La la la, la la la la la, la la la…

ac

I mean, how else to start this ramble?

No, I know it’s almost been a year since I wrote anything here, but it’s been a terribly long and not particularly pleasant one, and if you don’t have anything good to say, sometimes it’s okay not to write thousands of words across the internet.

But I have a few good things to say. Mostly because I’ve started going to the cinema again, after Odeon finally decided they would introduce the Unlimited thing that Cineworld did for so long, and I could justify going to see films that weren’t necessarily going to be £15-good (what, realistically, can ever be that good?!).

I have two films to talk about. 1. LaLaLand. 2. Assassin’s Creed.

1. Now, I am not at all sure that LaLaLand is deserving of 14 Oscar nominations (certainly not those two songs – if any song in the film was good enough to be up there it was the John Legend one, that was decent), but I am very glad I went to see it in the cinema.

I’m just not quite sure I saw the same film as everybody else. Mind, I increasingly feel like my experience of life is not quite the same as everybody else, so at least it was consistent in that.

I thought it was beautiful. Really, truly beautiful and fascinating, but not at all beautiful because it was colourful, or because it was “like 1940’s coloured-in cinema”. At best, it was a cold pastiche of that, a wonky, bitter, tired pastiche of it. The song and dance routines, such as they were, owed as much to the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as they did to any Singin’ in the Rain, and trust me, no trust me, nobody has seen the Buffy musical more than I have.

Midway through Gosling and Stone’s first big number together, I got the image of Xander and Anya’s “I’ll Never Tell” in my head, and from thereon in, it was rather difficult to shake off. Same moves, same tone, same we’re-not-professionals-here thing; same influences, quite possibly, but that’s a lot of similarity.

And the relationship was very similar, too – it’s not healthy, it’s not positive, and these are not good people in any real sense of the word, but they each get something out of it.

One thing I felt very clearly about: the film hates Gosling’s character. Hates him. He’s called Sebastian, for starters, and Sebastians are rarely heroes (is the lobster one a hero? Is Sebastian a lobster? I’m trying to make a Little Mermaid reference but I’m too much of a snowflake to watch Little Mermaid so I’m falling flat on my own joke), and he is straight up awful, hideous, vile, from the moment we meet him, to the moment we leave him. I do not, cannot understand why anyone would find him to be a romantic lead. He’s a nightmare. But a useful one.

Mia, too, is a nightmare. Mia (the name of every secondary school student’s drama exam character) is tired and jaded and she’s probably a really good actress but we don’t really see or know enough of her to know, and I like Emma Stone’s voice but a lot of people don’t so it doesn’t really matter. She doesn’t really like Sebastian but he’s interesting, and interesting is enough, sometimes, because she isn’t really relying on him until she is because she wasn’t paying attention, and then that’s what happens sometimes in life: you fall into things that aren’t good for you in the long term…but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good for you eventually.

The thing I particularly like is that both Sebastian and Mia are pretty grim. Sebastian is objectively and excessively so, from the white-boy saviour of the jazz that is quite ready to save itself aspect, to the fact that he has textual experience of stalking women and insisting they will like him, because the way Sebastians live in this world is to say things are so until they are. He has precisely zero redeeming features, but Gosling is a brilliant actor of such difficult stuff, and therefore he is, somehow, still watchable.

Neither Sebastian nor Mia are intentionally, significantly awful to each other. Sebastian is self-centred and doesn’t pay attention to dates. He walks into her and doesn’t go to her play, but in his head, there are reasons for both that add up well enough. She is past caring about anything much, and doesn’t pay attention to dates, and she doesn’t like it when Sebastian seems like he might drop the one thing that kept him interesting – which is not, incidentally, his unsuccessfulness, but is instead his resolute intent to experience life at its most miserable. It is not that he makes her feel better about being unsuccessful, it is that he makes striving for the dream look a little more like the dream than it has done in a while.

It’s not particularly romantic. It’s not a great love story. It is a wonderful piece of story-telling about paths crossing at a crucial time in life, about how even the worst people can, whilst being awful, sometimes give you just what you need, and about how sometimes, you give them that too. And that, really, is fine.

Honestly. It’s fine. He doesn’t save her. She doesn’t save him. They kick each other, metaphorically, up the artistic arse, at their last chance to have done so.

That end bit, that rehashing of what it would have been like if they really had been a romantic couple, how it could have been…I look at the way they come out of that and see two characters who are not sorry that it did not pan out that way. It would not have been roses. It would not have been better. Seb wouldn’t have had his club, and would never have been a successful hanger-on; Mia wouldn’t have been able to give herself to her craft, nor to find herself again, her old self, who, I like to presume, was happy with the relationship she wound up with, even if, for a moment in time, it was not what she thought she had wanted.

That, then, is my lengthy how-I-read-this, and it may be that I have spent a lot of my life trying, on and off, to variously achieve dreams, serve coffee, and be interesting that it resonated so much for me, but I think this is a lot more snide and pushy and sarcastic a film than all the glowing reviews I see.

