The third best piece of writing advice

There’s a lot of writing advice that sounds great but is not necessarily useful to everyone. Except this; anyone who wants to be published should read their finished work out loud before sending it out or self-publishing.

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I can’t find one specific person to credit it to as I’ve heard it many times over the years. The first time I tried it was with a chapter I entered for Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition in 2012 so thank you to any Harlequin editors or authors who mentioned it back then. Unfortunately I only managed a few paragraphs before the sound of my voice and my self-conscious stumbling over words stopped me. “I’ll just read it really clearly in my head” I thought. Umm, no. That’s how I always read anyway and it’s amazing what tricks your mind makes when it half knows the text already – substituting the words it thinks should be there, smoothing over awkward phrasing, blinding – or do I mean deafening – one to careless repetitions.

And how do I know that’s what happens when you read it silently to yourself? Well for one, because that’s what everyone who gives the advice says. And for two, because when I read my finally complete and polished (I thought) manuscript aloud, I fund so many things to correct in the first few pages. Many were minor, a badly placed comma or a rambling sentence that needed breaking up into two – I think a lot of my changes were grammatical and I may still have got them wrong, but at least I’ve been consistent (I hope.)

I was more shocked by the typing errors that spell check couldn’t catch (or had mistakenly corrected in the first place) barley instead of barely. Then there were the repetitions of favourite words – I had done searches for the most commonly overused (I need help with my “just”s and “all”s, it seems to be an addiction – and I chopped a lot of seems too.) Doing earlier edits had alerted me to the fact that once a word is in my imagination I am apt to use it again in the same scene so I had been on the lookout for repetitions and substituted other words (oh thank you for thesauruses.) But only by reading aloud did I catch others – does the ear hold onto the echo of words better than the mind? How else can I explain all the similar sounding or looking words I identified when reading aloud? Not to mention finding two “squarely”s in three lines that I had previously missed.

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Which reminds me that when my critique partner suggested I had people feeling awe for each other too often, I changed one instance to read “not to mention admiration” and then spotted another use of “not to mention” a page later? I did a check and found the phrase seven times in a 75K manuscript which I think is rather too many. Odd how I wasn’t even aware it was such a favourite expression. Then there was the excess of sighing I found in one chapter – sure the characters are exhausted, physically and mentally, but there are more varied ways to show that.

I knew I had a fondness (weakness?) for alliteration and had put some in deliberately, all of which I kept except the most tortuously tongue twisting teasers. More accidental was discovering how many words like gilded, glisten and glimpse I had used, not all in one chapter, but I began to suspect I have an unusual fondness for G words in the this story. I had to check how often the hero referred to the heroine as his golden girl, not to mention her gleaming green eyes.  It’s possible this only seemed so apparent as the hard G sound is noticeable when reading aloud unlike softer sounds which may be used just as much, but I still changed and moved some of these – another person silently reading might not notice them but I didn’t want to risk jarring anyone else out of the story with an unusual rhythm or word choice.

Reading the whole book aloud took several days (and an enquiry from my three year old about who I was talking to) and none of the changes were necessarily enough to get the book rejected. But the overall tightening of my writing and the elimination of careless mistakes was invaluable. Above all else I want my work to be readable. I want the story to be gripping and emotional and satisfying sure – but the best plot in the world or the most beautiful prose can still be flung aside if it is sloppily presented.

So thank you very much to everyone who has ever passed on this brilliant advice and please, anyone else who feels self-conscious reading their work aloud, do persist, it’s amazing what you might find – including how good some of it sounds when the words take on a life of their own. Oh, and yes, you might catch an odd continuity error or two. Hopefully nothing as important as someone dismounting their horse twice in the same paragraph…

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In case you are wondering about the pictures, I wanted this to not be a text only blog entry, but what to use? I thought maybe some bluebell pictures as recently I’ve taken many photos even though I have folders full from previous years – it doesn’t matter how many I have, I’m always looking for one more perfect picture, or one that catches the true beauty of the massed flowers – or of their individual beauty. Just as read after read of the same work can reveal something new each time. Or, to torture the analogy even further – looking at the work as a whole, editing it silently, is to see the whole expanse of purple spread before you – only by reading aloud, savouring the feel of each and every word in your mouth do you break up the picture and see the intricate beauty, or flaws, in the close up detail.

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Or maybe I just like these pictures too much and wanted to share them.

 

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.

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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.

