Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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 …


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 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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The Best Laid Plans …

… of Mice and Writers.

Note to self: don’t try to do anything at the start of the academic year.  Really.  Don’t bother.

And definitely don’t try to finishing a sodding novel!  I’m not going to moan about it, but I will say two things:

1. The past month and a bit at work have been ridiculously busy and stressful.  And that’s working part-time (allegedly).  (Have got some fab students, though!)

2. I did get 10,000+ words written before the madness began, so that’s something.

Looking ahead, I plan to give things another go now I’ve started to get a handle on the insanity of work and I’ll post my thoughts about the BIAM system soon.

In other news – I’ve been reading bits and pieces for work, including some Shakespeare.  Henry V – better than I was expecting!  Some lovely themes in there and a wonderfully complex main character; I love that you could view Henry as this arch-Machiavel or the ideal king.  Intriguing stuff!

I am ridiculously excited to read Wolf Hall, which is sat in my Kindle’s memory, waiting for my attentions.  I must have been living under a rock for the past few years, as it didn’t hit my radar until Mantel won her second Man Booker prize for the sequel.  A seriously big  rock.

But, for now, bed!

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I mentioned earlier in the week that I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately and I’ve already told you about the stories I’ve been enjoying.  This post will discuss some writing-related books I’ve consumed recently.

I’ve been wrestling with some plotting demons in A Thief & A Gentlewoman, which have stopped me moving on with the story.  Sometimes plot-doubts are simply us as insecure writers second-guessing ourselves … but sometimes there really is a flaw in our plotting.  The outline of AT&aGw has gone through a few changes, with a parallel plot added to increase complexity (and ensure it reached a fantasy-appropriate word count!), but coming back to the story after a break, I now feel that that addition has actually diluted what was a strong plot with an exciting climax.  So I’ve been focusing on books about plot to get some ideas for how to move forward.

I’ve already reviewed Write to be Published, which I loved, so I won’t go over that again, except to say get it!

I picked up The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing a couple of months ago as it has interviews with some interesting writers and articles on topics not covered by some of my more specialist writing books, and it seems like good value – a big chunky book for £10.

Plus, I’ll admit it, I like getting new writing books.

This is more of a dip-into book, rather than a read-straight-through (which is what I did with Write to be Published).  I’ve read or skimmed through a few articles and particularly the section on plot, since that’s what I’m working on at the moment.  It seems quite good so far, though not utterly amazing, however I’ve only looked at a few parts and I suspect it will become more useful as I dip into other areas.

I found Monica Wood and James N. Frey’s articles on plot fairly helpful, though in a broad way of getting myself thinking about plot and encouraging my subconscious to start working on the problem of what is and isn’t working in my plot.  There wasn’t necessarily anything in these articles that I hadn’t read elsewhere, but this book would be useful for someone looking to get a one-stop reference for different areas of novel writing.  Like Write to be Published, it gives a broad overview and is a handy resource for having information all in one place.  I do prefer Write to be Published, though, as I found it more readable and like Nicola Morgan’s voice and her take on different subjects.

A couple of years ago a friend gave me a copy of Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, as somehow he’d ended up with two copies (no, I don’t know how, either, but thanks, Darron!).  In light of my current issues with my WIP, I finally got around to reading it.  Again, I used a combination of skimming, dipping in and reading fully, since some sections were more useful to my current position than others.

Despite the horrible cover (sorry, I hate it!), I liked this one and have found it really useful.  It articulates a lot of things that we already know about plot and structure from being readers and consumers of narratives, which is helpful for clarifying that feeling of “I know this plot does/doesn’t work, but I’m not sure why!”

Bell does get a big obsessed with his own ‘systems’ (complete with acronyms – are you an OP or a NOP?) and it gets a little annoying reading repeatedly about “the LOCK system”.  He does also reference his own fiction fairly often, which I didn’t think was particularly great (sorry!) and in one instance was actually quite over the top when it was meant to be giving an example of downplaying emotion.  But if you can get past those minor niggles, then this is a very useful book for helping you think about plot, whether you’re coming up with one from scratch, or re-working a flagging one.

