A bout of about me

The first week of April I planned a post which explained that there was no post as I had spent my blogging time that week writing an “about” page. I worried slightly that it might seem like an April Fools’ joke as anyone who has read even half my posts knows that everything here is very much about me. It ended up taking a lot longer than planned due to trying to put links to some of my most popular blog posts under images on the page.  Let me know if the time was worth it.

IMG_3003 (1024x813)
This toasted marshmallow also needs to be added to my manuscript

One of the nuggets of advice I’ve seen on the endless “dos and don’ts for bloggers” was “don’t apologise for not blogging or make excuses.” The idea being that it’s your blog and your rules and if you start letting yourself be governed by what you “owe” other people then you are letting the blog rule you. I like the idea, but alas I am British and sorry is my middle name, so I am going to apologise for the recent dearth of posts. Excuses however are not worth it and tend to make the situation worse, drawing attention to the dereliction of duty; I will not therefore harp on about the latest round of colds “oh it’s a fifteen week cough” said the doctor blithely, nor blame school holidays (I know by now that blogging is impossible with small persons underfoot.)

So it’s not an excuse, just a fact, that I have been concentrating on getting my manuscript into shape to be submitted to an editor. My deadline of Easter was self-imposed and could have been reached if I hadn’t got cold feet about the idea of a new submission arriving just as an editor was trying to clear her desk before the holidays. Even so, I nearly overrode such fears (there’s always an excuse to put off something like this if you look hard enough) except for having a sudden inspiration to up the suspense in the story which then opened up a whole new avenue of thought. Just add a child’s pov for three tiny scenes I thought, it’ll make the threat more human and immediate, oh, and then I can replace two smaller characters with this one and make that later scene more intensely suspenseful and personal, and what a coincidence I had already given a minor character a divorce in their backstory, now I can utilise that and the hero can see echoes of himself in the child and the child can offer inappropriate hero worship and make the hero see his actions in a different light and….suddenly I was adding snippets here and there and one tiny improvement was causing a slight but very significant rewrite of the second half of the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sorry, it will make the book so much stronger – and is also obeying my critique partner’s plea to cut down on named secondary characters or to merge some of them. The rush of “yes!!!!” as each knock-on effect occurred to me and I scrambled to write them all down is one of the greatest joys of being a writer. Nothing changed plot or character-wise, I just found subtler lights to shine on them and ways to draw out the motivations that had been driving them and helping/hindering them from falling in love. I wish I’d thought of this a few weeks ago, but far better to have thought if it now rather than after I had sent it off. The only difficulty has been switching from editing/revising mode to writing fresh passages, they seem so stilted after weeks of not writing anything new and I’ve been hunting down my writing “voice” – here’s hoping this post helps.

A distraction of thrushes

Anyone wondering how NaNoWriMo has gone may have noticed that my last months tweets have been mostly about injuries and birds (and the on-going horror of world events). I have actually written a reasonable amount (by my standards) but have also been regularly distracted by the views outside my windows. It’s my bad luck that the accepted month for cracking on with writing coincides with the one time of year I can guarantee that thrushes will visit the garden.

img_2323-1024x726
A darkling thrush at dusk

Only by taking these pictures of the top of our rowan tree with its unusual white berries do we see the beauty of the scarlet berry stalks.

img_2317-950x678

I was reminded recently that the collective name for goldfinches is a “charm” which is so perfect. We know of parliament of owls and murder of crows and on this beautifully informative site  I’ve just been reminded of: a piteousness of doves, a congress – or convocation – of eagles, a trembling of finches, an exaltation of larks, a scold of jays, and of course a gaggle – or skein – of geese.

img_3875-1024x738
Quite charming

What about the everyday birds though? Give the sound in the garden at dawn and dusk I would have suggested a squabble of sparrows – although the list above suggested a ubiquity – which is rather sad as their numbers are now declining so much – or a quarrel of them. I fear it would have to be a bully of blue tits, and a brightness of great tits and a loneliness of coal tits as I only ever see one in the garden.

img_5167-727x1024

The list I found says that there is not an official collective name for Robins but that a Facebook page had among its favourites: a blush, a bobbin, a breast, a carol, a gift, a reliant, a riot, a rouge, a round and a ruby. I tend to think of a friendship, or perhaps a constancy of robins as there is almost always one in the garden, they stay close when you sit out there and they are the first to call a warning when danger approaches.

