000.  Yeah, it was a rough draft – and I mean rough – but it blew my mind that I was even capable of something like that, and it completely changed my approach to writing.  I’ve completed it twice more since then 🙂

Since last year’s Nanowrimo fell slap-bang in the middle of relocating to Cardiff, it didn’t happen.  So this year I’m excited to get back to it; I’ve got my plan and I’m ready and raring to go.  If you want to check out my progress (or add me, if you’re a fellow Nano’er!) click here.

If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel it’s a great opportunity to finally give it a go; there’s plenty of support from other writers along the way (including daily pep talks from famous writers straight into your inbox) and actually reaching that 50,000 word count is a great feeling.  What have you got to lose? (Besides your sanity and personal hygiene…!)