Writers’ HQ: Seven Ideas In Seven Days

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Remember my novel? I was working on it loads last summer and then I did (most of) NaNoWriMo in November, before the world decided it really wanted to bring me down with its ridiculous ideas. I also got bogged down in family stuff, D’s operation, Christmas and then the hell that is working in a school when a new curriculum is trying to be introduced. I lost my way and I lost my mojo. My characters were still in my brain, my story was still asking to be written, but I just struggled to get it down or find time to write.

This is where Writers’ HQ comes in; its founders Sarah and Jo are time-poor, cash-poor, sliiiiightly sweary writers (both Sarah and Jo are novelists) who also happen to be mothers and needed a way to find time to do their work. They offer a range of ways for others to write too- monthly writers’ retreats in Brighton and Worthing, as well as online courses which are reasonably priced (there are also free exercises for a lot of the courses, if you want to check them out before committing to buy one) and take into account the pressures of daily life. Now, disclosure time: Jo is a friend of mine and has been trying to get me to go to the Brighton retreat for AGES, but I either never have money/time/anything to work on. Instead, she offered me the chance to have a go at February’s Seven Ideas In Seven Days course. I jumped on it.

Seven Ideas In Seven Days costs £20 and you are given a lesson everyday that takes around an hour to complete. I loved the variety of different tasks and the ideas I came up with were often completely new to me and very intriguing- I have at least three new ideas for different stories in completely new-to-my-writing genres (including one about the popularity of succulent plants being part  of an alien invasion plot, which I may just write for the LOLZ), as well as two new perspectives on the novels that have lived in  my brain for a long time.

I also liked the forum- although I’m not sure everyone signed up for this month’s course was using it. However, I found two supportive course members and Sarah who were all brilliant for bouncing ideas off, discussing what we’d written and where our work could go next. It felt less scary than a class and more like a friendly chat in a coffee shop (except that I was drinking tea. And in my own house. You understand the imagery though.)

Would I recommend the course? Yes. It was a lot of fun and I’d like to do another course if I get enough money together- there are all sorts of things on offer, from how to plot your novel right through to actually writing/editing the beast and eventually sending it off to a publisher. It was more personal than just using a book or an anonymous blogpost to write and I think the structure and the range of tasks meant that I sat down every night to work. It also made me realise that I CAN carve some time out of the day to write, even if it’s not much. It’s better to write a bit than not at all. I look forward to reacquainting myself with my characters. And the Mutant Succulents From Space With Mind Bending Powers Of Persuasion, obv.

 

Not Today Satan: Bianca Del Rio at Brighton Dome

“Please, don’t take anything I say seriously,” Bianca Del Rio asked of her audience after arriving onstage. A couple of minutes before, a recording  invited any of us of an easily offended disposition to leave- but as if any of us would. We know what we’re in for- that’s why we’re here. After all, Wikipedia does describe Bianca as an ‘insult comic’.

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Source: RuPaul’s Drag Race wiki

I was lucky to be there at all, actually. I managed to snag a press ticket for me and my friend Jaqui in order to review the show for The Argus (at time of writing, it’s not online. I’ll link to it here when it is.) Later, as I tried and write the review with a little gin inside me, I found it hard to write everything down in 200 words. I gave the show 5/5.

Almost everyone in the theatre will have known Bianca from RuPaul’s Drag Race. The room was filled with a captive audience: gay, straight, married, single; all there for a good time and the excitement was infectious. Jaqui and I made friends with two girls outside the venue and we made more friends with some lads in the merch queue (we didn’t have enough money for t-shirts, so we ended up buying each other exactly the same signed photo.) The audience loved Bianca. I’d argue that she’s the most successful contestant from the show, her catchphrase ‘Not today, Satan!’ even making it on protest signs at the recent anti-Trump marches. Despite the acid tongue, Bianca (the stage name of Roy Haylock) is adored, this being her second tour after ‘Rolodex of Hate’ a couple of years ago. I think ultimately it’s because we’re included in the joke- even when, sometimes, it’s aimed squarely at us. But it’s OK. We can take it because ultimately, the joke is on Bianca too. This is what makes Bianca’s comedy work: yes, it’s a bit mean, but we like her. We’re all in this together, warts and all.

