2020 writing goals

Why is it that, ever year, I find it embarrassing to admit that I’ve made new year resolutions? Is yearly optimism really so deeply uncool?

Maybe it’s because I worry there’s something naïve about them: thinking the transition of one year to the next is the dawn of a new era in my life, thinking I will stick to them, thinking other people care enough to hear about them. Is anybody really interested to hear about anyone else’s Dry January?

For the past couple of years, though, the turn of the year has represented a new period in my life. Last year, I was about to start a new job in Cambridge. This year, as you saw in my last post, more change is coming. This means that I have actually found it useful to make resolutions, but this year, I’ve decided to do something different, especially with regards to my writing: make goals, not resolutions.

By goals, I mean specific, concrete things that can be checked off a list when they’re completed, with a proper system to track my progress. A resolution like ‘be more dedicated to my writing’ is impossible to quantify, whereas ‘finish the second draft of my novel by this date’ gives me something to work towards, and a sense of satisfaction when I finally check it off (by 31st December, at the rate I’m currently working…).

Here’s an example. I’ve never won a writing competition, which in my moments of low self-esteem makes me worry I’m not a very good writer. But I’ve hardly entered any competitions, so is it reasonable to sulk about not winning the ones I have sporadically entered? I’ve heard from writer friends that, while talent is obviously required, placing in competitions is also a numbers game. Rather than assume I’m a terrible writer and give up, surely the thing to do is enter more competitions?

So that’s one of my goals: enter 5-10 writing competitions. Note that I gave myself a specific number range, not just ‘enter more competitions.’ Note also that the goal isn’t to win any competitions, simply to enter. Entering is something I can control; winning is not (I can write the best piece I possibly can, but ultimately the decision belongs to the judges). So as long as I enter, I can still feel a sense of achievement whether I win or not.

I also intend to work towards each of my goals in small steps. For the writing competitions, I started not by opening a blank document and commanding myself to write a brilliant short story, but by making a spreadsheet of all the writing competitions open in 2020, when the deadlines are, entry fees, etc. I then highlighted a few I’d like to enter and identified things I’ve already written that could be reworked for the competitions. This made the goal seem far less daunting, and I’ve already entered 3 competitions – well on my way to the minimum of 5 already!

Each time I enter a competition, I add it to my ‘2020 goals’ tracker (yes, I did cringe while typing that), so I can look back throughout the year and see how much progress I’ve made. I may not fully achieve all my goals, but at least I can see the steps I made towards them. Having a system like this may be embarrassingly earnest, but it helps me feel in control and gives me small wins to celebrate, which increases my self-esteem – so does it matter if it’s a bit naff?

I’ve only talked about my writing here, but I have other types of goals (all of them do to with learning, joining or creating new things, none to do with restricting things or punishing myself). For example, I’d like to learn Arabic, which is a big task. I started simply by buying a book, which I wrote down as my first step towards the goal. Every time I learn how to write or pronounce a new letter of the alphabet, I congratulate myself on another tiny step. It’ll be years before I can call myself fluent, but if I stay focused and keep chipping away, I’ll get there eventually.

If you’ve got goals for the new year (or any time of year), I hope you might find my system useful, and that you find your own version that works for you. Good luck!

 

 

Hello again, and goodbye 2019

Hello, strangers.

I’ve not posted in a while. In fact, I was considering stopping this blog entirely and focusing on my novel instead. But since people tell me they like my blog, and it would be a shame to stop after almost a decade, I’ve decided instead to give the blog a fresh look for 2020 and try to write shorter, more manageable posts.

The reason for the unplanned hiatus is that I’ve found the past year difficult. Getting married, uprooting my life to a new city and starting a new job all at once was overwhelming, to say the least. On top of that, I was trying to meet a self-imposed novel deadline, keep my hobbies at the same level they were during my career break, maintain the social life I had in London (which meant getting on the train from Cambridge to London several times a week), and have a full time job. I wanted to be everything to everyone. The result of this was, unsurprisingly, total burnout. So I stripped everything back.

The good news is, 2020 will see me going back to part-time work for a couple of months, and then in March, the end of my work contract and the start of a new, unknown adventure. We’ll be travelling to Scotland for two weeks for a writing retreat, then Japan for a whole month, and then the plan is to move to another new city! After that, who knows what will happen?

I’m excited for all the changes coming up in the new decade. Having secured a job in a new industry after 9 months of travelling and writing, I’m confident I can fall on my feet again, so I’m not too worried about my future employment. In fact, it’s exhilarating not knowing what I’ll do next. Will I go freelance again? Will I work for another university, or in something publishing-related? Or will it be something so different that I can’t even imagine it right now?

Perhaps it’s that excitement, and sense of the unknown, that’s inspired me to update my blog and get back into my writing. And with that, in the spirit of writing shorter blog posts, I’ll sign off for 2019. Happy new year!

 

Writing: intrinsic or extrinsic?

