Sunday, 31 May 2015

A Penchant for Pencils

One of the books I read in May (of which more in a separate post) was Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. She has spent more than thirty years in The New Yorker’s copy department. Her descriptions of some of the most common problems in spelling, punctuation, and usage – and how to fix them – are made in an amusingly helpful manner.

I fell out with her over her objections to putting a hyphen in ‘coworker’ but I completely forgave her when I read the chapter – yes, a whole chapter – on pencils and pencil sharpeners called Ballad of a Pencil Junkie.

I was soooo jealous to find out that in her early days at The New Yorker: ‘There was an office boy who came around in the morning with a tray of freshly sharpened wooden pencils.’

Obriously that doesn’t happen anymore … and I totally empathise with her current frustrations over having to use pencils which are lovely and pointy when new but whose lead breaks the first time they are sharpened. Is the pencil the problem, or the pencil sharpener?

After I read that bit I stopped and counted up the number of pencils I had that were in various stages of bluntness – there were EIGHTY-EIGHT.

Pencils are a cheap and useful souvenir –eg I have pencils from the Giant’s Causeway; Ellis Island; the 9/11 memorial; the Louisa M. Alcott House in Concord; Holland; the pencil museum in Cumbria; a Caledonian McBrayne ferry; the Imperial War Museum; Liverpool Cathedral; the National Library of Scotland; and (my favourites) three from the shop of the Rhode Island School of Art and Design which are pure graphite (when I dropped one of them it snapped clean in half).

A pencil is my writing implement of choice for shopping lists, other lists, lists of lists … And I love my laptop but if I get stuck when writing a story, or I want to write somewhere I don’t have the laptop with me, I reach for paper and pencil. The brain can make connections on paper that it doesn’t onscreen, plus it’s easier not to listen your inner editor and keep going, rather than polishing sentence by sentence.

I kept reading snippets out to my ever-patient husband:

 ‘guess what, there’s a pencil sharpener museum in Logan, Ohio’

‘someone called David Rees has written a book called How to Sharpen Pencils’

‘David Rees “specialises in the artisanal sharpening of No 2 pencils” and charges $15 a time’!

When I came to Mary Norris’s advice on what constitutes a decent pencil sharpener (an all-metal industrial strength X-acto, Boston Ranger 55) he must have detected a longing tone in my voice because he asked me if I’d like one as a birthday present.

Who needs chocolates or roses? Lovely though they both are at the time, ultimately, they: make you spotty/wither.

A pencil sharpener, securely attached to the desk, is for life, not just for the end of May.

Pardon? Well, thank you very much for your advice but I have got a life actually. 

It happens to be one that happily embraces punctuation problems and – oh joy! – it now includes 


perfectly pointed


Monday, 25 May 2015

The People's Friend Story Writing Workshop

I was honoured to be the Guest Author at The People’s Friend Story Writing Workshop on 12 May. The PF has run workshops in London but this was the first one in Scotland, in the magazine’s home city of Dundee.

It was a thrill to approach the DC Thomson building and see iconic cartoon characters painted on the side – as well as being the home of the world’s oldest story paper for women (it's been going since 1869), this is also the birthplace of Jackie magazine, Oor Wullie, The Broons, Dennis the Menace, Desperate Dan and many more.

(Although I have been in a DC Thomson building before, can’t remember whether it was this one or not. When I was 21, xx years ago, armed with my Diploma in Book and Periodical Publishing from (as it was then) Napier College, I had an interview for a position they called ‘Journalist’ but which would have meant working on various magazines in various capacities before finding a niche somewhere. Before I heard whether I’d been successful or not I got a job offer from a publishing firm in London which I accepted.

I must say I had a pang of regret for the road not taken as I talked to enthusiastic People’s Friend Fiction Editor Shirley Blair and her colleagues on the day of the workshop, and I took my Beano napkin from lunch home as a souvenir.)

Eighteen ladies had signed up to do the workshop. The first to arrive told me I looked like Helen Mirren, so that was a good start (although I must point out that Queen Helen is older than me … ). 

Shirley told them what kind of stories the Friend looked for and then my morning contribution was to talk about where to find inspiration, with examples from my own work; between us, Shirley and I moved on to show how to develop the original idea into a story.

In the afternoon I talked about structuring a story, and suggested ten things to do if you get stuck. In between these talks attendees were given exercises and some read out what they’d written (all very promising). Shirley’s colleagues Alan and Tracey chipped in with useful comments throughout the day.

The afternoon finished with advice from Shirley on how to be professional about your writing.

I was happy to tell the would-be short story contributors how unusual The People’s Friend is in welcoming new writers, and giving support and encouragement to their regular writers. With a weekly magazine requiring seven stories plus Specials and the Annual they require a lot of stories – which, in a dwindling women’s magazine market, is brilliant news.

The feedback from the workshop was good and another one will be run later in the year. Look out for announcements on The People’s Friend website and Facebook page.

