Writing

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

As I’ve discovered this year, the ups and downs of life are unpredictable. 2021 has been tough, a much harder and challenging year for me than 2020. From my mental breakdown in January, losing my partner’s father in March, to contracting COVID in summer, ending up in hospital with gastritis, and working under increased stress and pressure in the day job, I am amazed that no one’s found me rocking in a corner, a glazed expression on my face!

One thing I have learned from all this is to stop feeling guilty about not meeting my writing deadlines and goals. My writing has been terribly neglected this year, but it’s not what pays the bills, or keeps a roof over my head. It’s an ambition I am trying to fulfill, and has had to take a back seat every so often. When I achieve the luxury of calling writing my day job, it will take absolute priority, but until then I will get to it as and when I can.

That being said, I think about it ALL THE TIME!

My editor is getting back to me in the next few days with notes and edits on my revised opening chapters for Horizon Skies. I don’t know what to expect, but she knows her stuff, and I trust her judgment. If further changes are required, this is something I will have to give careful consideration to.

Sanctuary of Stone needs a rewrite. It’s not an overtly complex story, but it’s directionless. I know what the story is about, how it starts, and how it ends. There’s good stuff in what I’ve written so far, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one story I really should have planned out properly.

Daughter of Tomorrow just needs to be picked up again. I love what I’ve written so far, I know exactly where the story is going, and I know how it ends. I do need to do some research into the medical and scientific aspect, but this element won’t be required until the last few chapters. In terms of researching pandemics, well, living through one already provides a glimpse into how society reacts and behaves. From idiots fighting over toilet rolls to the conspiracy, anti-vax nut jobs who’d rather believe what a ten minute Google search tells them, instead of following the advice of ACTUAL scientists, doctors and nurses working in the field.

My studies. In an earlier post, I was excited to start on a Creative Writing course through Open Study College. Ok, I started it, but I lost interest. Without the interaction of working with a tutor, or bouncing ideas around with other students, I was unable to keep up the momentum. I can always go back to it, as I have the study materials, but ultimately, it isn’t the course for me.

Instead, I signed up to do an English Literature and Creative Writing degree with the Open University! Six years part time, and actual classes and forums (online) I can attend with lecturers and other students. So far, I absolutely love it. I’ve submitted my first assignment, taken part in a couple of forums and a day school. As the course is designed to be interactive, I feel more encouraged, plus the fact that I can potentially finish with a BA Hons to my name.

On the job front, an opportunity came up to move to a completely different role. I was reluctant to apply at first as I didn’t want to lose working with certain people, but in the end, I decided to go for it with a “If I get it, great; if I don’t, that’s fine too,” mentality. I submitted my application on the final day after chatting with a few people about it, and it turns out my name had come up as a recommendation. I was successful, and started my new role on the 1st November, and I can already tell it was the right thing to do.

With these changes, I also need to focus on my physical health, which I’ve also been neglectful of. I’ve put on more weight, have back and shoulder issues connected to stress, and don’t feel great. Waking up with aches and pains, not being able to fit comfortably into my clothes (I REFUSE to go a size up!), feeling ugly, and hating myself for letting things get this bad, it’s time I start looking after myself better. Obviously, post-COVID fatigue hasn’t helped, and I need to factor that in, but it’s also not an excuse.

Hopefully, these positive changes are a sign of things to come, but I remain cautiously optimistic…

Books, Writing

To Beta, or Not To Beta?

Beta reading is your opportunity to provide feedback to another author. Some will have teams of betas, others will work with just a very select few. How beta reading is approached is a very personal choice; there is no right or wrong way, it’s what the writer is comfortable with.

I have beta read on two occasions (same book, later version was heavily revised), and really enjoyed the experience. Not only did I get to read something very few people had set eyes on, but I also got to enjoy it in its original incarnation. I am now beta reading another manuscript, and expecting one more to come my way soon.

SO, WHAT IS A BETA READER?

