Monday, 11 February 2019

This blue day

Oh, my goodness — the cherry tree outside my window on this blue day!



This was the same tree just a few months ago —


And now — I don't know if you can tell from the photographs — its twigs have the sticky-out-bits of new buds almost ready to break! Be encouraged, friends shivering in chilly America, Spring is coming, it really is!

This morning I have turned my attention to the task for this quarter, writing a book under contract for submission in early summer. One of the big challenges of any book is writing the opening section. If that isn't interesting, you've lost your reader from the start. I often set the opening section aside to be written at some later stage when I've thought how to succinctly express introductory thoughts, but this morning in the bath I knew how I wanted to put it, and rushed into my room to get it all down before the ideas evaporated like so much bathroom steam. Nothing worse than lost words trickling mournfully down the window pane.

Nailed it! We're off! 

So now it's a thousand words a day with gaps here and there for preparing Sunday worship and whatnot.  I already made very full notes to support my original proposal to the publisher, so everything's in place. This is non-fiction, so what I want to say is not something elusive that will wander off like a bored cat if I take my attention out of it for five minutes. It's firmly grounded, rooted in the Bible and expressed in the daily practice of discipleship. No doubt it will have its challenges — it never pays to get too cocky about any writing endeavour! But for once I'm looking forward to it instead of feeling utterly daunted. It doesn't have the capriciousness and easily frightened-off quality of fiction, where you have to stalk it with such silent patience and the slightest interruption can alarm and scatter it.

Even so, I'll get up early to write, and put the Engaged sign on my door, because the Muse is a shy wee beastie and you do have to focus.

But today's portion is written, so hooray.


Thursday, 7 February 2019

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis

The summer is ending and the fall beginning for Lynda by the river,  while here in England the world is turning, turning into the light.

Everywhere in the garden are signs of new life.

Snowdrops.




Polyanthus tucked in against the wall out of the wind's way.


The wild daffodils coming into bud —


— and the regular ones rising strong.


The fruit trees and the roses sending out the first signs of new buds —

— I read somewhere they go that red colour as a defence against insect predation while the leaves aren't properly out yet.

The moss and the ferns are as verdant as ever, and this very low-growing mint we have mingled in with the moss.


There's this silvery thing that one of us put in —



And the beautiful hellebores, of course.


The aconites are coming through —


— and the lemon balm just beginning to sprout again.


Even the front door is feeling the call of Spring —


— though it still has a chilly attitude.


Oh, look — just to the left of the front door — the first piece of letter-cutting Hebe ever did. That must be a decade ago!


People stop in the street to look at it, which makes me happy.

The Winter has nearly gone. Just as well. We are using up our firewood very fast!


Meanwhile, indoors, the sunlight falls as clear and sharp as lemon juice, on old projects like this casual scrap of iridescent glass with a snowflake painted on it —


— and new ones like this tabernacle. Tony has made the cross for the top (the original one had got broken off and lost), and now it's all waiting to be painted.



A design is roughed out —


— waiting for customer approval.

Up on the workbench, Our Lady of Grace has had some initial surgery to her layers of accumulated paint —


— but I trust those ill-advised stick-on stars will be going; that's the Earth she's standing on, not the firmament of heaven. And her hands look a bit meaty. Don't worry. She'll be transformed . . . The work goes on . . . Soon I'll be in writing purdah for a book that's under contract to be in for midsummer. By then the snowdrops will be past, the violets that have not yet flowered now will be fading then, and the rose on the fence in full bloom and the cherry fruiting.

It'll be Christmas again before we know it . . .


Monday, 4 February 2019

Alice's window at Pett Chapel

I thought it would be good to move on from photographing veins . . .  Interesting but only marginally after all, and not almighty edifying.

So here, for a change, something beautiful and holy and not utterly self-absorbed. Yesterday Buzzfloyd took a couple of pictures of the east window in the sanctuary at Pett Chapel, just as they were beginning morning worship. Her sister Alice (who is part our household here) designed and made the window.


It's not always easy to capture the colours when the sun's streaming through, but I think Buzz did well.



Conceptually it blends the twin locations in which our life is rooted — our place on earth and our place in the unfolding gospel of our lives.

Pett is in a country village just up the hill from the sea at Pett Level. So the window shows the pointy sails of little boats, the water's edge and the sandy shore, the rolling hills of Sussex — if you look at it one way. But (if you look at it another way) it also shows the outpouring of the Spirit, streams of grace flowing down to us from the cross, the gold of Christ's kingly glory, the shards of his pain and his blood shed for us.

