Quick Tips To Help You Tighten Up Your Writing

21 Feb

Over the last few weeks, trusted blogging, self-publishing and writing friends of mine have kept you entertained with guest posts while I forgo watching the rest of House of Cards in order to finish The Damn Novel. We’ve had Pat Fitzpatrick’s 3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Self-Publishing My Novel, Dan Holloway’s Self-Publish Your Way and Jean Grainger’s Self-Publishing: The Professionals Effect, all of which you clearly enjoyed and found useful judging by the fact that they were shared and retweeted more times than the average post from me. (We’ll talk about that later, okay? Hmph.) Today our final guest post is one that comes at a crucial time for me and which I’m sure will be of use to you too: C.S. Lakin’s quick tips to help you tighten up your writing. Enjoy! I’m off to annihilate all mentions of the passive voice…

“Writers often think about tightening their writing. Just what does that mean? And how is it done? Is there a way that writers can tighten writing without losing their voice or compromising their writing style?

Like sneaky calories, many unwanted words and phrases find their way into our writing unnoticed and bog it down. The goal should be to write in a concise fashion so that our meaning is clearly understood. It’s not all that tricky to do. And don’t worry—this can be done without adversely cramping a writer’s style.

Say What front cover

That’s not to say these tips are a cure-all for major flaws in a story, article, or book. But similar to the get-in-shape-fast programs, here are some simple things writers can do to tighten sentences, shed unwanted words, and tone and shape the whole “body” of work.

  1. Eliminate fatty words from your “diet.” Make a list of your weasel words. Those are the words you throw in out of habit. Often they are pesky adverbs like very and just. Or phrases like began to or started to. Grab a random page of your document and see if you can eliminate at least one or two words from every sentence. It may not be possible, but it’s a good exercise. If the word doesn’t add importance to a sentence, it should go. Then attack the rest of your novel.
  2. Reword passive voice where possible. Whether referring to general passive (“The food was eaten by me” instead of “I ate the food”) or present progressive passive (“The food is being served” instead of “the waiters served the food”), most of the time a sentence will be stronger if the passive voice is avoided. An easy way to seek and destroy unwanted passive construction is do a “Find” for ing, was, is, it was, and there was, to name a few.
  3. Avoid circumlocution. I just love that word, so I have to use it. Don’t use two words when one will do. Don’t use four when three will do. If two adjectives are similar, pick the best one and toss the other.
  4. Ditch the extraneous speaker and narrative tags. If you are writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, you may have dialog in your piece. Be aware that if the reader knows who is speaking, you don’t need to tell them over and over—especially in a scene with only two characters. And remove all those flowery verbs that stick out, such as quizzed, extrapolated, exclaimed, and interjected. Just use said and asked, and maybe an occasional replied or answered. Really. Less is more . . . effective.
  5. Search and destroy repetition. We tend to repeat words, phrases, or ideas in the same paragraph. Sometimes that’s a good thing to do, to drive home a point, perhaps in summary at the end of a section or subheading. But writers often try to say the same thing in a different way, and instead of adding new material they are essentially rehashing what they’ve already said. One great way to catch those repetitive words is to hear your piece read aloud using a  software program like Natural Reader.
  6. And a word about backstory . . . Yes, the dreaded backstory, which novelists have been told to shun in the first chapters of a novel. But really, do you need it? Take a look at all the places you have backstory and boil down just a few lines of the most important information you feel the reader must know to “get” the story. Then see if you can have a character either think or say these things instead of going into lengthy narrative. Look for any passage that feels like author intrusion or an info dump and find another way to impart the information.

If you’re the kind of writer that needs to “add weight” to your skimpy book, you have a different challenge, and the problem won’t be solved by ignoring all the above tips. Remember, it’s the unwanted fat you want to eliminate. Be sure what you add to a skimpy novel is muscle, not fat. And for the rest of us who overwrite, be reassured that by implementing these easy tips, you can help trim those unwanted “pounds” from your pages and tighten your writing.”

Pro photo for book coverAbout our special guest star: C. S. Lakin is a multipublished novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

Self-Publishing: The Professionals Effect

12 Feb

Over the last couple of weeks some of my fellow self-publishers have been keeping you entertained and inspiring with their self-publishing stories while I sand down my fingerprints finishing my novel. (Or this draft of it, at least.) Today in the penultimate ‘guest post’ installment, The Tour author Jean Grainger shares her self-publishing journey with us. You can read the previous guest posts in this series, 3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Self-Publishing My Novel and Self-Publishing: Do It Your Way by clicking on the links. Welcome, Jean!