  1. Someone who will read your unsolicited manuscript.
  2. Provide feedback and critique.

WHY DO I NEED ONE?

Betas can help writers see the woods for the trees. As a writer, you’ve spent months, maybe even years on your opus magnum, it’s precious to you; this makes it harder to see the flaws. You love the story, and that’s what counts. Right?

Wrong. It’s for this reason that a beta will provide an invaluable service.

  1. Overall feedback on the story.
  2. Critique on plot, tone, pacing, characterisation, and dialogue.
  3. Spot plot holes.
  4. What they liked/didn’t like.

Ideally, your beta should be a fellow writer or bookworm who works and/or reads in the same genre. You might have written a great thriller, but someone whose interest lies in historical romance probably won’t be a good fit.

It’s also a good idea to have a few betas, too many can muddy the waters though, how much critique do you want to sift through? Three is a good number as you are more likely to spot an overall theme in their feedback.

Family and friends aren’t always the best choice, more than likely they won’t want to upset you!

WHAT ABOUT PROFESSIONAL BETAS?

Beta reading isn’t a recognised skill such as editing or proofreading i.e. you can’t get a qualification in beta reading. Your best source for betas is the wonderful writing community of which you are already a member! Social media is a fantastic place to find people more than willing to read your manuscript. If you have a Twitter or Instagram account geared towards your writing endeavours, you will find betas amongst your connections. Facebook and Good Reads have critique and beta groups.

Of course, you do have to consider the implications of copyright and trusting someone with your work, so don’t just e-mail off your manuscript to someone you’ve only had one or two interactions with. Do your research, ask other writers if they can recommend someone.

This article has some very useful information on writing copyright.

WHAT SHOULD I ASK FOR?

This is entirely down to you, here are some examples (not exhaustive):

  1. What was your overall impression?
  2. Favourite character and why.
  3. Least favourite character and why.
  4. Were there any parts that bored you? Please elaborate your answer.
  5. Any particular prose or phrases that stood out as well written?
  6. Were there any scenes that seemed unnecessary?
  7. Were there any sections where the pacing suffered?

Again, this is where you, the writer, decide what you want to get out of the beta read. Tailor the questions to suit the genre, if there is romance involved, or violence, for example. Do they illicit the reactions you want?

Remember, betas are not for proofreading or line editing, services which do work on a hire basis. They are not there to pick up on grammar and punctuation, writers should already have a pretty good grip on these, and they will be fine tuned during final edits.

I hope this post has proven informative, if you would like to comment, please do. Additional tips are always welcome!

Writing

Nine Years of Writing, Faffing, and Editing…

Back in 2017, I wrote those immortal words, “The End”. I had done it, I had written a book. An ACTUAL novel! The sense of achievement was amazing.

Horizon Skies has had many iterations over the years, but in 2012, I sat myself down, notebook and pen in hand, and I began to write. I knew the story, it had been playing out in my mind like a movie for years, it was desperate to be told.

After finishing it, I took a break, then went through the painful editing process. It was at this time, that I wasn’t ruthless enough. I loved the story, and didn’t feel it needed changing. I tweaked and tidied, made it look presentable, and then sent to to my betas.

Feedback was generally positive, no real changes were suggested, there were a few questions, and my magic system and world building stood out as elements that weren’t fully explored. Two areas of the book that, to be honest, I hadn’t dedicated much time to.

I pressed on, however and in 2018 queried with agents. Of course, I was roundly rejected, which I was prepared for, and I expected it to happen. How many first time writers are lucky enough to snag an agent straight away? I was encouraged by some of the positive rejections I received though, this at least meant I was on the right track.

I hired a professional editor, Lucy Rose York, (I highly recommend) and found her advice and feedback invaluable. She went through my manuscript in detail, gave me really concise editorial notes, and I realised I’d been too precious about Horizon Skies. Whilst the book didn’t need a complete overhaul, she pointed out areas for improvement, parts that could be moved to earlier stages in the story, and again reminded me to elaborate further on my magic system.

