Balancing a Diet

Hardly a day goes by without some new edict from an expert telling us what we should be eating or drinking. The advice is usually confusing, often contradictory and, frankly, requires more effort than I’m inclined to make over every meal.

Hubby and I eat a varied diet, heavy on tasty veg and fruits, with one portion of protein each day, including oily fish most weeks. That used to be enough – but expert opinions are going further. It seems that we’re meant to reflect the appropriate proportions of different foodgroups on every plateful. So I’m only allowed to eat a snack if I check that it’s properly balanced between protein, carbs, sugar, fat and micronutrients.

Come ON!

Did our remote ancestors hesitate during a mammoth hunt to wonder if they’d had enough greens that day?

We’ve become obsessed with tick lists and numbers. Every meal has to tick every box and have exactly the right number of Calories and grams of fat. We have several different labelling systems for our food and unregulated claims splashed across the packaging in big, bright letters.

At the same time, manufacturers and retailers are doing their best to make it too complicated for us to work out just how little nutrition we get from their food. They’re determines to hide the outrageous sugar content of their foods by highlighting the “low-fat” message. We crave fatty food and sweetness – it’s part of our DNA. The two factors are intrinsically linked – if you reduce one, you have to increase the other to compensate. We are also programmed to seek out saltiness – our bodies need salt to function, but too much is dangerous.

Processed foods are made attractive to us by playing on this trinity of basic desires. Unfortunately, competition has driven manufacturers to add more and more of each one. Just look at the ingredients list for things you would never expect to see – sugar in savoury sauces, salt added to sweet treats. This is how the Western diet has got so bad – we don’t realise what is being smuggled into our bodies by food we assume is good for us.

And as a result, we see diet fad after diet fad, exercise craze after exercise craze being advertised, endorsed by celebrities and people making money from our credulousness.

A healthy diet is not rocket science. If you strip away all the advertising, hype and deliberate complicating by food manufacturers, we can all improve our diets by following a few simple rules:

* Eat fruit and veg. Recommendation is five potions a day – just aim to eat one more than you do now. A portion is the size of your fist. Tinned is fine – but check the sauce / syrups they’re packaged in.

* Reduce fat. Avoid fried food and cut the fat off meat before you eat it.

* Ask your doctor’s advice on your weight and activity levels. Most of us need to shed a few pounds and exercise more, some are the opposite. Listen to your doctor and make small adjustments to your lifestyle.

* Pay attention to your food – enjoy it, savour it. Avoid snacking while you work or watch telly, etc.

* Be honest – with yourself if not your doctor. There are Calories in drinks, sauces and dressings – don’t assume these are too small to count.

* Don’t make excuses – make yourself a promise.

* Cook at home. It’s easier than you think and you can be sure what’s in it that way!

* Don’t let anyone make money out of your wish to be slimmer or fitter.

It’s hard to make big changes in your life, so just do it for one day a week. Cook a meal from scratch on a Sunday, dig out your exercise video for each Wednesday evening – whatever. If it makes you feel good, extend to another day. My chronic condition makes it very hard for me to exercise and my body doesn’t absorb nutrients properly, but that doesn’t stop me balancing a diet and keeping as fit as I can. Give it a try – what have you got to lose?

Blog-Hop #mywritingprocess

Thanks to the lovely Sallie Tams and her Plottdog for passing me the baton for the blog-hop called My Writing Process. You can read Sallie’s post on her beautiful blog here: http://sallietams.com/2014/02/10/the-act-of-showing-up-mywritingprocess-blog-hop/
– and there is the twitter tag #mywritingprocess if you’d like to track down more links in the chain.

So, on with the job in hand. There’s a set of questions for me to answer before hopping you on to the next blog. These had me thinking – and that’s a dangerous thing to happen on a Monday!

Without further ado:

1) What am I working on?