Firstly I’d like to thank Catherine for inviting me to guest blog on Catherine, Caffeinated. This blog has been a constant source of advice, information and smiles for me since I started writing so I’m delighted to be here.

My journey into self publishing began when I spotted an advertisement for a one day course in Dublin. The expert speaker was Catherine. Hoping I had written a book that someone other than my mother might regard as a worthwhile way to spend their hard earned cash and time, I took myself off to hear what she had to say.

Of course, like most newcomers to this world I was seduced by the ads online promising that I’d be published in ten minutes, with nothing more than a curled up dusty manuscript needed from myself, or at least the digital equivalent. I had, unfortunately in hindsight, expressed interest in a company in the U.S. through their website who promised to make the whole simple process even simpler for a small fee who were now treating me to daily phone calls explaining how they were going to make me the next big thing.

thetour

It all seemed simple. No need to wait for the elusive nod from the big publishing house, no more torturing myself visualising my hard work on the dreaded ‘slush pile’ going straight from the post bag to the shredder. It seemed like my dream of becoming an author could come true with self-publishing. Still, in the back of my mind I knew there had to be a catch, I just couldn’t figure out what it was.

The day of the course came and as we sat in a lovely hotel overlooking the bay I chatted enthusiastically with my fellow writing hopefuls, some of whom were already published traditionally and who were seeking new ways to breathe life into their careers, or simply monetising their work, others, like myself were total newcomers. It was all very exciting.

With Catherine’s combination of sound advice and humour , she outlined clearly what you needed to do. Ok, you needed a bit of computer savvy, tick. You had to have actually written a half decent book, again, (hopefully) tick. Everything was going great, I was right on track when Catherine dropped the bombshell. You must, and there was no grey area here, you must have your work professionally edited. Obviously, I thought, she doesn’t mean me. You see, I’m an English teacher. My life is spent correcting mistakes, restructuring plot, ensuring  the writing is purposeful ,  coherent, using appropriate and varied language and adhering to the laws of English mechanics. I’ve taught at university, I correct state exams, I don’t need an editor, I am an editor.

Wrong.

I need an editor. Everyone does, I don’t care who you are, what your day job is, you simply cannot edit yourself.

I’d love to say that there and then in that hotel in Dublin I saw the light, but if I’m to be honest I wasn’t convinced. Catherine however, was the expert and I decided just to trust her on it. I parted with the cash, a considerable amount of it, and I got myself an editor. For my first book, I found two editors in fact, one who read the story and looked at structure, plot development, characters and so on, and another, a copy editor to look at the actual prose. If I have learned anything from this process it is this – If I was to look at that manuscript until I was old and grey I would never have seen the glaring inconsistencies the editing process brought to light. I can’t actually believe I thought it was OK, it really, really wasn’t.

My structural editor, the wonderful  Helen Falconer, over lots of tea and biscuits showed me how to make my characters consistent and believable, how to add and subtract from the plot and the result was a much better story. My copy editor seemed to be able to polish my prose so that it still sounded like me, just a better, more articulate me. Words cannot adequately describe the positive impact these professionals had on my work.

This knowledge was liberating when writing my second book. I knew I’d be chopping and dissecting it once it was done so it gave me the confidence just to write, I didn’t worry too much about the finer points. As with the first book, Helen once again worked her magic, and now I have two books of which I’m proud, the alternative is something that makes me shudder. The moral of the tale? Listen to Catherine, she knows her stuff.   [Thanks, Jean! Your fiver's in the post...!]

Find about more about Jean on her website (Jean: is that header image really where you write? I’m jealous! It looks so cosy…). Her books The Tour and So Much Owed are available on Amazon.

I think what’s interesting about Jean’s story is that she held a very common misconception about self-publishing: that she didn’t need an editor. And why wouldn’t she think that? Jean is an English teacher! But after she ‘saw the light’ as she puts it, she met Helen, and I know that Helen has become a big part of her process and not only a box that has to be ticked. So tell us: what is the biggest misconception you had before you self-published? What long-held belief about the process went flying out the window as soon as you started? What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned? Let us know in the comments below…

Self-Publishing: Do It Your Way

29 Jan

‘Tis the season of hand-picked guest posts that will hopefully keep you entertained while I sand down my fingerprints finishing my novel at a clip of 3,000 words per day when it’s going good and 3,000 extra calories consumed when it’s not. There was a fantastic reaction to Pat Fitzpatrick’s guest post last week on the 3 things he wishes he’d known before he self-published, so I hope there’ll be just as much enthusiasm for today’s: Dan Holloway’s Do It Your Way. (I’m sure there will be.) Take it away, Dan… 

“Do it yourself. That’s what self-publishing is all about. Isn’t it? I don’t mean that you literally have to stand over the press as your printed pages speed off it, or that you should be frantically coding away as your Word document morphs into something fir for Kindle. Or even that those artistic ignorami among us should slave away with paints and Photoshop to create our own covers. What I mean is that, like a ghost in the machine, a puppet master pulling the leavers, a legion of tired metaphors searching for somewhere to lay their head, in control of the whole thing is you.

