mother and daughter reading book with interest in bed
Blog, books

A Word in Your Ear…

I love reading, but I don’t get much time to sit down and lose myself in a book. If I’m not writing, I’m either working in the garden or cooking. Then there’s the pesky housework, running errands, and appointments, which eat into my reading time. For all those moments, I turn to my mobile.

I use my phone continuously when I’m not working, although I make no more than a dozen calls a year. The rest of the time I’m using my mobile to listen to documentaries, drama, or audio books.

My smartphone might be the latest technology, but it is part of an ancient tradition. This twenty-first century device answers a demand that echoes across millenia.

Tell me a story!

We still have to watch out for them here! (Pic via Pixabay).

For centuries we’ve enjoyed the feel, the fragrance, and the experience of reading books. Those are only recent pleasures in the history of storytelling. Thousands of years ago, communication between our distant ancestors would have been limited to “That’s mine!”, “Go away!” or “Look out—wild boar!”.

The genius who first thought to turn news of a grisly border dispute into an adventure story, or created a saga out of the search for new hunting grounds kept audiences spellbound around the campfire.

When these stories began to be written down, the tradition of oral storytelling faded into the background but never disappeared completely. The intimacy between speaker and audience is entirely different from the solitary pleasure of reading. In a family like mine, where one or more members have literacy problems, listening to stories is also an enjoyable way to learn.

…so after the Nazis tortured me and threw me over a cliff…(Pic via Pixabay)

When I was growing up, we lived with my grandparents. Both my grandfather and father were bookworms. There was neither money nor space for books in our house. Instead, we had the Daily Express and the Bristol Evening Post delivered daily, and both Dad and Grampy were active members of the local library. The Reader’s Digest arrived every month, until—as the old joke went—we were forced to move house to give them the slip.

My grandfather had been a career soldier. That meant he knew how to pick his battles. My grandmother was very house-proud, so to avoid getting underfoot while our home was being cleaned from top to bottom every day, Grampy would retreat into my playpen and read to me.

I assume he began with all the children’s classics. By the time of my earliest memories he had moved on to much more exotic fare. Two stories I remember from well before I started school were James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. After hearing how noisy toddlers were dealt with on the Native American trail, and how sardine-loving Asmodeus ended up being the “cat” in “catapult”, it’s no wonder I was a quiet child.

On my first day at primary school I was excited to hear there would be storytime every afternoon. The worthy exploits of Ant and Bee came as a terrible anticlimax!

I did enjoy some stories aimed at children. Dad read daily instalments of The Adventures of Rupert Bear to me from the newspaper at bedtime every night. Each Christmas my presents included the annuals of both Rupert, and Carl Giles’s cartoons. The GIles book must have been my father’s gift to himself for having to read all those hours and hours of Rupert to me during the rest of the year.

“Daddy! You’ve turned over two pages! And don’t forget to read the lines under the pictures as well, not just the story!”

It’s a wonder I survived.

My mother was a ferocious businesswoman who could calculate any sum, percentage, or yield in her head with amazing speed. In contrast, her reading skills were poor. In order to spot local opportunities she relied on my father reading to her from the newspaper. Once, someone she was keen to impress lent her a copy of Elephant Bill by Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Williams. It was the only time I ever saw her with a book in her hands. She struggled with it for a few minutes, then told me to read the book and tell her the story. An audio version would have been perfect in that situation. By the way, if you can get your hands on a copy of Elephant Bill , it’s a great read.

I wrote here abou beginning Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. I’ve finished listening to the twenty-hour long audiobook now, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. If only my teachers at school had combined the talents of Fraser and the Audible version’s narrator Eleanor Bron, I would have managed better than a grade “D” in history!

I found only slight disadvantages to the audiobook version. Some of the phrases in French weren’t provided with a translation. That was annoying, as it pulled me out of the story. Had I been reading a physical book, I could have tapped the words straight into Google translate. With the audio version, no sooner had they been spoken than they disappeared into the air.

That was only a small irritation, as was Antonia Fraser’s constant overuse of the word nevertheless. If I had been reading a physical book I probably wouldn’t have noticed. However, Eleanor Bron must have tired of reading the word early on. She often gave a slight but significant pause before saying it yet again (three times in as many sentences, in one particularly annoying example).