I’m reading Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, which is about looking for the causes of depression in our lives. One of those causes is ‘disconnection from meaningful values’. There are two reasons we’re motivated to get out of bed, intrinsic motives and extrinsic motives. Intrinsic motives are things we do because they bring us joy, while extrinsic motives are things we do because we get something in return, like money or status. Pursuing intrinsic motives is what makes us truly happy, but our economic system is designed to make us believe it’s the extrinsic motives we should be pursuing. This is fairly obvious – we’ve all heard that money can’t buy you happiness – but it did get me thinking about the motives behind my writing. Is writing an intrinsic or extrinsic motive, and is it making me happy?

I’ll be honest: sometimes I’m not even sure I like writing. I hear authors say, “This book was a joy to write!” or, “This book just poured out of me!” and I think, really? I often have to force myself sit down at my laptop. I will then circle around the act of writing to avoid actually starting: reading over previous writing, reading a book to ‘inspire me’, faffing around with fonts. When I finally start, it can be painful. It takes me several hours to warm up, by which time I usually have to stop. I finish my session feeling unsatisfied and frustrated. Other times, sadly less often, it just clicks. I enter that flow state where I’m not thinking about whether I enjoy writing or not because I’m so absorbed in doing it. Do these rare times mean writing is an intrinsic motive? I’m not sure.

What if writing is an extrinsic motive which I pursue because I want something in return? It’s true that I want to get an agent and get published and be successful and critically respected. I want to be able to make money from writing, to sit down at my desk and say, “This is work.” I have these things in mind while writing. But I also know they won’t make me happy, because I see writers complaining of books not selling, of not earning enough to live, of getting bad reviews (or worse not getting any reviews), of missing out on prizes. I hear of hugely successful writers getting upset because they haven’t been nominated for the Booker. It seems ridiculous, but who’s to say I wouldn’t be the same if I became that successful? In that case, why do I even write if it’s the beginning of a slippery slope towards disillusionment?

Perhaps it’s because even though I always have getting published on my mind, this isn’t the only reason I write. Those things are so difficult to achieve I know it would be folly to pin my happiness on them. When I started to write at seven or eight years old, writing was purely an intrinsic motive: I didn’t know what agents were and publication wasn’t a concept to me. I remember sitting in my wardrobe, surrounded by glow-in-the-dark stick-on stars, scribbling stories into a notebook balanced on my knees. I remember loading up our clunky 1990s computer and taking turns with my mum writing the next paragraph of a story about my plastic animal toys. There was no internet to distract me or provide comparisons. I didn’t care if nobody read the stories. I printed them out, drew colourful front covers, placed them lovingly in a shoebox and occasionally took them out to read. I was proud of myself. That was it. Writing was fun, exhilarating, creative, joyful, aimless.

I wish desperately that writing could be that again, because sometimes I feel entering that pure state would make my writing better – more creative, more fun to read, less try-hard. Of course, it’s impossible to go back there, and naive to think writing like nobody will read it produces better writing. I’m sure knowledge of the market and of the rules of the craft has improved my writing – but it’s also made it less fun, more extrinsic. Which is a real shame, because I find writing most enjoyable to read when the author’s obviously had fun writing it.

So, how can I bring the joy back into my writing? I don’t have an easy answer. Perhaps there are ways to make writing more fun while also working towards a goal: practising short, playful writing exercises in-between writing my serious novel; spending less time on Twitter comparing myself to other writers and feeling sad because I’m not as successful or because they got a bad review and one day I might too; writing by hand to evoke the carefree, joyful writing I did as a child. At the same time, accepting that writing isn’t always going to be fun but it’s something I’m always going to do. It gives me a sense of purpose and I can’t not write. Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

Evolving my voice

The phrase ‘finding your voice’ is often bandied around  in the writing world, but what does it mean? It’s not like you find your voice down the back of the sofa and, hurrah, you’ve reached maturity as a writer now. A writer’s voice is constantly evolving with every new thing they write. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my current novel. 

A problem with my previous novels has been that the protagonist’s voice is my voice. Regardless of the differences between my protagonists, they all sound a lot like me. They think, opine, and make wisecracks just like me. You can’t avoid putting a bit of yourself into your characters, but I’ve been taking ‘write what you know’ too far. I’ve been using writing as therapy, working out who I am by taking characters who are essentially me and throwing them into weird situations: an interesting experience for me, but not necessarily interesting for other people to read. 

This time, I’m consciously creating a protagonist whose voice is different to mine. The humour and irony I can’t escape from are still there, but I’m creating more distance between myself and my protagonist. This means I can be more objective when writing his point of view and, I hope, create a more compelling character. 

Here’s a few ways my protagonist is definitely not me:

He’s a man.

I had conflicting thought processes about writing from a man’s perspective. At first I worried about how I was going to ‘get inside a man’s head’, but then I wondered, why should I? Every person thinks differently from every other person, but it would be absurd if a writer hesitated about using a character’s point of view on the grounds of not actually being that person. Next, I thought: I suppose men and women have been socially conditioned to think differently, and these differences need to be represented to highlight the inequality. For example, women are taught to believe being outspoken at work makes them ‘bossy’ and ‘difficult’, whereas it makes men ‘assertive’ and ‘good leaders’ (my novel is set in an office, so this one’s especially relevant). 