The shapes are sufficiently abstract that they don't obtrude too assertively into one's own prayers with prescriptive ideas. It is just beautiful and uplifting, the colours well-chosen to work with eastern light (you need different tones for a west or south window).

We used to have one made of blocks of clear greenish glass, which were okay but a bit industrial; then a few years ago the chapel council commissioned Alice to design a window that would speak of the countryside, the sea, and the love of God. In the east end of the chapel in the sanctuary, it illuminates and illustrates our eucharists, speaking of the Christ's shed blood and outpoured Spirit in the context of our everyday lives.  I really love that window. 


Saturday, 2 February 2019

Photographing veins

So I came across this rather marvellous picture on Pinterest that shows you how to tell if you are warm or cool on the colour spectrum. Here it is (thanks so much to whoever put it online):



I peered at my veins and — oh, no!! — they looked green. Just as I'd embraced my inner chill and all.

But it was night time and our lamplight is yellow.

So I tried holding my wrist under a white (presumably neutral) light and photographing it. This is what it looked like.




That's blue . . . I think . . .

And now it's morning — here are my veins in the clear (snowy) light of day:



Jeepers. Have I even got any veins? They don't look powerful like the ones in the photo from Pinterest.

Maybe I shouldn't be wearing any clothes at all. Maybe it doesn't matter. I can feel myself ceasing to care. Maybe I should be thinking about World Peace and concentrating on doing some housework.

I could show you my varicose veins. Or . . . maybe not.

Oh, but — wait — you have to have your hand dangling down not held up, don't you? So the blood all falls down and the vein shows up. Let me try that . . . there!


Is that green or blue? I haven't got the faintest idea. Oh, bugger it, I'll wear what I like.



Friday, 1 February 2019

Gratitude

It rained hard yesterday, before going on to snow as evening fell. Tony caught a train at lunchtime, to meet some publishing friends in Oxford, Alice and Hebe spent the morning cutting letters at the stone masonry, and we needed groceries from a supermarket a mile or two up the road later in the day.

And I felt so grateful that we have a car — it meant I could take Alice and Hebe to work, nip across town to collect some things I needed, take Tony to the railway station, collect Alice and Hebe again, and go with them for the grocery run.

I'm grateful not only that we have a car at all, but for our particular car.

My husband Tony, like most men, enjoys large, fast, sophisticated cars. I don't. My idea of a car is as close to an automated Amish buggy as I can possibly achieve. So this is our car:



We did have a different one. Tony chose it to be suitable for me to drive (a compromise between his preferences and mine) but somehow I just couldn't. It felt too modern, too insulated from the world . . . I never could make myself drive it even once. So we sold it (the new owner comes to pick it up today), and got this little blue one instead.

The thing is, while I am so grateful to have a car I feel able to drive, and we can do everything that makes life convenient and easy so we have the energy (and access) for all our tasks and commitments, I'm also grateful we have only one car. I don't think I'd be twice as grateful if we had two cars. Or three times as grateful if we added a third.

It's the same with money. I don't have enough to buy everything I would like, or go on holidays and so forth — but I am so grateful for that. It means that if a bit extra comes in (like if I sell some writing or do some editing), then I can buy a thing I've been wanting for ages and couldn't afford, or go out for a meal, or even go on an overnight trip to York or Cambridge. And that feels so exciting — such a treat. But if I had more money than I knew what to do with, what would my treats be? A yacht? Diamond earrings? 

It reminds me of when my children were small and my husband had a pay increase. It meant we could now afford to buy fizzy drinks and ice cream on a regular basis, not just for birthdays. At first I did — which was not good for our nutritional status but I didn't know so much about that back then; we ate white bread every day). Then I thought, "Wait a minute — what will we do for treats when it's someone's birthday?" I realised the treats would have to be bigger and more expensive.

Having five children, I've always been cautious about the treats. Even when we started to have more money, I used to bear in mind that life could broadside us at some point (and guess what; it did) so that we would suddenly no longer be able to afford luxuries, and then birthdays and Christmas could become great big festivals of Disappointment. So even when we were (relatively) well off, living in a large manse paid for by the church with two incomes and all that, I ensured we maintained low expectations when it came to family celebrations — ordinary food, small presents, maybe a quiz and hanging out together. Nothing mega.

