Blog

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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Blog

More Ways to Win…

…in the fight against feeling down at this time of year.

I talked here about things you can try for free to keep your spirits up. Today I’m talking about three things that cost a little bit of money but help me to look on the bright side.

  • Making things
  • Feeding the birds
  • Spoiling myself

Two things I really enjoy are cooking, and eating. I always try to eat seasonally, and making marmalade ties in with that idea nicely. Unfortunately my little Seville Orange tree never produces enough fruit! I buy in extra from the supermarket. Marmalade oranges are only on sale during January and February, so I pounce when they first appear. Making marmalade also appeals to my need to squirrel away provisions for those times when Tottering Towers gets cut off by snow. Shelves full of jams and preserves gives me a real sense of satisfaction.

Marmalade in progress

Feeding the birds is something everyone can do, even if you don’t have a garden. A widowsill feeder will bring interest and movement into your life. So many things we used to put out for the birds in the past either don’t exist now (when was the last time you saw a bacon rind?) or have turned out to be a bad idea, like feeding bread to ducks (it does them no good at all) that it’s better to buy something like mealworms or special food mixtures for wild birds. Once you start feeding the birds they will begin to rely on you, so fix a budget and feed a little at a time. You don’t want the birds eating you out of house and home!

With three great hobbies, writing, gardening, and cooking, I’m never short of ways to spoil myself with a bit of retail therapy. It can be as cheap as an hour spent wandering round a bookshop (which can even be free!) and emerging with a pretty new notebook, visiting the garden centre and picking up a new pot plant, or buying a packet of seeds.

Pasta hung out to dry!

My recent cooking treat was an expensive one. When my children were tiny, I picked up a pasta machine in a sale for a couple of pounds. We had hours of fun making the dough, then rolling and shaping it using the machine, but there was a good reason why my little machine was so cheap. It had the habit of suddenly adding specks of metal or black streaks to the dough. No amount of investigation or cleaning could solve the mystery. A good quality pasta machine has been on my wish list for years, and so I’ve just splashed out on a Marcato Atlas. We had our first pasta last night. I have to say that the experience of making and eating it without unwelcome ingredients is amazing!

What’s your favourite treat?

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Blog

How To Beat Blue Monday

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Five years ago Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at the Mental Health Charity Mind, tried to dispel the myth of Blue Monday. That title for the third Monday in January is still trending today, but the truth is that depression can affect anyone, at any time—not just today. If you, or someone you know, is suffering this winter, get help. These days there’s no stigma attached to it. So many people are affected by mental health problems medical staff are trained to understand, not judge.

If you have a serious problem, the first thing you should do is contact your local GP. More and more surgeries are opening up, and those that aren’t seeing patients face-to-face will arrange a video consultation. Once you’ve done that, or if (like me) you’re on the right side of it but need a boost during the short dark days between Christmas and Pay Day, here are some free ideas to try:

  • Soak in the Bath. Clear your schedule, find some bubble bath or nice scented soap, and lock the door…
    • Journaling. All you need is a pen and paper. Writing down your thoughts can be a great form of release. Nobody else needs to see what you’ve written, so you can let yourself go. As well as doing this, at the end of each day I find it really helpful to write down three things for which I’m really grateful. It always makes me feel better to remember the benefits my health, my family, the chance to get out in the garden, and other blessings give me.
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    • Put on some loud, fast music—and dance! It gets everything moving, and raises your spirits. I like Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen, but anything noisy and fun will do. Just make sure that when you dance like nobody’s watching, you do it with the curtains closed. Then there really won’t be anyone watching!

    This time last year we were all in deepest pandemic gloom. Today, the situation may be different but not all of our problems have gone away. During the first months of 2021 I created a page called Instant Lift, to provide just that. You can find it here.

    How do you tackle the winter blues?