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.

My turn on the Lovely Blog Hop

I’ve been asked by my fabulous friend, Jessica Redland, to take part in the Lovely Blog Hop where writers talk about some of the things which have shaped their lives and their writing.  Jessica lives not far from me in Scarborough and we often meet up for cake and to talk about writing.  Her first novel, Searching for Steven, a charming romantic comedy set in a fictional town on the Yorkshire coast is out on 3rd June and is available for pre-order here.  You can read Julie’s blog here

Now as anyone who knows me well is aware I’m not all that good at sharing information about myself so the Lovely Blog Hop is a bit of tough one for me as it involves talking about myself. A lot.  I’ll do my best but if I wander off a bit then I apologise in advance!

First Memory

IMG_0780My first really clear memory is from when we moved to York when I was nearly 4.  The day we moved into the new house our new next door neighbour walked up through the garden and knocked on the back door.  It seemed like she was completely surrounded by girls and my Mum said ‘Are these all yours?’  Only two of them belonged to our neighbour.  The other six or seven lived around and about.  Our neighbour said, ‘does she want to come out to play?’ (I must have been too little for people to actually ask me a question) and Mum must have said ‘yes’ because that was it really.  My parents say that I really only came home for meals and to sleep for the next five years or so.  I spent the rest of my time out playing with the girls I met on that first day.

Books

I’ve always loved books and my parents said that I was never hard to entertain once I’d learned to read (that could also have been because I was hardly ever at home!) I read Enid Blyton, as many pony books as I could get my hands on and all of the Swallows & Amazons series.  My Dad still had his copies of those and they now stand proudly on my bookshelf waiting to be handed on to my nephew when he’s old enough. IMG_0782

In my twenties I read the classics and actually waded through War & Peace which took me almost a year.  I adore Jane Austen and Persuasion is one of my all time favourites.  These days I rarely have the energy for serious literature and read entirely for entertainment.  At the moment I’m reading Stoner by John Williams for my book club and Jeremy Poldark by Winston Graham for a bit of light relief.

Libraries

IMG_0781Mum and Dad took me to the library from a very early age and for a while in my teens I wanted to be a librarian.  Somewhat to my regret, I grew out of that idea but I still think it would be a lovely job.  The libraries in York have always been very good and have survived relatively unscathed from recent cuts.  I’m extremely grateful for the huge range of books that they’ve been able to lend me whilst I’ve been writing Beltane and Lughnasa.  From books about witchcraft and druids (which generated some interesting looks from the library assistants, I can tell you!) to tomes on the history of Glastonbury and the islands of Orkney they’ve hardly ever let me down.

What’s your passion?

Writing is my greatest passion but I’m going to talk about that later so I’ll have to find another one.  Would Ross Poldark sound too shallow?  Yes? Alright, I’ll try again…

Loch of Stenness at sunset
Loch of Stenness at sunset

I love folk music and going to folk gigs.  I’m pretty obsessed with Orkney at the moment, does that count?  Oh and I’m passionate about Yorkshire and will bang on about how amazing ‘God’s Own County’ is even though I’m not strictly speaking a true Yorkshire woman as I wasn’t actually born here.

Learning

I was a bit of a girly swot when I was younger.  I got decent O’ levels, rather embarrassingly good A’ levels and a competent degree.  I’ve always enjoyed learning and these days I get to impose my love of learning on students as I tutor at the university one day a week.  The thing I’m really loving at the moment is seeing how my nephew and godson learn about the world.  Nephew’s favourite word is currently ‘why’ and he simply will not give up.  If you answer a question and he’s not happy with the reply then he’ll say ‘why’ again and again until you come up with something better.  To be honest, he’s tougher to please than the undergraduates.  At least with them I’m allowed to tell them to go away and look it up for themselves!

Writing

IMG_0024 (2)I tried to write my first novel when I was eight.  It was a Famous Five type adventure with added ponies.  I’m absolutely sure it was terrible but it was the start of my desire to write and I’ve known since then that I wanted to be a writer.  I started writing seriously five years ago and I absolutely love it.  I’m a much happier person since then.  It’s a wonderful thing to have something in my life that I’m absolutely passionate about and makes me happy and it’s got me through some very testing times in the past few years.  I’m currently taking a break from my second novel, Lughnasa to write a steampunk novella set in Whitby.  With luck that will be ready to be published in the late summer.

