Stopping to take stock

DSC01157For the past few years I’ve had what people call a ‘portfolio career’. As well as writing, I’m a consultant, an external examiner and a creative writing tutor.  That takes a lot of swapping of hats and this week has been particularly hectic.  Monday morning saw me at an important meeting in York, Monday afternoon I was on the train to London where I stayed with my sister overnight and had time for a bit of sword fighting (with polystyrene swords, in case you were worried) with nephew. Tuesday I had an external examiners meeting in London and when I left there I’d got a message on my phone about a community publishing venture that I’ve recently got involved in which I replied to on the train.  On Wednesday I was attempting to teach creative writing to teenagers as part of the Widening Participation Summer School to encourage more young people to attend universities.  On Thursday I was in the office trying to catch up with all the things I’d not done earlier in the week. And in between all of this, in snatched minutes here and there I’ve been working on my third novel, Storm Witch.

Not surprisingly by yesterday I was shattered and as I lay on the sofa watching Outlander (I’ve seen it before but with season 3 coming in September I felt the need of a recap and it’s always cheering to see Jamie in a kilt) I was feeling a bit fed up and wondering why I keep on putting myself through this.

Last night I dreamed I had to go back to the high pressure office job I left 5 years ago.  I woke up feeling tense and panicky as if I was really going to have to put on a suit and face the office from hell again.  If you’ve read Beltane you’ll know that I never dismiss a dream and I think this one was to remind me how far I’ve come.

DSC01155 (2)When I think back to how life was for me when I was working in the office from hell and writing Beltane in my spare time, I was pretty unhappy most of the time.  I certainly did an awful lot of moaning about how much I hated my job.  I used to day dream about Beltane being published and teaching creative writing one day.  Admittedly in my day dream, publication equaled immediate bestseller status which meant I could wave goodbye to the office from hell and become a full time writer.  But hey, it was a daydream, it’s allowed to be a little on the optimistic side!

But I’m pretty sure that, life changing riches aside, if I’d asked the me from 5 years ago as I put on my suit and trudged off to the office from hell how I’d feel if Beltane was published and got excellent reviews, if I’d then finished and published another novel, was teaching creative writing and working on my third book I’d have said, ‘That’s amazing! That’s what I want’.

So why does it not feel like the success I dreamed of back then? Is it because I still need to do other jobs to pay the bills?  Is it because I’ve not sold a million or even a thousand copies? Because I don’t have a bestseller flag against my name?  Or is that the goal posts have consistently shifted as I’ve gone along and what I thought, back then, would be a major achievement now only feels like a step along the road?

DSC01158When you’re starting out it’s easy to think that the road ends with publication.  To feel, rather like the happy ever after in a romance novel, that everything will be perfect after that.  I did a talk for my creative writing group about how to get published a couple of months ago and it was clear that they all think, like I did, that publication is the goal.  But once I was published I started worrying about sales and rankings and reviews and it became this spiral of things I couldn’t do anything about but couldn’t help worrying about.

In this constant rushing forward and chasing the next level of supposed success I’ve never taken the time to go, ‘Wow, I’ve actually done this.’  And I think I’m starting to realise that’s not a very sensible way to live.  I’m pretty sure this is not something I’m going to become good at overnight so I’ll let you know how it goes but during this rather rainy weekend I’m going to take the time to drink tea, eat cake and tell myself, “You’re doing alright.” (After all, I am from Yorkshire and we’re constitutionally incompetent of giving fulsome praise!)

Have you had a similar experience?  If so and if you feel you’d like to share it, then it’d be great to hear from you.  You can leave a comment by clicking below.

The pictures in this post are from the beautiful Chalice Well in Glastonbury.  If you’d like to find out more about Beltane then click here.

 

Going Back to Find Something New

FullSizeRender_3I’ve been coming to Glastonbury (the town not the festival, as I’ve explained a lot in the past few weeks) every year or so since I started writing Beltane six years ago.  It’s become a kind of spiritual second home and I love it for its quirkiness, its willingness to embrace the alternative and the sheer creative energy of the place.  My sister said to me a while back, “Why do you keep going back? Don’t you get bored?” I told her that there’s a joy in revisiting the places I’ve come to love.  And, as it’s been a very stressful and difficult six years, it’s relaxing to go back to somewhere I’m already familiar with.