Who knew magic systems could be so difficult?!

For two years, I faffed about with Horizon Skies, picking it up, and thinking “I can’t do this again.” The thought of having to edit further was so disheartening.

I did though, during lockdown in 2020, I started working on it again. I made some major cuts, and fleshed out a character arc.

These changes weren’t enough though. I went back through the annotated manuscript Lucy had sent me, and worked through all her suggested edits. Some I didn’t agree with, but for the most part I did what was suggested. It was hard work, minor changes could take up hours, but when reading back the amendments, I could immediately see how they improved the story.

Yesterday, I finished writing my final interlude piece. I’ve been inspired by Brandon Sanderson to slot in some small chapters to provide a bit of background, make the world building a bit more interesting, and elaborate on the magic system. It’s still a rough draft, but I’ll tweak it up when I transcribe it into my Word document.

After that, I’ll do a grammar edit and proofread. Whether or not I get it beta read again, or go back to Lucy remains to be seen. I don’t feel I can do anymore with the story. How much editing, revision, and rewriting is someone supposed to do? I could tweak forever. I just want to get it back out to the agents, and see if this time, I can make a success of it.

Writing

The Writer’s Dream.

What do you dream of achieving as a writer? Will it be enough to simply have your work out there, being read by a handful of book lovers, or are you dreaming of the big time? Movie deals, perhaps a Netflix adaptation? Maybe you’d love to see your hard work immortalised with a special edition hard back boxset? How about a queue round the block for a fully booked signing session?

Whilst it’s important that us writers keep our feet on the ground whilst our heads are in the clouds, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having those dreams. It’s happened for plenty of authors in the past, why not you?

My dream is to be able to work full time as writer. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for. I must admit to having romanticised the notion in the past. When I first queried agents, I imagined I’d receive a slew of manuscript requests, and there’d be a bidding war for me. Ha! The reality was very different, instead I was rejected (some were positive though) and had to face up to the reality that I wasn’t going to be “The Next Big Thing”.

Here I am, a few years after querying, but having learned so much more. When I read through Horizon Skies now, I spot constant areas for improvement. The early chapters still show my immaturity as a writer, and I even cringe at some of the dialogue! This proves to me that I have improved my craft, I can write, I’m actually pretty good, so why not dream big?

Dreams are so important, they give us something to strive for. If we don’t dream, how can we ever explore the possibility of being able to achieve that dream?

Whatever form your writing dream takes (or maybe you’re not a writer, maybe you’re a poet, or a dancer, or studying) believe in yourself that you can do it. Practice every day, indulge your passion for what led you in that direction, connect with like minded individuals who are in the same field. It’s amazing how bouncing off others can give you motivation, encouragement and a sense of belonging. Above all, remember this sage advice from the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett

Life, Social, Writing

A Not So Little Announcement.

I have been a prolific user of social media over the years, starting off with Facebook, then Twitter, Blogger, a stab at Instagram, and even Vero. On the whole, I do believe social media can be a force for good, but it’s trapped in a quagmire of toxicity and hate (particularly Twitter) which is not being tackled.

I’ve had a few Facebook and Twitter accounts as I’ve decided to leave, then come back and start again. My first Instagram account felt like a huge waste of time, I was constantly spammed with ads and offers; add to that the constant barrage of idealistic lifestyles, and you end up feeling like a failure for not leading a fantastic and aesthetically pleasing life!

What I have realised though, especially after taking a proper break from Facebook, was that I really didn’t miss using it. I’ve crept back in with a few posts here and there, but honestly, who needs it? People managed perfectly well at keeping in touch before social media, and it was always fun getting photos developed after a holiday!