I’m here for dislikeable characters and difficult conversations and I don’t need to root for anyone to enjoy a film. I didn’t feel that was a musical; I felt like jazz thrived despite Sebastian, rather than because of him, and I would totally go and see The Messengers because the keyboards were pretty cool and I liked that song more than most of the rest of them. And there we have it.

2. Assassin’s Creed. And so to a film made, as they say, specifically to delight me. I mean, really. What a joy, what an absolute joy and delight. I would have thought this anyway, but there were two things that consolidated this. a) The fact that Michael Fassbender spends a good chunk of the tail end of the film shirtless FOR NO REASON and b) the fact that they spoke Spanish in Spain and that all the past was subtitled. Note, I say these consolidated my conviction it was made for me – I probably would’ve enjoyed it anyway.

The thing with Assassin’s Creed was that it understood the source material to the extent that you both are and are not the central character. You look good as Michael Fassbender, or it’s good to look at Michael Fassbender. You don’t know who you trust, until the story decides otherwise. You’re learning as you go along.

I thought the balance between past and present was perfect for upping the genre to something slightly more sci-fi, slightly less appropriated history. I thought it danced fairly neatly past all the usual issues with large blockbuster films – not least because, and once I started looking for it, I looked for it a lot and always found it, wherever there were men in positions of power or authority, there were also women, and the gender balance was spot on. I am less of the person to make this comment, but in some senses, it was also a far more racially diverse film than I am used to seeing from the big-budget, game-adapted genre.

Marion Cotillard was as good as I’ve ever had the opportunity to see her, but never better than during the sequence where, having consistently worn only flat shoes, her character suddenly dons a pair of wedges for the denouement. Cotillard is a grade A red carpet-walker and I’ve seen her master many heels flawlessly, but she acted “oh crikey these shoes are annoying” in the most subtle of ways that likely escaped anyone who’s never experienced it, but brought a real touch of insight and authenticity to her character.

The female roles were never ~female, and the father-daughter relationship was pleasingly written – never exactly subversive, but with an edge of interest that is often missing, for there was content aplenty, here. Indeed, the characters from major to minor all had their own characters and motivations, their own stories and lives – a conversation between two characters was two lives intersecting, and that meant there was far more weight to just about everything.

Indeed, I think that’s what I loved about the film. In many ways, the content was nonsense, and the plot was tenuous. It barely held together, but I was enjoying it so much for depth and range of character, and for sheer pacey spectacle, that I went with it. I had a small epiphany on leaving, which was that, in blockbusters which feature Megan Fox eschewing outerwear, most internet critics are happy to go along with things and will leave feeling relatively entertained. Now, I don’t know whether or not I would have been quite as delighted as I was if Fassbender had remained fully suited throughout, but I like to think that there was still enough substance. What didn’t happen, though, was any female character less than fully and appropriately clothed, so perhaps a certain demographic drifted off, and perhaps the plot wasn’t tight enough for the serious story enthusiast. But. But.

My hope is that the target demographic has shifted somewhat, and that just maybe, I am it, and that there are more like me out there, who can greatly enjoy a decent bit of cinema that makes just enough effort to subvert expectations by firmly meeting my own.

And so it’s been a lovely week in the cinema, for me! I wonder what other film-based joys 2017 has in store? It’s about the only area of things I’m particularly looking forward to. Next on my list of things to be specifically excited by is Hidden Figures, which I feel I have had to wait forever for already…

My Soheeversary: A Year of Small, Sustainable, Significant Change

Exactly a year ago, I started counting my macros properly. For 363 days (there are just two where I didn’t get around to it), I’ve logged into one programme or another (mostly MyFitnessPal because Android <3) and logged everything I've eaten. A year ago, I took photos of myself in a bikini top and pants and sent them halfway across the world. This wasn't the first time I had done such a thing, but I knew it was going to be a different time from all the ones before.

I first encountered Sohee Lee several years ago, when we were both on the same fitness forum. She was studying at a fancy American university, and I'm from London and didn't study at a fancy American university, rather, I went to a slightly grey and soggy Welsh one, so I remember when people are doing that kind of very different life thing and am fascinated. We exchanged occasional, friendly, cross-forum comments from time-to-time, and she struck me as a nice and intelligent and driven kind of human.

This was a while ago, multiple steps back on my fitness journey. I was getting into my first foray into weightlifting; a couple of years of hopefully serious lifting on my own, guided by YouTube videos and whatever I could get from reading the blogs of fitness competitors, whilst knowing, simultaneously, that I would never be the kind of person who ate tilapia, not ever, and definitely that I wouldn't be able to do an hour of cardio daily, never mind twice daily, which, back in those days, seemed to be what was required to be a fitness competitor. Fitness competitors were also the only communities I could find of women who lifted weights, so I spent a while trying to half-follow what they were up to, trying to work out what was and wasn't relevant, and what I did and didn't want to do. Eventually, I started to feel inadequate in the whole area, and drifted away from the forums and blogs, which seemed, back in those days, to be starting to get rather snarky and stressful anyway.

