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Books

What I’m reading

I spend a lot of time reading. I have a lot of reading to do for my PhD: often memoirs, as my research is into life writing around disability, and then also academic texts on areas like literary theory and disability studies. I’m really enjoying my research, but I’m also making sure to give myself time each day to read something non-PhD related. For half an hour each night before I turn the light off, I love losing myself in a good book. It’s nice to have this bit of ‘me time’, and it helps me unwind and relax at the end of a busy day.

Here are some of the books I’ve been enjoying recently.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth

I read a lot of young adult novels. Partly because I write young adult fiction and so it’s useful to be familiar with it, but also because I genuinely enjoy it. One of the best young adult novels I’ve read recently is The Miseducation of Cameron Post. As well as the way it so deftly deals with LGBTQ+ identity and discrimination, I also loved this novel for its beautiful writing. The vividness of characters and place (it’s set in Montana) is so well done, and I was immersed into this evocative, powerful book.

A Snowfall of Silver by Laura Wood

A Snowfall of Silver is linked to another of Laura Wood’s young adult novels, the gorgeous A Sky Painted Gold, which I absolutely adored, so I was very excited to read this when it came out a couple of months ago. Set in the 1930s, it sees eighteen year old Freya leave her sleepy Cornish home and travel to London with the hopes of becoming an actress. Laura makes the historical setting so real and enticing, and I immediately warmed to the humour and enthusiasm of Freya and the other characters. It’s a believable, touching story by one of my favourite young adult authors.

The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith

I love a good short story collection. I think it’s the way you can experience a short story in one sitting, and how a collection can take you through so many different lives. I haven’t read enough Ali Smith (I desperately need to read her much-praised seasonal quartet) so decided to give this collection a try. I like the slight surrealness of some of the stories, the unexpected directions, and the way she addresses questions of perspective and narration.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Over the past few months, my lovely sister-in-law and I have been recommending each other books. I love hearing her thoughts on books I mention to her, and trying the ones she suggests. Reading is naturally quite a solitary thing, so having someone to send WhatsApp voice notes to where I share how I’m finding her recommendations is really lovely, and so far we’ve had some great conversations and seen much-loved books from new perspectives. A Thousand Splendid Suns came highly recommended, so I started reading a couple of nights ago. It is set in Afghanistan and follows the story of Mariam, a young woman whose story I’m already feeling so drawn into and moved by. I’m only a few chapters in, but I can tell this is a novel that deserves the high praise it receives. I’m looking forward to reading more.

My Writing, PhD

Writing hopes for the festive season

As I eat mince pies and try not to spend too much time reading the news, I’ve been reflecting on what my writing hopes are looking ahead.

Photo of an open book and a Christmas mug next to a Christmas tree

It feels hard to think ahead when so much in the world seems uncertain. But over the festive period, I’m hoping to plan more pitches ready to send out in the new year to a range of publications. I also have some PhD writing to work on, preparing for the mid year review that comes at the start of February to evaluate my progress so far. And a few weeks ago I finished the first draft of a new novel. Soon I intend to sit down and read through the manuscript and make a start on the next draft so I can get it to a stage I feel ready to share it with my agent. I’m a big believer in messy first drafts, so I’m expecting it may need quite a bit of work – but I actually really enjoy editing! For me, getting the words down in the first place is often the hardest part, so I’m looking forward to getting stuck in on the second draft, as that’s when it feels like it starts to really come together.

It’s nice to be ending this strange year with two more articles published. The Dec / Jan issue of PosAbility magazine features my article “Getting Creative”, where I explore how disabled people can get involved in the arts. I reflect on my experience of being supported by DaDaFest’s Artist Development Programme last year (something I’ve written about on this blog before), and how this helped me as a writer. I also talk about what support there is for disabled artists and highlight some of the great disability arts organisations we’re lucky to have.  

Photo showing the front covers of the two magazines referred to in the article.

And my feature “Connect with Nature Close to Home” is in the January issue of Happiful magazine. It’s all about ways we can celebrate nature and the changing seasons without having to go far beyond our front doors, from learning about local wildlife to snuggling down with some great nature writing.

Photo showing the article on connecting nature close to home in a magazine. The image includes a drawing of a bird wearing a scarf and a snowy wintery scene.

This Christmas may look very different to what we’d hope for, especially after such a difficult year for us all. I hope that whatever you’re doing this festive season, you manage to have a restful, enjoyable time.

My Writing

Full Moon Rise short story

This evening I’ve had a flash fiction story, “Full Moon Rise”, published by Crow & Cross Keys. You can read it here.

