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In which I have been to Edinburgh (again)

Another August, another trip to Edinburgh to view many forms of entertainment. I went to the Edinburgh fringe for the first time two years ago, and again last year, and I now basically consider Edinburgh during August to be my spiritual home. It’s full of comedians and fire-eaters and artists and places that are prepared to sell you a chocolate and banana crepe. And I like all those things. Very much.*

We were in Edinburgh for about 4 and a half days this time and packed in 23 shows. They were… Andrew Doyle, Mark Steele, Extreme Broadcasting, Mitch Benn. Thrones!, Wendy Wason, Shappi Khorsandi,  Pippa Evans, Matt Forde, Showstoppers, Jess Robinson, Austentatious, Ed Gamble, Katy Brand, Sarah Kendall, Mark Watson, Set List, Crosstentatious, Kirsty Newton, Funny for a Grrrl, Cambridge Footlights, Mary Lunn Rajskub, and Shitfaced Shakespeare.

Now I’m not going to review 23 shows. That would be a very long blogpost. For the completists amongst you though here’s a picture of the official Edinburgh 2016 Napkin of Record that shows my score for every show and EngineerBoy’s score as well for good measure. I had assumed that all fringe attendees maintained an official Napkin of Record but we showed ours to a random bloke we met on the last day and he reacted as if it was a bit odd. He was, of course, mistaken. The Napkin of Record is special and good and definitely normal.

Edinburgh 2016 Napkin of Record

As you can see there were no total duffers in this year’s selection. There were three perfect 10s (or technically perfect 20s) amongst the standup comedians – Shappi Khorsandi, Mark Watson and Ed Gamble. All three were fantastic. I’ve seen Shappi Khorsandi and Mark Watson live before and both were every bit as good as expected. Ed Gamble gets a hint of a bonus mark for being slightly less of a known quantity and being entirely brilliant with a set that was definitely absolutely not solely about cauliflower. Overall though I’d say Mark Watson was the best standup we saw this year. Go and see him if you get chance. He’s very funny indeed.

The other perfect 20s were for Austentatious and Showstoppers. Both are sort of fringe institutions and both are entirely made up on the spot. Showstoppers is an improvised musical set in a location of the audience’s choosing and featuring songs in styles called out by the audience. Austentatious is a play in the style of Jane Austen improvised in response to a title picked at random from those suggested by the audience. Both are brilliant. EngineerBoy reckoned he slightly preferred Austentatious – indeed we liked them so much we went back later the same day to see them do it all again with women dressed as men and vice versa. Despite that I’m refusing to separate these two. They are both brilliant and you should all go and see them both, possibly many many times. That’s the beauty of improvised shows – you can just keep going back. Both have shows coming up around the country after Edinburgh so you can all go. Lucky lucky you.

I feel that Mitch Benn, Matt Forde, Pippa Evans and Sarah Kendall can rightly feel a little hard done by amongst the comedians, as can the casts of Thrones! and Shitfaced Shakespeare. They all scored in the 9 to 9.5 range and could easily have been 10s if the chairs had been more comfortable or the blood-alcohol level more amenable to not needing to pee during their shows. All very very good indeed.

Shitfaced Shakespeare deserve a special honourable mention. The concept is simple; it’s a Shakespeare play (this year it’s Measure for Measure) but one random member of the cast spends the 4 hours before the performance getting completely hammered. The results are v funny, unless you’re the person in the front row who’s made to hold the emergency bucket. In that case I imagine it’s quite nerve-wracking. In the performance we saw the drunk performer had a really quite endearing tendency to correct her colleagues and make them do bits again if she thought they hadn’t gone right. She also kept explaining what she was supposed to be doing to the audience, and did a lovely monologue in the middle – entirely unrelated to the play – about contraceptive choices. Very very daft but very very funny.

So that was our Edinburgh Fringe 2016. There were at least another 100 shows we could have seen quite happily and I really want to go back already. *sigh*

 

* Apart from fire-eaters to be honest. They make me a tiny bit nervous.

