Category Archives: Writing

Learning curve

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

For someone who loves words, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to learn another language. I always try to learn at least enough to greet people, say please and thank you, and order food and drink, in the native language of any country I visit. That’s just simple courtesy.

I learned French at school and, although I hated the subject, it’s the only foreign language that’s really stuck. I even remember gender and grammar rules. The rest came back very quickly on a three-week meander through France.

Italian I learned at evening classes, and got plenty of practice in Tuscany, staying in rural areas where English wasn’t widely spoken.

The problem is, as I cross the channel when the holidays are over, foreign languages, at least at the level I speak them, are redundant. It’s not as if I can pop into the butcher’s shop and ask for a pound of sausages in French. Any skill unused becomes rusty. Vocabulary is forgotten, even the sounds and cadences of sentences, so familiar just a short time ago, become alien and awkward, the shapes more difficult for the mouth to form.

Now I’m struggling with German. With only a couple of weeks’ notice, I can’t learn very much, but I did think I could pick up a few words of greeting and some useful phrases. I’m not doing very well. I read the words, I listen to the online pronunciation, I repeat the phrases. What I do not do is remember much of it a couple of hours later. I have got to the point where I can greet my husband in German as he comes home from work, but time is short, and I need more confidence before I air my few words publicly in the country of their origin.

I refuse to contemplate the thought that this is yet another symptom of getting older. I retain other information, why should language be any different? Perhaps there are just too many words already floating round in my head? All the story ideas, the scenes that characters play out in my mind, the planning and plotting. Maybe they are squeezing out the small voice that says Guten tag, pushing the words into a corner where I won’t find them. That’s the excuse I’m sticking to, anyway.

Back to the lessons….


Just a few simple words


722674_40131797Well, the words did finally emerge yesterday, after my bleak, brief post, and I ended up with a short story I’m really pleased with. Edited the copy a couple of times this morning and sent it off via email.

I know that email submissions have literally opened up the world to writers. I don’t have to think twice now before sending work off to States or Australia. At one time, that was a big deal, with IRCs and international postage rates complicating matters, never mind the problems of payment if the work sold. Now with Paypal, even that isn’t an issue. I sell non-fiction through a Canadian company that pays me in US dollars. Every month Paypal calculates the exchange rate for me and I simply transfer the balance into my UK bank account.

So I really can’t complain about the technology that allows me such global freedom.

But….the real issue I have is the lack of acknowledgement for work sent by email, especially when months can elapse between submission and decision. When I sent work out by post, as a matter of course I included a self-addressed and stamped postcard, slipped under the paperclip with the manuscript and return SAE. All the editor had to do was put the postcard into the post tray and in a couple of days I’d know that my work had safely reached someone’s desk.

I have to say at this point that my distrust of electronic communications borders on the pathological. I know that emails don’t reach their destinations sometimes, ditto text messages. It has always been the same with pigeon post. Things go astray. I just like to have some indication that this has happened.

Anyway, this morning I sent off my story, and within a few minutes I had an acknowledgement of receipt. That’s a first for me, and I applaud Meerkat Press for implementing such a simple but important element in their submissions process.



Bad words are better than no words at all.

First working day of March. The curtains are stirring at the windows where a bitter wind is finding its way in. My fingers are cold on the keyboard and my thoughts are skittering about all over the place.

Bad words will be an achievement today. At least they will be written.

And it’s snowing.

Forcing the focus


Focus is a wonderful thing. I’m an ‘all or nothing’ kind of person, so I’m either totally focused or there are enough butterflies in my head to trigger a fair-sized tropical storm. I’m realising that focus is definitely a double-edged sword. It can be my best friend  (when I’ve got a deadline to meet), or my worst enemy (when I can’t see the wood for the trees).

Forcing a sense of focus isn’t that hard – like most things it’s a learned skill, similar in process to a meditative state, a narrowing down of thought processes – a funnel through which concentration, ideas, some skill and sheer bloody-mindedness somehow fuse together to produce a half-worthwhile first draft.