My manuscript has a better social life than I do

I sent my completed MS to my critique partner and thanks to the wonders of Kindle it has been having an exciting week around London. So far it has been read in a coffee shop, the Design Museum and two different Pizza Expresses. Every time I get a text and photo I experience several emotions –including thirst.

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There is the “oh goodness I hope she likes it.” The “I wish I was there too” (and not just because of the wine, but a bit.) The “wow, it looks like a real book.” The “I should have edited that section before I sent it.” And did I mention the “what does she think of it?!” panic that sets me off in a cold sweat each time she mentions she’s reading it?

The comments she has sent so far have been mostly amused and teasing and occasionally admiring – I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get the odd snigger at the uses of “mount” and references to a good ride – we both know it’s referring to horses but we were also both raised on Carry On films. Even so, there is still the moment of paralysing fear at having someone else read my work. It doesn’t seem to get easier and maybe this is a little different as I have deliberately not said much about this story nor shared chapters as I go along as I have in the past, I wanted a completely honest and gut instinct response to the whole story. (No pressure eh gemmaw700?)

My list of questions that I am hoping for feedback on started with;

  • is it a romance
  • is it suspenseful
  • can you see these two people fall in love
  • do you care
  • is there enough keeping them apart

All of which is very basic when writing romantic suspense, but when you’ve lived with the character and story for so long it’s possible to get too caught up in the fine tuning of the prose, or the intricacies of the plot, or the beauty of the location and atmosphere and the basic essential elements of romance can get sidelined. I need to be sure my hero and heroine’s attraction and appreciation and admiration come through without it reading like a list of fanciable features.

(This is as far as I had written last week, hoping to post on Friday afternoon, alas, trying to sort out a niggling laptop problem with right and left click led to the loss of my task bar, and fixing that led to the blank screen of doom. Taking out the battery eventually restored things but by then my wonderful friend was here and the gin was open. The rest of this post is written with her critiques known to me.)

Of course, as soon as I had sent it and started to think what points she might raise, I began to wish I had changed things. Surely she would suggest I merged two chapters that were low on action but imparted important information (she didn’t.) I was spending too much time on that irritating but important secondary character, he needed pruning (she agreed.) That plot point that made sense 2 drafts ago stuck out like a sore thumb – it made sense but was given too much importance and could be scaled back (“Oh I wondered why that was there” said my wise friend tactfully – a very valuable lesson; I can remember all the plot strands or events I have deleted in different drafts and I think I have snipped off all the tendrils they wove throughout the story, but to someone reading it afresh an occasional reference or overreaction to a trivial point leaps out.)

So even before we met up I had made myself face the details that had niggled at me but that I had put off in my eagerness to get a second opinion – a friend might forgive this, an editor or agent might not. How often have I heard – You never get a second chance to make a first impression?

Fortunately, after enough gin and good food all the points that were made to me were extremely helpful and kind and insightful. I mostly agreed with them, or could explain why I had made that choice (and noted that I need to make it clearer in the MS – if it needs justifying to a friend you can be sure an unknown reader will want the full picture too.)

I am extremely lucky in having such a best friend; one who has read widely in many romance genres, who has entertained me for years with short stories and serialised fiction, who has taken a creative writing course, who has always had a better grasp of spelling and grammar than I have and has the humour and tact to point out my errors in a way that encourages me to learn rather than to sulk.

For all this, I will forgive the fact that she drank all my tonic water – and sent me this picture on her way home.

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My manuscript has travelled first class on a train – I’ve never done that!

Now to just ensure everything else about my work is first class too.

Why does everything taste disgusting?

Or

If this pressure in my sinuses builds up any more my eyeball will explode

Or

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Nothing that shade of green should come out of my body. Ever.

Or

Why am I shivering? I can’t stop shaking, I’m so cold, I’m – I’m sweating buckets, I’m on fire!

Or

My chest shouldn’t bubble and crackle each time I breath should it?

Or

Coughing up blood isn’t good it is?

Or

What do you mean there’s no internet? It’s half term

Or

Thank goodness for Lego. And dvds.

Or

What do you mean the tv’s broken? It’s half term!

Or

Thank goodness for all the hundreds of pens and crayons scattered about the house

Or

Did I mention I hate antibiotics?

Or

The joy of permanent indigestion/nausea

Or

My fingernails have never been this long. Why?

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At least I’m getting some reading done

Or

Why am I still sleeping in the day even though I go to bed before 9?