In which my publisher is 7 whole years old

Choc Lit, the rather lovely publisher that brought Sweet Nothing, Midsummer Dreams and the Christmas Kisses series into the world is seven whole years old today.

This is very exciting because seven is, I would suggest, without any doubt at all the best age to be. You’re still little enough to be cute and not really be expected to know stuff or do useful things like wash up or know how to debone a poussin, but you’ve reached the point where you’re in sufficient control of your own limbs for the full range of running/jumping/twirling activities to be very much on the table. At least until an adult comes and makes you get down off the table.

Furthermore, at seven you’re on a par with deadly sins, heavenly virtues, and the generally agreed optimum number of dwarves that can be looked after by a single fairytale princess/occasional housekeeper.

Seven is also the title of that film where Gwyneth Paltrow’s head ends up in a box. It’s how keen Jeremy Corbyn is on the EU. It’s the maximum number of crime-fighting children/dogs Enid Blyton considered it practical to group together into a single secret smuggler-catching gang.

It’s the wedding anniversary at which you might buy one another a nice jumper or a small flock of sheep. It’s the number of days Craig David needs to meet and thoroughly romance a young lady and get to the point where they both need a nice long rest.

So seven. There you go. It’s a number. Traditionally it comes after six and before eight, unless you’re counting alphabetically, in which case (taking only the first ten numbers in this example) it would come after one and before six. I wouldn’t recommend counting alphabetically though; you lose a lot of the benefit of counting if you do.

All of which is a very long winded way of saying, Choc Lit publish books, including my books. You could buy one if you wanted. Or not it’s really up to you. Anyway, they’re seven. Happy Birthday to them.

 

In which phase one of my challenge draws to an early close

At the start of April I started my brand new shiny weight loss challenge with my very clever and not at all excessively convoluted plan to do lots of different diets for shortish periods of time to a) lose vast quantities of weight and b) assess which of them actually work.

Phase 1 of the plan was the 5:2 Diet. 5:2 is a form of Intermittent Fasting which is the idea that you eat very little indeed on some days and then normally on others. Intermittent fasting plans vary in how many calories they allow on fast days, how many fast days per week they recommend and whether those fast days should be consecutive or spaced out. The version of 5:2 I was attempting was to eat around 500 calories on two non-consecutive days each week, and then eat normally on the other five.

And so how did it go? Well, not that well. Over four weeks I lost precisely no weight. At one point I had lost 3lbs, but I put that back on again, so we can’t really count it. So what were the problems?

Well, I think, ultimately, 5:2 just doesn’t really suit me. And I think there are reasons, which are various and I shall attempt to enumerate for you now.

 

1. 500 calories a day is a fast track to moodiness

If you’re doing 5:2 prepare for the fact that on the 500 calorie days you will be Grumpy McGrumpitude, possibly not on all of them, but on most. It is possible that on your first and even second 500 calorie day you will find yourself thinking ‘Oh, this isn’t that bad. I am thinking about cheesecake but I can have cheesecake tomorrow, so that’s fine.’ Those feelings don’t last. By 500 calorie day 5 I was basically ready to start eating my own face, and the faces of friends, family and innocent passersby.

 

2. 500 calories a day isn’t great if you want to exercise

So we all know the basics of losing weight, don’t we – eat less, move more. The moving more part isn’t that effective on its own, but is generally A Good Thing To Do for all sorts of not simply weight related health reasons. Try and do exercise at the end of a 500 calorie day and the things you may experience include: dizziness, nausea, light-headedness, stopping for a little sit down, hating the universe, weeping and, ultimately, abandoning both fasting and exercise and inhaling a massive cake, which does feel sort of counter-productive from a diet point of view.

 

3. You still can’t really eat what you like on the non-fasting days

And there’s the rub frankly. 5:2 gets bigged up with the alluring idea that you can eat whatever you like on the other 5 days, but that’s not true. Dropping to 500 calories for two days a week basically gives a woman a 3000 calorie deficit over the week; eat 600 more than you should on the other days and you’ve wiped that out. So actually 5:2 is a diet with 2 days of evil fasting and 5 days of eating sensibly, and frankly if I had the eating sensibly thing down I wouldn’t need to lose 5 stone, would I?