Crow & Cross Keys are a wonderful new literary journal “that plucks fiction and poetry from skeletal trees and gives it a place to take root.” They focus on speculative writing, whether flash fiction, short stories, or poetry.

“Full Moon Rise” was shortlisted for the Flash 500 competition last year, but hadn’t been published. When I saw Crow & Cross Keys put a call out for submissions a few months ago, I realised they may be the perfect place for this slightly otherworldly piece. I spent some time tweaking the story before sending it off.  

I’ve loved reading what they’ve published so far since launching on 31st October (naturally), and I’m so happy that my strange story has found a home with them.

I’m excited to read more from this literary journal, and maybe send another story their way soon.

My Writing

Coming to terms with a long term condition

I have an article in the November issue of the always wonderful Happiful magazine, and also available to read on their website. My piece has ideas on how to come to terms with a long term health condition or disability, drawing on my own experience of living with a visual impairment and mental ill health.

The feature includes suggestions such as connecting with other disabled people, how to talk to your loved ones about your condition, and using creative activities to help you work through your thoughts.

Disability has always been part of my life, and sometimes it has been hard for me to make sense of my feelings about it. I hope this article helps others, whether dealing with a new diagnosis or having experienced an impairment their whole life.

I always love writing for Happiful magazine, and I’ve enjoyed reading through the November issue, which has some great features on topics like understanding our surge capacity and signs of anxiety. I recommend taking a look at their website or picking up a copy of the print magazine for some wonderful articles exploring all aspects of mental health and wellbeing.

My Writing, PhD

Starting my PhD

I’m excited to have, since last week, become a PhD student!

My PhD is in Creative Writing and is on memoir as counter narrative: using creative nonfiction to explore visual impairment and mental illness and challenge dominant models of disability. It’s wonderfully being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council / Midlands4Cities – I’m very grateful for their support.

I’m studying at De Montfort University in Leicester, commuting from Staffordshire once I’m able to do face-to-face learning again – until then, it’s Skype / Teams, which so far is working well. It’s a little daunting of course starting something so big, but I’m looking forward to seeing the journey this PhD takes me on.

I’m feeling very lucky and still slightly bewildered to have this opportunity to research and write about something I’m so passionate about.

My Writing

Misconceptions about sight loss

I have a feature in the September issue of the lovely Happiful magazine that explores common misconceptions about sight loss. It’s also available to read on their website.

The article explores some of the views I’ve come across about what it means to be blind or partially sighted. It looks at things like the perception that anyone who uses a cane has no vision at all, whereas many of us with a visual impairment have some level of sight. Personally, I use a cane in busy or unfamiliar places to signal to others that I’m not being rude if I bump into them and that I may need some extra space to find my way about – this is especially true right now with social distancing being so important when out and about.

Other areas covered in the feature include how we access sports and the arts, visual impairment and work, and how people with sight loss can enjoy fashion and beauty.

I loved writing this piece – disability is one of my key areas as a writer, and I enjoy drawing on my experiences in a helpful way. I’m happy too that it’s my third article published by Happiful this year. Happiful is a great monthly magazine focused on wellbeing, and they also have a brilliant website that’s well worth a look.

Books

What I’m reading

I read pretty much every day. I think it’s one of the best things a writer can do – read as often as you can, and read widely. Over the strangeness of the past half year, my reading routine has been a bit off. Sometimes I’ve lacked the energy or focus, but fortunately I’ve still regularly found myself lost in other worlds for blissful hours.

Here’s some of what I’ve been reading recently.

books

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

More novella than novel, this is one of my all time favourite books, and earlier this year I decided to reread it. Which is a rare thing for me – I’m not a big re-reader and it takes some real passion to delve back into a book I’ve already read. I kind of have the mentality of there are so many books out there to read, I can’t keep rereading when there’s so many I haven’t read yet!

I love the effortless gothic writing of Shirley Jackson, and how instantly you’re grabbed by her characters. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is told from the point of view of a young woman called Merricat, and there is instant intrigue into her life in a small New England town in the 1950s. Why does Merricat hate the townspeople so much? Why does she live such an isolated life with her sister and uncle? What’s the story behind the death of the rest of her family?

Reading it for a second time, I picked up on details and hints that I didn’t before, and loved being drawn back into Merricat’s strange and alluring story.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The first book in the seven that make up Maya Angelou’s autobiography, this memoir explores her life growing up as a black woman in 1930s southern America. Angelou’s writing is so evocative of her childhood in Arkansas and I got such a strong sense of the people in her life, her family, the places she lives, all told in beautiful, engaging prose. Her experiences of racism are shocking, and the historical and political context of her work makes this a particularly vital read.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Confession: I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book. I’ve read Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife over the past couple of years and… they didn’t grab me. I could tell they were good, but I didn’t feel the love for His Dark Materials that I knew others do.

