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Archive for July, 2013


Much as I love books, there is one genre that is sure to get me running for the hills.  Two little words with a hyphen between … I’ll whisper them …

Self-help.

how_to_lose_friends_and_alienate_people_ver5Maybe I’m being unfair – I mean the idea of helping yourself is definitely, in my metaphorical book, A Good Thing, but there’s something inherently grotesque (in that same book of mine) about a genre that contains a book called How to Win Friends and Influence People (or, as I’d call it, How to be a Manipulative Douchebag).

Another ‘winner’ in the self-help world was ‘recommended’ to me by a librarian in senior school.  I think I was about 12 or 13 and already known in the school library as a more advanced reader and, it would seem, as unpopular with guys, so of course(?!) she pulled this monstrosity off the shelf and suggested I have a read: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.  Really?  Yeah, really.

Apologies to any fans of John Gray, but I can’t tolerate any book that can say “Men are motivated when they feel needed while women are motivated when they feel cherished” and makes these weird generalisations about men and caves and women and waves, and, as if that wasn’t vomit-worthy enough, then says “we are unique individuals with unique experiences.”  Well, first off, for the latter, you get the No Shit Sherlock Award.  And, more importantly, which is it?  Are we individuals or these generalisations that John Gray pedals throughout this self-help schlock?

Breathe, Clare, breathe.  Sorry, as I was saying, me and self-help books aren’t on the best of terms and I’ve firmly avoided them since the Men are from Mars debacle.

Until now.

A couple of weeks ago, I felt the need for a new book now, so I hit up my local Waterstones, which is alarmingly close to my flat.  (Seriously, if I were considerably more agile, like those parkour-types, I could probably walk, run and jump across rooftops to get there.  Instead, I tend to walk down the road.)  The writing section is stocked fairly well, but most of the books of any interest were ones I already have.  I saw Coach Yourself to Writing Success nestling between some other how to write books and instantly dismissed it as one of those.  A self-help book.

But somehow I still bought it. Coach Yourself to Writing Success

The other day, I posted about my own experiences of spending far too much of my life not writing and instead worrying about writing or avoiding it altogether.  And perhaps thinking about all that opened the doors for me to consider Coach Yourself…, because ‘life coaching’ is a phrase guaranteed to raise deep and immediate distrust in most Brits.  And, gasp, Bekki Hill, the writer of Coach Yourself… is a life coach.  Truly, the planets must have been aligned and Venus in retrograde, with the Halls of Hell blanketed in snow (or something) for me to buy that book, but I did.

And I’m glad I did.

Hill’s book is kind of a careers advisor, best friend and therapist all rolled into one.  She asks some tough questions and speaks honestly, without any rubbish about cleansing auras, loving yourself or how anyone is like a cave.  Her writing style is down to earth and I think that’s a large part of what encouraged me to actually do most of the activities in the book, rather than dismiss them as unhelpful mumbo-jumbo.

That’s all very well and good, I can hear you saying, but we want results, what were the results?!  Well, I’m more productive with my writing than I’ve been since I was a child, before The Fear slithered in.  I’m more positive about the whole process of writing.  I’m procrastinating less.  I’m writing every day.  I’m much more mindful of my thoughts and attitudes towards writing in general and my writing in particular, as well as my wider writing goals.

Coach Yourself… gets you thinking about and identifying your true writing dreams and ambitions – it acknowledges that ultimately, some of us might be clinging on to writing when it’s someone else’s expectation or dream for us or perhaps it was a childhood dream that isn’t something we actually want anymore.  And that’s OK.  What’s the point in chasing a dream you no longer want?  This books helps you work that out and work through it, if it turns out writing isn’t really your ambition anymore.

 

Horizon: It's an experiment, honest!

Horizon: It’s an experiment, honest!

If it is still what you really, really want (Spice Girls quote not intended), Hill helps you map out how to achieve your writing goals.  Part of getting there is working out what’s stopping you, which Hill helps you do before talking you through how to get past that blockage.  In particular, she has some great techniques for increasing your positive thinking, which in a strange act of synchronicity was also the subject of the episode of Horizon shown around the time I was reading Coach Yourself…: The Truth About Personality.