 

4. You have to be really good at forward planning

5:2 might work quite well if you have a very strong routine and fixed schedule in your week. I don’t, so I have to sit down at the start of each week and work out when my fast days will be. Once I’ve ruled out days with exercise in them (see earlier references to dizziness and cake) and days with socialising in them and days with big dayjob stints of travelling and being on my feet, and then added in the complication that the two days can’t be consecutive, I rapidly found I was struggling to find options. That was made worse by…

 

5. It’s not great if you have other health problems

I suffer from IBS which means that every now and then I have phases where my stomach will really only tolerate beige food – pasta, bread etc – which tends to be dull and relatively high calorie. The problem is that those phases arrive quite unpredictably and if one crops up on what you’d intended to be a fast day, then that’s the whole week out of the window from a diet perspective.

 

So there you go. 5:2 is not the diet for me. It might work for you if you have quite a regular routine and can see where fast days would fit into your week, and if you’re ok already at eating in moderation. I’m not and so for me 5:2 gets Null Points on my dieting score sheet.

The next phase of the challenge is good old fashioned calorie counting, only it’s not that old fashioned, because like all modern endeavours there’s an app for that these days. I’ll update on how that goes next month.

In which I muse on musical muses

You might have been following Elaina James’ very lovely blog series for Mslexia about her dream of becoming a lyricist. Of course you might not. If not, I suggest you jolly well go over there and read it now. I can wait.

*taps fingers impatiently*

Ah, sod it. I can’t wait. You’ll just have to catch up. Anyway, in celebration of the final installment of that blog series Elaina has asked a whole host of writers, bloggers and innocent passersby to join her in a blog-based celebration of all things writerly and musical – talking about how music has inspired and influenced our writing. And I enthusiastically agreed to join in because a) Elaina is lovely and b) I wasn’t 100% listening to the question.

Which leaves me with a problem, because, to be honest, I’ve never really been a music person. I mean I don’t dislike music. It can be perfectly pleasant. Few things take the edge of a silence more satisfactorily. But in those student conversations about a specific riff in an album track by Harpsichord Gibbon I was always the one just sitting quietly thinking about cake. I’ve never really understood listening to music as an activity in itself; music, for me, is essentially a background to doing something else.

So initially I didn’t think I’d be able to say anything about music as an inspiration for writing, but when I thought about it a bit more I realised that music definitely does impinge on what and how I write. Sometimes it can be a lyric that gets stuck in my head and becomes a sort of anthem for a particular character or storyline. Sweet Nothing I’ve mentioned before is a romance story about romance. It’s about playing around with the idea that there’s one true soulmate out there for any of us, and with the idea that romance and attraction are reliable ways of finding that person. And when I think about that notion I can’t help but think about Tim Minchin’s awesome song about love and romance* ‘If I didn’t have you.’

At the moment I’m writing a book that’s partly set in the 1970s and 80s, and I’ve made a little playlist of Bowie, Kate Bush and Stock, Aitken & Waterman to take the edge off the writing time silence. And that’s really helpful – not because I’m inspired by any one particular song or lyric, but because the music of a time instantly brings to mind the fashion, decor, and news of the time as well.

So that’s me and music and writing for you. There’s a rundown of wh else is participating on Elaina’s own blog. I heartily encourage you to go take a look.

 

*Not actually about love and romance. Actually about maths which is appropriate for Sweet Nothing too.

In which I celebrate the wonder of Victoria Wood

It seems to be generally agreed that in terms of cultural giants shuffling off this mortal coil, 2016 has been a peculiarly horrible year. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Ronnie Corbett, amongst many others, have left us, and now Victoria Wood has died of cancer.* Now up until last year, I used to be pretty dismissive of the outpourings of grief that grip social media whenever a famous person dies, but then in March 2015 I found myself checking twitter on my phone to discover that Terry Pratchett had died, and ended up crying on a bench outside TKMaxx, so my views on people grieving celebrities they never met have softened a little.