I can sit at my laptop, induce a sense of focus and write a few hundred words.  If the words are non-fiction – the bread and butter stuff that actually earns me something – there isn’t a problem. But if I want to write good prose, something original and potentially mind-blowing ( I live in hopes of this happening) then forcing the focus is counter productive. I’m writing the first draft of this in a noisy bar, in a proper notebook with a pen in my hand and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc close by. I had no intention of putting pen to paper here, and I certainly didn’t feel the need to focus on anything but lunch. Then I had something of a lightbulb moment….

All my writing life I’ve beaten myself with the stick of discipline. Daily word targets and schedules, on the days when I’m free to write, have been the drivers of my industry. I think I’ve got it wrong.

I took out my pad and pen to write a list of all the little research tasks I want to accomplish in the next couple of weeks. Read some fairy tales (unusual stories in a lovely slender book with tissue-thin pages that I found in a flea market). Research minor Victorian cults and goddess images. I caught myself thinking about the time I would need to do all this as a guilty pleasure. Fire burning in the hearth, cups of coffee, feet up on the sofa, tucked under a blanket, books and notebooks all around. And I realised I needed to embrace this part of my work, to dive into it and swim through other writers’ words without guilt, without rushing through the experience.

Research, just reading, thinking, living – just being – these things aren’t a distraction from the writing, from the focus. They are the writing. Without them, words are sterile. Good fiction comes from interpreted experience, and life isn’t a sideshow that happens when I’m not writing. Life IS the writing.

My ‘focus’ is a contradiction – a distraction from what really matters. I need to take my time, spend some days in unproductive endeavours. It is from here, not from some imposed discipline, that my best writing will emerge. A couple of posts back, I wrote about ‘true words’. I had no idea how to find them. Perhaps,after all, they will find me.

The difference a day makes.


Over thirty years ago an envelope dropped through my letter box, and the contents changed the direction of my life. It was my first acceptance from a woman’s magazine for a short story. The floodgates seemed to open after that, with articles, stories, even poetry, all accepted by various newspapers and magazines. But I always remember opening that first acceptance, the lightness of it indicating there wasn’t a returned manuscript inside. I remember the sheer joy of first success. No acceptance since has ever come close to that feeling. Until yesterday.

There was no flutter of the letter box, no weighing up the envelope in my hands before opening. Just an email, waiting in the queue for me to read. I knew what it was, and convinced myself it was bad news, to soften the blow of rejection. (That never works, but it’s a habit I’ve developed over the years.)

It wasn’t a rejection, but a charming acceptance of my short story for use in an anthology. What made it so special was the change of genre. This is the first gaslight short story I’ve written. I didn’t know if it was any good, although I loved writing it, and I loved reading it when it was finished.

Yesterday I sat in front of a blank screen, wondering if I should even bother with fiction writing. Maybe sticking to articles was the way to go. The problem with that is that the ideas don’t go away, they just keep scratching away at the back of my mind until I release them on to the page to frolic and scheme and cause all sorts of mayhem.

Today I am once again a confident fiction writer, thinking about the sequel to my finished novel, allowing the ideas for short fiction a breath of fresh air – just enough to get them moving. Confidence is a strange thing – totally divorced from reality. With the range of fiction and non-fiction I’ve written over the years, and the quantity of published work to my name, one acceptance shouldn’t make much difference. But it does. Today, I feel like a new writer with her first acceptance – enthusiastic, creative and hopeful. What a difference a day makes.

True words


“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”  Ernest Hemingway.

This quote was posted on my FB timeline a couple of days ago. Seems simple, doesn’t it? Don’t we all try to write the truth, our own truth? Then I really started thinking about the words – and wondered what a ‘true sentence’ really is.

Perhaps it’s not about the truth of what I write, the bare facts. It’s about how I choose to write it. The truth of the sentence is in the words themselves, and if one word is wrong, the sentence will not be true.

