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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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Oh wow.  Negative reviews, eh?  In case you haven’t seen it yet, I am writing this post to link you to the perfect of example of how not to respond to a negative review of your writing.  (It’s not even that negative a review, to be honest, but hey.)  (Link via How Publishing Really Works – if you don’t already read, subscribe!) 

Not only is the author’s* response utterly astonishing, but she doesn’t see her mistake (both in response and in the original book).

This made me think about the value of receiving negative reviews and constructive criticism.  I can only see that this reiterates the importance of having an honest writing group or buddy who will get their red pen out as readily as their words of encouragement. 

As writers, it is our duty to hone our craft and knowledge of the English language and to shape our novels to be the best that they can be.  If this involves paying/befriending/kidnapping someone who knows their ‘there’ from their ‘their’ or an apostrophe from a semi-colon, then so be it. 

OK, so I was joking about the kidnapping, but not the rest. 

And beyond any philosophical writerly duty, just be a decent human being who has the good grace and professionalism to leave reviewers alone.

Good grief, what is the world coming to!

* though I hesitate to call her an author considering her disgusting behaviour and low level of pride in her novel to ‘release’ it into the world in that state.

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Hello hello!  I’m very sleepy after a looooong day.  Here’s a picture of what I did today:

And here is a slightly edited version of a comment I just made on Miss Rosemary’s blog about today and the whole Master of Arts experience, because I’m very sleepy and should be in bed (and because it pretty much sums up what I want to say):

Yep, today I did the whole rigmarole of silly gown, silly hat and silly hood-thing, walked across the stage with a hundred other people collecting various other qualifications.  And although I finished the course back in September and received my results around November, today did feel like the culmination of that year’s hard work and I felt bloody proud.  I’ve got half a novel that received, according to one tutor, the highest grade she’s ever awarded (I was speechless for a while after reading that comment, I can tell you!) and I’ve got a Master of Arts with Distinction, but more importantly, I feel that I have the tools and the support (from coursemates who have become great friends) to actually complete that novel.  While I learnt more on my Bachelors (Creative Writing with English Literature), I achieved more on my Masters.

So, yeah, it’s definitely worth it. 🙂  Go for it, and I hope you love it as much as I did.

That photo is of me with two of those lovely people: I’m a lucky girl to find half a dozen people who have become dear friends and excellent writing buddies.  I’d like to thank them all – they know who they are.

So this is for them and for anyone else doing a writing course or thinking of doing one (I can only recommend them from my experiences), and for all the people who pursue their passions in life, even when the bank manager (or anyone else) would prefer you took that job as a lawyer: HUZZAH!

Yep, clear blue skies – it was positively torrential when we went into the ceremony, but we came out to glorious, glaring sunshine … maybe the weather Gods were smiling on our success.

And, finally, here’s a pretty photo – the view from our hotel room:

Now THAT is what I call a sea view!

Night, night, all!

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Writing progress – additional


In which I get to be all smug because another 600+ word day (after a pretty crappy Monday at work, no less!) means that I’ve now broken through 50,000 words (50,560 – wooo!) and (yes, AND) I’m already past my target total for the end of the week (50,554).

"Well hurrah for that!"

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I’ve not mentioned my WIP in a while – for multiple reasons progress has been somewhere between slow and non-existent for several months, but the past couple of weeks I’ve been slowly getting back on the horse.  Momentum is the most important thing for me in terms of getting those words on the page, so I’ve been working to write a little bit every day.

My method, uber-geeky as it is, is to give myself a minimum number of words to do that day (the other important thing for me is having a sense of avhievement, you see!) … that’s not the geeky bit, oh no, the geeky bit is the table I draw up – it looks something like this (remember my love of lists?):

Date    Words Due   Words Done   Projected Total   Actual Total

Mon     200                452                 47,000                 47,252

Tues    etc…

And it covers two sheets of A4 paper front and back, running up until roughly 120,000/end of October.

Yep.  That geeky.  I did warn you.

