From couch potato to box beetroot

Ah, the writer’s life… Sitting at a desk for hours on end, drinking back-to-back coffees and troughing biscuits; lying on the sofa with a laptop balanced on your belly, cat purring at your side, knowing it’s about time you got up and stretched a bit, but if nature isn’t calling, why bother? Those creative cogs whirring away, always pushed to the limit… unlike the rest of your body, which gets to enjoy, ahem, endless relaxation. Ah yes, this is the life for me…

Or so I thought. Two years ago, I turned 40. I was ok with it – I’d already had my freak-out at the tipping point of 37-and-a-half, when the Big Four-Zero was looming, and the threshold into middle age was beckoning. For a while there, it was a tough one to get my head around. Particularly as there was one thing I knew I couldn’t delay dealing with any longer: my lack of fitness.

I’d been suffering from a bad back since the birth of my first child eight years previously. I’d been to osteopaths, sports therapists, acupuncturists and chiropractors. I’d been to my GP and to physio. An MRI scan showed that I had an “eroded disc” between vertebrae L4 and L5 in the lower back. While all my other discs looked like nice, juicy beefburgers, Old L4/5 looked like a CD. I even had a steroid injection to reduce inflammation, but to no avail. My muscles in that area were constantly sore and inflamed, and I regularly experienced shooting pains in my lower back. None of the gentle exercise I’d been doing (walking, pilates and swimming) was making any difference. And living a largely sedentary lifestyle clearly wasn’t helping.

So when I started to wonder how much worse my back could become over the next 40 years, I soon reached a conclusion: I was going to have to change my couch potato ways, get off my arse and put some serious effort into getting fit. No more half-measures. My husband had already joined CrossFit (“a strength and conditioning programme based on constantly varied, high-intensity functional movements”) and the change in his fitness and muscle tone over just six months was unbelievable. And so I decided to sign up, knowing that this was either a very good idea or an extremely bad one.

As a 40-year-old who had undergone two Caesareans, had a dodgy back and couldn’t do a single press-up, I felt extremely nervous when I first arrived at my local CrossFit box (CrossFit Connect) in Hove. (The word ‘box’ was apt: this was more of a garage than a gym.) I felt like a sloth caught in the headlights. What was I doing in this alien environment? Where was Rocky Balboa hiding? There were weights, kettlebells, pull-up bars…and tractor tyres? There were people with actual muscles. People drenched in sweat. People panting, looking like they were in pain – but even more sick and twisted, they looked like they were enjoying it. Before I could turn and run (ok, walk speedily) away, I was welcomed in by a Super-Friendly Coach.

I was introduced to exercises I’d heard of but had never done: lunges, squats, V-crunches, pull-ups, etc. I was surrounded by people who’d clearly been taking fitness seriously for years, people who actually looked dignified whilst squatting. Finally I was introduced to the WOD. My husband was always going on about WODs (Workout of the Day) and AMRAPs (As Many Rounds As Possible), gratingly annoying words that, up until then, had meant nothing to me. He reminded me of Chandler from Friends going on about the WENUS. And now here I was, using these silly made-up words, too.

After my first WOD, I was as crimson as a beetroot and my legs were shaking so badly I could barely operate the pedals in my car to drive back home. However, I wasn’t going anywhere as another CrossFitter had blocked me in. I returned to the box on my shaky legs, brain jellified, feeling slightly emotional about my utter lack of fitness. “Oh right, what model car is it?” Super-Friendly Coach asked. It was dark and I hadn’t looked. “Don’t know,” I said, too weak to hobble back and take a closer look. My lip may have wobbled. With the kind of patience normal human beings don’t possess, he went to inspect and returned, calling for the owner of a black Peugeot to come and let me out.

Despite being a sloth AND a muppet, I somehow found the courage to return. I had to: allowing my back to deteriorate further wasn’t an option.

The first few months I found it awkward to speak out and say what I could and couldn’t do. It felt lame saying, “Um, can I not do that, please?” (because I’m going to end up in A&E if I do). But some of the WODs were way beyond my capabilities – even the warm-ups killed me – so the coaches scaled some of the exercises to a level I could manage. I had to be clear about my goals: I was not aiming to enter any weightlifting competitions, or get to the top of the scoreboard. I just wanted to build my strength and be rid of my aching back. That was all. (Oh, and get rid of those bingo wings, shed a few pounds, lose the muffin top, and a long list of other vanity-related stuff.)

On so many occasions, the day after a visit to the box, I’d wake up to find I had a frozen shoulder, a swollen ankle or that my back was stiffer than I’d ever experienced. I was feeling older, not younger! I felt mangled. I ached all over. I decided I’d give it till the end of the year – that’d be four months – and if I was still pulling muscles left, right and centre, perhaps it was time to admit defeat.