Friday, 8 May 2015

A thought, a recipe, a household hint … 2

In January I blogged here about my collection of housewifery titles including Aunt Kate’s Day-by-Day Book [1937] and Aunt Kate’s Household Companion [1938] which contain ‘a thought, a recipe, a household hint, for every day of the year’.

So, dear reader, for 8 May (in brief):

A thought
Abraham Lincoln said [among a few other things]: God must like the common people or He would not have made so many of them.

A recipe
Aka clootie dumpling.

A household hint

Washing the steps. On cold mornings, the housewife who has to clean outside steps is not to be envied. Her hands are very apt to become rough and sore with the effect of the keen air on them when they are wet. However, this chafing may be prevented by putting a few drops of paraffin in the bucket of water. The paraffin will also help to make the steps cleaner.

When did women stop scrubbing the front step? Or using red cardinal polish on it, which I remember my mum doing? A labour of love if ever there was one.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Six in April

I read six books in April – an eclectic mix this month I think you’ll agree.

Shopaholic to the Stars by Sophie Kinsella

I’ve read all the Shopaholic books of which this is the latest and I am in admiration every time as to how Sophie Kinsella does it – to have Becky Brandon, a character who is, yes, a shopaholic, something I’ve no patience with in real life, and manages to make her sympathetic and lovable. Here she is in her element in L.A. where she and her husband and small daughter are temporarily based. But it’s not all froth and maxing out the credit card, there are darker issues in Tinsel Town plus an intriguing mystery around Becky’s father’s past which will be investigated in the next book during an American road-trip.

A year or so ago I joined the Jane Austen Society (Scottish Branch). At this year’s AGM in March John Mullan was the guest speaker – I’d heard him talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival and on television so knew we were in for a treat. He lectures in English at University College London – lucky students, for he is a most enthusiastic and engaging speaker.

He explores in a very readable way why we still read J.A.’s books two hundred years after they were written, and explains innovations in her writing technique (including introducing free indirect speech to English fiction); her brilliance of dialogue (rendering even minor characters memorable); and games she played with her readers – such as having characters who are important to the novel never speaking directly (for example Mr Perry in Emma); plus he answers the questions you were afraid to ask – Is there any sex in Jane Austen?  How much money is enough? 

When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson
I’ve no idea why this book was not on my radar before. It’s been compared to Tom’s Midnight Garden, one of my favourite ever books, plus the author wrote the Teddy Robinson titles, much loved by my offspring (and me) when they were little. So when I was in Waterstone’s looking for a present and saw it (a new edition) on the classics table in the children’s department I had to have it.

‘Sent away from her foster home one long, hot summer to a sleepy Norfolk village by the sea Anna dreams her days away among the sandhills and marshes. She never expected to meet a friend like Marnie … but no sooner has Anna learned the loveliness of friendship than Marnie vanishes.’

And it did not disappoint, a lovely read – and, from a postscript by the author’s daughter, I read that it has been turned into an animated film by a Japanese film director, the story moved from the Norfolk marshes to the coast of Japan …

Not Just Dancing by Helen Flint
Having finished When Marnie Was There I remembered another book for teenagers I’d acquired from somewhere and hadn’t read (the term YA would not have been used when Marnie was first published nor for Not Just Dancing which came out in 1988). Sadly, when I looked Helen Flint up to see what else she’d written I saw that she died in 2000 at the age of 47. She wrote several books for teenagers, including a couple of others with titles beginning Not Just … 

In this one, Geraldine, champion dancer and on the look out for true love, is appalled to find that she’s been allotted to her mother and her Home Help clients as part of the school’s Work Experience week. A great cast of characters of all ages; I loved it.

 Over the Garden Fence by Patsy Collins
A collection of short stories, all inspired by gardens or flowers; some first published in magazines and some written specially. I interviewed Patsy Collins in my last blog post here.

A few weeks ago we were in St Andrews and went to the recently opened Topping & Company Booksellers. And I can report it was, absolutely topping. I took some very bad photographs of it which I will not share – but there are good ones on someone else’s nice blog here.

They don’t have the ubiquitous cafĂ© but the owner/manager asked us if we would like tea or coffee and he brought it to us, in china cups and saucers, on a tray, with biscuits. Could life have any more to offer, we asked ourselves, as we sat at a little table surrounded by walls of books. No, we replied, it couldn’t.

Although actually it could – I’ve always wanted to go up one of those ladders that you can whiz across high bookshelves (not while you’re on it … ) so when I spied a copy of Carol Shield’s biography of Jane Austen I climbed up to claim it.

We would have made purchases anyway – the sheer volume of stock and the way it is laid out meant that we found books we’d never heard of before – but after being treated with such hospitality we spent even more.

They have a programme of events (sadly, we live too far away to take advantage of that). One of their recent speakers apparently was Andy Miller about whom the assistant waxed lyrical when I took my books to the till.

Andy Miller had been a very bookish child but realised he’d got out of the habit of reading. He set out to read ‘Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones)’ and he charts the experience in this book described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘High Fidelity for bookworms’.