And today I find myself in the same position again. Not on a bench outside TKMaxx, but being moved to tears over the death of somebody I only knew through the TV screen, the stage and the written word. It’s difficult to put into words how much Victoria Wood meant to me, and probably to a whole host of other people a bit like me. She was a woman. She was Northern. She was funny. She loved to play with language. And somehow, just by existing and being brilliant, she made that an ok combination of things to be. She was, essentially, the person I wanted to be if I grew up.

She also never rested on her laurels. With most celebrities you can say ‘Oh he was an actor,’ or ‘She was a writer,’ or a musician. Victoria Wood was all of those things. She wrote sketch shows, theatre plays, sitcoms, TV dramas and musicals. She performed as a comic actor, a straight actor, a musician, a presenter and a standup comic. To be as good as she was at any one of those things would probably be enough to get you minor national treasure status. Victoria Wood was brilliant at all of them. Properly brilliant.

Her ear for dialogue was one of the best I can think of. There’s something infectiously joyful about lines like ‘I’m on fire, with desire. I could handle half the tenors in a male voice choir’ and there’s also something gloriously specific about the writing. It’s half the tenors, not all. All would be too much; half tells you something more about the curtailed ambitions at play in this relationship. And half is funnier. Don’t ask me why. It just is. It’s like how seven and eleven are funnier numbers than eight or twelve. I don’t know why. They just are.

I was really lucky to be around the place watching TV while Victoria Wood was writing. I was even lucky enough to see her stand up show live. I really hope that she knew how much joy she brought to so many people, but I realise that I never told her. I’m not really the fan-letter writing sort. It’s always struck me as being a bit weird and overly-familiar to just write to a stranger and tell them they’re awesome, but my resolution for today is to abandon that rather silly little insecurity. I don’t think it’s ever unwelcome to tell a writer, musician or performer that you think that what they do is awesome, so I’m resolving, right now, that the next time I love someone’s work as much as I loved Victoria Wood’s or Terry Pratchett’s I’m bloody well going to write to them and tell them, before 2016’s grimmest of reapers gets to them too.

In the meantime, let’s just imagine Victoria Wood singing The Ballad of Barry and Freda on the great big stage in the sky with Pratchett, Rickman and Corbett in the audience, and Bowie singing backing vocals.

*reaffirming cancer’s status, as if there was ever any doubt, as an entirely stupid and shitty disease

In which I have a new challenge

Hello there. There has been a dearth of blogging recently because I have been away on holiday. But now I’m back and returning my attention to the important issues of the Real World. This has involved the important buying of a New Notebook in order to start work on the Next Book, a lot of answering email, and a bit of watching recorded episodes of The Good Wife.

In addition to all of that I’m also, as is traditional after holidays, returning my attention to the fact that I really really need to lose a shedload of weight. Now I’ve needed to lose a shedload of weight for ages, and I’ve got really really good at losing about 10lbs and then getting bored and putting about 12lbs back on again, so right now I need to lose 5 stone (that’s 70lbs if you prefer, or 32kg if you’re a fancy metric type) which is loads. And losing loads of weight is tiresome and very very dull, so I have come up with a plan.

Instead of doing 1 diet to lost 5 stone, I’m going to do 5 or 6 different diets to lose 10-12lbs each. This will a) hopefully stop me getting bored after 10lbs and putting all the weight back on again, and b) facilitate the interesting and enlightening empirical comparison of a number of different weightloss plans as applied to a single experimental body (ie. mine).

So here’s the plan:

Phase one: April-May 2016 – The 5:2 Diet

Phase two: May-July 2016 – Good ol’ fashioned calorie counting

Phase three: July-Aug 2016 – Low Carb (picture me weeping at the very notion of this one – do you know that Low Carb is basically a euphemism for ‘No Toast’? How am I supposed to live on No Toast?)

Phase four: Sept-Nov 2016 – WeightWatchers (or possibly Slimming World – you know one of those things we’re there’s a whole system and Other People to peer pressure you into actually doing it, unless I wimp out of the whole Other People section and just do it online, which is probably more likely given my general suspicion of Other People as a concept).