And yet the more I look around a self-publishing universe expanding faster than the Hubble constant should permit the less I see it.

bookcover

It’s something symptomatic of our age. The three key letters in all of this are “you” – the three letters I don’t think I’ve seen really properly considered on more posts than I could count on a pair of mittens. We live in a society that is focused more than ever before on the individual. And yet we have less of a concept of individuality than, well, than is sufficient to satisfy me in any way, shape or form at any rate.

Let me explain.

As a digital society, we are bombarded with ways to be unique, to express ourselves, to be quirky and individual – Instagram being the paradigm. And we are bombarded with websites like Buzzfeed that extol the virtue of individuality. It is no surprise that self-publishing, especially digital self-publishing, is booming at a time when other forms of self-expression are frotting each other so vigorously in the cultural air.

But the closer you look, the more you see that the “self” involved in all this, the “you”, the “individual” doesn’t actually mean anything. It stands simply for “agency”, a force as impersonal as gravity or electromagnetism (perhaps the third force in any twenty first century’s Grand Unified Theory). It means simply the process of pressing the relevant button. We live in a world that has created a myriad ways for us to proclaim our individuality by performing an action a million other people are also performing.

The “you” of “do it yourself” has been lost to the extent that the “you” who self-publishes, if you believe many of the blogs and articles and media coverage, is simply the action of pulling together a set of discrete tasks (editing, design, formatting, distribution) and pressing buttons. In other words the “you” who self-publishes is so much a completely different entity from the “you” who writes, it would be a category error to compare the two.

We still see lip service paid to the wonder of a writer’s voice, to the thing that makes their words unique, gives their vision a singular power to move readers in ways nothing else can do. And yet this ocean of dazzling difference is, we are told, to be delivered with utter homogeneity.

We have lost a beautiful truth – that there are as many ways to make a book as there are to tell a story. Of course I know that if we write a certain kind of thriller people will expect a certain kind of cover, and that if we write a certain kind of poetry people will expect a certain kind of mysterious use of line breaks. I’m not suggesting you write the 17th edition in your erotica series in alphabetti spaghetti on the floor of the local bus station (though now I’ve said that I really want to). I know there are practicalities to think about.

failedassasian

But those practicalities shouldn’t close your mind off to your wonderful creative individuality. Even if you absolutely, positively have to present your book in a certain way (say, it’s the 6th in a very successful series about what goes on behind closed doors at a cupcake store) – there’s nothing to stop you baking cupcakes for your book launch, and putting a picture of your cover on the bottom of the casings. Likewise I have a friend who knits and sells characters from her stories (http://www.wigglypets.co.uk/). Or you can make special editions. Richard Pierce recently created a limited edition of five beautiful artisan bound copies of his erotica novel The Failed Assassin, thus enabling himself to fulfil genre expectations with the ebook and let his creativity fly with the limited edition.

Perhaps the most exciting form of expressive self-publishing is when form and content collide in a perfect storm. Two wonderful examples of this are Rohan Quine’s The Imagination Thief, an ebook that links to video and audio material, not only immersing us in the surreal trance-like world of the novel but fully utilising Rohan’s skills as a professional actor, and Lucy Furlong’s Amniotic City, a psychogeographical poetry map of hidden feminine imagery in the heart of London.

amnioticcity

Even a very cursory search of Amazon will reveal a whole plethora of books about making books – books about binding, about folding, about decoupage and collage. There are numerous ways to learn the crafts that will then allow you to create books that express what it is that makes you you, and that is one of the most truly exciting things about self-publishing. Most of all, always remember the three most important letters in do it yourself – “you” and never let people tell you “that’s a silly way to make a book.” There are so few writers who stand out in the self-publishing world, and the sad fact is that this is by and large because so many of them try to blend in – what kind of way is that to stick in a reader’s mind?

