Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Alternative Fashion Fest: My Modelling Journey

You might not think I was a model by taking a first glance at me. I'm relatively small, I have scars (including a rather prominent one on my eyebrow), and I've never been a particularly thin person. And a few years ago, I would have looked at myself in the mirror and thought the exact same thing. So I was just as surprised at myself as everyone else when I did this in June last year:

Yep, that's me on the far right, walking down a catwalk in Liverpool for the first time in my life. And this wasn't any catwalk; it was one of the largest in history, and actually broke the Guinness World Record for most models on a catwalk!

In some respects, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing; in others, it was a natural progression. But if I hadn't made the choice to get up there in front of a crowd of thousands, I would be a very different person today.

Practically since its inception in 2007, I've been a supporter of The Sophie Lancaster Foundation: a charity that aims to stop bullying and social intolerance towards alternative subcultures by education and encouraging pride. When I noticed they were joining a new project called Alternative Fashion Fest for the Very Big Catwalk in Liverpool, I decided to join in to support them, even though modelling wasn't my thing and I never thought it would be. While there, I made some fantastic new friends, including this amazing lady: Jane Bellis.

Jane founded Alternative Fashion Fest to showcase a range of clothes and models that didn't fit the cookie-cutter image of what should be on a catwalk. Her vision included models of all shapes, sizes, and walks of life to create a fashion show with a social conscience.

Taking part in the Very Big Catwalk was one of the highlights of 2015 for me, and really showed me how much my confidence had grown from the bullied girl I once was. It re-enforced my own convictions that everyone has a right to be who they are and showcase it with pride. So, still buzzing from the experience, I got back in touch with AFF, and the rest is history.

The crew of AFF welcomed me with open arms, and we have such a tight-knit bond that it is like a family. With them, I don't have to worry about being shunned or ridiculed for being myself, and everyone is treated with such utmost respect that it truly lifts my heart when we are performing together.

Hopefully what we do can help others realise that there is no such thing as the perfect body - everybody is beautiful, no matter their gender, size, nationality, sexual orientation, mental health, ability or disability. It's not just about the amazing clothes, but also the people who wear them - who have feelings just like everyone else.

One of the most powerful parts of the AFF shows is also my favourite: we all walk out wearing white t-shirts bearing the Sophie Lancaster Foundation logo, then we turn around. Emblazoned across our backs are the derogatory labels which have been thrown at us in the past: FATTY, SLAG, PSYCHO, FREAK, UGLY, QUEER, and so on. We wear them with pride, because we are not our labels. Despite everything we have been through, we are still standing.

I never thought I would be a model. I also never thought I would be a published author, 2nd Dan black belt, or would see the Northern Lights. But I have, and I am only 25 years old.

If you want to do something, you go do it!

If you'd like to find out more about Alternative Fashion Fest and what we do, then check out this short video! And be sure to visit the website for tour dates!

Monday, 5 September 2016

5 Tips to Get Through a Mood Crash

We all have bad days, when we feel a bit blue and like we have lost our mojo. That's perfectly normal, and it's healthy to acknowledge sadness the same way we acknowledge happiness. But sometimes, for people who suffer from mental illnesses, this emotional slump isn't so easy to accept. Instead of feeling like an off day, it's like the entire world has come crashing down on your shoulders.

As I write this post, I'm in one of these not-so-lovely mood crashes. I get them every so often, usually in response to things which wouldn't bother most people - or bother them only a bit. However, my mind cannot simply let things go, and even though I want to just carry on with my day, the brakes are thrown on against my will. It's horrible, but I want to talk about it, so that if you also suffer from these crashes you can try to help yourself.

First of all, I want to stress two things, both for you and the people who see you going through a slump:

You are not doing this because you want to.

For as healthy as acknowledging sadness it, who honestly wants to be upset? And following on from that, who wants to be so upset that they can't even move from a chair or be bothered to eat anything? An emotional or mood crash is not attention seeking, so please don't feel guilty, because if you have them so severely, it is not something you can "just stop."

There are some days when you cannot fight.
On those days, you are not defeated.
You are enduring.

It might feel like the end of the world when one of these crashes hits head on, but it's not - and deep down, you know it's not. You will get through it; you just need to take your time, do things (or not do them) in your own way, and wait until the cloud starts to break up.

When I crash, I crash hard, and when I feel one of these periods coming on I try to give myself a little routine so I don't go stir crazy. These tips work for me - they may or may not work for you too. But give them a go, and adapt them as you need to.