I’m actively engaging with these ideas in my novel. I don’t put my male protagonist in situations and ask, “What would a man do in this situation?” Instead I ask, “What would a person who has been conditioned to think a certain way do in this situation?” Then, I play him off against female characters who don’t meet his expectations of being weak and easy to charm or manipulate. He’s unable to ‘get inside their heads’. He gets rejected, mocked and slapped in the face. But is it that he doesn’t understand women, or that he just doesn’t understand human beings? 

He’s not a very nice person.

The protagonists of my previous novels are all essentially nice people. Sometimes they’re uncomplicated heroes whose only motivation is to save the day (yawn). The protagonist of my previous novel accidentally causes great harm, leading her to question whether she’s good or evil, but the dilemma doesn’t really work because through her overt self-awareness I signal to the reader that she’s an ethically-minded person who they are supposed to side with. None of that rubbish anymore!

This protagonist is arrogant, rude, entitled, manipulative, amoral, petty, and ruthlessly ambitious in areas of life where it doesn’t really matter. In the same breath, he is fragile and insecure, paranoid, obsessive, threatened by everyone, afraid of everything, desperate to be loved by people he hates and convinced he is a miserable failure. I wanted to create a character who admires himself as much as he despises himself. Does the contradiction work? Will readers feel sorry for him, or is he too awful? Will they be able to spend spend 80,000 words in his company?

Let me finish the novel first, then we’ll see.

He’s not all that self-aware.

One critique I often receive is that my characters are too self-aware. They interrupt the story to analyse their own motivations (and are always spot-on). They realise they’re making bad decisions. They reflect on the meaning of their bad decisions. They call out their own flaws (I worry the reader will think I’m endorsing those flaws unless I call them out). My characters know they are characters in a novel and are stage-managing their appearances. This is boring for the reader, who is robbed of doing the analysis and forming opinions themselves.

High self-awareness is a character trait, but even self-aware people have blind spots. In a novel, tension and dramatic irony emerge in the gap between the character’s view of themselves and the reader’s view. My protagonist thinks he knows exactly what he is, reeling off lists of his fears and failures, telling us all the nasty things he’s done. He sees himself as a tragic villain who should be pitied because of the mental prison he’s created for himself. The poor man simply can’t help doing nasty things. The reader, on the other hand, might wonder if he’s just another bored rich white man trying to convince us that it is, in fact, he who is the true outsider (I was inspired here by the hilariously brutal critiques of Bret Eason Ellis’s recently published rant, White).

I don’t know whether any of this will be successful, but it’s an experiment which I’m enjoying. I hope that means the reader will enjoy it too.

Normal service has resumed…

That’s it. My wedding is over (a champagne-washed blur of memories of smiling for a million photos, hugging everybody in sight, and shimmying maniacally in a white dress) the mini-moon in Cornwall is behind us (but bigger travels to come!), and normal service has resumed. While I’m enjoying no longer spending hours typing ‘chicken’ or ‘lamb’ next to people’s names in a spreadsheet, reality does seem somewhat mundane in comparison to the excitement, anticipation and fizzing nerves of planning for what turned out to be the best day of my life.

Still, I’m looking forward to settling into Cambridge life and making this place my home, not just my weeknight crash pad. A few people have asked me how Cambridge life is going, and I have time to write blog posts now, so here’s my honest appraisal.

Cambridge isn’t somewhere we chose to live; because of Omar’s work, it chose us. If we’d had the choice we might have chosen to stay in London, or gone somewhere more dramatic like Edinburgh. In fact, if I’d been told a few years ago I had to leave London with its amazing restaurants, bars, theatres, and events, I’d have been horrified. But now I’m here I think moving somewhere I didn’t choose was the best thing for me. It forced me to be open-minded when looking for jobs, for example, and as a result I’ve ended up in a situation I never could have imagined myself in. When becoming a big-shot editor in London was my be all and end all, I might have looked at my future self and wondered what had gone wrong. As it turns out, I’m far happier now. I used to worry my life was taking too predictable a path, and now I enjoy looking back on the unexpected twists and turns it’s taken instead. I hope there are more to come!

Cambridge is picturesque, but not everywhere looks like the set of The Theory of Everything (especially not where we live). Nonetheless, every morning I walk to work along streets full of big Victorian houses I dream of living in, and my office is in the middle of a beautiful garden where I can stroll in my lunch breaks. I’m not brave enough to cycle, but everything I need is within walking distance; I no longer have to cram myself on the rattling cylinder of misery otherwise known as the tube. Cambridge does have a more chilled vibe than London – and of course there are lots of students floating about – but it’s still a crowded city with traffic and noise and big groups of tourists (oh, the tourists). If anything, my few months here have made me want to live somewhere even more rural, more chilled. Spending a few days by the sea in Cornwall convinced me of this even more.

On the downside, it’s hard living away from my friends. No, I haven’t moved to some remote Hebridean island, but an hour’s journey from London is long enough to be a deterrent. I keep in contact with people best I can, but part of being in your late twenties is accepting that you can’t be as social as you were in your early twenties. At 23, I could be out late four or five evenings a week. At 29, I need an extra hour of sleep for every minute I stay up beyond 10 PM (and 9 PM is a perfectly acceptable bedtime). As I move into my thirties, I expect some friends will drift away – not in a neglectful or acrimonious way, but in an organic blameless way – as people move around the world, get married, have kids and progress in their careers. It’s not that I want this to happen with any of my friends, but that’s a natural part of life. I will always have the memories of those friendships, and know other friends will stick around even if it’s just a phone call once every few months. I certainly plan to cling annoyingly onto everybody as hard as I can.

