La Bella Venezia

Yesterday we returned from a week in Venice. Yes, that’s right, a full week in the place most people visit for two or three days at most, pausing only long enough to tick off the main sites (Rialto, St. Mark’s Square) and do the main tourist attractions (gondola ride, selfie in front of the Bridge of Sighs). But if you take the time to spend longer than the average tourist in this amazing place, you will really reap the benefits.

Besides being beautiful, with its labyrinth of canals, colourful buildings, lively squares and narrow passageways, Venice is steeped in history. One only has to stick their head into the stunning Frari Church or Scuolo Grande di San Rocco to get a flavour of what the city has to offer. And it doesn’t stop there. The different areas all have their own unique charm, from San Polo (where we rented a lovely Airbnb property and found a gorgeous sandwich shop/bar which we frequented for a beer and glass of Prosecco most evenings) to Castello (where we returned to a wonderful restaurant near to the famous Arsenale – former ship yard and armoury – where we dined on our honeymoon last year) to the Jewish Ghetto and Giudecca, which both have a completely different, but no less charming, vibe compared to the other parts of the city.

This year, the Venice Biennale festival includes modern art, with a huge display of artworks to explore in both the Arsenale and Giardini. A two day ticket costs only 25 Euros, which is well worth the money. There are also a huge number of other galleries and exhibitions (both permanent and temporary, to coincide with the Biennale) running across the city, including new exhibitions by Damien Hirst and David Hockney (neither of which we saw, sadly, as we ran out of time).

And then there is the beach. On my previous two trips to Venice, both less than three days in duration, I didn’t make it as far as the Lido. But with a few days more we were able to hop on the Vaporetto (water bus) and make the half hour journey on two occasions. It’s not the best beach in the world, and it is very busy during the summer, but there are still plenty of sun beds and umbrellas available to rent and it offers respite from the searing heat and busy streets in the city, when sightseeing gets too much.

I need not linger on the food (it goes without saying Italian food is divine); suffice to say if seafood and ice cream are your bag, you will not be disappointed in Venice. I’m pretty sure I’ve come back at least half a stone heavier, but I don’t regret a moment of it!

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Graceland

In 1996 I discovered the joy of Graceland* – the album by Paul Simon, not Elvis’s former home (after which it was named). I remember driving along dusty Kenyan roads with the windows wound right down, staring at the spectacular landscape with its peculiar upside-down Baobab trees and feeling a surge of pure bliss as Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes belted out of the tape player.

I must have listened to that album a hundred times during that trip alone, but when I came back to England the tape was relegated to the back of the wardrobe and all but forgotten. Until a couple of days ago, that is, when Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes started playing in the restaurant where I was having lunch. It caught me completely off guard, but as the first few bars of the song wafted out from the speakers I felt that familiar wave of pleasure – a feeling that the vast majority (though admittedly not all-I am partial to the odd mass-produced ditty) of modern ‘popular’ music these days couldn’t hope to elicit.

How, I wondered in that moment, could I have become so desensitised to such wonderful music? The same applies to so many other incredible songs that I’ve stumbled across, then walked away from, over the years. What at first sweeps you up like a heady affair soon turns from lust to love, from love to like, and from like to mere indifference.

It occurred to me, then, that this was a rather neat analogy for relationships. Just like with music, where true classics may wear thin with constant repetition, but will, ultimately, stand the test of time, so the initial flush of relationship lust can wax and wane when we become used to it – but if the relationship is right for us it too will stand the test of time. It will ‘come back into fashion’ in just the same way as our favourite tracks and we will be all the more grateful for its, as with their, existence.

Put another way, we may not always be overly enamoured with one another – the classic “I love you but I just don’t like you very much at the moment” scenario that comes about when life gets in the way, giving rise to stress within our relationships – but if we are truly ‘meant to be’ we can be quietly confident the situation will right itself before long.

We humans are magpies by nature. We like things that are shiny and new, and get bored of the things we know too well, so start taking them for granted. But, rather than spending all our time chasing the new, it’s well worth taking a moment to look around sometimes. Because it’s only then you can appreciate the many wonderful things and people that you already have – and feel thankful.