I don’t agonise over every word I write. I see and hear things in my imagination and somehow my hand transcribes the thoughts into the written word. I don’t think in words, I think in images. And as the image emerges on the page I take the words for granted, as long as they describe what I need them to describe.

Of course, as I edit and proof read, I look at the words – grammar, syntax, how I could say things better. But I don’t think I consider every word, weigh it and ask if it is absolutely right. Perhaps this is what Hemingway advised – the weighing of every word, the position of every word in relation to others, until the written sentence is as good as it can be – until it holds its own truth in the care that has been taken in its construction, in the rightness of each element, a finely honed creation.

Back in the Habit


Nearly four months since my last post. Where does the time go? I could say I’ve had writers block, or that I’ve been too busy to blog, but neither would be true. I just stopped blogging. Simple as that. I got out of the habit. And habits, good or bad, are largely what determine our progress through the days and contribute to the success or failure of our enterprises.

To be fair, I think I’d lost sight of what I wanted to do with the blog. Looking back, my posts are a fairly eclectic mix of ideas and happenings. Which is fine. As someone new to blogging, I needed to find out what I could do, learn the techniques, discover if I could maintain the habit of blogging two or three times a week. I enjoyed the editorial freedom of publishing my own work. Having achieved my primary goals, now is the time to add focus, to create a body of work and use the blog to showcase my work.

Back at the beginning, in my very first post, I bemoaned the fact that the world of publishing has moved on since I was last involved in it some years ago. In particular, the submissions process has changed dramatically. Sending work to editors as email attachments made me nervous. No satisfying thud as a manuscript disappeared into the mail box, no piece of paper to say that someone has to sign for said manuscript at the other end. So far this year a short story and a complete novel of 78,000 words have disappeared into the ether without trace. I think the short story fell victim to an editor who just couldn’t be bothered to reply, but I’m certain the novel never reached its destination, leaving me eight months on having to start again.

I can handle rejections – it’s not knowing one way or the other that bothers me.

In an attempt to redress the problem to my satisfaction, bearing in mind that, in general, short fiction earns little or no money these days, I’ve decided to post some stories and perhaps some poetry, here and forget the whole idea of sending them off at the press of a button into an unknown future. I’ve realised there is far greater earning potential in non-fiction writing, so that will satisfy my need to earn, at least to some degree. If this sounds like a mercenary train of thought, it is. Like everyone else, I need to pay the bills.

Time to re-establish the habit. It feels good to be blogging again!

Time out


I love reading. Give me a good adventure, with lost treasure, hidden secrets, characters who solve clues and save the world, and I’m happy. I’ve just finished reading the final book in Simon Toyne’s ‘Sancti’ trilogy, ‘The Tower’. Fantastic ending to a great story.

The problem for me is an inability to multitask when it comes to reading and writing. I can’t write and read fiction, it has to be one or the other. So I decided to take a week off from writing (it stretched into ten days, but never mind) to catch up on a few books that had caught my eye and were stockpiled for a bookfest.

I really envy writers who can divide their time between reading and writing, and I’ve tried to work out why I can’t do it. I think it has something to do with having a very visual imagination. When I write I don’t see the words, I see action and characters and just describe what I’m seeing and hearing. I do the same when I’m reading. I translate words into images from the page to such an extent that I am usually unaware of the writing, on a conscious level (unless it’s really bad or stunningly good).  So reading and writing demand a similar level of creative input from me.

Non-fiction is a different kettle of fish. I can speed read research material for articles, switch between that and writing my own stuff, with no problem at all. But for that I concentrate solely on written language, there is little or no visualisation. I am dealing with facts, not being actively creative. It would be interesting to see which bits of my brain light up when I write fiction and non-fiction. I have a feeling there would be quite a marked difference in the areas of the brain involved in each activity.