Several things, as always. For me, the best way to combat writer’s block is to have at least two projects on the go. Then if I find myself drying up on one piece, I switch to something as different as possible. Of course, this only works if I don’t have a tight deadline on any of them, so I like to arrange my writing commitments with plenty of elbow room.

Hey – it works for me!

At the moment, there’s the latest book, Just Add Writing. Publication date of today so I’m busy promoting that all over the place. I sent off all the pre-ordered copies last week, along with stock for Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Just-Add-Writing-Release-inside-ebook/dp/B00IG8L8MC/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1392649012&sr=1-1 and copies for the Legal Deposit people at the British Library. Launch party over on Facebook if anyone wants to join us for virtual drinks and nibbles. All welcome! https://www.facebook.com/events/606496329431142/617468688333906/

Once that one is laid to rest, I’ll be focusing most of my writing time on the next Chrystal book – the second in the series begun with Chrystal Heart last year. It’s been gestating in my head for a good few months and is ready to get typed up. In Chrystal Travels, our two heroines set out to make their way home from Meso-America, where we left them at the end of the first book. There will be thrills, spills, motorbikes, modern Steampunks and traditional wrestling in this instalment. And some nasty surprises for our friend Sam.

I’ve also got a magazine article in its very early stages and a possible radio play coalescing in the dark, shadowy recesses of my brain.

There’s always a sort of lull after finishing a large project like a book. I’ve had a few weeks since sending Just Add Writing to the printers and now I’m starting to ramp things back up to normal.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

That’s a very good question. Steampunk is a bit of a niche genre anyhow, so you’re asking if my book has its own niche within a larger niche? Cosy!

Most Steampunk is set in an alternate history that differed from our familiar world during Victoria’s reign. Mine is set in the 21st Century, but with a main character who has been alive since Victorian times. Steampunk is such a varied genre, it’s really hard to generalise it at all. People can’t agree on a definition of Steampunk, so how can I say where mine falls outside the general type?

In brief, a young lady is attacked by thieves in 1851 and rescued by a group of Tibetans who replace her damaged heart with the Chrystal Vitalis, a legendary gem believed to have healing powers. It not only saves her life, it keeps her alive far beyond a normal person’s years and, now calling herself Chrystal, she’s still around in the 21st Century. She teams up with a modern woman and the two of them set out to save the world. There are many familiar Steampunk elements, such as ætheric science and pirates, but I believe it’s unique in having a Victorian main character who’s hiding in plain sight in this way. Look closely at any Steampunks you meet – one of them may be more genuinely Victorian than you think.

3) Why do I write what I do?

It’s easy to say why I write my factual books and articles. I’m asked the same questions about disability time and again – so I put my standard answers down in book form. The MonSter and the Rainbow had to be written – I wanted to tell the story of life viewed from a wheelchair, about a world that isn’t as equal as it thinks it is – but without the self-pity so common in many biographies.

Then, Just Add Writing is a pocket book of tips for writers finding their feet and wanting to take their writing to the next level. It’s the book I wish I could have read when I started as a writer. And lots of exercises and random prompts to send even an experienced writer’s brain off at a tangent to reality, into the dimensions where the stories are.

It’s harder to say why I write my fiction. It’s something to do with wanting to create something tangible. Fiction comes as light relief after living with my MonSter (MS) for so many years; they say fiction has to make sense, whereas reality doesn’t! I have all these ideas inside me and stories are a great way to set them free into the world. I enjoy the process of writing and I get a tremendous satisfaction from my work; it comes naturally, somehow – I think I was born to be a writer. Maybe I spent all those years in grown-up employment frustrated by the lack of creative outlets.

4) How does your writing process work?

The amount of time I have for writing varies from day to day, depending on other commitments and my health. So I’ve learnt to think about writing – working on plot details and character twists – when I can’t write. My works always start in my head where I can fine-tune the plot details before setting any words down and once I’m happy that I have enough of a structure and some of the details, I can start writing.