About Dan:

Dan Holloway‘s Self-publish With Integrity: Define Success in Your Own Terms and then Achieve it is now available for Kindle. The book, which includes chapters on community building, handling self-doubt and never being afraid to be yourself, is intended as a guide to help self-publishing writers discover, and then stay true to, their fundamental writing goals, helping them steer a path through the maze of how to guides, helpful advice, and other obstacles that beset them at every stage of their writing life so that achieve long-term happiness and success on the only terms that count: their own.

3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Self-Publishing My Novel

22 Jan

Today we have a guest post from my fellow Corkonian self-publisher Pat Fitzpatrick on the 3 things he wish he knew a month ago, i.e. before he self-published his thriller, Keep Away From Those Ferraris. Take it away, Pat!

It’s over a month since I self-published my new thriller, Keep Away From Those Ferraris. Now that I have some distance from all the madness, it’s time to warn others what it can be like. Because what it can be like is a form of nervous breakdown.

I’m a middle-aged Irish man. So the last thing I’d thought I’d end up writing about was my emotions. But then strange things happen when you self-publish your first novel. Mainly you go plain mad.

My guess is that traditional publishing is a breeze in comparison. There you have a publisher who decides when your book hits the streets. Your book cover is done and dusted so there is no point in worrying whether the woman on the front is showing too much flesh. (Or too little flesh, given the way things are going.) And you have a team of experienced publishing professionals to talk some sense if you lose faith.

I had none of these supports. All I had was a final draft with corrections from my editor and the notion that two weeks was oceans of time to get my book up on Amazon. I was wrong on both counts. Here is what I would say if I could go back two months and give pre-publication me some advice.

ferrari

1. Dodge the Drafts – Somebody has to Shout Stop

The ‘final’ draft turned out to be the seventh-last draft. I reckon this is the single biggest issue when you self-publish – nobody ever shouts stop.

I also work as a feature writer for a newspaper here in Ireland.   I have two editors to tell me that if I don’t give them copy in the next five minutes, I don’t get paid. (They dress it up a bit nicer than that, but we all know what’s going on.) So for example, if I am turning in a 3000 word piece on hipsters in Ireland, I will write three drafts and do a final proof read and spell check before sending it off. I’ve been at it for years, so I know what is required to keep the quality up without wasting time.

It was different with this novel. I kept picking at the final draft, as if it was a never-say-die scab. Every time I got to the end, I’d go straight back to page one and click through it again to see if I could skelp out another surplus comma.  I was like a hamster, on a wheel, in the movie Groundhog Day. The result was the potential for more typos, except I had used my editor card already. I was in a hole and kept digging.

Catherine Ryan-Howard eventually bailed me out. We met on a TV show in Cork (it’s not as exotic as it sounds) where she showered me with some priceless self-publishing insights. The real diamond was publish my book at the end of November to make the most of the ‘I got a new Kindle for Christmas’ crowd. It was like somebody finally shouted stop. I found my inner editor who guided me through a final-final draft. The rule was simple – stop picking at the scab and only change a sentence if it makes you feel physically sick. I found three. And I hit publish in early December.

Side note: A key thing that worked for me was to convert the second last draft to e-book format and read it on a Kindle. I had a pen and paper on hand to record any changes that really needed to be made. The fact I couldn’t just type them in there and then gave me some perspective. This stopped a lot of madness.

I am working on the sequel now and want to have it published by this December. This time round there will be four drafts – three before I send it off to the editor and one more before I press go. Deciding on four now means I can’t just skip through a second and third draft with the notion that I can fix it up later on. With any luck, I’ll dodge the 5th draft. Not to mention 15th one.

2. Keep the Faith

The run up to publication is a roller-coaster ride.  One minute I’m pumped up and working on the opening line in my Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech. (‘Alright Stockholm!!’ – I fancy the stadium rock approach.) The next minute I’m be on the verge of actual tears because my book will never find an audience. In one of those moments I decided my next project should be a Young Adult Vampire Zombie Trilogy set in Tipperary. Thankfully, that moment passed.

The problem is of course that your book stops being a book after the first few drafts. It becomes a collection of words that are only as good as your mood. If you are reading the same 70,000 words over and over again, your mood won’t be that good. That’s all that’s going on here. I’m struggling to think of what I can do to remedy this loss of faith the next time out. The best I can come up with is a banner on the wall by my desk. It will say “The Book is Fine, you are just tired and suffering from a mild dose of self-loathing.” Let me know if you have a better alternative.

3. Let it Go

One of the most famous historical artefacts on the island of Ireland is called the Book of Kells. It contains the four Gospels, transcribed on to vellum (calfskin) by Irish monks around 800 AD. It is said to contain a deliberate error on each page because only God is perfect. I went to view it recently with a friend in Trinity College Dublin. This guy had spent some time living in Tehran and pointed out that classic Persian rugs had a similar blemish for the same reason.

