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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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Follow the link for a taster of an embellishment tutorial in the book.

Wow, I must be a bit psychic (that, or it’s a coincidence, but that’s not so fun, right?) as my new book (The Party Dress) was waiting for me when I got home on Friday. I read it cover to cover that evening and here are my thoughts (having only read it, not tried it out):

Positive

  • The dresses are great – there should be something here to suit everyone.
  • There are good ideas for personalising the dresses and making different variations on them.
  • It’s written in a very positive way – he has an upbeat, friendly and encouraging tone, which is exactly what a beginner needs.
  • Gorgeous colour photos throughout with some fun photoshoots (giant white rabbits, anyone?).
  • Embellishment tutorials that you could use on many different projects.

Negative

  • I’m not convinced his examples are perfectly-fitting (there is some wrinkling) – surely this should be the priority in a book about how to make dresses that fit you perfectly? I suspect taking greater care and being more of a perfectionist would help.
  • The instructions aren’t always clear – sometimes I was reading them and couldn’t fully understand what he meant and the photos do not always help. I generally use more than one book when reading up on techniques, anyway.
  • I would disagree with some of his recommendations on what suits the different body shapes – for example, that short people should wear longer lengths, in fact they often make you look even shorter and tend to dwarf shorter ladies (I speak from experience!). I’m not saying short women should never wear long gowns, but you have to do so carefully!

And this point is neither positive not negative, but something for anyone considering this book to be aware of:

  • It does contain four dresses (and a basque top, which is used as the bodice/pattern for the dresses and can be made up separately). Considering the prices of patterns, you wouldn’t be able to buy four patterns for the £10 the book costs (I got it cheaper on Amazon Marketplace, so look out for copies there!), so I consider it a good deal for that alone (plus the block, bow and fabric flower tutorials), but some people might expect more from a book that is specifically about creating ‘the perfect’ party dress. Having said that, I do think that whatever your figure, at least one of these styles should suit you, and Simon Henry does give ideas for variations, so you could make four different takes on the same dress.

Anyway, overall, I would recommend this book, though I doubt it has much to offer the more experienced stitcher except for, perhaps, inspiration.

The other weekend happening – Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical … Bloody amazing!! So, so much fun! Uplifting songs and story, amazing performances and a bus on stage – what more could you ask for? I had a fabulous time. Oh, and the costumes were out of this world – I never in my life thought I would ever watch a stage full of dancing men dressed up as cupcakes. Yep, I’m serious. If you get the opportunity, I heartily recommend this show and challenge you to leave it without a massive grin on your face!

And, lastly, back to dressmaking – the promised pictures of the wrap-over, nearly complete – the bias binding is all on now, though the hemming isn’t yet done and neither is the closure. I’ve tied a scrap of leftover bias around the waist and I quite like the effect, so I think I’m going to sew that at the wrap-overs and tie it at the back. I did originally try this with a wide strip of the blue poplin to create a large bow at the back, but this created too much bulk around the waist. My only slight concern is that adding this red bias changes the lines on the dress – does it spoil the shape?

(Sorry the photos aren’t fab – my camera is still being dead and the Boy’s one refused to work, too!  Only bad thing about my phone – rubbish camera.)

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These three things are inextricably interlinked for me.  When I am reading a story I love, I feel most inspired to write.  And, I like to think I’m aware enough that I don’t fall into that trap of writing like what I’m currently reading, which I hear/read so often from writers – ‘I don’t read anything while I’m writing a novel in case it subconsciously influences me’.  Which is fair enough, but I do think that reading is the best way to learn about writing, closely followed by writing (see below for my justification of this!).  And if you want to get published, then it’s even more vital that you know what is already out there, what is selling and what the conventions are, whether you intend to follow them or not.

Now, to qualify that off-hand comment about the best way to learn to write … This is, of course, just one woman’s opinion, but I think that reading extensively provides you with the basis for any learning you might do through writing itself.  Before I ever attempted to write myself and before I ever had any formal teaching on writing, I read.  As a child I lived in imagined worlds more than I lived in the ‘real world’ (and if I had my own way, I probably would now, too).  This meant that when I came to write and to learn about story I had an instinctive understanding of structure, character, dialogue and so on.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was a basis.  It meant that I could think of examples of the kind of scene or plot I was trying to write or that someone else was trying to teach me about.  It meant that somewhere in the back of my mind a voice said that you needed tension and climaxes and resolutions long, long before I ever read about those things in ‘how to write’ books.

Reading was the underpinning for the rest of my learning about writing.  I cannot stress the importance of it enough.  (Plus, if you want to write and be published, then buying and borrowing books from the library is a great way to support your industry.)

If you want some more writing tips, here’s an interesting article from The Guardian – Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.  (And yes, I need for work on number 5 – me and my addiction to exclamation marks!)  I got the link via the often funny, ever enlightening Nathan Bransford.  He does a fantastic post on the week’s happenings in publishing – if you want to be published or work in the industry, you’d be well-advised to read it!  In fact, just subcribe to his blog and read it all – you’ll find something useful, I promise!