*For any other Paul Simon fans out there, Graceland is currently available on Google Play for £1.99-absolute steal).

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Detox Diet: Day Three (aka The Final Frontier)

I’m not going to lie to you, today has NOT been easy. When my alarm went off at 6.55am I could barely find the strength to lift my head off the pillow, let alone do my pilates DVD as planned. So it was back to sleep for another 45 minutes, and even then I felt like someone had dropped a breeze block on my head from a great height.

At work I was grumpy and impatient – though having to proofread a 310 page document would probably have that effect on me with or without a detox.

At lunchtime, to cheer myself up, I had an extra-large bowl of garden salad with lemon and oil dressing, rationalising that the ingredients would otherwise have gone to waste (because I’m sure as hell having something different for lunch tomorrow – most probably something that’s been deep fried in a foot of animal fat then coated in three consecutive layers of chocolate and cheese) and anyway, how can it possibly be bad to have an extra half of a tomato and a handful of spinach? Give me a break.

After lunch I took a stroll outside, then sat in the sunshine and read for a while. At one point, having watched countless happy people strolling past with iced coffees and frozen yoghurt, I almost succumbed to the sugar craving and had a tic tac to keep me going. But I resisted.

In truth I nearly gave up altogether when my colleagues asked me for a post-work glass of wine, but I hadn’t come this far to fall at the final hurdle. So I made my final revolting (and I really mean that. So many tasty ingredients went into it but the only two I could taste were celery and parsley. Gross.) mean green juice and threw it down the hatch in one, grimacing all the way.

When I got home I forced myself to do the pilates DVD I’d sacked off this morning, and I feel a whole lot better for it (if slightly light-headed given I’ve consumed the sum total of about five calories in the past 72 hours).

Tomorrow I’ve invited a friend for dinner and have promised her a nice big, cheesy lasagne with lashings of garlic break – in your face detox!

As for now, only one portion of ‘fat flushing soup’ and a chamomile tea stand between me and FREEDOM!!! It’s pathetic, I know, but I’m actually quite proud of this achievement….

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Detox Diary: Day Two

It’s day two of my three day detox and I’m happy to report I haven’t keeled over through starvation. Yet. Though that’s not to say it hasn’t been a mighty (and frankly superhuman) effort staying away from those bloody Crunchie ice creams in the freezer, not to mention resisting dipping into the ‘drawer of goodies’ at work. By dinner time last night I was more excited about consuming soup than I ever previously fathomed it possible for a human to be. And remembering I was allowed to have a chamomile tea before lights out elicited an actual squeal of delight.

What is happening to me? I’m not at all sure I like this version of myself, who spends her days wafting dolefully past trays of cakes in the office, and was so pathetically grateful for this morning’s coconut and spinach smoothie it nearly reduced her to tears? This afternoon I was even overjoyed to remember I had left the eight raw almonds out of my lunchtime salad, and subsequently ate them hunched over my desk like a starving savage.

But worst of all is the guilt. Yesterday I had eaten my salad before it dawned on me I’d made enough for two portions (according to the person who came up with this plan-who must, in my opinion, actually be a stick insect), then at dinner I crumbled after eating my allowance of ONE CUP of soup (ridiculous) and ended up having at least twice that (what? It’s only got vegetables in it for God’s sake, and I’m not even allowed any bread!) Today, too, I over-catered, albeit accidentally because my colleagues expressed a mild interest in trying my Mean Green Smoothie but, when it came to it, decided it smelt too much like pond scum to imbibe it. Nice.

It’s now 7pm and I’m attempting to wait until 8pm for my poxy ‘cup’ (read: at least two bowls. I no longer believe in conformity) of soup, as I don’t think I could bear watching the Great British Bake Off without some food (though even with the soup there’s a strong chance I’ll have gnawed off my own leg by the time the programme is over, or at the very least launched myself at the freezer and done away with every Crunchie ice cream in it).