1. Know your triggers

Just like a panic attack, mood crashes can have triggers. I tend to think of them as having the opposite effect of a panic attack: instead of going into intense fight-or-flight, your mind shuts down into a kind of low-power mode. But both have the same fundamental intention of protecting you - even if the context of the protection itself is askew. If you don't know what triggers a crash, try to find out what they are in a safe way that won't harm you - and once you do know, make sure you can get power over them when you need to. If you can get yourself away from a trigger, or choose not to listen to a trigger, then do so. Remember, you have the right to say no to something that you know will compromise your mental state.

2. Tone everything down for the day

If you can feel yourself starting to fall into an emotional hole, don't turn it into a vicious circle by forcing yourself to keep smiling. That won't make things any better because you aren't allowing yourself to acknowledge that you are upset. There's usually a point in the slumping where you know it's in for the day, and when you feel yourself reach it, the best thing to do is make things as easy for yourself as you can. If you have a to-do list, either put it off until tomorrow or only concentrate on the most pressing things. Don't expect too much of yourself. Let yourself be tired. It's your mind's way of processing and getting through the day.

3. Keep comfortable and hydrated

Change into some loose-fitting clothes or pyjamas so you don't feel constricted, settle into a comfy chair or bed, and try to relax. Even if you don't feel like eating, make sure you drink through the day so you don't become dehydrated. Nothing makes a slump worse than a headache! If you need some extra comfort, wrap yourself in a blanket or keep a cuddly toy close, or make yourself a hot water bottle and lay it on your stomach.

4. Distract yourself

Even though you might not feel like doing anything, complete inactivity can make things worse by allowing you to mull over your sadness. Keep your brain focused on something else which doesn't demand too much attention. Personally, I can't stand to sit in silence when I've crashed, so I tend to put on Disney animated films and half-watch them. You could also play some relaxing music, or work in a colouring book.

5. Remind yourself that the crash will end

For me, this means giving myself an early night. It's amazing how much better you can feel after a good sleep. Going to bed can help draw a line under the day and refresh your mind. Reminding yourself that the crash will not last forever is both a big help and a sure sign that, even though you might feel it, things will get better. This is a temporary thing that will pass, and sometimes all you can do is trust in that. Let the day do what it wants and allow yourself to go with it. You haven't wasted a day in allowing yourself to rest, you have taken some time to keep moving forward. Carrying on when you don't want to is one of the most powerful strengths you have.

Thanks for reading this post, and I hope some of these tips can work for you! Stay strong!

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Sculpting an Iceberg: How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel?

There's no clear answer. You might as well ask how long a piece of string is. The timeframe to go from idea to finished story varies considerably with every single writer out there. But you cannot just snap your fingers and have an idea appear fully formed in your head, ready to write down. If you can, you're a freaking genius... and possibly a wizard.

For most writers, it's the result of long hard work and long hard hours. I get asked a lot how long it took me to write X novel. And in all honestly, I can give several answers. The main bulk of actually writing it takes me usually around a month. Planning it can take several months. Researching can take several years. But all of these are just as important to create the finished product, so where do you draw the line?

I think of it a little bit like an iceberg. We all know the metaphor of the surface being all that you see, but it is true for novels, as with many things in life. The top of the iceberg is the book which readers can pick off the shelves, take home and enjoy. But every single word within that cover has been crafted by hand; every chapter crafted with the utmost care; every detail researched meticulously. The writer has secretly, invisibly, carved the underbelly of the iceberg into the most exquisite thing they can.

Many people are aware of all this work which goes into novel-writing - otherwise there would be no such thing as the question, "How long did it take?" But it can be easy to forget all these other things which go on in the background to make the book what it is. And this includes writers as well.

A lot of people sit down to write their first book and freeze like a rabbit in headlights. We've all been there: staring at the blank document, with the cursor blinking tormentingly, trying to figure out how to begin this mammoth of a task. Everyone is daunted the first time. But the more you write, and the more you figure out what works for you, the easier the process becomes.

Me personally, whenever I get an idea which I know I will turn into a book, I accept that the story won't come to fruition for at least another five years. Many of the stories I have released so far began their journey in my childhood or teens. I only ever write one novel at a time, but I'm always working on another three or four in my head. Just because I'm not writing them down doesn't mean they aren't in progress.

Some writers work in a similar way. Other's don't, and that's absolutely fine. No two people are the same and neither are their preferences for writing a book. There is no wrong way to sculpt your iceberg, and no reason why you shouldn't do it in one year or ten.

But that's just finding your own way of what's best and easiest for you. There is one other important thing which you need to do in order to extend that sculpture to the top of the berg: your willpower to finish what you start.

