Getting my sh*t together

I am not a very organised person. I have a chaotic creative brain that doesn’t respond well to admin or accounting. Organising a Direct Debit payment is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat. But recently, I’ve felt the need to exert a little more control over my life. So, I’ve turned to technology.

I have an iMac desktop, an old iPhone and a MacBook Air. This means I can access the same files from all three devices. So, I now have a calendar and a reminder list I can refer to and update anywhere (with calendar appointments colour coded for work, social, home, birthdays, etc.).

I am also making use of the Notes app. I have various folders into which I can type story ideas, keep a list of my favourite Instagram hashtags, and generally download anything I need to remember. This is especially handy when an idea strikes while I’m out and about: I can make a note on my phone and know it will be there waiting on my desktop when I get home.

One of the biggest changes I’ve made has been downloading apps for my bank account, PayPal, and HMRC. Previously, I’ve recoiled from anything to do with money; now, I can easily keep track of what’s going in and out of my account.

And to top it off, I’ve even started using the Health app to track the number of steps I walk in a day and the amount of sleep I get.

I told you I was getting my sh*t together.

However, it’s not all a technological wonderland. For some reason, I find habit tracking easier in a paper journal than on a spreadsheet. So, I’m still tracking my daily tasks–writing, reading, alcohol consumption, housework–in an old school bullet journal. Something about colouring in the little squares by hand feels more satisfying than putting a tick in an Excel box. I don’t know why, it just does.

Are there any productivity or admin tools that you couldn’t live without? Let us know in the comments…

New Edition of The Recollection Out Today!

Today, Solaris Books publish the Tenth Anniversary Edition of my novel, The Recollection. I’m so glad to see it getting a new lease of life. I had so much fun writing it, and although I’ve written many books since, it will always have a special place in my heart. If you liked my Embers of War series, you’ll love this.

Instagram

As you probably know, I have an Instagram account. It took me a while to really “get” the platform, though. It’s a lot less interactive than Twitter (where I spend most of my time), and therefore hard to judge whether you’re doing it right or not.

After a few false starts, I’ve settled on posting a combination of writing advice, books that interest me, promotion for upcoming releases, and behind-the-scenes shots from my walks around Bristol and other places.

My Instagram feed

I try to make each post interesting, or at least pretty to look at. I’m quite enjoying using my camera to capture quirky views. I’ve never been a big photographer, but it’s a fun creative outlet that kept me going through lockdown.

This isn’t really an advice column, as there’s still so much about Insta that I don’t know. Each of my posts gets around 40-50 likes, which means over 10% of my followers respond to each one, and that’s a higher level of engagement than I see on Twitter, where I’d need 3k likes per Tweet to get an engagement rate of 10%. Twitter feels more conversational and probably reaches more people, but my followers on Instagram seem to pay more attention…

I’ve no idea how to increase my Instagram following, though. My Twitter following goes up at a pretty steady rate of 200-300 per month, but my Instagram following has stayed more-or-less static for a couple of years. Any suggestions?

If you’re interested, you can find my feed at: Instagram.com/garethlpowell

Beard Care

As a notoriously hirsute author, folk occasionally ask me to give them my top tips for taming their facial foliage. Especially now, as so many of you have grown beards during the lockdowns of the past year, and now want to return to work without looking like a Covid castaway.

Well, I don’t do anything fancy, but I’ll walk you through my routine.

The Essentials

  • A beard comb for straightening out those tangles
  • A good beard trimmer with adjustable cut lengths
  • Beard shampoo to keep your beard clean
  • Beard oil and balm to keep your beard and the skin underneath soft and conditioned

Trimming

If you want to avoid a neck beard (and you really do), take the trimmer and shave away everything below a curved line that runs from ear-to-ear via a point about an inch above your Adam’s apple.