Taking the final novel of the trilogy off the shelf, I almost felt I was reading The Amber Spyglass because, well, I’d read the first two, it’s such a famous series, etc. etc…. It almost felt like an obligation, which is not a good way to feel before you read a book. But soon I was up late engrossed in Lyra and Will’s story. Perhaps it was how the many threads of the narrative were coming together and the sense of satisfaction that brought, perhaps it was I just found the events in this last story in the series more interesting – whatever it was, it clicked, and I finished The Amber Spyglass a Pullman convert.

Dear Life by Alice Munro

I love short stories – writing them and reading them. Despite this, I’ve rarely read a collection of stories by a single author cover to cover, instead just dipping in, but decided to give it a go with Dear Life by renowned Canadian short story writer Alice Munro. Some of the stories were wonderful, and I was grabbed by how Munro tells of the small extraordinariness of ordinary people, beautifully observed. “Gravel”, “Train”, and “Night” in particular stayed in my head for a while after, which I think is a sign of good writing, where you find yourself mulling over a character or detail or just the overall ambience long after you’ve put the book down.

Just Kids by Patti Smithpatti smith

After enjoying rereading We Have Always Lived in the Castle so much, I’m currently rediscovering another book: Just Kids by Patti Smith. I first read this memoir when I was working a job I wasn’t particularly enjoying, and my bus would often get me there way before my start time, so I’d get a coffee and sit and read for half an hour, which became something to look forward to when my alarm went off each morning.

Just Kids is one of the books I read during that time, and it made me imagine another life, the life of artists in New York City, and I got a vicarious enjoyment and also a wistful pining as I read, and then I’d look at the time and realise I needed to finish the page I was on, slip the book into my bag, and walk the five minutes to the office. I’m only about 50 pages in so far, but already I’m remembering why I loved Just Kids so much the first time around.

What books have you been enjoying?

My Writing

Creative ways to stay in touch

The lovely Happiful have published my article “Creative ways to stay in touch” today – take a read here. It’s also in the June issue of the magazine.

I’ve always loved connecting with people creatively, and now more than ever, when we find ourselves separated from so many we care about, it’s a great way to reach out.

postcards
When writing the piece, I thought especially about how I’ve stayed in touch with a close friend who now lives in a different country. She’s a visual artist, and naturally we’re both drawn to creative ways to connect – though we do still embrace WhatsApp and Skype. I love it when a postcard from her lands on my doormat, or when I spend time handwriting her a card.

One of the ways I explore is through crafting handmade zines – something I’ve written about on this blog before. There are also suggestions for putting together a playlist, sending a gift box or penning a poem.

How do you like to stay in touch with people? What’s helping you right now?

My Writing, Writing advice

Writing articles: analysing magazines

A while back I started a series of posts on how to get articles published to help demystify the process, with the first looking at coming up with ideas.

Following on from that, this next post in the series explores how, once you’ve got an idea for an article or at least an idea as to what magazine you’d like to write for, you go about researching and studying your target publication.

magazines

Getting a feel for a magazine and its readers

Read as many recent issues of the magazine as you’re able. Think of key themes and words you’d associate with the publication’s content, perhaps noting these down as you go.

As you do this, keep a key question in mind about who the magazine is aimed at. OK, so let’s say it’s a travel magazine. Yes, it will have travel features, but what kind of travel? Is it mostly UK based or abroad? For families looking for an easy and fun getaway or an adventurous backpacker? Are they aspirational features about luxurious private sea huts in the Maldives, or is it wild camping in the Highlands on a budget? Or somewhere in between? This will give you an idea as to whether your idea fits into the overall angle of the magazine. Notice too things like the adverts that give a clue as to who the reader is, in terms of how much they want to spend, their age, their interests.

Think now not just about who the reader is, but what they want. When they make a brew and curl up on the sofa with the magazine, what are they hoping to get from it?

This involves looking not just at the overall theme or topic of an article – say, ‘A weekend in Paris’ – but the style and content. Is it filled with practical tips on navigating your way around a busy city and the best times to visit popular attractions, or is it a long first person account that absorbs you in a narrative around someone’s trip and the people they met? Often articles may be a mix of both: I’ve written many features that draw on my own experience of a place or situation, but also provide advice or other information that may help the reader.

Where your article fits in the magazine

Magazines will have different sections, or different types of article. So a travel magazine may have one or two long, in depth features about destinations, but then also shorter travel pieces that may only be a page or two each, articles that offer advice on a topic (e.g. ‘How to save money on flights’), gear reviews, etc. And of course many magazines have content such as a page for readers’ letters, news pages, regular columnists, shopping recommendations, etc. Some magazines are structured around themes – a wellbeing magazine may be divided into features around ‘Living’, ‘Creativity’, etc. Looking at the contents page can show the different categories they use.

