Protecting Your Mental Health During Lockdown

Now the UK is in another lockdown, many people will struggle with their mental health. I wanted to write about some of the things I’ve done to cope during Lockdown, as I’ve barely been anywhere or seen many people since March.

First my freelance work dried up around March/April and hasn’t picked back up properly ever since, then if you follow me on Facebook, you will have seen my posts about just a handful of the jobs I’ve applied to, which have either turned out to be scams and/or tried to get free work out of me. Then the novel I had set for release in March and had spent a lot of time and money promoting, flopped. The pre-orders started off well and looked promising, but then they just stopped. On top of that, I’ve only seen some members of my family once since Christmas, and haven’t seen others at all in that time. I’m not writing this for sympathy, just to show that we all have our struggles.

I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on how to cope during lockdown, but I can tell you I practiced mindfulness during the first lockdown, did some yoga and signed up for some of the free exercise classes that were all over the internet. None of that stuck and I took to watching American Horror Story, finding it oddly therapeutic. At least I could tell myself, whatever was happening in real life wasn’t as bad as what was happening on the screen.

Out of the small amount of freelance work I managed to get, a lot of it was about health, exercise and weight loss. I now know everything about exercise, how to stay healthy and lose weight. I’m just lacking the motivation to do anything about it.

This time around, I’ll be trying to draw. I bought a workbook and have already started some poor attempts at the drawing exercises in there. I might even do a separate blog post in a week or two with some of my attempts. If nothing else, it might give you something to laugh at. I’ll also be carrying on with podcasting, and volunteering writing book reviews for an online zine, and reading  submissions for an online publication, as well as trying new ideas to make any kind of income.

Anyway, I’m not a great role model to tell people how to get through another lockdown, so I decided to ask other people what they’re doing to cope.

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Being creative seems to be the one thing that most people I asked all mentioned. However, there are so many ways to be use creativity as a tool, to cope with the stress of lockdown and worry related to any number of things, whether related to the pandemic or not.

Nicola McConnell said she’s taken up knitting. She told me about the sense of achievement she feels when finishing a project. Katie Haigh is another person using her creativity as a way to cope and pass the time. She plans to keep busy with drawing, making things out of clay – such as pots – and painting them.

Some people are still braving the outdoors despite the cold. Adele Sullivan said she’ll be doing an hour of exercise each day, even though she finds it boring. Nadeem Zafar told me he’ll be running three times a week. He also mentioned home meditation sessions, light beer and spending more time writing. When I asked whether the pandemic finds its way into his writing, he admitted it did, but only occasionally. Most of the time, writing is an escape for him.

Speaking of alcohol, Jenny Berry mentions Gin as well as exercise and Netflix. Although I’m not suggesting anyone reading this should turn to drink, I’m guessing she means in moderation, and isn’t actually pouring it on her cereals at 7am.

Another suggestion is reading, especially if you have a particularly long to be read list. It’s also what Carolyn Batchelor says she’ll be doing, in addition to reviewing them, (by the way, this is a fantastic thing to do and really helps authors) keeping in touch with people on social media and doing crosswords.

I think keeping your mind active is probably an important thing to do, especially now with everything that has happened/is still happening this year. If you dwell on the bad stuff too much, it will only make things worse.

Ruth O’Reilly lists walking, being mindful of nature, journaling, reading, watching movies and putting her radio shows together – as things that will get her through this second lockdown. Ruth, who co-hosts the Sunday Teatime show on AllFm has managed to keep the show going from home, mainly by interviewing local people involved in creative projects around the Manchester area.

Writing pops up as a suggestion again, this time by Carolyn Crossley; she is currently doing NaNoWritMo. For those who don’t know, this is a challenge held in November, where participants aim to have the first draft of a novel complete in one month. Carolyn also lists walking every other day, writing haikus and keeping up with her daily affirmations on her blog. You can find the blog here.

Another person trying to make a positive contribution is Anthony Briscoe. He says he’ll be trying to keep spirits up, and finding humour where he can. He mentions the challenges of missing his family and facing a birthday in lockdown, which by now, many people can relate to. You can watch Anthony perform his show, Sold Out.

Other suggestions came in from Keri Moriarty, Grant Curnow and Nadia king. Keri says she is painting and even has two exhibitions in Bury. Nadia has reinstated meditation into her daily routine, is trying out new recipes, podcasting and walking, even if just a short distance. I think this is a great suggestion, as any exercise is better than nothing. I should also mention that Nadia’s podcast, the word bin is well worth a listen. You can find out more here.

Grant Curnow simply said, “Baby Yoda” and I can’t disagree. It’s almost impossible to look at Baby Yoda, and not smile.

I hope you’ve found something useful to help you through lockdown and beyond. I had more responses than I expected and couldn’t include them all in this already lengthy blog post. However, please feel free to leave a comment with your own suggestion.

The Arts: Money Isn’t a Dirty Word

Imagine you’re a plumber and you go to fix a customer’s toilet, then you ask for payment. The customer looks at you, shocked, then complains that you’re only in it for the money. Or you apply for a plumbing job in a company and despite all your previous experience and training, they say you have to do a sample job for free. The job brings in a few hundred £’s for them, but nothing for you. They have a recruitment campaign every three months and each time, they get 100 qualified applicants who all do a free job for them. That’s wrong, isn’t it?

However, this is how writers and other people in the creative arts are treated. If you try to make money from being creative, even if this is the thing that you spend all day doing, many people seem to think you’re only in it for the money, or you should just do it for the enjoyment. Although, this is what I have chosen to do, but like everyone else, I still have to eat and pay bills. There is nothing at all wrong with that.