 

It turns out, as both Hill and Horizon tell you, that while you might be a pessimist, more prone to negative thoughts than positive, and this is actually visible in the way your brain works (really, watch this episode of Horizon, if you can), you can still teach your brain to be more positivePositivity can be taught.  That’s something of a revelation for me – I probably tend to see a lot of negatives out there and in myself, and not always to my benefit (and both sources acknowledge that negativity is vital in protecting us from certain situations), but I figured that was just my way of thinking and always would be and that was that.  I didn’t know how to change it; I didn’t know it could be changed.

Turns out it can.  And that, my friends, is perhaps the greatest idea I’ve encountered in a long, long time.

Hill’s book gives you some great techniques for how to do this and also addresses other specific issues she’s encountered in her years of coaching writers, such as Boosting Motivation (chapter 8), Increasing Creativity (chapter 9), Beating Procrastination (chapter 10, probably a chapter many writers could do with looking at, if my Twitter feed is anything to go by!), Finding Time to Write (chapter 11), When the Words Don’t Flow (chapter 12), Dealing More Effectively with Rejection (chapter 13) and Letting Go (Chapter 14).  Because of that experience with real-world writers, the book is packed with real life examples of writerly struggles and how they overcame them.

So what I’m trying to say is if you’re looking for a book that doesn’t tell you about the technicalities of ‘how to write’, but rather teaches you the survival techniques of ‘how to get writing’, then get your hands on Bekki Hill’s Coach Yourself to Writing Success.

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I’ve posted about sleep before – perhaps because I’ve struggled with it for much of my life – so I thought I’d share another interesting blog post I found today: scientists have long worked around the idea that sleep aids memory (I don’t know about you, but this would explain some pretty strange dreams I’ve had!), but this new theory looks at how sleep helps us process memories.

I’m a firm believer in the importance of a good night’s sleep – not too much and not too little – but it sometimes seems undervalued in the buzz of modern life.  People who drift off as soon as their head hits the pillow take it for granted (and are eternally envied by me!), while for busy types, it can fall far down the list of priorities.  Then there are people like me, for whom it doesn’t come easily – you lie there, eyes closed, trying to sleep … first it’s 30 minutes … nothing … then it’s an hour … then another hour goes by and you’re cursing yourself and the fact you’ve got to get up in five hours’ time.  But what if we’re seriously damaging our physical and mental health by not sleeping well?  And, if sleep plays an important part in memory, that must have implications for knowledge and education.

So, have a read of the article, it’s an interesting and slightly controversial theory, and make sure you guard your sleep time well.

Lady Sleeping, Franciszek Zmurko

Lady Sleeping, Franciszek Zmurko – NOT how I look sleeping!

As for my own sleep patterns, it’s not all bad: childhood insomnia is what made me such an avid reader from a young age.  My poor parents, I drove them mad, being unable to sleep and waking them up every night.  Then I learned to read and instead of bothering Mum and Dad, I’d consume book after book, re-reading them again and again when my supply of stories couldn’t keep up with demand.  Alas, these days I have more demands on my time and can sleep better, so I read considerably less than I used to, but, still, the pattern for reading was set at a young age, thanks to insomnia, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain.

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I’ve got some time off work at the moment, so I had a little book-shopping-binge (my favourite kind of binge) and have been catching up on some much-needed reading.

TheAlchemistOfSouls-197x300In the fiction corner we have the first book of Anne Lyle’s Night’s Masque series, The Alchemist of Souls.  Historical fantasy with grit and wit, set in a fantasy version of Elizabethan England, what’s not to like?  The touches of humour (this isn’t a Terry Pratchett, all-out comedy fantasy, just to clarify!) and the period are definitely putting me in mind of Black Adder the Second, which is a compliment in my books, since I was raised on Black Adder and it’s still one of my favourite TV shows of all time.  At the same time, Lyle has created something intriguing and unique and it’s got me looking forward to my reading sessions to find out what happens next!  If you’re not sure, you can even get a sample of the first three chapters on Anne Lyle’s website.  What’ve you got to lose?!

OK, if you need any more persuasion, I am seriously crushing on her dark, dashing and dangerous main character, Mal.  A definite ding dong.  Go read it already.

The rest has been non-fiction, which is unusual to me, as usually the weighting of my reading pile is towards novels, but I suppose I’m on research mode.

