Holding That Thought (Thoughts)

I’m writing this as Florida is being ravaged by Hurricane Irma.  It’s hovering outside Naples, a  beautiful seaside resort, with a wide and sandy beach, lined with old fashioned clinker-built houses, with raised verandas, seemingly straight out of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (although I know TKAM is set in Alabama).  I visited Naples in 2008.  I (and my neighbours opposite, who have a holiday home there) are waiting for it to reach Sarasota, where I stayed with in 2008, with our wonderful friends, A and S, who are (thank God) safe and in north London.  I remember sitting outside with them, in late October, at a cafe in Sarasota, drinking gallons and gallons of black coffee from a metal jug.  The atmosphere was so relaxed and peaceful.


Galveston, Texas
Galveston, where the buildings are on stilts, to protect against hurricanes and tsunamis.

I feel as if I’ve been through this emotional process all before, a few weeks ago, when Hurricane Neville swept through Texas.   In 2011, we stayed in Houston with our friends B and C and we heard all about their daughter, J, who was, at that time, at college in Louisana.  Sadly, C has since passed away, and J has returned home.  A fortnight ago I was following J’s Facebook feed, as she described how the water swept up their road in Houston, up the sidewalk, creeping up the garden… but never inside the

San Antonio, Texas
San Antonio, Texas, which was too far west to be damaged by Hurricane Neville.

house.  I noted the many prayers – as this is Bible Belt – and the urgent calls for anyone who has a boat to come and help.  Is it coincidence that the film ‘Dunkirk’ has just been released?    Amazingly J found time to respond to our many (well-meant but probably irksome) emails, assuring us that THIS IS TEXAS.  WE LOOK AFTER OUR OWN.  And then she went on to tell us about some football star who had raised several million dollars in hours.  Hold those thoughts.

We too have experienced flooding, in our village in Essex, several times over.  The day of the Referendum in June 2016 was a case in point.  My husband tried to ring the Election Office to say that we might not make it to the polling station (we were both working as poll staff), but he got no reply as – guess what?  – the Election Office was also flooded.  (We did get there btw.)  In previous years I have waded through the surging river in what was hitherto our road.  Other neighbours (not the ones with the house in Florida) with whom we had had any contact for years, knocked on our door, walked into our garage and (as I was alone in the house) moved our mower on to wood blocks so it didn’t get waterlogged.   I then walked further up the road and, seeing that other houses were indeed flooded, offered to put anyone up who needed it.  Another neighbour, remembering that we used to offer bed and breakfast, sniggered and asked me how much I would charge.  I walked away feeling very hurt.  Hold these thoughts also!

Further back, we’ve known hurricanes.  Remember 1987?  We lived in Surrey back then.  We went to bed that night, thinking it was a bit windy.  In the small hours, I looked down our garden, to the two stout (and I mean really stout, with trunks as thick as a man) oak trees bending over like pipe straws.  (Amazingly, they returned to their normal posture afterwards and I continued to fasten my washing line to them.)  My husband noticed that his car boot was open and that his library of sheet music (which he used when he played the organ, worth probably about £1000) was blowing about in the ‘breeze’.  He rushed outside in his pyjamas to rescue it, pinning down ancient, dog-eared pages with one hand as he attempted to pick up others.  He didn’t lose any of it.  We debated whether to wake our four-year-old daughter, sleeping upstairs in her attic-conversion room – we didn’t and she was ok, but I think we should’ve done.  The following morning, I got her up as usual, dressed her in her uniform and drove her to school; she was one of only four children to arrive in her class.  Many of the roads in Surrey were blocked by falling branches and whole spinneys and woods were flattened.  Hold that thought also!

We writers need our resources.  We need to hold on to our memories, not just what happened (which will get recorded in the history books and in Wikpedia), but what we were thinking and doing at the time.  If you can’t use it in your writing, someone else will.


Insecure Writers’ Support Group – Surprising Myself

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Tomorrow is Insecure Writers’ Support Group day, but I’m writing this early because tomorrow (Wednesday) I’m travelling to London, to the Albert Hall, to hear/see the Proms.  They’re playing Shostakovitch’s Symphony number 11.  Very exciting.

The summer has not been a good time for writing.  Not enough time.  Too many other things to do, nice things like a holiday to Ireland – and Proms.  Now the evenings are drawing in and the light in the mornings, shining brightly through our windows only last week, has suddenly become dull, and I’m switching on the lights before making breakfast.  The summer is over.  Like many, I think of the year as beginning in September, because that’s when the academic year begins.