My old job seems like a weird dream; my new job is very different both in terms of responsibilities and culture. There’s a lot less pressure, although everybody wants to do their jobs well. Everybody helps everybody else out. The end goal is not to make profit but to provide free education, which is something I can really get on board with. The most important difference to me is that while I care about my job, it doesn’t define me. People’s ears used to prick up when I said I was a Commissioning Editor, and I liked impressing them; but to be honest, I wasn’t very impressed with myself. Now, I don’t mind if people are impressed by me or not. I do my job (and think and hope I do it well), then go home and enjoy my free time writing, reading, cooking, exercising, hanging out with Omar, talking to friends. How did I reach this point? I can’t pinpoint one thing that has made me so much more relaxed and less insecure over the past few years: I think it’s just the journey of life shaping me.

My job is fixed-term, so what’s next? I don’t have a plan, but that doesn’t make me panic as it would have done in the past. I took a risk and landed on my feet, so I’m excited to see what happens next. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the here and now: the leisurely walks to work listening to podcasts, the sun on my face and the flowers blooming as spring arrives in the garden, the writing sessions with my (here it comes) husband (still sounds weird) in coffee shops. So in answer to your question: Cambridge life is good, thank you – but please come and visit me!

What I’ve learned on my career break

There have been some big changes in my life recently.

My career break began in April, and I decided I’d begin applying for jobs in October with the aim of getting something by the end of 2018. I considered this optimistic. Well readers, I only went and did it! I recently started a new job in a different industry in a new city. I don’t buy into the whole ‘new year, new me’ thing, but there is something neat about having a new beginning at the start of 2019.

Over the past 9 months I’ve written a novel, attended a writing retreat in the Scottish Highlands, visited Amsterdam, Finland and Estonia, Vietnam and Jordan, written professional copy, critiqued friends’ novels, rediscovered the joy of reading, practised mindfulness, spent time with my family, planned a wedding and caught up on a lot of much-needed sleep. There have been worries too: that I should have been writing every day, should have stuck to a 9 to 5 schedule, should have gone backpacking around the world, should have spent less money, should have volunteered, should have worried less. I’ve battled with these worries and emerged victorious. In general I’ve become a much less anxious person: more relaxed, confident, assertive, decisive… happier.

Here’s some of the things I’ve learnt while taking a career break.

A break means a break.

This has probably been the only period of time until I retire (when I’m 106) when I’ve had the time to do anything I want. Initially, I believed this meant I had to do EVERYTHING. I felt guilty if I wasn’t writing, or seeking out writing work, or creating a comprehensive filing system for all my banking documents since 2008, which (despite my wish to be a master of productivity) was often because I spent so much time sleeping, reading and catching up on all the Netflix series I’d only half-watched. After a few weeks of guilt I was reminded that learning to relax again, and clear my head of clutter, were reasons why I’d taken this break. When I’m busy with work again it won’t be my writing that’ll be the first thing to go; it’ll be the relaxation, the sleeping, the Netflix, and definitely the pyjama wearing. So why not enjoy those things while I can?

A career break hasn’t wrecked my future.

I was worried I’d struggle to find another job after my break. I thought potential employers would see me as someone who couldn’t hack the 9 to 5 and would subject me to an intensive interrogation insisting I show them the completed manuscript of my novel, all of my travel photos and a 2,000 word essay explaining how I’ve developed as a person over the last 9 months. I’d prepared a justification of my break in case it came up in interviews. It didn’t. I had no trouble getting interviews, and in those interviews nobody asked about or commented on my break. If anything, I felt I had an advantage because I was less exhausted and stressed than I would be interviewing alongside a full-time job, could attend interviews whenever, and had time to properly prepare. Anyway, if a company did disapprove of me taking some time to recharge and pursue my passions, is that the kind of company I’d want to work for?

My self-worth isn’t tied to my career success (or any other kind of success).

I think it’s been established I’m a big-time worrier, but one thing I haven’t worried about (to my surprise, actually) is comparing myself to my friends. Many of them have high-flying jobs with big salaries, or are published novelists, or successful freelancers, or own businesses, or are working towards PhDs, but I determined before quitting my job that I wouldn’t feel inferior to any if them. Conversely, I wouldn’t be smug because I’ve ‘escaped the rat race’. Rather, I’m proud to have such talented and successful friends. I’ve redefined my self-worth as something not based on my career, or anything else external to me, or even – and this is a fairly new realisation – my happiness, since nobody is happy all the time. I’ve tried not to spend much time analysing my success as a human being and just get on with enjoying my life.

I don’t need stuff. Okay, I don’t need a lot of stuff. 

