Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Stoke Newington Literary Festival - This June!

The Stoke Newington Literary Festival is nearly here and I'm very excited to be involved again!
Last year I took part in the Storytails 24-hour short story challenge. I write best when I'm under pressure but even I was a bit uncertain about such a tight deadline. Luckily, the idea came quickly and I wrote what turned out to be one of my favourite short stories I'd written in a while. It was a Jubilee inspired comedy called, 'Waterloo' about (Spoiler Alert!) Her Majesty locking herself in the toilet.
I must be going up in the world because this year I'm involved in a paid event! No I don't mean I'm getting paid, I mean the event requires  a ticket costing all of  £4. In fact, there will be lots of great talks taking place at the festival for similar silly prices, so check out the programme.
As for me, I'll be talking on a panel at The Literary Platform: Writing in the Digital Age.
My progress and successes as a writer are directly linked to my use of social media and I'll be sharing my story and discussing with leading commentators what it is to write in the digital age.
I hope to see you there!
(Or at a different talk!  Or in the pub afterwards!)

Friday, 24 May 2013

Marriage is...

"Marriage is so patriarchal," someone was saying on the television.

I looked up from my laptop. "Eh?"

The debate continued.

"Marriage comes with so much historical baggage..."

A couple, who'd been together five years, were waiting for the civil partnership bill to pass for straight couples, because 'marriage didn't reflect their values.'  I admit it came as a surprise to me that marriage should be such a complicated issue.

I suppose it comes down to how we've each been brought up. My parents have been married over thirty five years, my husband's over forty. I don't think we ever considered we wouldn't get married at some point in our lives.

Some people say it's just a piece of paper, but to me it feels a lot more than that. We vowed to love each other  through the best times and the worst times until 'death did us part'. I don't think either of us were joking, which considering how long people live nowadays is quite... optimistic? So far, so good.

I love being married and, feeling certain I wasn't the only one, I asked people to send me their thoughts on what marriage meant to them. This is what they said:

John and Paula -
September 2005 Berkshire UK 

"On the day I got married, the world came into focus. Gone were the awkward steps in different directions, the searching for something , but not knowing what. I finally knew what it was to be whole. John and I are part of the same - to pinch the words of the Beautiful South, "we are each other".
- Paula McMullen 

Alwyn and Troy -
December 2011 Australia
"To me marriage is all about team work, helping and supporting each other to become the best individuals you can be. Marriage is having a best friend who loves and supports you through everything and who doesn't walk away when things get tough. Having been with Troy for 11 years in a marriage like relationship prior to getting married, nothing much has changed in our relationship since marrying. Even though I don't see much of a difference between marriage and a defacto relationship, I believe in everyone's right to enter into marriage. Go team McNamara! - Alwyn McNamara

William Glanville and Berenice -
October 1946 - Cwmparc - Wales  

"Marriage between two people should be special and that you know in your heart that the person is the one you want to spend the rest of your life with. You should never go to bed without making up after a quarrel, which naturally you will have. Nobody is perfect. There's a lot of give and take in a marriage. You always love them and yet sometimes you don't even like them!" - Bun & Glan

Thommy and Emma
- Nov 2012- Cambridgeshire UK
"For a man like me, a man with a particular view of the world, this is an important thing. When you marry someone, you’re really saying that it’s you and this one other person against the world because, when shit hits the fan, this is the individual you’re expecting to stand by you and face down the zombies. We all have family and close friends, but a marriage is something special. It’s a partnership of two (hopefully) like-minded people who share a value system, at least on some level. How could it be otherwise? Your spouse should be the person with whom you are the best version of yourself at all times. You can be angry, you can be miserable, you can be sardonic or even hateful, but you should always present them with the truth, as far as is practicable. I’m not saying always unflinchingly tell the truth to them: white lies make socialisation with other humans possible, but you should always approach your spouse, your partner in this crazy life, as honestly as you hope to approach yourself." - Thommy Heasman-Hunt
This is an extract from a blog post Thommy wrote on his First Anniversary. You can read the full post here.
Thanks to the couples who contributed to this blog post!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Guest Blog: The Jeans Genie vs The Genes Genie