I have got very cross with myself for not doing any writing during the summer, especially as I’m not teaching.  It’s been very difficult gathering up the threads of my novel every time when writing sessions are so far apart.  However, I surprised myself last week by doing just that and carrying out some really useful editing.  Note to self:  must stop wanting to alter (improve?) the action in the beginning chapters.

View of Himilayas from Shimla, India.
View of Himilayas from Shimla, India.

Last February, I truly surprised myself by writing a poem, in common metre (6, 8, 6,8) for reading aloud, to pre-school children, all about dinosaurs.  I’ve always convinced myself that I can’t do children’s and I can’t do poetry.  Given the topic The Sea by my writing group, I scribbled the lines of my poem whilst on holiday in Shimla (in the very north of India), on those tiny scraps of notepaper provided in hotel bedrooms, singing to myself Amazing Grace (which, according to Wikipedia, is in common metre).  There, Sudbury Writing Group, I did it for you.

My Favourite Things

Unlike Bob Geldof, I do like Mondays, because  I look forward to reading the blogs I follow on WordPress. Other people’s blogs can be funds of information.  This week, from Meredith Allard’s blog, I learn about Anne Bradstreet, an early American poet.  From Blog About Writing, and Words about Writing and Writing about Words, I find out about about new writing competitions.  From several other blogs, I discover books I want to read.  One of my favourite blogs,  however, Campari and Sofa,  is just fun.  Written by two mature women (one in LA and one in South Africa), it often just contains a quote, but this week was about ‘#143 Things We Love’. #143?  Sooo… I think I’d better get going and list #1 Things I Love… not in any particular order.

  • Relaxing with a cup of tea or coffee, made exactly the right way, right temperature, right strength, right amount of milk and no food served with it to spoil it.  Btw, I don’t do herbal teas and I don’t do instant coffee.
  • A cup of tea in bed – made by someone else.
  • Hanging-out washing on a warm, spring day, listening to the lambs bleating in the field half a mile away.  (You didn’t expect that one, did you?)
  • Shutting the dishwasher-door and switching it on, thinking about how it’s doing all my work for me.
  • Stationery, especially blank, lined notebooks, smelling of freshly minted paper.  The hardback ones, especially with a pretty pattern on them, are the best.  I also have a thing about pencils with rubbers on the ends, staplers and hole punches.
  • Roses, and dahlias, because of their strong colours, and range of colours.
  • A really good book.
  • Having a piece of my writing accepted by a webzine or other publisher.
  • Chancing upon something funny, such as a road sign or notice, like the ones below:
Prayors Hill. Road sign in Sible Hedingham, Essex
Sible Hedingham, Essex. This road leads to the church.
Advert in train. Excellent summing up of the story arc for Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Mikado'.
Advert in train. Excellent summing up of the story arc for Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’.
  • Computers.
  • Cats.
  • The roar of a football crowd.
  • The moment you touch down on the tarmac in the UK on returning from holiday.
  • Warm, sunny days at home in England, you know, the ones that are so warm and pleasant that you consider cancelling your holiday.
  • Walking outside early in the morning in summer, into a world fresh, untouched and full of amazing potential.
  • Sitting by a roaring fire (in the grate) in winter.
  • Ooh… and writing.

I know I’m supposed to mention things like ‘spending time with my grandchildren’.  I love them dearly.  They are the reason I haven’t been doing much writing recently, but  I’m listing THINGS not people.

Difficult Times for Womag Writers

Woman’s Weekly is one of the few British women’s magazines to publish fiction but it has had a rollercoaster of a week.   For those, like me, who aspire to write for women’s magazines, the news is disappointing.

First of all – with apologies to those who have been following this story elsewhere – let me summarise what happened.

First of all, we learned, on Facebook, through Patsy Collins (regular contributor to women’s magazines and host of womagwriter blog) that the whole fiction desk at WW had ‘left’.  Then, on Thursday, Patsy was asked, by Clare at WW, to publish a message on womagwriter saying that WW would not be accepting ‘unsolicited stories for the time being’, but they hoped to ‘reinstate them at some point in the future’.  On Friday, Patsy received another, slightly more hopeful, email from the new fiction editor at WW, welcoming submissions from herself as a regular contributor, and explaining WW’s new policy regarding new writers, that they would be open to submissions from ALL writers SOME of the time.  The WW submission windows will be advertised in their guidelines and on the womagwriter blog.

Many thanks to Patsy for sharing this information with all of us.  Obviously, more details are available on womagwriter blog.