I’d be rubbish at proper dieting. When you’re not allowed to eat things  those things are all you can think about. It’s pure torture. Thank God there’s only one more day standing between me and all the ice cream, chocolate, cheese and pizza I can eat. Not to mention the red wine. Yes, I know I’m missing the point of the detox if I’m not prepared to change my ways for good at the end of it, but one thing I’m learning with this experience is this: Life’s too short to detox.

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Detox Diary: Day One

One tedious and short-lived powdered Spirulina phase aside, I’ve never been one for a detox diet, though in truth that says more about my lazy nature than an aversion to the concept. I’m all for a period of healthy living, in fact, and never more so than now, after three consecutive heavy weekends have brought me to my knees, physically and mentally. And so yesterday, after a hearty last supper of cheese-based Spanish tapas dishes washed down with red wine (what?), I went to the shop and bought all the ingredients needed to do this three day detox plan.

This morning, upon rising, I dutifully prepared my lemon and ginger detox drink and put the ingredients for the fat flushing soup into the slow cooker. When I arrived at work I prepared the coconut milk smoothie, then for a mid-morning snack chopped up some carrot, celery and cucumber for a snack, which I supplemented with eight raw almonds. Lunch time involved a second trip to the shop to buy additional detox plan items for the garden salad with lemon and oil dressing that would constitute lunch.

So far, so good right? Yes, I suppose so. Except for the following:

  1. Celery is Evil
    As in, actually the devil incarnate. Which is particularly upsetting given that it is one of the primary ingredients of this particular detox plan *gags*
  2. Detoxing when you have ice cream in the freezer is the worst kind of torture there is
    Especially when that ice cream just so happens to be Crunchie Blast ice cream, your current favourite ice cream in the whole freaking world *weeps*
  3. Gym? You must be Joking
    I came into work with my gym kit feeling hopeful I would go on my way home from work. The reality of this situation is that living on raw fruit and veg alone provides insufficient energy to walk to the toilet and back, let alone do a workout. Which means physical activity (beyond trips to the loo – give me some credit for decency) is on the back burner until this detox is done.
  4. Read the Recipes
    It helps, because having chowed my way through an admittedly-large looking plate of garden salad (see below) I realised I had actually made enough for two servings, which means no ‘exciting’ afternoon mean green juice for me (despite having spent enough for a deposit on a house on the ingredients for it at lunch time – drat).
  5. Where does the time go?
    Healthy living is time-consuming, there’s no getting around it. All that chopping, grating, peeling and mixing is bloody hard work, in fact. But at least it makes the working day go faster…

Still to look forward to today is one cup (yeah right) of fat flushing soup and a chamomile tea before bed, washed down with lashings of filtered water. And, despite the almost unbearable craving for it, no ice cream whatsoever (because I’m saving that particular luxury for next week in Italy, where I shall be consuming all the ice cream, pasta, pizza and red wine I can shove down my throat. Who says people only do detoxes in preparation for a purge…?)

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For Fellow Aspiring Writers: Advice from the Writers’ & Artists’ Conference

On Saturday I went along to the Writers’ & Artists’ ‘How to Get Published’ conference in Euston. Given my aversion to early rising it was quite a commitment for me to show up at 9.45am on a weekend, but by the end of the day I was so glad I had. I live-tweeted throughout the event but it has since dawned on me that advice drip-fed through Twitter isn’t that easy to come back to afterwards. So for all my fellow aspiring writers I thought I would encapsulate the key learnings in this blog post for reference purposes.

