Veganuary: Healthy For Me, The Planet, Or Neither Of Us?

Over Christmas, I practically bathed in butter. Every day I gobbled sausages, cheese, hot chocolate and crispy roast potatoes cooked in beef dripping, wolfing it all down in a kind of frenzied panic because — hey — it’s Christmas, for fuck’s sake, and it won’t last forever.

Except it can last forever, quite easily, unless you make a wild and unmaintainable New Year’s resolution to become a totally different human at the stroke of midnight (or, if you’re a sane and rational person, just attempt to live a little healthier. But I am not, and so I didn’t).

I opted for Veganuary, because I’ve done in in the past. I was vegan on-and-off for a couple of years, starting back in 2016, and I remembered how good it made me feel. All the usual sat-fat options were off the table: cheese was impossible, bean burgers were dry, and almond milk was expensive and made your tea look like vomit.

If I couldn’t have it, I wouldn’t have it, and this kind of religious denial of pleasure appealed to me.

This might be a good moment to tell you a little bit about my personality. I am not great at just ‘trying to be healthier’. I need a regime: a strict set of rules I can follow to prevent the mere thought of a tub of Philadelphia entering my brain. It’s categorically unhealthy, I know, but that’s where we’re at right now.

So anyway, New Year’s Day rolls around, and I’m ready. I’m buzzing, in fact (mainly with a colossal hangover, but also about 1% excitement, too). I make some porridge with oat milk, and watch as my brother and his girlfriend sink their teeth into a cinnamon bagel with lashings of butter. I am smug, and I am only slightly envious. After all, it’s not because I’m restraining myself, it’s because I can’t.

Again, my mentality is mildly troubling, but that’s a topic for another time.

I had other motivations for going vegan, too. Global warming; sustainability; all that jazz. You don’t watch as much David Attenborough as I do without hating yourself for what your steak habit is doing to the planet.

So, yes. I had visions; visions based on my previous experience four years ago. Chickpeas, lentils, vegetables and quinoa. Barley and radishes with a home-made mustard dressing. Eating less because the taste was a bit naff. Feeling stronger and fitter and lighter — not necessarily on the scales, but in myself — and feeling proud of what I was sacrificing to give back.

But the world has changed since 2016. Veganism had roots back then, but they hadn’t infiltrated the big chains in quite the way they have today. Now, walking through Manchester, every advert is for a plant-based take on a fast food classic. KFC have an Original Recipe QUORN burger; Subway are doing a Meat-Free Meatball Marinara; Greggs have their vegan Steak Bake and sausage roll. Papa John’s have even brought out a jackfruit ‘pepperoni’ pizza, complete with vegan cheese.

This is wonderful, obviously. Wonderful for my food envy, and for my palate, which is used to meaty, spicy goodness.

What isn’t so wonderful, is that a large portion (get it?) of people who try Veganuary to dip their toes into healthier foods, to strip back the mayonnaise and cheesy dressings and go a little more… basic. And sure, the Papa John’s ‘pepperoni’ invention might not pack the same artery-clogging punch as it’s meatier counterpart, but it still comes in at 4.9g of fat per slice, only around 2g less than the original American Hot. For Greggs, the calorie and fat differences between their vegan and non-vegan products are almost non-existant.

But some responsibility has to be placed on the consumer, surely? We can’t walk blindly into veganism with high hopes of healthier lifestyles, and still keep funnelling KFCs as though they’re salad bowls. It’s logical — a deep-fried item, no matter how little animal product it contains, will never be a salubrious choice.

This is fine. Especially for the people who have ecological motivations for taking a deep-dive into the meat- and dairy-less pool of Veganuary. For some (me included) it’s a month-long trial; a way of testing the waters and seeing where positive changes can be made for the rest of the year.

So we have to ask: is veganism better for the planet? Not directly consuming animal products doesn’t necessarily equate to an absence of suffering. We all know about the horror of palm oil, and the Californian droughts brought on by the cultivation of water-intensive almond trees.

But what about the wider picture? What would happen if meat and dairy were off the table entirely?

According to research done in the US, it simply wouldn’t be sustainable. If every human on the planet adopted a purely plant-based diet, there wouldn’t be enough food for us all. That’s because the soil in the pastureland used for grazing livestock doesn’t contain the necessary nutrients for plant growth, meaning vast swathes of resources would go to waste.

Another consideration is cost. Three years ago, my brothers bought me a vegan recipe book, complete with instructions for how to make ‘beef’ wellington, ‘bacon’ and mac and ‘cheese’. Almost every recipe required something from the jesus-christ-that’s-expensive shelf at Tesco: unsalted cashew nuts, dates, organic soy sauce — the list goes on. And that’s only naming the things I could easily find; to make half the recipes, I needed nutritional yeast and vital wheat gluten, only sold in Holland & Barrett for the monthly price of a mortgage on a one-bedroom flat.

So is it sustainable, this vegan lark? Is it sustainable for me, and my penchant for milky lattes and hot, buttered toast? Is it sustainable for my coronary health, for my waistline? Is it sustainable for the planet and its limited supplies of arable land? Is it sustainable financially, for every human on any income, when judgement of those who make environmentally poor dietary choices inevitably starts to ramp up?

No. At least, I don’t think so. It seems to me that, as with anything, balance is key. The US researchers concluded that a plant-based diet with small amounts of meat and dairy held the most promise for our future needs. It appears that once again we need to look at our polarised mentality, and consider the idea that there may be a nugget of gold in dipping in and out of animal products, without the label.

As for me, I’ll see Veganuary through. Not because I’m convinced of its powers, but because I haven’t tried Costa Coffee’s ‘cheese’ toastie yet, and I’ve got to finish what I started.

Gym People – The Terrible, The Bad and The Supremely Irritating

Are you thinking of joining a gym? Are you a member of a gym but never bother going? Or are you, like me, quite enamoured by the idea of the gym, but completely disillusioned by the reality?

Forget the fact that physical activity in practice is not a Rocky montage, and unfortunately does actually take up loads of time and make your chest feel like someone’s fannied about in there with a ream of sandpaper. Leave the actual exercise at the door, friends.

We’re here to talk about the gym wankers.

The people that make you think that, actually, it may well be worth selling all of your christening jewellery (and perhaps a few of your dead grandmother’s rings) so that you can buy a treadmill. The people that make you wish for the apocalypse, or a plague, so that almost everybody will cease to exist, until you remember that gym wankers are the pinnacle of human strength and you would undoubtedly be the first to fall.

1. Speedy Gonzalez

Speedy has no time for your nonsense. Speedy, apparently, has no time for anything. He’s pounding that treadmill like he’s got some deeply buried emotional trauma he’s trying to run away from. The noise of it is possibly the most distracting thing on the planet: a shrill whirring perfectly matched with his relentless stomping, and the whip, whip, whip of his arms pumping full-pelt. Speedy makes you feel like shit as you jog along quietly, and then hammers the stop button with his fist and leans against the front of the machine as though he’s about to cry.

2. Grunty McGee

Is it a mating call? An unfortunate side-effect of body-fat deficiency? Nobody knows. This guy just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut. There you are, at the innocent time of 7 a.m. on a Monday morning, trying to motivate yourself to step onto the cross-trainer to the soundtrack of a thousand horny wildebeest. Grunty lifts his weight, and the small nose he emits could be forgiven; we’re all human. But then he drops it, as though it’s on fire, and the clang of metal against the floor is melodically accompanied by an ‘ARGH’ that makes you frantically wonder whether you should call an ambulance or the public indecency police.