Bear with me, there’s a point here. Nobody’s perfect. Any work of art is just our best shot at perfection. Wait until it’s actually perfect, and you’ll end up waiting forever. Traditional publishers understand this, which is why deadlines rarely move. Self-published authors need to build it in to our thinking if we ever want to get the job done. This doesn’t mean publishing a first draft written on cheap wine and expensive coffee. You still need to read, re-read, pass to an editor and read it once or twice more. After that, you need to press publish and start working on the sequel. That’s probably my biggest takeaway from the mad month I spent before publishing Keep Away From Those Ferraris.

Now if you don’t mind, I need to come up with something to go after ‘Alright Stockholm’ in my speech to the Nobel crowd.

Pat Fitzpatrick blogs about self-publishing and other oddities here. You will also find links to his novel there if you would like to see how all this turned out, or click the cover image above to go straight to it on Amazon.com. Thanks Pat! 

A New Year, A New Routine (Or, The Problem With Goals)

9 Jan

As much as I detest New Year Eve’s with all its enforced fun and depressing reminders that yet another year has gone by and you haven’t achieved all the stuff you swore you would, it does have two things going for it: it comes with fireworks, and it throws open the doors on another fresh, exciting 365 days in which anything could happen.

someecards.com - I can't believe it's been a year since I didn't become a better person.

I had a bit of an epiphany in 2013 about how I go about achieving my goals. (Or not.) I’ve read a lot of books about goal setting and positive visualization and the law of attraction, and the more scientific consensus seems to be that rather than visualizing yourself having achieved your ultimate dream—sitting under an oak tree with Oprah while she insists that everyone in the world runs out right now and buys a copy of your book, for example—your time would be better spent visualizing you doing the work that might lead to it. For example, if you dream of losing 50 pounds, don’t bother closing your eyes and trying to convince yourself that you are already 50 pounds down, as per The Secret and its mystical friends. Instead, visualize yourself doing the things that would lead to such a weight loss, like getting up early every morning to hit the gym, because you know what? You’re going to have to hit the gym, and the main problem is that you’re not that doing it already.

So this New Year’s Day, I didn’t bother with my annual list of things I wanted to achieve in the next 12 months. There’s enough of them laying about the house already, and they all say the same thing. Instead I went about designing an everyday routine that looked like what a person who had achieved those things would be doing on a day-to-day basis.

(That may not be the most elegantly constructed sentence in the history of the English language, but let’s just go with it.)

For most of last year, my ‘work day’ routine looked something like this (I work from home):

  1. Wake-up
  2. Go back to sleep
  3. Wake-up again
  4. Lie in bed for a while
  5. Get up
  6. Dozily make some coffee
  7. Take coffee to computer
  8. Check e-mail
  9. Catch up on my celebrity news
  10. Oh, that looks like an interesting link my friend has posted on Facebook…
  11. Two to four hours pass by
  12. Is that the time? Why, half the day is gone! I’ll never get much of anything done now, because I didn’t start early enough. Oh, well. There’s episodes of Catfish on my Sky+ box and tomorrow is another day…

Do you think that’s what Michael Connelly’s day looks like? Karin Slaughter’s? Gillian Flynn’s?

I think not.

Things needed to change, and I knew from experience that writing ‘write every day’ or ‘finish a novel’ on my list of goals wasn’t going to cut the mustard.

I started by identifying a major problem: I didn’t get up early enough, or more to the point, I didn’t get up when my alarm went off. How could I change this? The first thing I did was I stopped using the alarm on my iPhone to wake me up. Instead I downloaded Sleep Cycle, an app which wakes you up within a 30 minute window of your alarm and at the most optimal time in your sleep cycle. Therefore you aren’t jerked awake only to feel as if you haven’t slept at all. It’s more like you’re sleeping soundly and then you start to swim to the surface and when you get there gentle music is playing and you wake-up feeling refreshed and rested.

(Most of the time, anyway.)

But the urge to snooze is strong with this one, so I needed a little extra help. I needed an incentive. The thought of a cup of coffee is usually what gets me out of bed in the end, but the problem with coffee is that you have to make it before you’ve had any.I needed something really tasty to push me the distance from my bed to my Nespresso machine, and lately I’ve been getting seriously bored of the Nespresso range of capsules.

baritalia

Then I discovered Bar Italia Nespresso compatible capsules, and I fell in love. They. Are. Delicious.  Now I am closing my eyes at night in anticipation of getting to drink a cup of it when I open my eyes on the other side.