I’m back on Instagram, giving it a proper go this time, aiming my posts and follows at the writing and reading communities. As books are my biggest passion in life, I can connect with people who have the same interests as me. As a writer, connecting with others is very important. It’s useful for swapping hints, tips, advice and sharing in each other’s stories. I had this initially on Twitter, but my trending feed is full of depressing stories. Another black life is taken by a white cop in the US, the Tories continue to get away with lies and corruption, Meghan Markle is bullied and slagged off on a daily basis. No one is held accountable, and Twitter as a company utterly fails to deal with abusive accounts.

Not that Facebook is much better. You’ve probably all heard the stories of their involvement with Cambridge Analytica, data harvesting, and allowing the Russian interference which influenced the outcome of both US and UK elections a few years back.

All social media companies are complicit in deceit and corruption somewhere along the way. They’re almost as powerful as the right-wing owned mainstream “news” outlets who lie and deceive with impunity.

To cut a long story short.

After some thought, I have decided to permanently close my Twitter account. I will be keeping Facebook as I do have my author page on there which some of my friends follow, but I won’t be using it for personal reasons. I will now only be active on Instagram, and my blog.

I know a lot of my writerly connections on Twitter are also on Instagram, and I’m finding it quite difficult to connect with some of you on Instagram! I would love to stay in touch, so if you haven’t yet connect with me, and would like to, please do! My handle is @AspirestoCreate and it’s all about books, reading and writing.

Hope to see you there!

Life, Mental Health, Writing

2021 So Far, So…

If 2020 was the annus horribilis, then 2021 is shaping up to be the annus phaulia (courtesy of Google translate, forgive any etymological oversight).

If you’ve kept up with my blog, you’ll remember back in January, I had a breakdown, resulting in me taking almost two months off work, popping the happy pills, and signing up to an online CBT course.

I returned to work full time a few weeks ago, the pills seem to be working their magic, and the CBT course is proving to be very useful. There was, it turned out, light at the end of the tunnel after all. I am in a much happier place, and feeling a lot better. I must mention the fantastic care I’ve received from the NHS’ Mental Health services (severely underfunded and understaffed). If it wasn’t for having access to the service, I’d be in a straitjacket . We in the U.K. have a responsibility to fight tooth and nail for our wonderful NHS.

I digress…

My writing mojo made a reappearance! After months of languishing in the doldrums, my half hearted attempts at editing Horizon Skies almost put paid to me ever getting the damn thing back out there. During the last few weeks of my sick leave, I not only started editing properly again, but came up with some new ideas for the novel. I have worked out more backstory for book two, added in some interludes, put more detail in around the magic system, and tightened up elements of the plot. I’m really happy with the latest progress, and my aim now is to send the second round of queries out in the first week of May.

On a sorrowful note, my boyfriend lost his father to leukaemia on the 18th March. Pete’s dad fought a long, hard battle with the disease, and never truly let on to us the extent to which he was suffering. He was 79 when he died, which is a great age, but there is still a sense that he was robbed of a full life. He was robust, active, and always cheerful; were it not for the illness, I believe he would have had another good 10 years in him.

Grief is a strange emotion, and we all process it in different ways. With the difficulty of the last few weeks behind us, we can now start to move on, and work on healing. I’m enthusiastic about my writing, and have tried to do as much as I can so I can put the final draft of Horizon Skies together.

I’ve also given Instagram a second chance. I could never get on with it before; too many ads, spam messages from profiles I wasn’t interested in, and the inability to share posts a lá Twitter. However Twitter has become incredibly toxic, and I’m tired of seeing so many negative trends and events. I’ve discovered with Instagram, that I can avoid all that as my account is geared purely towards my passion for books. It is quite difficult to gain followers though, and takes a bit more work (hashtag the hell out of every post!), but quality over quantity is more important.

Watch this space!

Life, Mental Health

Find A Happy Place

It’s something of a trite saying, but if this past week has taught me anything, it’s the importance of making space in my head for a happy place. A place I can retreat to that’s all mine, contains the things I love, makes me feel safe, happy and content.

