Writing to keep your head in check

Computer study exasperation colPhil: Last week saw World Mental Health day. As you’d expect, there is the usual trite advice about it being OK to not be OK (try telling your boss and see how far that gets you), or to ask for help when you aren’t feeling right.

All well and good, but ask who?

The NHS? They don’t have nearly enough money to provide these services. The Samaritans? They will chat, but there aren’t usually any answers. People you know almost certainly have enough on their plate to need your troubles.

Nope. In the real world, you are on your own. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do something.

First up, read a book.

I’m rubbish at getting away from it all. Unlike my friend, I don’t really do holidays and when I do, I’ve still taken me with me. If I can get into a good story, however, I can properly escape for a while. Reading engages my brain so it can’t do any of that spinning that it does when left to its own devices. The book needs to be a real page-turner and if I’m honest, something light and enjoyable. I want to see light at the end of the tunnel. There’s also the satisfaction of seeing the bookmark work its way from front to back – visible progress which makes me happy.

The other option, which we’ve been working on ideas around, is writing things down.

We’ve both found that writing empties dark thoughts from your head. More than once recently, I’ve had things rattling around my brain and stopping me sleeping. Turn those thoughts into an e-mail, you don’t even have to send it, and I feel a lot better.

Blog posts, and even scribbling in notepads work just as well. The key is the process of forming your thoughts into words.

A longer form novel provides both the satisfaction of a project that makes progress and a world that you are in control of. Many mental problems stem from a feeling of a lack of just that control, well you are the author, you make the rules. You can even be autobiographical if you want and visit revenge on those who cause your woes. Probably better not to publish this, or at least change the names though!

We’ll be looking at this again in the future, but in the meantime, if life is getting to you, write it down. You’ll feel better for it.

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A twisted last post?

Phil: This might be my last blog post. I may not get the chance to write another. The reasons should be clear by the time you reach the end.

Sharing books can be an enjoyable thing. You find yourself presented with something you might not have chosen yourself. Maybe even a complete genre that had previously passed you by.

I’ve never been into books which involve people getting killed. I know they are called “thrillers” but I like to read for escapism, and that generally doesn’t involve me being reminded that I could be killed randomly just because some loon wants to send a message to someone else – usually a detective. I mean, why can’t they just pick up the phone and dial 999? Maybe send a text, or even a postcard?

Anyway, the latest novel to come my way is Twisted by Steve Cavanagh.

I wasn’t really intending to read this but found myself short of books, and I quite liked the orange and black cover which is a bit stylish.

By the end, I enjoyed it. Not just because I found some matching colour cake either.

The plot is confusing. Apparently, the novel is written by JT LeBeau, a mysterious and very, very successful author. Or is it?

You see there are twists, turns and red herrings aplenty.

Halfway through, you think you know what’s going on and the whole thing turns on its head.

By the end, we have an author who is a killer, and a woman with nice shoes lying on a beach.

Now, I know a woman who has nice shoes and is partial to lying on a beach. How far would she go in pursuit of said shoes and sunlounger? Has she got a list of previous writing partners that I don’t know about, all of whom have disappeared in mysterious circumstances? Why does she keep giving me books about people being murdered?

If you don’t hear from me again, please send flowers. And cake….

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Cunning idea – The newbie

lonely lake/office chair, prescott, AZPhil: My writing other half started a new job this week. We met up in her last week of “freedom” and among other things chatted about the joys of being new at work.

This gave me an idea. Not one I can use at present, so I chuck it out there.

Writing from the point of view of the new person anywhere would provide an excellent vehicle for explaining a location to a reader.

Think about it – the reader is also new to the job/location, so everything going through the newbie’s head is the same as that in the reader’s mind.

OK, perhaps they don’t have the same “Where’re the toilets?” anxiety, but new people, a strange office to navigate around, unusual rituals at break times (does everyone go to lunch together?) and a thousand other questions need answers. There’s also the whole cliquiness of workmates to consider – who gets on with who?

The more I think about this, the more I remember why I hate changing jobs!

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The great speed writing challenge

Phil: You might know that my job involves (cue eye-rolling from Nolan) writing and editing model railway (Candice: Toy train you mean) magazines. You might even know that currently, Channel 5 is running a TV show called The Great Model Railway Challenge.

