A lack of slack

When I was a teenager, my mum would often yell at me, ‘Don’t run upstairs like a bloody elephant!’ She said that I would ‘come through the ceiling’. I knew this to be nonsense and so ignored her.

For twenty-something years I was right to do so, but then two Mondays ago I went and put my foot through the stairs.

It sounds dramatic. Really, it was all over in a brief crack, shriek, and you’ve got to be kidding me. My foot was fine, but I quickly realised the stair would need fixing that day. It could not be ignored.

So I called my dad. He made some reference to ‘running’ and ‘elephants’ and agreed to drive over and assess the damage. It took a few hours, but he managed to sort out the stair and it’s been perfectly servicable since.

As for me, I lost a day’s work. Or more accurately, I spent the rest of the week working late to try and catch up on the work that I’d planned to do on the Monday.

Last Monday – one Monday ago – I woke with a head cold. I’d been feeling rough the night before and my wife had been ill recently too, so I wasn’t surprised. I took the kids to school and made my way to work in the shed.

By lunchtime, I felt really not very well at all, but I was due to work in-house with clients on Tuesday, part of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, which meant Monday had to be my day for getting everything else done.

I carried on working and didn’t make as much progress as I would have liked, so finished off a few things in the evening. By that time, I was officially unwell and thinking to myself, ‘If I was not self-employed, I would totally take a sick day tomorrow and stay in bed.’

Tuesday came and I felt worse, but also slightly different. It seemed this would be an illness where each day brought some new reason to feel aggrieved at the injustice of being human and vulnerable.

I did not work in-house with a client on Tuesday. Instead, I worked remotely from the shed. When I had the shiver-sweats, I wore my thick coat. I stripped to a t-shirt when my insides felt hotter than the sun itself.

I did the same thing on Wednesday. And then on Thursday, I finally told the client I was supposed to be joining that not only would I not be making it into their office, I would not be available to work at all. I spent some time on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. And in the evening, I felt a little better so I did some work to try and catch up.

Friday came and I decided I felt sufficiently well enough to take my germs with me to my client’s office (different client to Thursday). People looked at me in a way that seemed to say, ‘Jesus Christ, are you okay?’

So I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror. My nose was red and flaky. My lips were blueish and, by now, also rather flaky. In the cold harsh light of an office block’s toilet mirror, I did not look well.

But I carried on and no one told me to leave. I completed the working day and by the end of it, I started to enter a period that I might have called ‘on the mend’. I was beginning to feel like a person again.

Why tell you all this? Because it got me thinking about a) the pressure you feel as someone who is self-employed to keep working no matter what, even if it’s clear that you need to take a break, and b) how that pressure – certainly in my case – comes from how you set yourself up for work.

More than anything, what I have learnt from the last two weeks is that stuff happens and it does so whenever it wants. There is no stopping stuff happening and so all you can do is accept it and build it into your schedule.

Like many freelancers, I have found it hard to say no to things. In fact, saying yes to things is something that I recommend and has stood me in good stead over the last two years. But there is a limit.

The reason putting my foot through the stairs and picking up a terribly challenging common cold proved such a problem for me was because I’m working with a total lack of slack. I’m at capacity. Up to my eyes in it. With nowhere to go when something unexpected crops up.

Most of the time, it’s okay because I’m able to multitask, switch contexts and stay on top of things. But not the last two weeks. Instead, I’ve had to work until the early hours or sit in a shed with my poorly hat on wondering how on earth it all came to this. Or that.

I resolve to make a change, though I don’t know what that looks like.

I do know that while it’s important to fill your days with interesting work and good people, it’s not healthy to go without slack. It’s not sensible to deal with unexpected events by throwing yourself into the gaps or ploughing into the madness.

Having slack means making sure that when something comes up, you have time and space to stop and deal with it. It means leaving room in your weeks for any other business. Stuff you don’t yet know. That could be a foot through the stairs, or it could be an invitation to an exciting event or meeting.

Either way, your slack is something to treasure. And now another week is here, I think I’d really rather like my own slack back please.

How to start a book group

Ever been in a public house and watched a table full of seriously cool people talking about books and thought, “Man, they look seriously cool. I would like to be one those people.”? Well, I did. And now I am.

