Glancing Back, Focusing Forward: 2018 in Rearview

2018-review

As December closes out and the festivities of the season die down it’s always a great time to reflect on the year that was. I’ve done this in the past and I was doubly inspired by the lovely Charlotte’s recent post. So I definitely want to take stock on what happened to me in 2018 and, importantly, have a think about where I want 2019 to go too. Obviously it’s futile to really commit too rigidly to goals for the year as stuff invariably happens that cannot be foreseen but that doesn’t stop one from being as aspirational.

There were a handful of “big” events that I’m very proud of having taken place in 2018.

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Freshly graduated! 😎🎓 #KingstonUniversity

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The first of these was my graduation this summer. In the past I may have alluded to some dissatisfaction with the Creative Writing course I undertook at Kingston University, which is an experience I still feel I should chronicle in my blog in the new year now my immediate, somewhat… passionate thoughts about have subsided and mellowed. One thing from the whole experience that I take away is a sense of pride that I managed to get through it and succeed in this endeavour. My graduation was a very happy event and I end 2018 in the knowledge that I made my friends, family and most importantly myself proud with the achievement.

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The second “event” of this year has to be the finishing of the first, gruelling edit of my work-in-progress novel The Thaw, which I’ve mentioned previously I’m sure of. I went to Kingston to expend the remainder of my printer credits to print off the second draft which I’m very proud to have completed. I’m doubly excited as I’ve just received some of the first substantive feedback (thanks to the amazing Rosie) to that draft that I sent out in July; I’m eager to work on this project some more in the early part of 2019 so I can finally submit it to agents, editors and publishers. I’m still immensely proud of my work on this book, I definitely feel it’s a worthy piece of work and I look forward to taking it on the next step of its journey.

Reflecting on my year in reading I remain content that I made the right decision to not undertake a Goodreads reading challenge this year as it’s really helped with some anxiety that participating was otherwise emanating from that. I’ve had a more sedate year in reading in 2018, which is good as I’m better able to enjoy my books as opposed to racing through them.

Here’s my pick of the titles I read (or re-read) this year:

  1. The Boy on the Bridge by MR Carey. This was a book I thoroughly enjoyed – having previously been captivated by The Girl With All The Gifts I was intrigued to read the prequel. It was a haunting, atmospheric novel of the highest order.
  2. Artemis by Andy Weir – a case of lightning indeed striking twice with Andy Weir of The Martian fame – one I enjoyed a great deal, an excellent, accurate but not intimidating space thriller.
  3. Silo by Hugh Howey – One the bookseller in Waterstones highly recommended it when I bought it! Another example of enjoyable, atmospheric post-apocalyptic fiction in a well-realised, contained world. Very excited to read the second in the series, Shift in 2019!
  4. Misery by Stephen King – a re-read but a worthy one on the back of Charlotte’s review, and there’s just so much to take from this lean, taut thriller I might make it an annual re-read.
  5. The Fog by James Herbert – I was inspired to re-read this classic book from this Tweet from Iain Dale and the scene, and the book itself, remains a high-water mark of Herbert’s prowess. My collection of his work grows!

Still, however, I feel I’ve been a little… conservative in my reading and that does bother me a little – I find myself almost being slightly self-conscious of my reading, especially as I let Goodreads post to my Twitter in public view. I feel I need to be less in a comfort zone for authors/genres I like and experiment a little. I certainly want to read more non-fiction; indeed, I took a recommendation from a friend to take on Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy – a book I do need to finish, as it happens, but it’s again great to be able to take these on entirely at my own pace.

Landlady_Cover_MockUpAnd lastly, going again back to another post by Charlotte, that of her Halloween Story, I want to try to write more short fiction again; I’ve done it in the past way back when and I feel it’d be great to do so again, especially as I had such a positive reaction to The Landlady, my first foray into horror fiction which I wrote for my Creative Writing dissertation. I’ve been absolutely amazed at the reaction from friends, well-wishers and colleagues to that endeavour which has been absolutely lovely.

Charlotte’s Halloween piece has inspired me to write more “seasonal” work for events such as Halloween, Christmas… I’ll see how it goes. I had planned to release a festive horror short about this time but personal circumstances have eaten in quite considerably to my writing time, but it’s an idea I would definitely like to try out more in 2019 – I have missed writing short stories a bit and, having reorganised my website in 2018, I had to look again at my early work and there’s some solid ideas. Maybe I might revisit them, we’ll see!