In the past, I have been asked to do samples, and told my portfolio of previously written work wasn’t enough. The excuses have included; it’s not possible to know how much the client has edited the work, and they need to know I can follow specific instructions. Going back to the plumber again (sorry to pick on plumbers specifically) imagine being told your experience and training doesn’t prove anything, because maybe your customers might have fixed their own toilets after you left. Or the specific instructions on fixing a leaking pipe, which you now know by heart, aren’t enough and they have a new way of doing this which you need to prove you know by working for free. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Now imagine studying for eight years to gain two degrees, while working in different jobs from the one you hope to do someday, then taking two more short courses to build on your skills and knowledge, working for a year at what works out as £5 an hour (if you’re lucky) and taking on several unpaid projects to make your CV more appealing to employers. Then, in addition to all the employers who ask for you to do unpaid tests and samples, you’re told you should retrain, because your “hobby” is worthless. You might be a little upset and confused; about how what you’re going to retrain for, if that industry will have enough jobs by the time you have retrained and how you’re going to survive while you retrain when they aren’t enough jobs right now. Not to mention all the students loans you have from the first career you trained/studied for (funny how it’s not worthless when you’re paying for education) and the credit card debt you’ve racked up while working for next to nothing.

Ultimately, if you have put in the time and money to study towards any profession (including the arts) then you more than entitled to ask for a fair payment for the services you offer as a result of gaining your qualifications and experience. We (people working in the arts) are not worthless and are not the problem. The problem lies with the government who don’t support the arts and all the unscrupulous companies who try to get free work out of us. If they would just pay us some of the money our hard work earns them, then we might just be able to survive while doing the jobs we have trained for.

Money is not a dirty word. We all need it to live and whether people realise it or not, they need creativity in their lives. Without it, what will they watch when they get home from work? What will they listen to when they want to relax? What will they read when they fancy a few hours of escape? Or where will they go when they want to see a live performance?

I’m not saying people should run out and buy my books (even though that would be nice) but if you can support people working in the arts, please do. It doesn’t always have to involve buying anything. If you read a good book (especially if it’s by an indie author) tell people about it. Recommend shows and music to people if you think they’ll like them, and you know the people involved are struggling financially. If you know people who need a job in the arts and you see one that might suit them, let them know. And obviously, if you can spend money to support the arts, then please do. There might not be much support at the moment, but we can all support each other.

Disclaimer: No plumbers were harmed in the writing of this blog post

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Amanda Steel is the author of Ghost of Me (a top ten Thriller finalist in the Author Elite Awards) and has had her work broadcast on BBC Radio Manchester and The NoSleep Podcast. She co-hosts Reading in Beda book review podcast. She also reads extracts of other authors’ books (with their permission) on Reading in Bed Extracts.

Why I Started an Online Workshop

When I started my Creative Writing MA in 2017, I never considered teaching the subject to anyone, but now I’ve set up an online workshop. Like most people in lockdown, especially those involved in the arts, my work dried up this year, along with my book sales. If I had a regular job to fall back on, it wouldn’t have been an issue, but I had just taken the plunge from making a part-time income — to being a full-time writer, and everything else which goes with that. Only a small part of it actually involves writing.

Anyway, while trying to get copywriting jobs and similar work to replace the freelance jobs I lost, I tried all kinds of things. I’m probably busier now than if I just had a full-time job. I read submissions for an online press, write book reviews for a blog and have just spent six months putting together a charity anthology with poetry, fiction and non-fiction from 43 different writers. All of that is unpaid though and doesn’t help to put the beans on toast on the table. So, I tried to come up with ways to earn money. In line with how I like to help and encourage other writers, (I often promote indie writers on my book review podcast) I set up the paid writing workshop. I had been attending a free writing workshop, which my partner runs on Zoom. This is just a small group of writers who are all very supportive and encouraging.

I decided to do something on a larger scale. I talked to my partner Andy and he agreed. We set up the ticket sales on Eventbrite and are charging just £1.67 per person, with up to 100 places available. If you’re wondering, the 67p is the Eventbrite fee. After receiving so many emails offering online workshops that sounded great, it’s been disappointing to click the link and find out they are charging anything from £30 to £300. With the combined experience Andy and I have, £1.67 a session is a bargain. We can help other writers with this workshop, and still make a little money ourselves, to recover some of our lost household income during lockdown. Obviously, I’ve never attended any of the expensive courses I just mentioned. Our paid workshop will be less intimate than the free one, because there will be more people and the sole focus will be on writing, without our usual chatter and joking in-between. Maybe the pricier workshops have fewer participants who are given more individual attention. Whether that is worth the price they are asking, I can’t say.

If you would like to try our very low priced workshop, you can judge for yourself. We are open to all levels of writers from anywhere in the world. However, please note the next one is at 3pm (GMT) on 14th November. If you’re attending from outside the UK, this will be different and it’s up to you to work out the time difference.

Sign up here

My New/Old YA Fiction Series

After having my book accepted by a publisher, they ran into financial difficulties within a year of the release, so I decided to take my rights back and re-publish First Charge. Having had the experience of being self-published, and having a publisher, I can see the benefits to both. I like the freedom to set my own price. With a publisher, more people share money, so it makes sense that the price may be higher. I never felt comfortable asking people to buy a paperback copy of my book for £15 though.

About the series

This is the first in the YA Fantasy series, The Destiny Initiative. Between the time of getting my book accepted by the publisher and now, I have completed book 2, and I’m halfway through the first draft of the final book in series. The second book will be out shortly after I re-release First Charge, with the final book becoming available for pre-order soon after.

Where the ideas started

These books have been a journey for me. I had written in other genres before, but this was my first leap into YA fiction. The idea started when I was taking part in a zombie walk. I started thinking about writing a book about mermaids. I’m not sure why. There were no mermaids on the walk, but I thought it would be YA book, as I wanted to try another genre. I started writing the book a few days later. My Character (Meredith) is a fifteen-year-old descendant of mermaids and a protector, destined to save people with a purpose. Her being a lesbian was something that just seemed to fit. It was never something I sat down and give much thought to, she just was. As a bonus, it also meant she wasn’t going to have a romance with Theo, the male lead character, which seems to happen in a lot of YA books.