When I was heading down the M1 for this visit, I expected it’d follow the same familiar path.  I’d go to the Chalice Well and enjoy the peace in the beautiful garden, I’d walk up the Tor, I’d sit in the silence of Magdalen Chapel, wander around the bookshops and drink green tea in The Hundred Monkey’s Café (by far the best place for tea and cake in Glastonbury, in my opinion).  Only it didn’t work out like that.  I didn’t do most of those things.  Instead I discovered new special places and I’ve now got a new favourite spot in Glastonbury.

FullSizeRenderThe Avalon Orchard is perched on the slope of the Tor.  If you come to the Tor by what I call the steep side (which is the side furthest from the centre of town) there’s a gate on the left of the path up the Tor, under an arch of greenery.  There is another way from the other side of the Tor through the woods. I came that way but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve got stout boots and are prepared to meet wild campers doing their mid-morning ablutions (yes, he had his pants around his ankles – most embarrassing!)

Few people seem to find the orchard.  It took a walk with a man who’s lived in Glastonbury all his life for me to discover it but it’s well worth a detour on a trip up and down the Tor.

FullSizeRender_2Now you might be wondering, what’s so special about a few apple trees?  They are lovely trees; old, gnarled, lichen covered.  Some of them are bent and twisted, others fallen to make seats or benches of living wood.  I arrived a few weeks too late for the blossom but I could see fruit forming, small bright green misshapen globes peeking out between the leaves.  On a sunny day, it’s a gorgeous spot.  There’s a lovely view across the Somerset Levels and it’s quiet. I was there on a very windy day when it was hard to stand even on the lower parts of the Tor but it was peaceful and sheltered in the orchard.

The National Trust take care of the orchard which is why there’s nice gates and carved name plaques but other than that it’s remarkably untouched.  I’m told they don’t know who planted the orchard or when or what varieties of apples grow there.  Glastonbury was once Avalon, the Isle of Apples and it’s lovely that there’s a reminder of that.

FullSizeRender_5I’ve found it so difficult while life has been tough to do new things.  It’s been much easier to cling to the old, even if it’s worn out and a bit tatty.  I’d thought, after the very hard few months I’d been through that I was going to Glastonbury to relax into what I knew.  Turns out I was wrong about that. I was ready to discover new places and to do new things and they were all, in different ways, as special as the beautiful Avalon Orchard.

If you’ve got a favourite place in Glastonbury or if you’ve recently discovered a wonderful new place then I’d love to hear about it. You can add a comment below, tweet me at @Alyswestyork or post on my Facebook page @alyswestwrites.

Top Reads of 2016 #Books #AmReading #TuesdayBookBlog

Absolutely delighted that ‘Beltane’ is included in Cathy’s list of her top reads for 2016! There’s some great recommendations here and quite a few that I’ll be adding to my TBR pile for 2017. Happy Reading!

Between the Lines ~ Books’n’Stuff

It’s that time again! This year has gone so quickly and it’s been filled with really great reads. Narrowing down favourites is a difficult task but here they are. As always, they’ll be either 4.5* or 5* and clicking on the cover will take you to Amazon UK. 

28111823Dead Is Dead ~ Thriller

Private investigator Jack Bertolino, previously an inspector with the NYPD, is employed as technical advisor, consulting on a movie being made of his last case. His job includes protection for the female star, who is being targeted by a disturbed, out of control stalker. Susan Blake is beautiful, haunted by a past that she can’t lay to rest.

During filming there’s an actual shooting several blocks away, which results in the accidental and tragic death of little Maria Sanchez and also that of known drug dealer, Tomas Vegas. Cruz Feinberg, the technical wizard in Jack’s company, knows…

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Ness of Brodgar – Uncovering #Orkney’s Neolithic past

dsc02070I’ve been fascinated by the Neolithic period in a very unscientific kind of way for years.  Stones circles are a bit of an obsession of mine and I’ve driven down many tiny lanes in search of sites that are marked on OS maps but don’t have a single sign post. I love the mystery of them, the sense of time and place that is beyond understanding and occasionally, the pulse of ancient energy in the stones.  A friend of mine, who is a proper archaeologist with a PhD and everything, refers to people like me as ‘stone botherers’.

It was the sheer wealth and variety of Neolithic sites (together with the stories of George Mackay Brown) that drew me to Orkney for the first time six years ago and I spent a very happy week visiting tombs, stone circles and the village of Skara Brae. Back in 2010 people were only just starting to talk about the amazing finds at the Ness of Brodgar.  Since then I’ve watched lovely Neil Oliver at the site, read about it in the National Geographic and seen updates on the internet.

dsc01966A couple of weeks ago I finally got to visit the site and, more by luck than judgement, turned up during one of the two site open days.  It was a dreich day, as they say on Orkney, which you can see from the pictures but it seemed like half of the population had turned out to see what was going on.  The Ness of Brodgar is on a narrow isthmus of land between the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness.  A short distance away on one side are the Stones of Stenness and, at the top of a small hill, on the other side is the Ring of Brodgar.  On a lovely day it is quite exceptionally beautiful.  This wasn’t a lovely day but wrapped up in waterproof, fleece and woolly hat I got to walk round the site, talk to the people working there and actually handle some of the finds.