This is the point where I’m supposed to hand over to another writer to take the Lovely Blog Hop forward but everyone I know has either already done it or is too busy.  Instead I’m going to suggest that you might like to read Sharon Booth’s turn on the Lovely Blog Hop which you can find here.  But if you’re reading this and thinking ‘I’d like a go at that Lovely Blog Hop’ then do please let me know and I’ll pass the (metaphorical) baton to you.

Fictional Yorkshire

sharon-cover-ebookI’ve just read a lovely novel set in ‘God’s Own County’ (which is what Yorkshire folk call the place where they live). It’s ‘There Must Be An Angel’ by Sharon Booth which is set in the fictional village of Kearton Bay which is based on Robin’s Hood Bay on the North Yorkshire coast.  For me there’s something wonderful about reading about somewhere I know.  It adds another dimension to a novel as I get to see somewhere familiar through someone else’s eyes.

Robin Hood’s Bay is a fabulous place, a village built on a ridiculously steep hill with a history of smuggling.  The name is apparently a bit misleading as they say Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest fame never went there.   Reading Sharon’s book I could imagine the village that I know filled with the wonderful cast of characters that she’s created.  They’re the kind of warm, interesting people that I like to think live in such a wonderful location.

Barley Hall Interior

Setting is really important to me when I read and when I write.  ‘Sovereign’ by CJ Sampson is set in York in 1541 when Henry the Eight visited the city.  I know some people found the historical details a bit heavy handed but I loved reading about places that are familiar to me now through the lens of historical fiction.  In the acknowledgements CJ Sampson talked about how visiting Barley Hall in York had helped his research.  I used to be a volunteer guide at Barley Hall and as I’d read the book I’d thought that the lawyer’s house seemed a bit familiar. It was great to know that Barley Hall had been his inspiration.

However if you’re going to use this city or county then you have to get it right.  I’ve read a couple of books where authors clearly don’t know York very well.  Alleys mysteriously appear where they don’t exist, characters walk down the wrong streets to get to where they’re going.  I’ve been known to put books down and never pick them up again for errors like that.  A friend stopped read Danny Wallace’s ‘Charlotte Street’ even though she was enjoying it because, as a regular visitor to Whitby, she knew there wasn’t a McDonald’s and couldn’t forgive that mistake.

Robin Hood's Bay
Robin Hood’s Bay

As I have a ridiculously overambitious tendency to write about places where I don’t live (so far Glastonbury and Orkney) in I’m very aware of the risks of making those kinds of mistakes.  You don’t want to jolt your reader out of your fictional world by getting something like that wrong.  I’m starting to think that Sharon’s approach is the right one and I may be fictionalising all my settings in the future.  But then, if I’d made up a place like Glastonbury, who’d have believed me?

You can buy ‘There Must Be An Angel’ by Sharon Booth here and read my Goodreads review here.

Steampunk Research at Lanhydrock

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I love visiting stately homes and grand country houses.  There’s something about these glimpses into long gone lives that I find really fascinating. I’m also a sucker for costume drama and historical novels.

Copper kettles and pans in the kitchen
Copper kettles and pans in the kitchen

However when I started writing a steampunk short story for the Write Romantics charity anthology I realised that I’d not learned as much as I’d thought from all of this.  Suddenly, every detail became important.  Although steampunk is an alternate history I didn’t want to get it wildly wrong so I found myself researching when men started wearing wristwatches, wasting hours looking at photos of ladies fashions from 1890 (the hats are incredible – I will never know how anyone did anything in a hat that size!) and trying to get my head around steam technology.

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When I visited Lanhydrock House in Cornwall, a beautiful late Victorian country house, I was determined to pay more attention to the details.  Especially the innovations that were state of the art at that time.  The National Trust have done an amazing job with Lanhydrock and it feels like a home which is still lived in, almost as if the inhabitants have just walked out of the rooms.

Rack for draining dishes in the scullery
Rack for draining dishes in the scullery
Dairy - I'm told that they would fill the channel with hot water when they were making clotted cream.
Dairy – I’m told that they would fill the channel with hot water when they were making clotted cream.
Lady's travelling medicine chest
Lady’s travelling medicine chest
Picnic basket with small kettle. My Mum told me that her uncle had one that was a bit like this (but not as posh) and the kettle was powered by meths.
Picnic basket with small kettle. My Mum told me that her uncle had one that was a bit like this (but not as posh) and the kettle was powered by meths.