(I know. I should really see someone about it.)

Hooray! I was up early and feeling fairly human. What could I do now to ensure that I started my day with the things that mattered, and not what Jamie Dornan was wearing as he walked to his car yesterday? Coffee takes about 20 minutes to hit the system, so that was a window in which to gently set me up for some work. And this is where it was a good idea to go and think about the big picture. I took my coffee, sat at the dining table that offers a nice view, got out my Erin Condren planner and reviewed my short, medium and long-term goals, keeping in mind that if I want these things to happen, I have to take some action on them today.

Like, next.

Now.

Then, writing time. Three hours of it. It’s taken a lot to get me to a place where I write every day and I want to, but this was what helped me the most: a few months ago I was watching crime writer Declan Burke on Writers Web TV, and he mentioned the writing advice of Lawrence Block. I went immediately to my Kindle and downloaded his book — which is actually a collection of columns he wrote for Writer’s Digest — and read it straight through. There’s lots of great advice in there, but one thing that really stuck me with that if you write first thing, you can enjoy the rest of your day guilt-free. If you don’t, you spend your day, whatever you’re doing with it, feeling guilty and anxious and regretful and unworthy and stressed, all because you haven’t written. So: DO IT FIRST.

I have a Post-It on my noticeboard of a clock-face showing noon, and a smiley face. (Well, I know that’s what it is, okay? That’s all that matters.) It’s a reminder that my day can go one of two ways. Either I can get to noon and be happy because I’ve already done my three hours writing time, OR I can get to noon and feel crappy about how I’ve wasted half the day and crappy about whatever else may happen during the day because I wasted the first half of it.

What happens at noon? Well then I do my actual work, which depending on the day might be self-publishing stuff for myself (i.e. the business side of my writing life) or one of the freelance book-related jobs I get paid by someone else to do.

Then come five or six p.m, my favourite bit of the day: LYING ON MY ARSE. Or doing whatever it is I want to do, which can be anything, because I’ve done everything I should’ve done and tomorrow morning, when I open my Erin Condren planner and look at my short, medium and long-term goals, I know that I’m a little bit closer to them than I was yesterday, because consistent effort quickly begins to add up. In just one week of this, I’ve already written 10,000 new words and I feel on top of my To Do list.

(There might also be three empty boxes of Bar Italia capsules in the bin…)

I read Commander Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth just after Christmas, and Hadfield’s take on chasing dreams is wonderful: if you take pride in the every day work you do towards them, if you do everything within your control that will get you closer to your goals on a daily basis and you take pleasure and pride in that effort, you will be happy — even if the dream or goal never materializes, or doesn’t for a long time. This is how Hadfield managed to never fret about the terrible odds of him achieving his dream (he was a Canadian who decided to become an astronaut at a time when only US citizens need apply and then, once that changed, got chosen out of thousands for an Astronaut Corps that would see many of its members never fly in space). Instead did everything he could to prepare for the opportunity to fly in space should it arise, and enjoyed every minute of it. Then, when his dream did come true, it wasn’t a relief but a bonus.

How are you tackling 2014 so far? Do you write down your goals? What are you doing different this year? Let us all know in the comments below!

My 2013 in Books

31 Dec

So the last day of the year is finally here. I’m all set to go for 2014: I have my Vintage Typewriter calendar hanging on the wall beside me, Sharpies are at the ready to put a nice red tick in each day/box that I reach my goal of written words and my Erin Condren Life Planner* has been stickered to within an inch of its life.

In the meantime, let’s talk about books.

I actually managed to complete my Goodreads Reading Challenge this year, somehow finishing 56 books, most of them in sustained reading binges (I certainly didn’t read constantly all year). I have to say though, it wasn’t a great year for me in books, with many titles I was looking forward to getting my hands on for months ultimately disappointing me. But there were some gems in there too so if you’re looking for some New Year reading material, here are my recommendations…

(Note: not all of these books came out in 2013.)

books1

Favorite Fiction

There was a glut of psychological thrillers written by women this year, probably because of last year’s global Gone Girl obsession. (Have you seen the first still from the movie? I. Cannot. WAIT!) I get that, but I have to say that by July, seeing a comparison to Gone Girl on a book’s jacket was more likely to make me put it down than pick it up — mostly because it was slapped on every thriller and only a very, very few of them can ever even come close to the talents of Gillian Flynn. (Side note: Gone Girl is not even her best book. Find yourself Sharp Objects and Dark Places.)