My long-time pal and former co-English degree taker Hannah asked me to be part of a new book group in late 2017. I was keen on the idea, though nearly turned the offer down because I have three small children, a freelance business to run and no ability to read anything beyond 9pm without instantly falling asleep.

But the lure of looking seriously cool proved too much and I said yes. This month, we celebrated roughly 14 months of book group, which is no particular anniversary at all. I’ve met several new people, read books I would not have considered otherwise, and very much enjoyed the whole shebang.

With this vast experience in mind, I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve done and decisions we made to start the book group. And so, in no particular order, here they are.

Find some strangers

The only person I knew before starting book group was Hannah. And though some people in the group knew a couple of other members, no one knew everybody in book group. If that makes any sense at all.

While it’s great to talk books with your best buds, this is also an opportunity to meet new people. We don’t see each other regularly outside of book group, so we’ve got to know each other book by book. I kind of like that.

Be democratic

As with all group situations, there is always one person who tends to take control and make things happen. But no one likes a bossy boots and so instilling a little democracy into proceedings is a good idea.

Take it in turns to choose what book to read. Listen to each other’s opinions when it comes to picking a venue. Don’t kick up an unnecessary stink if someone decides it’s a good idea to read all 1,000,000 pages of Anna Karenina (just buy the audiobook and go double-speed).

Choose a wide range of books

Our choices so far have been a real mix and I think it’s helped make sure each discussion feels different and interesting. It’s been mostly novels so far, but we don’t have any rules about that – a book is a book.

I reckon if you pick a load of similar books from the same genre, things will get boring pretty quickly. You’ll make the same points and come to a familiar consensus every time. Like I said above, I’ve read stuff I know I wouldn’t have read without the group. That’s a good thing.

Opening statement

We’ve developed a few conventions that I think have helped us get to a format for the discussions that seems to work. One of those is the opening statement. Starting with the person who chose the book, we each spend a minute or so summing up our overall thoughts.

To be clear, this is in no way a formal or written-down statement. It’s just a chance for us all to set our stall out at the beginning of proceedings. It’s actually quite useful to get a flavour of where the conversation might go and then we take things from there.

Questions in a hat

So far, we’ve had little trouble making conversation, but our discussions are led by questions that we write down (and place in a seriously cool container) before we begin. Someone pulls out and shares the first question once the opening statements are done.

These questions can be about anything. Sometimes they relate to specific parts of the book and other times they are more broad and thematic. In our last book group, my question was simply: “Why did this win the Booker Prize?” It’s not about coming up with something clever – it’s provoking conversation.

Give the book a score

Oh, come on. What’s the point in having a book group if you’re not going to hand out arbitrary scores based on how you feel at a very specific moment in your life? How will you possibly know which book is best?

Once we’re done talking, we each write a score on a piece of paper and take turns to share our judgement. And of course, once we see what others have scored, we immediately want to make adjustments. But there can be no going back. First score is final score.

Don’t take it too seriously

This is very important. If you start a book group, please make sure that both you and your fellow groupees are having fun. Don’t get cross at someone for disagreeing with you or having terrible opinions. Just treat it as a seriously cool way to meet up with likeminded folk and talk books.

This is the year

It’s been more than six years since my debut novel was published.

That’s a long time. So many things have happened to me since then and though there have been challenges, most of those things are good. I’ve had three children, moved house, changed jobs several times and ended up starting and running a successful freelance business.

There is one reality I cannot escape: I have not written a second novel.

On the Write for Your Life podcast, me and Donna Sørensen would joke about our lack of writing progress . We were both new parents and I like to think that, for our listeners, we were able to show that being a published author isn’t quite as glamorous as it can sometimes seem or be sold. It was a conscious choice – and came naturally – for us to laugh at ourselves.

It’s not been funny for ages.

Most sensible debut authors, when their novel comes out, will spend the next few months writing a follow up. These opportunities do not come around often. You need to make the most of them.

But I did things a little differently. A is for Angelica was published in the same month we had our identical twin boys, which was five days before I was made redundant from a job I’d been happy in for more than six years. I wrote about it at the time and reading back, I can’t believe how calm I sound.

As you might imagine, I was not calm at all. In fact, those initial months – years, really – were spent flailing and doing whatever I could to keep me and my family on an even keel. It was difficult. Really difficult.