The Write Romantics charity anthology which includes my steampunk story, A Pistol for Propriety, will be out in early November.  You can find out more about it at here

Museum of Witchcraft

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While I was in Cornwall last week I couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to visit the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle.  When I started writing Beltane I borrowed an introductory book on witchcraft from York library (which did result in some interesting looks from the library staff). Four years on I now own a wide selection of books on witchcraft and druidism, subscribe to Pagan newsletters and have interviewed practising witches and druids as part of my research.  I’d heard really good things about the museum and I was pretty excited and intrigued as to what I’d find as I drove over to Boscastle.

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The museum started originally in the Isle of Man in 1951 and moved to its present location in 1960.  The collection spans a wide range of objects connected to the history and practice of witchcraft.

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 As I’m currently writing about a character who was a renowned healer, I found the section on healing and herbalism really interesting and it’s given me a lot of new ideas for my new book, Lughnasa.

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While writing Beltane I became increasingly fascinated with earth energy and ley lines and I read ‘The Sun and the Serpent’ by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller which is about dowsing the Saint Michael Line across the south of England.  The authors visited a number of places that I wrote about in Beltane including Glastonbury.  The museum has the dowsing rods and OS map used by the authors in their research.

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I’d read about poppets (and I included some of these in Beltane) but I’d not actually seen any in real life.  Poppets are used in spells and can be used to harm or to heal. There’s a number in the museum and I found them a little freaky.  These were used in curses and the names of the person that the spell is directed at is written on the doll.

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Witch bottles can be used as protection from curses and to drive the evil back to the perpetrator.  Traditionally they contained pins, hair and urine.  This confused me a bit as in my research I’d read about pins, needles and herbs being used for this purpose.  If anyone can explain the different contents then I’d be very grateful.

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I learned a huge amount at the museum and it was hugely helpful to see objects that I’d previously only read about.  I came away with a whole load of new ideas for my writing and also some helpful advice should I ever get married!

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Out with the Old

Something odd happened to me today.  Something that hardly ever happens. I had an overwhelming urge to have a clear out.  And then, what’s more surprising, I actually did it. I’ve spent most of the day chucking things out, going through piles of paperwork, shredding (which I really hate) and tidying up again.

For the first time in about five years I can now get into the cupboard under the stairs.  You would not believe the stuff I found in there.  An unopened bag of 100 night-lights, 4 Christmas crackers from heaven knows how long ago and a bottle of Guinness with a best before date of 2009!

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I felt a bit bad then. What kind of rubbish housekeeper am I to have beer that’s 5 years out of date?  And then I remembered what I’ve been doing with the time that I used to spend cleaning and doing DIY.  I’ve been writing.

Last week my friend Jessica and I were talking about the sacrifices that we’ve made to write.  She said that she no longer has time to watch TV.  I still find time for a bit of television though I watch a lot less than I used to. What I’ve given up are long lazy Sunday mornings reading the newspapers and being house proud.

But today the clearing out felt good.  Really good.  Because once I started it was obvious that I was more than ready to chuck out the things that reminded me of the old job that I hated and the relationship that didn’t work.

I’ve been re-reading Secrets by Freya North this week and I think that might have been what inspired me.  At the beginning of the book the heroine, Tess, clears out the hero’s home.  Eventually that helps him to move on and, about two hundred pages later, to realise that he loves her.

While I was ferrying bags of paper to the recycling bin and using the lousy shredder I was thinking about my new novel, Lughnasa.  I’m about 30,000 words in and I’m starting to be able to see the shape of it now.  But next week I’ve got to crack on with editing what I’ve done so that I can send my partial manuscript to be reviewed under the New Writers’ Scheme run by the Romantic Novelist’s Association.  The deadline for submission is 31 August so I’m fast running out of time.2014-08-03 15.08.34

But it’s so hard to stop writing and start editing. Writing’s the fun bit.  Editing’s hard graft. Yet that’s what I need to do.  And like I’ve been doing today I’ve got to be prepared to be ruthless and let things go. I don’t think the current version of the manuscript is as much of a mess as the cupboard under the stairs was but it’s time to find out.  Wish me luck!