Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Making Money vs. Following Your Dreams

My husband has found himself in a unique position for a recent university graduate—he’s doing something he loves and actually getting paid for it. Not only that, but parts of his job directly relate to the subject he wrote about in his dissertation. How many of us can say that?

I guess, technically, I can. I wrote about the development of the Christian Fiction market, and now I’m writing Christian romances. The only difference is that I’m not getting paid for what I do. Yet.

I know that my situation differs greatly from that of many aspiring writers my age. I’m not having to work in a day job I barely tolerate, which has no relation to my field of knowledge, just so I can afford to go home every night and write novels that I desperately hope someone will publish. I’m not applying for unpaid publishing or journalism internships in the hope that it’ll give me an “in” with the industry I hope to write for. I’m not starting another degree in English because at least I’ll be able to work with books in some way or another. I’m genuinely sitting at home each day, bashing out more words on my computer keyboard.

I know that sitting at my desk and writing sounds terribly boring to some people. The idea of being trapped in your home all day, only taking breaks to visit the supermarket or post office, can be terrifying for extroverts or anyone who can’t focus on their home environment.

Credit here.

But, well, that’s what writers do. We sit at our computers and write. Maybe this doesn’t make sense to non-writers, but I am extremely excited that I get to write every single day. I don’t have to squeeze in a few minutes here and there in between my day job or coursework. I actually get to write.

This is not something I expected I would be able to do at the age of twenty-two. I always imagined fitting my writing around my day job, maybe eventually having the chance to devote myself to it full-time if I became a stay-at-home mom and was at home all day.

I didn’t imagine I would get married two months before my twenty-first birthday, and even when Simon and I did get married, I figured that I would work while he studied for a Masters or PhD. It wasn’t until our final year of university, when Simon decided he didn’t want to stay in academia any longer and began applying for jobs that I realised that I had an opportunity I never anticipated. If Simon got a job that could support both of us, I wouldn’t have to work. I could actually follow my dream.

I’m not saying that I married Simon because I knew his Computer Science degree would fund my writing career, or that he’s only in this job so that I can stay at home. We’re in an amazing situation where we’ve only been out of university for three months and we’re both pursuing our dreams—software engineering for Simon, and writing for myself.

We’re not rolling in money, but we’re also not pinching pennies as much as we were at university. I appreciate the little things that have changed, like buying brand-name bagels when they’re not on offer, or having people over for dinner twice in one week without having to seriously examine our budget. We’re paying taxes and making repayments on our student loans, and this excites me! We’re doing what we love, we’re financially stable and we only graduated in June.

I realise that this isn’t everyone’s idea of happiness. We’d rather save up to buy a house than blow our savings on a round-the-world trip, but there are plenty of people who would prefer the opposite scenario. That’s not wrong either—if that’s what you truly want to do. But please respect that our idea of happiness is Simon coming home to a house where all the chores are done, so that we can spend time together every evening.

Some people might prefer working long hours so that they can go on holiday together every few months, even if they have to spend every evening catching up on laundry. I appreciate that every night is date night, that we don’t have to schedule time to see each other. We spent the first year of our marriage writing dissertations and commuting from Anstruther to St Andrews to attend classes, so I love that we can spend every evening together, even if we’re just watching television or playing a board game. I know this won’t last when we have children, so we’re cherishing this time we have together.

We might never buy furniture from anywhere but Ikea and maybe there will always be a few Value products in my shopping trolley, but I don’t mind that if it means we get to do what we love, and be with the people we love.  

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Why I Write Romance

Following these two posts on writing romance novels, I decided to share my own experience.

I’ve known since I was six years old that I wanted to be a published author, but in my teenage years I was incredibly vague about the kinds of books I wrote. In retrospect it’s so obvious that my first novel, written when I was fifteen, is a romance, but at the time I murmured comments about writing stories about “real people” with “real problems” and “real life situations”. I’m not sure if I was already aware of a stigma attached to romance novels, and if I was, I don’t know where I picked up on it as I’d never even glanced at the “Romance” rack in the library, always heading straight for the ambiguously named “General Fiction” section. In spite of this, every one of the novels or stories I wrote in my teen years contained a fairly large romantic element.

Although I’d read plenty of novels that contained love stories of some kind—everything from The Princess Diaries to Little Women—it took me a long time to admit that my preferred genre was romance. As my teenage years progressed and I became more aware that I was definitely both a reader and writer of romance novels, I tried even harder to hide this from people. I don’t remember any of my teachers or family making over comments against romance novels, but something must have filtered down to me as I remember making disparaging comments about friends who read “girly books” or claimed Jane Austen was their favourite author. I don’t think I’m ever going to be a die-hard Janeite, but I have developed a bit of a reputation for being an expert on “girly books”. And I’m slowly learning to embrace this identity.