And then we’ll see how things are going, and probably revert back to whatever worked best for the last few months. The goal is 5 stone lost by the RoNA Awards next March – that’s 5 stone in 11 months. Or, if you prefer 1.45lbs per week for 48 weeks (or more like 2lbs per week with some weeks entirely written off for Christmas, and birthdays, and holidays, and generally needing cake.)

So that’s the plan. Watch this space for updates on how it’s going, otherwise known as me rocking gently and typing ‘No toast, no toast, no toast…’ repeatedly as a I weep into a lettuce leaf.

Jolly good. As you were people.

In which I express extreme gratitude, on behalf of all the ladies, at being permitted to act on our own will once every four years.

Four years on… the (possibly one day to be traditional) reblogging of my 29th February post.

Alison May

Something has been bugging me this week. It’s not the fact that it’s February and the weather went all weird and beer-gardeny last weekend. It’s not the fact that lovely budget-conscious husband took this as a sign that it was spring and turned off the central heating, meaning that I’m typing this with my dressing gown on over my clothes because it all went winteresque again. It’s not even the revelation that wine is not my friend, which I noticed for the absolute first time this morning after going out last night and have never had any sort of prior experience of at all at all at all.

No. The thing that is bugging me is that every time I’ve turned on the tv, looked at a paper (or at least a news website, because, y’know, newspapers are so 2005), or fired up the interweb, people are talking about proposing…

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In which Cora gets shortlisted for an award

Yesterday the shortlists for the RoNA Awards were announced, and (cue much jumping up and down and squealing) Cora’s Christmas Kiss is shortlisted for the RoNA Rose prize for best short or series romance. Here it is alongside the other four shortlisted titles:

Rona Rose cover images

Being shortlisted for the RoNAs is ridiculously exciting. The RNA, which organises the RoNA awards, is the organisation that made me think that maybe I could be a writer. Doing my degree in creative writing was what made me determined that I wanted to try, but it was the RNA that made me think it might actually be possible.

It was through the RNA that I met fantastic, inspirational working writers like Julie Cohen, Rowan Coleman, and Katie Fforde. It was through an RNA party that I first met my current publisher, and off the back of a really constructive RNA New Writers’ Scheme report that I actually got up the nerve to submit my first manuscript to her. It was through the RNA’s local chapter groups that I made some of my closest writing friends (one of whom – the utterly fab Janice Preston – is also nominated in the same category). So to be shortlisted in the RoNAs is particularly pleasing. It’s like having an especially valued teacher or a mentor tell you that you did ok. In her own post about the RoNAs Liz Fenwick describes the RNA as her tribe, and I can’t think of a better way of putting it. Although writing is, in many ways, a disgustingly solitary endeavour, it takes a village to get a book from idea to publication – especially a first book – and the RNA were my village.

It’s also particularly pleasing to see Cora’s Christmas Kiss shortlisted for this award. Cora has already had one shortlisting for the Love Stories Awards, and I’m ridiculously proud of the positive response to the book. While I was writing Cora the book had the working title of ‘Ridiculously Complicated and Stupidly Over-Plotted Novella’ and the moments of self-doubt as to whether I could pull off the idea that I had were many, deep and lasting. Part of me thinks that I shouldn’t need the validation of shortlistings and nice reviews, but I really really do. Ultimately books are for readers, not for writers, so hearing that readers liked a book is both massively gratifying and a huge relief.

So there you go. I’m quite excited, and prone to much giddiness at the moment – I haven’t even started on the list of people who’ve previously won RoNAs (JoJo Moyes, Jenny Colgan, Veronica Henry to name just three – squeeeee!) Anyway, I do hope you’ll excuse the light gushing.

I hope you’ll also excuse me mentioning that there are still places on my June Developing Your Novel Workshop and the May Novel Writing Retreat I’m running with Janet Gover, and that they’re both now taught by a RoNA nominee so are totally better value than they were yesterday…

In which I wonder whether romantic fiction can be feminist

The same question has come up recently in three different conversations – is romantic fiction feminist?

So I’ve been thinking about just that, and I’ve concluded Yes. At least it definitely can be.

So that was good. All cleared up. Unfortunately clearing up tricky questions speedily does not make for good blogging, so I shall muse a bit on the topic anyway.