Her set deals gleefully with her participation on Drag Race, the biggest cheers (and biggest boos) being offered during gossipy snippets about fellow contestants. “But, after all, the are my sisters!” Bianca offered up every time she took a sip of wine, a knowing wink in the direction of the audience. I always compare Bianca’s comedy to that of Joan Rivers; it’s sharp and funny, but sometimes you will wince when it gets a bit close to the bone. Literally no one is safe- age, race, gender, sexuality, class is all up for grabs. The sketches deal with stuff you might expect- Donald Trump, for example, “I promised I wouldn’t get political!” and weird people on reality TV to the more surreal, such as being a drunk drag queen at an airport. I literally had face ache after the show, I’d been laughing so much. After the set, Bianca offered answers to pre-submitted questions about everything from advice for new drag queens to a key scene in Hurricane Bianca. And all this was done at the mercy of a malfunctioning wig and very high heels. Fantastic.

I loved every minute of the show; even though I know this type of humour is not everyone’s cup of tea, I can’t think of anyone-other than the late Joan Rivers- who does it better.

 

The day I learnt how to flip a sheep…

Well, the title got your attention, didn’t it?

One of the  things I do quite regularly is take myself off on long walks. I’m lucky that I live near the countryside and so it’s always pleasant to go off on a wander. A few months ago, I saw that the council was looking for volunteer shepherds- ‘lookerers’- who could help out by checking the sheep they put in certain areas of the city, checking the fences and so on. I figured that, as I go up there regularly anyway, I could probably help out a bit. After all, I’m a knitter. I like sheep. I applied. And on Sunday, I attended a course.

First of all, I had to follow a trail of little wooden sheep to get to the council rangers’ office. I felt like I was in a slightly surreal version of Hansel and Gretel.

I'm following a procession of little wooden sheep and for some reason this tickles me:

Once I got there, we went over the day- we were to spend the morning out in a local area called Sheepcote Valley, where the council is currently grazing sheep: a mixture of Cheviot, mules and, my absolute favourite, Herdwick sheep- which literally do not have time for any of your nonsense, thank you very much. They’re quite sassy and don’t really have the herd mentality of the other types of sheep.

Sam, the farmer, invited us to have a go at flipping sheep. He makes it look easy. It is not easy. First of all, even in a pen, it’s bloody hard to catch a sheep. They jump and then huddle together in a huge, fleecy puddle of ovine nervousness. Then, you’ve got to get their head just so on one side. If you manage that, they then relax. You can then tip them onto their bottoms, legs in the air, looking like some little Buddha statue; a picture of content. As long as their feet aren’t on the floor, they’re cool. Could I manage to achieve sheep nirvana?

No. I have no upper body strength. I have decided that, if on my rounds, I find a sheep that needs looking at, I will call somebody. I have also come to the conclusion that, if there was a life or death situation involving me and a sheep, we’d probably wing it instinctively.

Also: this sheep below watched the whole thing as my fellow lookerers-to-be made earnest prats of ourselves. I quite liked her. I thought she looked a bit like a rabbit- she had an amused face and seemed to be quite glad that she was on the other side of the fence.

SHEEP!:

I also saw a skylark and a buzzard whilst out on the Downs. I had no idea what they were until the ranger, Lindsay, told me. I am such a city girl. I mean, I had nail polish on, for God’s sake.

In the afternoon, we learnt about why Brighton and Hove use grazing animals to look after the chalk grassland surrounding the city (it’s an incredibly rare habitat for lots of flora and fauna.) We also learnt the basics of sheep anatomy and how the lookerer system works. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in in  the spring. I’ve even signed up to work out at the new site at 19 Acres that will have New Forest ponies. I am scared of horses. I am going to have to have pony training. This will be fine. Fine.

On a more personally interesting note, I learnt that fleece from a sheared sheep sells (often) for less than £1.50. This seems confusing- after all, yarn is expensive and, even after you consider processing, marketing and so on- it still doesn’t seem to tally. It seemed daft that, at a time when farmers are struggling, that it doesn’t seem to pay to keep sheep for their wool any more. I left determined to learn more about the wool process and how it can help local farmers- could I buy yarn from certain farms? It’s on my to-do list and I’d like to knit a jumper in yarn from a single source (a bit like fancy coffee or chocolate, I suppose.) I also left thinking about how I could use my garden more sympathetically to that unusual soil makeup and support the butterflies and insects that are being eradicated from Sussex.

But could I flip I sheep? Could I billy-o.

 

Stuff for kids: The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home*

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D loves reading. He has so many books- easily a couple of hundred, I should think, and that’s before we count any library books and comics he has lying around. He’s also beginning to learn his letters and is looking forward to starting school in September (where does the time go?!)  New books and stories, then, are always welcome in our house.