Tom Tivnan from the Bookseller, on self-publishing:

  • 86% of those who have self-published would do so again
  • The print self-publishing market is comprised almost entirely of non-fiction
  • Most self-published e-books retail at around £1
  • 69% of e-books are bought by women and only 11% by men
  • 58% are published by women
  • Crime makes up 50% of the e-book market
  • Amazon controls 75% of the e-book market in the UK
  • The royalty rate of self-published books decreases considerably when the retail price is below £2.49
  • When self-publishing, tweak the price of your book often
  • Remember that people buy e-books for price not content
  • Design matters – it’s all about your brand
  • It’s difficult to get into the print market through self-publishing (Amazon has 20% share)

Stefan Tobler, CEO of And Other Stories, an “unashamedly literary” publishing house:

  • “Think of the publisher as the donkey who will get your riches to the reader”
  • The literary fiction market is in decline

John Mitchinson, founder of Unbound, a ‘new way of bringing authors and readers together’: 

  • The concept of Unbound is “about sharing an idea, sharing the potential of the story and, if there is enough critical mass, it will take off”
  • “Publishing is like agriculture. Retailers want the crops with the highest yield and won’t look at anything else”
  • Authors have a 1 in 5,000 chance of getting in with a big publishing house – but there are other ways to get published
  • It’s been in the news recently that the average author’s salary is as little as £11k per year but, f you take the top 10% of authors out of that, the average author makes less than £3k per year.
  • “We’re fighting to keep people reading”
  • Unbound chooses the projects with the best chance of funding
  • People can then make pledges against a particular project. The average pledge value is £35
  • 92 projects have been launched to date. Of those, only 16 failed to achieve funding
  • Unbound has 48k registered users

Polly Courtney, Author, on self-publishing to a traditional deal – and back again:

  • “Everyone’s got a book inside them, but not everyone should publish it”
  • “Whatever way you’re publishing, be sure to build up your own direct fan base.” e.g. by capturing email addresses through cards slipped into the back of your book at a launch event
  • Re-write extensively
  • Never scrimp on cover design
  • Self-publishing CAN work – but it’s all about collaboration
  • For a lot of people the first book is semi-autobiographical. Once you’ve got that off your chest you’re free to write about something else e.g. a theme you particularly care about
  • “If you do get into a conversation with an agent or publisher, ask what their long-term vision is for you and your book. Make sure you understand one another – it’s not arrogant, it’s sensible. Take control of your destiny”

Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, on traditional publishing:

  • “Finding an agent or publisher is like buying a car – you wouldn’t buy one without finding out about it first”
  • “Be yourself and write the book you want to write”
  • Good things CAN happen to first time writers
  • Identify the market and identify your niche
  • If you can’t encapsulate your story in a 200 word pitch, why should anyone else look at it
  • Self-publishing has gone up by 25% but the lion’s share of the (admittedly plateaued) market are traditionally published books
  • Rejection is not an uncommon thing – all the best authors have been rejected (William Golding 21 times!)
  • Things to do to improve your chances:- Read, Read, Read
    – Research / know your competition
    – Join a writer’s group / attend events
    – Practice e.g. by entering competitions
    – Promote yourself e.g. on Twitter, a blog etc.
    – Be patient
    – Be ambitious

Charlie Campbell, Agent:

  • Agents can tell if they’re the first or two hundredth you’ve submitted to, so research carefully before submitting
  • The bar has been raised, so these days agents need to put more editorial work in
  • Having to do too much editorial work limits how much work you can take on
  • When working in a big publishing house out of thousands of submissions each year, only one or two would be taken on
  • “Sending a partial manuscript is almost never the right thing to do”
  • Writers get rejected by agents, agents by publishers, publishers by supermarkets. If Amazon rejects a book, the reader rejects it
  • Successful stories are imitated until they dwindle into nothing. Do what you want but don’t be too out there. It’s the role of the publisher/agent to talk to you about how you can progress

Jo Unwin, Agent:

  • Take care to read submission guidelines and be targeted
  • “You can only be a debut novelist once in your life, so your manuscript needs to be as good as it can be”
  • “I would strongly recommend getting the whole book as perfect as you can before submitting your opening chapters. It’s a different trajectory if you submit a partial manuscript and don’t complete it for another 18 months. The market will be different and the mood of the agent will be different”
  • Whether an agent likes your book or not is a chemical thing. Writing is a craft you have to work on
  • What an agent does in building a writer’s career outside of the UK market is not to be underestimated
  • “In a synopsis I’m looking for storytelling ability, so tell me everything – including the ending”
  • Don’t use the agent as a sounding board – think of them as sales people