Interviews and feedback

I’ll always be grateful to my publisher for seeing something in the first book, and their ongoing support while my book was with them. Just having a publisher at all gave me the confidence to approach different outlets for reviews and/or interviews. I got myself interviews with YourMcr on Canal Street, and the podcast Genuine Chit-Chat.

A reviewer wrote “the fact that the author chose a LGBT main character was refreshing.”

More about Meredith

Meredith’s heritage means she has been working towards a pre-destined purpose for most of her life. While she has tried to have some resemblance of a normal life, she embraces her destiny sometimes, while fighting against it at other times. She is flawed but tries to do the right thing. I think it’s important to remember she’s just fifteen, so she not always sure about her life or the choices that have already been made for her.

What I enjoyed about writing this

Writing First Charge (and the rest of the series) allowed me to create a strong lesbian lead character, without the sexual scenes that other YA fantasy books often have. While I would say the book is aimed at readers aged 14+, I didn’t want to treat them young children. So, I included the fight scenes and deaths. I tried to create a balance between not going over the top, but I didn’t attempt to cover them up either.

The idea of descendants of mermaids, shapeshifters and other mythical creatures could have become a little childish, but the story poses questions about the world the characters want to live in and what they will or should do to save it. I feel that this talks to readers as the young adults that they are, instead of treating them like children.

Where to buy the book

The book is available as an eBook for 99p on Amazon UK, and only the same or only a little more from other eBook platforms.

Or in paperback from Amazon.

Eight Things I Learnt From Being an Editor

I started Printed Words in January 2019, and eighteen months later, I’ve just published the last issue. As a writer who sends out a lot of work, it was a big learning curve for me to be on the other side of submissions. Here are some of the main things I’ve learned.

The guidelines are there for a reason (usually)

As a writer, I’ve come across some guidelines that are more challenging than others. To date, the one I hate is the strange layout asking writers to have their address on one side of the page, the editor’s or publication’s details on the other and the work itself in a format I can’t seem to get my head around. It seems pointless when I know my address wouldn’t get published if my work was accepted. I’m sure there’s a reason for it though. I just don’t know what it is.

When I was setting my guidelines, I tried to keep them simple. Still, I didn’t want to spend hours going through twenty pieces of work from the same person, so I asked for a maximum of three pieces per submission window and set a maximum word count/line limit. I also asked for submissions to be sent in a word document because that made it easier for me to copy and paste into a document along with all the other submissions, before sending them to my submission readers, to be read blindly. For that reason, I asked that writers didn’t put their names in the document, but include a bio in the body of the email instead.

There will always be someone who ignores the guidelines

I lost count of how many times people sent more than three pieces of work, or went over the word count or line limit. Other writers would send me work in a PDF, one sent me a bio as a jpeg and others were in formats I had to spend a lot of time converting before I could open them. All of this made my job harder. Some work that went over the limits was good, so I extended the guidelines to considering it, only if the writer queried us first. I thought it would be obvious, this meant on a case-by-case basis, but quite a few writers seemed to take permission to send one piece of longer work as a lifetime invitation to send as many pieces as they wanted regardless of length.

When I had to step in and be part of the submission reading team, those were the ones that stuck in my mind. While I tried to read each piece from a fresh starting point, I’m only human. People who wouldn’t read and stick to the guidelines made a negative first impression on me.

There will always be someone who complains about writers not being paid

Another thing I noticed was how some people seemed to enjoy pointing out there was no payment for writers. I agree, writers should be paid, I like being paid as a writer. We never tried to hide the fact we couldn’t pay though, and would have loved to pay everyone, but couldn’t afford it. What we did offer was a quarterly £20 prize and we accepted reprints. This meant that anyone who had a published novel, short story collection or poetry collection could and something from it to be eligible for the quarterly prize and in a later issue we gave away a runners-up prize of free advertising.

As a writer, I’ve seen a lot of other publications who didn’t pay any of their writers and were asking for unpublished work. As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be anything in it for the writer. I have sent new work into non-paying publications before, but only if there is a good reason, like a big readership or a cause I strongly support.

You can learn a lot from the people on your team

I realised I couldn’t judge the submissions by myself. The magazine wouldn’t be as varied as I wanted it to be if I only choose work that I personally liked.

When I began getting people involved to be part of a team of readers. I never expected to learn so much from them. I asked them to provide a line or two of feedback in case the work was rejected. This helped me to see some of the work in a new light, when the comments came back on certain aspects I hadn’t noticed about the poems or stories. It changed my mind on several occasions, because I hadn’t thought of the piece of writing in that way.

There is a lot of extra work involved if someone lets you down

Most of the people I chose to work with were reliable and returned their ratings and feedback, or let me know when they couldn’t. However, a few people made my job more difficult by not letting me know. When you’re looking for unpaid volunteers, there’s not much you can do when that happens, but with lots of writers waiting for a response, it meant I had my workload increased as I tried to get back to them in a timely fashion. It’s a lot more fun (not) when this happens near the end of the submission window and you’ve already let people know when they can expect their work to be published, so have to work flat to not let them down.

Not everyone appreciates the value of constructive feedback

When I studied Creative Writing, I learned how to accept constructive feedback and how valuable it can be. When sending out submissions “it’s not quite right for us” is a standard rejection, which doesn’t help any writer to improve his or her writing. With this in mind, I wanted to ensure that even if we couldn’t publish someone’s work, we would give them feedback to help them improve, or at least to understand our reasons for rejection. I’m sure some of our writers sent in work purely for the feedback. Others didn’t quite appreciate it. One writer said he didn’t expect it and from what he said, thought the combined feedback of three people was wrong, because he had been published in several places before.