He includes plenty of exercises to try out and some handy appendices to help write your own back cover copy (a helpful part of the plotting process) and a checklist of key elements.  There are tips for generating ideas and fixing plot problems, as well as a great section on revising and rewriting, specifically focusing on plot.  I do recommend this as an excellent reference for your writing shelves.

Finally we come to a book I almost hesitate to admit to buying: Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt.

Why the hesitation? you might ask.  Well, something about this book just seems a bit gimicky.  Maybe it’s that the writer encourages you to buy a fresh book each time you want to write using her Book in a Month (BIAM) system (what’s with writing books and their ‘systems?), or maybe it’s the very idea of a ‘system’ of writing (nevermind that it’s advertised as ‘fool-proof’ in the tagline.

But there was something that appealed to me about this book – perhaps it’s all the forms to be filled in (which is why she suggests you get a fresh copy for each novel you write, personally, I’ll be using photocopies of the forms!), which must have some sort of appeal to the woman who played ‘office’ and ‘teacher’ games extensively as a child (Complete with made up paperwork.  Yes, sad, I know!).

Anyway, I’ve read the preparation part of the book (that is, up to the point where you begin the 30-day programme) and I’m not regretting my decision to buy it.  Schmidt discusses and encourages you to think about all the excuses you make not to write or not to finish a manuscript, and the possible reasons behind those excuses.  She takes a psychological approach, looking at the ways we sabotage ourselves, reasons for resistance and methods of motivation, which is no surprise when you consider she has a doctorate in psychology.  I’d suggest keeping a journal alongside this book, where you can write about the issues raised and the questions posed – this has already helped me to feel more motivated.

Alongside this, however, she does address the writing itself and how that can prevent you from continuing.  One of my favourite sections so far is how she addresses the idea of theme and what it is you want to say with your story, explaining that sometimes the theme conveyed in a plot that isn’t working for you is a theme you’re not passionate about.  She helps you uncover your ‘writerly identity’ and visualise what it is you want to be known for as a writer, which helps you focus on writing the things that motivate you or, even, how to make an assigned piece of writing (eg, something outside of your usual genre of interest) more appealing to your own interests and passions.

There are some down sides of this book – for instance, she encourages you to write your first draft without any subplots to get the novel written in a month.  I disagree with this strategy as a good subplot will often tie in with the main plot of the novel, perhaps even helping the protagonist find a solution to their problems.  Also, the psychology-talk does get in danger of straying into ‘psychobabble’ territory sometimes, but there’s nothing to stop you from skim-reading!

So far, I’m finding this and interesting and useful book, which I plan to use to finish AT&aGw, once I’ve worked out the plot problems.  I’ll give more feedback when I’ve finished that!

What about you, what non-fiction have you been reading?  Got any writing book recommendations (or ones to avoid!) you’d like to share?

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OK, I think I might have found a new-to-me author to read: just check out this awesomely to-the-point post by Elizabeth Bear on women in fantasy fiction.  Couldn’t have put it better myself!

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I’ve been rather quiet on both my blogs lately, but I’m glad to say that’s because I’ve been busy doing things, rather than blogging about thinking about doing things.

One of the main writing-related things I’ve been doing is reading.  Lots and lots of reading.  I find it so inspiring to lose myself in a story and often good books give me new perspective on my own writing.  I might have been writing since I was barely into double-digits and I might have studied the craft for four years of university, but I still learn from reading (be that what to do or what to avoid!).  So this post I’ll outline some of the fiction I’ve been reading, with another post to follow discussing the writing-related books I’ve been reading.