Having seen so much about the dig over the years and read about the number of structures that have been found I’d expected it to be much larger.  Instead it fits into a surprisingly small space with a jumble of walls that the guides made sense of for us, pointing out the entrance to this structure or the walls of that structure.  The stone work is still, 4,000 to 5,000 years since it was built, immaculate.  They have a dry stone wall expert working at the site and he says that that we could learn a thing or two from the Neolithic builders.  However they did need a few lessons on foundations as when buildings went out of use they simply knocked them down and built over them.

dsc01972In a lot of places there are examples of ‘ritual and ceremonial use’ which our guide, a man who’s clearly not an archaeologist, said was archaeologist’s code for ‘we haven’t got a clue’! They do admit that the dig throws up more questions than it answers, that each season they’re rewriting the books on this period of history.

After we’d looked round the site we went to the local school where they had finds on display.  More incredibly we were allowed to hold some of them.  It was a bizarrely disconnected moment to stand in a modern school hall holding a stone hammer head made, maybe, 3,000 years ago.  But from the size and feel of it I could imagine the hands that had used it, the person who’d cherished it as their tool of choice.  I’m not the kind of person who spends much time using a hammer but the man next to me worked with wood and he said it was perfectly balanced.  And there was a sense in that of things echoing down the ages, of skills being timeless and some connections that don’t need words to be felt.

As well as trying to understand the past I was searching for a sense of connectedness with one of my characters. I’m currently working on Storm Witch, the second of the Spellworker Chronicles books, and without really thinking through the ramifications of this, have made one of my characters an archaeologist working at the Ness of Brodgar dig.  Having actually seen the dig in action has given me a better idea of what he’d be doing but it’s also highlighted to me the vast gaps in my knowledge about archaeology, the Neolithic and how digs actually work.  After all, I’d never have dreamed that they have stacks and stacks of tyres lying around ready to be used to cover over the site at the end of the season until they can start again next year.  I’ve a lot more research to do but at least I’ve got an image in my mind to fall back on now.  And if you read Storm Witch when it’s published don’t be surprised if it’s always a dreich day at the archaeological dig.

If you’d like to know proper historical fact about the Ness of Brodgar dig then you can find it at http://www.orkneyjar.com/archaeology/nessofbrodgar/  The BBC have been making a series of 3 programme about this site and the Links of Noltland on Westray called ‘Operation Orkney’ which will be shown in late autumn/early winter so Neil Oliver will be available to explain all of this far more competently than I ever could.

Orkney part 2 004
Loch of Stenness at sunset

#Fridaybookshare – War for the Oaks by Emma Bull #Book Review

This is my first attempt at a #Fridaybookshare review so I hope I get all the right bits in and hopefully in something like the right order.  Here we go…

War for the Oaks is urban fantasy with a touch of romance.

First line: By day, the Nicollet Mall winds through Minneapolis like a paved canal.

Recruit fans by adding the book blurb:

Eddi McCandry sings rock and roll. But her boyfriend just dumped her, her band just broke up, and life could hardly be worse. Then, walking home through downtown Minneapolis on a dark night, she finds herself drafted into an invisible war between the faerie folk. Now, more than her own survival is at risk-and her own preferences, musical and personal, are very much beside the point.

War for the Oaks is a brilliantly entertaining fantasy novel that’s as much about this world as about the imagined one.

Introduce the main character using only three words (which will be a challenge for me as brevity is not my strong point): Eddi McCandry is brave, determined and sassy.

Cover: I read the 2001 paperback version which has a less than enticing cover but I’m delighted that the book will be reissued by Penguin next month as an e-book and paperback with this rather cool cover.

War for the Oaks

Audience appeal: This book will appeal to anyone who likes fantasy, particularly urban fantasy.  But if you’re not sure you’re a fantasy fan and you’ve enjoyed watching TV programmes like Buffy or Supernatural then it’s worth giving this a try because I think there’s a really good chance you’ll love it.