3. Basic Bella

Bella is not here to exercise. We should get that fact established right at the start. For Bella, the gym is the perfect Insta shoot location. She’s got the outfit, the hair and the unfathomable baseball cap; now all she needs is the mirror you’re trying to use to smooth your eyebrow hairs down before work. She loves that mirror. The mirror is so important to her, it begs the question of whether she has any of her own at home. You consider telling Bella that the £20 a month she spends on her membership could buy countless mirrors on Amazon, but she is not free for small talk. She will pout and pose and snap away until she has the perfect shot to show social media how effective her latest facial was at disabling her sweat glands.

4. PT Paul

We’ve all got to make a living, I do understand this, but Personal Trainer Paul is really giving it his all. He slinks around the gym until he finds the perfect corner from which to observe you. From there, he will silently critique your technique, his eyes boring into you, picking apart every movement until he has his sales pitch perfected. He waits patiently until he spots a lull in your rhythm, and then pounces, appearing by your side at lightning speed. He pulls out his ace of spades and loudly offers to correct all of your hideous, arthritis accelerating mistakes, for only £50 an hour three times a week.

5. Mixing-it-up Mike

Mike doesn’t follow the rules. Mike was the kid at school who turned his chair around and straddled it, leaning his chin against the backrest. Mike was cool back then, but Mike hasn’t moved on, and is now an utter twat. When he joined the gym, Mike nodded nonchalantly through his induction and studied the machine instruction stickers with half-arsed abandon, all the while wondering how he, the master of innovation, could utilise these contraptions in a way no man had ever attempted before. In the middle of your rowing session, you spot mike in the mirror, head-butting the leg-press. It strengthens his neck muscles, and the sense of satisfaction he gets from being so much cleverer than those silly inventors and their narrow-minded ways is well worth the headache.

My blood pressure has risen beyond a normal level just writing this, but I assure you, I will not start grunting. Unfortunately, other people do exist, and unless you’re Richard Branson, you’re going to have to pay to interact with them in public places. Be it the airport, the cinema or the golf course, they’re everywhere; like an uncontrollable infestation of tossers.

My only advice for escaping the gym with your sanity intact is this: take headphones, a compact mirror and a blindfold. Or just don’t bother. You know you’ll only stick it out for a couple of weeks, anyway.

 

This Damn Time of Year

Over the past few years, I have been conducting case studies.

Well, they’re not really case studies. Not in the literal sense; they have almost zero scientific value and aren’t about to be published in any high-impact journals. But still. They’re worth something, in my mind.

I’ve been observing people around me at different times of the year. I’ve watched how people get that gleeful buzz around Christmas (or don’t, at which point they’re swiftly removed from my contact list), become lighter and more carefree as spring comes along, and grind to a blissful halt when the rare heatwaves of summer come knocking.

But then there’s October. Is it me, or does it seem like suddenly, as the clock strikes midnight on the first of the month, the sun just decides it can’t be arsed anymore? And I don’t mean the temperatures – don’t even get me started on those – I mean that one day you’re sipping your morning coffee with the sun streaming through the blinds, and the next, you’re fumbling about at 7 a.m. trying to locate the light switch and wondering if the world has ended.

It’s around this time, too, that the Autumn fanatics come out of hiding and start stomping around with their knee-high boots and camel-coloured scarves, sweating through a bobble hat it is far too early to be wearing. But I don’t like pumpkin spice, it never stops raining, and fallen leaves aren’t crunchy and picturesque in England, they’re slippy and usually concealing a three-day-old dog turd.

My mood subtly drops as we creep towards the end of daylight saving time. I used to attribute it to hormones, or a bad day, until I realised it happens at exactly the same time every single year. So I started to wonder: am I alone in this? Is it only me who suffers the sudden darkness with misery and zero motivation?

Of course not. Most of us have heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where depression comes seasonally, most commonly in the winter. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I don’t feel depressed, just… meh. And besides, by the time winter gets into full swing, I’m usually back to my normal self (which is moody enough as it is).

I started watching the people around me and asking questions. I noticed that the chirpy ‘good morning’s of summers in the office had given way to sighed ‘hiya’s. I picked up on eye-rubbing and negativity, and less enthusiasm towards life happenings in conversations with my friends.

It seems that for some of us, there’s no escape from a drop in our get-up-and-go as this time of year descends. It’s something to be endured, in the knowledge that (hopefully) we’ll get used to it soon, forget that sunlight ever existed, and just get on with revving up to Bonfire Night and Christmas.

But surely there are ways to make it a little less soul-destroying. My friend Amie says, ‘I find if I carry on going to the gym in the morning it’s like a defence against it. Because by the time I’m getting ready for work I’ve woken up properly and it’s bright out.’ She continues, ‘Maybe bright is an overstatement.’

For me, exercise definitely does the job, but motivating myself to actually go to the gym is another thing entirely. I generally take a less dynamic approach to life, and naturally focus on self-care, giving myself an extra ten-minutes with my morning brew, or washing my hair and making an effort with my clothes to make myself feel like I’m actually a real human. Basically, I treat myself at any given opportunity all year round, and October just exacerbates the tendency.

My slightly more dramatic friend, Lauren, says, ‘It feels like days have no start or finish, it all rolls into one big, dark, depressing blob. If I could just sit in bed with a cup of tea all day I would.’

It’s knackering, trying to heave yourself out of bed when the world outside your window is telling you to go back to sleep, but some people suffer through the October blues without intervention. My boyfriend, for example, sticks to his usual routine, and just gets a little more grumpy. It lifts, eventually, and we carry on, forgetting it ever happened until next time rolls around.

Unfortunately, short of moving to Thailand, there is no escape from the darkened slump of early Autumn. My only consolation is the knowledge that, like everything, this will pass, and I’ll soon be slipping along the pavement towards a cosy, candle-lit pub, ready to discuss festive plans with my friends as we swerve the expensive Christmas Markets and sip mulled wine by a steamed-up window.

Until January comes along, that is. And that doesn’t even bear thinking about.

Body Positivity And The Women Living It

The other week, I was having one of my pre-shower body scans (you know the ones, when you stand in front of the mirror gazing at your nakedness and identifying all of the unsavoury parts until the mirror steams up so much that – sigh – thank god, it’s gone) when I had a thought.

God, wouldn’t it be nice if I just didn’t give a shit?

Not, God, wouldn’t it be nice if I loved myself? No. Wouldn’t it be just lovely if the whole thing didn’t even matter? Like a laptop bag, or a supermarket trolley. Gets you from A to B, contains all the necessary bits and bobs, haven’t even noticed all the scuffs and the chewing gum stuck to the base.

I thought I was revolutionary. I pondered the idea in the shower and then skidded out, screaming at my boyfriend, ‘Imagine if how we looked didn’t even matter!’ He was, understandably, disturbed. I left him to contemplate our relationship and took to Google, searching the term I was certain I had just coined:

Body Neutrality.

And there it was. Like 99.9% of the thoughts we have every single day, mine was not news. Other people had got there before me. Which was great! I had allies in my quest to feel nothing about the ever-changing bag of flesh I carried with me all year round.

But what I noticed was that unlike the body positivity movement, which has been widespread and arguably ‘successful’ in its impact, body neutrality just didn’t seem to have… taken off. In a world where the majority of us have been taught to detest our bodies from an early age, could it be that hatred and love are such close friends that going from self-scrutiny to adoration is easier than becoming ambiguous?

I didn’t know, so I decided to explore. I posted a request on Twitter for people to give me their opinions and experiences with body positivity and body neutrality. I wanted to see why body positivity was so successful; what was it giving people apart from a different angle from which to obsess over themselves?

Put simply: I couldn’t see a way to break my bad relationship with my body than to stop thinking about it altogether. Like an ex-boyfriend I once loved and now hate, the logical next step was indifference. Putting it behind me and moving on to brighter, better things.