You can learn additional skills

When I created Printed Words and became the editor, I quickly realised I would have to be a submission reader at least some of the time, work on my limited graphic design skills (to create the images to go with the poems and stories), and would also have to find ways to bring in submissions. I even secured a one hour long show at The Festival of Manchester, for Printed Words. So, I added event organising to the list of skills I needed to learn.

You meet new people

I met some talented writers from my time as an editor, some online and others I later met in person. If it wasn’t for the magazine, I would never have known about them. It also let me support other writers by giving them a platform to share their work.

There is a lot of work involved in being the editor of a literary magazine, but I would recommend it to writers who are willing to put in the time, or at least to get involved in an already established literary magazine or e-zine. It can help you become better at writing and submitting work in the correct way, if you get an experience of what it’s like to be on the other side of the submission process.

My Thoughts on Protesting During a Pandemic

Why am I writing this?

I wasn’t sure whether to write and post this, but I am for two reasons. First, I need to vent, though hopefully in a way that explains my reasons for how I’m feeling. Second, I believe that a big part of overcoming racism is giving people the opportunity to talk openly about their concerns, BEFORE everything gets pent up and it all comes out in ways that border on being racist. In so many forums and on social media posts people are just reacting and insulting or laughing at each other. I can understand it to an extent because people are angry and upset. Angry that racism exists and/or angry that protesters put their own and other’s lives at risk. That doesn’t help though and only widens the gap between us all. People need to respond to what each other are saying and try to see where the other person is coming from. That’s why I spend time reading these comments and other people’s views, beyond my own or those of my friends and family.

Murdering someone is wrong – Just in case you didn’t know

I never thought I would have to say these words, but here they are anyway. I do not agree with the police (in any country) murdering people. That should go without saying. Even if someone has committed a crime in the past, or are suspected of committing one now, there is a justice system in place and it doesn’t involve killing anyone.

Why I don’t think it’s okay put people at risk with protests/mass gatherings

Protesting is fine by me. I have no problem with this in normal situations. This is not a normal situation though. We are in the middle of a pandemic. Since the end of March, people have been unable to see their friends and family, outside of those they live and/or work with. For me, I missed being with my mum on the third anniversary of my dad’s death, leaving her alone that day. I already worked from home, but lost work and potential book sales, struggled with money (or the lack of it) and was conflicted about whether to take on work outside and risk getting infected and passing it on to my partner who has diabetes. As it turned out, I couldn’t get such work anyway.

For other people, they have lost loved ones. I know three people who have lost someone. Sure, these people might have died in a few months or years, but that doesn’t make it okay. Every single extra day they could have lived has now gone because of this virus and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Others I know have struggled with their mental health. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that some friends or family members won’t see each other again. If it’s not Covid that takes someone’s life, it could be suicide because lockdown is extremely difficult, especially for those with pre-existing mental health conditions. Then there are people who had operations and treatment cancelled and could die before these can be rescheduled.

With the exception of those who have blatantly flouted lockdown and social distancing, the nation has made substantial sacrifices to prevent the spread.

Using masks as a reason to protest “safely”

I’ve seen people saying it’s okay for them to attend protests because they and most others were wearing masks. However, there is so much conflicting information on whether masks protect against the virus. I don’t believe masks and face coverings would be enough in such a large crowd. I think they just reduce the chances of it spreading, so looking at images of hundreds or even thousands of people standing less than two metres away from each other is terrifying for me. Not only does it make me think that even a handful of those people might spread the virus, even if they don’t show symptoms, but it makes me think of all the people they may come into contact with. This could be shop assistants when buying food, people on public transport and so on. Those people will then be around their own family and pass it on to them. We will never find out exactly how many people will get infected because of these protests and how many will die as a result of the virus being passed from person to person.

In my opinion, it is not possible to control the virus.

When I hear protesters say they feel strongly about fighting racism, that they feel this is worth the risk, it seems like they are making the choice for others who have decided not to take this risk, but will come into contact with them at some point. This takes me to my next point.

Other ways to combat racism

During lockdown, people have found other ways to carry on with parts of their life; using zoom to keep in touch with loved ones and run poetry, music, quiz and comedy nights. The internet makes it possible for many people to work from home. Given all these resources and how practical we all are at finding ways to use them, I struggle to believe we can’t find other ways to protest and support causes like Black Lives Matter. More to the point, we can find ways that don’t undo all the work and suffering people have gone through in these past few months.

Finding other ways would also be more effective, because people are more likely to listen when they’re not seeing images and footage of thousands of people undoing all the hard work they have done. I’m sure this is not the case, but it makes it look like the crowds of protesters don’t care.

It gets people’s attention, but not their understanding and support. In order to get someone to listen and care about what you are saying, shouldn’t you also be willing to listen to and care about what they are saying? This needs to be a two-way system.

Trampling over everything

With so many not being able to work, see their loved ones, attend funerals or having to die without their families around them, seeing these crowds has upset me and others. I am upset that people have chosen to gather like this when I believe there are other ways to get the message against racism across.

Right now, I feel like everything in the past few months has been for nothing. I was trying my best to be hopeful and look at how life might be when this is over, or at least when normality begins to return on some level. Now I just see more of the same; people spreading the virus and leading to a second or local lockdown, or losing people I care about.

Considering the protests are about innocent people being victimised and killed, I’m baffled about why anyone would think spreading a virus that could potentially kill more innocent people could ever be the solution.

Crowds on beaches

Before I finish, I want to address another comment I’ve seen online.

Many people have said those complaining about the protests don’t mention the crowds who gather at beaches, parks, barbeques etc. I personally have not gathered in parks or beaches and don’t agree with anyone who does. I have no control over anyone who does either, just like I have no control over anyone who chooses to gather at a protest.

You might notice I haven’t referred to anyone as black people or white people in this article. We are all just people and we are all angry and upset in our own right. We need to think about how we act on those emotions, because we are all affected by each other’s actions.