45 master characters

No prizes for predicting there would be some writing books in my list.  I’ve been dipping into 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn-Schmidt over the past day or so.  I’m very interested in archetypes, which is what she’s based her ‘master characters’ on, so I’ve been interested in this book for a while.  There’s some good stuff in here, but as always I’d warn against wholesale acceptance of anyone’s advice (mine included!), be it on writing or anything else.  I’d like to speak about this one in more depth, so that’s for another post.  (Also, I’d like to wait until I’ve read it all, before I really comment on it.)

 

20 master plots

I’ve been pondering plot, as A Thief & A Gentlewoman follows quite a complex one and that makes me worry whether the structure works.  For now, I think it’s best to wait until I’ve written it to really see whether my plans were off the mark or not, but that hasn’t stopped me reading up on the subject.  The Writer’s Journey is a well-known book on the subject, which I’ve had on my shelves for a while now, waiting to be read.  Vogler also draws on archetype, using stories ranging back to myth and legend to the present to help formulate his theories.  I’ve just started this one, so further thoughts to come on another day.  Similarly, 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them is another book I’ve been dipping into, but haven’t yet finished.  More when I do!

colour on clothI’ve got it into my head that I want to try dyeing fabric.  (I blame my friend Karen who was foolish enough to let me touch some amazing sandwashed silk satin she had bought and dyed.  Seriously, I was sat there stroking this stuff for at least half and hour – it feels like peach-skin, but softer and silkier and lovelier and just … swoon!  It’s cheaper and easier to get hold of in its loomstate (undyed) form, so, hence the need for dye.)  Anyway, being a bibliophile (like you hadn’t realised), I needed a book, so I ‘invested’ (ahem) in Ruth Isset’s Colour on Cloth, which is full of pretty colour and instructions on how to use it to make fabric and/or paper even more fabulous.  There are some amazing techniques you can try, which I didn’t even have any idea of, so I’m itching to have a go at this.  Some bits are a bit complicated-sounding, but I’ve been using the internet alongside this book, which has helped me find some simplified and adjusted ways of doing things.

My mind was blown by Claire Shaeffer’s Couture Sewing Techniques.  It’s a real eye-opener to not only how to use couture methods, but also the real (massive) difference between couture clothing and ready-to-wear.  There are things in this book that I really had no idea were even things.  And I’m so wowed by it that I can’t even put it any more elegantly!

I have a new appreciation for the kind of work that goes into a garment like this.  Alexander McQueen, 2008, haute couture.

I have a new appreciation for the kind of work that goes into a garment like this. Alexander McQueen, 2008, haute couture.

Shaeffer’s book is a classic for stitchers going beyond the basics and my next book is a classic for those whose stitching strays into corset construction territory.  Corsets: Historic Patterns and Techniques contains patterns and colour photos, together with notes, for 24 corsets (and stays*) from the 1750s to WWI.  This is a great way of getting a range of patterns (though they would need enlarging and checking against your measurements, so this isn’t a task for the beginner) for corsetry and generally having a good old bit of costume perving at some stunning garments.  The Black Corset with Blue Flossing from 1890 on page 74 is utterly stunning.  I’m feeling a real need to make this pattern.  Bad photo below:

Flossing, cording, boning, oh my!

Flossing and cording and boning, oh my!

I’ve recently finished a City & Guilds qualification in corsetry, so this book is definitely going to be put to good use.

And that’s about it for my recent reading endeavours.  For now, I think I’m due some dinner and another installment of The Alchemist of Souls.

* The term ‘corset’ for an undergarment only really began to be used widely in English in the 19th century, before this they were called ‘stays’ (mostly through the 17th and 18th centuries) or ‘bodies’ or ‘a pair of bodies’ (with various spellings, mainly in the 16th century).  The latter being where the word ‘bodice’ comes from.

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Best Writing Advice Ever …


Yes, I am still here.  Yes, I’ve had a crazily busy academic year.  Yes, I’m getting back on the blogging horse!

But more on that another day.

For today, I’m pointing you towards the best piece of writing advice there is, very succinctly put by a woman who knows, Nicola Morgan: Write the damn book.

Which is what I’m working on, now that pesky job of mine is out of the way for a month’s holiday (a month!!!  Yesssss!).

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