Cressida Downing, Editor:

  • Just because you can hit submit doesn’t mean you should, and just because you should doesn’t mean you should now
  • Whether sending to agents or self-publishing make your work the best it can be. People should find your writing frustrating
  • You can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader
  • “I read non-stop, all day, every day – and so should you”
  • Self-publishing is ideally suited to people with an entrepreneurial spirit
  • Novels go through 17 edits, on average, before they are successful in being published
  • Good presentation is crucial – get advice but don’t get someone else to re-write it or it will be their work and not yours
  • If you’re interested in money don’t be an author or work in publishing!
  • If you’re self-publishing and can only afford to invest in one thing, make it the cover design
  • When choosing an editor consider their track record, whether you would prefer to be edited by a well-known author or not, whether their style will fit your work, whether they offer a clear explanation of the service they provide, their costs and timings
  • Tips for going it alone: Never publish your first draft, always get someone to have a look, read it out loud and find a peer group
  • Self-publishing is about far more than writing a book and hitting ‘publish’
  • As long as you know what you’re asking and they tell you exactly what they’re providing, paying an editor can be useful
  • If everything in your story is doing it’s job, great. If not, cut it
  • There are four types of edit:

1. Read and Review

“If you pay one industry expert once in your life make it for this.”

Not a line by line edit, help with grammar/spelling or re-write (though they will say if it needs work in those areas).

Does give advice on how to avoid common pitfalls, how well your book is working and what to do to improve it.

2. Deep Structural

Most similar to advice from an agent or editor in a publishing house.

Doesn’t give line by line re-write and won’t correct spelling/grammar.

Does break down and re-build novel – sometimes to extent of changing genre or structure.

3. Copy

Line by line edit looking for continuity and what works to best show off your prose.

Doesn’t look at structural/major changes.

4. Proof

Picks up errors, typos etc. in spelling/grammar.

Doesn’t give advice on writing.

Preena Gadher, Publicist:

  • A publicist’s job is to make your book stand out from the crowd
  • Once you’re published by a house they’re invested in you and can afford a dedicated PR person. That’s the big difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing
  • Promote yourself with a website, on Twitter etc. Always keep sites up to date
  • Read the paper and magazines you want to appear in
  • Work out who your audience is, and what you have to say that would be interesting/relevant to them
  • The relationship with the publicist works both ways
  • It helps to be shortlisted for / win prizes

Laurie Penny, Blogger:

  • Being time-rich and cash-poor is how a lot of creativity comes about
  • Keeping a blog is good training for editing your work

Hope you will find this as useful as I did.

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Girl From Nowhere: A Review

En route to tonight’s performance of Girl from Nowhere – a one woman play written and performed by the hugely talented (and sickeningly young) Victoria Rigby at Theatre 503 in Battersea, I was disappointed to read a less than positive review about the play. Fortunately, however, it was the review and not the play that was absolute rubbish.

Victoria Rigby’s performance as Jeanie Hogan, a failed rock star in the late 60s in America – who narrates the play from her childhood bedroom against a backdrop of her mother shouting at her – was gritty and engaging. From the moment the flame-haired actress (literally) screamed her way onto the stage she held the audience rapt with her powerful stage presence. Her acting was both believable and emotive, her singing voice and guitar skills faultless. When the play drew to a close I found myself wishing it was the end of the first half rather than the whole performance.

What struck me most (and I mean this in an entirely non-patronising way-at 32 I’m hardly on the scrap heap myself!) was how ageless Rigby’s performance was. She played the part of Jeanie with a rawness that both belied and transcended her real age.

In short, Girl From Nowhere was so impressive, punchy and brave a performance I felt moved to write this review and, in doing so, attempt to discredit the review I read earlier – which, whilst not wholly negative was still, in my opinion, an unfair portrayal of a talented lady whose star must surely be in its ascendance. It’s hard enough to make it in this business as it is, so it’s only right to give credit where it’s undeniably due.

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