My husband doesn’t read romance novels—besides the ones I write—and I can probably count on one hand the number of books we’ve both read and enjoyed. Off the top of my head, 1984, Eugene Onegin, The Monk and Heart of Darkness are the few books we share similar opinions on. Our taste in books is so different that nearly all of the books I wanted to donate to charity after finishing my degree were the ones he wanted me to keep so he could read. I won’t be getting rid of Gulliver’s Travels any time soon, apparently. Very rarely do we recommend each other a book to read, but he understands why I love the romance genre so much. Simon often asks me about the book I’m reading and we’ll share stories back and forth about why we’re loving or hating our current read.

We do enjoy the same TV shows, and this has allowed me to demonstrate how satisfying a successful romance or love story can be, without forcing him to read a couple of Harlequins. Whether it’s Castle and Beckett from Castle, or Stanley and Mimi in Jericho or Victor and Sierra in Dollhouse, we’re generally both cheering when the hero and heroine finally get together, or shouting at the screen when they miss their chance due to some silly misunderstanding. But that final, satisfying moment when they finally admit their feelings for each other is always worth the wait, and it makes the journey all the more enjoyable.

I’ve heard people say that romance novels are unrealistic because the relationships always work out, and there’s always a happy ending. That escaping into a world where love always prevails is dangerous, because that’s not how it truly is in real life. Honestly? I need escapism. Maybe not all the time, but there are days when I don’t want to read or watch something that won’t end happily. Happy endings don’t always exist in real life, but that’s why we need them in fiction—to give us hope. The constant reminder that love can prevail gives us the push we need to continue being optimistic in our daily lives, and to make it past the hard times.

It’s okay to need to read a book with a happy ending. During the winter months I generally don’t read anything but happy books, as my Seasonal Affective Disorder does not make it terribly easy to read novels where everyone loses their loved ones and the hero is killed on the last page. The month before I got married, I remember borrowing an audiobook from the library and eventually setting it aside because I was feeling discouraged that everyone in the book was in an unhappy marriage. I did eventually finish the book, but at the time I decided I’d be more positive in the stressful weeks before our wedding if I wasn’t listening to stories of miserable relationships.  

For me, reading romance novels is not a guilty pleasure. They help me stay positive during tough times, and they’ve made for some of the most satisfying books I’ve encountered over the past couple of years. If I can write the kind of love story that has the reader cheering (silently or out loud) when the hero and heroine finally get together and keeps a smile on their face after they’ve closed the book, I’ll be equally satisfied. 

Friday, 26 July 2013

A Day in the Life of a Glamorous Full-Time Writer

5am—Woken up by neighbour’s dog as it runs manically up and down the stairs that run behind our bedroom wall. Regret the decision to choose this room to be the master bedroom, but it was the only one with built-wardrobes. Husband is snoring like a train and blissfully unaware of the noise.

7am—Alarm goes off. Hit snooze repeatedly.

7:15am—Alarm goes off again. Tell husband he has five more minutes before he has to get up, and will he please stop pushing me off the bed?

7:20am—Alarm goes off again. Nearly fall out of bed turning it off, then tell husband to get up and have a shower. He tells me that he doesn’t like showers because they make him smell. Eventually convince him to get up. Fall back asleep.

7:35am—Husband returns from shower and asks if I’ll start breakfast. Still half asleep, I tell him I will not.

7:40am—Husband steals the duvet and makes me get out of bed. Notice that he’s wearing different jeans from yesterday and am impressed that he changed them without having to be ordered to. Start breakfast.

7:45am—Remember that it’s recycling day and ask husband to put the recycling bin in front of the house, since I’m still in my nightdress.

7:47am—Husband returns from outside soaking wet. Debate taking the bus to Tesco today, since me and my little trolly will probably get drenched on the mile-long walk from our house. Eat breakfast.

8:10am—Start putting things in my husband’s rucksack because he’ll probably forget them (book, headphones, snacks) and notice that his shirt is covered in mud from the outside of the recycling bin. Make him change.