One day in late December, I was lying in bed reading when I realised my back wasn’t hurting. MY BACK WASN’T HURTING! For the first time in almost nine years, my back felt how a back should feel – painless. There was no doubt in my mind that this was down to the exercise I’d been doing at CrossFit.

Now, 20 months since I first joined, I’m still opting for the easiest-level WODs (which are not necessarily easy, just easier), but I feel stronger, more confident, and my level of fitness has definitely improved.

Rather than reciting my personal bests, instead let me say this: a basic 15kg bar no longer feels as heavy as it used to. I can do WODS involving rounds of press-ups, sit-ups, squats or whatever, and I no longer wobble away on shaky legs. I can do handstands! I can skip double-unders! I no longer arrive at the box dreading what punishing activities might await me – I enjoy going! (Shocker!) And, bonus: I’ve made some lovely new friends of all ages and levels of fitness.

Now for the even cheesier bit: aside from giving up smoking years ago, making fitness a part of my life (finally) is the single most impressive thing I’ve done for my health.

I’ll always have to be mindful of my troublesome disc, and for that reason I go steady with deadlifts and med-ball cleans, and don’t do burpees. (Even a dodgy disc has its plus points.) But overall, my back’s improved a lot, and – although it’ll never be perfect (eroded discs are irreversible) – I’ve got some core muscles now. We’re not talking ripped abs obviously, FAR from it, but I’m building strength where previously there wasn’t any. And, lo and behold a miracle has taken place in Couch Potatodom: fitness is now bizarrely on a par with writing in my life. If too many days go by with none occurring, it just doesn’t feel right.

Publish and be damned (sure you’re done)

Today JK Rowling admitted that, in retrospect, Hermione should’ve ended up with Harry Potter rather than Ron Weasley. Yesterday, author Khaled Hosseini said on Radio 4’s Book Club that he hadn’t re-read The Kite Runner since he wrote it because he’d only chastise himself for all the changes he should have made. Interesting, I thought. Just when is an author satisfied with their work and the decisions they make? And to what extent should authors be trying to please their audience?

I’m at the final stages of completing my novel Blown-Away Man. My editor has undoubtedly helped me shape it into a better novel. But, with a week or so to go before I press the publish button, should I give it to more people to read to offer me their opinion on it? Do I really want to start seasoning it to other people’s tastes at this stage in the process? Does Damien Hirst round up his family and mates and say, “What d’you think of my shark in a tank then? Does it work? Any suggestions for improvement?” (Maybe he does, I have no idea. But I’d be very surprised if he gave a shit what anyone else thought.)

Aside from my editor, my husband has already provided lots of feedback. And, a year ago, a few close friends and family members gave me their thoughts on the first three chapters. Some of their opinions about a few details were similar, but at the same time, everyone had something different to say. For a while my mind felt foggy with other people’s opinions. It actually wasn’t helpful. I started to doubt my protagonist. I started to doubt the whole story. It took me a while to frogmarch all those voices out of my head and get back on track to believing wholeheartedly in my original idea.

Each time I write a book I learn different things from the experience. This time I’ve learned that it’s not always helpful to show your work to lots of other people and ask for their feedback. My husband’s and editor’s thoughts are invaluable – whether I agree with them or not – but beyond that, if I start listening to too many opinions and doubting my original ideas, I might as well let the story be crowdsourced. (Which, who knows, could be a fun exercise.)

Should Hermione have ended up with Harry? Should Amir and Hassan’s story have turned out differently? That’s what book clubs and reviews are for – the joy of airing and debating what you loved or didn’t love about someone else’s book. If it’s your book though, there comes a time when you have to put your ear plugs in, finish the story and turn over a new chapter…

Writing – a risky business

Got an idea? A vision for a novel, a piece of art, a business enterprise? Be primeval, be stupid, don’t think ­– act. That’s the advice given by Steven Pressfield in his book Do The Work.

This struck a chord with me the other day when I was wondering whether or not to upload one of my children’s stories onto my blog. I’d already written and uploaded two similar stories a few months ago, and had a very positive response from a handful of friends who have young kids – which always makes the accompanying tumbleweeds from the world at large easier to bear.

Anyway, the reason I was dithering is because I don’t really write children’s fiction. I write mainstream women’s fiction and have been selling my novels on Amazon since February 2012. I’ve never really had any interest in writing children’s fiction, but I make up short stories to tell my kids at bedtime often enough. It was only when they started demanding more stories about the same character – Fartina Gasratilova – that I thought I might as well have a go at writing them down and seeing if anyone else’s kids enjoyed them.