I’ve been living off my savings plus a little extra money earned through freelance writing. Given that I worked in publishing for 5 years, I wasn’t exactly sitting atop a mountain of gold, so I’ve had to be frugal. I worked my way through my parents’ collection of hotel shampoos, I didn’t buy new clothes, shoes or make-up, I borrowed books, and I resisted the temptation to buy shiny new stationery for my writing and instead used the 10,000 shabby notebooks languishing in my bedroom. None of this has made me any less happy. The necessity of picking and choosing how I spent my money meant I also discovered the things most important to me; for example, I was willing to make other sacrifices so I could afford a gym membership. Now I have a salary I don’t want to slide back into thoughtless spending (although I did have a frenzied jam-buying spree in Fortnum and Mason upon receiving my job offer, so there’s definitely work to be done there…).

I’m excited to take all these new perspectives I’ve gained into a new year, new city and new job. If you’re considering taking a career break, it’s not a decision to be taken lightly and you should have a plan beforehand, but I’m certainly not going to dissuade anyone who’s in the position to take one. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.

 

In search of the perfect falafel in Jordan

In November I visited Jordan, which was the final holiday of my career break (soon to be finished as I return to the world of work!). Jordan had never occurred to me as a holiday destination, but a couple of my friends wanted to go and I’m glad they convinced me. This was one of the most unique holidays I’ve experienced.

There’s much to love about Jordan. There’s the friendliness of the people, for example this conversation which happened repeatedly:

Stranger: Where you from?

Us: England!

Stranger: WELCOME TO JORDAN!

Then of course, there’s the food (if I’m honest food is probably the main reason I go on holiday). Since meeting Omar I’ve adopted high standards for Middle Eastern food, and Jordan exceeded them. There was a lot of meat, but also plenty for veggies: humous, za’atar and flatbread, aubergine stews, kunafa, baklava… And I can’t not mention the landscape. Jordan had some of the most unreal landscapes I’ve ever seen, like being on a movie set. If you want to come somewhere to be struck by an unoriginal but nonetheless sublime realisation of your own smallness and insignificance, this is the place.

In order to see as much of Jordan as possible, we hired a car. This is probably the best way to do things, although beware, the driving can be hazardous!

Amman

We landed in Amman at about three in the morning and spent an uncomfortable few hours curled up fully-clothed on the sofas in our hostel’s common area. Despite having no sleep, in the spirit of tireless thrill-seekers we got up in the morning, splashed cold water on our faces and set about exploring; we only had one full day in Amman and wanted to make the most of it. There had been heavy rain and flooding in Jordan just before we arrived, so many of the main sights in Amman such as the Citadel were closed, but we still found plenty to do. We ate a hearty pancake brunch, did a self-guided walking tour, and ate ice cream at Mr. Lollies (the owner is the coolest) and dinner at Sufra restaurant. Dinner was delicious, but that night I was struck by a horrible bout of gastritis which left me unable to function or eat anything for a day and a half. Let’s move swiftly past that.

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Petra

Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabataen Kingdom whose stunning buildings are carved into the rose-coloured rock, is a must-see in Jordan. A few days previously Petra had been evacuated because of flash floods, but fortunately it was open again by the time we arrived. We were staying with a couple in the nearby Bedouin village who arranged for a guide to take us on a tour, including the Treasury, the Monastery, the Royal Tombs and the Roman Theatre. At the end of a long and tiring day our guide took us up to the Monastery to watch a stunning sunset (apparently ‘the best view in the world’). The downside: when climbing down the uneven, slippery steps in darkness afterwards, two of my friends slipped and sprained their ankles. This obviously sucked, but it did show us the kindness of our hosts, who rescued us with a donkey and car and then cooked us a free dinner when we returned to the house. 

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At the Treasury in Petra, blissfully unaware of the ankle-related disasters which lay in our future

Aqaba

Aqaba is a coastal city which felt more touristy than Amman. Our plan to spend some time on the beach was slightly scuppered by my poor injured friends having to go to the (overly relaxed) doctor to get crutches, but we did have an excellent lunch at Baba Za’atar, which serves za’atar (a mix of herbs) along with other toppings like cheese, egg, meat, yoghurt and honey slathered on flatbread. Things on Bread being one of my favourite meals, this was pleasing. We managed a brief stroll on the beach as the sun set and then ate dinner at Alibaba restaurant, which is touristy but still good. Seafood is the speciality in Aqaba, and my friends said it was delicious, though as a veggie with a still-tender stomach I stuck to Things on Bread and salad.

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Lunch at Baba Za’atar (plus a hungry impatient hand)

Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum, a protected desert area in the south, was my highlight of the trip. There are several different companies, such as Wadi Rum Nomads, who’ll arrange desert tours on jeeps, camels, or both (we avoided the camels!). This was where I spent a day gazing across breathtaking landscapes that made me feel as if I were on another planet; the Jordanian deserts have actually been used to depict Mars in films. We zoomed across the orange sands in a Jeep with our guide, Rashid, climbed huge rock formations and sand dunes, clambered through canyons, teetered nervously on naturally formed bridges and took hundreds of photos.

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One of about 400 photos. Yes, that is actually reality in the background

After sitting around the campfire to watch the sun sink behind the dunes, we headed to the base camp where we ate ‘zarb’, meat cooked in an earth oven under the ground (and vegetables for me). We slept in a tent, listening to the sound of torrential rain hammering on the roof – yes, it rains in the desert too, copiously if that night is anything to go by – and headed back the next morning after breakfast. One of the things I enjoyed most about Jordan, both in Wadi Rum and Petra, was learning about the Bedouins’ way of life and their deep love of being outdoors. Although many of them had houses, those we spoke to said they preferred solitude and simplicity would always choose sleeping in a tent or cave or under the stars – making sure their Smartphones were fully charged first!