8:20am—Finally wave husband off to work and settle down to drink tea and check emails. Spend far too long catching up on book groups, writing forums and Twitter. Bookmark an online workshop on writing synopsises and accidentally stumble upon a self-published fan-fiction novel about Anne Elliott from Persuasion becoming a long-distance runner. Ponder how on earth that idea came into being. Scroll through Facebook for thirty second and like two pictures of friends’ babies and then get bored. Hunt for cover art for next week’s reviews on The Christian Manifesto and double-check the schedule to see when my next review needs to be ready. Discover a recipe for Nutella Banana Bread and decide that I definitely need to add chocolate spread to the shopping list.

9:30am—Running out of things to do on the internet, bemoan the weather (which is preventing me from doing any laundry) and have a shower.

9:45am—Get dressed, annoyed that I haven’t ironed any of my long-sleeved shirts since I didn’t think I’d need them in JULY. Go for the layered look instead.

10am—Attempt to load a new audiobook on to Kindle to listen to while doing the dishes. After installing Audible and reinstalling it several times, remember that it has never worked on the family PC and turn on laptop. While waiting for laptop to turn on, put away yesterday’s dishes and fill the sink with water, realising how slow the poor computer is getting. After booting up Audible, realise that the audiobook is already on my Kindle. Hunt for it and find it listed as a newly added file. Confused at whatever magic the faulty program on my PC has done, finally start dishes at 10:15. Notice that two police officers are banging on the door to the next house and wonder what’s going on. Would it make for an interesting story?

10:30am—Brush hair (which has been wrapped in a towel after leaving the shower) and get ready to head to Tesco. Appears to have stopped raining, but will take money for the bus in case get caught in a torrential downpour.

11am—Thankfully make it to Tesco without getting rained on, and only nearly got knocked down once while crossing the road.

11:30am—Having found nearly everything on my list, proceed to spend the next ten minutes looking for rice cakes and hummus. Hint: they’re not where you’d expect them to be. Bright spot: small child excitedly waves his hummus at me and allows me to share in his joy at being allowed to carry the tub around the shop all on his own.

11:45am—Finally leave the supermarket after mistakenly choosing the check-out with the cashier who likes to have a full conversation with everyone around her, but neglects to help the old couple in front of me pack their bags, forcing them to take five minutes to put four items in one carrier bag. At least she’s friendly. Manage to save £7 with coupons, and feel far too excited about this achievement.

12:10pm—Make it home slightly wet, but not too bedraggled. At least the journey back from the supermarket is shorter as it’s all downhill. Put food away, make cup of tea and indulge in rice crackers, hummus and celery sticks for lunch while watching Cougar Town.

12:30pm—Accidentally get sucked into some relationship articles on Pinterest, which inevitably lead to romance-novel bashing because “it’s just porn.” Wonder how these people, presumably Americans from their spelling, have never stumbled across Christian romance novels in their life.

1pm—It’s finally 8am on the East Coast, so I start posting links to TCM’s reviews of the day all over social media, and begin to attack my inbox.

1:35pm—Finish with emails earlier than usual as it’s July and most people are on holiday. Decide to start writing, but get distracted by whale noises from the flat upstairs. Unsure whether the dog is just whining weirdly or if the neighbours really are listening to whale music.

1:45pm—Whale noises finally stop. Begin writing.

2:05pm—Having whacked out 700 words, take a break to make tea. Lady Grey is my tea of choice for the afternoon.

2:10pm—After briefly being sucked back into Twitter, resume writing. Don’t love the scene, but will plough through and EDIT LATER. That’s basically my writing mantra.

2:20pm—Finish scene and take quick break to peruse GoodReads.

2:30pm—Begin writing next scene.

2:55pm—Finish another scene and take a break to eat rice cakes and look at recipes while trying to figure out what direction to head in next. Hero is coming off a little bit like an aloof jerk, so this needs to be fixed ASAP.

3:30pm—Finish up third scene of the day. Word count totals in at 2,800 words, which is not typical for me, but I haven’t had a lot of housework to do today, and we’re having hot dogs for dinner, which does not require a lot of preparation. Save file to computer and Google Drive, just to be safe.

3:40pm—After replying to a couple of emails, tidy living room, put laundry away, clean sink and rearrange the staples cupboard so that the new groceries fit properly. Really, this life is glamorous, can’t you tell?

4pm—Sit down to read on the sofa in the living room.

5:15pm—Husband texts to say that he’s on the bus home from work. Start dinner.

5:45pm—Husband returns from work. Sit down to have dinner. Spend rest of evening watching Dollhouse, doing dishes, reading and drinking tea.