According to research by Better, 1 in 3 people say that body confidence has negatively affected their mental health, and 51% of women report that they are not confident with their bodies. Stats provided by inclusive swimwear brand Deakin and Blue show that 500,000 women have given up swimming due to body image concerns.

These are shocking statistics, but sadly, they didn’t surprise me. The response I received from my Twitter request was so large – it was clear that finding a way out of self-hatred wasn’t a niche or novel idea.

Elizabeth Kemball, 22, told me, ‘Growing up seeing larger bodies only as pieces of comedy or disgust in the media led to a lot of self hate.’ When I told her my opinion, that body positivity seemed like yet another way for us to fixate on our appearance, she disagreed. ‘Where body positivity hasn’t taught me to love my body, it has taught me that loving myself and feeling I am worthy and valued does not have to stem from outer appearance but instead from being positive that a body is just that: a body, and that I am much more than the body.’

The idea of seeing ourselves as independent of our bodies and physical attributes was something for which I had given credit to the body neutrality movement. With the conflicting messages across the media (love the skin you’re in, your mind is the most important thing, buy this razor for super-soft legs, kindness makes you beautiful) it had seemed to me that only by binning the external focus could we really hone in on the inside and escape the pit of self-flagellation.

The same, too, can be said for Tene Edwards, 26. ‘The body positivity movement on social media has helped me to feel more comfortable in my own skin’, she said. Could it be that there is no escape from thinking about our ‘skin’ in the first place? We’re hard-wired to consider our appearance in order to attract a mate, so is this something we simply cannot circumvent?

The body positivity movement seems to breed itself. By empowering one woman, we empower twenty. ‘As a writer with quite a big following, the movement has really inspired me to share the challenges I have had with my body and join the battle in changing the way media portrays women and beauty’, Tene told me. Love, surely, is better than hatred?

For a lot of us, however, the messages are still confusing. Body positivity pushes us to love ourselves, whatever the weather (or number of stretch-marks/dimples/errant hairs), and focus on being healthy and happy. But what about those people who claim that body positivity is simply glorifying obesity? Or who say that skinny models are unhealthy role models for young girls? Dr Lily Canter told me, ‘I was recently told by a member of my own family that it “wasn’t healthy” for me to be doing lots of exercise and even though I eat lots I am too skinny. I wanted to bang my head against a wall. So just what is healthy? Anything?’

Perhaps we’re just incapable of living and letting live. In a time of political turmoil, when opinions are nine-to-the-dozen and sitting on the fence is practically a crime, isn’t any kind of movement that tries to dictate how we view ourselves just another way of enforcing our perspectives onto other people’s lives?

Perhaps even advocating for neutrality is a form of dictating someone else’s relationship with themselves. Or are we just trying to show what’s possible?

Ellie McKinnell has mixed feelings about the movement. ‘I have a poster on my mirror that says, “I am grateful for my body”, which I repeat to myself every day – but that doesn’t stop me hating how it looks’ she says, in her recent article The body positive movement is great – but I still hate my body. She raises an interesting point on the way body positivity, for some, has backfired: ‘I often feel I am failing when I look at my body with disgust. I think that I must somehow be letting the side down, am too vain, and that I ought to like my body because so many people are telling us we should. It’s almost as if instead of feeling shame over my body’s appearance, I should feel shame for hating it.’

This resonated with me. Growing up, it was commonplace for my friends and I to sit around a Pizza Express table, shovelling slices of Americana into our faces while mumbling, ‘Ugh, I really shouldn’t be eating this. I’m such a fat mess.’ But suddenly, we’re not allowed to lament ourselves anymore. I can’t tell you the number of times a friend has told me I look nice, and I have responded instinctively by grabbing a piece of my stomach and saying, ‘You just can’t see it under this jumper – I have put on so much weight’, and then hating myself for betraying the narrative that we should accept compliments and love ourselves, no matter how we feel on any particular day.

But we do feel differently on different days. Can the body positivity movement really alleviate our mood fluctuations; our wildly unpredictable tendency to wake up one morning feeling brilliant, and the next feeling like an unpolished sack of potatoes? Or maybe that’s just me?

One of the many criticisms of the body positivity movement is the way it was ‘hijacked’ by slim, white women. It didn’t seem fair that these people could naturally embody the most media-represented aesthetic in the modern world, and then go on to post images of themselves in bikinis with the hashtag ‘self-love’. But isn’t the point of it all to address how we feel on the inside, despite and because of the outside?

Jessica Markowski is a model, actor and social media influencer. She began her career at sixteen. ‘I felt as though there was a lot of pressure for me to fit a certain size. Agents would always tell me to always be healthy and diet. So from a very young age, I developed a lot of insecurities’, she told me. She was happy that the body positivity movement emerged a few years later, and allowed her to be who she was, regardless of her appearance. ‘I am much more condifent now than when I was starting out in the business. People are more accepting of all shapes, sizes and personalities. It allowed me to feel more comfortable and confident with who I am as a person inside and out.’

This seemed like another point against the body neutrality movement. If its ethos says that we must disregard our bodies, what does this mean for those whose appearance is their livelihood? With the rise of social media, this is increasingly becoming more of us – and surely the foundation of any movement of this kind should be its inclusivity; its ability to be accessed and adopted by anybody, whatever their size, shape and career.

But what about age? As a 26-year-old woman, I spent my childhood without the Internet, and only got my first smartphone when I was 18, but the messages about how I should view my body still made it through. The focus on perfection is often seen as a new, Instagram-related issue, but so is the body positivity movement. What about the women who are discovering it now, later in life?

Rachel Peru became a model when she was 49. ‘I’m not your typical model in that I’m grey haired, and size 14-16’, she says. She advocates for poorly-represented models in her age group, saying, ‘In the last three years I have seen some movement to a wider range of bodies being represented which can only be a good thing. I do everything I can to highlight the lack of midlife women’s representation’. Rachel reports that she gets frustrated when she sees adverts for models with specific age limits, ‘without taking in to account we all look different’.

While she struggled to love her body in her twenties and thirties, Rachel says she has now found body confidence, but still pushes for recognition that ‘not every day is a body confidence day because that wouldn’t be realistic’. Again, it seems that body positivity occasionally skims over the idea that we feel different in ourselves on different days, and individuals are pushing for this to be part of the narrative.

And Rachel is not the only one using her platform and drive to advocate for better self-image.

Tracey-Jane Hughes is 48 years old. When she was eight-weeks pregnant, a bra fitter told her, ‘you’re abnormal’. She grew tired of being shamed about her breasts, and frustrated that she was unable to find a bra that fit her, so she decided to become a bra fitter herself, helping women who believe there isn’t a size or shape for them to discover that, in fact, there is. They just aren’t looking in the right place. ‘We’ve had women tell us they are made to feel abnormal if a bra fitter hasn’t had experience of boobs like theirs’, she says.

Tracey-Jane believes that young girls aren’t educated about how to wear bras and why they’re important, and this carries on into later life. ‘When a lady becomes pregnant or has some breast issue it’s even more confusing, yet women are frightened to ask for expert help. They feel embarrassed. Yet our boobs are the most natural thing to us and we’re all normal.’ This seems like a practical application of body positivity – rather than sharing inspirational quotes and memes (which are undoubtedly helpful to many), Tracey-Jane is putting her view that every woman is normal out to the masses, and became an independent bra-fitter in 2009 before setting up Bra Lady. ‘Being told that we all have odd breasts would be a good starting point’, she says.

A similar example of someone who grew tired of sub-standard, shame-inducing underwear choices is Rosie Cook, the CEO and founder of Deakin and Blue. She set up the swimwear company after struggling to find a swimsuit for her own weekly swim. Rosie says female body image ‘informs our product design and sizing (we offer 21 sizes per style, across three different body shapes), our language (who ever feels good buying an “extra large”) and our choice of models, brand ambassadors and more. We believe in the adage “you can’t be what you can’t see”, so we ensure our marketing imagery features women of a range of shapes, sizes, ages and races.’