img_5102-1024x733
A delight of nine

My favourite distraction however is the long-tailed tit. I wasn’t that aware of them until I moved to Worcestershire and saw tiny bobbing families of birds busy in the hedges and high trees with their distinctive piping call. No matter how often I see them I still think someone has glued a lollipop stick onto a table tennis ball; how can any bird be that round and have such a fine, straight tail? They are infrequent visitors to the garden – or else their visits are so brief I miss them most days – so whenever I see them my day is invariably brightened and I always think, “Oh look, a delight of long-tailed tits.”

img_5105-795x562

It’s been rather lovely to base a post around photographs after two blogs with no pictures at all (although finding the best pictures from the hundreds I have taken took a whole afternoon.) I should add that all of these were taken of visitors to our garden, which may explain any blurring – I don’t clean the windows as often as I should. The robin was just outside the back door and could have been seen from an upstairs window but I was out enjoying the snow that day. It follows that these are not all pictures taken in November.

Do you have a favourite bird? One that lifts your spirit when you see or hear it? Or a favourite collective name – either real or one of your own?

5 reasons not to blog – and 1 reason to do it

I considered calling this post “To blog or not to blog” but it seemed so obvious I thought it must have been done before – and a quick internet search confirmed that. I have very few regular followers of this blog, but far more than I expected it when I started it at the beginning of May. So I shall apologise to anyone who wondered where my weekly posts had gone over the summer. It surprised me as much as you. I had written posts ready on books, writing, reading and ripped-off toe nails – something to look forward to there – but it felt odd to post them when I wasn’t active with other aspects of my writing.

img_1679-1024x756

The reason was simple, school holidays and 2 young children underfoot all the time. This meant lots of day trips – I’ve taken over 1300 photos in 7 weeks so be very afraid of future blogs – and very little time for writing or editing. I’m not a (total) fool and had hardly expected to get much done over these weeks, hence having blog posts ready in advance, but I wasn’t reading other blogs that I follow, or keeping up with twitter. I wasn’t even reading. And that is something new. I usually manage a few chapters in the bath at the very least but I think this summer, I wanted so very badly to be writing that when that proved impossible I switched off from all things that reminded me of what I was missing. Deep down I’m grateful for this; that my writing habits have become so ingrained that their thwarting also stifled other creative outlets and made me focus on this blessed day when school restarted and I could properly get at my laptop again.

img_1746-1024x768
The perfect picnic spot at Grosmont Castle

So again; I am sorry if anyone missed this blog, and I hope no one is sorry to see it return to its usual levels of activity. It has also reminded me of why I started being more interactive with readers, writers and bloggers. Mostly it was selfish reasons, wanting to start building a platform or identity for when I’m trying to catch an editor or agent’s eye, and then for future readers. But it was also to share knowledge and information – not just my own – but all the helpful, wonderful and funny things that have been shared with me over the years and that are still being put out there for free every day. If I’m not commenting on other blogs, heck, if I’m not reading them and thinking and being inspired – or enraged – then why would I even want to put out thoughts of my own? So many writers say they started writing because of wanting to emulate a book that moved them, others were horrified by a book and thought “I can do better than this.” With blogging it was more that I wanted to add my own voice to the mix after whiling away so many tedious hours at work with illicit internet sessions, and also to try and collate some of the valuable writing tips I’ve absorbed over the years.

It’s the same with twitter. I signed up when Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition started having twitter chats, I had no idea what I was doing and before I knew it I had a follower and so I tweeted randomly and followed actors, writers, editors and comedians and retweeted things and drifted away for a bit when I found it sucking up too much of my time. When I started taking my writing seriously and setting up this blog I decided I wouldn’t tweet as well. Sure I’d keep my account and follow all the useful industry people and bloggers, but I wouldn’t communicate back, I’d be an anonymous lurker. And then in one week I retweeted (to my handful of followers) 2 really good articles and it hit me how selfish I would be if I kept taking advice from twitter and never really sharing it.