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Bedouin for a day

The Dead Sea

We spent the last leg of our trip relaxing by the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth where you can famously float in the mineral-rich water. At this point we were so close to Israel our phone operators were sending us welcome texts, and as the Dead Sea is slowly drying up due to intense irrigation, one of our Jordanian hosts joked that soon we’d be able to paddle across to Israel.

There isn’t any decent budget accommodation in this area, so we embraced (semi-)luxury and stayed in the Ramada Dead Sea Resort for a night. Although it was nice to drink readily available wine and binge on a breakfast buffet, the resort didn’t feel particularly Jordanian; there was little Jordanian food on the menu, for example, meaning I couldn’t get my falafel fix. Due to bad weather we couldn’t go deep enough into the sea to float, but we did have fun slathering ourselves in thick, slimy mud on the beach. Looking extremely silly is worth it for the soft skin afterwards. 

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Finally, it was back to Amman for a final few hours of shopping before our flight; we also managed to squeeze in the Citadel which we’d missed on the first day. We had our last supper in Amman’s famous vegetarian restaurant, Hashem, where they make life easy: you don’t order off a menu but sit down and wait for them to bring you a variety of mouthwatering dishes. It was here that I discovered the Holy Grail: the perfect falafel. It was incredible. I still dream about its perfect crispy outside and soft, crumbly inside…

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ALL HAIL THE PERFECT FALAFEL

What an adventure this was. Tourism in Jordan has suffered due to its proximity to conflicted regions, and even I was a little nervous before going, but I needn’t have worried. Jordan is a stable country, Jordanians are extremely welcoming, and as a group of females we were always treated with courtesy and respect. I’m already scheming about my next trip to the Middle East. Somewhere out there, there might be an even more perfect falafel waiting for me to eat it…

A pho-nomenal (sorry) journey through Vietnam

Last month I travelled across Vietnam, a country that I’ve been longing to visit for a long time. When my friends and I were planning our itinerary we felt overwhelmed by possibility. There are so many places to visit and so many ways to travel between them. For inspiration, I read a lot of travel blogs. Now I’ve been there myself, I thought, why not add one more to the mix? 

Our journey started in Ho Chi Minh. We then travelled back up to Hanoi, chasing the good weather; we also preferred to start in the more hectic Ho Chi Minh (when we were full of beans) and finish in the comparatively chilled Hanoi (by which point ‘clean clothes’ really meant ‘least dirty clothes’). We mostly stayed in private rooms in hostels, which are essentially budget hotels – basic, but clean, safe and well-serviced. From Ho Chi Minh we went to Hoi An, then Hue, then Phong Nha and finally Hanoi, where we took a cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay. Our schedule was packed and there was a lot of time spent on trains, buses and planes, but it’s unavoidable unless you want to stay in one or two places. I reckon you’d need at least a month to really explore Vietnam, but I think we did pretty well with our two weeks! 

Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh was probably our least favourite stop, but we only spent one day here. More intrepid travellers might love the moped-rammed streets and chaotic vibe, but we were jet-lagged after a sleepless overnight flight and so found ourselves hiding in the familiar safety of H&M under the pretence of needing more billowy trousers (we may not have been very intrepid travellers but we wanted to look the part, at least). In search of a more authentic experience, we rallied ourselves and went to a local restaurant for our first bowls of pho.

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Mmmmmm pho (I’m still vegetarian, honest)

After a night’s sleep, we were ready to learn about the Vietnam War with trips to the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels. This was a harrowing day. Despite editing history books for years, I shamefully didn’t know much about the Vietnam War. In the War Remnants Museum we learned how brutal and devastating it was, and how many innocent people suffered terribly and are still suffering; the photographs lining the walls are painful to see, but it felt important that we understood the extent of what happened. At the Cu Chi tunnels we learnt about the resistance led by the Viet Cong, crawled through replica tunnels, and saw the gruesome booby traps the guerrilla fighters set for American soldiers. This showed us a different aspect of the war, which was interesting to compare with what we’d seen earlier in the day.

Hoi An

The next day we flew to Da Nang, travelling almost halfway up the country, and transferred to Hoi An, famous for its lanterns. We loved Hoi An. That might have been because we spent the most time there, meaning we could relax more; we borrowed bikes from our hostel and cycled to An Bang beach, through the paddy fields, and into town to see the Japanese Bridge and browse the tailors’ shops. We had one of our favourite meals at a restaurant called Little Faifo. We also took an excellent cooking course at Red Bridge Cooking School, where we got our lesson plus an enormous dinner for all of £16. I worried I’d be eating spring rolls every day as a vegetarian, but there was so much variety that most nights I ended up utterly stuffed! On our final day we visited the My Son Hindu temples, took a boat ride and had full body massages (we went for a fancy spa and it was still a bargain!). 