The common theme emerging through my conversations with these women is that body positivity is a ‘good thing’. Not, as I had first thought, because it teaches us to swoon over our own reflections, but because it shows us a plethora of bodies; different ages, sizes, shapes and abilities. Far from the shallow ‘love your curves’ mantra that I had mistaken it for, at its core it embodies pure and simple representation, and through this representation, we can hope to accept ourselves and focus on the multitude of other things that make us people.

Professor Heather Widdows, of Birmingham University, says, ‘We might tell our daughters that ‘it’s what’s on the inside that counts’, but a look at the evidence tells us that they would not believe us’. Could this be about to change? I hope so. Perhaps, with the passion of women like these, the body positivity movement can spread its reach, touching people across all walks of life.

Body positivity may have its flaws, but I stand corrected. What really makes this movement so groundbreaking is the way it can inspire and transform one woman, and empower her to reach down and pull another up with her. And that, surely, is a very positive thing indeed.

 

 

Why Are All The Terrible People At The Airport When I Am?

In one of his plays, Jean Paul Sartre said that “hell is other people”. I know, as surely as I know my own little finger, that Jean Paul Sartre was musing on airports.

There is something about an airport security queue, or a long, panicked walk to the correct terminal, that seems to bring out the absolute worst in people. Pair the unique setting with a strict time schedule, wheelable luggage and a set of hugely important life documents and you’ve got a recipe for rabid dickheadedness.

As I took my return flight from Pisa to Manchester today, I decided to pass the time (and quell the fury) by creating a mental list of my most irritating airport encounters. The ones that come out of hiding every summer, and resurface in front of me like monsters in a maze, ready to ruin my already delicate mood. I decided to write my collection down, so that other people can identify these criminals and take appropriate measures to avoid them at all costs. I also hope it may give some individuals a chance to reflect on their behaviour, so that they may have the opportunity to become aware of their own inconsideration and nip it in the bud before I stab them.

  1. The ‘Oops, I Forgot I Had A Bottle Of Supersize John Freida Shampoo In My Handbag’ Guy

I’m going to do this chronologically. This one is probably the least annoying, not because the crime is any less heinous, but because it occurs early on in the journey when you usually still have the capacity to offer a weak smile and mumble ‘take your time’ without sounding too sarcastic. This person can also be seen disguised as the ‘Oh, Did I Leave My 300-Watt Lithium Battery In The Most Inconvenient Section Of My Rucksack?’ Guy, and the ‘I Didn’t Know We Needed A Clear Plastic Bag’ Guy. Everyone knows it is basic etiquette to relieve your carry-on of all potentially lethal moisturisers whilst standing not-quite-still in the queue, gripping your passport between your teeth and your Kindle under your chin. It is important, too, that when you see these people, you lean to the side so that everyone else will notice that they are the individuals holding up the queue and ruining everybody’s holiday, and that it certainly isn’t you, taking twelve minutes to undo the wrap-around sandals you bought to look chic on the plane.

2. The ‘Oh My God, The Gate’s Just Opened, Everyone Must Move So I Can Pursue My Queueing Hobby A Little More’ Guy

By this point the excitement has worn off a little, and the realisation that you are essentially just locked in a gigantic warehouse with a million strangers has dawned. The six perfumes you tried on in duty free are clagging in your nostrils, and the Starbucks that cost the same as a nice dinner out in your final destination is sitting sadly in your stomach. You’re keeping half an eye on the departures board, but there’s a handful of keenos clustered around it, avidly inspecting it with their magnifying glasses. Your gate is called. The stampede begins. A man wearing socks with sandals stands proudly at the front of the queue, flapping his passport at the woman behind the desk, who could not give two shits as the gate isn’t actually open yet. He is smug in his position. You hate him. You remain seated with an air of superiority, wondering when other people will realise that seats are pre-assigned, the flight won’t leave without you and sitting on a stationary airplane for twenty minutes longer isn’t actually any fun at all. And then three more people join the queue and you panic and rush to the back, swiping a small child with your suitcase in your haste.

3. The ‘I Ordered A Hot Breakfast And Two Armrests’ Guy

Not to be confused with the ‘I Drank Eight Pints And Made The Pilot Turn Around’ Guy, who is an annoying flying companion but is also, thankfully, rare, this guy is a quieter, more insidious enemy, most commonly found in the middle seat. The moment the wheels of the plane leave the tarmac, this guy is punching the call button like he’s having a moment and needs medical attention. What he’s actually doing is wrenching the cabin crew away from their duties and demanding his foil-wrapped Full English, which he will proceed to eat noisily and stinkily beside you. Once he has finished his feast and belched several times in your direction, he will tackle the next item on his agenda: wrestling the armrests from the passengers either side of him. It will begin with a slight nudge, which he knows the weaker will succumb to. If this fails, he will begin jostling in his seat, as if trying to get comfy, as a cover-up for the moment his elbow jerks aggressively to the left, and knocks your arm clean off its support. Once he has conquered both sides, he will fall asleep with his mouth open, and you will try not to look at the piece of bacon wedged in his tooth as you order your egg and cress sandwich.

4. The ‘Doors Are Open, We Didn’t Die, I Must Now Be The First To Arrive At Passport Control’ Guy

By this point, you’ve reached the very pit of your patience resources. You’ve been sat outside the airport for thirty minutes while a set of steps is sourced, and are fully willing to jump from the window and take any negative outcomes on the chin. The doors finally open. Someone (usually socks-and-sandals guy, more likely his wife) undoes their seatbelt with such ferocity that the people in your departure destination probably hear it. They wrench their bag from the overhead locker, almost disfiguring the face of a girl offering to help, and hurtle up the aisle with reckless abandon. They stride across the tarmac as if their firstborn is trapped in a box in the arrivals lounge. You are behind them. Approximately three minutes into the march, their pace slows. Their legs can’t continue at such a rate, but their determination is fierce. You overtake them. They cannot allow this to happen. At a set of double doors, they take the lead again, destroying your achilles with their military-grade wheely trolley and letting the door swing back in your face. They’re on the travelator, storming ahead like vampires from Twilight. They arrive at passport control ahead of you, and take their well-earned place at the back of a 400-person line of passengers who have just landed from Beijing. An airport staff member opens a new queue as you arrive, and you stride straight up to the tiny line at the passport scanner. You did it. You got there first.

5. The ‘I Don’t Understand What Face-Down Means’ Guy

OK. This is usually an old woman, or someone without a good grasp of the English language. But you are tired. Humanity is shit, everyone smells, and there are picture diagrams, for Christ’s sake. Stand on the footprints, open the passport, place it on the scanner, wait for the doors to open. It’s simple. And yet, apparently it is not. There are six of these machines, and somehow you have ended up behind someone who is trying to ram their hand into the scanning slot. Have they provided their fingerprints before? Probably not. What is their logic? There does not appear to be any. You can see the light through the doorway beyond the machines, beckoning you. The woman glances to her left and notices other people inserting their passports. She does the same, face-up. You want to scream. The people in the queues either side of you filter past. The assistant is busy with another passenger. The woman flips her passport and puts it face-down, the wrong page in first. She is so close. You want to step forward and show her how to do it, but you do not want to be shot/detained for interfering. She tries again, face-up. You snap and give an incredibly audible tut. The assistant hears. He helps her, and she makes it through. Your body sags. There is now nothing standing in your way. You stand on the footprints, open your passport, place it on the scanner… and are rejected. The assistant sends you to the back of the Beijing queue, where socks-and-sandals and his wife are waiting to welcome you back.