Or

I can’t remember what it’s like to have an appetite

Or

How can we have run out of tissues when we bought 4 boxes yesterday?

Or

There has been enough mucus produced in this house to float a battleship. Or to sink one.

Or

I am fed up of having to sleep sitting bolt upright

Or

The children are glad to go back to school to escape sickly parents

Or

Thank goodness for freezer meals cooked in bulk and for tomato soup and ice cream (not all together)

Or

If I stand up for more than ten minutes I get back ache

Or

Even tea tastes wrong

Or

It has been ten days with no internet

Or

I have had two gins in two weeks

Now you know how serious it is. I had forgotten that I had already written one post about a cold distracting me from blogging and writing and editing. I think this is the same cold, there has certainly been very little respite since January. The third member of the family is now on antibiotics and the two of us who had a course over a week ago are still suffering and producing new and varied shades of green and wheezing like old men on 40 cigarettes a day. Blogging, or even checking the writing community of twitter has been far from my thoughts – not to mention impossible with no internet – and only in the last two days have I returned to my editing – this book was supposed to be sent off by now! Oh dear, that’s two exclamation marks in one post, I must be ill. On the plus side, I have read 4 Harlequin Romantic Suspenses and finished reading 1984 which I started last July. On the downside no housework has been done for almost 3 weeks. However, the sun is out and just the promise of a little vitamin D on my skin is making exercise and cooking and eating seem possible again. Here’s hoping…

The sound of self-imposed blog deadlines whizzing past

Last Thursday; another evening not spent cursing my clumsiness as I fail to resize photos before uploading them, or deleting them when I’m trying to add captions, or spotting grammatical errors after I’ve hit publish. It was actually an evening when I fell asleep trying to get a small child to sleep and woke up at 11 grumpy and swearing about lost evenings instead.

I could blame the youngest child for catching a cold first and keeping us all up with sniffles and coughs, I could blame the pile of soggy tissues which almost hide my keyboard, I could blame the steady drip of nose which makes me break off –

– midsentence. Or the stuffy head which makes it feel as if there is a layer of fog between me and the world, or the clarity brought on by medication which fades all too abruptly and leaves everything hurting and aching more than ever.

In short, I have a cold, and a house full of snotty children and a half finished blog post and some notes on my editing which seemed brilliant and incisive and new when I wrote them but which now read like… well, like the ramblings of a semi delirious soul.

So on the plus side I don’t feel guilty for reading someone else’s work instead of editing my own into Benylin fuelled incoherency. The blog post I was writing was about my top reads of last year and it made me realise how few Romantic Suspense books I’d read (how few books of any genre) because I would normally be reading at least one Harlequin a fortnight and usually closer to one a week.

A proper blog post will hopefully appear soon. This one was brought to you with the aid of a lot of whisky macs – I guess the gin deserved a break.

(I wrote this on Monday with a plan to post it last night and now the cough is descending onto my chest, you would not believe the pure green I am creating – is everything better with a Blackadder quote? I may be some time…)

How NaNoWriMo has helped me to be a better writer, even though I fail every November

When writing is a struggle, a flutter of wings at the window is a welcome distraction; when it’s going well however, a herd of wildebeest could stampede through the garden and I’d not look up. But how do you get from one stage to the other? I wrote about how long it took me to listen to the best advice about giving things up and carving out regular writing time here, the figures below show just how valuable a routine can be in increasing productivity – but I say “can” because nothing works for every writer, and sometimes it doesn’t work twice for the same writer.

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Tryfan, its top hidden by cloud. Hopefully the image will make sense by the end of this post

Just in case anyone doesn’t know, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month and each year people commit to writing 50 thousand words in the month of November. I have never officially signed up for it, nor come close to achieving it, but the goal of writing every day and concentrating on words written over content has worked well. Previously I was an edit-as-you-go writer, with the result that each day I would look back at the previous day’s efforts, tweak it a little, then ponder what came next, and all too frequently go backwards rather than forwards.

I’ll admit that I scoffed a little when I first heard about NaNo, so many people believing they can write? And writing fast? How can anything of value be created in such a quantity and speed obsessed fashion? People said that writing without looking back or editing was freeing, but I frequently found myself cursing the need to keep an eye on the word counter when I wanted to spend half an hour mulling over a scene and rewriting one paragraph twenty times until I captured exactly the right words and tone and imagery. As I made myself push on – leaving * signs and notes with “rewrite” “find better similes” or “too clunky!” I did at least move on with the plot and too my astonishment on reading back after a month away a lot of it read far better than I remembered it feeling at the time.