I write on a laptop, right from the first draft. (Even my doctor says my handwriting is illegible!) If I’ve done enough plotting, the first draft is usually written very quickly and enjoyably. At some point, my characters start doing things I didn’t expect and I know the story’s coming to life. I try not to stop this first draft for anything. If I need to research a detail, I’ll make a note to come back to it. Writing like this has its own momentum and a whole book can be written in a matter of weeks. Then comes the much longer process of editing it into shape.

I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my progress through the different stages – and to remind me that I am moving forward. So long as those numbers change every day, I know I’ve done some work!

In broad terms, I try to write the first draft and then focus on different aspects with each redraft. In reality, it’s hard to stick to a disciplined editing scheme and I admit to breaking my own rules occasionally. Well, more than occasionally, to be honest. I have beta readers for each book and I like to let them loose on a draft so that I can make any changes that arise from their reading before I polish my final version. (It’s a similar process for magazine articles, but I skip the beta reader phase and sometimes end up with minor changes to be made after I’ve sent it to the magazine’s editor.)

Eventually a book is finished and emailed on to be printed and bound. I get a few weeks to recover from that and the whole cycle starts again. If I haven’t done any writing for a few days, I start to get twitchy. And you won’t like me when I’m twitchy.

Well, thank you for reading this far. Next week, #mywritingprocess passes on to Marit Meredith, an ex-pat Viking from Norway who’s now rooted half way up a Welsh hillside (surrounded by her large family), where Shakespeare is said to have found his inspiration for Midsummer Night’s Dream – she even wrote an article on the subject once. She can be found at: http://wherefactsandfictionfuse.wordpress.com/

I’ll leave you in Marit’s capable hands as she talks about her own Writing Process.

The Writing Life – Feb 2014

Busy with all kinds of writerly activities this week. Yesterday a writing workshop at Art Central in Barry, courtesy of the Women’s Arts Association and their exhibition for International Women’s Day. Events conspired against us, with a few apologies from people who couldn’t make it due to illness (it’s been a bad winter for bugs of all kinds) and other problems, but those happy few who braved the possibility of winter weather were rewarded with a lovely clear day and a lot of fun at the event.

Arriving at the venue in plenty of time, we were unable to drive in as the bollards hadn’t been lowered, but I spotted a lady getting out of the passenger seat of another car and striding purposefully towards the Hall. On a hunch, I suggested we drive round the block and try again – which paid off as a charming man had unlocked the bollards to allow our access. Inside, I barely had time to glimpse the art exhibition as I was shown to the room I’d be presenting in. We rearranged the furniture and unpacked my props and stock. A writing buddy had arrived at the same time and helped set things up and we chatted about our current projects – my books and the script she’s working on.

The organisers (Gwyneth and Eve) had secured funding literally at the final hurdle – they’d only been informed of the final decision the previous afternoon, so they’d decided to make the event a free one, rather than charge participants as we’d agreed to do. It makes a nice change in these austere times to have some last-minute good news about funding!

Other participants arrived in ones and twos, chatting about the weather, their writing and everybody’s health problems. Some things never change. Apparently a local block of flats had been evacuated in the small hours when part of the roof blew off, so there was good reason to talk about the Welsh weather! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-26199300

The workshop went really well – I love it when everybody jumps in with both feet, giving the exercises a good try, even when they protest that my prompts won’t work for their story. I’m a firm believer in the idea that adding elements at a tangent to the story you think you’re writing is a great way to add depth and twists the reader won’t anticipate. Apologies if that sounds like a mixed metaphor – it makes sense if you’ve ever been at one of my slightly anarchic workshops, honest! They were a fabulous bunch and we all had a great time. They left with freebies from me, a partially-constructed story each and several of them were planning to start a local writers’ group.