So there you have it. Unfortunately, annoying people and their selfish behaviour at airports is a cross we all must bear if we wish to explore the world. While you and I know that we are always the least well-slept, and that our needs are certainly the most urgent, other people rudely do not take this into consideration. It may be tempting to consider other transport options but, living on an island, we must unfortunately cross the sea, and do not even get me started on ferry wankers. That’s a whole other kettle of fish.

 

Being out on submission…

Back in December, when I had finished a round of edits with my agent and was desperately trying to fill the waiting void and prevent myself from becoming a pestering nuisance/psychopath, I wrote about my agent-finding journey. The post went down well, and people seemed to appreciate the tiny sliver of insight I could provide into what is an impossibly unpredictable, confusing and subjective experience.

Six months later, I’m lucky enough to be sitting here with a signed publishing contract in my iCloud drive and an acute sense of imposter syndrome that I’m trying to shift. Whilst out on submission back in March/April, I devoured resources like Submission Hell, It’s True (SHIT) and other authors’ stories of success and failure. But, while the querying journey is documented widely across the internet, first-hand reports of the subs process are a lot more difficult to find. Like drunk texts from a guy you really fancy, a post from a real-life author laying their soul bare about submissions was something to be treasured; print-screened and saved and squirrelled away for obsessive reading and over-analysing during my weakest moments.

With that in mind, I again wanted to add my two cents to the pot. However, this time, I wanted to do something different, and get some insight from inside the publishing house itself. I spoke to my lovely Twitter friend LV Matthews, who has not only been on subs herself, but has also worked on the other side. She is a rare gem, and an incredibly kind human being, whose encouraging and logical perspective helped me stay grounded during my time in the process.

Buckle up, it’s a long one.

Preparing your MS for submission
I knew there’d be edits – my wonderful agent Tanera had discussed these with me over the phone before she offered representation – and I was prepared to do the work. Tanera sent me a word document with a bullet-point list of areas she thought could be strengthened or cut, parts she wanted more of and parts she wasn’t keen on at all. She also went through my MS and left comments on grammar, continuity, inconsistencies and opportunities for restructuring, as well as notes to further explain and signpost her bullet-point ideas. The whole process took about a month, and it was difficult, but incredibly satisfying.

The version of the story that emerged was still totally recognisable – still mine, still my voice – but polished and shiny, closer to the book I had been trying to write in the first place. My first piece of advice: listen to your agent. Have a conversation before you partner with them, make sure their vision aligns with your own, and then take their comments on board. Challenge them, offer alternative suggestions if you don’t feel that something they’re suggesting fits, but do try to swallow your pride and remember that they read tens of manuscripts a month, their knowledge of the market probably far exceeds your own, and most importantly – they have a vested interest in selling your book. You share a common goal, and a collaborative process can transform your MS and teach you valuable skills and lessons for future projects. For example, I now know not to have my MC say ‘oh my fuck’ every ten seconds – it dampens the impact somewhat.

When I asked LV Matthews about her experience of pre-sub edits, she said:

My pre-sub edits lasted a loooong time. The manuscript that my lovely agent signed was rough and ready but I’m lucky she saw potential in it. She was definitely (and still is) a creative mentor for me and I have learnt so much in the process of editing, namely the ‘importance of the why’ in why the reader cares about a character.

Edits done, straight onto subs. Right?
No. Well, not for me, at least. Something I had never considered, or read about, was the timing of a submission and how it can potentially impact your chances of success. Every writer, from pre-query to beyond, has heard the phrase: you just need it to land in the right person’s lap at the right moment. Until recently I had chalked that up to pure luck, something that couldn’t be controlled, like accidentally ruining your chances by sending your MS out to an editor when their child is poorly, or their house has just been flooded.

It turns out, though, that agents can predict some of these instances of bad timing, and can speed up or delay submission to increase the probability of your MS landing at the right moment. Tanera and I started discussing submission in mid-January, on the run-up to London Book Fair. As far as my limited knowledge goes, the fair is a hotspot for rights deals, so editors are generally swamped with submissions in the weeks beforehand. Tanera and I chatted about this, and she was torn as to whether submitting before the fair would make us look confident, or whether my MS would be swallowed up and buried under all the other submissions.

Eventually, we decided (Tanera decided, I didn’t have a clue what was going on and was just grateful for her wisdom) that it was best to wait until after the fair, when things had quietened down and my MS wouldn’t be struggling to be heard among thousands of other talented voices. I went out on submission on 27th March.

When I spoke to LV Matthews about her knowledge of the impact of timings, she said:

Submission timing is a funny beast. There are key bookfairs, predominantly LBF in March and FF in October but also more recently and upcoming is BEA in New York (May) and the kids book fair in Bologna in April (I think it’s April?!) so submitting just before these might mean falling into a bit of a void. During the kids summer holidays tends to be a no-no because a lot of editors are on holidays with their families and an agent will want to go out to editors on a fair keel. The Oct-Christmas period is also likely to be avoided by agents because publishers are focusing on the authors that have their big Christmas titles out.

The waiting game
This was a weird one for me. I am, in almost every area of my life, an enthusiastic, dogged control freak. I am also afflicted with a crippling awareness of my own potential to be really fucking annoying in my pursuit of answers and reassurance. This made for an interesting test on my psyche, and, more pressingly, my patience.

I have read almost everywhere that most people’s go-to coping strategy during the subs process is to write something new. This is sage advice, and a brilliant way of focusing your energy on the next project and giving yourself a ‘backup’ if your first round doesn’t go well. If you’re a sane and rational human being (which, being a writer, I’m guessing you’re not) then you can probably go about your daily life, get some hoovering done and sink your teeth into your new WIP without refreshing your inbox every sixty seconds, biting all your nails off and crying in the shower.

know what I’m like. I am very conscious of my inability to switch off and hand control over to somebody else. I had read that this process can take months, even years, and I was pre-panicking about the panic I knew I would be feeling as soon as Tanera hit the ‘send’ button to all those editors.

But something strange happened.

As soon as I got the email through from Tanera, telling me that the MS was out there, being judged like a cow at the fair, I just… pretended it wasn’t happening. I thanked her, closed my computer and somehow transported myself back in time twelve months, to when I was writing alone and nobody else had ever seen it.

I got stuck into my second project and made myself believe it was the first one. I forgot about my emails, went out with friends, got my head down at work and honestly, I almost convinced myself the entire thing wasn’t even happening. When Tanera would email with rejections, I’d blink at the screen like, ‘Who is this woman? What is she talking about?’ before remembering that my book was out there and I was in the middle of a process I wasn’t even letting myself think about. I think I figured that if I took myself back to the start, I couldn’t be worried or disappointed when no news, or bad news, popped up. I also think a part of me was so convinced that I wouldn’t make it, that it almost became like the last question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire – I’d got this far against the odds, there was no way I was getting the top prize, but whatever, let it run its course.

This says only terrible things about my self-belief and confidence, but it was easier to assume failure than to allow myself hope that could be crushed. I’m working on it.

LV Matthews had this to say:

Oh man, the waiting game. The process for an editor (this is my experience from the big houses and every division will have its own system but as a general rule) tends to be: 

  • Editor reads and decides if it’s a fit for them. If not, politely declines to agent. 
  • If yes, they will take it to an editors meeting to discuss around the table. If they all agree to take it forward, it goes to an acquisition meeting where key people in the following departments have a read and then discuss.
    • Sales (domestic and international) 
    • Rights
    • PR 
    • Marketing
  • If everyone agrees to buy it, sales crunch some projected sales numbers and editor sees what they can afford to pay as an advance. 