Roundabout when I wrote my novel, I stopped working out so much. I dropped the heavy lifting, and then my gym from that time closed anyway, and I didn't go back. I took up running, because that, I thought, would make me thinner, happier, more productive.

It kinda did. Which was great. And about that time, I also signed up for Precision Nutrition's Lean Eating – about which I still have a lot of good things to say – because I felt I had picked up all kinds of bad habits. Which I had. I followed their programme, I lost 50lbs in weight, I finished the programme surprised at how well I'd done, how slender I had become, how much more shape and tone I had. It was great. Yes. I came out of all that at a sort of neutral point. Fixed, fine. Good. Hurrah.

I sort of stayed there for another year, worked out a bit, joined a gym when I moved home and lifted, sort of, sometimes. If I felt like it. I ran a lot. It was good. I did a half-marathon. I started a job where I was on my feet ten hours a day. I avoided bread, pasta and sugar and generally carbs to make sure that I didn't get fat, because that's how it works, isn't it? Wasn't it? I read a lot of stuff on the internet sometimes. That seemed to be it. And I did more running, because running would make me live forever and so on.

Roughly around then, I saw an article Sohee had written about deadlifting cues on bodybuilding.com. It’s a great piece. I recalled her immediately, thought about how I hadn’t deadlifted in forever, and looked up her website to see what she was up to. I saw she had branched successfully into the field of online coaching, and had written some excellent posts about a variety of food and exercise-based issues. How ace, I thought. I bet she’s really good at coaching. And look at all her thoughts on nutrition and exercise – they’re refreshingly sane-sounding and sustainable. I’d love to have her as my coach, I thought. But I wasn’t quite there yet.

Another month went by. I felt things were getting a bit out of control. I was putting on a bit of weight, and I couldn’t find a focus with my workouts. My body didn’t seem so capable, and I was tiredtiredtired but didn’t want to be. I found a Facebook group programme from another coach, and tried it. I tried it so hard. It was not for me. All kinds of weird things started happening in my brain, and I was going backwards, pretty quickly, and couldn’t quite get myself understood by the coaches there. My weight took a leap up and my mind darkened, horribly. I ducked out fast. I knew I needed some support, and, having experienced the wrong kind, I was convinced that the right kind would help.

I had one last name in mind, and yep, ’twas Sohee. I had a last look through her recent articles on her website, ascertained that, yes, this is definitely someone with whom I’d like to work, filled out her enquiry form, sent her my photos, and waited. And, lo and behold, she invited me to sign up for one-on-one nutrition coaching, starting out with the goal of fat loss. I had, I reckoned, back then, about 20lbs I could easily shed, and I knew I needed to address a few things about my eating and working out, or lack thereof.

I didn’t even realise how much I needed to be where I was when I signed up, or how much difference there could be between my before and after habits. I ate more bread than I had in months. I ate the cake I made at work. But counted, and measured, and both those things went from being scary to you-have-no-power-over-me in a matter of days. After a couple of weeks, I made myself a weighed and measured bowl of pasta. Pasta, for goodness’ sake, the kind of thing I had to avoid for years because I thought it would a) make me fat or b) make me eat a bucket of it or c) both.

Sohee talked with me about my ridiculous work schedule, and about my lack of coherent gym time, and shortly after that, I found myself getting out of bed at 5.45am four times a week to go to the gym for half an hour before work.

And it’s great.

I was ready, every morning, really, truly, pretty much every morning I was so excited to go and work out. I don’t mind mornings, I just hadn’t been using them before. I hadn’t committed to anything for years, but somewhere in the, just do enough, every day of Sohee’s wise encouragement, I found myself making space with genuine ease. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you eat properly, and sleep properly, and give your body what it needs. Ten months on, I still get to the gym four times a week, like clockwork. It’s not the most possible time in the gym. I never do cardio beyond rushing around work and town, walking and cycling. But what I do is consistent, and that is something I hadn’t been in years.

It was genuinely hard for me to eat so much (no, I know…it’s so strange to find that you need to eat more, when every day of your life before you’ve had a nagging sense that you ought to have eaten less of something, somehow), to change so much, and at the same time, it was the easiest and most natural thing I’ve ever done. It was greatly helped by the immediate changes in my measurements. Greatly helped. I became much smaller: I lost 6.5″ from my waist within six months. The weight loss? 8lbs, at most. Not the twenty I’d aimed for, but the funny thing was, is, still, that I have completely and utterly ceased to care about the scales.

Completely.

It’s very odd.