Not in Their Right Minds (short story)

Colorful Etsy Banner

This is a short story I wrote after a strange dream, featuring my partner and a friend of ours. I used it as an outline, but even though it was quite detailed for a dream, I had to fill in a lot of details. I changed my own character’s name because it felt strange writing myself into a story and she’s a much more successful version of me.

The story is never going to win any awards, but I’m sharing it here to show people that inspiration can come from anywhere, even bizarre lockdown dreams.


Amber slammed down the phone. So what if it broke? It wasn’t being useful to her. All she could do was watch the live footage of the two women, who had been best friends for most of their adult lives, as they now turned on one another. To be fair to the one who wasn’t been mind controlled, she had taken a few punches before defending herself and only after her friend came at her with the lamp. She had no choice but to defend herself, as the lamp was hurtled towards her head. She picked up the jagged pieces and held them out in front of her. The mind-controlled friend carried on charging, although tears streamed down her face as the only sign that she didn’t want to do this. Neither of them did, but the two of them grabbed at each other and felt to the ground, out of Amber’s sight.

She heard cries and shouts, then the not-brainwashed friend stood up, still holding onto a broken lamp fragment, covered in blood, matching the coating on her hand and half of her arm.

“I had to do it, she wouldn’t stop,” the woman gasped between sobs, then the connection terminated.

Amber’s phone beeped and the message flashed up on the screen.

You can’t stop this.

 

Three months earlier

“What about a true crime podcast?” Amber suggested.

Her partner, Andy looked at her, thought about it for a few seconds, then said, “you’d have to come on board for that.”

Amber nodded, not wanting to take on another project, but after her recent crime novel had done so well, she understood why Andy would think it a good idea for her to get involved in the true crime podcast.

“Okay, but it’s your project with Anthony. How about if I came in for the last ten minutes of each episode?”

It was agreed, but Amber had no idea of the events that were about to unfold.

The first episode went better than any of them expected, getting over a thousand listeners. Most of them were from Anthony’s hometown of Blackpool.

“We should record a live episode in Blackpool,” he suggested.

So, that’s how they ended up in Blackpool, surrounded by a live audience of over 200 people, crammed inside a performance tent, set up outside with Blackpool tower as the backdrop and a view of the beach in front of them.

“What do you think happened to Charlene?” Andy asked Amber during her ten-minute slot at the end of the podcast.

“I believe they had the killers, but proving it is another thing altogether.”

Anthony invited questions from the audience.

“Do you think Blackpool has a problem with predators like those alleged to have murdered her?” a woman asked. Her accent was Southern, though Amber couldn’t place it.

“No more than any other place,” she responded.

Anthony, Andy and Amber spoke to a few of the audience members afterward. Anthony seemed to know a lot of them, but a man who Amber didn’t recognise approached her.

“I read your book,” he said.

“Thanks.” She looked around for the radio DJ who had offered to interview the three of them after the podcast.

The man took a copy out of his bag and asked her to sign it. She took the pen and was about to ask for his name when Andy tapped her on the shoulder.

“We’ve got the interview with Radio Wave.” He guided her away towards Anthony who was already talking to a man who held out a large microphone. She was aware of someone calling her name, but it was distant and she became distracted when the interviewer waved her and Andy over.

“Anthony tells me the podcast was your idea,” he said, holding the mic in front of her.

“I suggested it to Andy, then ended up getting involved because of the book …”

“Yes, Crimes Against Humanity, are you thinking of doing a sequel? Possibly set in Blackpool? It’s great to have a podcast recorded in Blackpool like this, and of course, Anthony is well known in the local community, so if you set a book here that could only heighten our profile.”

Amber nodded, but wondered how talking about murders in Blackpool could ever be a good thing for the local community. Everyone seemed to be lapping up the media attention though, so who was she to argue?

“Maybe.”

 

***

After a lot of travelling between Blackpool and Manchester, Amber was considering quitting the podcast. Her book had become more popular, while Anthony was inundated with more freelance work and public speaking engagements than he had time for, so had to turn some of them down. Andy suggested he continued the podcast alone, monthly, instead of weekly, interviewing experts about unsolved crimes. It soared to the top of the podcast charts.

The three of them began their separate projects. Amber was doing a book tour in New York when she got the call that changed everything.

“There’s been a murder,” Andy said.

“And?” She wasn’t sure why he was telling her. There was nothing she could do about it.

“And the message pinned to the body was addressed to you.”

“What did it say?”

“Amber Solomon won’t be able to ignore me anymore, not after this. How is this for a crime against humanity?”

Amber gulped.

“That’s not even the strange part of this,” Andy said. He paused as if considering how much to say.

“What is it?”

The victim who had the note pinned to his chest; the forensics are saying there is no sign of him putting up a struggle or even being attacked at all. He pinned the note to his own chest and slit his own throat.”

Amber book the next flight home, unsure why she was bothering. If there was no proof of a murder, the guy must have killed himself. Her agent had warned her part of the journey to success might be paved with the occasional fanatic, but nothing had prepared her for the uneasy feeling that made her want to return home to Andy and try to make sense of what happened to this guy.

Walking into the flat she shared with Andy did nothing to decrease that uneasiness. She called out his name.

Where was he? He knew she was coming home early because of the recent murder, and it was after midnight. She expected to hear him snoring from the bedroom, but the flat was eerily quiet, other than the sound of the humming from the fridge and freezer as Amber walked past the kitchen and towards the bedroom.

She hesitated before switching on the light. If he was in bed, she would wake him, but at least she would know he was there. Her hand reached up and pressed the switch, lighting up the room to reveal an empty bed. That’s when she picked up her landline to call him. It rang out. Amber was about to try again when her phone rang from her bag where it still hung from her shoulder. She reached inside and saw the message with the link, meeting I.D and password.