It's harder than it sounds. For as scary as that first empty page can be, it holds an atmosphere of temptation and excitement. Starting a new story can give you one heck of an adrenaline rush, and you  go into it with all guns blazing, living the words as you type them. It's a fantastic state of mind to experience. But everyone has to come down off a high, and after all, a novel is not something you can finish overnight. It can be very easy to lose your motivation halfway through, and either take a hiatus from the manuscript or abandon it altogether.

This point is the test which every writer has to go through, sometimes with every book they write. Do I carry on? That waste paper basket looks very tempting...

But like runners hitting the wall, you need to power through. Writing a book can be mentally strenuous, but the reward and sense of accomplishment at the end is worth every single minute of blood, sweat and tears. It all goes into the beautiful work of art which all your toil under the surface will bring to life.

So the question you should ask yourself isn't so much "How long will it take to write?", but "How much willpower am I willing to give it?"

The way I do it is essentially by simple maths. If you work in chapters, try to write one chapter per day. So, in theory, if you have thirty chapters, a first draft will take you a month to write. And once that part is over and done with, a lot of the pressure will instantly disappear off your shoulders.

As for the rest of the iceberg, I let my mind do its own thing. Putting myself under pressure to get it all figured out straightaway is more of a hindrance than a help. All stories need a chance to grow and explore whatever they are going to address. It's like that nice top you got as a kid but it was a bit too big - you grow into it soon enough, with time, and by not throwing the thing away because it didn't fit on day one.

Don't worry about time. Just concentrate on whatever you need to do to craft your story - however long, short, intricate or haphazard the method might be. You'll have a beautiful ice sculpture to show at the end of it - whether people inquire about the top half or the bottom half!

Monday, 22 August 2016

Three Tricks to Help in a Panic Attack

I've recently decided to add this post to the blog schedule to address something close to my heart and which affects each and every one of us. We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health, and many of us will experience a problem at some point in our lives. The stigma surrounding mental illness needs to be broken, and the only way that will happen is by speaking out.

So that is what I am going to do. I'm going to be opening up about my own bouts of mental illness so that hopefully I'll be able to help others, the same way I want to help budding writers refine their craft.

I suffer from mental illness. Namely, anxiety disorder. It doesn't sound like a big scary thing - after all, everyone gets anxious from time to time. But there is a difference between being anxious and having anxiety. And for me, everything has the potential to be a big scary thing.

Anxiety is horrible. It's not an excuse and it is not attention-seeking. Believe me, when I'm in the middle of a panic attack, the last thing I want to do is draw attention to myself - and the conundrum is, I know the panic attack is drawing more attention. So that makes me more agitated, which turns more heads, and a vicious circle begins which can quickly get out of my control. Panic attacks are not a pleasant experience, and if you've ever had one, you know you don't decide to experience it. I wouldn't wish these things on my worst enemies.

But there are tricks which I've learned to help me bring myself back under control when an attack does hit. I hope these three can work for you too if you experience them.

1. Hold onto something
When you have a panic attack, reality and your own body can become distorted. For me, the floor moves like a liquid and I am terrified I will fall through it. So when that starts to happen, I grab onto an object to use as an anchor. Holding my arm or clothes doesn't really work, because they are a part of me, and I'm not too aware of myself when an attack is in full swing. So I always have a small stuffed toy in my bag or pocket for emergencies. It's firm enough to ground me, but still malleable enough to not push me away. A beanbag works well too, as well as stress balls.

2. Get out of the situation, but safely
Panic attacks are essentially the fight or flight reaction gone wild. So many sufferers will either strike out blindly or bolt when one gets a grip of them. I'm a bolter. Once the initial attack starts, I'll begin wildly pacing or going round in circles before I run for cover. And this is a defence mechanism for a reason; it's always best to get away from the situation if you are able to. But when you leave, make sure you do it safely, and stay aware of your surroundings - you don't want to run into a busy road or into a rough part of town!

3. Don't forget to breathe
An obvious one, but an important one. It's so easy to hyperventilate during a panic attack, and that will only make things worse, because you'll cut off your oxygen supply and could make yourself faint. Even though it feels your chest is collapsing, make yourself take regular deep breaths. Concentrate on each inhale and exhale; count to three for each one to help get them under control. This is one of the quickest ways to lower the panic, and remind yourself that the attack will end.