I weighed myself every day before working with Sohee, every day. I knew all the fluctuations I could have – and they could be a lot – and I would panic about any increases that lasted any time, and etc, etc. Now? I have to leave stickers on my scales to remind myself to do it. I just don’t care about that. Measurements, yes. Clothes, definitely. But I care about a lot more besides that, now.

Sohee started offering Group Training, where the group share a prescribed, detailed workout, which changes on a monthly basis. After a couple of months of following my own, I was so, so happy to outsource this to her. Sohee’s workouts are ridiculously fun, and rarely take me more than 40 minutes to complete. They have this excellent balance of achievable and impossible, and even when she makes me do single leg exercises, my weakest and worst, I still love them, because, week on week, I always see this incredible, gradual, consistent progress.

After a few months of fat loss, with gradually lessening (but still perfectly satiating) macros, I found myself feeling tired again. I was working so much, and I had really got into lifting weights. My numbers were stalling a little, and I just wanted to PR all the time. I wanted to feel powerful. I felt like I was on the edge of feeling powerful, like, with just a little more food, maybe I could feel like that. I liked being small and neat okay, but I didn’t need to be it. It wasn’t serving any purpose. I didn’t have as much muscle on my frame as I’d hoped – and with the inconsistent years of lifting behind me, this was no surprise.

So Sohee said, shall we just do some reverse dieting for a bit? Having been around the Sohee community for a few months, I’d learnt about this concept of consciously, slowly increasing food and working out with the intention of gaining muscle. More gradual than the old school bulk, reverse dieting feels a bit like a hug for your muscles. Because I trust her, and because the idea of being guided through something so positive and exciting as strength gains appeals like tea and cake and blankets on a rainy day (that’s like, bouncing up and down, clapping hands levels of excited, k?), I said, yespleasethankyougivemeallthecarbs. And so she did.

Now, a few months into a reverse diet where my training day carbs are at a glorious 250 grams, my weight is only a couple of pounds from where it was a year ago, but my waistline is still five inches smaller. My body is so much more dense than it was. I am solid. I have rounded glutes, something I would have assumed irrelevant to my body at best, and unachieveable at worst, six months ago. My arms have shape when I’m not doing anything, and I can do hard and heavy things without worrying about it in the slightest.

This morning I squatted the most I ever have – 95kg, or a shade under 210lbs. My deadlifts have gone from 80kg to 120kg, and I know I’ll go beyond that this month (low volume lifts this month ftw!). I can bench, full stop, because I really struggled with the co-ordination and the guts to even try it before, but now I’m up to 65kg for reps and, again, know I have a long way I can go. I can hip thrust (that sentence alone makes me want to laugh) almost 300lbs and I’m coming for that number by the end of the month as well. To move so much weight in an exercise I’ve only been doing for six months blows my mind.

I’ve always been considered strong for a girl, but sometimes I think that meant, just sort of big, and not afraid to try. Now, I consider myself strong for a me, and full of potential, and with so much more time to fulfil it.

I’ve made a lot of changes this year, from buying an evil exfoliating sponge and actually using it all the time to running a really rather successful business. I’ve changed jobs and reconnected with old friends. I’ve sold a home and…oh, just so many changes. The short of it is: I have a framework, now, a baseline of macros that I eat that change only based on whether or not I train that day, and a workout schedule that can be flexible where it needs to be, but that I have no trouble adhering to overall. All this because I have a coach I completely trust to know how to help me look after myself, and how to help me make small changes, only where needed, to allow me to keep making progress towards my goals, and, further than that, to help me keep assessing and developing those goals to suit where and who I am.

I’ll come back to fat loss some time, one day, to see what I’ve built over this period of time. I have complete faith that I can experience gradual and effective fat loss, if that’s what I want, because I’ve seen my body do it. But what I want right now is to lift more weight, and enjoy my food and my rest and my strength, and to stay managed and safe and excited about it. I had never imagined I could have these ambitions and be fulfilling them, had never imagined I would be able to find the time, the dedication, to meet them. Yet I have, and it’s genuinely been easier than it was to not have them, and work towards them.

Working with Sohee has lifted stresses and stressors from my daily life in the most unexpected ways. Tracking macros has worked extremely well for me, and flexible dieting has enabled me to embrace every food I’ve ever liked, including all those that I had thought I had to completely cut out. I have not overeaten in a year. I don’t fear a buffet, or a long day, or panic about food…almost ever. And if I do ever feel uncomfortable or have a problem with any aspect of my nutrition, fitness and, indeed, general wellbeing, I have great people to talk to about it. Sohee’s clients, and her exceptional assistants, Lauren and Jennifer, make for the most awesomely human, supportive and wise community, coming from all levels of fitness, from relative newbie to experienced competitor. It’s by far the most positive, pleasant and damn useful community of people I’ve been in in the fitness field, and more or less in any area of the internet – and I’ve been around the internet for decades, now.