So what’s the big deal about uploading a few children’s stories to your blog? you may ask. Well here I am, trying to build up a credible name as a writer of women’s fiction, and then I go and upload stories about Fartina Gasratilova – a child who suffers from chronic wind – to my blog. The name in itself is enough to make many people cringe. And if I dwell on that thought for too long, the downward spiral of Resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it, begins.

Resistance takes many forms, including the fear of what others will think. Allow me to demonstrate by sharing a few of my self-destructive thoughts (finally, something I excel at):

Fartina Gasratilova is such a vulgar name – how did you come up that? Because you’re vulgar, obviously. Will other people wonder if you’re writing from experience? Will they think you’re a vulgar, flatulent, toilet humour-obsessed joke? Is anyone reading your crapfest of a blog anyway? Hah! Exactly! So you might as well upload it and eat tumbleweed.

Dingalingaling! Round 2: So it turns out there’s a porn star called Fartina somewhere out there who specialises in…let’s not go there. Bloody great. No wonder I’ve had more traffic on my blog. And why are lots of erotica writers suddenly retweeting my promotions for Package Deal? It’s a beach read, not a bonkbuster! I thought it was generous of them, and then, suddenly the penny drops: Oh My God! My book titles! How have I not seen this before? Package Deal, Hot Property, Pearls… and my latest WIP, heaven have mercy: Blown-Away Man. Aaargh!

So my husband took pity on me and shoved Steven Pressfield’s book under my nose. One of Pressfield’s many golden nuggets of advice is: act, don’t think (clearly I managed to achieve this already with my book titles). Anyway, as I read his book, I pictured myself wearing earplugs and horse blinkers, blindly carrying on with my potentially rubbish ideas, and it felt good. I can’t tell you how nice it feels to have someone grant me permission to be stupid and not give a shit what anyone else thinks. I feel a little more confident now to carry on taking risks. Some will die a sad humiliating death, but there’s no reason why others shouldn’t flourish.

I was further comforted by a documentary on David Bowie on BBC4 the other night: ten years of epic fails before he came up with Ziggy Stardust! Who knew? Nice to know someone as iconic as Bowie made a tit out of himself too, once upon a time.

 

Raw with all your might

While having a clear-out the other day, I stumbled upon a book I hadn’t seen in ages. This was a book I leaned heavily on in the early days of my writing journey. In fact, it would be fair to say it was my ‘Writing Bible’. You may have heard of it: The Right to Write by Julia Cameron.

It was thanks to this book that I forced myself to believe in my writing and take the plunge to send things off to agents. It helped me to stop seeing authors as a different group of people, a group that I didn’t belong to. It helped me to believe in my individual writing voice. I didn’t have to try to emulate someone else’s style or write something in the current hot genre.

I used to do a daily exercise (before I had children) as suggested in Julia’s book. It was called ‘morning pages’. The idea is to grab a piece of paper and a pen first thing in the morning and just write. Write whatever comes into your head and don’t edit a single word of it. Write fast. Don’t pause to plan what you’re going to say. The idea is to learn to silence your ‘censor’ and conquer your fear of criticism.

So this morning, for the first time in over eight years, I had a go at ‘morning pages’. Below is what I wrote. I’ve typed it up word for word, without correcting any spelling mistakes, or rearranging any sentences. I’ve resisted the temptation to sculpt it into something witty, or polish it to perfection. It is completely raw. I’d forgotten what a therapeutic exercise it is. It’s like cleaning out cobwebs.

I’ve also typed up a handful of the many gems I’d underlined in Julia’s book (see below) as they helped me no end. But if you’re struggling with writer’s block or self-doubt, then I recommend reading the The Right to Write cover to cover. By the way, if this is the last time I blog for a while, it’s probably because I’ll be in arachnophobia therapy after my husband gets me back for the toad incident.