As I’m just starting up again, I’ve set myself a low target for the first couple of weeks, just 200 words per day. I know that’s a very low target, but my writing confidence is terribly tenuous at the moment and I think of it this way: if I write 400 words when my target was 200, I’ll feel great; if I write 400 words when my target was 600, I’ll have failed and will feel rubbish.  Does that make sense?  I hope so, because then, once I’ve got that boost from reaching my target every day, I’ll be upping my target to 400 (in about a week), and up again a week or two later.  When I was writing T&Gw for my Masters, I was writing a minimum of 750 words per day (some days this ended up being as much as 1,500, and that’s on work-days with cleaning, cooking, etc), so I want to get back up to that level.

Anyway, the reason for all this explanation is that I’m really pleased – today I really didn’t feel like sitting down and writing, but I dutifully made myself (reminding myself that the word-count fairies would come after me otherwise – they’re scary little blighters!) and ended up writing the most I’ve managed to write in one day for a very long time: over 650 words.  It might not seem like much (especially for you super-human people who can sit and write 3,000+ words in a day – how do you manage that?!), but for the girl getting back on that writing horse, who was only looking to write 200 words, it’s kind of a break-through moment.  And hopefully it’s a good sign that I can get my first draft finished and begin on the editing by the end of this year … Something tells me I’m going to need those lucky symbols!

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I cringe when I see them done badly.  I probably cringe even more when there aren’t any.  I have a hard time reading novels without them.  Some of them are my absolute favourite pieces of fiction ever.  It’s perhaps not so much of a mystery what I’m talking about if you glance at the title of this post.  Yep, we’re talking ‘strong female characters’.

A couple of month’s ago, when a post by the lovely ladies of Let The Words Flow (arbiters of wonderful writing/publisher-seeking advice and support) went off-topic an interesting if brief conversation about what constitutes a strong female character followed.  Everyone felt that there were many different takes on the ‘strong woman’ and almost as many misinterpretations.  So, here goes with my take (hopefully not a misinterpretation) and perhaps, if you’d be kind enough, then I’d love to hear your responses as readers, writers, men and women: what does the phrase ‘strong female character’ mean to you?

I think we can all agree that The Smurfette Principle is exactly why stories of all kinds need good female characters.  (I love TV Tropes!)

We all know too well those clichés of what women do and are in fiction.  Gods, that sounds a bit pretentious, doesn’t it?  Well, what I mean, really, is that all too often women are the main character’s wife/daughter/love-interest/mother – they’re defined by male characters and their own interest in men.  Even when they are the stars of the show, sometimes they do little more than look for how they can become wives/love-interests/mothers.  For a great example of what I mean (which explains it far better than I have), check out TV Tropes’ article on The Bechdel Test, which a film/book/etc must pass by following these criteria:

  1. it includes at least two women,
  2. who have at least one conversation
  3. about something other than a man or men.

Stories with Strong Female Characters have to pass this test for me to really enjoy them: even though it’s a romance, Pride and Prejudice passes, Lizzie and her sisters discuss the state of the family affairs, religion (even if Mary is quite utterly silly!) and dressing for balls.  (And even the conversations involving Lydia are a prime example of the perils of failing the Bechdel Test and having thoughts of nothing other than men – she is portrayed as a foolish girl and ends up suitably punished, married to a nasty piece of work who will never be able to afford the luxuries she desires.  Even Austen got it a couple of centuries ago.)

So what about this strong female character, then?

She is woman, hear her roar!  She doesn’t need a man, she doesn’t get caught by the Big Bad and she can save the world!  She’s a strong female character, right?

Uhm.  No.

Wait, you meant strong as in muscular, right?

Uhm.  No.

The problem is that somewhere along the line our outcry against the weak, swooning lady, desperately in need of a hero was misunderstood: we wanted real characters, well thought-out, believable, people in their own right who just happened to be female; we got women who were more masculine (wow, she’s a good shot!), less feminine (I don’t wear skirts, they’re for girls!  This makes me strong.), attractive and strong in terms of being good at stuff.  Somehow we ended up with Lara Croft – intelligence, nifty shooting/jumping skills and hot!  Overthinking It gets this idea across perfectly with the example of that annoying woman in Transformers – Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women – here’s a taster of their point:

Image from Overthinking It – see link!