It’s a joy to be on a journey for the fun of the journey, for the achievements that can be many, to discover the multitudes I can contain, and to have such a great community to share it with. Cheers, Sohee, for your coachness, and your coolness, and your glute circuits, and your cute photos of Ollie, and your enthusiasm, and professionalism. Happy Soheeversary to me. Here’s to another year in which I Eat, Lift, and Thrive!

A Happy New Year!

Well, it’s an incredibly long time since I posted here, isn’t it? So long, in fact, that the whole interface has changed. I see.

But you see, I’ve been busy. Thinking back on 2014, that’s the most overriding thing of all. I’ve been SO CRAZY BUSY.

Moving home. Sorting home. Cleaning a decade of bits from a place I didn’t love any more, in a city a 300-mile round trip from home. I clocked up thousands of miles in the first half of the year, and spent every day off from February to May moving home.

I had horrific dental surgery at the end of January last year, and had all kinds of unpleasant consequences, not least root canal in March, and the awful, awful experience of waking up to find I’d shattered a tooth in the night from grinding it so hard with stress. That happened twice. Waking up to bits of tooth in your mouth is just the worst. I had terrible stress pains, including stabbing, piercing stress headaches most days from February to August. I can’t understand how I got through a lot of 2014.

But I did. And, strangely, thinking back, I really enjoyed it. I got so much done. I started a business from nothing. I kept at my day job, and had all manner of excellent experiences in doing so. I learnt how to make scones, in great quantity, in a matter of minutes. I pulled some immensely long days, and didn’t mind one bit. I had fun, when things were tough.

I got back to going to the gym, as well. My strength’s gone up significantly, and I’ve added a ton of exercises to my catalogue, so I can pretty much always find something that interests me to do in the gym. I realised I work out best first thing, and that I don’t mind getting up super early to work out. I think, in 2015, I might try getting more work done before work, because I can get a lot out of an early morning.

I even wrote a bit at the end of the year, at last. I’ve missed writing a lot. I’ve missed reading even more. The things I haven’t made time for are those I like most – reading, writing, actually seeing other humans. I’ve been so flat out, I’ve rarely got further than the pub, and I’ve missed a great deal of films, TV and so on that I really meant to see. But I can catch up on that this year. I think this year will be good. I think in 2014 I dug good, strong foundations, all over the place. I hope I did. Time to start building something interesting on them.

Dear Bloggers: Advice For Would-Be Reviewers

 

Having had and been involved with several successful online businesses, I’m very familiar with the blogosphere’s role in promoting and reviewing such things. We get a lot of requests around all these businesses for reviews, features, requests for donations to things, offers to sample our products, any which way you can think of phrasing the getting of something without paying for it, we get them. Thing is, whilst, as I say, we know and love a good reviewer, we very rarely end up responding to anyone, because the requests are just so unhelpfully written, or missing vital information. And when you’re trying to get something for free on the basis that you’re going to review it on your excellent blog, if you can’t ask for it properly, it doesn’t give great hope for your blog being, well, worth our getting involved with.

But we get SO many poorly-phrased/organised requests, that I’m thinking, perhaps people just don’t know how to ask. Maybe we’re overly fussy and no-one else is bothered by these things…but I have a hunch that’s not the case. It’s not wizardry, it’s just that there are a few things you can do to up your chances of successfully receiving either goods or content. It’s not a hidden test – many a business is open to communication with bloggers (indeed, if they aren’t, their likely very considerable loss!), and the better the request, the better the response, the better the content you get, the better your blog is, the better the promotion for the business…everyone’s a winner and the internet just levelled up! Yay!

On with the list!

0. Before you begin.

Is your blog any good? If I click on a link to it, am I going to see something I would like my brand to be featured on? If it’s brand new, here’s a tip: start by reviewing things you already own/have bought. If your blog is less than a month old, or has less than twenty posts on it, or (like mine!) is riddled with lengthy gaps and downtimes, it’s not necessarily a good proposition for anyone. Build up your content first, then approach. Find your writing style, your review style, all that, before you begin sending out requests to people you don’t know.

Then the technical stuff. Does it look good? Is the layout functioning? Are you tagging posts appropriately, is your language appropriate to your audience, is your spelling/grammar/presentation of a quality you’re happy to represent yourself with? When you send the emails, what’s the latest post on your blog? Is it relevant and appealing to the people you’re asking to contribute?

Assuming all’s well here, and you’re moving forward to contacting, one more thing – could you introduce yourself elsewhere first? If your preferred store/brand/service has a Twitter and you’re genuinely interested to feature them, add them there first. Interact with them a bit, to show you’re a human, that you’re interested, and to make your name perhaps that bit more memorable. Twitter networking is quite undervalued in the blogosphere, I fear.

But sometimes a formal email/message is best, and gives you the space to put everything in that you need. So, here you go!