My recent reading escapades include …

Robin Hobb!  I’ve been reading through the Farseer Trilogy and then the Tawny Man Trilogy alternating between devouring them greedily and carefully avoiding them for fear of horrible things happening in the stories.  And I had a period of mourning when I finished the Tawny Man Trilogy because I knew that meant no more adventures with Fitz and the Fool.

I loved the Liveship Traders Trilogy, which I read a couple of years ago, but I love these two Fitzchivalry & Fool trilogies even more.  She is a seriously skilled writer and an excellent study in human nature – she’s not afraid to acknowledge those less pleasant thoughts we all have and she puts them there in her characters, giving them a realism you don’t see often in characters of any genre.  Seriously, if by some strange act of fate you’ve never read any Robin Hobb, you really, really must.  Must!

The Hunger Games Trilogy.  I quite enjoyed these and read through them very quickly, though I’ve definitely read better YA fiction and when I finished I was left wondering what the big fuss was about.  Ultimately, this story is Battle Royale meets 1984 and a couple of other stories.

I did find the themes interesting, particularly the idea of the poor essentially being slaves to benefit the rich, which read, for me, as a critique of capitalism: in the capitalist triangle, the majority of people are at the bottom, working to provide for the minority who live in luxury at the top, getting (or remaining) rich from the hard work of those below them.  In this series, the division is shown literally with the districts serving the Capitol.  This idea of unequal division of wealth is a huge part of AT&aGw, so it was interesting to see it done in a different way and it was inspiring to read someone else’s writing on this idea.

Besides, who doesn’t love a good bit of dystopia?

I did watch the film after reading the books and I am quite in adoration of Rue – the girl who played her is possibly the cutest person in existence and has the biggest eyes I ever saw.

I’m teaching The Great Gatsby this year, so I thought I really should read it …  And I actually found myself enjoying it.  I often dislike books considered to be ‘classics’ as they tend to be a bit, well, boring.  (Not all classics, but quite a few!  Don’t get me started on Dickens or Jane Eyre.  Really.  You’ll regret it!)

But The Great Gatsby was an thought-provoking and intriguing read, with plenty of rumination to be done around the characters and themes.  I even did a mind map of the themes – I’m a geek like that, but in my defence, it will help me when teach the novel.  At least that’s my excuse.

I’m particularly excited at the prospect of a Baz Luhrmann adaptation coming out.  He is the perfect director to capture the bizarre, carnivalesque excess of Fitzgerald’s vision of the ‘roaring twenties’.  And the cast list is perfect.  The only downer on the release of this film is that it’s been pushed back to next summer.  Sad times.

I’m part-way through Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace.  I have mixed feelings about this one.  Mrs Robinson seems to have lived at an incredible time, crossing paths with some of her age’s most famous writers, scientists and philosophers and her story will leave you open-mouthed at the sheer injustice done to women of her age.  However, for various reasons, I was expecting an account that read more like a story, than a fairly blandly-told history.  My expectations aren’t the writer’s fault, they’re because of what someone told me before I started reading, but it is interesting to remember that the reader and their expectations and previous experiences are as big a part of the book as the writer and their intentions.  The bland writing though, well that could be down to me not being suited to reading history, or the author not being particularly suited to writing it!

Even so, an interesting story worth reading if you’re at all interested in the realities of life for Victorian women.

 What fiction have you been reading lately?  Anything exciting?  Have you read Robin Hobb?  What did you think?

I love to get book recommendations and rarely buy a book without one, so I’d love to hear if you have any!

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Vampire Slaying Kit

Fancy yourself as the next Van Helsing?  Well have I got a deal for you – a Victorian vampire hunting kit is going to auction in Yorkshire.  Check out the BBC article.

‘What do you mean, they’ve got a kit?’

I taught Dracula to some of my students this year – I wish this kit had come up in auction while they were studying the novel!  It includes all the anti-vampire tricks made popular by Bram Stoker: crucifix, holy water, garlic and stake and mallet.  And, check it out, it comes in a fabulous box with a place for each item:

What a brilliant antique!

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