I have gone some way to making a happy place in my own home. Working from home during the pandemic has meant my home office now has to cater for the day job, however I’ve made it a nice, comfortable space with an armchair, beanbag, TV, DVD player, and of course my collection of books. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s the coldest room in the house, I’d probably use it a lot more!

Today, I did a very simple thing with my space; I added a new set of shelves for all my writing and course materials. It wasn’t too expensive, simple to build, and once I’d arranged everything just so, my spirits felt immediately lifted. I absolutely love it. It also means I’ve managed to free up an entire shelf for my growing book collection; I’ve almost reached the point where I will need to buy yet another bookcase.

But what about a happy headspace?

This one is simple: a house overlooking a beautiful bay somewhere along the Devon coast, where my study has a gorgeous window seat with views to the ocean. Where I can sit and watch a storm rolling in from the horizon, and the undulating hills of the countryside stand out stark green against charcoal grey skies. Or bask in the warm sun, windows open, breathing in fresh sea air whilst reading or writing.

Living landlocked as I am, in a small 2-bed semi, I’m a way off achieving this sort of environment for real. But whilst it exists in my head, I can always imagine myself there, and make it one of my life’s goals. Studies have shown that people living near the coast are less likely to develop depression and anxiety, than their landlubber counterparts. (Source Live by the Sea) My other half, who spent some time living in Exeter loved living on the coast, and is determined that one day it will be our reality. I’m from the coast myself, but Southampton is an industrial port city, the best beaches still require a car journey of about half an hour.

Weird how I never really enjoyed going to the beach, but the idea of living near the ocean is such an appealing one.

I’m now halfway through my sick leave from work, and whilst the depression is still very much there, I have been a little less tearful. The anxiety is omnipresent, today has been a real day of butterflies in the tummy, and having to take lots of deep breaths to calm my racing heart, but I’ve kept myself busy. I have a number of self-help books (I’ve NEVER gone the self-help route) which I am reading to help me prepare for the hard work ahead, and I’m at the point now where I’m wanting and needing to make the changes necessary to become a happier, better adjusted person.

If you don’t have a happy place (real or imagined), and are struggling like I am, I recommend giving it a go. Do you have a nook in your home that can be transformed into a space that’s yours, and yours alone? Could your work space do with a bit of sprucing up, maybe add some personal touches? If you don’t have the space or resources, take a few moments to picture a happy place in your mind. Once you have it fixed, write it down, or draw/paint it (I’d draw mine if I could, but I’m terrible at art). Whenever you feel the need, go to your happy place, and take all the time you need.

Life, Mental Health

I’m Not OK…

…and that’s ok.

On the last Saturday in January, I stood in the kitchen, and I broke down. I sobbed and sobbed. My boyfriend thought something terrible had happened, he tried to comfort me, asked me what was wrong, and everything poured out. All of it. All the emotions I’d spent the last few months keeping at bay finally broke through.

I’m sad, every single day.
I’m angry, all the time.
I’m ugly.
I’m worthless.
I wished I was dead.
How can someone be expected to live in so much pain.

For the record, I am not suicidal. Which I realise is a bit of an oxymoron, after I’d expressed a wish for death. It was more a case of thinking it would be better if I’d simply never existed at all. Is that worse? I don’t know. I do know that I couldn’t inflict that sort of harm on myself; and as someone who lost a relative to suicide, I’ve seen how it affects those left behind.

I’ve tried so hard not to let depression and anxiety get the better of me, but that weekend, it all became too much. I finally had to admit it, I am no longer able to manage this by myself, and I need help. I’ve been wandering alone, through a dark green forest, not knowing which direction to go, and a road has appeared to guide me. Having hit rock bottom, it’s time to take the road, step out of the forest, and head in a more positive direction.

I’ve done therapy before, I spent two years with a therapist back in 2006/7; and I found the experience to be very helpful. I gained a lot of insight into the causes of my depression, which was a real breakthrough. What I didn’t do, was continue the work once I’d finished my treatment, and being reluctant to go back onto Citalopram or Prozac meant I was simply setting myself up for another fall.