Guest Blog by Helen Barbour of The Reluctant Perfectionist, a blog about life as a writer with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Helen attended my Blogging for Beginners and Improvers Workshop last November.  
Guest Blogger: Helen Barbour
Let me start with a confession: I hate shopping. A genetic mix-up has left me with a love of action movies, but no interest whatsoever in buying clothes or shoes.
There is a special sub-category to my loathing: shopping for jeans. Thanks to another genetic anomaly, I have giraffe legs. The standard long in most shops is no match for an inside leg of 34”. Finding jeans that fit has never been easy. Now that I am ‘of a certain age’, it has become almost impossible.
 A much younger friend responded to my grumbles by recommending Top Shop, on the basis that their long was 34”.
I knew that Top Shop was for woman half my age, but I was desperate.
They certainly seemed to have a wide selection of styles, many in 34” length: skinny, slim, straight, tapered, boyfriend… I circled the displays half a dozen times, trying to find the cut I wanted. On each circuit, I discovered a new permutation of style, length and colour. Yet all of them looked much the same: painfully narrow, with a lack of fabric around the midriff.
I collared a young assistant. ‘I know I’m too old for this shop…’
‘Ah bless,’ she said.
‘…but a friend recommended you [it’s not my fault, I know I shouldn’t be here]. Do you – by any chance – have high‑waisted, long, boot-leg cut jeans.’ I said this very slowly, to enable her to take in the details of such a bizarre request.
She frowned. I might as well have been asking where the Higgs Boson Particle was.
‘The thing is,’ I blustered on, ‘I need a high-waist to hide my middle-aged spread.’
‘Ah bless,’ she said.
From Kissmequick on Tumblr
At this point, a vision flashed into my head of all the 20-something girls I’d seen with muffin tops ten times bigger than my pot belly spilling over the top of their jeans. They had no qualms about letting it all hang out – why should I? I suspect because it’s easier not to have qualms in your 20s. In your late 40s, a little more decorum is called for.
‘Mmm,’ she frowned again. ‘It’s a shame, our denim expert’s off today. She knows everything about our jeans.’
A denim expert? What next, a tee shirt tsar? A glove guru?
I tried on half a dozen pairs, anyway.
The worst were the skinny jeans. Not only did they cut off my blood flow, they also transformed my long, slim, straight legs into the bowed struts of a chicken wishbone.
Next time, I’ll head for the safe, middle‑aged embrace of M & S. I’d rather settle for jeans an inch too short, to safeguard my circulation – and keep my belly (button) to myself.
Visit Helen's blog The Reluctant Perfectionist

Friday, 17 May 2013

Do You Get Writer's Guilt?


It's ridiculous but I can't get it out of my head. Yesterday the gas man came over to do a routine check up on our boiler. I was hoping for a chatty man because I'd been home alone plotting a novel for over a week and was starting to hunger for human interaction. The gas man, however, was a quiet man.
I sat with my cork board slowly pinning post-it notes to it while he fiddled about with the gas reader. He declined my offer of a cup of tea.
As he finished off he said, 'Are you doing a course?'
'No, I'm plotting a novel,' I said. ' I'm a writer.'
The inevitable question came, 'What do you write?'
'Well, I've just written a romantic comedy.'
'Ah, rom coms,' he said knowingly, and then he uttered the words that would niggle at me for the rest of the day, 'a life of leisure then.'
I know I tried to justify myself. I said I did other jobs too. And as he slipped through the door I muttered incoherently that writing a hundred thousand words was not my idea of leisure. But it was too late. I was left feeling like I'd been smacked in the face, laughed at, belittled. I was a silly little girl, writing silly little stories, who spent her days relaxing while the rest of the world worked hard in the 'real' world.  
My mind kept going back to it, redrafting what I should have said. But he wouldn't have cared either way and why should he? I shouldn't care either, so, why does it bother me so much?
This morning, I decided it must be guilt. I'm one of those people that think if it doesn't hurt, you're probably not doing enough. I've always had a job, since I was a teenager. All the writing I ever did was done early in the morning before work, or in the evening. I was forever wishing I had more time. I felt like I was investing all my energy into some pointless job and giving the remains of myself to what I really wanted to do in life.