The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home (£19.99) is a story from the people who brought us the Lost My Name books, which D has a copy of. The concept is simple- personalised books that make stories fun for kids aged 3-10 and the adults who read to them.

The ordering process is incredibly simple: I chose a character to represent D, put his name and our address into the website, along with a personalised message from me and Benn et voila! A book arrived a few days later, much to the delight of D who loves getting post.

The story itself is fun and easy to read aloud (which is not something you think about until you start reading to your child!) The child and their lemonade obsessed robot go through a space journey, meeting fun characters before getting lost and having to find their way back to Earth. But this isn’t a generic town, or a generic street- the book has aerial photos of your town/city (in our case, a picture of the Brighton Pier) and of your street. Obviously, I am not putting my address on the internet, so here is the example photo from the Lost My Name site to show you what I mean:

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D found the concept of this AMAZING. We spent a good few minutes looking and working out where our house was in the photo. He couldn’t get over the fact that it was his street and his house in the book and that he was a character. I do know that he insisted on telling Benn all about it and that this has been the bedtime book of choice for the last few days- every night since it arrived, in fact. I think Benn is grateful for the break from endless re-readings of Peter Pan if I’m honest…! Overall, this is a fun book and would make a great gift.

The Lost My Name website also has loads of other interesting, personalised products too, and I’ve already spotted a few things that I might buy as gifts in the near future (including some cute ‘Fantastic Firsts‘ cards for babies that I wish had been available when I had D!)

 

*Sent for review

 

The importance of self-care

famous-watercolor-painting-beautiful-woman-was-sleeping The world is a scary place at the moment. I can’t remember a time that everything felt quite this out of control, except briefly after 9/11- but I was 17 then and not really aware of much else apart from my A-level coursework and whether I’d have money to go out on a Friday night with my mates. At the moment, everything feels more real, more raw; like a layer of skin has been scrubbed off.

There’s not a lot I can do, except not go on social media so much (ha, easier said than done!) I’ve been a news junkie since I was at uni, regularly checking news sites and keeping up to date with what’s going on in the world- but there’s just SO MUCH information out there now that it’s impossible to get a handle on everything and that’s even before you start thinking about fake news. The whole thing is a mess, a dangerous and frightening mess. It’s no wonder that there are reports of people having crises of mental health issues.

I can’t tell you what to do to make yourself feel better, but I can tell you how I’m making myself feel better. I’m trying to slow down, I’m struggling with insomnia (although that pre-dates everything, but I’m sure that it’s not helped.) Baths and candles help; I’m researching homemade recipes for stuff to help my skin; I buy probably quite impractical-for-my-garden seeds and spend lots of time thinking about the things I can grow in the garden. I’m watching trashy TV- Real Housewives are good, anything ‘reality’ will do. I’m creating stuff: presents for others, glittery socks for my feet. I’m trying to find the good in small things.

I read. I take myself off on long, solitary walks. I’m saying yes to more things- I’m going on a bloody shepherding course on Sunday, for goodness’ sake. I’m taking small steps to take control of my own life; I can’t control much of the world (but I can contact MPs and do other things to make a difference), but I can make changes to what I do and how I feel. In Candide, Voltaire says that “we must take care of our own garden”, by which he means that we must mind our own business (he also says that we must be productive.) And whilst I don’t agree with this entirely, I do sort of get that we must keep going as much as we can when the world is all over the place. It’s because of this that self-care is important. Do whatever makes you feel better: read, cook, buy flowers, watch Amelie for the millionth time, anything. Because if you feel like you’re rested and ready, you’ll be able to think about what you can do to make the world better. But you need to take care of yourself.

Let there be light! William & Joseph ‘Wuthering Heights’ candle

This @williamjosephcandles is lovely. A really subtle herb-y, green scent- it smells way more expensive than it actually is. I fancy the Manderley candle next! #brontes #wutheringheights #emilybronte #candle #home #hygge:

I love candles. After a brief flirtation with melts etc- which I use in the kitchen, but they’ve never really won my heart- I’m back into candlelight in a big way. Everything about them is so soothing, especially when it’s January and we’re suffering fairy light withdrawal (I’ve never understood why we take away all the lights at the DARKEST point of the winter…) I always, always feel better if I have a candle burning. Although I’m a bit wary of ordering candles online, after too many ‘bathroom cleaner’ scented gambles, I couldn’t NOT buy this could I? After all, it’s one of my favourite books, I have a slight Bronte obsession and I wanted to smell the moors of my home county. I figured I’d take a risk.