I admit that I haven’t been very assiduous in submitting to womag over the last few years, as my stories kept getting rejected.  I sensed that I was not properly on the womag wavelength, that I needed to devote some time to working out how to tune into it, something I didn’t have the time to do.  However, I’ve always thought that I would go back to it at some point.  Just shows that, like the Post Office, you use it or lose it.  Other womag-type markets are limited.  Another friend has had several successes at People’s Friend, but they also send me rejections – and they’re based in Scotland.  Come on, fiction editor at PF, surely, please show my stories some traditional Scottish hospitality after they have travelled so far! 

Writers’ whinges apart, surely accepting stories only from writers who have written for a mag previously is inward-looking and short-sighted.  I suppose magazine companies calculate that they are saving money by limiting the number of submissions and therefore the number of editors required to read them.  But women’s magazines in general have a declining, and increasingly elderly, readership.   All print media is in decline.  Companies that don’t grow fade away.  If women’s magazines are to survive, they need fresh ideas, fresh approaches  – and new writers.  At the moment, they seem obsessed with celebrities and ‘true life’ stories.   British women’s magazines, as we know them, and as our mothers and grandmothers knew them, are going to wither away and die, through a series of miscalculations and misjudgments.

I remember reading Woman’s Weekly as a pre-teen, along with Woman (long since gone) and Woman’s Own (no longer taking fiction), in my grandmother’s deserted ‘lounge’ (only used on Christmas Day).  I think I learned most of the ‘facts of life’ from womag problem pages.  I end with a cover of Woman’s Weekly of yesteryear – the Queen Mother and free Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion.  Pure comfort-reading.

What Are Books For?

  • ‘I love the feel of a book.’
  • ‘I love the smell of a book.’
  • ‘I need to be able physically to turn the pages.’
  • ‘I love rummaging around in second-hand bookshops.’
  • ‘I love those pretentious and expensive hard backed editions of books I’ve probably already read in paperback
  • I love expensive, hardback books which I will never read… you know, random histories of India, volumes 1 and 2.’

I could never throw a book away.

  • Do you possess copies of bed and breakfast directories for 1994?
  • Do you have cookery books for virtually every type of food and every sort of cuisine, and only use five or six of them?
  • Do you retain sets of romance/detective paperbacks, which you will never ever touch again?  (Your tastes have changed.)
  • Do you love cramming books, especially those costly hardbacks, on top of other books in your shelves, squashing them in, and wondering where on earth you’re going to find space for the others?
  • Do you have stacks of books under beds in spare rooms?
  • Do you have stacks of recently-read (and not so recently-read) books on tables?
  • Do you love dusting the bleep bleep things?  The dust doesn’t half accumulate on the upper edges of the pages, in between the bindings.
  • Do you love the smell of mildew emanating from a book that hasn’t been touched for a long time… five years… well, ten years… How long was it since you decorated the spare bedroom?  Fifteen years!

So, what do you do?  You say to yourself you will have a clear out.  Having negotiated with your other half, who will – naturally – remove almost everything of his/hers from your chuck-out pile, you box them up and take them to the charity shop.  Oxfam do second-hand books, don’t they?  But the fact is many charity shops aren’t very interested in your average cast-offs, only particular sorts of books which they think they can shift quickly.  The remainder of your treasures will be pulped.  The same goes for the left-overs from bookstalls at local fetes.

I understand that ‘real books’ are back – see this article in The Irish Times, with all the usual arguments about feel and physicality being trotted out again.  There are occasions when only a print book will do, for instance, for a child who is being read to, and for whom the pictures are as important as the text; often books for the very young contain pop-up images and swatches they can touch.  Additionally, when I am teaching myself how to do something on the computer, I can understand the subject much more easily from a paper-based page, because I can flip back through other pages with ease and type code, build a website, or whatever, on my machine.

However,  it’s not necessary to read fiction in printed form.

This post has been quite flippant so far, but there are some serious ecological issues: about knocking down trees to produce paper for people who could read electronically; about needing storage; and disposal.  I have a Kindle library running to several electronic pages.  It takes up no space in my house at all and doesn’t need dusting.

Books are for reading.  Full stop.

Pet Peeves In Reading, Writing and Editing

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Today is the first Wednesday of the month, and it’s Insecure Writers’ Support Group day!  We are asked to write about our pet peeves in reading, writing and editing, so please allow me to have a really good moan.

Peeve 1 – Reading

I review – more or less – everything I read on my Dear Reader blog and it peeves me that no one reads my reviews.  It’s not as if no-one reads book reviews online because many other book reviewers blogs do attract interest, so, in an open and non-peevish way, I’m asking you, my fellow bloggers, what could be improved?  (This Dear Reader blog text here is a link, if you wouldn’t mind checking it out.)