I think the idea that romantic fiction is somehow anti-feminist comes from the idea that romance is about a woman being rescued by a man, or a woman needing a man and a relationship to, in some way, complete her and make her a proper member of society. Now, neither of those things are in any way necessary or desirable features of romantic fiction. You can just as easily write ‘Man who feels incomplete without woman’ (although that would probably be merely different rather than actually better). I try to write ‘man and woman who deal with their own issues and then decide to be together’, although I try to do that with jokes and ideally at least one comedy sword fight.

I actually have a heroine in one of my books who ends up deciding that maybe the available man isn’t going to be the right ending for her (and I’m not telling you which book – if you don’t know you’ll just have to read them all to find out).

Of course, that’s just the content of the books, and fiction is much more than that. Fiction is a whole industry, and actually, ‘is the romantic fiction industry feminist?’ is a more difficult question. In some ways very obviously yes – it’s massively dominated by female authors and editors. I’m proud to be part of the Romantic Novelists’ Association which is a UK professional association for writers of romantic fiction. It’s predominantly female and you’d have to go a long way to meet a more forthright, intelligent, capable group of women.

But.

We do still work in an industry where ‘women’s fiction’ is a thing, distinct from proper mainstream fiction, and where female authors write ‘chick lit’ and male authors just write comedy. We also have a publishing industry where certain sorts of women are far more likely to feature in the stories we see published – young(ish), white, straight women. There would certainly seem to be room on bookshelves for a bit more diversity.

And in terms of content of books, can erotic romances centring around domination of a female partner be seen as feminist? Projecting the idea that physical or psychological domination of women is normal, or even an ideal, seems really worrying, but if you’re writing for predominantly female readers who enjoy reading a fantasy of giving up control, then surely those women have the right to their fantasy, and telling them that they’re not fantasising right is also worrying territory.

So, can romantic fiction be feminist? Yes. Definitely.

Is romantic fiction feminist? Well, yes, sometimes. It’s complicated.

I’m genuinely just thinking aloud (or at least on screen) now. Would be fascinated to hear more thoughts in the comments…

In which I think about the lack of recent blogging

I’ve been a bit lax about blogging lately. After resolving last week to get back into it, I find myself, this morning, staring at a blank screen devoid of blogging inspiration. And that’s been a problem a lot recently. There are plenty of subjects I could opine my little heart out about. Just yesterday I overheard someone talking about the refugee crisis, and saying ‘I’m not racist but…’ And yes he actually said that in real-life – it’s the sort of line I’d edit out of a book for being too cliched but she really really said it. Anyway, ‘I’m not racist but,’ he said, ‘what they have to understand is that they’ve got to earn our trust back. You know, after Paris and everything.’

Now I have Views on that statement. By golly do I have Views?* But I increasingly find myself weary of sharing those views on the interweb. One thing the internet does not lack is people who reckon stuff about things. Whether you like to be irritated and get into twitter fights with people you vehemently disagree with or whether you prefer to create a perfect little social media echo chamber of people who entirely agree with you, the internet offers a ready supply of opinion for you to be enraged or cosseted by.

So I could write you lovely blog posts about novel writing instead, but again, blogs about how to be a writer are not in short supply. There are blogs that will tell you how to write, edit, submit and promote your book. And, here’s my one piece of writing advice for this post, reading them can be interesting and lovely, and a fab way of meeting and interacting with other writers, but it’s also probably procrastination. Writing themed procrastination, which is the highest form of procrastination, but procrastination nonetheless.  There is no substitute for just writing the sodding book. Harsh, but true I’m afraid.

So that leaves me wondering what on earth to blog about on weeks when reckoning something about the news of the day fails to fill my heart with inspiration. And I’m genuinely wondering. Suggestions and ideas more than welcome in the comments… Otherwise I might have to abandon all pretense of coherent thought and just post pictures of baking. Mmmm… baking.

 

* They are about the ignorance of othering, and the general heartlessness and stupidity in mentally dividing the world into us and them, and grouping the them together based on race/religion/nationality.