Saturday, 15 June 2013

From a Different Perspective

Yesterday my husband and I had the opportunity to baby-sit for the most adorable twenty-month-old twins. It’s been a while since I’ve spent time with children this age, since most of the kids in my Sunday school class are over the age of three. These children were so excited by everything they saw, whether it was a truck, dog, bird or simply another person their height. Each dog or truck was just as exciting as the last, making them shout “Wow!” every time a van drove past the play park. It was fascinating to see the world through the eyes of a toddler and witness their joy over everyday items or occurrences that adults barely notice.

I don’t think I’m going to start shouting “Wow!” every time a bin lorry drives down my street, but I think there’s a lot to be learnt from another person’s perspective. Today, a toddler taught me to appreciate the people who empty my bins, and I found myself pausing to look at wildlife and birds a lot more on our walk back from the park.

You don’t necessarily have to give yourself entirely over to someone’s system of belief in order to gain something from their perspective. I love reading Amish fiction because it reminds me to slow down and focus on the simpler things in life. I love the way that the Amish hold family as the highest priority (next to God) since this isn’t something we see a lot of nowadays. It’s something that speaks a lot to me, since my husband and I believe that our relationship and our future children should always be more important than our careers, even if it means sacrificing promotions or a higher salary.

However, I don’t agree with the Amish practice of “shunning” members of a community, especially when the shunning only ends when the person makes a public confession for their sins. I don’t need to hear the details of someone’s sin in order to forgive them or help them, so this just doesn’t seem right to me. Likewise, I’m not a fan of the way that labour and chores are split among the Amish, with women always doing the cooking and cleaning, and men always doing the heavy labour—not to mention male-only preaching. I might love to bake and do laundry, but where does this leave the woman whose skills lie in woodwork or giving sermons? 

But the fact that the Amish rely heavily on gender constructs to split their labour doesn’t mean that I can’t still learn something from their lifestyle. If I ever met an Amish woman, I’d hope she could overlook my jewellery and tight-fitting clothes and be able to bond over our common interests, rather than focusing on those aspects of our lives which are different.

This is something I’ve had to realise this past year, particularly with regards to my increasing involvement in feminism. I think I’ve probably always been a feminist, but I didn’t start using the label to describe myself until recently. I held back because I didn’t agree with some of the things people did in the name of feminism, particularly groups like FEMEN. It took me a while to realise that I could call myself a feminist without agreeing with every individual feminist act or organisation.

I’ve met some wonderful men and women in the Christian community who want to promote equality and make more people aware of the prevalence of issues like domestic abuse and rape, and promote ways in which to protect women from dangerous situations. But even in this community, I come across feminists who support viewpoints that I don’t agree with—whether have different views on abortion, or have a more extreme stance on modesty. Even so, I’m still grateful for the viewpoints that have introduced me to, and the ways in which they have enlightened my thinking. 

Sometimes I think that we’re under the illusion that we need to agree with everything another person believes in order to call them our friend, but this way of thinking is ultimately going to leave us rather lonely. Sometimes having one small point to connect on can be all we need to forge a new friendship, which can be especially important when we’re heading off to a new adventure—moving house, starting a new career or hobby, or entering a new university. I’ve made a lot of unexpected friendships at university, and even if I haven’t always agreed with some friends’ actions of points of view on certain subjects, I’d like to think that each person I’ve stayed friends with over these past four years has enriched my life in some way. Sometimes it takes someone from a different culture or walk of life to help us to see past the hurdles in our own life that seem impossible to get past.  

As we prepare to move to Edinburgh in a couple of weeks, I hope that we can approach new experiences and friendships with the same excitement as the toddlers we babysat—with excitement and appreciation. 

Monday, 10 June 2013

Experimenting with New Recipes

Anyone who knows Simon and I will be aware that we both love to cook. And if you don't, you clearly need to wrangle your way into being invited over for dinner. I'll admit, we haven't experimented with too many new recipes in the last month or so, since we've been busy sitting exams and house-hunting, but we took the opportunity last week to try three new recipes. 

On Tuesday we adapted this Orzo, Feta & Pepper Salad by adding cucumber, radishes and cherry tomatoes. This allowed us to use up vegetables that we knew we'd bought for other meals but wouldn't need all of, and finish up the half bag of orzo that had been sitting in our cupboard for months. We actually didn't make the dressing suggested in the recipe as we discovered a bottle of Cochrane Cottage Chilli Balsamic Dressing in the cupboard that looked like it would go perfectly with this salad. I bought this dressing for Simon for his Christmas and it's a pity we haven't used it until now! This is an excellent summer meal, made even better by the fact that it was warm enough to eat outside on the patio. 