One thriller that didn’t disappoint was The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, a book I came close to missing because the synopsis turned me off. A time-travelling serial killer? Um, no thanks. (Or: no, you’re grand, as us Irish would say.) But I’m so glad a review from someone I trusted pushed me back to this book, because it was brilliant. Easily the best thriller I read all year. Very inventive and genuinely unnerving. What more do you want?

Other notable mentions: The Rosie Project, which had me grinning with glee the whole way through and then left me in a puddle at the end. A pure joy of a book. Defending Jacob seemed to be an interesting but unoriginal courtroom procedural… until you get to a few pages before the end and then BOOM! The Husband’s Secret: not what I’d normally pick up but, again, so glad I did. An exceptional book with a gut-wrenching emotional punch. Also makes you seriously consider if honesty is really always the best policy…

Most Interesting True Tales

I was lucky to find a lot of juicy non-fiction this year. Beyond Belief by Jenna Miscavige-Hill is an absolute must read. Not only does it reveal the “real” world of Scientology (the world that lifelong Scientologists experience, not the take-away lite version the celebrities seem to get) but it made me understand, for the first time, why someone would head in that direction in the first place. Jenna holds nothing back and for her courage alone, she should be rewarded with readers. I just hope someone from Amnesty International gets around to reading this too.

Other notable mentions: Running Like a Girl is the book I hoped Run, Fat Bitch, Run would be. (But don’t get me started on that offensive turd of a book.) It’s actually perfect reading now, at the beginning of a new year, and I might have to pull it out for a re-read myself. Most of these books are written by people who were always fit, who don’t understand that if you’re not fit you can’t just run out your door and keep going. (The author of the Offensive Turd wasn’t unfit or fat—she was pregnant. But as I said, don’t get me started…DEEP BREATH.) But Alexandra genuinely started from zero, and her goal was just to survive the marathon, not to win it or anything. This book is enjoyable, funny and inspirational and I loved her explanation for how she went from the kind of girl who was somewhat of a couch potato to marathon runner: ‘I just decided to be able to.’

Also: The Good Nurse was a chilling insight into how a health care system actually helped America’s most prolific serial killer to kill. Frightening stuff. Song of Spider-Man was just pure entertainment, a firsthand account of the disaster that was Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark on Broadway by the book’s writer (the guy who writes the dialogue). The best thing about it was the author himself, Glen Berger, who you just want to treat to a long beach vacation and a hug by the end. His opening? “Look, I know it’s just a f–king show…’

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Is It Just Me…?

A few much-hyped thrillers left me wondering if I was missing the point. How To Be A Good Wife? It kinda made me want to shove my own head in an oven it was so bleak and depressing, and I just didn’t believe that there was any ‘illuminating undercurrent about the female domestic experience’ or whatever arty-farty subtext newspaper reviews tried to convince me there was. The Silent Wife was exceptionally well-written, but not enough happened in its pages for me. Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked didn’t have much stalking in it, and wins the award for the most pretentious, over-written, off-topic prose this year (or maybe ever?) Saying it didn’t contain stalking caused heated debate on Goodreads—you can read my review here but I’ve already deleted the more troll-like comments—but regardless of the legal fine points, this book wasn’t what it said on the tin. We were promised orange juice concentrate, and instead we got orange-flavoured water garnished with intricate orange cuttings. The Never List was more like The Never List Will Never Be Mentioned Again After Chapter One, and it had a plot that felt like it was shoehorned onto the characters. A real disappointment for me, as I was looking forward to reading it for MONTHS. Lost Girls was supposed to be a true crime book, but it spent all of its pages recounting what people with the most tenuous and irrelevant links to the victims had to say about what they thought might have possible happened. By the end, the author was reprinting entire comments from memorial Facebook pages and so, just like in life and in the investigation of their murders, these girls got lost again.

And um, The Fault In Our Stars? What’s up with that? Wasn’t I supposed to experience some kind of life-changing, life-affirming rapture amidst its pages? The internet had me believing I would and… well, it was just okay. Apparently though I am utterly alone in this opinion.