The spoken word has a strength which can’t be contained within the covers of a book. Hearing a text get the human treatment can help with understanding. Listening allows people to enjoy the experience of reading when it isn’t possible to hold a book, or see the text. On the other hand, there’s a particular pleasure in opening the cover of a book and turning pages, inhaling its individual perfume, and enjoying the words at your own pace. Audiobooks will never replace that.

Which do you prefer—a book in your hand, or a word in your ear?

graphing paper with text
Blog, Writing

Resolutions—Broken, or Kept?

We’re now seven weeks into 2022, so the New Year isn’t so new any more. I don’t know about you, but my resolutions are already pretty dog-eared. “I will stop snacking between tea and bed” was the first one to go, closely followed by Tech Sabbath.

sweet macaroons and pink carnations placed on table
Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels.com

My willpower is non-existent when it comes to dipping into the biscuit tin before bedtime. The obvious answer is not to make or buy cake and biscuits. The problem is, I keep telling myself it’s not fair to deprive the rest of the family when I’m the only one with no willpower.

I have a great set of dog-walking waterproofs which fitted perfectly before lockdown, but I can now barely fasten them up. That is a powerful incentive to sit on my hands each evening, but will it be enough? I’ve decided to definitely give up snacking for Lent so pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (1st March) will be my last foodie treat until Easter. I hope…

For better or worse I get my news from the BBC World Service, or Radio Four. I don’t need to trawl the internet. But then, there’s always some cute cat video, or “celebrity” gossip popping up online that the BBC is far too sensible to cover. That’s why a Tech Sabbath (switching off my computer at 5pm one day per week and not switching it back on again for twenty-four hours) is very hard for me to achieve. I really need to know about all the local houses for sale, even if I’ve got no intention of ever leaving Tottering Towers!

One resolution I have managed to keep is to write every day. My target is a thousand words, and so far I’ve managed to complete several short stories already this year. I’ve also tried writing Flash Fiction for the first time. I’ve been helped to achieve all this by the methods set out in The Organised Writer by Antony Johnston. You can find out more about that book here.

If you’ve signed up for the Romantic Novelists’ Association‘s New Writers’ Scheme this year, you’ll know the deadline is 31st July. It makes life a lot easier for Janet Gover, the scheme’s co-ordinator, if you don’t leave it to the last minute to submit your manuscript.

open white notebook near pencil and eyeglasses beside laptop computer on white surface
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As a Reader for the New Writers’ Scheme, I’m keen that everyone’s entries are submitted in plenty of time. It’s lovely to read new stories and discover fresh voices, so please try and have your work ready for submission long before the end of July. You’ll need to spend plenty of time editing to make sure your work is as good as it can be, so the polishing process should start in early summer.

The minimum word count needed for the New Writers’ Scheme is 10,000 words. That may seem a lot, but if you were to start with a blank page this morning and write only a hundred words per day for the next fifteen weeks, you’d have a first draft of at least 10,500 words by 4th June. Then you could spend a whole month editing your work, and STILL make Janet smile by getting your entry in well before the closing date!

Francis Close Hall,
University of Gloucestershire

When I started university as a very mature student (you can read about that here) my daughter gave me an invaluable tip about deadlines: make a diary note well in advance. Try and get everything done by that date. Then you’ll never get caught out. If your work is finished early, great. If you hit a snag, you’ll still have plenty of time to put it right.

If you want some motivation, I’ve got some advice for kick-starting your next writing project here.

black twist pen on notebook
books, Reading

Reading Room

I’m working on a short story at the moment. While I’m writing fiction, I read only nonfiction so I can concentrate on my own plot and characters rather than getting distracted by those of someone else.

The Organised Writer by Antony Johnston encouraged me to guard my writing time. Now I restrict non-writing activities to the afternoons (you can read more about that here). It means I can schedule some reading time every day, and call it research.

I’ve read two books in this way so far this year. As I’m a very slow reader, this is a record and proves the value of The Organised Writer‘s system. True Countryman, by David Cole, is a biography of Tewkesbury author John Moore. A Pocketful of Acorns is a collection of Moore’s articles about country life during the first half of the twentieth century.