My morning pages

Haven’t done this in years. Not sure I’ll be able to write without editing as I go along. Kids are on the computers. The music from the games they’re playing is sending me into a trance. Sainsbuy’s delivery will be here any minute to rudely awaken me. Feel sleepy. Keep having weird dreams. Dreamed Olympic opening ceremony took place in a London square & involved lots of grey slimey creatures emerging out of the water to crowds cheering all around. This most likely down to seeing a toad in my friend’s garden yesterday. Chris wouldn’t go near it. I touched the toad – as did the kids. Then we all chased Chris and I stuck my finger in his mouth while he was yelling. The finger that touched the toad. He freaked. So I said I was only winding him up & I never really touched the toad. However he went & rinsed his mouth out before I let on I was only joking. Only I wasn’t joking. My toad-contaminated finger did go in his mouth. I will never let him know or else he’ll wreak revenge on me. He knows my weakness is spiders and I’ll go mental if he puts one near me. Anyway back to present moment. Going to beach today if weather nice for picnic with friends. They are showing Mama Mia on an outdoor screen near the pier. Apart from the Abba songs I doubt the kids will be that into the movie. If I have to explain to them the storyline I’m wondering if they’ll ask why the girl doesn’t know which man is her dad. And so I need to prepare an answer. Because her mummy had special cuddles with those three men all within a short space of time probably isn’t the best way to go. Where’s the bloody Sainsy’s delivery man?

(You don’t know how hard it was not to edit as I typed this up.)

A few passages from Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write:

How much control are we willing to surrender for the sake of allowing creativity to move through us rather than our trying to flog it forward for agendas of our own?

I believe that what we want to write wants to be written. I believe that as I have an impulse to create, the something I want to create has an impulse to want to be born.

So much ‘good’ writing doesn’t seem to care. It’s too cool, cerebral, calculated and calibrated. Therefore I love to read the tabloids. The tabloids are full of ‘bad’ writing.

It is one of the ironies of the writing life that much of what we write in passing, casually, later seems to hold up just as well as the pieces we slaved over, convinced of their worth and dignity.

(Recounting a conversation with Arthur Kretchmer, editor of Playboy.) “Don’t bother to write for your common reader, Julia. You’ll never meet your common reader. Write for your ideal reader, the one who will get everything you say.”

(Quoting a friend) “…sometimes I need to write without thinking about an editor, without thinking about where it will get published. I need to write something just for the joy of writing it.”

…what is actually required at many points in a writing career is the grace to allow ourselves to one more time be a beginner, writing for the sheer love of it.

When we write from fear of criticism, we hamper our stride and we cripple our voice.

An interview with author Mel Sherratt

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This week I talk to gritty crime writer Mel Sherratt, who stormed up the Kindle charts with her debut novel Taunting The Dead. Now she’s just released her second book, Somewhere To Hide, which is promising to be just as successful, and she’s got a third novel on the way.

What inspired you to become a writer?

I’ve always been interested in writing – from as far back as writing short stories in exercise books at school. I just love words – writing and reading. And I’ve always wanted to write a book. To see my name on the cover, see what people have to say about it – that’s always special and a great motivator.

Have you always wanted to write about crime specifically?

Strangely enough, I think my writing was influenced by my reading and I’ve come full circle. My early attempts of writing a book were more crime thriller (even though I was into reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz) – actually I still love my first idea which was a kind of paranormal, psychological thriller…I may write it one day now I’ve learned how to do it! I then started to read the greats such as Marian Keyes, Adele Parks and Lisa Jewell and my writing attempts were then lighter but with a working class edge. And then my writing just went darker. I decided to study more crime thrillers and wrote Somewhere To Hide. And then I took it one stage further and wrote Taunting The Dead, predominantly a police procedural.

When I read Taunting the Dead, I found myself both attracted to and revolted by the villainous Terry Ryder. Where did you get the inspiration for his character from?

Thanks so much for reading it. Terry Ryder is actually based on a local business man that I have never met, nor would think he would be anything like him in real life! My only aim was to create a good-looking charmer who is a ruthless and dangerous man underneath. I wanted readers to like him one minute and loathe him the next. And of course there are lots of screen bad boys that I could use as inspiration too.

DS Allie Shenton’s marriage certainly got put to the test in Taunting the Dead. I got the impression she’s capable of sabotaging a good thing…

Wow, that’s a great impression to get, thanks. Yes, Allie is a passionate soul. I always intended her to be a likeable person, at home and at work. I wanted her to be warm yet vulnerable and strong at the same time. I also wanted a character that was content within a loving relationship but may or not be tempted when the situation arose. And I think it depended on your views around infidelity if you really liked her or not…

What are you writing next? Will we see more of Allie Shenton?

I’m just about to start finishing off the second novel in The Estate series, Behind A Closed Door, which is out in October. The main character in this one is Josie Mellor. She’s a housing officer so it’s about some of the cases she deals with on the estate, as well as some of her work life around domestic violence starting to mirror her home life.

DS Allie Shenton is a tricky one. There are so many people asking me to write the next one but for me, I think the success of Taunting The Dead was partly because the book was set around a ‘did she, didn’t she’ question. There is a lot of sexual tension and obviously there can’t be that in the next book. I’m worried that it then might become too ‘ordinary.’  Scary stuff, although at this moment in time, I do intend to bring out another Allie Shenton book. When? Hmm…

When you write, do you plan the whole story carefully before you start writing, or do you let the story evolve as you write?