And then came anxiety, just to spice things up a little bit.

Remember the Sunday blues? That horrible feeling you’d get knowing school was the next day, or work was looming, and you hated your job, or you were worrying about a potential problem? Anxiety feels like that. The constant butterflies, heart palpitations (anxiety also lead me to have an ectopic heartbeat), breathlessness, sensitive skin, and a head stuffed full of noise.

People want to help, which is lovely, I always appreciate the gestures and offers to chat, but there is nothing anyone can do to help me. A trained professional will help guide me, provide me with exercises to work on between therapy sessions, but unless I use the tools provided, I won’t get better. And that’s another thing, these illnesses are with me for life. I accepted a long time ago that I will never be free of them, that they are part of me, and always will be. What I want is to reach a point where I can manage them better from day to day, so I don’t end up feeling overwhelmed again.

One thing that really pisses me off though? I have no idea of the sort of person I could have been had my life experiences been better. I feel robbed of any potential I had to make a success of my life. I lost the confidence to pursue my dreams at a young age, and that makes me really angry and resentful. Emotions, I realise that do nothing to serve me, but exacerbate the negative thoughts.

There are people in this world who don’t believe that mental illness is a real thing, that unless someone is manifesting physical symptoms, they can’t be ill. How blissful it must be, to live in such ignorance. Think of the mind as our internal software; like software it is vulnerable to attack, it can be corrupted and damaged beyond repair. There’s no bandage or ointment to protect it, it can’t be rebooted, parts of it can’t be replaced by donors, transfusions or grafting; treatment is a long, complicated process, and not always successful.

Over the years people have said to me, “you seem ok”, “but you’re always having a laugh” etc, etc. And that’s one of the common misconceptions about mental illness. I look ok, therefore I must be ok. But one thing depressed people are very good at is putting on that front to the outside world, it’s a defence mechanism, purely for self-preservation. Inside, we’re usually crumbling.

I’m currently signed off work for two weeks, I’ve got my referral through for the NHS Let’s Talk Well Being with an assessment appointment coming up. My doctor hasn’t put me on any medication for the moment, but it is a possibility. This is time for me to rest, gather myself, get out into the fresh air, exercise, eat well, and just focus on working towards getting well. I know it’s not going to be easy, the temptation to sit around and wallow in self-pity is strong so it’s time to dig deep, find some motivation and work to beat this thing.

If anyone reading this is also suffering, don’t be afraid to ask for help, don’t feel you have to struggle through on your own, that no one will understand or care. That is not true, there are people who do care, and who want to help. From free services such as the Samaritans and NHS Mental Health services to private therapists who you can talk to in total confidence.

It’s ok to not feel ok. You are not alone.

NHS Every Mind Matters

Mind

The Samaritans

UK Council for Psychotherapy

Writing

Practice Makes Perfect.

I’ve enrolled on to a Creative Writing Course!

Ok, I’m already a writer, just not a very professional one. But I do have a published story to my name (the popular Grey Ice), I’ve been writing this blog since 2015, and I have completed a novel. Yay me 😁

As with any profession though, there will always be room for improvement, and as my initial plan to go on an Arvon writing retreat this year has been scuppered; I decided to take a look at distance learning.

I work a full time job, so my free time is limited to weekends and evenings. Plus, my job is very busy, demanding and stressful. The writing retreat would have been an ideal break, but I can go another time. With distance learning, I can dictate my own study time, work at my leisure, and still get online support from a tutor.

The Open University offer some great courses, sadly though, even the online package prices are way beyond my means. It would have been so nice to go for something like a degree though. Again, maybe I’ll be able to pursue that another time.

I trawled the internet, looking at various courses with publishers, literary agents, and colleges. Eventually settling on Open Study College which I was already aware of, and who have a very good reputation, as well as being affordable! I signed up, and within a couple of days, received my study pack.