At the mag, we thought it would be a great wheeze to write a summary of each episode, to be published as soon as possible after the show airs. It’s something that many newspapers do so they can pretend not to be interested in a reality show whilst grabbing as much web traffic as they can from leaping on the bandwagon (I’m looking at you the Guardian).

The problem we have is that no previews are available to us (The producer said no) so the job has to be done fast. Really fast.

Now, I quite fancied having a go at this so volunteered to give it a try.

Thanks to the joys of the web and catch-up telly, I had a practice run on an episode from the first series. It was hard work, but I wasn’t unhappy with the results.

I’m now two episodes into the current run and it’s still hard work.

As I watch the show, I take note of anything I think is worth mentioning. That’s 6-7 pages of scribble in my notepad. Scribble I hope I can read in a short while.

I also start typing during the advert breaks. You know how you wish they were shorter? Not me, I’d be happy with lots more time.

At the end of the show, I stick it back on catchup while I finish the first draft. Having the episode play away in the background keeps my memory fresh and augments the scribble. With the first draft finished, the whole lot is run through Grammarly to pick up the really big boo-boos and also allow me to re-read in a different format. After that, it heads off to our editor who has agreed to proof it properly. We did try to skip this step, but it turns out that you really can’t see something with fresh eyes when you’ve been so deeply embedded in writing it, at least not for a couple of hours, so a lot of rubbish slips through.

While the words are being proofed, I’m collecting screenshots to illustrate the article. I’ve noted down some times on my pad and use these as a guide, but always find others.

The end result, so far, has gone live about 90 minutes after the 75-minute show has finished.

You can see the results for episode 2, appropriately enough for this blog, with the theme “Classic Books”.

I’ve never done anything quite like this before. I have to write very fast, try to be interesting AND witty. The process is very intense and I’m glad it’s only once a week. By 11, the show airs at 8, I’m shattered mentally.

Still, this is an interesting challenge and it’s fun to do. Perhaps we all need to really stretch ourselves once in a while? Who knows what we might find out?

 

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The Guilty Party by Mel McGrath

The Guilty Party: Dive into a dark, gripping and shocking psychological thriller from bestselling author Mel McGrath by [McGrath, Mel]

Candice : I bought a collection of books from Sainsburys before jetting off to a lovely holiday to Majorca earlier in the summer.

As it always the way, and what happens when you buy books from a supermarket, the selection was limited to chic lit or crime drama.  I picked this one up because it looked a little different.

The premise is built around four friends who meet at university and then stay connected over the next ten years. Their lives change – one gets married and has a child, one comes out as gay, one becomes wildly successful as a business man, and one gets left behind.  But they have something that ties them all together, they are all serially unfaithful to their partners and keep a record of their relationships by photographing their conquests naked and posting pictures on a shared ‘black book’.  Their appetite for competition and  being sexual predators drives them to stay in touch even though, by the time we enter their lives, they don’t seem to really like or trust each other.

The story is held together with a central premise; they have all been to a festival and on their way home a fight breaks out, in the ensuing melee they see a girl being raped.  The next day she turns up dead, drowned in the Thames.

Meeting a month later one of the party is unsure that the story she has been spun by her friends about the rape is the truth, she wants to tell the police what she has seen but they are reluctant to spill the beans. Why, she is doesn’t know but as the weekend in a remote house unravels it seems that each member of the party had more to do with the deceased than it first seems, and each has something to hide which informing the police would expose.

The book is hard to read as it flits between the view points of each of the four characters, and both past and present, so you struggle to keep up with what is going on unless you read it in long stretches.  It also struggles with empathy, as each character is exposed as someone is isn’t that likeable; the play each one off against the other, and don’t seem to care about anyone else but themselves.

Many years ago I read ‘Gone Girl’ and felt a similar way about that book. I read it to the finish as I wanted to know what happened with the characters, but I didn’t really like any of them or care that much what happened to them.  This seems to becoming a more prevalent style of writing, both in novels and TV shows, where every character is so flawed you don’t particularly want to root for them.  I recently watched ‘The Affair’ and felt this too.  It probably gives a truer version of the world, but I’m not sure I want to see it.  I want escapism not nasty reality.  I can watch the news for that.  I’ve got no doubt however that this book will get optioned soon as it seem to fit with what TV and film producers are looking for these days.  I don’t think I will be watching.