Think about where your potential article would best fit in the magazine. This is where reading a couple of recent copies of the magazine is particularly helpful, as it gives you a real sense of how it is usually structured.

writing

Close reading a magazine

By now, you’ll hopefully have a bit more of a sense of what sort of content the publication is looking for and who their reader is, and whether your article idea could potentially fit. Now it’s time to do a close read of the magazine.

Choose one article to start with. Read it through, asking yourself the following:

  • How long is the article?
  • Is it written in third or first person?
  • What is the tone of the article? Chatty? Jokey? Friendly? Authoritative?
  • What level is the article aimed at? Does it assume a level of expert or insider knowledge, or could anyone understand it?
  • Does it give advice, inspiration, an argument, analysis, or something else?
  • Does the article use humour or other interesting quirks?
  • Does it include quotes from other people? If so, who? Are they experts such as academics or specialist authors, or perhaps people who have personal experience of a subject? How many people does it quote, and how are the quotes used – are they a key part of the article, or is there one or two that add a bit of additional insight or authority?
  • How broad a focus does the article have?
  • How is it structured? Is it a list, e.g. ‘The best places to eat tiramisu in Bologna’, or a longer narrative, such as ‘How I came to terms with my existential angst through eating tiramisu in Bologna’?
  • Does it include box outs / side bars? These are common in a lot of magazines – they are presented separately to the main body of an article, providing additional, complimentary information. E.g. a long first person travel feature may be accompanied by a box out about ‘How to plan the trip yourself’ or ‘Where to stay’.
  • How is it illustrated? It’s worth looking at who the photos are credited to – did the article’s author provide them, or are they stock images? This will give you a clue as to whether you may be expected to provide photos and if so, what kind of photos they use (dramatic landscapes, images of people, etc.).
  • What is the reader ‘take away’: what do they leave the article with? Inspiration to plan a round the world holiday or start a new hobby, practical knowledge on how to bake the best courgette cake or plant potatoes, advice on dealing with a difficult issue, thoughts about an interesting debate, insight into an unusual perspective..?

There may well be other things you pick up too as you close read. Do this for a few articles to really get a good feel for the magazine.

Adapting your article idea for the magazine

Now, think about your article idea. Having done your publication analysis, can you imagine your article belonging in those pages? It’s quite likely that your idea may not quite match, but that it’s along the right lines – in this case, think about how you adapt your article idea to fit.

Let’s say you wanted to pitch an article about the South West Coast Path that was a ‘top ten sights to see’ kind of deal. You read your target magazine and realise they prefer travel articles that focus on a first person narrative detailing your experience of the walk, any challenges you came across, quirky little details or events that happened along the way. You can now adapt your idea to fit the magazine. (But, do keep hold of that original idea of ‘top ten sights’ – you may find another magazine to pitch it to as well.)

This may sound like quite a lot to do. But it will become quicker as you get more experienced. If I want to write for a magazine I’ve not approached before, I will certainly dedicate some time to reading and absorbing it, but the analysis now comes to me naturally as I read – I find I instinctively pick up on these things, without needing a checklist. I can usually tell quite quickly whether my idea will fit, and what angle and approach I need to take with it. Sometimes I read magazines without a set idea in mind, but knowing they fit with my areas of interest as a writer, and that ideas come to me as I read.

The next post in this series will cover one of the most important skills for a freelance magazine writer: how to pitch article ideas to editors.

I hope this helps and let me know if you have any questions! Take care.

My Writing

Accessible wedding feature for PosAbility magazine

It certainly brightened my morning when the new issue of PosAbility magazine came through the post. I always enjoy reading this disability lifestyle magazine, but it was especially nice to see my feature ‘The Perfect Day’ about planning an inclusive wedding gracing its pages.

Posability 2
Disability is my main area of focus as a writer, from writing for the Guardian about disabled student support to features on accessible travel. I’m also pretty wedding obsessed – Gary and I got married in July last year, and I was one of those brides who loved when people asked me about what I was doing for table decorations or the first dance or cake flavours.

 
Accessibility was a key part of my wedding planning, with me and several guests being disabled, and I realised that through the process of organising an accessible wedding I’d picked up lots of tips that could be useful for others.

posability 10
I really enjoyed writing this feature – not least because it was an excuse to talk weddings! I hope it helps others who may be thinking ahead to their own big day or that of someone they know to help make it an inclusive and enjoyable experience for all.