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?

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Getting through

Who’d have known, as we watched the New Year’s fireworks bringing in 2020 and thought to the year ahead, that we’d soon be living in such a different world, where phrases like “self-isolation” and “lockdown” dominate our newsfeeds and conversations?

I very much hope that you are keeping safe and well. My husband and I have been self-isolating for four weeks now (we started a week before lockdown officially began due to health conditions). The first week was undoubtably the hardest so far, filled with so much anxiety and fear and heartbreak and hopelessness at what was happening. While I’m still – as so many are – struggling with these feelings, I am at least a bit more settled now. I’m finding my coping mechanisms, from Skyping family, to not constantly checking the news, to reading every day, and these are making things more manageable.

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One thing I’ve not done a great deal of is writing. It’s not that I don’t have projects to work on, or ideas to develop, but my focus and energy hasn’t been there. When we started self-isolating, I thought, “Well, at least I’ll get to be really productive…”. But, bar the work I’ve done for my part-time copywriting job (that I’m very fortunate to have been able to do from home), that hasn’t happened.

I’m not the only one. Scrolling through Twitter, where I follow lots of other writers, it seems a common theme. I spoke to my agent on the phone a couple of weeks ago about my novel edits, and she told me how so many of her writers are struggling to focus on their work right now – and that there was no pressure to rush, that it was okay to not be feeling it right now, which was reassuring to hear. Usually, if I have writing to work on, I love to get started as soon as I can, and yet I haven’t touched my manuscript since that conversation.

I have found, though, over the past few days that I’m feeling calmer and less drained. My thoughts are starting to turn towards writing again, with more clarity and enthusiasm. I’m feeling – hoping – that getting stuck into my own writing might give me the positive distraction I need.

In ordinary times, I regularly make myself lists of writing aims for the coming week or so, but I haven’t done that for a month now. So that’s where I’m going to start. Not setting myself deadlines, not telling myself I’m going to produce a great body of work, but ideas of what to focus on. And, for the first time in weeks, I’m excited about starting to tackle my novel edits. I’m looking forward to planning some new article ideas too.

I’m also planning to add more content to this blog. A few months ago I posted a piece about finding inspiration for articles. Over the next few days or so I’m going to work on a follow up post with tips on how to research and analyse magazines, then later another about how to pitch articles to editors. The world of writing can be confusing to navigate, and I hope this series will help demystify the process of getting an article published. I’m also thinking ahead to what other advice and resources I can share on here – let me know if you have any thoughts on topics to cover, I love to talk writing!

While I’m glad to be feeling some level of creative energy again, I’m not going to push myself. I’ve seen a few posts on social media encouraging people to use this strange time to learn a new skill or to dedicate to a creative interest. If you have the energy and the focus, then by all means go for it. But remember that now is not the time to unfairly pressure yourself and feel guilty about not researching your business plan, writing a poetry collection, or learning to play the guitar.

Yes, I’m now hoping to get back into my writing over the coming weeks. I’m feeling in the right headspace for it. But that initial, “Well, at least lockdown will give me time to fully plot out and write my next novel” thought I had a few weeks ago is definitely not my approach now. It’s not about word counts or the number of pitches I send – it’s about enjoying it, about the little bit of hope I feel when I write, about getting, however briefly, lost in something I love.

Take care, and stay safe.

My Writing

Exciting news – I have an agent!

I’m absolutely thrilled to share that I’ve signed with a literary agent! I’m now represented by the wonderful Abi Fellows at The Good Literary Agency.

Many of my friends, family and colleagues know it’s been a long journey to get to this stage, with plenty of near-lys, rejections, heartbreak and hope. I’m so happy to have found someone who shares my passion for my writing and I’m excited about working with Abi to hopefully bring my novel into the world.

There’s still at least another draft of the manuscript to get through before we’re at the stage of sending it to publishers, but I feel I’m now a step closer to the possibility of being a published author.

My Writing

Looking back at 2019

It’s that time of year where we aren’t quite sure what day it is, have eaten far too many mince pies, and are asking each other about our New Year resolutions over yet another glass of prosecco. As I think ahead to what I want to achieve in 2020, I find myself reflecting on this past year.

This time a year ago, I decided I was going to make 2019 the year that I really push with my writing. And I’m so happy with all that I’ve managed to do. I’ve had several articles commissioned and published in a range of places, including most excitingly the Guardian; I’ve had short stories long and shortlisted in competitions; I’ve edited my YA novel; I’ve begun work on a new novel; I’ve graduated from my MA; I’ve begun a copywriting job. I’m pretty happy with all that!

Another big thing has been around how I organise my writing. I now keep detailed spreadsheets (can you tell I used to work in admin?) of ideas and where I’ve sent my work to help me keep track, which has been a huge help. I’ve also been updating this blog more regularly, uploading examples of my work to my portfolio, and engaging with the lovely writing community on Twitter more.

One of my highlights of 2019 was my week at the Arvon writers’ centre. It really cemented my feeling that writing is what I want to do with my life. It also helped me feel more connected to the writing community. I’ve been looking on the Arvon website at all the courses they have next year and trying to decide which to book onto!

Another highlight is that I’ve been mentored by the wonderful author Kate Mallinder for the past half a year, as part of the Artist Development Programme support I’m getting from disability arts charity DaDaFest. Her guidance and encouragement has been so valuable and has helped me not only develop my writing but feel more confident about my abilities. I really enjoy our chats over coffee about all aspects of creative work and feel she’s been a huge help in me making progress.

I don’t know what 2020 will bring. I know I have a few articles due to be published which I’m excited to share with you and many more I plan to pitch. There’s a few things that I’m waiting to get decisions about in the coming weeks and months, which I’ve been trying not to worry about too much over the holidays but of course have been. Whatever happens, I hope that I build on what I’ve achieved this year and continue to develop as a writer.

My Writing

Flash fiction in Ellipsis Zine

Today I have a flash fiction story, “Two Weeks After The World Ended”, published by the wonderful Ellipsis Zine.

An earlier version of the story was long listed for the Flash 500 award at the start of the year, and I’m glad the story’s now found a home.

Take a read of it (and great stories by other writers) on the Ellipsis Zine website.