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.

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
Attrib Christian Writer

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.

What is one valuable lesson you’ve learned since you started writing?

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First Wednesday of the month and time for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group.

The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that I need to have contact with other writers.  For years I hid myself away in my spare bedroom, writing to my own specifications and user requirements.   When I ‘came out’, by posting my work on an online writing site, I was gobsmacked by the sort of feedback I received, some of it obvious stuff and other things that had never occurred to me.  You see, I’ve never studied literature or taken the MA in creative writing, so there were enormous gaps in my skills and knowledge, which I am gradually filling with support from my fellow writers through:

  • online writing sites
  • writing groups (some online and some face-to-face)
  • subbing my work
  • entering writing competitions
  • blogging
  • reading writing magazines and online articles
  •  being with members of the (British) Association of Christian Writers.

I’m still no expert but I’m sure I know a great deal more about the craft of writing and the way the publishing industry works than when I was tapping away in my spare bedroom.  It’s taking me a very long time to get where I want to be, where I thought I was.   I want to finish my novel and get it published.  It’s a long haul.  It always was a long haul but it no longer seems impossible.

How Computers Affect Your Writing Style

Have you considered how computers affect your writing style?

I’m not talking about Word’s Autocorrect. Were corrected to We’re is very annoying, but can be proofread out, as can which instead of witch.   I believe computers affect how we construct sentences and paragraphs and the way in which we set down our stories.

When I first started writing, I wrote on lined A4, made a very few edits, then typed it on my cheap and wonky electric typewriter.  (No,  that’s not true.  Much of my juvenile writing was left – exactly as it was –  in red Sylvine notebooks.)  I always used to write in pencil, and, in my latter handwriting days, do a lot of rubbing out, until I got things right, but making corrections on a manuscript, on which I’d written on every narrow line, would have been well nigh impossible.  Those of us who visit museums will have seen initial manuscripts of some classic writers (eg the Brontes), with lots of little

Publisher's galley
Galley. Attrib Wikimedia.

corrections written above the text and in margins.  I recall, my father who wrote geography textbooks, in the 1960s and 1970s, being given long galleys (like a till roll only wider), and him making – very minor – correction marks in the margins.

During the same era, Claire Rayner was rattling off doctor and nurse stories straight on to the typewriter, presumably with no editing at all.  When Dickens wrote his great novels, he published a chapter in Household Words every week, then wrote the next chapter during the proceeding week.  No wonder some of his plot lines – particularly The Old Curiousity Shop – meandered.   I understand from my publisher friend that many writers still prefer to write by hand, and use the typing-up as a first edit, although, she said, it doesn’t work for her.  Nowadays I always type.  I like the clean page, clean, that is of all errors and alterations.  Typing comes easily, probably because I learned to touch-type as a new graduate.  (My father didn’t believe I’d ever get a job otherwise.)

Old computer, Microsoft PC, about 1995.
Old computer (attrib Flickr)

When we got our first desktop computer in 1996 (cost £1400, running the very first version of Windows 95 – wow, cutting edge stuff!), suddenly it was possible to cut and paste sentences around the page… and paragraphs… to move scenes from one chapter to another.  You could make those little changes with the backspace delete key, no need for the editor’s hieroglyphics – and we could make them over and over again.  We could alter the names of characters using find and replace , even change point-of-view (although I recommend care on this one.)

And how we edit!   I must have made a hundred edits just on this post.   Increasingly it’s become expected of us that every word on our page is perfect, adds something to character and progresses the plot.  You couldn’t demand that of someone writing by hand and having their work typed by a professional typist.  No wonder it’s taking me so long to write The Novel.  I’m the worst.  Whenever I open the document for my current chapter, I read what I’ve written and spend up to an hour making edits.  I suspect some are more pertinent than others.  How much is a story improved by ‘Marya says’, not ‘says Marya’?  I suspect that, to a large extent, I’m wasting my time, improving things that don’t matter very much… because I can.

I’ve more to say on this, but I’m leaving this topic for now, as I’ve rabbited on enough.


Nothing to Say

What does a blogger say when nothing in particular has happened all week?

Am I supposed to conjure up two or three paragraphs of five hundred or so boring words of nothing?  Well, I’m not going to.

Things did happen, of course.   I’ve invigilated exams and taught two web design classes, attended my Christian Studies class, and, most important of all, my son and girlfriend have been here this weekend and today my husband directed all the music for three services at St Edmundsbury Cathedral.  But not writing things.

That’s 96 words, so I’ll shut up now.