A second message popped up on the screen.

Log in from your laptop now. Maybe you can save a woman from being murdered by her lifelong best friend. If not, don’t feel too bad. My mind is stronger than yours.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Amber asked out loud as she rushed into the study and booted up her laptop. Whatever it meant, it wasn’t good. Even before using the meeting details to log in, her heart was racing along with all the thoughts in her mind.

Two women sat in a room. They must be in their early forties. One was blonde and the other a brunette. The blonde looked at Amber and spoke.

“I don’t know who you are, or why he’s doing this, but Claire won’t talk and I’m sure he did something to her.”

“Who?”

“The man, he was here. He’s gone now, I think, but he told us to log in here and wait for you. That you might be able to help.”

Amber grabbed at her phone, trying Andy’s number once more. When that rang out again, she made her way through the numbers in the phone, dialling Anthony’s number next. That rang out too.

“And he said it’s no use calling them. They’re tied up, or something like that.”

Amber slammed the phone down.

All she could do was watch the live footage of the two women, who (if the person behind the messages was telling the truth) had been best friends for most of their lives, turning on one another.

My mind is stronger than yours.

Those words came back to Amber. Was it mind control? No. That didn’t make any sense, but the friend, Claire punched the blonde woman in her face and chest several times, grabbing a lamp from somewhere out of the camera’s range and trying to hit her with it. That’s when the blonde must have decided she had no choice but to defend herself. As the lamp was hurtled towards her head, she stopped trying to reason with her friend and instead, picked up the jagged pieces and held them out in front of her. The mind-controlled woman carried on charging, although tears streamed down her face as the only sign that she didn’t want to do this. Neither of them did, but they both grabbed at each other and fell to the ground, out of sight from Amber.

She heard cries and shouts, then the not brainwashed friend stood up, still holding onto a broken lamp fragment, covered in blood, matching the coating on her hand and half of her arm.

“I had to do it, she wouldn’t stop,” the woman said between sobs and wheezing, then the connection terminated.

Amber’s phone beeped and the message flashed up on the screen.

You can’t stop this.

“Then why make me watch?” she yelled at the screen.

Moments later, the response came back.

I wanted you to know, this is all your fault and there is nothing you can do to stop any of it.

Amber felt a chill run all the way down her body as the realisation washed over her; this freak was watching her from somewhere. She slammed the laptop shut. Her phone pinged again.

I’m not watching from the laptop.

The phone? Amber wasn’t sure, but she shut it down anyway. Then the landline rang.

She darted into the bedroom and picked it up hoping it was Andy.

“Hello?”

“It’s not your mobile either.” The voice was male, not too deep and it felt familiar, though Amber couldn’t place where she had heard it before.

“Who is this?”

“You know that I could make you hit your head against the wall until you lose consciousness?”

She opened her mouth to argue, but having just witnessed the live footage, she found it difficult to doubt him.

“Why?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” he asked. “But I think I’ll let you work all that out for yourself.”

“How am I meant to do that?” she wondered out loud.

“Start with the place you shunned me.”

“Shunned you?” she asked, but the line went dead. “Bastard!” She remembered him saying he wasn’t using her mobile to watch her, and began looking around the study, then the bedroom without finding anything. She switched her phone back on and tried calling Andy and Anthony again, with no response.

She could call the police, but where would she start? No, this was something she would have to tell them in person. She grabbed her coat and bag then left the flat, almost forgetting to lock up after herself. A bitter laugh lodged in her throat as she returned and locked the door. Clearly, the maniac had already gotten inside to bug her flat and spy on her. Locking the door was unlikely to stop him if he wanted to return.

An hour later, Amber was sitting in the waiting room of her local police station. She had done her best to explain the situation to the woman at the desk, but doubt had crept onto her face, probably wondering if Amber was drunk. A policeman had spoken to her briefly though and agreed to look into the murder over the video conference software. Amber tapped her foot as she waited, wondering how long this would take. She racked her mind for where she had heard the voice before and what he meant by the place she shunned him.

She found herself thinking about the live podcast in Blackpool, feeling like that had something to do with it. Then it hit her.

“The Guy,” she murmured to herself, recalling the man who had asked her to sign his book, but she hadn’t because Andy reminded her the radio station wanted an interview.

Amber stood and raced out of the police station, getting in her car and heading towards Blackpool. There was no plan, so when she arrived she sat on a bench near Blackpool Tower, watching the waves crashing into each other, from a safe distance. If this was the guy who wanted his book signed, then this was the place where in his mind, he had been shunned him.

Her phone rang.

“Hello.”

“You remember me then, but Blackpool is a big place. Where do you think your friends might be?”

“How should I know? Just tell me where they are.”

“That’s no way to talk to the only person who can ensure your co-hosts get out of this alive.”

Amber took a deep breath and lowered her voice as she asked, please, tell me where they are.”

“That’s better, much more reasonable. Now if you recall one of my favourite scenes in your book. What happened to the victim at the end?”

Amber had to think. It was over two years since she wrote it. There was a scene with the killer. He held someone hostage and tied them up on the beach, waiting for the tide to come in. The detective didn’t make it in time and the woman drowned.

“I can hear that brain of yours. Tick, tick, tick. Do you think this story can end any differently to how it did with your book?”

“Shit,” Amber exclaimed. The beach was bigger than she had time to search before the tide would come in.

In the book, the killer tied the victim up underneath the North Pier. What if this was a trick and the maniac had gone for somewhere nearer to the other end of the beach to throw her off? Or maybe Andy and Anthony weren’t tied up on the beach at all. She couldn’t risk it though. She had to check, after firing off a text message to her agent.

You warned me there might be some obsessed fans, Well I think one of them has tied up Andy and Anthony on the beach, like in my book.

