52 Weeks: 52 Books – July

Last month’s 52 Weeks: 52 Books update ended with the realisation that I needed to  read 11 books in July to get back on track. In reality I managed to read… 2. So that went well. The two I read were:

Book 20: Jane Wenham-Jones – 100 Ways To Fight The Flab and still have wine and chocolate

Book 21: Maggie O’Farrell – Instructions for a Heatwave

Instructions for a Heatwave is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read and never quite got around to. I’m glad I did, and I particularly enjoyed the second half of the story, but I did struggle to get into it. That seems to be a bit of a pattern. I race through the second half of books but it takes me a long time to get fully involved in the story. I’m wondering if that’s a side effect of being a writer – it just takes longer to get engaged with a story because of the amount of your brain that’s already full of the story that you’re working on yourself.

100 Ways to Fight the Flab was an interesting read. I don’t generally do diet books (and yes – I know that this isn’t technically a ‘diet book’ but, as the author acknowledges, all diet books say that!) I don’t really buy into anything at all to do with weight loss as an industry – the very notion makes me shudder, but Jane gave me a copy of her book at the RNA Conference this year, so I set out to read with an open mind. And I did read it. And it didn’t make me shudder. Jane’s basic premise is that joyless self-denial is not a workable long-term strategy, but there’s no one size fits all approach to weight loss or maintenance, so she offers a vast array of pick and mix (mmmm… pick and mix) tips and suggestions ranging from big lifestyle change stuff to tiny tweaks and tricks. Reading it definitely made me refocus on losing weight, and some of the tips – dark chocolate, 5:2, fanatical adherence to the pedometer – have filtered into my life or been reinforced where I was already doing them. Will reading this book make you thin if you have a lifelong problem with obesity? On its own, no, but if you’re already in the right frame of mind it could make the whole endeavour feel more manageable. Could it be helpful if you’re a healthy weight and need to maintain it, or need to lose 5-10lbs before the fatness situation gets out of hand? Yes. I think it probably could.

So those were July’s books. I’m now another two books behind schedule, so only need to get through 18 in August to catch up. Gulp!

In unrelated news, my own first novel, Sweet Nothing, is out in paperback this week. Those of you who are twitter peoples, keep an eye on @MsAlisonMay tomorrow for a chance to win a signed copy.

 

In which I muse on what I learnt at the RNA Conference 2015

Yes. it’s that time of year again already, when I do my annual ramble about what nuggets of educational loveliness came into my head at this year’s RNA conference. So here we go – this year I learnt…

1. That writing novels set in the twentieth century is a minefield

Jean Fullerton did one of my favourite talks at this year’s conference about the perils and pitfalls of writing 20th century fiction. Those pitfalls are essentially threefold. Firstly, there’s just so much more research material available than if you write about tenth century peasants. Secondly, lots of the people who read the novel will remember and they will judge you if you get it wrong. And thirdly, the attitudes of the mid/early twentieth century can be very alien to modern readers even though it’s relatively close in time. That last point was particularly interesting to me. It’s mind-blowing to think how quickly cultural attitudes to gender, race and sexuality, in particular, have changed over the last century. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in England in 1967, and in Scotland in 1980. If you write a character in 2015 who is homophobic then you’d probably be expecting your reader to see that as a very negative character trait. In the 1950s or 60s it would have been entirely normal, if sexuality was even mentioned at all. And the difficulty is heightened because the proximity in time of the mid-twentieth century tricks us into expecting the people to be ‘just like us.’ That presents a challenge for writers – how do you write a good and attractive hero, for example, when to fit realistically into the time period that character may well have to be sexist, racist and homophobic?

 

2. That writers shouldn’t be grateful for any offer from any publisher

This is a really tough lesson for most writers to accept, but it was the message that came across loud and clear from the agents’ panel on the first morning of conference, and from Daniel Hahn from the Society of Authors later in the weekend. There are situations where a bad contract is worse than no contract, so be prepared to get contracts checked by the Society of Authors, and negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.

 

3. Flat shoes rock

After the shoes that nearly crippled me in 2013 I’m finally learning my lesson. This year I took three pairs of shoes to conference – all flat sneakers. For the big swanky gala dinner on Saturday night I went for purple converse. They matched my dress and I had comfy comfy feet all night long.

 

4. Fighting the flab doesn’t involve giving up wine or chocolate. Apparently.

On the last afternoon Jane Wenham-Jones gave me a copy of her book, 100 Ways to Fight the Flab and still have wine and chocolate. I should make clear that she had a free copy to give away in return for feedback on how well it works, and I grabbed it. She wasn’t just wandering the building looking for fatties to thrust diet advice at against their wills. That would be Very Wrong. So far I’ve had the book two days and read the first quarter. I’m not thinner yet, but I imagine I have to at the very least read the whole thing to see any effect. Watch this (hopefully rapidly decreasing) space.

 

5. Don’t try to get across London in a tube strike.

Don’t. Just don’t. It’s carnage out there I tell you.

 

And that’s this year’s snapshot of what I learnt at the RNA conference. There was a lot more asides from that to do with the importance of friendship and loveliness and wine, but you’re all very wise so I’m sure you appreciate all of those things already.