And if you were wondering where the start of this post was going – it was further praise for Robin Hobb.  I am loving Ship of Magic like a great big obsessive weirdo.  I know I am loving it that much, because I find myself thinking about it when I’m doing other things and I am constantly looking forward to the next time I get a chance to read it.  And as it’s lunchtime, that’s now. 

What I bought at the weekend!

(Though, before I go to eat and read – if you have any recommendations along the lines of ‘if you like Robin Hobb, you’ll love …’ I’d love to hear them.  Indeed, any fantasy recommendations with good female protagonists always go down well with me!)

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This week I have been mostly …


I just wanted to give you lovelies a quick update on what I’ve been up to …

  • Applications – a couple for jobs and a couple for PGCEs.  They take up a lot of time and are quite dull, but they need doing, alas!
  • Tulle skirt.  Meh.  It’s finished, but it looks frumpy and I’m not impressed by that!  I’m plotting ways to possibly de-frump it, or else it’s going in the bin (well, probably not the bin, but the pergatory that is under the bed).  Maybe making it a lot shorter (it’s knee-length at the moment) will help, but I’m a bit anxious to do that as once it’s cut, there’s no going back!
  • Reading – I forgot to mention this in my “You Should Read This” post, but You Should Read This (Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic).  It’s one I bought before we moved but hadn’t got around to reading yet and I’ve just picked and ye gods I already love it something rotten.  I’m only a few chapters in and I suspect it might become my favourite book ever.  Yes, that’s how much I love it.  I might have to write a full review once I’ve finished it, but for now I’m going to gush about the things I love about it: the writing is ohmygodsIwishI’dwrittenthat amazing – certain turns of phrase she uses are so simple and yet so perfect it leaves me wondering how anyone has ever described that thing in any other way, and this especially impresses me because these days I am so picky about writing that I can’t help but see every single flaw, so for me to be wowed this much is rare; the characterisation and characters – they are so incredibly real from what I’ve read so far, the chapter I’ve just finished in particular gets under the skin of that character so utterly that I felt I was seeing into the mind of another person, not reading made up imaginings; which brings me to that imagination – this is fantasy at its best, in my most humble of opinions – I’m quite well read in the genre and the ideas she comes up with are so unique and original without being too outlandish or unbelievable, which is exactly what fantasy should be.  OK, must stop gushing about Robin Hobb now, but I have major Writer Envy and Awe and Love and Wows!
  • Valentine’s-ing – the Boy and I don’t like going out for dinner on Valentine’s Day, it’s just a bit cheesy for our tastes, being out with loads of other couples and so on, so we went out on Thursday for a quiet meal and on Sunday I baked him cupcakes (raspberry with vanilla icing and red sparkles- yay!) and we got Yo Sushi take away (YUM!), watched our guilty pleasure (Smallville) and then went to a pub quiz.  It was a lovely day.

I should’ve taken pictures of the cakes, I know, but they were just too yummy not to scoff all at once … but here’s some sushi to look at instead:

I heart sushi!

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Cupcakes!


What is it that people love so much about cupcakes?

I’m afraid I don’t have an answer, but I do have an addiction to the darn things.  So when I saw this book for £5 at my office’s book club, I just couldn’t resist:

Huzzah for many different recipes (for the cake and icing) and lots of inspiring ideas.  There’s even a recipe for Earl Grey cupcakes and another for rose icing (I love all things rose-flavoured).

The only down side?  This means that I’m sorely tempted to buy lots of fun cake-decorating bits, like brightly-coloured sprinkle shapes and coloured sparkly sugars.  I managed to be sensible at the weekend and only bought fairly necessary and non-frivolous baking equipment: a cooling rack, a spatula (in a pretty colour, naturally) and I ordered some scales for the kitchen as they didn’t have the ones I wanted.

While on the subject of cupcakes… if you happen to live in the area, I can recomment the yumminess of The Swallow Bakery’s cupcakes – super-nom-noms.

If the first bite really is taken with the eyes, then cupcakes must be one of the most delicious and filling foods in the world.  (No mention of their fattening qualities, thankyouplease!)

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I Heart Books


As a reward for doing the boring but necessary task of visiting employment agencies all day, I allowed myself to spend the last of my gift card.  I tried to order the Kyoto Fashion book, but they couldn’t order it as it was out of stock (meh!).

But nevermind, ’cause it means I got to buy this piece of prettiness instead:

Fashion in DetailSo, if you excuse me, I’m going to go and do some drooling …

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Aflutter Over A Book


I’m all aflutter at the release of what looks to be a rather exciting debut novel from the witty and most learned Gail Carriger:

Soulless

Who could possibly resist a novel whose byline is “A novel of vampires, werewolves, and parasols”?  Really?

Do go and check out her blog for Interesting Reading and a very fun Victorian paper doll of her protagonist, Alexia Tarabotti!  The book comes out on 1 October and I think I’ll be breaking my current ban on buying books and sending this one straight to the top of my pile.  And, dear reader, I think you should follow suit.

Soulless promises to be a steam-punk, historical urban fantasy with romance and lush gowns.  I, for one, am in.

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