She began running. Her agent had lived and breathed the book for over a year and probably knew the plot better than Amber did. She would understand the significance of being tied up on the beach and hopefully, be able to convince the police. Amber couldn’t rely on that though. There was too much at stake, so she forced her legs to move faster along the wet sand. The tide would be in soon. She couldn’t allow herself to think about what that would mean if this guy was telling the truth.

When she saw slight movement under the pier she wondered if it might just be a homeless person sleeping under there, but as she neared, Amber could see it was Anthony tied to a beam of the pier. She ran the last few steps and wasted a few minutes untying him. The lack of light didn’t help and her fingers found the knots fiddly.

“Where’s Andy?” she asked.

He made a sound, alerting her to the fact that a sash had been tied around his mouth as a gag.

After releasing his arms and legs, she removed the sash and asked again.

Anthony took in a deep breath, before he replied, “down there,” pointing to further along, below the pier.

“No!”

Amber realised that stretch of the beach was already immersed in water. She saw something just above it.

“Get help,” she yelled at Anthony, before she ran in that direction.

“Andy,” she exclaimed. He murmured something through his gag. He was already shoulder deep in the sea. Amber removed the gag and dived under the water to untie his bindings. If she had thought it was difficult enough to free Anthony, then this was much worse. She couldn’t see a thing, not like in the films where people dive under the water with their eyes wide open. Amber had to keep hers forced shut, while feeling around for the knots, only making a little leeway before having to come up for air before starting all over again. It seemed like forever before she finally managed to free his legs. She was aware of him calling out for someone to help them, but didn’t have time to wait for anyone to hear. Amber began to untie his hands. That was still awkward with the water crashing against them both but easier than the binding on his legs had been.

It almost seemed like a dream when the knots were released and Andy was free. She laughed in relief and opened her mouth to suggest they get off the beach before the tide was all the way in. She was barely able to stay above the water, even with Andy now holding onto her.

A wave slightly bigger than the others was hit by a strong gust of wind, sweeping her off her feet and away from Andy. He reached out to her, but wasn’t quick enough as the sea seemed to drag her away. Andy lost sight of her as a lifeboat arrived, helping him aboard. Despite several searches for Amber, she was never found.

A funeral was held after she was presumed dead. Hundreds of people attended, which is why nobody paid any attention to the man who stood at the back, clutching a copy of “Crimes Against Humanity” while smiling sadly at the way things had worked out.

 

 

 

Finding Something to Write About in Lockdown

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Before lockdown, writers who had other jobs struggled to find the time to write. Now, many of those who are off work may still be struggling, but for different reasons. There is more time, but it’s harder to concentrate. So, if you no longer have to go to work, or even if you do, how can you make the most of whatever time you have spare each day?

Stop trying to write for a while

If you need inspiration, sitting in front of your laptop and staring at a blank screen is unlikely to provide that. There may be times when you have to sit there for a while as you wait for your brain to cooperate, yet you need to give yourself something to work with.

Lockdown can limit where we get our inspiration from. If you go online, everyone is talking about the same thing. That might explain why so many writers have written something inspired by the pandemic and the lockdown. That’s fine, it makes a great outlet and can help you to process and cope with everything. I’m even publishing some of my lockdown poems, but that doesn’t mean people will want to read them.

You’ll want to write something else eventually. So talk to friends and family, even if it’s just on the phone or over Zoom. Watch your favourite TV show or discover a new one. Go for a walk, if you don’t have any health conditions that put you in the at-risk group. Read a book or listen to a song. Inspiration can come from something a friend says to you, a line in song or song, something you see outside or something in TV show. That doesn’t mean you should plagiarise someone else’s work. Just use the idea as a starting point and turn it into something completely different.

Should I change my work in progress to include the pandemic?

This is a question I’ve seen people ask and some writers have stopped what they were writing, or feel like they have to go back and rewrite it to include recent events. Obviously, what you write is up to you. However, reading is a form of escapism, so many people won’t want to read a fictionalised version of what is happening right now. Another thing to consider is how much time it takes to write, edit and publish. For me, if I continue with any of the novels I’ve already started on, it could take between six and eight months to complete and publish one of them, longer if I try to get a publisher instead of self-publishing it myself. I’m not saying life will be like it was by then, but I hope things will be better than they are now. Also, it’s fiction, so it doesn’t have to guess the future. You can create your own fictional future and provide an escape for yourself while writing it, which may help you to write the world the way you want it to be.

Join workshops

I’ve attended some online workshops. If you join writing groups on social media and ask around, you should be able to find some.

I’ve not written anything I can submit to publishers or journals from this, but it has helped to keep me writing, and I’ve been inspired by the other writers. If nothing else, you get to (virtually) meet with other writers. I’ve found it more of a social experience than the virtual spoken word nights I’ve attended.

Still finding it difficult?

Writing anything might seem difficult at the moment, but take it in bite-size sessions. Start with half an hour a day, or even ten minutes if that’s too much. Write whatever comes to mind. It might be nonsense, but just set a timer and write until you’re out of time, Read through it later. Looks for a line, or a few words that could inspire to write something. Then use that to create a poem or the beginning of a short story. You can even use dreams to get ideas for a poem or story. If you keep a notebook by your bed, you can jot down any dreams you have and use those as inspiration. Many people are having bizarre dreams at the moment. In another blog post, I’ll be sharing a short story I wrote, inspired by one of my bizarre dreams.

A Piece of “Erotic Fiction” I Wrote

 

 

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I recently had a rejection – nothing new there then. However, this was different to my other rejections. It contained feedback.. Apparently, my writing wasn’t erotic enough to arouse readers. I was going for something more subtle and intense. It reminded me that I did write an erotic story a few years ago though. This was around the time I first got a Kindle and read a lot of free books about werebears (don’t ask). These always ended up with the female lead and the male lead getting together, even though the woman would resist at first, but the guy just wouldn’t take no for an answer. The “erotic” scenes were well over the top and bordering on abuse in some cases. So, I wrote an erotic story, to make fun of this. I then ended up going back over some of it and replacing some words with names of Pokémon, because … why not?