You can find out more about both books by clicking on the Amazon links on this page, although my copies came direct from the John Moore Museum shop in Tewkesbury. That meant they were cheaper. Your local library may be able to order the books for you, which would be even better.

John Moore was very much a writer of his time. Some of his comments about his fellow human beings are hair-raising, but his observations of the natural world are faultless, detailed, and absorbing. I particularly loved the way he wrote about his cats. Candy, Duffy, Sammy Davis Jr., and the rest all have individual personalities.

For anyone writing fiction set during or around the Second World War, the work of John Moore gives an insight into life and attitudes in a small country town at the time.

I love listening to audio books when I’m doing housework or out in the garden. When it comes to Spring cleaning, I don’t know what I’d do without Audible. At the moment, I’m listening to Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. It’s fascinating. Crammed with all sorts of details about life in the French court, it quotes a wealth of contemporary sources. If you fancy writing a story set in late eighteenth-century France, this would be great background reading.

Although I’ve only just started Marie Antoinette, it sounds as though she was a lovely girl. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much of an attention span. Combined with an education which concentrated on making her the perfect product for the marriage market, this meant she was graceful, charming…and not too brilliant when it came to literacy.

I couldn’t help thinking that the way Marie Antoinette was on intimate display for much of her life—stripped naked by other aristocrats each morning to be dressed like a human Barbie doll—has a parallel with the lives of celebrities and influencers today. Today, selfies take the place of Grand Toilettes.

In the days before the French Revolution, the difference between rich and poor was enormous. Rising prices today are making life harder, while people who are only famous for being photogenic frolic all over Instagram and reality TV shows. It makes you think.

The works of John Moore are good primary research sources for everyday life in rural England during the twentieth century. Antonia Fraser’s work interprets primary material from the eighteenth century, and also provides a wealth of sources for further study. Both are invaluable as background reading for writers.

Is there a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, that has really helped you understand a period in history?

female software engineer coding on computer
Blog, Technology

Take A Break

We live our lives online. It’s a lot more convenient than having to queue at the bank, or wait 28 days for delivery. Online meetings and working from home are a way of life for a lot of us now. It’s getting harder and harder to escape the lure of going online. I’ve noticed an increase in technology creep (using the internet for leisure rather than work or chores) everywhere.

Time spent bent over a screen or phone has a way of stretching on and on. You glance at the news headlines, and start Googling the people or places mentioned, or click on an advert. The next thing you know, half an hour has vanished down a barrel wave of surfing.

I wrote here about The Organised Writer by Antony Johnston. This book has helped me streamline my working day. I’m now much more productive. I began trying out his ideas on 4th January this year. One of his suggestions was to keep writing during your dedicated writing sessions, rather than breaking off to look things up online.

blank paper with pen and coffee cup on wood table
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The ideal is to take notes as you go, then have one big research session when your writing time is over. This means I now do nothing but creative writing each morning. Each afternoon, I go through the notes I’ve made while working and only then check things online, make phone calls, or book appointments.

Keeping a firm boundary between writing time and non-writing activities has definitely helped. Only when I’ve finished writing do I move on to research. Once I’ve finished that, I can surf the net with a clear conscience.

This system has worked so well that over the past four weeks I’ve written several short stories and submitted them, added 5k to my work in progress, blogged every week —and my accounts are up to date!

This increase in my productivity reminded me of how I laughed when I first read Now is the Winter of our Disconnect by Susan Maushart. Who on earth would spend as much time on line as her kids do? I thought back in 2011.

To my horror, I discovered in 2022 that I have grown into that person.

person in white long sleeve shirt using macbook pro
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Without realising it, more and more of the time I’d been spending online was being wasted in pointless surfing from research topics, to news headlines, via online stores, social media and back again. There’s a place in my life for all these great things, but the internet is like fire. It’s a terrific servant, but a terrible master.

Flitting from writing, to one search topic, and then another before (with luck!) going back to writing is no way to work.