1. Decent subject line.

If you’re emailing directly, rather than filling out a contact form, always use a sensible subject line. “Review request from xyz blog”, “Interview request from Canadian magazine”, “Prize donation request from Galaxy Cat Unit”, that sort of thing – simple and to the point. Yes, that’s object first, but that’s the point. Say what you want, and yes, it might mean that the recipient trashes it without reading it because they’ve not got time, not interested, etc, etc, but that’s what they’re going to do anyway if they get a random email with a header like “Introducing Sparkleblog! The latest in incredible reviewing!” or “Want to reach 500,000 people tomorrow?” because that suggests you’re either spamming, or about to ask for not only free things, but money on top of it.

2. Address it properly.

Find the name of the press contact. If there’s no press contact, or if it’s a small business, say an Etsy shop, find the owner’s name. Look on their ‘about me’ page. Never, ever, start with Dear Sir/Madam. You’re not looking for a job. (If you are, that’s a different post 😉 It’s a business. There’ll be a name somewhere. The reason for this is not only that it’s more polite, but also that it shows you’re not just randomly cutting and pasting your request into every single contact page you can find. And, further, it shows that you’re actually interested in this business, about which you’ve bothered to find something out.

3. Do bother to find something out.

Show that you know what you’re asking for. If you want something to review, check that there can be something to review. Seriously, you’re asking a vintage clothing shop for a product to review? Sure, you can receive something and write about…what? The experience of receiving it? The vintage clothing, which isn’t necessarily made by the owner? How does this help anyone? It’s like when people leave reviews on Amazon products that talk about the Amazon service. Super not useful. If you’re asking to try something, make sure it’s something that can actually be tried. If it’s a service, make sure it’s a service that can be tried. If you’re not in a country the shop ships to, don’t ask for something to be sent to you.

4. Think about what you actually want.

Do you just want a free thing? Really like jewellery from Sophia’s Secret Store of Surprises but can’t afford it right now and so you’re asking in the hope of getting something free? That’s okay. That is genuinely okay. I fully believe it’s okay to exchange goods for promotion or services and if you’ve constructed an environment where you can make it worth Sophia’s while to send you a necklace, because you’re going to give her plenty of value in promotion/review, then go for it. But please, please, read #5. And don’t dress requests like this up; don’t be aggressively self-promoting to try and pretend that they’re not such things. It’s always obvious.

Are you looking for content for your blog? If your thing is that you review jewellery, and you’re lining up more jewellery to review, then this is fine and makes good sense. But there are other options, too. In terms of interesting content, an interview can be just as appealing to readers as a review. Whether it’s a few questions or an in-depth chat, asking to host an interview with a business owner can be just as productive for your blog, and if the shop/business isn’t suited to or able to go giving out freebies, then an interview may be the best thing for everyone. If you’d like to feature a brand that you love, or are curious about, approaching them with a request for content, rather than a free trial or a free product can be the best way to get a healthy response.

Don’t write any of this stuff yet. Just think about it. First:

5. State your case.

This is simple, but virtually never in people’s requests. You need to say who you are, where you’re based, who your audience is, and, most importantly, what your statistics are. The last bit is most important because you can’t just link to it. And, incidentally, DO link to things. Don’t worry about introducing everything about yourself – your blog has an “About” page somewhere, right? Link to that. And make sure it’s actually informative. So, having correctly address your email, you’re now writing something like, “My name’s Lucy. I’m in the UK, and I write a blog called Shiny She-Ra Saturdays linktomainblogpagehere. I post reviews of old She-Ra episodes every Saturday morning at 10am*, but I write about all kinds of other stuff in between. Here’s my ‘About’ page if you’d like to know more: linktoAboutShinySheRaSaturdayshere.”

Then it’s onto the numbers. These are important. You want, how long your blog has been active, how many followers it has, how many hits you get on an average post, that sort of thing. If you’ve got a big Twitter or Facebook following, mention that too. “Shiny She-Ra Saturdays has been going since 2011. I post on average three times a week – my review posts get around 1,500 hits, and my other entries average around 1000 hits. I have 213 followers on WordPress, and over a thousand followers on my personal Twitter.”

Note: it doesn’t matter if the numbers aren’t big. If the content is good, if your blog is good, if your photos or videos or podcasts are good, and the blog isn’t that old, then it’s fine if you’ve only got five subscribers so far, or if your audience don’t comment much. Just be honest about the extent of your reach, and leave it up to the business to decide if it wants to engage further.

Then leave it at that! You don’t want this to be too long. A paragraph at most.

6. Ask.

If you can be flexible here, as suggested in #4, then do. “I’d love to feature your brand/shop/product in some way. I’m best known for my unboxing videos on my YouTube channel (have you mentioned how many views your average video gets? Do it now!), and would be happy to do one of those for your subscription box. If that’s not possible at this time, then I’d love to include your views in a post I’m writing on the upcoming subscription box market in the UK.” Or suggest interviewing them about their business, their craft or industry.  Be flexible, be pleasant, be plausible. If they’re a very new or small business they may not be able to afford to randomly send things out to you, even if your prospects might look very good, so anything you can offer that they don’t have to pay for, that can be mutually beneficial, is a good thing.