But I was disciplined because I wanted to be a writer so much, and I managed to finish a full-length novel, which I never did anything with, and later, after working on a blog for a long time, Shop Girl Diaries, which was published.
It's thanks to my husband's support that I now write full-time. It was him that suggested I take a year to just write. In that time I've often felt useless for not being able to contribute financially. At my lowest moments, Destiny's Child's song 'Independent Women', has played in my head, reminding me I didn't even buy my own notebook, let alone my own diamonds. But mostly, I've felt happy! Because what bliss it is to wake up to a whole day to write. For me, it's a dream come true.
I'm no longer a frustrated writer, which is not to say some days aren't hard going. But I love what I do. Since I've been writing full-time I've finished a new novel and at last got an agent. It is my job even if it doesn't feel like one.  
I suppose I felt guilty when Mr Gasman said I was living a life of leisure because I was enjoying myself, happy at my work. And what on earth is wrong with that?   

Monday, 13 May 2013

Public Speaking with Progressive Women

Candy Piercy, Emily Benet, Emma Ward, Judy Oliver and Dame Tessa Jowell

'On the panel we have four women who have been very successful in their fields,' our host said.
And if it had been a film I'd have cut to a shot of my bank account.

At least I'm in credit. Just. But neither an amount you'd associate with 'very successful'. I had just finished a Make it Happen With Social Media workshop at the Progressive Women Leadership Conference. Well sod the money, I had managed to make a lot of things happen.
I was on a panel with Candy Piercy, a leadership and political trainer and Judy Oliver, who had just run a 'Set Up Your Own Business' workshop. Oh... and did I mention Dame Tessa Jowell?
It was all Emma Ward's fault, a member of Progressive Women, who had come to my Blogging for Beginners and Improvers Workshop a few months ago. At the end of it she'd told me she'd really enjoyed it and would I do a workshop for a charity event she was organising later in the year. Without knowing any more details, I said YES.
I'm getting good at saying YES. I like where YES takes me.
Once upon a time I was a shyer girl than I am today. But when Shop Girl Diaries was published I learnt that it's not enough to get your book published, you also need to sell it, and to do that you have to say goodbye to your comfort zone. Since then I've done quite a bit of public speaking.
Someone asked a question. There was hesitation from the panel. Something about partners taking half the responsibility for... for what? Chores? Kids? No one went to answer so I opened my mouth and words tumbled out. In my head a voice cried, where the hell are you going with this? And more importantly, what was the question?
When you step outside your comfort zone of course you can screw up. But as the modified saying goes, show me a woman who has never made a mistake and I'll show you a woman who hasn't achieved very much, or tried anything new, or... you get the drift.
After that initial muddled answer, I calmed down and focused. Public Speaking gets easier the more you do it. I still get nervous, but it excites me too. I love the rush, the feeling of overcoming the fear and afterwards knowing that I've grown a little bit more.
Another question came. Concentrate. Advice on leadership? Success?
'Get out of your comfort zone,' I said, feeling wonderfully uncomfortable.
I'm a writer. I like to sit in a quiet corner and make stuff up. But I also want to have a successful career. When I get that niggling fear in the pit of my stomach I remind myself of this message: 'Your life shrinks or expands in relation to your courage.'
I want to thank Emma, and all the members of Progressive Women not only for inviting me to an inspiring event but for giving me the opportunity to tackle the old nerves once again.
That evening I was buzzing. Life seemed so full of possibilities. I wanted to do more workshops, more talks... and as if in answer to my wish, another door opened. That same night I found out I will be talking about Writing in the Digital Age at Stoke Newington Literary Festival on Sunday 9th June.
My policy is this: Say YES now, worry later.
I'll be running two social media workshop in July:  
Blogging for Beginners and Improvers and Make it Happen with Twitter.
Check out my Workshop Page for more details.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Colombia: Mission Accomplished