It's like it says in the Bible (Proverbs 30.7-9 NIVUK):
‘Two things I ask of you, Lord;
    do not refuse me before I die:
keep falsehood and lies far from me;
    give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or I may become poor and steal,
    
     and so dishonour the name of my God. 

And I am so very grateful for what I have, which is so much more than many, many people around the world have, but still is not so much that I become dissatisfied.

I'm sure I've shared some of these thoughts here before — about the ice cream and fizzy drinks as treats, and very recently the quotation from Proverbs — but still, I was thinking about it again. Some things just go on applying and being true. Anyway, I apologise for becoming a repetitive old lady, I'll try not to do it too often.

Returning to dust.

I don't bother tagging things I write about here, because I'm just thinking aloud and chatting with you, not Creating an Online Presence. So although I'm sure I wrote about Ash Wednesday somewhere, I can't find it now. But I know what I will have said because I thought it for a very long time. [Oh, look. Here it is]

To recap. My feeling about Ash Wednesday was a visceral rejection of the words said at the imposition of ashes: "Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return." It's from the Bible of course, what God said to Adam when everything went wrong and he had to leave the garden. It's meant to recall us to humility and penitence, and give us a due sense of our insignificance in the flow of time and in the face of eternity, and all that. And so it does. But my objection was that — going to the same book of Genesis — the beginning of life is the admixture of divine spirit with stardust. So the thing that makes a living being is the fusion of spirit and dust, and to say someone is dust is only half the story. I think God's point was that if Spirit is withdrawn, all that's left is dust. But then, the mercy and grace of God is such that life continues, otherwise we'd all be dead, wouldn't we? So that's the problem I had with Ash Wednesday.

But an unlikely epiphany has come slanting sideways into my life through the most embarrassingly frivolous gateway. And now I am entirely comfortable with returning to dust. I'm pleased about this, because I have been thinking a lot about the process of growing old and how to get from here into death with the most grace and the least terror, and coming to terms with being dust feels promising.

But this is what happened (by 'this' I mean what I'm about to tell you).

Have you ever 'had your colours done'? It's known as different things, but here in the UK Colour Me Beautiful is one of the outfits offering the opportunity to figure out which 'season' suits you and what colour palette you consequently need in order to look marvellous the whole of the time.

Going back a long way, as a youngish woman my prayer partner was Margery, a stained glass artist with a commitment to Holy Spirit healing. I loved her very much and we were good friends. She had an excellent eye for colour, and pronounced that my season was Autumn. Because it was Margery, I accepted her evaluation without question, and labelled myself 'Autumn' ever since. 

A few years ago another dear friend trained to be a Colour Me Beautiful consultant, and offered me a freebie session while she was learning, which I delightedly accepted — but said firmly I knew I was an Autumn because Margery (now dead but we both knew her) had said so. Unsurprisingly I turned out to be an Autumn, and tried hard to make the colours work. 

My problem with it was the Autumn colours — rich and strong — tired me. As a person I am insubstantial, easily exhausted, somewhat faint, easy to overlook and forget, semi-invisible. I am like smoke, like a net curtain drying on a laundry line on a grey day. I am cool and detached, tired most of the time. I have trouble standing up for any length of time and I find relationship and human interaction very difficult. The Autumn colours, bursting with spicy life and energy, just . . . didn't . . . feel . . .  like . . . me.

Then I got a new view on it. My skin doesn't erupt but it's soft and damages easily, so I often get sores and scratches I want to cover up. I was looking for a concealer/foundation. After a certain amount of experimentation with samples from eBay, I found one that vanished into my skin. It's called Cool Bone. I've linked that, not to advertise it (because I don't like advertising) but to acknowledge it.

That got me thinking. Autumn is essentially WARM writ large; and this colour that vanishes into my skin is cool.

So I did a bit of investigating and looked at colour palettes online, and for the first time came across the Soft/Dark/Deep modification of seasonal palettes. I examined all the ones I could find. There was one that stood out from all the others — it had all the colours I absolutely know suit me best.





Soft, dark, deep summer. I felt childishly excited about this because I was born in summer and I love the summer.

It also made sense of my eye and hair colour. My eyes are the colour of the North Sea on a rainy day. My hair is the colour of drying hay.

I love those colours. No. I LOVE those colours. I feel comfortable in them, I feel like me in them, and my very favourite clothes fit right in.