My favourite line/scene:
Carla came out from behind Dan’s chair, walked over, took hold of Eddi’s shoulders, and gave a little shake.  “And then there’s my best friend. Friendship comes from shared experience, right? So what am I supposed to say when my mother wants to know why I don’t hang around with you anymore? ‘Oh you know. She got a little fey and we just drifted apart.’”

Eddi shook her head. “I don’t want to have to say that I got a little fey, and you got a little dead.”

Carla looked down, and shrugged.  “Well, neither do I. But this is a party. If there’s a truce on, it’s safer than a lot of parties I’ve been to.”

My review:

A friend recommended this book to me and it’s a sign of how much I trust her taste in books that I ordered a second hand paperback version which had to be shipped from America.  But I’m so glad I did.  War for the Oaks is one of the first urban fantasy novels.  People far more knowledgeable than me about the history of fantasy, credit it and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman as the books which started the genre.  For that reason there’s much that’s familiar about the book because more recent authors have borrowed and built on what Emma Bull created.  I wish I could have read it in 1984 when it was new and incredibly different from what had gone before.

The book starts quite slowly but please don’t let that put you off.  The prologue sets the scene in Minneapolis which, in true urban fantasy fashion, almost becomes another character in the book.  It also introduces the magic of the Fae that infiltrates our world.  When we meet Eddi McCandry she’s just dumped her lousy boyfriend and left the rock band he runs.  Then she meets the phouka and things get much more complicated as Eddi gets recruited into the war between the Fae.  Her mortal blood ups the stakes and means even the immortal Fae can die in battle.  It also lands her with the phouka as houseguest and bodyguard which she’s completely unimpressed by.  But Eddi’s not the kind of girl to let the intrusion of the Fae in her life get her down for long.  Determined to start a new band with best friend, Carla, she meets the very gorgeous Willie Silver who plays lead guitar and Hedge who’s a bass player.  With the new band rehearsing and getting ready for their first few gigs, Eddi is completely unprepared when the war with the Fae spills out into her world and has a devastating impact on her life.

There’s so many things that I loved about this book that it’s hard to know where to start.  Eddi’s a kickass, smart, sassy heroine.  The dialogue is sharp and witty.  There’s lines like, “Who writes your dialogue? Lewis Carole?” which reminded me of the kind of beyond good dialogue you get in Buffy.  The Fae, both good and bad, are believably otherworldly creatures and yet with an edge of reality that made me care whether they lived or died.  Eddi’s life in the band and the ups and downs of being a professional musician are brilliantly described (probably because Emma Bull was a professional musician) and I love the way the music is woven through the story.   And, more than anything, it’s a great page turning read with a wonderfully satisfying ending.

In Emma Bull’s introduction to the 2001 version, she says “A book makes intimate friends with people its author will never meet.”  I felt like I met a new friend when I read War for the Oaks, that it is a novel that I will read again and again.  And that’s the best compliment I can give any book.

War for the Oaks is being reissued by Penguin on 29th September and you can pre-order a copy here

 

Remarkable machines, feisty heroines and tea – 5 reasons why I love #Steampunk

With the publication of my first Steampunk novel, The Dirigible King’s Daughter yesterday I’ve been thinking about what first drew me to write steampunk. Like many people I suspect I came to it via Gail Carriger and then realised that I’d already read some steampunk books like The Golden Compass.  I’d also been to Whitby GothFest (as a spectator, not a participant – one day I may be brave enough to actually dress up and take part) and become increasingly fascinated by the sheer possibilities and inventiveness of steampunk. IMG_1557

I’ve joked that it was my obsession with tea that drew me into writing steampunk.  Here was a world where the characters seemed to share my belief in the restorative powers of a pot of Earl Grey.  But there is rather more to it than that and, in no particular order, these are the things that I love most about the marvellous world of steampunk.

Feisty Heroines

I don’t know about you but I find a lot of heroines in modern women’s fiction a bit limp.  I could kind of relate to Bridget Jones but the heroines that I have come after her seem to have taken Bridget’s insecurities to a new level.  How do they hold down jobs (even if they do only ‘fanny around with press releases’ to quote Daniel Cleaver) or actually make a decision about anything more serious than which pair of shoes to buy next?  It seems that most of them are incapable of knowing their own minds which I find deeply tedious.  But this is not a problem I’ve ever found with steampunk heroines.  They’re strong, capable women, entirely able to fly a dirigible single handed (Elle in Liesel Schwarz’s The Chronicles of Light and Shadow) or perform sorcery at the Queen’s behest (Emma in Lilith Saintcrow’s Bannon and Clare books).  Harriet Hardy, the heroine of The Dirigible King’s Daughter has been described by author and blogger, Barb Taub, as ‘a kickass, pistol packing Victorian feminist’.  I’m pretty sure that means she also qualifies as feisty.