I believe that if one is serious about a particular vocation, or ambition, wishful thinking is not the way to achieve that goal. I know this, because I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer. When I was younger, harbouring dreams of becoming an actress, I used to imagine being “discovered” by famous film directors (Charlize Theron was discovered in a bank, so it can and does happen!), but honestly Steven Spielberg wasn’t going to be visiting Southampton for any reason.

As an adult, hurtling towards my 48th spin around the sun, I’ve realised over the last decade how actually putting in the work to achieve something can get results. Putting myself out there on the Amdram circuit meant I’ve been able to act on stage, and knuckling down to get on with my writing meant I was able to finish my novel, and work on other pieces. I’ve written a slew of short stories, blogged on various subjects, and have other novels I’m working on.

My other half is a great example of working hard to achieve his goals; he’s ambitious with big dreams, but puts in the work to achieve those dreams. He’s toured Europe, played gigs in the US, has released his own music, videos, and even performed lockdown gigs. He’s a prime example of someone who deserves every success because of how much work he puts in.

I need to apply the same work ethic, but I also need to improve on my existing skill set. There’s a lot I don’t know about writing. I read a huge amount, which is an absolute necessity, but I need to learn a bit more about technique, style, even improve on grammar, (and I’m already a member of the Grammar Police).

Musicians, singers, dancers, acrobats, athletes etc, all practice their chosen skills; writers should too.

Writing

Veganuary

Thinking of trying vegan for the month of January? Or going vegan full time? Here are my top tips on how to go about it.

1 – Sign up to Veganuary, where you’ll receive a 31 day e-cookbook with lots of recipes and nutritional advice.

2 – Sign up to The Vegan Society which is packed full of information on how veganism came about, what it means to be vegan, research, campaigns etc.

3 – Invest in some decent cookbooks. This is a bit of a minefield, as there are hundreds to choose from, covering everything from budget vegans to those who consider themselves a bit of a chef in the kitchen. My go to’s are Chloe Coscarelli, Bosh, and So Vegan. Bosh and So Vegan are very popular as they appeal to the mainstream, and both are good places to start as they make vegan cooking fun and informative.

4 – Join a Facebook group for support and encouragement. I’m a member of non-Judgy Vegans UK, which is a fantastic group, not just about food, but for all aspects of veganism.

5 – Don’t just cut meat and dairy out, and eat nothing but vegetables. As healthy as vegetables are, you need to ensure you are still eating all the food groups. Lentils, beans, and pulses contain lots of fibre, minerals and vitamins. Dark, leafy greens such as Cavolo Nero and Kale are excellent sources of vitamins K, A, B6, manganese and calcium as well as a whole host of essential nutrients. Mushrooms are a typical meat replacement, forming the basis for many dishes and items from burgers and sausages to the mince in a shepherd’s pie. They’re versatile, highly nutritious, low in fat, and highly sustainable (you can grow them yourself using kits or go foraging).

6 – Dairy

  • Cheese – Everyone loves cheese, right? Did you know, cheese contains casein which has an opiate effect on the brain? It’s why it’s one of the hardest foods to give up. Many vegans advise to give it a few months before trying vegan cheese in order to allow tastebuds to adjust. For cheese fiends, the supermarket choices will probably disappoint; they’re predominantly coconut oil based, can be too sweet, chalky, flavourless, bad at melting etc etc. It really is trial and error to find one you’ll like. In my house, we have Applewood, my other half eats it in sandwiches or on toast (it melts beautifully), I prefer to use it in cooking. You can always splash the cash of course, and try the many artisanal vegan cheeses on the market such as Tyne Chease where you’ll find specialist flavours and combinations to suit the fussiest tastes!
  • Milk – I found milk the easiest to give up. Before going fully vegan, I’d already made the switch to soya eventually transitioning to oat. In terms of sustainability, oat is the best, almond is the worst. Almond milk has the same environmental impact as dairy. There is a huge variety of blends and brands available; from cashew to hemp to oat, and even pea milk. I find soya is great for cooking, but barista edition oat is more versatile as it works in tea, coffee and cereal. Make sure your milk is fortified for extra nutrition.
  • Eggs – A poached egg on potato cake at the weekend used to be one of my favourite things. I have since swapped this treat for a yummy tofu scramble every Sunday. If you like your eggs savoury, there are lots of ways to achieve the alternative. For the bakers amongst you, you’d be surprised at the number of vegan friendly alternatives that work just as well in cakes.