I do a bit of both. I start with the characters and their stories and this usually gives me a rough beginning, middle and end. Then I interlink the sub plots and create about twenty chapters consisting of bullet points. Those twenty chapters turn into about forty as I draft the story out. But I do let the characters dictate – which sounds bizarre as I am the writer – but if a character goes off plot, I know it’s for a reason and as I always write a quick ‘dirty’ first draft, I can figure out what I need to happen as a result of those changes later in the second draft.

Do you have a muse or someone you frequently go to for honest feedback on your writing?

I have five people. I have my best friend from my home town who isn’t a writer, I have three writer friends and also my mum. I have to say they are all extremely honest, to the point of being brutal but that’s what I need to hear. Fresh eyes always make something better in my opinion.

When do you know you’ve finished writing your book?

Once I’ve finished with it, and my five readers have come back to me with their thoughts, I do one more draft and then I’m done writing wise.  I send the book off to a copy editor and she checks through it for me. Because I’ve self-published them, I then read the script three times before uploading it so I can spot/change any tiny amendments, even plot-wise if I still feel the need. Once it’s uploaded, then I can say it’s finished.

As a writer, you’re bound to have had your fair share of rejections from publishers. How have you learned to overcome that?

Rejection has been a biggie for me. I took the last one really hard last year after four months of hoping and going a step further and a step further, but as a writer you need to learn to pick yourself up, brush yourself down and carry on. Also, in the case of Somewhere To Hide, not writing something that fitted into a genre mould has meant it’s been harder for me. But I do believe in what I write and thankfully readers have enjoyed it.

What other obstacles have you had to overcome in your writing career?

I suppose it would have to be trying to overcome self-doubt – although it still gets to me every now and then. I mean, really, I sold how many books!

What would your top tip be to all aspiring novelists out there?

Always keep honing your craft, playing with words, read others to learn from and, above all, love what you do. Trust your gut reaction. And if you’re after a book deal, never give up!

  

Put yourself out there

As the half-term holiday approached, I started to notice a pain in my right hand at the base of my thumb. Scrolling and clicking the trackpad seemed to be making it worse. Could it be RSI? If so, it wouldn’t be surprising. As a self-published author, I spend a lot of time on my laptop, much of it online, ‘putting myself out there’.

Aching thumb aside, I was starting to feel burnt out with writing, editing, proofreading, tweeting, blogging, monitoring sales figures, etc. My eyes needed a screen break, my fingers and thumbs needed a trackpad break, and my brain needed to stop thinking about how best to promote my books. I needed to put myself out there all right – but outside, in the elements.

Cue camping trip. Forecast: high winds and showers likely. Hmm…

As I packed and packed and packed, I thought that this wasn’t the most relaxing trip I could’ve chosen. Packing pretty much took the entire day before departure. On arrival, unpacking, putting up the tent and sorting out the bedding took time, too. It was a good while before we could sit down, relax and join our friends with a well-earned beer and admire their far simpler tents.

However, the simple activity of packing and unpacking, putting up a tent and preparing food for the BBQ in 40mph gusts of wind, all required 100% concentration. And while my focus was on these activities, it wasn’t on writing, editing and marketing – a good thing.

The rest of the time was spent having fun in the open air. The kids turned feral, building dens in the muddy woods, while the adults huddled closer to the fire and cracked open more Cava.

A highlight was taking a walk through the woods to the ‘cave of poo’. The cave of poo was not for the fainthearted – it’s dark enough to need a torch, muddy enough to need wellies, and smelly enough to hold your nose. So naturally I sent my eldest daughter in with a far braver adult.

Meanwhile, my youngest daughter had got herself stuck in a muddy bog. ‘Mummy! I can’t move!’ she screamed hysterically while I caught up with her and immediately found myself in the same predicament. We stood there, knee-deep in mud (it was only the top 5mm of our boots that were not submerged). As I debated whether it was easier to go forward or backward, we wobbled precariously from side to side, watched by the others with baited breath. Miraculously, we eventually managed to get out with our wellies still on our feet and without falling flat on our backsides. My daughter’s tears turned to giggles and she was soon racing with the other kids towards the next disaster zone: a muddy stream with a rope swing above it.

Our camping trip was over too quickly, but one weekend of being outdoors in the fresh air connecting with the elements was enough to clear my brain, restore blood flow to my thumb and replenish my creative tank. As Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘In order to write about life, first you must live it.’