Bad Blogger Blogs Late Because She’s Been on Writers’ Weekend

View of Scargill House, Yorkshire.
View of Scargill House, Yorkshire. Attrib Lucy Mills.

If other people keep telling you that something’s gobsmackingly amazing, what’s your reaction?  Me, I don’t respond well to hype and end to want to debunk whatever it is.  However, last weekend I went to the Association of Christian Writers’ Weekend at Scargill House, Yorkshire, which all my ACW writer friends said was… er… gobsmackingly amazing… and I can report, Dear Reader, that it was everything everybody said it was.

View from Scargill House, Yorkshire
View from Scargill House, Yorkshire. My photo.

Before I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect from the Scargill weekend.  The theme was ‘Dodging the Gatekeepers’ and it was led by Adrian and Bridget Plass, well-known as inspirational speakers.   Theologian and poet, Andrew Knowles, was also presenting, a lovely, funny, self-deprecating former canon theological of Chelmsford Cathedral, wearing shorts and t-shirt.  The ‘Gatekeepers’, I learned, are people and things which discourage us from writing, the unacknowledged audience whom we are forever trying to please: for instance, parents, siblings, spouses, teachers, members of your writing group.  To dodge these Gatekeepers, according to Adrian Plass, we have to acknowledge ‘the elephant in the living room’ and not allow them to set boundaries for us, particularly boundaries of respectability, whereby we feel safe and can deliver half-truths or half-solutions.  We must be true to ourselves.  We are asked if we would go to the pub with Jesus if he invited us and, tongue in cheek, told a story about a straitlaced lady from a strict church who refused because she didn’t drink alcohol.  Everything had a Christian emphasis, so I suppose the weekend wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

Rosemary knitting.
Rosemary knitting.  (Don’t I look awful in this photo?)  Attrib Helen Murray.

It wasn’t just the presentations and writing exercises, of course, that made the weekend.  Do want to know about the brooding Yorkshire Dales outside?  About the friends I spent time with and the new friends I made?  About the walk we took in the fells on Saturday afternoon?  Nightly story-time with story-teller, Amy Robinson.  Or how I knitted (part of) a square for the neo-natal unit at Bradford Infirmary (really addictive, Dear Reader)?  Never have I spent so much time talking to writers about writers.  They even made me feel like a proper writer.

We Shall Not Be Moved

“How unspeakably lucky I am to possess you.  I shall think of you, you, you and nothing else, tomorrow, next day, and Sunday and Monday, and every day and hour and moment!”*

Does this do anything for you?  Me, neither.  Nor did do anything for Vita Sackville-West, to whom it was written. The writer was Vita’s lover, Rosamund Grosvenor, whom she dumped almost immediately afterwards.

Plutchik's Wheel of EmotionsFor me, writing emotion is the most difficult thing.  (Maybe this is the reason why I have had no success in womag writing.)  According to Robert Plutchik’s theory, there are seven emotions:  fear; anger; sadness; joy; disgust; surprise; trust; anticipation.  Aristotle listed some different ones, so did Darwin.  The writer feeling emotion as he/she is writing is not enough to make the reader feel, because the reader isn’t the writer and is not touched off by the same things.  So, you go through the motions of using all the senses (sight, sound, feel, smell and taste).  You use tropes.  You extrapolate from your own experience.  …And it still falls flat.  What about this, though?

“I arrived her yesterday [Duntreath Castle]… Do you remember the peacocks stalking round the house in the small hours of the morning uttering penetrating but unmusical cries, the gorgeous flaming sunsets that set the hills a-kindling for all the world like cabuchon rubies?  Do you remember the staid and stolid girl – a remote connection of mine – whose birthday we celebrated at a place called Lennox Castle?…”*

Do you feel the energy?  Do you feel the rhythm as every sentence is begun with the words ‘Do you remember…’?  The writer is rapping out quick rhythmical questions, each one starting with the words ‘Do you remember…’   She also is making a pitch for Vita, but, not bothering with abstract protestations of love, she is setting out challenges, by calling up specific shared memories.   This is Violet Keppel, who will replace Rosamund in Vita’s affections.

Emotion is a funny thing.  I’m furious that a sixteen-year-old posh girl, at the beginning of the twentieth century, can write emotion better than I.

So what advice can you give me?

*From ‘A Portrait of a Marriage’, by Nigel Nicolson (George Weidenfield and Nicolson Limited, 1973)

Why We Have To Keep Writing and Carry On

Yesterday (Sunday, 28 May 2017) I had a story (‘Tomatoes and Their Part in Brexit’) published on Alfie Dog Fiction.  Don’t you just hate people who start  off blog posts like this?  I’ll move on… straightaway… although, you’ve got to admit that, in my case, this sort of thing is rare.