I also managed to lose about two stone this year which is fantastic – thanks to the brilliant Chris Kenny for being a great inspiration for my progress there! Let the side down a little toward the end of the year (who diets at Christmas?) but I’m already raring to reclaim the ground again in 2019 and really power through it!

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Weight Loss Journey: The Sixteen Week Hitch

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I last wrote about my weight loss journey back in late February. I’m very pleased to report that I’ve made some great progress: from 117Kg in early February I’m now down to around 105Kg which is a real achievement to me!

The whole process of Weight Watchers has now fully ingrained into my psyche in a positive way – my whole perception of food as a whole has really shifted. I’m now a lot more conscious of what I’m eating; before I was less so, and even when I attempted a simple calorie count, that’s not the big picture at all!

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I’m a convert to the Weight Watchers SmartPoints system – it’s a scientific approach to consolidating a lot of confusing and complicated nutritional stats into a system that can be understood a lot more at-a-glance! I’ve noticed it’s not foolproof (more on that later) but the results can be surprising and I’m finding it motivating.

I’ve noticed a lot of my go-to foods that seemed insignificant, like a McDonalds milkshake, or even a simple supermarket sandwich, are packed full of unnecessary, empty points and this is definitely an area I feel I was letting myself down with before. Less so now!

Overall though I’m feeling fantastic – others have noticed an appreciable difference in my physical appearance which is endearing and motivating, especially as I have no self-esteem when it comes to my appearance generally, so noticing I’m able to fit into older clothes again, and my current clothes are feeling and looking baggier is a happy result of my effort so far. One of the things I’m really having mixed feelings about, and have for a long time, is how to receive and handle praise but I’m doing my best to channel it into positive energy and it’s driving me forward!

However, it’s not been plain sailing. I’ve recently had a bit of a bump or plateau where I’ve not been losing (much) weight; indeed, I’ve actually put on a pound or two! This has been more a disappointment than anything.

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The important lesson I’ve learned from this recent wobble is firstly: not to panic. Some weeks are good, some are bad. That’s normal, that’s life. I’ve taken a few days to mull over my progress so far, which overall has still been encouraging. Firstly, what are the circumstances around my recent wobble? Easy:

  • Complacency: It’s so easy, even when strenuously trying to avoid it, to fall into the “I’ve lost so I can…” mindset. I’m certain in the last few weeks I have done this to a minor point, saying “my weekly points [intended as a buffer zone] can take it”. I need to be a lot more disciplined.
  • Lack of focus: The last few weeks I’ve both had to content with the mental struggles of my final year university deadlines and some time off work afterward. I hold my hands up to being less than completely focussed during that time on my weight loss goals and more on my immediate challenges and goals.
  • Time away: I also had a week off after my final deadlines which culminated in a pleasant, if not a bit undisciplined weekend away to see a friend. Honestly, that week I simply took my hands off the wheel.
  • Restrictive SmartPoints budget: This is an emergent challenge – as my weight decreases the suggested SmartPoints I should look to consume has shrunk also. This has been a challenge recently as my new target, 30, is remarkably easy to “blow” with an unwise, impulse-led food choice.

However I’ve taken this into account and I’ve given myself time to mull over where I’m potentially going wrong and, more positively, steps to take to rebuild my momentum:

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    View from a sunny walk in Sutton

    Getting active: This is a step that I initially tried last summer; now the long winter has ended and there’s some glorious weather I can finally get out for fitness walks. I do feel I do better to do multiple short-ish walks throughout the week – aiming for at least three 1.5 mile walks a week – than a few long ones for motivational reasons. They’re also great for starting the day and helping with my mental health!

  • Cutting out problem foods: I’ve decided that a go-to snack for me – pitta bread with houmous – has to go as I’m eating it to excess which negates the health and weight loss benefit. Because I know myself, it’s not enough to just say “no” internally; I’m just not having it in the house for a while.
  • Focusing my attitude: Ultimately I need to take this seriously again to get down to my personal goal weight of 95Kg; I’ve made good progress and I need to just carry on that momentum. Part of this was thinking I’d plateau’d but I don’t genuinely think this is the case and my mental focus just needs to be sharpened to the weaknesses I’ve identified.

So that’s my plan for the summer! I hope to be able to report more encouraging news next time!

Authenticity in Writing

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It’s always rewarding when discussions with friends plant seeds of thought into my head; indeed, this happened recently with a friend who was discussing his enthusiasm for the thriller novel First Blood, which was adapted as the movie Rambo. One of the aspects my friend enthused about was First Blood’s apparent “emotional authenticity” and implied this infers the writing with a special quality.