Remarkable Machines

DSC01962I’d be the first to admit that I’m not hugely technically minded and I needed some help to understand the internal workings of steam engines or how dirigibles take-off but I found that I do love steam powered machines.  This may be my father’s fault for dragging me around steam fairs at a young age and taking me to the National Railway Museum every holiday but there’s something about the majesty of steam that just gets to me.  I’m quite capable of welling up on sight of a steam engine and cried buckets watching the programme about the refurbishment of The Flying Scotsman.  The great thing about steampunk is that I could take that and play with it.  Ask what if it did this as well?  What if that was possible?  I’m not promising that all of the machines that I’ve created would actually have worked but I had fun dreaming them up.

Manners

Not all steampunk books operate in world where manners matter but I tend to like best the ones where they do.  One of the things I like best about Alexi Tarabotti (from The Parasol Protectorate) is that she doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour from anyone, be they vampire, werewolf or human and she’s always ready with a witty putdown if necessary.  Having read much Jane Austen and Victorian literature in my misspent youth (misspent because I spent it reading Jane Austen and Victorian literature rather than down the pub or at parties) that kind of dialogue seems quite familiar to me.  I also work in a world where there’s a lot of protocol and procedures and so I’m used to having conversations and correspondence where you have to be icy polite to the other person. When I was writing the book it was fascinating to have characters who couldn’t say what they really meant because of their social code. As Harriet and Charlie come from rather different worlds there was a clash when their values came into conflict which Harriet was sometimes willing to exploit but mainly fought against.

A better world?

shutterstock_278293358There’s a sense in steampunk that society lost something fundamental in the move from steam technology to the modern world of computers and electronics.  It’s not just nostalgia for a world that’s gone but a sense that things could have worked out so much better if technology had developed down a different route and we’d remained dependent on steam power. Fewer wars maybe, perhaps a more equal society.  Of course some of those changes started with steam. In Full Steam Ahead (essential research for future steampunk novels) they said that the changes brought in by the railways accelerated the pace of life which has, of course, continued to speed up.  But I can’t be the only person who hankers after a slower, more elegant pace of life.

Clothes

WaistcoatIt’s fair to say that I wasted a lot of time looking at pictures of frocks from the 1890s and calling it research.  I love the dresses but I’m very glad I don’t have to wear one of those corsets to get in one!  By the 1890s it was becoming more common for women to work and the fashions reflect that in the adoption of quite masculine styles and the introduction of the shirtwaist.  I still don’t understand how a woman was supposed to hold down a job while wearing an enormous hat with the same kind of circumference as a tea tray but maybe she was allowed to take it off while using one of those newfangled typewriters.  Of course, steampunk has its own fabulous fashions and I’ve allowed little touches of that into my characters clothes.  As a working woman in Whitby, Harriet was not going to be at the forefront of fashion and I like to think she would have worn something like this waistcoat.

The Dirigible King's Daughter by Alys WestThanks for taking the time to read my post.  What to you love about steampunk?  Which steampunk books do you like best? I’d love to hear from you.

If you’d like to find out more about The Dirigible King’s Daughter then please click here.  It’s now available to purchase as an ebook on Amazon here  You can also see my steampunk inspirations for the book (and lots of gorgeous frocks) on my Pinterest board.

Willing Suspension of Disbelief: The Dirigible King’s Daughter by @alyswestyork #Steampunk #RBRT #AugustReviews

My steampunk novel, The Dirigible King’s Daughter will be published tomorrow and today it’s being review by Barb Taub on her fabulous blog.

Barb Taub

“disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business”—Tom Robbins

"That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." —Samuel Taylor Coleridge [image credit: Steampunk by Mike Savad] http://fineartamerica.com/featured/steampunk-blimp-airship-maximus-mike-savad.html“That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” —Samuel Taylor Coleridge
[image credit: Steampunk by Mike Savad]

The first and most basic thing any artist asks of their audience is the willing suspension of disbelief as they approach the artist’s version of reality. In theaters, audiences watch a boy teach three children how to fly to Neverland. Movies feature animated rodents who sing, do housework, and sew wedding dresses without ever pooping on anything. Readers follow the adventures of a boy wizard, all the while wondering what’s become of their own letter from Hogwarts. Fans of the Chicago Cubs and the Norwich Canaries buy seasons tickets, sure that this will be “their” year. American voters actually cast ballots for Donald Trump. [It’s possible that last one represents not so much a willing suspension…

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