The offer
Almost a month after going out on submission, I was watching Chris Lilley’s Lunatics (strange, the things you remember), when I got an email from Tanera. We’d had a spattering of rejections in the weeks prior, and I knew there were about half left to hear from. I didn’t open the email, but I looked at the preview in the notification bar and saw something along the lines of: ‘Are you free for a chat today? I have now heard back from all the UK publishers and…’

I put my phone face-down on the table and I knew that they were all rejections. She wanted to talk through our options, think about next steps and work on an idea for book two. I was sure of it.

After about thirty seconds of hating myself and wishing I’d never bought a computer or written a single word in my entire life, I decided to actually read the email, like a normal person.

The next words were: ‘…I am pleased to say we have an offer on the table – congratulations!’

I put my phone down again and paused Lunatics. I stared at the wall for a bit. Then I started vibrating and biting my nails and going ‘shit, shit, shit, shit’ like Hodor trying to keep that bloody door closed. After about a minute of this nonsense, I picked up my phone again and told Tanera she could call me whenever she wanted.

We talked the offer through and Tanera gave me all the information I needed, as well as a balanced viewpoint and the important advice to take time to think about it. This was particularly useful, as my gut reaction was to answer the phone and go, ‘Yep, brilliant, sorted, where’s the contract? I’ll have it signed within the hour.’ This would have been foolish mainly because no one in their right mind can read a publishing contract within an hour, and I also knew nothing about the editor or imprint.

So I took and week and did my research against all my instincts (I am not well known for thinking things through). The editor’s name was Phoebe Morgan, and the publisher was Trapeze, an imprint of Orion. This all meant nothing to me, as I hadn’t looked up any of the editors Tanera had told me we were submitting to (I told you – as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t happening). So I activated stalker mode and found out everything I could. I discovered that Trapeze was a relatively new imprint, and that they had recently published Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, a book that was doing incredibly well. I looked at Phoebe’s history, the kinds of things she had acquired in the past and the general edits she had suggested via email, which Tanera had sent on to me.

Tanera asked if a phone call with Phoebe would help, and I said that it would. It was easy to see everything on paper, but I wanted to make sure that her ideas for the book fit with my own. She was incredibly helpful, answering all my questions and giving me information that I hadn’t even known I needed, as well as – most importantly of all – detailing the vision she had for my work. I felt reassured, comfortable and excited by the ideas she had and the collaborative process she was suggesting.

My mind was made up, so I let Tanera know and then drank copious amounts of wine and ate disgusting amounts of pasta while I let the news sink in.

Relatively, I didn’t wait long for an offer. I was prepared for months of nothingness, and the timing of the process can be staggeringly different from author to author. As far as I have learned, for the rare few, it happens overnight. For the majority, answers (rejections or otherwise) come between two weeks and five months. For another select few, it can take even longer. But there doesn’t necessarily seem to be a correlation between length of waiting and chance of success.

LV Matthews told me about her experience:

My debut was sent and received some interest but no offers. I have a second book on the go, am working hard on that one in case it’s a more viable enterprise… all my fingers are crossed for that one. My passion for writing hasn’t been dampened, far from it, but it did reiterate how difficult it is, even with an agent, to get a deal. So to all my lovely friends getting deals (M-K you gorgeous thing), my hat is tipped to you and I wish you every success with your books. And I will be buying them.

Signing the contract and telling the world
I assumed that my contract would be sent through as soon as I accepted the offer. I was wrong. It turns out that there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between agent and editor behind the scenes, where the best deal is negotiated for both parties. I received my contract 30 days after accepting.

I knew I had to wait for the press release to go out in The Bookseller before announcing the deal publicly, but again, I didn’t know how long this would take. I had given my quote for the release a month before, so I knew it was ready to go. It was five days after I signed the contract that the news was released, and I was free to tell the world, which was a terrifying ordeal in itself – my phone overheated from all the messages and now my bluetooth is dodgy. It was very strange to have done something in the shadows for so long, with a sense of secrecy and embarrassment, and to then have it plastered for all of social media to see. The positive responses did a lot for my confidence.

If you read Submission Hell, It’s True (SHIT), and regularly stalk other authors’ reports of their experiences, you will know that really, they offer very little insight at all into what your path is likely to look like. Like horoscopes, when they’re positive, we pay attention, but when they’re negative, we assume they’re irrelevant to us. The truth is, I haven’t the first fucking clue how your journey will go, and neither does anyone else. All I can offer by way of advice is to grit your teeth and bear it, slow down and think things through rationally, if you can.

Or, you know – just pretend it isn’t happening.

One final thing that convinced me that Phoebe was a wonderful editor and all-round brilliant human being is that she is also an author herself, with a really clear understanding of how confusing and terrifying the publishing world can be for new writers. She writes a blog where she explains how publishing works at every stage, and provides invaluable information for inexperienced, nervous nobheads like me. She has a brilliant post about the submission process, in which she explains why things can seem to happen so slowly, and what is really going on behind the scenes. And her books are bloody brilliant, too.

 

 

 

The Time an Egg Exploded

Before we begin, I feel I should clarify a few things:

  1. I consider myself a person of average intelligence, with perhaps a small deficit in common sense.
  2. I would argue that my boyfriend (Stef) is of similar intelligence, with a few extra points in his favour on the common sense scale.
  3. I studied Home Economics for three years and nowhere was it mentioned that eggs have the capacity to destroy entire villages with their explosive properties.

OK, let’s go.

It was a standard weekday morning for us. I was slumped on the sofa, coffee in hand, trying to motivate myself to stop watching the BBC news story I’d seen eight times over the past hour and get ready for work; Stef was fannying about in the kitchen attempting to come up with something quick and easy to shove in a Tupperware box for lunch.

He decided he wanted eggs.

Now, he won’t mind me saying this (I’d go so far as to say he’s proud of the fact), but over the past few years Stef has managed to teach himself to cook almost anything in a microwave. Rice, vegetables, cous cous, you name it. And we’re talking fresh foods here, not boil-in-the-bag, solely-intended-for-the-microwave items. So it came as no surprise that he had decided that now, 7:45am on a school day, was the perfect time to turn his attention to the next stage of the nuking experiment – level 7: boiled eggs.

I have to share responsibility for what happened next. He asked for my advice and I gave it. I was a key player in the traumatic events that followed. Our conversation went like this:

Stef: How long do you reckon I should microwave an egg for?
Me: What, boiled? In water?
Stef: Yeah. In a plastic tub.
Me: I don’t know. When we boil them on the hob it’s like… seven minutes? But the water takes about five minutes to start boiling beforehand.
Stef: So twelve minutes?
Me: Yeah. Twelve minutes. *goes back to slurping coffee and watching Carol read the weather again*

So, you see, it was my fault too. I could go further, and say it was the fault of my teachers, every adult who’s ever taught me anything, egg farmers and uninformative labels on cartons. But the truth is, I have easy access to Google and there was no excuse.

I don’t recall much of the twelve minutes between our conversation and ‘the big event’. I think there was a guide dog segment on the news and I shed a few tears, but that’s about it. The next thing I remember, there was a humungous, earth-shattering BANG in the kitchen.

I jumped to my feet (which, trust me, takes a lot at that time in the morning) as Stef emerged from the kitchen, covered head-to-toe in brown chunks, his mouth hanging open. He couldn’t form a sentence, such was his state of shock. ‘What the- the- what the fuck?’

It was around this moment that I noticed two things. Firstly, his glasses were covered in tiny pieces of shell. Secondly, the smell. Sweet baby Jesus, my insides are contracting just remembering it. An intense and sulphurous smack in the face – like burnt hair and farts.

I entered the kitchen. It was everywhere. The ceiling, the walls, the spice rack, even dangling from the blind cord. I retched, and then started laughing harder than I’ve ever laughed in my life.