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I hope our book doesn’t date this badly

Phil: Picking up a book of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I’m struck by the contents, some of which make me feel uncomfortable.

Round The Fire Stories contains 17 tales from the master who created Sherlock Holmes. Many of them read and feel like something the great detective could have been involved with. Indeed, one of them includes a letter from someone who could very well be Holmes. If you like the style, then this is an interesting read.

But, and it’s a big but, some of the text has not aged well. Conan Doyle writes of an age of empire. Form the days when most of the map was pink and the sun never set on Her Britannic Majesties lands. We have plucky Brits out running the colonies or travelling to mysterious lands.

I quite like a bit of this. Part of me hankers for an era when travel was difficult and going abroad was an adventure, not somewhere you go for a stag/hen weekend and spend the time bladdered.

But with this comes some unfortunate racial issues. The Brown Hand revolves around a ghost of a beggar who comes to claim back his hand from the surgeon who severed it (saving the mans life) and keeps it in a jar. The hero of the story allows the spectre to find another hand made available after an accident and this seems to satisfy him enough to cease his haunting. The ghost can’t rest until he is “whole” and yet is happy with some else’s hand – because in the spirit world, all brown hands are apparently the same and he won’t know the difference.

It gets worse in The Fiend of the Cooperage, where the N-word is used repeatedly, not as an insult, just because that’s what people said in that era.

Is it fair to judge stories written around 1900, and republished in 1991, but today’s standards?

No, I don’t think it is. Any book is a historical document and to say you can’t read it leads quickly to book burning. These stories are of their time and my discomfort is a good thing. Most people (loons excepted) wouldn’t write something like this today. To be honest, things like Cooperage wouldn’t get published because it’s rubbish anyway. You could update it, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. Spoiler: A giant snake did it – see what I mean?

Conan Doyle was very keen on mystic and occult stuff and it shows here. Many of these tales intended to be told around the fire involve ghosts, the existence of which is never questioned. Holmes would have not been impressed.

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Men DO suffer from Imposter Syndrome

What IS this? We aren't at eat n park! #imposterPhil: I was loitering on the station at a steam railway last weekend, chatting to a fellow magazine editor, and someone interrupted our conversation.

“You’re Phil Parker. I just wanted to say I really enjoy your work.”

It took me a few moments to recover, but I quickly slipped into the “Thanks very much. Glad you like it.” mode followed by my standard “Don’t forget, if there’s anything you’d like me to cover, drop me an e-mail.”

Working in hobby publishing, and appearing on a DVD for subscribers, it’s long fascinated me how people seem to think they know you. I admit, I enjoy this most of the time as I’m not great at starting conversations, but comments of my on-screen work have kicked off many pleasant chats and provided me with inspiration for several projects.

The best bit though – feedback.

A comment this week on Instagram annoyed me. “Women suffer from imposter syndrome and men don’t.” It’s not the first time I’ve read this, and not just from random people but proper newspaper columnists, and it always winds me up. 

Imposter syndrome is the nagging feeling that you aren’t good enough for your job, and that one day you’ll be found out and asked to leave.

Some people enjoy massive amounts of self-confidence and breeze through like not caring about anything. Not me. I’ve always been sure that I’m hanging on to whatever position I have by my fingernails. At least once per employment, I’ve been involved with something that I’m sure will result in me being fired. Not deliberately, just because I’m Not Good Enough.

I’m sure most people are affected in varying degrees. We all have moments of self-doubt – yes, even men.

Which is why feedback is important. I like to think I’m doing OK, but that outside validation is important, otherwise, I might be deluding myself.

Even critical feedback is useful. That way you can assess whether the person offering feedback is likely to be reliable, or operating on their own agenda to undermine you. It happens and recognising this is an essential skill, albeit, not one that’s fun to learn.

The thing is, we can all help each other. If you read something and like it – say so. Hit the like button, send a Tweet or an e-mail. Do something to spread the positivity. There are enough negative thoughts in the world right now, make some positive ones!

The Interweb has put the power of feedback in everyone’s hands. At the moment, it’s largely used by sad trolls sat in their pants in front of a computer to bully others or hurl abuse. This doesn’t have to be the case. Both Candice and I have contacted authors whose books we’ve enjoyed by Twitter to say something, and they have generally responded to say thanks. Even moderately famous people like reassurance!

Now, you see that Like button, you know what you have to do now… 🙂

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