You can experiment with longer settings to keep the rest of your beard at a uniform length–although I keep the front of my beard (the goatee area) slightly longer than the rest, to lengthen the shape of my face and stop it looking so round (a beard can hide a multitude of chins).

Daily Care

After a daily wash with the shampoo, I comb out any tangles, massage in some balm and then apply a little oil to hold in the moisture and keep things shiny.

Et voila!

I told you I didn’t do anything fancy, but I hope that’s useful to those of you who asked for advice. Just a little time and care can keep the face fuzz looking clean and tidy instead of resembling a wild briar patch teeming with scruffy badgers.

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Note: This post is in no way sponsored by or affiliated with the brands depicted; these are simply the products I currently have to hand.

It’s Okay to Reinvent Yourself

With all the media talk about getting back to ‘normal’ after the pandemic, it’s likely you’re feeling some pressure to reinstall your 2019 self and carry on as if the past year never happened. But we’ve been through a historical worldwide event, and it’s changed us. We’ve had months of intense isolation and psychological stress. If the you that’s reading this feels very different to the you of twelve months ago, that’s okay.

Change is part of the human journey. That’s why our films and novels feature characters who grow and develop as a consequence of their experiences. So, as we emerge from our cocoons, don’t let people make you feel bad for not wanting to be a caterpillar any more.

Covid-19 took a terrible human toll. At the time of writing, 2,961,282 people have lost their lives to the disease – a figure equivalent to the total population of Greater Manchester – and those are just the official figures.

You’ve had to absorb that scale of loss while taking precautions to avoid catching the disease yourself, so it’s no wonder your perspective might have changed. Things you thought important before might seem less so now.

Perhaps you’ve had time to re-evaluate your work/life balance. Maybe you’ve grown a beard or discovered a new skill or passion. Or perhaps you’ve decided life is too short and precarious to spend it doing something you hate.

Personally, I know I’ve changed. I’m tired but feel more comfortable in my own skin. I cut my own hair now. I feel more confident. A new chapter of my life is beginning and I feel ready to embrace it.

So, if you’ve decided you want to be seen differently and let people know you’ve changed, then do it. We only get one life, and we have to live it authentically, being true to who we are inside.

This doesn’t have to be a return to normal. Too much time has passed. Instead, you can seize the chance to make this a rebirth, a fresh start, and a brand new beginning.

Don’t Drink From The Firehose: Staying Sane on Social Media

Back in the early days of Twitter, I used to follow BBC Breaking News, Reuters, and several other local and international accounts. It felt good to be connected to the world. I could follow issues, debates and events as they unfolded in real time. At any hour of the day or night, I knew what was going on in the world.

It made me feel wired and in control.

The trouble is, in the constant barrage of social media everything is going on all the time. There’s no let-up or chance to pause for breath. No time to digest and reflect, just the constant bam, bam, bam of headlines and opinions hitting you twenty-four hours a day.

In that hellish melange, things get confused. Categories break down. Third-rate celebrities become political pundits. Experts get ignored in favour of conspiracy theories. Individuals and organisations wilfully sow disinformation until it’s hard to tell what’s true anymore. But if we look away for even an instant, we might miss something important…

During this pandemic, the barrier between home and work has become permeable. Adding politics and current events into the mix means we’re spending every waking moment in a state of stress, with our attention being pulled in three directions at once, and our emotions in a confused mess.

It’s hard enough being powerless in the face of Covid, the constant reminder of a thousand other ire-inducing issues we’re powerless to change leaves us feeling angry and frustrated and no longer in control of our lives.

And that just isn’t sustainable over the long-term.

As well as causing mental health issues, sustained stress can lower your immune system, cause digestive problems, and even lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.

So, I recently made the decision that I come to social media for the “social” part of that equation. If I want to watch the news, I will switch on the TV or visit a news website. I no longer need to be hit over the head with it every time I want to chat with my friends.