Emotional authenticity, my friend asserted, tied into a theory of “characters driving the car whereas the story just kind of picks up the radio station.”

Well, let’s buckle our seatbelts and enjoy a cruise on a road trip to discover what emotional authenticity is and whether I agree with it being the motor that purrs under the hood of every decent story.

But first, what is “emotional authenticity”? A good question, not easily answered. From the various reading I’ve done on it since the question flew like a paper aeroplane into my mind and continues to circle, caught on an updraft of latent thoughts and musings. On a literal definition, emotional authenticity is a genuine expression of emotion. Whether we are emotionally authentic is a concept that seems so deeply ingrained in the psyche – the experience, the emotional response to it, the acknowledgement of the emotion and the assigning of adjectives to it and the expression of those emotions – that it is almost beyond definition. We as humans do this subconsciously many times a day, to many levels that seem to pass the conscious mind by.

But how does this normal, almost mundane subconscious response relate to writing? Essentially, it’s the ability of the author to be able to transpose themselves into their characters shoes and channel the emotion to something that others can relate to, empathise with and recognise as a genuine and believable emotional response.

This emotional authenticity is only half of the story though, literally. Obviously, characters should act and emote in a way that is broadly like how people act and emote in the real life; of course, this may be intentionally altered for the sake of characterisation. And this characterisation must, of course, be consistent – for example, if Jack Reacher from the Lee Child books was to suddenly start scrubbing the scullery floor this would be highly incongruous; likewise, if the downtrodden heroine from many a Catherine Cookson (my mum watches them on TV all the time) story were to suddenly find themselves in – and winning – a high-octane, action-packed fight then this would break the emotional authenticity of those characters.

The rest of the picture comes from situational authenticity. This can be tied into the example I just gave, switching the situations from a Lee Child and Catherine Cookson story, which are the most polar opposite I could think of on the fly. Situational authenticity is getting the events of the story right so they are not challenging, and in come cases, shattering the reader’s suspension of disbelief. This error with situational authenticity is something I have experienced a lot of issues with in books I have (attempted to) read.

While yes, anything can happen to any character, and in a work of fiction, anything can more or less go, imbuing a sense of situational authenticity just makes things seem plausible in the created universe. Do we expect the author to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every situation they could be writing about? Of course not, and part of being a fiction writer is being able to transpose storytelling skills – indeed, imbuing emotional and situational authenticity – into situations the author cannot possibly have experienced on a first hand level.

For emotional authenticity, does this mean the author need have that literal sense of first hand experience the emotions characters are expected to exhibit. This doesn’t mean a like-for-like emotional equation; just the ability for the author to empathise. If the author can empathise with the characters emotions, that’s a success. They don’t need first hand experience of the direct emotional incident to be able to empathise; that empathy can be derived from personal, similar experience or even from so far as witnessing how other people react to the emotion the author wishes their character to exhibit.

Case in point, a good friend from my Creative Writing class brought in the opening to a story they had written for the class. The beginning of the story was of an autistic boy making a scene on a bus in public, and with a harsh rebuke from an unsympathetic member of the public, told from the viewpoint of the boy’s sister. It was a deftly-done and sympathetic piece, but a notable member of our class complained that about “neotypicals” writing about autism, as if to say “only autistic people may write stories about autistic children!”

I disagree profoundly with both this assessment and this person’s attitude; indeed, as someone diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome I feel qualified to answer – their usage of autism as a shield from criticism, and as an excuse for their poor behaviour is totally unhelpful. But they failed, too, to acknowledge the context of this writing (arguably to challenge that view) but also that the author’s brother is autistic and this imbues the story with that emotional authenticity because the author transposes their direct experiences and empathy into that protagonist.

Turning back to situational authenticity, this is largely down to two things: doing your homework and consistency. An author is quite lucky in being able to write about time periods, characters and worlds they could not have possibly experienced. Indeed, fiction is by definition made up; but a piece with situational authenticity will be backed up with studious research. Not to the point of the work becoming an essay or treatise, but with pertinent attention to detail that, again, doesn’t strain the reader’s suspension of disbelief. There will be no digital wristwatches in the Catherine Cookson, no laser pistols in the Lee Child, to give two examples.

