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.

Meet My Character

Thanks ever so much to Sharon Booth of The Moongazing Hare blog for asking me to do this blog tour.  You can read Sharon’s brilliant blog here.  This is the first time I’ve done one of these blog tours so I hope I’ve done it right.  If not then please let me know…

1. What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or historical?

She’s called Zoe Rose.  She’s the heroine of Beltane, my first novel and is fictional.

2. When and where is the story set?

The Tor
The Tor

The story is set in the present day in Glastonbury.  Anyone who’s been to Glastonbury (the town, not the festival) will know that it’s more than a little alternative.  There are shops on the High Street selling everything you need to be a successful witch, Goddess workshops are regularly held in the town and people openly practice Paganism.  It was therefore wasn’t much of a leap to think that if supernatural things were going to happen anywhere then they’d happen in Glastonbury.  Another day I’m going to blog about meeting a druid for a cuppa as that really was an education!


3. What should we know about her?

Zoe is a struggling artist in her late twenties. She comes to Glastonbury to work on the illustrations for a children’s book about King Arthur.  This is a really important commission for Zoe and she’s been struggling to produce any decent work at home in London. Her best friend suggests she stays at Anam Cara Healing Retreat which is owned by the healer, Maeve.  However, Maeve is not all she seems…

Statue at Chalice Well
Statue at Chalice Well

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?

Zoe has strange dreams that she’s had all her life and she’s learnt that if she draws these dreams they don’t bother her anymore.  While she’s in Glastonbury she has a number of dreams of the same man.  And then she meets him.

Initially Zoe doesn’t recognise Finn McCloud as the man from her dream but she’s instantly drawn to him.  When Finn finds out where Zoe is staying he warns her not to trust Maeve.  Zoe’s already worried about the pretty odd things that are going on at Anam Cara and Finn’s words make her ask even more questions.  But Maeve’s one determined lady and she’ll stop at nothing to make sure Zoe doesn’t find out her secrets.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

At the beginning of the book, Zoe simply wants to complete the illustrations for the King Arthur book and hopes that will lead to more work as an artist.  Then her dreams become increasingly important as she realizes that they reveal the future.  But there’s a lot of other things going on in Glastonbury and without realizing Zoe’s ended up right in the middle of it and, in the end, her only goal is survival.

High Street
High Street

6. Is there a working title for this novel and can we read more about it?

The title is Beltane and at the moment the only place you can read more about it is here. Hopefully one day that will change.

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that one at the moment.  Submissions are out.  When there’s any good news you’ll be the first to know.

And the tour carries on. I couldn’t find anyone to hand the baton on to (all my writing friends seem to have already been on this particular tour, got the t-shirt and come home with a few dodgy souvenirs) but my good friend and contemporary women’s fiction writer, Julie Heslington, is also doing this blog tour this week and you can read her blog here.

Thanks for reading about Zoe and Beltane.  Have a lovely day xx

Why the picture of Glastonbury Tor?

Beltane is my first novel and it’s set in Glastonbury.  The original spark of the idea came from staying in a bed and breakfast near Glastonbury Tor with a friend almost ten years ago.  It was very alternative.  People had conversations about angels over the breakfast table. Daily group meditation was pretty much compulsory.  The woman who ran it was a very strong character and to be honest, my friend and I found her a little bit scary.   Years later I started wondering what if someone who ran a New Age retreat didn’t have good intentions towards their guests.  And from that I had my antagonist, Maeve.

Because of that there was never any question as to where I should set the book, the practical considerations of writing a book set 250 miles from home (I live in York and it’s about a five hour drive to Glastonbury) didn’t really cross my mind at the beginning.   About a year in I realised that even with the help of Google Streetview I had too many unanswered questions so I planned a holiday/research trip.  It was fantastic to spend a week in the place that I spent so much time writing about and huge number of new ideas came out of being there.

One of the amazing things about Glastonbury is that you never know who you’ll meet.  At the Chalice Well I started a conversation about the weather and within minutes the guy I was talking to told me he was a druid and that after buying his house he’d grown a tall hedge around it because he practised druidic rituals in the garden.  My imagination was obviously working over-time as to what exactly these rituals involved but the conversation sparked another idea and I knew this was all going to have to go in the book.

Angel at Chalice Well
Angel at Chalice Well

I’ve been back to Glastonbury quite a few times since then. In fact, I’ve been so often that I now have friends there.  I’m going back at the end of this month and I can’t wait!  There is something about the place, for all its bonkersness, which I find really soothing.  I honestly feel like it’s good for my soul to be there.  OK, there’s a dark side to Glastonbury as there is anywhere else (and you only have to look at the vandals who’ve attacked the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill to see that) but there’s such a positive, creative buzz about the place and I just love that.

Holy Thorn, Wearyall Hill
Holy Thorn, Wearyall Hill

The festival will be on when I’m there this time.  Much as I love music, Glastonbury Festival has never really appealed to me (well, apart from when I wanted to see Hothouse Flowers play there back in the early nineties but that’s a different story) and I have no idea if the place will be changed with the proximity of thousands of festivalgoers.  It’s going to be interesting to get there and find out.