So, I’m turning off the firehose. I will check the news once or twice a day, and maybe catch the headlines when I’m in the car. But it will be on my terms. I can’t do everything at once. I will also have zero hesitation in blocking anyone who comes to me looking for an argument. Or anyone spouting hateful nonsense. I don’t owe them my attention. Their right to free speech doesn’t negate my right to not listen.

I need to separate time for work and time for home life, and maybe most importantly, time to relax and take care of my mental health.

To this end, I’ve created a variety of Twitter lists, so I get to see only the people I want to keep up with, and I ignore the rest. I barely use Facebook anymore. Instagram is more restful. After all, it’s my time and my experience. I should get to curate my feeds and choose what I want to see.

I’m not advocating living in a bubble, nor am I suggesting we should be passively uninformed about the important issues of the day. I’m just saying we don’t have to be constantly beaten over the head with anxiety inducing headlines, or have to listen to every troll or keyboard-happy jackass on the Internet.

A Chat With My Editor

Following on from the popularity of A Chat With My Literary Agent, I’m delighted to present an interview with Cath Trechman, my editor at Titan Books. She was responsible for acquiring and editing my Embers of War trilogy, and we are currently at work on another two novels.

Hi Cath, thanks for doing this.

1) How did you become an editor?

I started out as a bookseller at Ottakar’s (remember them?), which led to a job as a receptionist at Scholastic Children’s Books. Whilst there I helped out in every department and learned how publishing worked – as well as reading hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts and nearly fainting every time Philip Pullman phoned the switchboard! From there I went to Titan Books and worked my way up from editorial assistant on their non-fiction list of film and TV tie-ins to helping to start up their genre fiction list. 

2) In short, what does an editor do?

Essentially, editors seek out manuscripts to publish that they’re passionate about and that fit with their list. We then champion those books from acquisition to publication, and beyond. Once a book has been acquired (at times, this process could be an essay in itself!), we work with the author to enhance the manuscript, collaborate with the designer on a cover and provide marketing and publicity with sales copy. We also send out the book to other authors for endorsements and keep on top of every stage of the pre-publication process. A lot of emails, a lot of exciting creative discussions. Basically, it takes a village to make a book a success and I’m fortunate to work with a very committed, knowledgeable team who love the books and their authors as much as I do.

3) What are your preferred genres to work with, and what draws you to them?

Titan’s fiction list encompasses science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime/thrillers – and I’m fortunate that I don’t have to confine myself to any single one of these as I love all of them! Horror for the way it explores the darkest corners of the human psyche, for its atmospheric, deeply engaging and often emotionally devastating stories. Science fiction for the way it engages in current issues such as climate change and immigration, examining how we live now by looking at ways we might live in the future. Fantasy for the pure magic of escapism, for the way it can delve into the mythology of different cultures and find endless, powerful tales to tell. And, finally, I love a really addictive thriller that I can gulp down virtually in one go, but that also leaves me thinking about those characters and what they have been through for weeks to come. 

4) When you receive a submission, what are you looking for in it?

I really want a manuscript to grab me from the very first paragraph, a few really arresting and original lines that let me know I’m in safe hands and can let the narrative take me where it will. No matter the genre, I’m always after strong characters who draw me into the story, incisive writing, and an interesting central conceit.

5) Do you have a preferred manuscript format?

So long as I can read it on a kindle, I don’t mind what format it comes in. Word is usually best, though.

6) What are your top tips for authors getting ready to submit a manuscript?

If you are the only person who has read your book, I strongly advise getting several others, whose opinions you trust, to read it before sending it out. A fresh perspective might give you the keys you need to really open up the story – and plug the plot holes…

I recommend sending your manuscript to an agent rather than direct to a publisher. Once you have secured an agent, you will reap the benefit of their insider knowledge of the right editor for your work, and how to negotiate the best deal. An agent will also troubleshoot a myriad of other things on your behalf, and help shape and develop your career, allowing you to focus on the writing.