But it is fantasy and science-fiction that I feel can experience the most difficulty with situational authenticity – especially with magic or advanced technology (which are sometimes indistinguishable, to quote Arthur C Clarke). Fantasy and science-fiction need to tread carefully to maintain situational authenticity to preserve the suspension of disbelief. Things must make sense in-universe; an example of this done well would be The Expanse by James S. A. Corey, which feels grounded in a sense of reality that is an effective dramatic device (spaceships don’t zip here and there like taxis, they’re very complex to fly); by contrast, a poor execution of this would be in The Soul Drinkers Omnibus by Ben Counter, where my suspension of disbelief was shattered by a poor explanation or build-up to the “chaos” theory within, which led to what I considered a clanger of a deus ex machina when the protagonist just happened to sprout a load of game-changing mutations at the climax of a key fight scene.

Of course, in considering both of these things, we must remember that ultimately it is a combination of both emotional and situational authenticity that really does sell a piece of prose. It adds a dimension to the story and the characters within. We expect some liberties to be taken – these are fiction pieces, and fiction tends to be more dramatic than real life, as it should be. Would we want to read stories that rigidly reflected real life? It wouldn’t be as exciting or dramatic. But it is important that both characters and situations do have a sense of truth to them, derived from humanity.

I hope this helps delve into a literary topic; indeed, my research has led to me realising quite how important these facets that support inventive and engaging prose can be. So consider me an authenticity convert!

Further Reading and research

Is it possible for writers to write about an emotion authentically without ever experiencing it directly? – Quora

What is authenticity in writing? – Quora

Weight Loss Journey – Beginnings

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I was recently challenged by my fellow blogger Chris to write a post in a similar vein to his recent post regarding physical health and, after giving it a little thought – sure, why not!

I’m pleased to finally be able to say that I am making steps to address a longstanding issue that has bugged me for years – that being my weight.

But before we talk about now, how did we arrive here?

I think for the last nine or ten years I’ve had an issue with my weight, and I know precisely where it began. While I was at school, this required a two-mile walk from the bus to my house to school, twice a day. And that four miles, plus walking around school, kept my weight in check.

Then I left school and did pretty much nothing for best part of a year.

Well, I did eat. But I didn’t burn it off and, well, I’ve been overweight since that time in 2009.

I’ve wanted to address it – nagging from parents aside; that doesn’t particularly help, but weight loss feels like such a specious and arcane thing… it’s as if results take so long to see it’s easy to be put off by no apparent progress, and therefore be victim to temptation.

I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke – these are very unhealthy things – so, my mind tells me, what’s the real harm in this packet of Quavers. This blueberry muffin. This whole quiche. This Vienetta – it’s only £1.

In older posts I talked about my struggle throughout 2016 with my mental health problems and depression. I was by no means in the right frame of mind to address my weight; if anything, my depression took over and my physical health deteriorated quite badly.

And also, since 2009… I’ve gotten older. And I feel that age is creeping up on me.

Last year toward the end of the summer I did decide to take some action – I was talking to Chris about one specific thing that “triggered” my mental switch to take my weight seriously. I had to buy a pair of 40” jeans, and crossing that boundary seemed to trigger me into actually taking the issue seriously and not kicking it into the long grass. So I took myself out for a walk and tracked it. And it felt good.

I started calorie-counting from that point, setting a fairly aggressive total and I found I did start to lose weight – I went from 124Kg (19st 11lb) to 114Kg (17st 13lb) in the space of a couple of months or so. But then it got cold, it got near to Christmas and my resolve wavered. I was conscious of this but, doing what I do best – procrastination – I resolved to take the bull by the horns again in 2018.

But I did realise that calorie-counting on my own, while somewhat effective, is not the entire picture. And I am accountable only to me – and I am an unreliable judge.

So I’ve actually taken a fairly big, proactive step toward combatting this issue by joining Weight Watchers – because I feel being accountable to someone (in this case my coach) is going to greatly help my motivation. And I’m already feeling the mental switch in my attitude toward food – and that can only be seen as a positive. I’m more mindful now of what I’m eating – the Weight Watchers plan being focussed on “points” derived from a broader nutritional base, taking into account sugar and protein – and I’m actively interested in preparing my own food more and relying on ready-made meals less.

Already I feel I’m challenging myself – there’s a bit of a stigma that “Weight Watchers is for women” – though if it helps me achieve a more healthy lifestyle and goals in terms of my weight loss then I call that stigma bunkum, and as before with depression, I feel it’s a really unhelpful thing – best challenged!

And to keep myself accountable – which I feel is going to be the driving force behind this journey – I’m going to consider tweeting my weight loss progress out to my followers so it’s out there, in the public domain.

So let’s see how this goes! I can’t guarantee as regular updates as Chris but it’s certainly another journey I want to chronicle here on this site!

If you have a story or tip on losing weight then feel free to share it in the comments! Happy to read and reflect!