So there we have it! Just a few tips for not being immediately deleted. It’s not much – to recap, say who you are, why you’re contacting, why you’re worth contacting back, and sign off nicely, whether it’s a DFTBA or Kind Regards, or Thanks in advance, or whatever.

And remember – there are also a lot of very good blogs out there that do this kind of thing whilst actually buying the product and acting as an absolutely regular customer. If you’re asking for something for nothing, you’ve strong competition. But if you think about it, present yourself well, and have a decent blog (or video page, or podcast series, whatever), then that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to work with and perhaps receive things, or wisdoms, from brands or shops or people you love in return for doing something that you also hopefully love. Businesses need promotion, and a small, strong community of fifty people is sometimes a much, much better place to present your brand than a faceless, jumbly-written, spambot-filled page that regularly gets thousands of hits. This is a good time to blog, it’s a great time to have a small business – let’s work together here!

 

* I might need to start this blog if no-one else has

GREAT BLACK AUTHORS OF SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY: Past & Present

Such a good list. Resulted in a sudden epic scifi haul.

Chronicles of Harriet

GREAT BLACK AUTHORS OF SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY: Past & Present

Ask people to name Black authors of science fiction and fantasy and only a few names will be repeated, if any names are known at all: Octavia Butler…Tananarive Due…L. A. Banks…Walter Mosley. While, most certainly, these brilliant authors should be in everyone’s library, you are cheating yourself if you do not know of – or explore – the many other great Black authors of speculative fiction.

The Black presence and impact on the world of speculative fiction is a vast and powerful one. Some of these authors you may have heard of; some you may not have. Some will absolutely surprise you. All of them tell Blacknificent stories.

Let’s dive in and see just how deep this well of creativity is.

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932)

Chesnutt published The Conjure Woman in 1899.  The book, a series of loosely associated…

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My Strong Objections To Game Of Thrones’ Jaime Choices

**This post contains spoilers for the entire Song of Ice and Fire series, and for the TV series up to S04e03** cj

I don’t have a problem with the continuous references, threats and instances of rape in A Song of Ice and Fire. It isn’t pleasant, and sometimes it’s incessant, but you look at wartorn or fraying countries past and present, and you’ll see infinite instances of rape used as a constant weapon against an entire female population. Rape in A Song of Ice and Fire has context. The victims of rape have context. Rape has consequences; the threat of it has consequences. Those consequences vary because the victims are also people, with their own context and character, and we see as many permutations and consequences as you would expect, just as we see so many permutations and consequences of murder. Rape is not there to ‘pretty up’ the novels. It is sometimes there to tell us things about men, or about women, or about the landscape. It is sometimes there because that is the horror of it all, that it would be there, that that is just how that world is. It’s not glossy, it’s not exciting, it isn’t sanitised and it isn’t fun to read, and there’s a lot of it. I don’t have a problem with that.

I have an increasing problem with the TV version of things, because it takes an unpleasant world and pretties it up. For starters, there’s the incessant naked women during plot points, never mind the sexualised violence against women where it either isn’t in the books, or is off-screen in the books. And then there’s the key relationships – Khal Drogo/Daenerys and Jaime/Cersei, most talked about – where the show has chosen to take away both content and context until all you have left are sequences that look like rape, sound like rape, are rape, where rapes do not occur in the books. The Khal Drogo/Daenerys one is cloudier, certainly difficult to discuss, and, presumably, to film, because in the book, Daenerys is a child and the consent of minors is not even the slightest consideration in that world, which, thankfully, it is in ours. I think that’s a lot harder to discuss, and I also have a lot less to say about it, save that, it bothers me intensely that they made what becomes a strong and powerful love story start out with the out-and-out rape of a crying girl.

But I have a lot to say about what on earth they’re doing with Jaime Lannister. I love Jaime. Is it because he’s blond? Probably. Except he isn’t, in the TV show. When I started watching, I’d assumed that might be the most of my problems, but, it transpires, I’ve almost forgotten that he isn’t blond, because the awesome parts of Jaime are all present, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is perfectly hot, perfectly witty and gloriously good at eye-rolling, and I am, after all, susceptible to the aesthetic appreciation of other things.

I love that scene in the book. I love Jaime and Cersei’s ridiculously twisted relationship – and then lack of it – in the books. Jaime’s utter adoration of Cersei prior to his return to King’s Landing, his unswaying belief that she is everything he could ever need, is beautiful and unusual and pretty interesting. The assumption that Cersei feels the same, until you get those Cersei chapters and discover that, no, the relationship for her is something different, is so subtle and clever, I was virtually applauding as I read. I have little squick for sibling incest, probably because I’m an only child with an utter inability to imagine having a sibling at all, so that might explain why I find it so easy to have such love for a relationship that’s fundamentally flawed. But even if you can’t get past that vital factor of their relations, I think it’s fairly hard to deny that the layers and depth of it are compelling and fascinating, and watching it all unravel is brilliant.