Do your research: find an agent who represents authors you admire and then follow their specific submission guidelines to the letter.

Write a cover letter that is unique to that agent, they will be encouraged that you really believe they are the right agent for you and are submitting something in their area of interest.

7) Any definite no-nos?

Sending one generic email to everyone you can think of all at once. This will be incredibly obvious and will cause most agents and publishers to delete immediately without responding. (Especially if you send it to multiple editors in the same company, we do talk to each other!)

8) What kind of working relationship do you have with an author and their agent?

It’s a complicated, intensely collaborative and creative relationship. We all want what is best for the author and their book and work closely together to ensure the best result. 

9) Do you still find time to read for pleasure?

I’m a mum of two small boys so finding time to read for pleasure is not easy, but I always have a book on the go alongside my submissions reading. It can take me a few weeks to get through it though!

10) What have been your favourite recent reads?

I love Pat Barker and recently read The Silence of the Girls, I found it beautifully understated and completely devastating, very much a book for these times. I really enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow and Mexican Gothic was similarly a wonderfully atmospheric, delicious, scary delight. This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is an incredible book, one I think I’ll return to again and again. I also recently read Gangsta Granny by David Walliams to my 7-year-old. I think it’s the first time he has really loved reading something that isn’t The Beano, and we were both in tears at the end.

Thanks, Cath!

Plotting A Trilogy

When I set out to write the Embers of War and Ack-Ack Macaque trilogies, I had to decide how to structure the plot across three books. So, I took a lesson from Star Wars.

Book One establishes our heroes and sets up their world and the background to the coming conflicts, but it’s also an adventure in its own right, with our heroes triumphing at the end.

But then along comes Book Two, and everything gets turned upside down. Gains made in the first book are lost; the characters find the rug pulled out from under them; Luke finds out who his real father is…

So, the start of Book Three finds our characters at their lowest ebb. Their plans are wrecked and they’ve seemingly lost everything. And that’s right when the forces opposing them seem to be ascendant. A new Death Star is built. Han is delivered to Jabba. Leia becomes a slave. They have reached rock bottom and the only thing to do now is fight back. Their trials in Book Two have changed them, and they have new strengths and new goals. They understand themselves better.

The end of Book Three pulls together all the threads from One and Two, and resolves all the character arcs to create a satisfying conclusion.

To reduce it to a simple diagram:

Struggling to create? You’re not alone

We’re approaching the first anniversary of the start of this seemingly endless pandemic. And while I know some people have been super productive during the months of enforced isolation, the rest of us have been struggling a bit.

We’re living through a global crisis, and the constant, pervasive background worry takes its toll. Too much of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to exhaustion, irritability, anxiety, depression, and trouble concentrating. And then, you have all the other stresses of pandemic life. Some people are isolated and lonely; others are cooped-up together and struggling to get time to themselves. The way we work has been turned upside-down, and the nightly news has given us a white-knuckle political ride.

Small wonder we’re finding it hard to concentrate. A lot of my friends complain of “brain fog.” It’s almost as if we can’t think clearly right now, and we’re tired all the time. It’s difficult to summon the energy to write a shopping list, let alone a ninety thousand word blockbuster.

So, if this all sounds familiar, please know you’re not alone. Our mental health has taken a terrific battering this past year, and we’re not out of the woods yet. It’s okay to feel bad. It’s okay to get a lot of rest, if you need it. Life is demanding enough right now; don’t put too much additional pressure on yourself by expecting unrealistic performance levels. But, if it’s all getting too much, there is absolutely no shame in asking your doctor for help. In fact, from personal experience, I’d recommend it.

In addition, I’ve been trying to take pleasure in the small stuff: good tea, scenic walks, upbeat music, Zoom meetings with friends. And the more I build reading into my day, the more I feel my concentration starting to return. And with it, my desire to write.

Spring is coming. Hang in there, concentrate on being kind to yourself and those around you, and we will get through.