I hope these were helpful! If you do suffer from mental illness then please know you are not alone. There is no shame in it, and we will break the stigma.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Age of Steampunk


My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World

As some of you may know, my current work in progress is a novel called Run Like Clockwork. And you might be able to tell from that title that it's a steampunk story. (If you wanted to be really nitty-gritty, I think it's more clockpunk, but that's going off on a tangent.) And I'm very excited about it - I've been planning it for nearly seven years! But something else which excites me is that steampunk is coming a little more into the mainstream.

A lot of people in alternative subculture have noticed this - and even those who don't identify as steampunks, goths or hippies have probably seen it too, even if they don't know the exact term for it. Me personally, it first struck me last year when I heard about Hullabaloo: a movie project by some of the legends of the animation world. It would attempt to revive traditional 2D animation amid the tidal wave of 3D - and it would do it with a steampunk theme. Then at the beginning of this year, I had a wander around my local Ikea. After I'd finished my typical ritual of fawning over bookcases and knick-knacks, I found a collection of artsy exposed lightbulbs atop brass fixtures. They were rustic, yet modern; I could easily imagine them sticking out of some kind of Nikola Tesla apparatus.

After that, I started noticing brass everywhere. It didn't just stop at the light fittings; many ornaments started popping up. The exposed bulbs showed up on distressed wooden boxes and even reclaimed railway sleepers. Jewellery and accessories here and there started to take on a golden look, often embellished with keys or tiny pieces of clockwork. Clothes, even in some high-street shops, began appearing with a bit of lace here and there, as though gently harking back to the Victorian era.

It is clear to me, as I know it is to a lot of people. Steampunk is coming.

But what exactly is steampunk?

Renowned author G. D. Falksen explains this in his own fantastic post, but in basic terms, steampunk is essentially Victorian science fiction. Imagine if the Industrial Revolution had never ended, and the 19th century ideology never waned. Suppose electricity had never really happened and society continued to rely on steam power, which constantly evolved and improved while never leaving behind its roots.

As a movement, steampunk is relatively new when compared to other subcultures, but its literary roots go back practically to the Victorian age itself. You could argue that the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells were the precursors to what would become steampunk.

In their day, it was plain science fiction, and unlike anything that had been done before. But with the rise of science fiction as a genre came the chance to truly experiment with how colourful the imagination could be. The 1800s were a time of literary greats anyway; the century gave birth to the likes of the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen. And there was a growing interest of what could be achieved, not just in the machine world, but on paper. Such classics as The War of the Worlds and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea created a space where fantasy could get a foothold in later decades, bringing us J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and all the other authors who could since follow in their footsteps.

In short, it all amounted to be a volatile yet perfect cocktail of experimentation and breaking boundaries. So it seems to make sense that nowadays, in our age of challenging the norm and encouraging change, that steampunk is on the rise. It recalls the tradition and nostalgia of the Victorian era but with a modern twist. It presents something old and reworks it in a new light. It is different, but not too much to frighten people away. Hence why it is managing to easily infiltrate its way into the mainstream, and why it is being so accepted as a new trend.

But, let's be honest, trends are nothing new. They go in circles, with different things coming in and out of fashion through time. Me personally, I find it very refreshing to see remnants of centuries past working their way back into our lives.

So, if you really think about it, we're entering the second age of steampunk - even if, like Verne and Wells - we don't really know what exactly that is until it's here.

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Legendary Llangollen Faery Festival

This weekend I attended my very first public book signing at the Faery Festival in Llangollen, North Wales. It was an incredible experience and I met so many fantastic people - including my fellow Dare to Shine co-author F. R. Maher!

We arrived bright and early on Saturday morning to set up the stall on the edge of the Circle of Storytellers. After I'd won my battle of putting the banner up, I had a quick look around the rest of the Pavilion before the gates opened to the public.

And then, the magic commenced!

It was a long day, but I loved evert second of it, connecting with people and making new friends. And so many visitors were interested in my books and artwork - I was genuinely touched by the fantastic reception I got. And to top it off, I got to do two readings from my books to a crowd of my fellow faeries and elves!

I visited the Festival last year as a visitor, since faeries and fantasy are two things I absolutely adore (no shock there!). But I never thought that twelve months later I would be back, and my words would be welcomed so warmly! This place is a wonderful gathering for such a beautiful community. I have always found myself happiest when I am around people who have no qualms about being who they are; and here there were faeries, hippies, goths and witches galore!

And a pixie pony! I met this cutie on Sunday morning outside the Faery Village and he made my day!

He wasn't the only new mystical friend I made on the second day of the Festival! During my morning wanderings this little fellow took a liking to my pointy ear! He still hasn't told me his name though...