There’s very little of the context of their relationship in the TV series. Obviously, you lose all the POV stuff, obviously, but they managed to make Jaime and Brienne’s Excellent Adventure pretty damn good, so you know they can do it if they feel like it. And any relationship that’s first presented as a vehicle for throwing a small boy to his assumed death is going to be incredibly flawed.

There was some of this when Jaime’s escape from Catelyn was so unpleasantly twisted to have him murder an innocent person, simply to further his own ends. I hated that. Hated it. But I wondered if it might be to replace some other something elsewhere in the book and generate something…be a shortcut for the Lannisters having grudges against them elsewhere…it was a stupid change, to my mind, but I figured there might be a reason for it.

There is no reason for the Jaime/Cersei sequence in Joffrey’s tomb to be that different, though. The director had his say about it, and it’s just wrong. “Everything, ultimately, is a turn-on for them…” No, no it isn’t. And no part of that sequence is about having good sex. It’s about need and humanity and grief and relief and trauma and love and who they are together and separately, and you lose every single shred of that when you write that sequence as the most basic Rape 101 in the book.

My major concern is that that scene intentionally and directly plants the language and actions of rape into those characters’ mouths. It isn’t moderated, it has no context, it has no sense, it is explicit rape for no story purpose, it has no character purpose, it develops nothing, indeed, sets back all manner of things, and downright breaks still more things. There is no possible justification for it.

Some of the articles and posts I’ve read about this week’s episode have been excellent, all demonstrating not only anger, disappointment and sadness for the show’s decisions, but also a sense of exhausted confusion about why we’re seeing rape storylines everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, where they serve little purpose, and need not be used. It’s true that Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider prequel, which featured sexual violence as a character-creating point, generated some fantastic dialogue about the female role in video games, but it’s a shame that it took the retrofitting of one of the only leading female characters to get that going. It feels by this point as though TV has gone so far past that that it’s just ‘not another rape scene…’ now, and a proportion of the TV audience feels let down and confused by the decisions and simply switches off.

However, Game of Thrones is so vast, so epic, and has so much incredible stuff going for it, people aren’t going to switch off. There isn’t going to be a massive exodus from the show if it deviates from the books (because so much of the audience couldn’t care less about the books/hasn’t got time to read them, and there’s absolutely nothing at all wrong with that) and I get that there have to be changes to make the sprawling story work for TV. 

But they didn’t need to change that.

Am I upset because the fictional character I have a thing for was turned into a rapist? Yes. I don’t have to apologise, or be ashamed of this. I am upset by it. I’m angry about it. That’s okay. I am angry about the larger issues I’ve lightly mentioned like, y’know, the continued existence of rape as a weapon in this world, and the continued use of it in virtually every major show as a convenient storyline to get a female character from A to B. I have continuous issues with the devaluing of many of the female characters in the show, and I could equally have written a post about this from the angle that Cersei as a character deserves far, far better, and that the choices with this sequence vastly damage her character in the most ridiculous way. But that’s another blog, and there are plenty of other blogs being written from brilliant angles about this, so let me do this one.

Here’s the deal: I won’t try and lie and seem like a more worldly, clever commentator than I am: I’m pissed off because I derive considerable pleasure from being attracted to Jaime and the show made him something he isn’t for no reason, then tried to gloss over it and say it wasn’t what it is, then virtually tried to go down the line of “Oh well he’s really fucked up and so is she so it might look like rape to you but they’re superspecial and it’s different for them.” I’m pissed off because this show ought to be better than that, ought to be able to pick up on something that is so much more interesting than that, and should know better, and should just be able, from the incredible source material, to see something so much more interesting that they could have shown. What, having incestuous parents fucking next to their boy-king son’s corpse WASN’T SHOCKING ENOUGH? I don’t know how you work any more, television, I really don’t know what you’re after.

Part of Jaime’s point and story is that he is a) all misunderstood and stuff and b) going through a redemption process, largely to make up for (I think) not the Kingslaying thing, because that has unravelling to do as well, but, actually, for chucking Bran out of the window and paralysing half of him. The decision to not just ‘hamper’ his journey to potential redemption but to render it impossible is just plain character assassination. I don’t deserve that, as someone who enjoys the show. And you can’t take Jaime Lannister away from my appreciations like that. But you can really, really colour yourselves, your attitudes, your complete lack of understanding of a considerable percentage of your audience, and my enjoyment of the show as a whole. Believe it or not, I’d actually rather have spent this ranting time on Tumblr rewatching my favourite bits in .gif form. I don’t want to be angry with things that shouldn’t be there. And I’m sick of seeing rape used against female characters as an illustrative device as common as dramatic music or clever camera trickery.