I still didn’t get time to browse the exhibition after the workshop, as so many people wanted to talk – both workshop participants and those who hadn’t made it for one reason or another. A really friendly town! I chatted with a lovely young lady about the ongoing story she’s writing at school (sounds like she’s got a great teacher) and a few people who asked about disability and told me related issues they had themselves. A few people bought copies of books from me and I even found time to eat a few of the yummy cakes laid on by the WAA ladies. (Loved the cupcake topped with fruit!) Then it was official opening time with the Lady Mayor. I was invited to say a few words about how I became a writer and I encouraged people to have a go at something creative, regardless of their age or life situation. More chat and we left. I was ready to collapse by the time we got back to the car.

A tiring day, but it was well worth it.

A couple of other bits of writerly news. I’ve guest-blogged on the Bristol Book Blog, giving Ten Tips for New Writers. You can read it (and other great entries, too) here: http://brsbkblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/this-week-ive-been-chatting-with-author.html#more

I’m also participating in the #mywritingprocess blog chain. My episode will be posted tomorrow morning, complete with an explanation!

In case I wasn’t busy enough, tomorrow (Monday) is Launch Day for my new book – even though a few people already have their copies and have been giving me some great feedback. It’s a pocket guide for writers, especially those starting out and unsure of how to take their writing to the next level. It’s called Just Add Writing and can be ordered through all the usual retailers as well as myself: http://www.jaywalkerwriting.co.uk

There is a Facebook event for the launch – drop in and say hello if you can. There will be a party on there, with virtual drinks, nibbles and probably some shenanigans behind the virtual bikeshed I’ve had installed specially. There will also be the chance to win some non-virtual prizes. You can find us at: https://www.facebook.com/events/606496329431142/

So today I’m taking things easy, recovering from yesterday and getting stuff ready for tomorrow. Hope to see you at the party.

Funny Women

I watched Newsnight (BBC2 last night) conclude with a discussion on the insistence of Danny Cohen (head of BBC TV) that more women be included in panel shows such as Mock the Week and QI.

Now, I’m all for equality, but is this a good way to tackle the problem of imbalance?

Let’s take QI – chaired by the lovely Stephen Fry with teams of mainly male competitors and an esoteric scoring system. Undoubtedly a testosterone-rich environment, this is blokey comedy at its richest, not feminised by having a (whisper it) homosexual presenter. And there are women who thrive on the show – Sandi Toksvig (hey – is homosexuality compulsory here?) gives the male panellists a run for their money, whilst Jo Brand could almost be Les Dawson reincarnated as a woman. That’s two females who do well, in part because they behave in a mannish manner by standing up for themselves when necessary, but without trying to be men. They are women – and they are funny.

So – does a policy of increasing the number of female panellists mean we need women to act like men? Or should we change the format to be more feminine? Stephen – time to camp it up.

No, I can’t believe this would work. I applaud both Sandy and Jo for being entertaining women in a man’s panel game. And make no mistake – it is a man’s game. Not only are the panellists mostly men, the whole idea was created by a man (John Lloyd) specifically for Mr Fry and Alan Davies. I don’t know if they ever thought about including women or if we snuck in afterwards. It’s a big boys’ playground game. That’s why it’s fun to watch.

I worked for many years in male-dominated environments and I know how much it takes for a woman to get any respect. I’ve been told on many occasions that I was thought of as “one of the boys” and other, less printable, terms. I’ve worked in teams where there was more testosterone than oxygen in the air – and it isn’t healthy. Groups of men will act in ways they know will cause problems, but no-one is prepared to say anything in front of the rest. And so…

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve worked in all-female offices, too. And it can get so bitchy that I sometimes wondered if I should keep a note of who’s not speaking to whom and who’s staking a claim on which fellas…

Danny Cohen is correct that we should have more women on panel shows. But shoehorning females into the boys’ own world of most TV panel shows won’t work. You’ll annoy the fans by diluting the male hormones, which will change the feel of the shows they love. And the poor token women will know they’re included because of their gender, not because they’re likely to be funny.

Tokenism doesn’t work. If a panel game has to have a women in front of the camera, what about someone from an ethnic minority? Or a disabled person? QI, at least, is already in the clear on the LGBT front – should we insist all other shows toe the line, too?