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Mesmerised by the lanterns of Hoi An

Hue

Hue is the former capital of Vietnam and seat of the Nguyen emperors. Immediately we felt we were in a more Westernised place, with burger bars and Italian restaurants lining the streets and big groups of tourists being whizzed around in ‘cyclos’. There was no denying it felt comfortable, albeit a little unexciting. On our first evening we walked along the river where groups of Vietnamese students let us join in their games in exchange for helping them practise their English – all the people we met throughout the trip were really friendly and outgoing. The next day we visited the Imperial Citadel, where we made the excellent decision of hiring a tour guide. Our guide Hui spent hours with us, staying beyond the end of his shift to tell us detailed stories about the lives of each emperor (as well as the grisly execution methods they used). The citadel is beautiful but might not be as interesting without its historical context, so definitely get a guide (ask for Hui!).

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Exploring Hue with Hui

Phong Nha

Next, we took a bus to Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park. After spending most of the holiday in more built-up and touristy locations, we were keen to get back to nature and visit Phong Nha’s famous caves. It’s home to the largest cave in Asia, Son Doong – it’s large enough that helicopters can fly inside, and contains its own jungles – although only 1,000 tourists a year can visit for a mere $3000 (so we gave it a miss…). We visited Paradise Cave, which contains stalactites and stalagmites so weird and beautiful it felt like walking through a film set. Afterwards we visited Dark Cave, where we went zip-lining, swam in a river, clambered through the cave with head torches, had a mud bath and then kayaked. Since I’m terrified of swimming in anything that isn’t a sterilised pool that definitely doesn’t contain any slimy things, I’m amazed that I not only survived this experience, but enjoyed it!

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Is it a freakish pine cone? No, it’s a stalagmite in Paradise Cave, Phong Nha

Hanoi

The journey from Phong Nha to Hanoi is long. We didn’t fancy taking an overnight bus, and the timings of the flights were awkward, so we ended up taking a 10-hour train. We had books, cards and downloads, which entertained us for a while, but didn’t stop us from going just a little crazy towards the end. In retrospect, I’d probably have opted for the flight! After a delicious dinner topped off with egg coffee and coconut coffee (my new obsessions) we browsed Hanoi’s night market and did some souvenir shopping. The next day, we headed off on our Bai Tu Long bay cruise.

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I will happily fork out extortionate amounts of money to the trendy London coffee shop that starts serving egg coffee

Bai Tu Long Bay

Most cruises from Hanoi go to Halong Bay, but since it’s now extremely crowded and the views are ruined by the number of boats, we chose the Indochina Junk cruise which travels to the more unspoiled Bai Tu Long Bay. We didn’t regret spending more money on this part of the trip, because after our train journey (during which I also discovered my bag was infested by ants) it was nice to be pampered! The rooms were more luxurious than most of the hostels we stayed in, the staff were delightful (they all had fake names like Milk Man, named after his strange obsession with milk, and Harry Potter, who did magic tricks), the food was copious and delicious, and activities were included: kayaking, a trip to a cave and a water puppet show on the way home.

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Successfully not capsizing a kayak in Bai Tu Long Bay

Back to Hanoi

We had one final day in Hanoi before flying home. We spent it visiting the Temple of Literature and Museum of Ethnography, and though we could have crammed in more sights – the Women’s Museum or the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, for example – we decided to take it easy and spend our last few hours watching the sun set over the city with cocktails in the Summit Bar before a final dinner at Green Farm Restaurant.

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Goodbye, beautiful Vietnam… goodbye, £5 cocktails

Vietnam didn’t disappoint. Although we spent a lot of time travelling, it was worth the effort (even the 10-hour train!) because each place we visited had such a unique character. Vietnam is a wonderfully diverse country, from the buzz and glimmer of Ho Chi Minh to the otherworldly stillness of the Phong Nha caves, but everywhere we went the people were smiling and chatty, the culture and history were fascinating, the crispy spring rolls were irresistible and the coffee was strong and sweet. There wasn’t time to see everything I wanted, but that just means another trip is on the cards…

Coming soon, a summary of my more recent adventures in Jordan!

Some thoughts on finishing (yet another!) novel

A couple of months ago I finished the first draft of my novel.

35 chapters, 70,000 words.

As my long-time readers will know, this isn’t the first novel I’ve written. In fact, if I count all of my cringe-inducing juvenilia, I’ve written seven. I’ve started and never finished nine others, ranging from a romantic comedy about a 17th-century Royalist poet coming back to life in modern-day Coventry to a religious allegory about a girl who hallucinates living in a magical tree-world (good job I abandoned those).

I’m in two minds about finishing novel number seven. Firstly, I’ve written seven novels and not gotten any of them published. I was on the brink of giving up after novel number six. I’ve read interviews with authors who say, “Writing isn’t easy, kids! Did you know that NUMBER ONE BESTSELLER wasn’t my first novel? No, I wrote THREE others before I secured my agent!” Three?! Not as inspiring as they surely intended. On the other hand, I know of authors who wrote 15 novels before getting their big break.

But secondly, I’ve written seven novels. Seven. How many people can say they’ve written even one? That in itself is something to be celebrated. I’m pretty sure each novel is slightly better than the last, so if I just keep going… Since I’m trying to be kinder to myself, I’m leaning towards this way of thinking.