Possibly most valuable for me, as someone who has spent hours mulling over the right way to transition from scene to scene and frequently written pages of post and pre scene analysis for my characters where they have internal reflection on what has just happened (and too often just pointlessly repeat it) – the freedom of just ending the scene and writing “later” was astonishing. All too soon a few words flashing forwards or backwards to make sure a passage of time and location was all I needed and I had a story that flowed as naturally as a stream downhill, rather than a forced series of starting and stopping, liked a blocked drain.

Another plus was that where previously I would spend an age thinking about how to introduce a scene or change of subject and would run it back and forth in my mind from different points of view, and would rewrite constantly trying to emphasise different senses and sights and sounds, now I just write the barest essentials to establish place and players and then crack on with action and dialogue, intending to go back and flesh out later – but I frequently find the succinct sketch of the moment and location is all the more evocative for its brevity. Who knew? Making the sharpest of sketches for me was also enough on a later re read; by staying in the moment as I wrote and moving on, rather than coming out of the writing and looking at it critically, I not only kept the plot and word count moving, but I was creating clearer, more precise, moving and intimate moments. (It is possible that this revelation is mine alone, not everyone writes interminable waffle or needs an editor as badly as I do.)

I kept a tally of my word count, and also a few other insights as they occurred, here are some telling ones.

  • Day 1 – The freedom to just write and not worry too much
  • Day 2 – being able to just write “moving on” or “later” rather than agonising over the right way to shift scene or pace – it’s fine to do that esp as these scenes may all end up cut so why agonise now over how to seamlessly joining them?
  • Getting to know the characters by just letting them talk – they keep surprising me with flashbacks and my h is pricklier than I expected – the H is lovely
  • Day 4 – Is this just one long date?!
  • Day 7 – Is this just the world’s longest synopsis? He said, she said, they did – where’s the nuance and unexplained tensions and subtexts, the emotional side? I get at least one paragraph a day which I enjoy where one of them, usually in flashback, paints a picture using many senses that shows us how they have felt about something, but the rest of it is arched or furrowed brows, bitten lips and gleaming glances, urrrgh

In fact, on re reading, I found a lot more than just what they said and did, there is a lot of emotion and a fair amount of description, although not as much as I always like to write. But at least I have the bare bones of an entire book to work on, not the usual 3 and bit chapters that I would have written in that time.

  • My words counts looked like this.
  • 594, 2297, 0, 1,054, 3,050, 2,035, 2,109, 753, 0 & 0 over a family weekend. 3,066, 1,934, 2,702

As you can see, I can write fast when the story is clear in my head (a prerequisite for Nanoing I think. As I wrote before, I looked forward to those hours, longed for them, was plotting all day in my head so that as soon as I fired up the laptop I knew exactly what I wanted to write. I can do about 2K an hour when all is going well although I’ll admit that a serious downside to speed is my typos; it took weeks to spell check the entire manuscript and even longer to correct the first read through.

2014 Nano was stopped by a severe cold that led to a chest infection that still had me coughing by Christmas. 2015 lasted 5 days, I got the word count but wasn’t feeling the story (although a lot of it was useable later) I started again daily in April this year and gradually built myself up to previous writing levels until when the family went away for a weekend I wrote 10,572 in exactly 48 hours. I carried on daily and after 1 month and 5 days I had written 50K words, the most important of which were “The End”.

So, am I for or against NaNoWriMo? As far as November goes, no. But as the spur I needed to get me writing daily and writing forwards rather than always looking back, yes. I have not yet finished the edit and rewrite due to a shift in day to day life, but it’s well under way and a sequel has been started – that may be a serious threat, that the initial first fast draft becomes the pleasant, “easy” bit. The one time I plotted a novel out with scenes, characters, arcs and plot points – I couldn’t write it. Once I knew where it was going I felt no urge to explore the writing of it. I’m hoping that that the editing and rewriting will continue to feel more like polishing a jewel rather than a forced march uphill. Or perhaps the metaphor should be that I hope it will feel a steady, tricky, but rewarding climb up a mountain where the air grows ever clearer and the mists recede until a perfect vista is laid before me, ready to be shared.

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View from the top of Tryfan

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.