‘What happened? What happened?’ I just kept shrieking. I honestly couldn’t stop. He was just standing there, palms up, covered in egg.

‘I was peeling it. As soon as I broke the membrane it just… it exploded.’ He was not yet finding this funny.

I was bent double by this point. The gravity of the situation, and the cleaning it was going to require, had not yet hit me. An egg had exploded and it was hilarious. After about five minutes I managed to calm down enough to tend to the minor burns all over Stef’s arms. He was fine, but the kitchen was not.

After we had cleaned up and Stef had taken his traumatised self off to work, I headed to my own office and regaled everyone with the story of the incident (and the video footage of the aftermath). The responses were not what I anticipated.

‘You can’t microwave an egg!’
‘Everyone knows whole eggs explode in the microwave.’
‘How did neither of you know this?’

It was a good question. How did the entire world seem to know the hidden capabilities of such an ordinary and innocent food staple? How had we passed a quarter of a century on this earth without this information coming to light?

Google provided further proof of our ignorance. Apparently, one man had managed to sue a restaurant after he was severely maimed when biting into a microwaved hard-boiled egg. I reflected that if Stef hadn’t been wearing his glasses, he could have been blinded.

Thankfully, there are no serious injuries in my story. We diced with death the day we decided to shun the hob. We played a dangerous game. We were the lucky ones.

I’ll be sticking to scrambled in future.

Granny Hobbies

Recently I’ve been noticing a shift in the way people relax and have fun. It’s not a monumental sea change, but there’s an undercurrent of long-overlooked hobbies trying to push their way to the surface – and nobody’s trying to stop them. In fact, we’re embracing the old and shunning the new more and more every day.

But why?

I’m talking about granny pastimes. Cross stitch, knitting, brewing our own beer, arranging our own flowers. In a world where we can have anything we want, exactly as we want it, right now, why are we suddenly pumping more money and effort into doing it ourselves?

Let me put this in perspective for you. A knitted scarf from H&M costs around £10. A good set of knitting needles and enough wool to make the oversized, long scarves of today’s catwalks costs around £8. Considering the time, patience and YouTube tutorials needed to get from beginner to knitwear pro, it’s obviously not about the money.

We’re paying to go and pick strawberries in the summer (even though Tesco has a 2 for 1 offer on), we’re melting beeswax we bought from a vegan produce site and moulding our own candles. Pottery classes are popping up all over every city, despite Wilko’s extensive range of bowls and vases.

Is it social conscience? Maybe. There’s now a heightened awareness around where things come from compared to a few decades ago. We can no longer ignore that our clothes are made by children in sweatshops, that our broccoli travels half way across the globe and puts Farmer John from Somerset out of business.

But are we really that moral? Even those of us who ditched plastic in January turned a blind eye when we needed cream cheese for a dinner party recipe right at the last minute. When it comes down to it, the majority of us will choose convenience over conscience, as long as it doesn’t have too big of an impact.

Another possible explanation for the rise in kitsch-y DIY hobbies is, of course, social media. The days of parading objects and material possessions to your followers are still very much alive, but there’s a general tilt towards doing rather than having. It’s as if we’re becoming wise to the facade of ‘owning expensive item = happiness’. We now need to see the happiness, see the joy on Laura’s face as she runs through the vegetable patch, picking her halloween pumpkin, hand-in-hand with her equally ecstatic boyfriend. I see Laura doing that and suddenly, I’m not having fun! These Nike slides don’t up my status unless I can prove that I’m a whimsical and interesting person, too!

Of course this doesn’t quite explain why I spent my entire Saturday cross-stitching the words ‘DON’T BE A DICK’ onto a small piece of aida (if you follow me on Twitter, there’s proof on my cover photo). I did that because I wanted something that made in my house. I can’t paint or draw or make furniture, so I followed an easy, step-by-step process that gave me something tangible and home-made at the end of it.

The other reason I tried my hand at cross-stitching (and perhaps one of the more plausible explanations for why so many of us are creating things we can buy) was that I wanted something to do other than sitting on my phone and watching TV in my spare time. We’re all glued to our screens for a significant chunk of the day, and users of these relatively new technologies have long been seen as ‘cool’ and on-trend. But it’s not quite so cool anymore to be watching TV all night, or sitting on your phone whilst you’re at a party. We’re starting to get itchy, to envy those bygone days of our grandparents where hobbies were manual or intellectual. The rise of mindfulness has pushed us towards engaging with single-focus tasks, being in the moment and feeling calm. Again, of course, all of this is perpetrated by what we’re seeing on our Instagram feeds.

Increased engagement with non-technological activities is, in my opinion, no bad thing. The chance to slow down, take note and engage with my environment is something I relish, and would certainly do more of if I could just put down my bloody phone.

Do you partake in any ‘granny hobbies’? What are your motivations?

Let me know in the comments.

Mary x

 

 

Superstition

Unless you’re a complete cynic, you probably have at least one element of superstitiousness in your day-to-day life. Not walking under ladders, encouraging birds to shit on your head so you’ll get that promotion, or hiding in your room for days because a black cat trotted in front of you on your way to the supermarket. Whatever it is, I bet you’ve got at least one.

In such a well-informed and increasingly science-driven society, how are we still engaging in these superstitious rituals? Most of us don’t go to church any more, and neither do our families, but our parents have passed down the cold, hard fact that if someone sneezes you must say ‘bless you’, lest the person’s soul leave their body forever. And if that person accidentally thanks you for blessing their sudden ejection of phlegm? Well, everyone knows that somewhere, somehow, a fairy is going to die.

Many things tell us that superstitions are illogical; they’re unfounded beliefs in our ability to control the universe and ward off bad vibes at the utterance of a word or the movement of a hand. Not least in the way of proving their ridiculousness is how vastly superstitions vary so greatly across countries and cultures. What people do in China varies from what people do in France, and as far as I’m aware, there’s the same distribution of good and bad luck in both countries. Drawing on my own experience, and on a country not too far in location or lifestyle from my own, I can tell you that Italians do things very differently to us Brits.

My boyfriend moved to England three years ago, and whilst I didn’t believe myself to be an overly superstitious individual, the non-British perspective really shone some light on how often I do engage in good-luck/no-bad-luck activities. He will come home from the shoe shop and recoil in terror as I launch myself across the room, screaming at him to take his new boots off the table. When we talk about something awful happening, I will say ‘touch wood’, and he will say ‘touch iron’. He mostly fares better in these situations – it’s easier to find a cast iron pole in the city centre than it is a flourishing silver birch.

When I’m alone on the bus, or in the street, and I find myself passing a lone magpie, I will scratch my eyebrow excessively. ‘He’ll know I’m saluting, won’t he?’ I think. ‘He’ll know I can’t do a full-on salute in public and will now fly home to his family and tell them to bring me good luck for the day.’ How weird is that? I work in science, I’m a rational human being, and there I am giving secretive undercover messages to a bird as it eats vomit from the gutter.

When we grow up, we believe our superstitions are the same as everybody else’s. I was shocked when I went to high school and discovered that nobody else puts the toilet lid down after every use in case all their money gets flushed away into the sewage system (I didn’t even have any money at 12 years old, but again – logic does not apply). I couldn’t believe that nobody else ran around the playground chasing those floating balls of fluff that roam through summer, so they could catch them and blow them away with a wish to send back to the elves and fairies.

We also stop engaging in certain superstitions as we grow older. Maybe we forget one day, and nothing terrible happens, or we realise that life would be a hell of a lot easier if we could just put our umbrella up before we left the house, and take the risk. I used to jump over every crack in the pavement, but time constraints and the overwhelming desire not to look like a complete twat in public have shaken that behaviour straight out of me. I step on fractured paving stones every single day and, so far, my mother has not fallen down the stairs and broken her back (touch wood).