I know there’s no rule that you have to participate or share or comment. But isn’t it nice when people do read and respond? It was partly feeling hurt very early on on twitter when people didn’t react to a tweet or notice if I replied that I backed away from it, I know it’s a lottery of time and luck if people see some tweets, it’s not personal (I am the sort of person who can obsess very easily over such things.) Oddly enough, once I stopped caring and just retweeted more often with my own comments, I had far more interactions and far more fun. Twitter actually is fun, as long as you don’t follow to many people doing the hard sell or meet too many trolls (which is true for all social media, and indeed the real world.)

All of which is a rambling (I’m out of practice) way of saying why I didn’t blog when I wasn’t fully immersed in the writing word this summer and how happy I am to be back. And why I think sharing, even random pieces of advice or inspiration, can be so important; you can never know what small piece of information, or anecdote, or stunning picture, might be just what someone else needed to see today. You can just be sure that if I find it, I will share it, and will thank you.

img_1663-1024x767
I enjoyed building dams on the beach, even when the children lost interest

And now, according to Dr J with whom I live, I have to write something about wanting to be in a spooky tower, eating cake, waiting for a spy. That, apparently, is what he has gleaned about me from reading this blog. Which is obviously rubbish. Drinking gin in a ruined tower waiting for a spy yes. Not eating cake. Unless it was gin flavoured.

(But seriously, if that’s all he’s taken from previous posts I need to crack on with more posts about writing and books and fewer mentions of alcohol. I’m not cutting back on castle pictures though.)

img_5875-683x1024
Longtown Castle

Oh yes, I promised 5 reasons not to blog – holidays, children, not writing, too busy enjoying a sunset, not wanting to lose the pleasure of blogging. And too much gin some nights, always gin. 6 reasons….

And 1 big reason to blog –it feels like belonging.

The logic behind Tangent Alley

IMG_4119 (853x1280)

In my blog post of May 13 where I assured people that I could indeed spell tangentially, I wrote a little about why this blog is called Tangent Alley – my natural verbosity and willingness to be diverted by any aside, no matter how irrelevant. I had decided to name the blog rather than call it FirstnameLastnameWriter on the grounds that I plan to use a pseudonym and have not yet finalised one.

I would have liked to call the blog the Long Way Round, as an acknowledgement of my circuitous writing and as a nod to some of the walks and photos I plan to post and blog about, however that name has been used for the motor biking adventures of Messrs. McGregor and Boorman and that’s not something I ought to get confused with.

“Where was I?” would be a good name. It’s a frequent comment in emails and anecdotes to friends as I try to find my way back to the point I was trying to make. It’s used to devastating and hilarious or heart-breaking effect in the radio 4 drama series “How Does That Make You Feel?” and I’m not sure I want people to make too many assumptions about just how much I might benefit from therapy

I could have called it “Oh look, a squirrel” in reference to a Bill Bailey sketch about how easy it is to be distracted. I find it impossible not to point out these cute creatures (yes I know they are just rats with good PR) and once cried “squirrel!” so loudly that the poor creature fell out of its tree. Oops

DSC01581 (1280x853)

Tangent Alley is a phrase my best friend and I have used frequently over the years whenever one of us has wandered off topic during an email. I was 99% sure I was the first to use it and she graciously said she didn’t object to my utilising it as my blog title. However, when I checked our email archive I found I had actually modified it from a Drop the Dead Donkey quote where the verbose boss, Gus Hedges, had the nerve to say: “I sense we may be straying down Tangent Boulevard here.” (I am counting myself lucky that I wasn’t inspired by other classic phrases from him such as “we’ve got to downsize our sloppiness overload” or “this is a rather regrettable gonads-in-the-guillotine situation.”)

My rather battered Oxford dictionary gives the definition of tangent as: diverge impetuously from matter in hand or from normal line of thought or conduct. Whilst an alley is a walk, passage or narrow street – one that I always picture to be full of twists and turns so that when you enter the alley you have no way of knowing what your destination will be.