It’s only with hindsight and an older, wiser head that I am able to look back on that period and forgive myself for not being able to write a second novel. Because at the time, for all my best efforts, I just couldn’t make it happen. Whenever I found a small writing-shaped hole in the day, almost always last thing at night, the words weren’t there.

I would get cross. I would feel guilty. And occasionally I would stare at an empty screen and have a little cry, knowing that it would be several days before the opportunity to write would come again.

Thankfully, things have changed.

I can now accept that although I wasn’t able to prioritise writing fiction, and as much as it really does hurt, I have achieved a lot in the last six years. I can recognise that some of the decisions I made were the only ones available, and that includes spending the last two years establishing a stable business that I hope will grow and last.

So, why share this now? Because I feel like I need to draw a line in the sand and that I should say some of these words out loud. I also know that it seems weird for it to have been so long and for me to have said so little about it. And lastly, though I’m not a well-known author, I do know that there are people who really loved my first book and would like to read another. I’ve been a bit rude in my silence.

Of course, I would love to end this post with an announcement that a second novel is imminent, but I’m afraid that’s not the case.

Yet there is good news – I am back to writing on a regular basis. There is one big novel idea in the works and one shorter piece that might become something too. I am making the time and feeling positive. That’s a huge step forward from where I have been for quite a while.

One of my favourite things about my old podcast was that it (accidentally) documented the process of me writing Angelica and then it being published. I’m not sure how yet, but I would like to share my progress with you again. Could be here on the blog. The newsletter. Even another podcast. I think that shouting about what I am doing helps me. The when and how doesn’t really matter that much.

The important thing is that I am writing again. I’ve regretted setting targets before, so I won’t do it now. But I hope that this is the year. It feels like this is the year.

This from the writing shed

My newsletter is back. Starting up again. Here’s issue one.

It’s not called Shelflife anymore, almost entirely because there are 1,000,000 other things in the world called Shelflife. I know this because I have counted. And tried to buy domain names.

Instead it’s called This from the writing shed, almost entirely because I have a shed in which I work, write and send newsletters from. But it doesn’t really matter what it’s called. It’s what’s on the inside that counts, right?

And inside my newsletter will be new writing from me as well as links to some of the best reading, writing and publishing related stuff I can find. That includes articles, books, apps, videos, podcasts and even tweets. Imagine!

The biggest change is in the platform I’m using. I’ve switched away from the Goliath-sized Mailchimp with all its fancy whatnots and not-needed complexity, and instead I’m using the David-like Revue, which comes with all the things I need for this kind of newsletter, including a catapult.

What else do you need to know? Oh, I’ll be sending these out weekly – on Tuesdays. Or at least that’s the plan at the moment. If it turns out another day works better for you or for me, then I will change it.

And yes, finally, one of the great things about Revue is that you get a fancy website for your newsletter. If you want to go through old editions or send a pal on over to sign up too, that’s the place to do it.

Deleting Twitter

I’m going to give myself a Twitter break for at least two weeks.

In doing so, I realise I join a long list of people who have left Twitter to recover some sort of sanity. The endless stream of news and nonsense has finally got to me and this seems like a good time to step away.

First of all, I’m going to be in a cabin with little access to the internet for a while. So that will help. But I’m also extremely busy with work and there is no getting around the fact that Twitter is a time suck. It’s always been that way, of course. But it has previously felt useful too. Not at the moment.

In reality, I’ve been retreating for a while. With no book or podcast to promote, I’ve found myself tweeting less over the last couple of years. I can go a few days without posting to Twitter at all. And overwhelmed by the constant negative news stream, late last year I muted the words ‘Trump’ and ‘Brexit’.

Doing that did make my timeline a little easier to manage. However, despite not tweeting much, I’m still on there all the time. I read the same curated Twitter Lists I’ve had going for years. It’s where I go in moments of boredom and procrastination. And honestly, I don’t think it’s especially good for my wellbeing.

So basically, I’ve removed Tweetbot from my laptop. And on my phone, I am going to remove my personal Twitter account. I’ll keep the app itself because I need to access a client’s profile. But that’s fine. I will just pop on and do what I need to do then buzz off again.

I expect to be back on Twitter in mid-August, but you never know how these things will turn out. I’ve been using the platform daily for about 10 years, which is absolutely bonkers. And as they say, a change is as good a rest.

Let’s see how it goes.