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!

Paint, Pigeons and Panic


It’s been a funny old day.  I was ready for a good day’s work (unusual for Monday morning), upcycling a bureau I bought at the weekend. It had already been painted, but very badly, so I thought I’d get ahead of the game with it, rub the existing paint down and use it as a base coat. And it was cheap. I’ve told myself so many times not to buy things unless  have my glasses on. A closer inspection of the existing paintwork revealed so many runs I had to use almost a whole pack of sandpaper to get in into a reasonable state. By this time, with an untouched piece, I could have had the first coat of paint on and drying. It’s a hot day, and I was in the full glare of the sun. Usually I paint in the shade under the back porch, but we’ve got young blackbirds in a nest just by the back door, so I’ve been relegated to the open garden.

I opened a new tin of undercoat and  started painting, but the brush was dragging and the paint didn’t feel right. Then I read the back of the tin. Alright…I know that should come first, but undercoat is undercoat…isn’t it? Apparently not. My usual, low-fume, quick drying, wash-the-brush-out undercoat had run out, so I’d grabbed another tin from my local hardware store…without reading the back of the tin. This stuff is oil-based, high in fumes and takes 24 hours to dry. I persevered, after all, I’d started, so I might as well finish.

After that I just had time to check my emails in the office. I sit with my back to the fireplace, and I heard ominous noises coming from the chimney. On closer inspection, I saw the grate was full of soot and shards of brick and cement. I’ve seen jackdaws on the roof lately, and they have a habit of nesting in the tops of chimney pots, so I assumed they were kicking the stuff down. Then I went out for three hours.

I came back, checked the paint – which was still wet – no surprise there, then went upstairs. Now I’m not a screamer. I can’t remember the last time I let loose with a full-throated scream of terror. Until today. The bedroom door was half open. I went in just as something launched itself from the corner of the room, straight at my head. Now,as far as I was aware, I was alone in the house. So, yes, I screamed. At which point, the poor terrified pigeon must have thought his world was coming to an end and starting flying in circles round the room before settling on top of the wardrobe.

I thought at first it was a young wood pigeon – we have a lot of them nesting in the garden and surrounding trees, then I saw the ring on its leg and realised it was a racing pigeon. I opened the bedroom window, closed the door, and waited. But my new lodger seemed perfectly content with his new perch. Then I rationalised that, as racing pigeons are used to be handled, this one might just let me affect a rescue. It watched me climb on a chair, then lazily swept out through the open window and away.

I was puzzled – how did the bird get in? Then I remembered the rustling in the chimney. Not jackdaws at all, but my feathered visitor. Sure enough, the fireguard had been knocked over and there was a fair amount of soot in the hearth. On further inspection, it seems the pigeon had a good fly round while it was here, knocking over a mirror and several bottles in the bathroom and leaving sooty footprints in the sink. I think I’ve cleaned up all the mess it made.

Still, I’m grateful for small mercies. At least it didn’t shit on my new paintwork on its way out.

Sumatran tiger cubs

Sumatran Tiger

Sumatran Tiger

I don’t usually blog about programmes I’ve seen on TV, but last night I watched something so amazing, I thought I’d share. Episode 1 of Tigers about the House documented the birth of two Sumatran tiger cubs in Australia Zoo.  Giles Clarke is the zookeeper with special responsibility for the Sumatran tiger breeding programme. He has a remarkable relationship with the tigers under his care. The ethos of the zoo is that if the public can touch and stroke animals they are more likely to be interested in conserving them. So the zoo is very hands on for visitors. This idea extends to the keepers when it come to the tigers. They spend a lot of time in the cages with their charges, giving them treats, handling them, talking to them. They take them, on leashes, for wild walks, so they can experience more than the confines of their enclosures.

Sumatran tigers face extinction in the wild by 2020. 80% of their Indonesian rain forest habitat has been cut down and they are poached ruthlessly for use in Chinese medicines. Breeding programmes, like the one of which Australia Zoo is part, may be the only chance these incredible animals will have to avoid joining a long, sad list of extinct animals.

Kaitlyn is six years old. She gave birth to two cubs, initially named Spot and Stripe, last year. In the first programme of the series, we saw Kaitlyn with Giles as he performed an ultrasound, and took blood to check her hormone levels during the later stages of her pregnancy. She was totally unfazed by all this, the bond of trust between tiger and keeper is so strong.

Giles stayed with Kaitlyn throughout her labour, and helped the weakest cub latch on when it had problems just after the birth. Again, Kaitlyn trusted him implicitly. I wouldn’t mess with new born kittens from a domestic cat – they can be viciously protective of their young.

The two cubs are special. They represent a much needed new blood line for the breeding programme, so the decision was made to hand-rear them. Giles took the cubs home, and proceeded to feed them on demand, night and day for the next few weeks. The sight of a beautiful cub lying across the palm of his hand, fast asleep, while he stroked its back brought a lump to my throat.