Peeve 2 – Writing

No time.  (The really helpful and supportive Facebook friends who read the Facebook post generated by my last post on this blog will have heard all this before.).  The last time I did any proper writing, that is, of my novel, was on a train to Newcastle and back, on 8 July.  In the meantime, I’ve been working, seeing friends and looking after family.  Moreover, on Sunday, one-and-only-husband and I go on holiday to Ireland for ten days.  I love to see my friends and family, because, as I’ve said before, I’m not all writer, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  It’s just that there aren’t enough hours in the day.  Another blogger (not known to me personally) has given up her day-job, but she, unlike me, is an established womag writer.   Dare I take the plunge?  No.  Could I partly take the plunge?  I’m plucking up courage.

Peeve 3 – Writing and Editing

Author's Cat Sitting by BookcaseMy cat is old, very timid and very loving.  She likes to sit on my knee, between me and the computer.   Actually, she prefers to stand on my knee between me and my computer, so I find myself stretching my arms around her head (one end) and tail (other end) to reach the keyboard and looking over her back to see the screen.  This is distracting when writing.  It also makes editing more difficult, because she sits on the touchpad; my computer is surprising responsive to her paws and bottom, highlighting and deleting whole passages at whim (her whim).

Generally, I am feeling very insecure about my writing at the moment.  A few weeks ago, I saw a flyer for the Mslexia novel comp; the deadline is in mid-September and, if shortlisted, I would have to have the whole thing completed by mid-November.  When I was on a roll, writing on trains to and from Newcastle, this sounded just about do-able, but, now, I know, it’s not.  Ditto, any possibility that I might do Nano again.  At this moment, I feel that The Novel and I are becoming shipwrecked.

Bad Blogger/ Bad Writer Has No Time

Those that think they know say that a writer should always find time to write, and that no excuses are acceptable.  Really?

At the beginning of this month I was on a roll, writing novel chapters on trains, but I’m ashamed to say, Dear Reader, that I haven’t written a word since.  Not even a comma.  And, keen watchers of this blog – like you, DR – will have noted that I didn’t post last week on this blog, although I did take part in the Katherine Blessan blog tour on the Dear Reader blog.

So what major tragedies have occurred in the Johnson household, so as to prevent me writing?  Er, none, DR. It’s just that life and work has got in the way, finishing off the last few courses I was teaching, visiting friends and family, and looking after grandchildren last week, and tomorrow.  I’m typing this post on my iPad on the bed settee in my daughter’s living room, at 11.30pm.  Next week we’re off on hols in Ireland.

I can provide a list of things I should’ve done and have not done, including not writing story for my writing group on Tuesday, not taking part in Wendy H Jones’s webinar this evening, not making curtains for spare bedroom and not deadheading roses in garden.  Are proper writers a different breed?  Do they not have roses or families?  Do they not have to work?  Do they not have husbands they like to spend time with occasionally?  (He and I went to Anglesey Abbey today – see photo below of the tiger lilies in the Anglesey Abbey formal garden, which we would like to havin our garden.) image

Am I missing something?

Bad Blogger Has RSI

Yes, I’ve been suffering again.  In my right hand and elbow, mostly, in my left hand and neck a little.  It hurts like Hell.  The most painful part is the outside edge of my edge and the nobbly boney bit where my hand joins my wrist.  As a picture (or, rather a photo) tells a thousand words, this bit of my hand here:


So, this morning, I updated what I knew on this subject by reading up about RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) on the internet, as it is some time since I published The Dreaded Lurgy page on this blog.  At the time I wrote that page, it was apparent to me that the advice mostly dished out is for desktop PC users in offices, that is, sit with elbows, waist and knees at right angles and your line of vision lining up towards the top of the screen, without your needing to tilt your neck upwards or downwards – see the illustration on the Dreaded Lurgy page.  Although people working in offices do still (mostly) use desktop computers, a lot of us nowadays use laptops, tablets and phones, and the advice has not caught up with us.  I  use a laptop to write and an iPad and iPhone when on the move.  Our last desktop computer died several years ago.

My research also brought up a lot of adverts for so-called ergonomic devices – keyboards, mice, wrist-rests and mouse rests, and various other things – all expensive.  Try them if you can afford them – and if you have space in a skip outside your house when you can’t be bothered to use them anymore.

I did find two wonderful articles by Jack Schofield – dated 2005 and 2013 – in The Guardian Online, about RSI caused by using laptops, tablets and other devices.  Although old, these are gold dust.  Jack Schofield has suffered too.