Human beings are obsessed with control. We control our finances, our careers, our home lives, our eating schedules, our routes to work. What we can’t control are the things that happen to us. Nothing you can do will stop that plane from falling from the sky, or the fast-growing cancer in your best friend’s kidney, or that fire starting in your nan’s house thirty miles away. But the ease-of-use of superstitious behaviours, the nothing-to-lose gamble of them, means that somehow it makes sense to chuck the salt over your left shoulder if you spill it, rather than submitting to the minuscule chance that not doing so would result in plague and ruin.

Thirteen has always been my lucky number, and I consider myself to have had my fair share of both good and bad in life. Yet I still salute the magpie, because if I didn’t, and something terrible happened, the illogical part of my brain would tell me it was my fault. I say ‘safe journey’ to everyone I love as they leave the house, because if I didn’t, and they were involved in an accident, it would be my fault. Reason screams that it wouldn’t be, of course it wouldn’t, but at least I know I’ve made an attempt at exerting my future-changing powers. In a world where we control far less than we are led to believe, it comforts to know what we have tried.

 

 

My Agent-Finding Journey

Before I started querying agents, I read up on everything anyone had ever written on the subject. Stories from successful authors, articles written by agents themselves and blog posts from writers who’d just landed their dream representative.

It was addictive.

But it was also really, really inconsistent.

Nobody’s journey seemed to be the same! No one out there could say to me, ‘OK, Mary, here’s what will happen: you’ll send out queries, and exactly two weeks later you will hear back from every single agent and at least one of those responses will be positive.’

Why was nobody saying that? Why wasn’t there a clear-cut protocol? So frustrating, especially when you come from a science background and the majority of your life follows an a, b, c format.

I figured out pretty early on that the querying game is unique to every writer. We can read up on what to say, how to pitch, which details are best included in a synopsis – but what happens after we hit ‘send’? That’s anybody’s guess. It’s like a really unpredictable lottery – everyone will get something, but there’s no telling what or when.

For that reason, I made a vow that if and when I bagged an agent, I would write down exactly what happened to me, just to add some more data for those obsessive checkers of other people’s experiences like myself.

So here we go.

I started writing my novel in August 2017. In the beginning I was full-steam ahead, but as the months went on I started to doubt myself and my pace slowed drastically. I’d go months without writing a word, and the less I wrote, the more I questioned why I was even bothering. What was the point? It wasn’t going to go anywhere anyway, was it?

In September of this year, I was sat in the pub with my boyfriend one Friday night. He asked about my novel, and pushed me on why I hadn’t started querying. I hadn’t even finished the bloody thing, so naturally I freaked out and he had to buy me a pint to calm me down. It hit me that I’d been putting off finishing the book so I could put off the rejection I was sure was going to come with it. I told him exactly this. He laughed, bought me another pint, and said:

’14th October. That’s when you’re going to query.’

Four weeks away.

‘OK.’ I said, the alcohol loosening my inhibitions, and for the next four weeks I wrote more than I had done in the previous six months combined. With four chapters left to write, I crafted a synopsis, wrote a query letter and researched every agent in the country. On 14th October, I nervously queried 12 agents, with an unfinished manuscript sitting in my iCloud. I created a spreadsheet of every agent I’d reached out to, and set up a colour-coded key for when their responses came through (procrastination, you say? Never!).

I reasoned that the majority of people wait months to hear back. I’d have time to finish the book whilst I waited, wouldn’t I?

Ah, Mary. Didn’t you just say that reading all those author experiences taught you that nobody’s journey is the same?

The very next day, I had my first rejection. It stung bad. I cried a bit, and started searching for jobs abroad. Over the next ten days, I had three more rejections. They were coming in so quickly! This surely meant the whole thing was rubbish and I should never write again.

So I didn’t. I closed the laptop like a toddler in a tantrum and did other things instead. I considered taking a TEFL course, toyed with the idea of a trip around Asia and begged my boyfriend to let me get a puppy. Anything to take my mind off what a failure I was.

I’d waited ten days. Ten days and I was ready to give up. That’s how much those rejections knocked my spirit. Even though not one person I’d read about had had an offer that quickly anyway.

Twelve days after I’d sent my query letter out, I went to the cinema to watch Bohemian Rhapsody (great film by the way, highly recommend). When it ended, I stood outside waiting for my friend and checked my phone.

An email from one of the literary agencies.

knew it was going to be a rejection. I just knew it.

I read through the compliments, the praise of my book, waiting patiently for the ‘however…’ ‘in this current climate…’ ‘unfortunately…’

It never came.

It was a request for a full manuscript.

I just about died. Mainly because I didn’t have a full manuscript, and there was no way I was keeping this agent waiting. If she wanted to read my work, I was not going to let my own self-consciousness stand in her way.

I ran home, cried a bit, screamed a bit, and then wrote all night. I finished the book in three hours. I read it over and sent it off first thing the next morning, certain that my lack of preparation and ridiculous quitter’s attitude had ruined it all for me.

An agonising week went by. My thumb hurt from unlocking my phone so much, and every time Krispy Kreme sent me an email I promised I’d never eat another doughnut again.

And then she came back to me.

She wanted to represent me.

I’ll tell you this right now – there is no greater feeling. To have a professional read your work – the work you have shown to only two other human beings on the planet – and say, ‘I love this so much, I’m going to make you one of the tiny percentage of hopefuls who make it onto my client list’ is the most validating, incredible feeling in the world.

My immediate reaction was to reply screaming ‘yes, yes, yes, please have me, nobody else seems to want me’. But that wouldn’t have been very chill of me, and fortunately I had the more rational voice of my boyfriend to tell me I needed to think. Plus, she wanted to chat and make sure we were a good fit for each other first. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I needed to make sure this was right for me, too.

We arranged to speak the following week, and the agonising wait was only made more torturous by another agent’s email – she wanted the full manuscript too. I sent it off, my head spinning, and she came back the same day.

Offering representation.

This was too much for my insecure brain to comprehend. I almost felt upset – this was turning a joyous moment into a big decision, a decision that had the potential to affect my entire career.

But even with one offer, it was a big decision. I read everywhere that you shouldn’t accept an agent just because they’re the only person who wants to represent you. You have to do your homework. And I was in a very fortunate position – I’d have killed to have just one full manuscript request, never mind two offers.

I spoke to both agents. I told them both that I had received an offer elsewhere. They were both lovely, which made it even harder. How easy it would have been if one of them had been a real nasty piece of work. But they weren’t. They were great.

Personality assessment wasn’t going to illuminate the right choice for me. I had to put the book first. We discussed their editorial comments and I thought hard about who’s vision for the novel aligned most well with my own. Things were suddenly a lot clearer – they both had very different ideas – and my decision was made.

It’s been nearly a month since I signed that elusive, golden contract. I informed every other agent I’d queried that I had been offered representation, and let them know again when I’d signed.

The rejections are still coming through.

If I had put together all the data from my obsessive researching, and raked through it with a fine-toothed comb, I still wouldn’t have found a story like mine. It’s not better or worse than anyone else’s – and it certainly isn’t finished – but it’s individual to me, just like every manuscript is individual to its creator.

Your path to signing with an agent will take a different form to mine. And to hers, and his, and theirs. It won’t happen as you expect – you might be rejected by fifty agents, or one, or none – but keep the faith. Don’t let those rebuttals get you down. Agents are busy, your work is completely unique, and all it needs to do is land in that person’s inbox at that perfect time. 

KEEP ON WRITING. It’s what you love and it’s what you’re good at. Never doubt yourself. You’re smashing it and you deserve your own self-belief.

Good luck!