Though, physically strong characters can be strong female characters, too: the first example that leaps to my mind is Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter of Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion.  She starts off young and head-strong, but grows and learns throughout the trilogy.  Thoughout she is flawed and believable as a person and nor does she fall at the feet of the first man to flutter his eyelashes at her or beat her in battle.  Paks’ depth of character prevent her from being a failed strong woman.

I read the books a long time ago, but whenever I think of them, I always remember a scene where she is being measured for some clothes and the tailor exclaims at her wide neck: this isn’t some weedy woman weilding an unrealistically large sword, Moon has realised that someone wearing a heavy helm day in, day out, would have a muscular neck – the reality of Paks’ character is more important than her being attractive (at least in a traditional way).

So, I suppose what I’m trying to say is that a strong female character is a strong character, flawed and active, with depth and quirks, who just so happens to be female and is not the only female.

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I was going to contain my excitement and not say anything on this blog about this particular thing until I had it in my possession.  But I’m clearly not very good at that, because here I am about to gush about the wond’rousness of the very apt MA graduation gift from my Lovely Mum …

An antique writing box.  AKA, a writing slope or lap desk (though, I think that technically they are all slightly different things, the three terms do tend to be used interchangably, so I will do the same).  Isn’t that a brilliant present idea for a Creative Writing MA graduand?  (I know, my Mum’s brilliant!)

I can remember seeing these on TV as a child (probably on the Antiques Roadshow) and thinking they were the coolest thing since, well, ever, but not knowing much about them, I’ve been doing a little research.  So here’s a little guided tour around a gorgeous Regency rosewood writing box that recently sold on Ebay (for far more than I could aford, alas!).

Regency writing box recently sold on ebay.

A writing box from the outside apears much like any other rectangular box and may be plain or richly decorated.  It’s only once you open it that you realise that this is more than ‘just another box’ – a handsome slope covered in baise, velvet or leather (usually with gilt and/or blind embossed decoration, a pen holder (perhaps stained with the ink of some late-night letter-writing), an ink well (or perhaps a couple in different colours for the adventurous or the accountant amongst you) and maybe even a pair of candle sconces.

Interior of the same box.

And those writing flaps lift up, leaving space for writing (or painting/drawing) materials, important papers and the like:

What lies beneath.

While these boxes came with locks (specially made to lie flush when unlocked, so they don’t dig into one’s arms or catch on sleeves while writing), one can never be sure who might manage to poke around in one’s writing box (ooh-er!), so where can a young woman of society keep her lover’s letters away from prying eyes?  (Or indeed, keep her cash from being misplaced, as almost happened to Jane Austen when her writing box was mis-placed on a chaise heading to Gravesend!)  Fear not, for some clever little writing boxes (including this one) have a cunning solution – secret drawers:

Ssssh - don't tell!

The apparent back panel is in fact removed with a little press in the right place to reveal these delightful little drawers.  And if all that isn’t enough storage space for you, Regency boxes and some Victorian ones often had a larger side drawer that opened from the outside:

Document storage, creation and secrecy?  In essence, the lap desk was the historical gentleperson’s laptop.  (Instead of secret drawers we have encryption and passwords – I know which I feel more secure with!)

What I find even more exciting is the thought that all those 18th and 19th century writers we love (and sometimes hate) penned their words in such boxes – Byron, Dickens, Austen.  This page has some interesting information about Jane Austen’s writing box (upon which Pride & Prejudice was written!) and the escapade I outlined earlier when it was almost lost (but thankfully recovered!).  Here is a box apparently similar to Austen’s and Jane Austen’s World has an image of the actual desk, which was donated to the British Library by one of her non-direct descendants.

The best site I found for information on writing boxes is Antigone’s guide to Antique Writing Boxes and Lap Desks.  It contains an absolute wealth of knowledge and has given me some sense of the development of the box and features to look out for.  Do go there for a more in depth look at writing slopes and boxes.

Approaching this as a buyer, the first thing I realised rather swiftly – buying from an antiques dealer is going to be considerably more expensive than buying from ebay.  Out-of-our-price-range more expensive.  The other option could be a local auctioneer – Arthur Johnson & Sons – who hold auctions every Saturday and list their items online from 6pm the Thursday before.

So, this gentlewoman is on the hunt for the Perfect Writing Box…

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