I don’t have much to say writing-wise.  Last week, for all of us in the UK, has been Manchester week.  My connection with the city is that I was at university in Manchester in the 1970s, about a mile from Victoria Station, (below the site of the Arena where the terrorist attack happened).  I recognise many of the placenames mentioned in the News:  Deansgate, St Ann’s Square, Didsbury, Whalley Range.  I lived in Fallowfield, where the bomber had his bomb-making factory.  I have good memories of Manchester.

Although I’m hurt and angry, I was not so poleaxed by the Manchester bombing that I was unable to do anything else last week.  I went to work.  It’s high season for exams, so I was invigilating GCSE, Functional Skills and every sort of vocational qualification.  On Tuesday, I took part in, and minuted, a PCC (Parochial Church Council) meeting.  Yesterday, on Sunday, we had an amazing day, attending my granddaughter’s Christening, with friends and family.  Today, I replanted my tomato plants and sewed more seeds – lettuce, radish, marigolds, poppies, echinacea.  The weather has been glorious, hot for the first time this year.  I got on with life, ordinary things, the insignificant things.  Or are they insignificant?

Keep Calm and Carry On Mug (attrib to Flickr)
Keep Calm and Carry On Mug (attrib to Flickr)

We’re all fed up with seeing ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ on mugs, tea towels, t-shirts and everything else, but that’s what people in Manchester are doing, with enormous dignity, showing love, bravery and solidarity.  Actually, I didn’t expect anything else.  We’ve had terrorists in the UK before.  In July 2005, on the occasion of the Seven/Seven attacks, my husband rang me at work at quarter to nine in the morning, saying, “I’m okay.”  “Yes, darling.  Why wouldn’t you be, darling,” I replied, not knowing the news.  A few minutes later,  ambulances, sirens shrieking, would charge out of Colchester, down the A12 to London.  A decade previously, we had the IRA, and before that, the Blitz.

Our hospitality has been abused.  We believe in democracy, freedom of speech and thought, fairness and supporting people who are down on their luck.  We believe that primary school girls should be allowed to go to a gig to hero-worship a big girl.  Keep calm and carry on suddenly has real meaning.  Keep calm and carry on writing what we believe in, because we live in a liberal democracy and we can.

A Writer Has To Live

Dustpan and brush (my drawing)
Dustpan and brush (my drawing)

A writer has to live.  A writer has to write.

Many writers have other careers, often working in demanding and responsible job roles and write in the evenings and weekends, but this didn’t work for me.  I couldn’t summon up the time or energy to when I was in full-time work (about two years ago).   I was a college lecturer, so my supposedly free time, at home, was taken up with lesson preparation and marking.   I know of others, who used to write, but now don’t, because they have been subsumed into their day jobs.

So what do you do?  It’s significant that many don’t start submitting and publishing until their middle years.  Some retire early and live off their pensions.  But, what if you’re too young to retire or your pension isn’t going to keep you in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed?

You can attempt to do your career-type job part-time.  I tried, Dear Reader, I tried.  To an extent, I’m still trying, but it’s difficult.  You’ve heard of mission-creep?  There’s also job-creep, where you’re so used to a job role taking over your whole life when working full-time that it still does, even when you’re part-time or sessional.  In my case, I was spending (supposedly) writing time preparing lessons, marking them, attending meetings that were only tangentially relevant to me and also staff development (which I didn’t need).  What a writer needs is a jobby job, where you turn up, do the work, then go home and write.  Here are a few suggestions:

Learning support assistant (or teaching assistant)

Learning Support Practitioner (my drawing)
Learning Support Practitioner (my drawing)

Apply to any local school or college.  You commit to as many or as few hours as you wish.  You sit with, and support, your students in class, then go home when they do.  There may be a few meetings and your line manager may try to get you to take a qualification, but most schools and colleges are desperate for LSPs, with or without pieces of paper. I haven’t worked in this role myself, but I’ve worked closely with many LSPs who write, paint, play music and just do family life.

Exam Invigilator

Exam Room
Exam Room (My drawing)

Apply to local schools, colleges and universities.  You turn up half an hour before the exam to set up the room, and you leave about five minutes after it finishes.  End of.  Again, you commit to as much or as little as you wish.  The only drawback is that it’s seasonal work (very busy in May and June),  but not as much as you think, as there are vocational and Functional Skills exams taking place almost all year.  You will be welcomed with open arms, as more and more qualifications involve exams, so more invigilators are required.  I’m doing this now, about three days a week – at the moment.