7 – Honey – also a no-no. Bees do not make honey for us, they make it for their Queen and their colony. Honey is their food, they need it to survive.

8 – Clothing – vegans do not wear wool, silk or leather as these are animal byproducts. Some vegans give old items to charity, or continue to wear them until they’ve worn out. It’s a personal decision, I’ve still some old leather shoes in my wardrobe. Haven’t worn them in years, won’t wear them again, just need to decide what to do with them. Clothing is usually where there is a dividing line between someone who is vegan and someone who is plant based. One follows the lifestyle, the other follows the diet.

9 – Convenience foods. The rise in veganism has led to an amazing range of convenience foods in the supermarkets. No longer faced with a paltry selection of nut roasts and veggie burgers, we have sausages, pies, nuggets, roast “joints”, pasties, plant-based pieces to use in stir-fries, stews and casseroles. There is so much more choice now. These are great if you don’t have much time or inclination for cooking from scratch, but beware, these items are likely more expensive than their meat-based counterparts (£5 for a 2 pack of Beyond Sausage is a good example; I don’t care how good they are, I’m not spending that kind of money!). It’s a good idea to shop around, bulk buy when things are on offer, and compare prices (my shops take twice as long now, as I scrutinise everything!). I always have a few freezer items for those days when I simply want to just bung something in the oven. Veganism doesn’t have to be expensive, but it can be if you rely on convenience foods all the time. Miguel Barclay has a popular cookbook for vegan meals coming in at £1 per person.

10 – Batch cook – got some time at the weekend? It’s a great time to batch cook, and freeze meals for the week ahead. I only cook for two people, but as most recipes cater for four or more, I freeze the additional portions. It saves money on the weekly shop, and it’s a quick solution for dinner on those days when you simply can’t be bothered.

11 – Household products, toiletries and cosmetics – A product maybe vegan, but isn’t necessarily cruelty-free. Yet another minefield to negotiate! These shopping guides from Cruelty Free International and Naturewatch will help you make the right choices to avoid products that have been tested on animals.

Here are some links to additional resources:

Vegan for the animals

Earthlings or Dominion – warning – these films are incredibly graphic, and not for the faint of heart.

Vegan for the environment

Cowspiracy looks at the impact of animal agriculture on the planet, does contain some graphic imagery.

Vegan for health

Forks Over Knives goes into the science of following a whole food plant based diet in tackling a variety of health conditions.

The Game Changers veganism through the eyes of some of the world’s top endurance athletes.

What The Health looks at the links between the modern, western diet, disease and the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry.

Earthling Ed is a vegan educator and activist who believes in power through knowledge. His channel is definitely worth a watch as he delivers his message in a calm, measured way.

Barnivore is a useful little app for checking beer, wines and spirits for their suitability.

Phew!

Remember – there is no such thing as the perfect vegan, our presence on this planet alone has an impact, from the houses we live in to the cars we drive, and the jobs we do. We do the best we can to reduce our impact through the actions we take. Your vegan journey is a personal one, go at your own pace, and ignore the haters.

From my own personal experience, veganism has given me a new love of food, a better connection to the environment, and a love and respect for all animals. I once said, “I couldn’t go vegetarian.” I went vegetarian Christmas 2014. I followed that up by saying, “I couldn’t go vegan, that’s a full lifestyle.” I went vegan 31/03/17, and I haven’t looked back since.

My only wish? That I’d done it sooner.