 

I’ve shared an extract below.

 

I will have to fight to determine whether the world ends or not. Now we’ve met, I realise it’s only a matter of time before the Pokémon battle begins. Although I’m far too distracted by the unfamiliar ache between my legs, as I look down and see an enormous Haunter has appeared.

I quickly spin around and look out of the window feigning an interest in the sky, as I try to prevent the demon from seeing my Electrode. It’s not like I don’t know what an Electrode is, it’s just never happened to me before. My Snorax shouldn’t be reacting this way, especially not to a demon. She walks around me, placing herself between me and the window.

‘My name is Angel,’ she tells me. Her tongue seems to flick in and out of her mouth with each word, and I’m already starting to imagine what else she could do with that tongue. If I was to lose control of myself, I could plunge my own tongue into her mouth and let her taste me, or I could just unzip my trousers and plunge my Haunter into her mouth, until the intense Bulbasaur begins to cease. I shake my head, even as my hand reaches down and rubs against the fabric of my trousers. She grins and I grab my hand with the other, as though it’s not part of me anymore, but now has a mind of it’s own.

I guess she had the same idea as me with choosing her name, and I can’t help but smirk.

‘Damien,’ I manage to say.

‘So the boss says I have to help you in any way you require.’ Her eyes fall to my lustful Alakazam.

‘What?’ I ask, my mind a haze of confusion.

She kneels down in front of me and runs her fingers lightly across the outline of my Pikachu, through the fabric of my ever-tightening suit trousers. They’re going to burst open in a minute if she keeps doing that. I involuntarily thrust my hips towards her. It seems like a battle just to force myself to stop moving. I sit down and cross my legs, hoping that will help. I wish I hadn’t. As an angel I can tolerate a lot of pain, but this is intense.

‘We can’t … we’re not meant to …’ I try to talk, but my mouth refuses to form whole sentences.

‘Then stop me,’ she taunts, before grabbing hold of my right leg and forcefully uncrossing my legs, then burying her head between my legs. She licks and sucks my throbbing Charmander, still through the fabric, but it feels like it’s continuing to get harder and bigger, possibly like it’s evolving and going to force its way into her mouth any second now and there’s nothing I can do to stop my Pokeballs from escaping.

 

***

If you fancy listening to someone read it out, you can HERE. This was before I started reading in public. These days, I’d probably just read it myself.

 

If you want to be a writer, accept you will fail before you succeed

success and failure

The thing about looking at successful writers, or successful people in any field, is they rarely make the headlines or show up on your radar until they’ve made it. This makes them hard to relate to or compare yourself against.

Accepting failure before it happens doesn’t mean giving up or being pessimistic. You can prepare yourself for the silent audience, bad review or unsold book if you accept that at some point it will happen. Think of it as a lesson learnt and something to tick off your list.

The people you look up to, even the ones who aren’t famous but seem to have carved out a market for themselves and are making a success out of doing what they love; they rarely share posts or images of their failures.

I’ve read a few success stories where people just seem to have stumbled into becoming a popular Instagram poet, landing a publishing deal or whatever else. These are either the few exceptions, or they’re not telling you about the time they spent in obscurity and all the rejections they received before that. It gives everyone else an unrealistic image of what success looks like. “Overnight success” usually takes years to achieve.

I’m nowhere near being a successful anything, although I’ve had a few small successes and close calls; such as having a few books accepted by published, almost carving out a full-time career as a copywriter, an almost promising self-published book and a few shorter pieces accepted for paid publication. So, I’m going to share some of my failures and disappointments, to show you that all (or most) of us have them.

 

Getting published

I had two books accepted for publications in a relatively short space of time. The first went horribly wrong. I was amongst the many authors who never received their royalties before the publisher shut down. The second publisher had better intentions, but is close to shutting its doors as I write this.

 

Making a living from writing

After trying to make a living for my books, I became a freelance copywriter. It wasn’t ideal, having to write to a set of criteria on subjects I wouldn’t have chosen myself, but I adapted to it. I was given a paid ghostwriter trial for a fiction book and some other freelance writing, and things were starting to build up. Then there was a pandemic and much of my work dried up. Of course the virus is extremely serious and has taken many lives, so I’m glad to be alive, but it doesn’t change the disappointment I felt at getting so close to the dream of making a full-time living as a writer, even if it wasn’t the type of writing I ideally wanted to do.

 

Self-publishing

My years of self-publishing and my two failed publishers taught me a lot, so I used that knowledge to publish and promote my recent novel Ghost of Me. I had pre-orders and reviews (from advance reader copies) before the release date and it all looked promising. Sales dried up quickly when the virus spread and so my book was (understandably) forgotten as people had more important things to think about.

 

Other failures

Where do I start? There have been so many. These include bad reviews, (some deserved and others from internet trolls and bullies) reading out work to an unresponsive audience (the poems were too subtle for them and they preferred something more direct – it happens, so move on) and trying to build up awareness of my books by running giveaways online. I’ve run a few competitions with few or no entrants. It can be a real awakening when you realise you can’t even give away copies of your own book.

 

Why do I keep going?

After re-reading that last part I’m asking myself the same question, but I’ve had some successes, however small. I had two publishers who thought my books were worth publishing. Okay, so one of them stole the royalties, but they must have thought they could get enough money from it to be worth their time and effort.

I’ve also had several pieces of writing published (and paid for) even before I started copywriting. I’ve also had some great feedback from the copywriting projects I’ve worked on. Last year, the magazine I created (which I’m sadly putting together the last issue for) was given a place performing poetry at The Festival of Manchester. I could probably mention a few more successes, but this blog post isn’t for me to brag. My point is you keep going by remembering the successes. They may happen less than the failures, but they also mean more when they do happen.