The time has arrived for me to try to sum up what an incredible time we've just had in Colombia and persuade you to pack your bags and head off there soon.
I'm sitting here daydreaming about the country that ranks third in the world in biodiversity. It has every possible landscape, from glittering Caribbean beaches to lush green hills, deserts, and of course, the staggering Andes mountain range. It's a beautiful place with friendly people, delicious food, diverse music... so if the first thing you think of when I say Colombia is cocaine, then I urge you to think again.
To those who never fail to make idiotic drug-related jokes around me when I mention my husband is Colombian, please accept a firm but necessary slap on the cheek and let me redirect you to a suitable airline which will sort out a route to the country that has stolen a piece of my heart.
Our Mission in 5 Steps:
Step 1 - Makeover
Mum showing off new nails!
Colombians are a glamorous people (none more so than my elegant mother-in-law) and looking good there is inexpensive. On arrival in the capital of Bogotá my Mum, Auntie and I headed straight for one of the many beauty salons for a makeover. A manicure and a blow dry will cost you as little as five pounds, and you'll feel so pleased with the result that you'll obviously tip all the lovely people involved.

I convinced my Mum (easily) and my Auntie (more resistant) to dye their hair and we all had our hands and feet done. It felt brilliant and my Auntie, who arrived grey, and left dyed and highlighted, looked at least ten years younger. Right now, I must share the feelings of the many Colombians living overseas... Seriously, how will I surive without the pampering?

Step 2 - Meat the Family
While on our travels, my family met a diverse range of relatives many of which we joined in the eating of meat presented in baskets, on plates and even wrapped up in plantain leaves. Other recurring delights were 'plátano' (sweet plantain) 'patacón' (fried plantain) 'frijoles' (beans) and I must mention the traditional Bogotano soup 'ajiaco', which my husband's grandmother insisted on cooking even though she was in great pain at the time and should have been in hospital being treated for a stomach infection - Thank you!
Step 3 -  Say Goodbye to your Comfort Zone

Sancho Panza and Don Quijote
My Dad and Uncle soon earned the nicknames Don Quijote and Sancho Panza respectively, though neither of them had ever ridden a horse or a donkey in their lives. The opportunity to change that came when we reached Valle de Corcora in the Quindío department, where wax palms, the symbol of Colombia, soar up into the skies.

Neither my Mum nor my Auntie could remember the last time they'd ridden a horse, or were entirely sure they ever had either. I'm proud of all of them for stepping out of their comfort zones! It was a picturesque journey through the valley and there was no trouble as the horses were on automatic and knew exactly where they were headed.

Of course, that wasn't the only time comfort zones were left behind! Did I tell you about the time we were on a raft sailing down a river and a thunder storm broke out?

Rafting down El Rio La Vieja, Quindio 

Step 4 - Shopping Made in Colombia
By all means go to Colombia with a half empty suitcase, but don't expect to fill it with clothes as clothes are far more expensive there than in Europe and North America. We mostly shopped at artisanal markets stocked with beautiful handicrafts.
These Coffee Pickers wouldn't last long!
We also bought lots of coffee after an interactive tour on a coffee farm, where we donned typical coffee picker outfits and demonstrated to the guide our lack of talent for the job in hand. Sad Fact: Coffee pickers earn less than ten pounds a day, and a third of that is subtracted for their lunch. Support them by buying fair trade Colombian coffee!

At one point we were followed by a man selling hats... is it obvious?

 Step 5 - Grow as tall as a Wax Palm Tree
There were tears at the airport. My in-laws had been the most generous and enthusiastic hosts and we all felt sad to be leaving them. In my last post I said the mission was to bond with our Colombian family and create happy memories, and in that the sense our mission was definitely accomplished.
But I think we went far beyond our mission and in our own different ways, personally and collectively, we've all grown through our experience. In fact a little bird tells me my parents have caught the travel bug and are considering visiting my cousin in Nepal next year... Don Quijote on an elephant? Well, I'm sure Cervantes mentioned it somewhere...