The other problem I have with reading is that, once started, I have real problems putting a book down. As I like novels of at least 400 pages, this causes some issues with basic life support systems like food shopping, cooking and maintaining a decent level of order in the house. But it all gets sorted out in the end.

Anyway, I’ve had my time out, read a lot of books that have taken me all around the world, exploring the secrets of dead cultures, perpetrators of evil deeds and heroes who foil their dastardly plans. It’s been fun, but I’m ready to get back to my own adventures now.


New novel – Day 1


I’ve been putting this off for a couple of weeks now -the start of a new novel. I finished my last one a few months go, left it for a while, did a final edit and sent it off into the ether, where it has remained. Since then, I’ve concentrated on non-fiction for a change, possibly out of emotional laziness. To write an article, I just have to research the facts and write them up in an interesting way. There is no real emotional engagement, and no sitting in front of a blank screen for hours wondering what my characters should do next. And they are quick wins. At the end of a working day I can look back on a completed piece of work. With a novel, there is a substantial investment of time, with no guarantee that anything productive will emerge.

So this morning I switched on my trusty laptop, opened a template and wrote the first actions of my female character. I was surprisingly nervous. With writing nothing but non-fiction lately, I wondered if I’d lost my fiction-writing voice. Would my characters be bland and lifeless on the page? Would my descriptive passages read like something from a DIY manual?  I wonder how many other writers who juggle fiction and non-fiction feel the same sense of trepidation when switching disciplines.

After a morning’s work, I only have 500 words to show for my efforts. I wrote, erased, wrote, edited, wrote…to say that the words didn’t flow easily would be something of an understatement. But they did flow, or rather drip, steadily, lines of text marching slowly across one page, then another. In full flow, I can write 4000 words a day – a satisfying number, and something to get my teeth into in the next day’s editing session. But I can’t complain – it’s a start. I’ll probably scrap today’s work when I get into the swing of this particular novel, but that doesn’t matter. When I sit down at my desk tomorrow morning, I won’t have to face the newness of an unformed character. Those first brief words have breathed life into her. She is real now, with a personality that is uniquely hers. She will inform what I write and how I write it. She will be my constant companion until I write ‘The End’, heave a sigh of mixed relief and sadness, and bid her farewell.

But that moment is a long way off. Until then, I have her company, and the excitement of her developing story, with its twists and turns, its frustrations and surprises. Let the journey begin.

Why blog?


I started this blog a couple of months ago, for a specific reason. Received wisdom suggested that I needed to ‘build a platform’ as a writer. So I opened a Facebook account and started to blog with WordPress. My expectations were that the whole online thing would be something of a chore, part of the business side of writing that I needed to do for the future. Enjoyment didn’t come into it. I should say at this point that, although I’m fairly proficient with word processing and some other stuff, like many people of my generation, I have gaping holes in my IT knowledge. So it was with some trepidation that I started on this journey.

Having signed up for the blog, I decided I would learn one small part of the blogging process each day until I could at least post a blog, with the odd picture, without too much trouble. That was easier than I anticipated so, with the initial technical bit out of the way, I went into panic mode about what to blog about. I’d already decided to try to publish at least two posts a week. I figured this would be good discipline, adding to my regular writing regime. I’ve always worked better with a few short term goals to work towards, rather than a single, bigger target lost in the mists of a distant future.

To be honest, I struggled through the first few posts. Then I started to realise that this is the only writing I produce that doesn’t have to conform to editorial requirements. I can please myself what I write and how I write it. There is no required word count, or tone, or necessity for research. I can express opinions, rant, muse, or just ramble on as the mood takes me. Post by post I find I am developing a voice that is truly mine, unmediated by the need to please anyone but myself. I find that incredibly liberating.

Far from being a chore, blogging has become a delight; so enjoyable that is has taken on the attributes of a secret pleasure, like a bar of chocolate and a black-and-white movie in the middle of the day when I should be working.

And that’s why I blog. What about you? Why do you blog, and how do you feel about it? Feel free to share!