One of my absolute highlights of the weekend though was the amount of money I managed to get for The Sophie Lancaster Foundation through sales of Dare to Shine. That book flew off my stall as though it had wings of its own!

I'm exhausted after it all, but still coming down from the high of such a brilliant time among such a lovely community of people. Inside the Llangollen Pavilion this weekend, there wasn't a single snide remark or hostility - everyone was there to enjoy themselves, soak up the atmosphere, love nature, and be a child again. It all goes to show that believing in faeries always yields great things!

Thank you so much to everyone who came to see me, bought a book or artwork, and listened to my readings! I can't wait to see you again next year!

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Summer and 'Easy Reading': Why Change Books through the Seasons?

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

This weekend saw the longest day of the year and the official beginning of summer. And it's nowadays when thousands of families get ready for their holidays. They will flock to the seaside, lay down their towels on the sand, and pull out a book.

Many of those books will be 'light reads'. Speaking mainly for women, the ones I've usually seen in the hands of tourists are chic-flick style; rom coms dominated by a Mary Sue. They are not heavy or meaty; their underlying goal isn't to act as food for thought or transport you to another place. After all, on holiday, odds are you're probably in another place which you don't want to escape from! Instead, they are mainly there to pass the time and get a few giggles out of their reader. They don't demand anything of us or expect us to become as invested as maybe we would do with, for example, Lord of the Rings.

I say this somewhat sarcastically, since I first read Fellowship of the Ring whilst beside a pool in Greece. But why the sarcasm?

Personally, I think it's because our reading habits fall in with something a lot more primal: our survival skills.

Since antiquity, humankind has lived with and understood nature well enough to structure our cultures around it. In many civilisations, this was expressed in the form of acknowledging the seasons. Spring was the time of new growth and the birth of animals; autumn was the time of the harvest and preparation for the cold days ahead. Indeed, many religions honour these changing times and their associations in their holidays. And even today, with all our modern conveniences, we are still ruled by and surrounded by nature. Just like we still hold the fight or flight reaction from the days of our ancestors, so too are we aware of the seasons.

For us modern people, summer has kept a lot of its original basic associations. Strip away the barbeques and sprinklers and you find this is the time of year when many feel we can finally relax. The days seem endless, the heat is delicious, kids are off school and everyone can be together. Millennia ago, it was the breath of fresh air when weather-related danger was less likely to strike, so people could allow themselves to enjoy this time before preparing for the long dark winter.

Even though we no longer rely as heavily on nature as our ancestors would have, the sensibility remains. This is, of course, the time when we are most likely to switch off and go on our holidays. We still allow ourselves to relax in the sunshine. And like nobody wanted to spend this time working hard for the harvest, why burden your mind with a heavy story?

I know reading books and bringing in food from the fields is different, but our culture has ensured their appearances share a common psychological root. There is a time and place for everything to ensure wellbeing and, in the most primal part of our brain, survival.

In a sense, the light summer reads you can commonly find is the flipside of the coin to winter. Even though many people dislike the cold season, it is also Christmas time: arguably a calendar point even more important than summer. But this was not always so. Winter was an ominous time, full of darkness and danger, when people would pray for the sun's return and the promise of summer.

The way our ancestors stockpiled their food is mirrored in our saving every penny we can to buy presents. To keep their spirits high, people would gather together and tell each other stories. And today, we do the same. Christmas is hailed as a magical and carefree time in the midst of the harshest season on earth. Not just from our own tales and legends that dominate the festival, but also because our modern lives protect us from many of the dangers our ancestors would have faced. Now, it is safe to frolic and relax in winter; there is a much lower threat of imminent death or food running out.

So once again, we find the light reads return. The ones that bring us close to our families and awaken nostalgic memories. But even though these types of books usually market themselves to a specific season, they do not necessarily dominate it. The increased knowledge of our own safety against nature has meant we can expand our horizons - and essentially go for the heavier stuff because our brains tell us it's safe to do so.

I was reading Lord of the Rings in Greece simply because I can't stand chic flicks. No matter whether I'm home or not, I like my stories to be the meaty kind. But that's just me. I have seen many other people reading more involved books on their holidays - everything from horror to sci fi, memoirs to historical fiction. I have also seen many keeping to the bright Confessions of a Shopaholic type books.

Good on them - both of them. Read whatever you want, whenever you want. The market might still play on our old primal psychology, but that's just part of advertising. Whether it's summer or winter, we can all find time now to relax, and enjoy something light or heavy when we open a book.

Happy Midsummer, everyone!