William & Joseph are committed to producing high quality candles, most of which have a bookish theme (I’m after trying their Rebecca-inspired ‘Manderley’ candle especially, although their Gatsby and Sherlock scents interest me, too.) The Wuthering Heights candle takes a while warm up to its full scent, but it’s worth the wait: a subtle ‘green’ scent, slightly masculine but clean-smelling, it’s lovely. There are notes of pine and juniper mixed with jasmine and bergamot, with rosemary and cedarwood. It is perfectly representative, I think, of Catherine and Heathcliff- or Kate Bush in a field.

hqdefault I’ll admit, I was a bit worried about the pine element, as it so often is overused to the point of causing a headache, but I needn’t have worried, as here is serves to lift the rest of the scents. The overall scent is one of brooding moors after heavy rainfall, rather than bathroom after the overuse of bleach. I think the candle smells much more expensive than it actually is- very often candles are hugely pricey and smell synthetic, but this is reasonably priced for a good sized candle.

The candle itself burns cleanly, too. No smoke and an even burn mean that I’m able to light it without worrying about soot marks too, which makes Benn very happy. No one wants black marks above their mantelpiece, do they?

I’m excited to discover other scents from William & Joseph- it was hinted on Twitter that they might get around to a Baby Jane scent one day (I suggested face powder, lipstick and gardenias..) which I would buy in. a. heartbeat.

You can buy William & Joseph candles here. The candle I bought was £14.99 and  I bought it from Etsy. (Please note: the shop is currently re-stocking glass candles, but you can check out their tin candles while they do!)

Dance like nobody’s watching

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I am not a natural dancer. My hearing isn’t brilliant, so I can often miss the beat. I have the hand-eye co-ordination of a sloth who has had too much caffeine. I certainly don’t look like a dancer. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try. I mean, I watch Strictly! I know the names of certain dances!

I have certainly tried very hard in the past to be a dancer, although I came to it quite late. Much to my mother’s despair, I was never interested in ballet and she never forced it on me (I was much more your dinosaurs-and-motorbikes kind of girl as a preschooler.) But later on, a relatively well-known dance company came to my school and, desperate not to be the pudgy, badly bullied girl with a bad haircut I was, I signed up. I was good at Drama and thought I could put aside my self-esteem issues and become A DANCER! I tried so hard. I went on the outing to the dance studio. I went to see the dance company perform. I can’t actually remember if I performed. Maybe I’ve blocked it out. Oh, I was so bad. I was awkward, from being a teenager. I was awkward because I was picked on by the girls who took to dance more naturally. But by Jove, I can still remember that ridiculous dance and I could still probably perform it, although having gone through puberty proper and childbirth since, it’d be quite a tricky ask. And a  few years ago I used my Christmas money to sign up for jive lessons. I loved it. For about three weeks until I discovered I was pregnant and then my life became one of nausea and exhaustion. I still can’t hear ‘Rock Around The Clock’ without my feet beginning to shuffle though.

I never dance in public- I haven’t been to a club since the Romans were being chased around Anglia by Boudicca- although I’ll have a quick mum-shuffle round the dancefloor at a wedding if I’ve had enough gin and the buffet has had enough vegetarian food to keep me going. I love dancing. But dancing with others is not my passion. No. My passion is dancing around my kitchen, by myself, flailing to something probably from the 80s. Imagine me, dear Reader, only this evening throwing myself about to Bowie’s Modern Love and Wham!’s I’m Your Man, dressed in leggings and a man’s jumper thrown over a dress that resembles a scandalously short monk’s cassock. I looked ridiculous- but I was happy.

Goodness knows, the world is an unhappy place at the moment. My mind is an unhappy place a lot of the time and my body- well, that’s a battleground all of its own. But when I am enthusiastically throwing myself around the ground floor of my house, music turned up, safe in the knowledge that no-one can see me (save my son, who may or may not enthusiastically join in by spinning on the spot so much that I have to boogie away from him in order to not feel sick myself.) It feels good. I’m not judging myself, no one else is judging me; I’m not really thinking. If I did, I’d probably be horrified by the ‘shapes’ I’m ‘throwing’. But it’s my kitchen, my music. I love it. Afterwards, I know I’ll feel tired and a bit daft, but I’ll also feel euphoric, even if only for a bit. I won’t change politics, I won’t change the things that stress me out, but I will have a break from them. Ultimately, it’s an escape from my own brain and that is always welcome.

I’m not one for a ‘new year, new you’, because quite frankly it’s nonsense. But a quick dad dance round the kitchen to old-school Kylie? Sign me up.