Next Monday, episode 2 follows the growth of the cubs as they get their milk teeth and start to explore their surroundings in a more energetic way. I can’t wait!

Giles was so unassuming in the way he explained his work, but he seemed to me to be a truly remarkable man – totally committed to the tigers in his care. But somehow it’s more than that – it’s the way the tigers seem to reciprocate his affection, the way they trust him. There is so much negative stuff happening in the world, and I guess this breeding programme wouldn’t be necessary if we hadn’t driven beautiful animals like the Sumatran tiger to the brink of extinction. But there is good in the world, and positive people like Giles Clarke, and beautiful blue-eyed tiger cubs with a future ahead of them. Just for once, I watched the end of a documentary feeling that all isn’t lost. If there is hope for the tigers, there may be hope for us too.

Bumper breeding season in the garden


As I sit typing this, I can hear baby house martins calling for food. Their parents have nested, as they have done in previous years, under the eaves above my office window.  There is something sad about an empty martin’s nest. Every year these remarkable birds  fly thousands of miles, often in terrible weather, to return to the same breeding spots. The empty nests are decaying memorials to the birds that didn’t make it.  When we mow the lawn and disturb all the bugs, we are rewarded for our labours by a breathtaking aerial display as the martins swoop and swerve low over the grass to pick off the bugs before they settle again.

All summer they breed and feed, often raising two broods. Then one day we open the back door and the sky is empty, the nests deserted.  They have gone. I always stand for a moment, looking up, hoping that I’ll see them one last time, knowing it is a vain hope, that summer is over and autumn is on the way.

On the other side of the house, two feet from the back door, a blackbird is nesting in our golden hop. She certainly has good cover, as the nest is wedged into a corner of the wall, away from the wind and rain. She doesn’t seem at all concerned about our comings and goings.

The compost bin is out of commission because of nesting tree bees. They were definitely not happy bees when we took the lid off the bin to dump the grass cuttings, so we’ll just leave them alone and feed the grass to the cows in the field at the end of the garden.

So far the wood pigeons haven’t nested, as they usually do, in the huge espaliered pear tree on the other side of the back door. This is something of a blessing. In previous years, as soon as the sun came up (very early) the brooding bird began cooing to her eggs and, later, to her chicks. She has a very loud voice. I think she’s chosen the yew tree this year, which is further down the garden and out of earshot.

We have a bee-friendly garden, and the foxgloves are proving very popular this year, especially now the aquilegia is finished. There do seem to be more bees about, but mostly bumble bees. I’d like to see a few more honey bees, but they don’t seem to be doing too well.

It’s satisfying living in the middle of a nursery.

An old-fashioned Sunday



Bigger Bertie, the biggest hand-crafted rocking horse in the world at 14ft 6ins tall and 28ft 3ins long.

Bigger Bertie, the biggest hand-crafted rocking horse in the world at 14ft 6ins tall and 28ft 3ins long.

We spent a wonderful Sunday afternoon at Burnby Hall Gardens in Pocklington. It was like stepping back in time. Elland Silver Band played magnificently in the bandstand, watched by a huge audience, men in straw hats, ladies in summer dresses, all enjoying music and picnics in the afternoon sunshine.

Bigger Bertie is the latest addition to the gardens, standing proudly in a formal garden close to the aviary. He has to be seen to be believed, a huge, beautifully crafted horse on elegant rockers, made by Tony Dew’s craftsmen at The Rocking Horse Shop.

Part of the lake, with water lilies just beginning to bloom.

Part of the lake, with water lilies just beginning to bloom.

We just wandered round the lake, where the water lilies are coming into bloom. I realised how long it had been since we’d had the leisure to just amble about, doing nothing in particular. We always seem to be so busy at weekends. That isn’t a problem, we enjoy our weekends, but it was so nice to have no plan other than to walk, linger over coffee and cakes in the cafe, and smell the new growth on the juniper trees.


Apart from the formal gardens, there is a nature reserve, The Stumpery, where small mammals, birds and insects are encouraged. Shaded by cool woodland, every effort has been made to encourage wildlife, including the erection of ‘bug hotels’, wooden structures filled with reeds to help creatures survive the harsh winter months.

Bug Hotel

Bug Hotel


One of the many carvings in The Stumpery

One of the many carvings in The Stumpery









There are carvings emerging from ferns and foxgloves, Green Men and an incongruous interpretation of a Maori tiki. Somehow they all work, balanced, harmonious, magical.

It was such an old-fashioned afternoon, gentle, timeless, and restful. I sat for awhile indulging my favourite pastime – people watching. There were families, with buggies and toddlers, old couples strolling, hand-in-hand, all quietly enjoying the day. If ever proof was needed that environment affects behaviour, Sunday afternoon by the lake was it. I didn’t hear raised voices, no-one was rushing to be somewhere else. People were talking quietly to each other and actually looked happy. I didn’t see one person texting, or using a mobile phone, other than to take photos, as we did. Just so that we could take a bit of the magic home with us.


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.