It Ain’t Lolita…

Tampa by Alissa Nutting is probably the most controversial novel of the year, a (somewhat) satire about a twenty-something female teacher who seduces her teenage male student. If the terms child abuse or rape haven’t come to your mind, reverse the genders and try again. And that’s what makes this well-written and original novel sit like a meal that didn’t agree with me in the pit of my stomach. It’s supposed to be a satire, but how can child abuse be funny? How can this extremely graphic book be on anyone’s favorite reads list? How are we supposed to feel about it? Honestly, I just don’t know…

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My Favorite Reads of 2014

I have to say if I were to recommend just one novel to you this year, it would be Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. It wasn’t necessarily the book I’d rate the highest out of this lot, but on the whole, it was the best one when you consider how well it was written, its page-turning factor and how much it made me think. Shriver uses food to question whether life is a lot like it: with hunger being the best part, with the actual eating of the foods we desire being the most disappointing part of the experience, are we just meant to be hungry? Is getting what we want—achieving our dreams, reaching the peak of our careers—the end of the joy, rather than the start of it? Considering that the main character nurses her morbidly obese brother back to health and that Shriver’s own brother died from a similar condition before she wrote this book, and Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin-esque twist at the end, this book is really an unforgettable experience. I read it in April, and I still think about it now. (For those of you who have tried Shriver in the past and found her a bit wordy and heavy going, I would also say that this is perhaps her most readable book, so don’t let that put you off.)

And there’ll be no prizes for guessing my favorite non-fiction book of the year: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth by Chris Hadfield. It’s actually the last book I read this year, and it was so much more than I hoped it would be. You can read my Goodreads review here.

So, that’s it. For some nostalgia and Beautiful Ruins love, re-visit my 2012 in books.

Tell me: what 3 books did you read this year (that I haven’t) would you INSIST I read in 2014? Or did you read any of the above and totally disagree with my take on it? Let me know in the comments below… And HAPPY NEW YEAR!

(And get well soon Michael Schumacher. Still can’t believe it but I do believe he’ll pull through.)

*If you make a purchase from Erin Condren through that link, we BOTH get a $10 credit. Woo-hoo!

‘Twas The Day Before Christmas Eve…

23 Dec

… and all through the house were the Ideal Homes-level decorations this blogger painstaking planned, selected, purchased, hung, arranged, made, tweaked, stared at for a while and then tweaked some more. And in the kitchen were the gingerbread and red velvet cupcakes this blogger baked and put into boxes decorated with the personalized Erin Condren gift labels she ordered in September.

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And in the corner of the living room were the presents she’d bought for family and friends, all wrapped in co-ordinated paper and ribbon and all placed just so under the tree.

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And on the couch was this blogger, exhausted and wondering when Christmas had begun her full-time job. Seriously: I love it, but this is the first time I’ve had my own place to decorate (as in, a place that was mine but also ONLY mine, and so no ‘discussions’ about tinsel or multi-coloured lights, for example) and as I was out of the country for a few weeks and arrived back December 1st, things have been a little bit hectic.

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Now normally I do a gift guide (because it means I can browse online stores for hours, guilt-free) but there just isn’t time for that this year. I also can’t tell you about some of the ah-MAZE-ing presents I found this year, because the people destined to receive them from me may or may not see this post. So instead let me direct you to last year’s gift guides:

(There’s still time to buy gift cards or, in case of emergency, print out a picture of the item, place it in a frame, wrap it up like you would any present and explain that it’ll be a January joy…)

… and show you some of my Christmas decoration pics, if you need something to procrastinate with today. I mean, no one’s actually doing any work, are they? It’s practically Christmas, after all…

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Marks and Spencer’s were selling a miniature Christmas tree in a mason jar with a bit of ribbon around it for €20. I bought this gorgeous jar in Seville, Spain for €5, spent €1.50 on fake snow and used a miniature tree that came with a set of six (it’s actually a placeholder, the placecard slots down into the middle of the star) and wrapping I’d already bought.

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Also discovered in Seville: a miniature ceramic Starbucks mug in the form of a hanging Christmas decoration! It can’t go on my tree as there’s no red allowed on there, but it does sit nicely on my kitchen window sill with my coffee machine decoration.

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Nothing goes undecorated, and that includes my cafetiere…

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Andrea (of Mousetrapped fame) brought me some US Christmas magazines, and Family Circle had a picture of framed prints wrapped in Christmas paper and hung on the wall like presents. I thought an even better idea would be to wrap some of my existing frames…

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I just had to have those sparkly gold mugs above when I saw them in Next (they’re sparkly! They’re gold! Think of how much coffee they hold!) and when I saw the matching cake-stand, it was game over. Of course, I’m not putting cakes on it. (I blame Pinterest for this level of craftiness. Christmas was so much easier before Pinterest…)

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A  big thank you to everyone who has read this blog this year and stayed tuned for news of an exciting 2014 project. In the meantime, have a VERY Merry Christmas!

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Catherine x

P.S. I’ll leave you with what has to be my new favourite Christmas song. How Christmassy is THIS?

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