For that reason, my first choice of photo above is perfect. It was taken on the Greek island of Symi. I think all Greek islands I have visited have old lanes that twist and turn and where it is easy to get lost (ok, so do most British towns and cities). I am sure I have read that on Symi, in the old town, or Chorio as it is called, it is deliberate. In the days when pirates or sea raiders were common in the Aegean, the lanes that seemed to double back on themselves could take an age to penetrate by which time the locals had had time to hide valuables or make their escape. There is a museum high up in the Chorio and it took several attempts to find it, and then almost as long to find my way back down – you’d think just heading downhill all the time would be the answer but it’s almost possible to circumnavigate the hill and still not escape.

IMG_8433 (960x1280)

My other pictures are of a classic Welsh alley running behind a row of miners cottages in Abergynolwyn, and of a medieval street in Albarracín in Spain – a town made up entirely of twisting alleys between buildings three stories high which almost meet at their eaves overhanging the paths.

To return to that dictionary definition – as a writer, what could be better than to diverge from the normal or expected line of thought? Especially when writing romantic suspense. My sub heading for the blog, where a writer goes off-piste, is I suppose saying the same thing as Tangent Alley – oh dear, not only am I long winded, I am very guilty of repetition, especially when I think that dressing it up in fancier imagery makes it a different thought. Double oops.

Off-piste, as a skiing term, contours up images of speed and hidden challenges and dangers, not sticking the safe path or rules. When I added it to the blog I meant it to refer to the blog rather than my writing for publication; that I wouldn’t just post stuff about my writing or research, that it would cover reading, random photos or snippets of history that have inspired me along the way.

I also liked that it had, for me, espionage links. But on looking for dictionary definitions and conformation of this I drew a blank and wondered if I’d imagined it. I liked the idea because for many years I focussed my writing on espionage based romantic suspense and I adore the work of John le Carré.

The definitions I found said that off-piste to a skier means to go away from the prepared or designated ski-runs, and in general parlance to go off-piste means to deviate from what is conventional, usual, or expected. It is apparently a fairly recent phrase and peculiarly British, partly as American’s don’t refer to ski runs as pistes. Off the beaten track (or off the beaten path) are suggested as similar phrases, or describing a person or their activities as being off base.

I clearly remember it being used in an early episode of Spooks (called MI5 outside the UK) where a couple of intelligence officers were pretending to be a married couple and had a fixed cover story or legend. The “wife” elaborated a little extra detail during a conversation (I think it was about collecting china frogs) and was chastised by her “husband,” yes it added colour to her character but it wasn’t something he knew and he could have blown their cover. He told her not to go off-piste again. On doing a search for off-piste and spooks several instances came up, including an article about the most recent James Bond film so I’m not imaging the espionage link at all, hurrah. Its usage suggests that it’s often used to describe an intelligence operative going so far from an arranged plan that it jeopardises an operation, or suggests they may be a rogue agent.

But to end with, I shall post some pictures showing a more basic definition of going off-piste.

IMG_3751 (2)

IMG_3752 (2)

Maybe I should just have called the blog Susan Booker writer rather than worrying about all these deviations…

Edited to add: I’ve been thinking about this since I posted it a day and a half ago and realised that as well as being a waffley explanation of my blog title and an excuse to post some nice holiday pictures, it does actually have a writerly point! I am horrifically guilty of writing the same thing in five different ways throughout my manuscripts, you know, just making sure the reader really does understand what I’m saying. Saying someone has gone down Tangent Alley, and then saying they have gone off-piste seems to imply the same thing – they have diverged from the normal or safe path. But to go off at a tangent implies an accidental action, and I certainly always try to return to the point I was making – where was I? To go off-piste suggests a more decisive and deliberate action, it needs skill and knowledge – of one’s ability and the mountainside – and will get one to a possibly different location, at greater speed and with possible danger.

To go off-piste with one’s writing could mean making bold and unusual choices, in word choice or in character action and plot. Knowledge of the writing rules and tropes would be essential before veering away from them. To go down Tangent Alley in a conversation or blog can be amusing and enlightening but needs to be handled carefully in a novel. Nothing annoys a reader like too many seemingly pointless digressions and they will soon learn to skip ahead; but an occasionally expanded scene or anecdote that quickly returns to the original point and makes a character or reader view it from another angle is always welcome. I wrote an accidental aside recently and then realised the imagery and story could come back to haunt the heroine a few chapters later. It actually made me cry at the emotion it stirred in my characters and it couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had that little trip down Tangent Alley.