On Wednesday we decided to make Chicken Enchilada Pizza as we had chicken breasts, shredded mozzarella and dough already in our freezer. We're really trying to work our way through everything remaining in the freezer before we move house in July, so this was a great opportunity to clean out part of it. We made our own enchilada sauce using a carton of passata as the base, and we made a few small changes to the pizza. We cooked the tomatoes on the pizza instead of sticking them on at the end, stuck with one type of cheese and skipped the lettuce and sour cream. I described the pizza to my incredibly picky teenage brother over the phone and he immediately asked me to email him a link to the recipe, so it's definitely one to check out.

As Friday is typically our Date Night of the week, Simon always likes to try something unusual, and this week it was Sardines Escabeche with Baked Potato Slices. This was actually my first experience of sardines and I think it'll take a while to get used to the oily flavour. We'd definitely tone down the cider vinegar next time as it was a little overpowering, but otherwise this was an interesting blend of flavours. Asda weren't stocking thyme last week, so we subbed some leftover mint from the orzo salad and it worked fine.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

On Giving Advice

As I sit down to write this post, my white, middle class suburban neighbours are playing some pretty cheesy dance music while they cook their barbecue. It’s not the kind of music I ever pictured them listening to, but then again, I never imagined that the young family on the opposite side of the fence would be so fond of rap music, as they revealed at last week’s barbecue. But if either of these families knocked on our door and asked what style of music I preferred, would they guess that the first word out my mouth would be “metal”? Me, who hangs up my laundry with pastel pegs and sits outside in flowery dresses, reading from my pink Kindle?

No matter how well you think you know someone, you can’t always predict what their preferences are—whether we’re talking about music, career paths or parenting styles. Even if you’ve grown up next door to someone, attended the same school or university, or been part of the same family, there will still be plenty of differences.

This all sounds pretty obvious, but I’ve found myself on the receiving end of a lot of advice over the past few years. It’s inevitable when you’re attending university, getting married, choosing a career, relocating or thinking about starting a family—and I’ve done all of these things within the space of a few short years. Those around you want you succeed, and for you to avoid making the same mistakes they did. People are desperate to share tips from their own experiences. And this is where an all too common problem arises.

No matter how much you have in common with someone, your life experiences are not going to mirror theirs exactly. And even if you do have similar families, careers or interests, their preferences might be entirely different. You’re vegetarian? Perhaps they prefer to eat meat. You want to send your children to private school? Maybe they’re thinking about homeschooling. You might simply have completely different thoughts on the best type of cleaning product to use for getting mould off the bath. Having different preferences and life experiences doesn’t mean that you can’t be friends with someone. But it does mean that your advice might not be at all relevant to them.
I married young. I read romance novels. I want to be a stay-at-home-mother. I don’t buy premade pasta sauce. I like to air-dry my washing. I don’t wear make-up. I love red wine. I fail miserably at trying to keep a diary. Perhaps we have some of these things in common. Or maybe none at all.

I could link you to half a dozen articles telling you why all of the above are things that you should be doing, explaining the benefits of making your own pasta sauce and not wearing make-up. But all those articles would succeed in doing is cementing my own belief that I’m doing the right thing for me. And that’s who these things are best for: Me. If you want to buy your own pasta sauce and wait until you’ve established your career before you marry, and you’re happy with those decisions, then good for you. I’m not going to try to convince you to do things my way because I know all too well that doing something simply because it’s what others recommend often doesn’t yield the best results.

If you want advice on getting married or writing a novel or even the best laundry detergent to use, I can tell you what works best for me, but that doesn’t mean that following my example will guarantee happiness for anyone else.

This semester I’ve been endeavouring not to push my opinions on anyone or offer advice before someone asks for it. I’m still learning, so please be patient with me. But if you need someone to be a non-judgemental sounding board, I hope this is a role I can fulfil.

I’m not going to be offering advice in this blog. Just because I ramble on about why I love linseed or air-drying doesn’t mean that I think anyone else should take up my habits—unless they want to, of course. I’d just like to talk about the things that are important to me, and let people know what’s been going on in my life. And if we happen to have something in common, isn’t that fantastic? But if you offer me advice on how to do a certain activity better—whether it’s novel-writing or deciding when to start a family—please don’t be offended if I don’t follow your advice. As much as I appreciate everyone’s desire to help each other be the best that they can be, sometimes your best is very different from someone else’s. And that’s perfectly okay.