Broadly speaking, all computer users need to take frequent breaks.  How frequent, you ask.  Every forty minutes.  Jack Schofield feels this is not possible for someone typing at their place of work, but, for writers writing at home, needing loo breaks and cups of tea/coffee – and biscuits to combat writers’ block – this advice has potential.  A break of a few minutes will force you to adjust your position and that’s what’s important.

Laptop users should also be aware of the dangers of looking too far down at their screen, as you will when using your laptop on your lap, which is surely what it is designed for.  (The Americans call laptops notebooks – I wonder why!)  It isn’t possible, says Schofield, to adopt a good position whereby you can see your keyboard and your screen, without straining your neck.   He suggests using a detachable screen and a notebook riser or ergonomic stand to raise your machine from your lap.  To my mind, using a detachable screen, on my lap, would be cumbersome but I’m thinking seriously about ways of raising my laptop on my knee.

The main problem for me, however, has always been the hands.  I use a mouse with my laptop.  Mice haven’t changed in design since the 1960s.  I’m convinced that it’s the mouse that’s causing me pain, as, when I’m just inputting on the keyboard, it’s not so painful.  I try to avoid that outside edge of my hand rubbing against the edge of a desk or table, because I’m conscious that this seems to aggravate it.  Also I’m using a variety of devices; at the moment I’m typing this on my iPhone.

The ultimate cure would be not to use the computer at all for a few days, and I was going to use that as an excuse for this blog post being late, but, as you probably know, I posted on Dear Reader last night, and I’ll be posting again tomorrow on Dear Reader, about Lydia’s Song as part of the Katherine Blessan Blog Tour.  Busted!





In Train-ing

Can you write in public?

According to myth,  J K Rowling wrote the first ‘Harry Potter’ in a cafe, because she was a single mother and ‘too poor’ to afford to pay for heating in her home.  J K, didn’t you  end up shelling out more on coffee than you would’ve done on electricity/gas/oil, or whatever your heating ran on?   But I know how comfortable you get to feel in a coffee shop.  It’s the smell – of coffee -and the background buzz of conversation, of strangers who won’t ask you to do something, find something or switch on the television.

For NanoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) (which happens every November), Nano writers, mostly strangers to each other,  meet together in public and private places, not to socialise, but to write, all together, in silence.  I did that one Saturday afternoon, in a building whose purpose I never fathomed, two years ago, in Colchester.

Could you write on a train?  My friend, Wendy H Jones (of DI Shona McKenzie fame) writes on the train; as she lives in Scotland, she uses trains a lot, and has five Shona McKenzie books, plus several others, to show for it.  This last weekend I travelled to Newcastle, and back, by train, for the Association of Christian Writers Writers’ Day.  The speaker was David Robinson, of Searchlight Theatre, a comedic writer, and the Day was really informative and helpful – more about this on the ACW blog, when it’s my turn this coming Thursday.

I’m moving ahead of myself.  I had to get to Newcastle: it was four hours on a train heading north on Friday and five hours heading back south on Saturday.  So, having packed my smaller – old – computer into my overnight-acceptable-on-a-Ryanair-cabin case, I set it up on the railway carriage table in front of me.  Virgin Trains do support people who want to use computers, by providing three-point sockets beside every double seat, and also free wifi (although this worked only on my iPhone, not on my laptop).  Unfortunately, Dear Reader, the table in front of me was about the size of a child’s desk, and four of us – all women – sitting at it.  And there was me attempting to write one of the most complex chapters of The Novel, including an emotional love scene, with lots of groping and kissing.  I’m sure the woman sitting next to me was reading my page in Word.  I’d like to think that, in a few years’ time, she’ll count herself privileged to have observed a blockbuster in the making.  My friends, who had already arrived in Newcastle and were enjoying a curry, sent me Facebook Messenger texts about Girls on the Train, but, as I had to point out, that’s already been done.  Titles aren’t copyright, though.  Mm.

But, Dear Reader, I wrote.  I did second drafts of two chapters.  Away from home, and family wanting me to do things, I was able to concentrate, even  though the computer was feeling its age and I did wonder whether my work would get itself properly on to Dropbox.  (It did.)

Bringing a Little Sunshine, ACW competition
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One of the reasons for my going to the Writers Day was to launch the new ACW comp for comedic writing.  All you need to do is to write a sketch of (maximum) thousand words or a comic poem of (maximum) twenty-four lines, on the theme Bringing a Little Sunshine. The winning entry will appear in a future edition of Christian Writer (subject to possible editing). In addition, there’s a first prize of a £25 book token and a £10 book token for second prize.  Deadline 11 September 2017.   More information on the comps page of the ACW website.  So next time you find yourself in train-ing, don’t go off the rails.  Get writing for our competition.