So, hooray for me!

Finishing this novel did feel different. Since I gave up my job to focus entirely on writing it, I thought finishing would involve more fireworks, trumpet fanfares and angelic beams of light falling from the sky. As it turned out, finishing was far more anticlimactic than it was with my previous novels. I wrote the last sentence, and then THE END, and then I closed my laptop, made a cup of tea and had a nap.

It’s not because seven novels means I’m now bored and desensitised and just groaned, “Oh well, I guess that’s finally done,” as if I’d finished one of those bucket-sized coffees from Starbucks. There’s always that feeling when you write the last few words as if you’ve been through several rounds in a boxing ring with your angry protagonist or been spun around in a human centrifuge. But I’ve found that the more writing experience I have, the less overwhelming this feeling becomes.

It’s not that writing a novel gets easier. If anything, the more novels I read and the more I learn about the craft of writing, the more painfully aware I become of my inadequacies. No, that anticlimactic feeling came from something else I’ve learned about a first draft: it’s really draft zero. It is nowhere near finished. I used to think my first draft only needed a few tweaks; I did four drafts of my previous novel, and thought that was rigorous. Ha! Now I know a rewrite could mean deleting two-thirds of the novel or culling a main character. So the 70,000 words I have now, although they’re an achievement, are just the beginning. I have to drag myself back into the ring and prepare myself for some broken bones (or at least, really sore wrists and an achey lower back). But I’m determined to keep fighting until this novel is as close to perfection as possible.

I don’t know when I’ll be ready to tackle those edits. Last time I was only able to restrain myself for three weeks before diving back in, which was a mistake; this time I might leave it six months. I have a wedding to plan and a new city to move to, so my draft can linger in its drawer for a while. Real life has enough twists and turns to keep me occupied!

Writing in the shadow

A question that’s been preoccupying me recently, as I spend more time reading than writing my own stuff, is this: how does anybody manage to write a word after reading their favourite novels?

One of my favourite novels, for example, is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I sometimes tell people it’s my favourite novel (I don’t really have an answer to that question, but it’s something to say that most people have heard of), but really, I love Heller’s lesser-known novel Something Happened even more (I wrote a review of it here). It’s a difficult novel to love, described by Kurt Vonnegut as “one of the unhappiest books ever written”, and yet – drawn as I am to unhappiness and things/people that are hard work (ahem… joking) – love it I do.

I recently re-read Something Happened as research. Like Bob Slocum, the narrator of Heller’s novel, my narrator, Jason, is a fragile and toxic man crippled by self-loathing and assailed by irrational fears and a general sense of doom – that something bad is going to happen to him, and that he deserves it. Having re-read Heller’s novel, though, I felt deflated about my own idea, which seemed like an obvious, derivative, poorly-written pool of word vomit in comparison. I hadn’t only stolen Heller’s themes, but clumsily aped his writing style (he puts lots of asides in parentheses (and sometimes parentheses inside parentheses as well (see what I did there?))). Why do I bother, I wondered? What am I saying or doing in my writing that’s new, different?

Recently at a party I told someone my novel is “a more British American Psycho with less violence and misogyny and definitely no rats” (this is a shining example of the calibre of my small talk). I didn’t even like American Psycho much (due to aforementioned violence, misogyny and rats). There are parts of it I think are genius – I’ve tried to recreate the business card scene with Instagram profiles in my novel – but mostly, I’ve reacted against it. When Jason tries to go all Patrick Bateman on women, they defy his expectations and show him up for the sad little man he’s trying to be (he does have some redeeming features, honestly). Still, when I compare my novel to its anti-inspiration, I get that sinking feeling. What if people think my novel’s a watered down version of American Psycho because I’m afraid to be shocking?

Reading great novels confuses me, because they make me feel I may as well give up, but they also make me desperate to write. I know I’ll never be as good or bold or shocking as the author I’ve just read, but I can’t help but try anyway. The one way I can guarantee never being as good is by giving up, right? There’s a quiet voice in my head that says, “They’re only a human being and they wrote this. You’re also a human being…” And who knows, maybe Heller had the same voice in his head when he read Nabokov. Maybe Nabokov felt like crap and wanted to fling his manuscript in the fire when he read Tolstoy. And so on and so on.

There’s another positive way to look at it. With every novel I read, and with every element of another writer’s style I absorb, my writing becomes more complex. Recently I read two Julian Barnes novels in a row and for a few weeks everything I wrote sounded like a posh old man sadly reflecting on his past regrets. But then I read some other novels, and the voices of those authors were added to the mix. As a result, my novel-in-progress is an ugly, messy, unfocused, Frankenstein’s monster-type creature – but nobody else could write it. And perhaps the voice of Emma Goode, and the voice of every writer, is just that – the voices of a thousand other writers so intermingled they create something new and beautiful, colours coming together to form white light.

So I try not to feel too hopeless. If I keep reading and keep writing, and writing and writing, pushing through the feelings of inadequacy that ambush me every time I pick up a brilliant book, weaving in the elements I love, whittling away those I don’t, my writing will become more honed, confident and self-assured. Who knows, maybe one day somebody might even read one of my novels and love it so much they hurl their laptop out of the window in despair. I can only hope.