Imagine the advert:
_____________________________________________________________________________________
Panellists wanted for new quiz show. Successful applicants will have appropriate qualifications or be able to demonstrate proficiency in at least two of the following areas:

Female
Non-Caucasian
Visible Disability
L/G/B/T
Over 50 years of age

GSOH desirable but not essential.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

No – this isn’t the solution. For women to be entertaining and successful in panel games, we need to involve them from the start. We need female designers and writers, as well as males. Perhaps in a few years we could all be enjoying panel games where men and women compete on an equal footing – and they can all enjoy being themselves. An entertaining panel of people.

Read more here:
http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/feb/08/bbc-comedy-shows-male-panels-female-presence

Beginning to Write

“How do I start to write?” The commonest question any writer gets asked when presenting an event. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who bites back a sarcastic answer of, “Just pick up a pen.”

But it’s not just sarcasm. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. There’s no magic recipe, no simple shortcut to producing a bestseller. Most writers only become successful after years of scribbling in the wee small hours, before they shower and dress for the day job that pays the bills. Yes, we’ve all heard about the lucky writer who turns their fan-fic blog into a huge bestseller – with sequels if they’re really lucky. But flash-in-the-pan success doesn’t last. The biggest selling book one year becomes an obscure trivia question three years later. We live in a world where success is truly fleeting and the way to make a career from writing is to hone your writing.

I blogged a lot in September and October 2013 as a warm-up to NaNoWriMo in November, with a series of articles related to writing a novel. The feedback convinced me there is an appetite for this – that people know they could write a novel but aren’t sure they could structure their work, or don’t know how to make their characters interesting. Or any number of other aspects. So I try to help with tips I’ve learned the hard way over the years.

One beginner didn’t have time to read my blog and told me I had to summarise “just the important bits” for him – I didn’t even bother to reply. Another writer complained he’d signed up for an online course in writing and they kept making him write “boring stuff” instead of the novel he feels he’s got inside him. I don’t agree – I replied that it’s a writer’s job to make the boring stuff interesting and even the worst writing exercise in the world is good practice. Writing courses can be really helpful, every book on writing has something to offer if the reader looks out for the tips that are useful to them. But books take time to read, time you could spend writing. Be wary of reading every book about writing and never putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Or worse still, buying all the books on writing and arranging them neatly on the shelf to gather dust.

All good writers are readers. Read everything you can get your hands on, especially in the genre you want to write. There are more good books out there than you’ll ever read. Reading in the simplest and most enjoyable way of learning grammar and sentence structure. Forget all the rules you half-remember from school and soak up the rhythms of language from books already published. Learn to read with a critical eye: make a mental note of a phrase that just says something perfectly; stop and reread any sentence that doesn’t quite work – what’s wrong with it? Can you see a better way to say the same thing? Copy out the whole paragraph and have a go…

How does a beginner become a writer? Simple – read everything, write every day and practice editing work to make it better.

Yes, it’s always possible that your blog or self-published ebook will happen to tap into the Zeitgeist – the spirit of our times. But don’t sit around waiting for that miracle:

Read … Write … Edit

If you’re in the Barry area this Saturday (15th Feb), or fancy a day out to visit this lovely town in the Vale of Glamorgan, you may like to come to a writing workshop I’m presenting at Art Central. It’ll be lively and fun, with exercises to encourage you to write. It’s aimed at beginners, but there’ll be plenty to enjoy, even if you’ve been writing for years. £4 a ticket, including freebies, cuppas and cake afterwards. I’ll be selling my books at a discount to participants, but there’s no pressure to buy. Promise! (I’ll never be any good as a salesperson!) Starts at 1:30 pm, or get there early for a chat. More details on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/events/1416150005295798/ ) or message me. Hope to see you there. 

Book on the Way

There’s a strange lull period just before self-publication of a self-published book. I’ve finished writing the book, designed the cover and sent it all off to the printers. (It takes a few weeks for the physical books to arrive.) I’ve got limited edition production runs to arrange for items in the goody bags. But apart from those, I’m in a kind of writing limbo.