Election Staff (Poll Clerk/ Presiding Officer/ Counting Assistant)

Voting paper (my drawing)
Voting paper (my drawing)

One of the advantages of living in a democracy! Obviously, these sort of posts only become available at election time (about once, or twice a year in the UK), but the pay is excellent and a useful top up to other sources of income.  Poll clerks and Presiding Officers have a long day (fifteen hours), often sitting doing nothing for long periods, but counting assistants could be through in two or three hours (late at night) or be still counting after twelve hours (in the event of a recount).  I’m being a Poll Clerk again, at the General Election on 8 June.


Again it’s stipulated hours, working when you’re working and otherwise out the building. I haven’t done this for a long time.


Dustpan and brush (my drawing)
Dustpan and brush (my drawing)

I know of at least one successful writer whose day job is cleaning.

Most of us writers, being university educated, feel entitled to a professional role, which takes time and emotional energy.  Do you want to write or have a career?  Or… have you had your career and is it now time to write?

As I’m fed up looking for photos online, I’ve done my own drawings and scanned.  I’m no artist.  I hope they will do!

Writing Competitions and Why We Should Enter Them

I don’t have  a winning recipe for winning writing competitions, even though I’m the Competitions Manager for the Association of Christian Writers (ACW).  I do have a bit of insider knowledge, though.

Most comps set out strict rules regarding a deadline, formatting and how a story must be submitted.  Try and get these right, but, if, after you’ve sent it, you realise you’ve done it slightly wrong, don’t lose any sleep over it.  The number of times I, as competition manager, have hunted out someone’s contact details, for instance.  Maybe I wouldn’t be saying that if I were running the Bath Fiction Award or the Brighton Prize, but most comps are smaller scale.  Broadly speaking, there are three absolutes:

  • You must keep within the stipulated word count (maximum and minimum)
  • You must not put your name in the header or footer of your story (if you are asked not to, which is most of the time)
  • You must pay the entry fee (if there is one)
  • You must submit before the deadline (but then, if you’re a few minutes late, sub anyway and see what happens).

How entries are presented is very important.  Don’t look like an amateur, by, for instance, indenting paragraphs using the spacebar or trying to centre a heading using the spacebar.  Even so, if a story is good enough, some (but not all) judges will overlook bad formatting.  Run a spell check and proofread; few judges will excuse bad English.

Don’t be afraid to enter prestigious comps, like the Bath and the Brighton.  Newcomers have been known to win the biggies.  The only thing that may make we writers pause for thought is the entry fees, which can mount up – although there are many free comps.

Now, this is the shocking bit.  In my opinion, whether my or your story wins a comp, or not, depends on opinion – judge’s (or judges’) opinions.  Where there have been two judges, frequently they don’t agree on a winner – initially – until they’ve had many more discussions and probably assessed the stories on a marking scheme.  They get there eventually, and I don’t find this shocking at all, actually.

Still, statistically, we are unlikely to win.  So what’s the point?

  • It’s the taking part, getting your story into the sort of state where it can be entered for a comp, tidying up loose ends ,laying it out in the format required, and submitting it to the required deadline.  The required kick up the back side!
  • Even if we don’t win first prize, getting a mention is a massive boost to one’s writing confidence.  I’ve been short-listed and long-listed in a few comps, with Words With Jam, Alfie Dog Fiction and WordsMag.  In 2015, Julie O’Neill  (of Julie Wow or Wittering blog) and I were long-listed, then short-listed, for the Alfie Dog International Short Story comp.  For about a week, we were comparing notes on email.  In the end I came fourth and she fifth.  For days afterwards, I was walking on air and I expect she was too (although she doesn’t live near me).
  • In many comps, you are allowed, for a modest fee, to request a critique – a professional opinion.  Well worth it, in most cases.
  • Your name gets known.   In your critique, you may get comments along the lines of ‘We remember you entered last year… This year’s story shows progress.’
Cup of tea
My favourite cup.

And it’s not a big deal when it doesn’t work out, when the long-list appears with nothing resembling our names on it.  (Am I the only one who scans lists for names that look a bit like mine, the names beginning with R, for instance?)  We move on, have a cup of tea and enter the next comp.

By the way, can you write funny stuff? Good.  Right.  You’ll want to know about the Association of Christian Writers’ Comedy Writing comp. All you need to do is to write a comedy script (1000 words) or a humorous poem (24 lines), on the theme Bringing a Little Sunshine.   It’s not being launched officially for about a month, but there’s nothing to stop you starting writing now.