I’m now trying to take Antony Johnston’s suggestion about staying offline while writing one step further. During a scheduled net-surfing session I came across the concept of Tech Shabbat (or Sabbath). This term was coined in 2011 by Tiffany Shlain and Ken Goldberg, and is inspired by the US’s National Day of Unplugging campaign.

silhouette photo of a person standing on rock
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

On one day each week I now close down my computer at 5pm on the dot. It, and my ipad, stays shut away in my office until 5pm the following day. Instead of checking the smallest little thing online whenever the fancy takes me, I have to wait until 5pm the following day. That’s twenty-four hours of tech-free time I can use to write, read, think, look at the stars, and rediscover life beyond computers.

Well, that’s the theory!

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to wean myself away from technology entirely. I choose the day I’m going to switch off according to my schedule of work rather than sticking to one regular day of the week. That isn’t in the spirit of the original Tech Sabbath. Neither is taking my phone with me everywhere, although for the twenty-four hours away from my computers I use it as a radio only, and never phone, message, or surf. I’m devoted to Radio 4, 4 Extra, and Audible books, and like to listen to them while I’m cooking or gardening. I haven’t been able to sever that cord yet.

Being flexible about the day of the week and keeping my phone in my pocket is cheating. I should work on those two sticking points as a Lent challenge this year. Now that really WOULD be tough!

Have you ever tried to cut down on your screen time? What was the result?

blur book close up coffee
Blog, Reading, Review

Book Review: The Organised Writer, by Antony Johnston

Until I discovered The Organised Writer, the only organised thing about my writing life was the hours I spent sitting in my office. I’d go in there once I had walked the dog, sit at the computer until noon when I have my lunch (and walk the dog again) then go back to work until I got hungry or the PM programme started on Radio 4 (whichever came first).

Within that general timetable, I’d aim to get at least a thousand words written each day. My total was usually more than that, but sometimes I’d get distracted by doing my accounts, other non-writing work, trying to find a lost reference book, acting as the family taxi service, dental appointments etc., etc., etc.— in other words, I wrote until life got in the way. Unfortunately, life was getting in the way too often.

The Organised Writer encourages approaching work from a different angle. Antony Johnston’s central theme is working with what he calls a Clean Mind. This means only starting work when you’ve scheduled writing time completely free from all distractions and appointments. Get an answering machine, schedule appointments for outside your writing hours, and make notes of things you need to look up on Google as you work, rather than stopping to look them up. Get in the flow, and keep going. DON’T stop writing, and start searching online during your scheduled writing time. Going down that rabbit hole while I’m supposed to be writing has always been one of my biggest time-wasters!

Writing with a clean mind means parking your life outside of writing by adopting a set of principles Johnston identifies using the initial letters F.A.S.T.E.N. Develop a great Filing system (and use it!), buy in Assistance such as an accountant to handle the stuff you can’t, Say ‘no’ to avoid getting overwhelmed, Make the best use of your time with calendars and reminders, Invest in the best Equipment (‘buy cheap, buy twice’ as my old granny used to say), and make Notes as you think of things, rather than getting distracted—but don’t forget to transcribe those notes as soon as possible.

I read The Organised Writer straight through from cover to cover without stopping, as the author suggests, then went back and read it again in more depth. The second time I followed his advice step-by-step.

I got this book at Christmas, so I’ve been using Antony Johnston’s system for a month now. It has improved my productivity no end! I’ve already written two completely new short stories, entered two writing competitions, managed to make quite a few journal entries, and done five thousand words of my Work in Progress.

person using macbook pro on table
Photo by Anthony Shkraba on Pexels.com

It goes to show that once you have streamlined your workplace and organised distractions out of your writing life, you can get a lot more done.

Johnston is a fan of Scrivener, like me. That meant I warmed to him straight away. As far as I’m concerned, to know Scrivener is to love it—if you haven’t discovered its delights you can find out more here.

As well as finding the content of this book useful and its ideas easy to implement, I liked the layout. Checklists for the main ideas in each chapter are included at the back of the book, together with templates for the job sheets the author advocates. I have to say I’m not using those at the moment as so far, I’ve been working on one project at a time. As I become even more organised (!) I may try working on multiple projects in tandem. The job sheets would then be ideal. They’d definitely help me keep on top of my workflow.

There’s a website associated with The Organised Writer, where you can download PDF versions of the job sheets.

Have you found a particular book that’s helped you in your writing career?