I don’t want to work on another writing project, as I’ll have to pour all my energy into this one again when the books arrive. And a few weeks isn’t long enough to finish anything. And frankly, I’m tired after the last few weeks of frenetic writing.

Yes, I’m working on various writerly events I’ve got lined up in the next few months. So far, I have a couple of guest blogging spots, a reading for International Women’s Day and two workshops:

Saturday 15th February, Running a Taster session for the Women’s Arts Association in Barry. Gonna be lots of fun and very lively for all levels of writers. The bad news is it’s £4 a ticket.  The good news is that my books will be available at a discount 😉 and I’m promised that there will be cake. 
Details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1416150005295798/?fref=ts

I’m also running a Writing Workshop at Steampunk at the Seaside, Camber Sands in March. Details of that one will follow when I know what’s happening.

Meanwhile I’m catching up on a backlog of non-book admin that’s been building up and taking orders for the new book. I’m offering an option of a small goody bag with a few extras, as my goody bags proved so popular with Chrystal Heart. (You can pre-order here: http://www.freewebstore.org/Jay-Walker-Writing if you’re interested.)

Promo Pack JAW

I might even have a bit of time to relax. Hmm, what’s on my knitting needles at the moment…?

Knit Orange

Giveaway! Just Add Writing

My new book will be out in February – it’s a small volume of writing tips to lift a writer onto the next level.

Front JAW
Just Add Writing. 150cm x 15cm, 100 pages

I run writing workshops for groups of writers and several other organisations. I’m guest lecturer at our local University and have been NaNoWriMo ML for Wales for a decade. And I get asked the same questions time and time again. So I thought I’d put my answers into a book that people can take away with them.

Many writers find it hard to scale up their work – they can handle short fiction, but it’s too big a step to write a coherent novel. It’s not just a case of producing more words – it’s a very different animal to write. A short story may only have one dimension, a timeline with little or no character development. More usually it has breadth as well, a second dimension in which characters can move at right angles to the main plot, generating interest for the reader. But a novel needs depth, too – the third dimension which keeps the reader turning pages right till the end.

Okay, that might be pushing an analogy too far, but it’s one way to visualise the step change between the different media. I’ve read novels that were really just short stories padded out in the first two dimensions, lacking in any depth. A novel like this will only succeed if it has something extra, something that captures people’s imagination and taps into the zeitgeist. In other words, it takes luck – and that’s not a good thing for a writer to rely on.

There are also writers who produce a novel-length manuscript and don’t know how to make it “work”. They don’t know how to turn a draft into a completed novel. In this day of free e-publishing and print-on-demand paperbacks, all too many of these get released into the big, wide world without proper consideration.

And so, my little book. Just Add Writing is designed to help those writers to write a novel that people will want to read. To focus on the aspects that keep readers turning the pages, bring them back for the next book. We live in a world of free ebooks and throwaway fiction, and this is a guide to making you novel stand above the swamp of the mediocre.

No, I’m not promising you’ll write a bestseller – only that I’ll help you write the best novel that YOU can. There are ways to maximise the return from the time you can spend on writing – many of them learnt the hard way by your humble writer. (Me!) There are tips I can give you to improve your writing, but the hard work is down to you.

Hence the title.

Enough waffle. Just Add Writing will be published on 17th February and available through all good booksellers, online and even in the real world!
You will soon be able to pre-order a limited edition pack with a few extras.

Watch this space.

Meanwhile, to win a copy (including worldwide P&P), simply post a picture of yourself reading one of my books and tag me in the picture. If you have an ebook, show the cover of my book on your ereader’s screen and point that towards the camera. 🙂 Closing date 10th Feb, 2014. The three best pictures will each receive a signed copy of Just Add Writing.

(I’m also presenting a workshop in Barry on 15th Feb. See you there?)