The important thing is that every single colour has a hefty ladling of grey added in. The red of the very last embers amid the charcoal and ashes of a dying fire. The brown of dead tree bark. The yellow of sand churned up in the waves of a rough sea. The purple of brooding storm clouds. The green of the English Channel. The most inhospitable shade of pink you can possibly imagine. Lavender leaves and oak moss, sage and cloud and fog. The colours of veins and clover petals. Damsons and sloes and overripe plums starting to go mouldy. Seakale and squid ink and driftwood. Olives and bruises and mustard and rocks. Twilight and sea-clay and the fallen petals from dying Ena Harkness roses, and the bricks they make in Cambridgeshire.

Everything with a lavish slew of dust kicked over it. Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.

This kind of make-up.



This shade of blue.


Dark blue greens.


Ash grey and darkest crimson.


Charcoal and ink (ooh — look — my fringe has grown).


Smoked crimson lake.



And I've bought a top on eBay in a charnel house white, the colour of very old bones.


This makes sense of my choices of shoe colours, too.


If I choke or die of a heart attack, nobody will suspect a thing. They'll think I merely overdid my make-up.

Here I am, lying in bed in the morning, thinking about returning to dust and feeling very happy.


I'm looking forward to Ash Wednesday now. They'll say DUST THOU ART AND TO DUST THOU SHALT RETURN in their sombre, forbidding way, and I'll think "Thank you — yes, I'll take that," and feel very peaceful with the quiet settling of ashes into my semi-extinguished and rather objectionably charcoal-y personality. Soft, dark, deep. I feel at home with that.

I realise Ash Wednesday is meant to be all about repenting of sin and interior reflection and Jesus in the wilderness and whatnot — so I apologise for making it about colour and me and I hope you are not offended. I thought it worth noting, by what surprising and unlikely avenues our accommodation, to who we are and what is happening to us, arrives. This — oddly — makes me feel more peaceful about growing old, about the church always insisting we are bad and lost and in the wrong, about my insignificance and chronic failure and inability to make myself heard. I don't mind now — I can see it all there in my colours. Smoky, dusty, soft dark deep. Yes, that feels comfortable.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *


I went into our Hebe's bedroom where some of her clothes were draped over her chair, and look — the same colours!


Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Spiritual Care book

For those of you who are interested in and enjoy my writing, I just wanted to flag up the now limited availability of a book of mine going out of print (I've linked the image to Amazon UK, where you can read what reviewers say, though there's no Look-Inside for this book).



There are two reasons you might want to read it.

Firstly, it's very useful if you are in any kind of Christian ministry. It's a practical guide to, and exploration of, what it says on the front — spiritual care of dying and bereaved people, looking at various different facets of loss including other reasons than death (eg job redundancy, loss of integrity, divorce, etc). It also includes a chapter in which I've given detailed advice for the officiant at a funeral. I've given templates for funeral prayers and committals covering the different religious backgrounds (atheist, agnostic, New Age and low-key Christian) that you may have to work with because they have no obvious designated officiant of their own.

Sometimes people write to me saying how helpful they have found it, especially if they become involved in hospice chaplaincy.

Secondly, you might want to read it if you are curious about me as a person, because it has more autobiographical detail in it than anything else I've written anywhere.

The publisher contacted me the other day to say sales have slowed so they are now letting it go out of print. They have 84 copies left, which they are selling off in the next few weeks, after which any left over will just be trashed I suppose.

The publisher only made paperback copies, not e-books, and currently does not offer it on print-on-demand, so once it's gone, it's gone.

I guess from time to time second-hand copies will be around, but I have no copies myself and I don't think a huge amount were ever printed — it's a bit of a specialist book.

So I'm just letting you know, because I do think it's worth reading, especially seeing as we all die at some point and so does everyone else we know.

I hope you don't mind the publicity: I usually prefer to stick to conversation and thinking here, but once in a while . . . This is not me making money, because even if they sell every copy they still have in stock, it won't take it past the (small) royalty advance they paid me. This book just didn't sell very well, but the people who read it were glad they did.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Saying what cannot be said

In writing a book, especially for the Evangelical marketplace, some things cannot be said, and this can be awkward.

The three dodgy areas are profanity, vulgarity and sex.

My own fiction writing has included a series of novels about Catholic monks.  One big difference between Catholic monastics and Evangelicals is how they use the name of God. There is no problem for a Catholic about exclaiming"My God!" as an expression of pain or surprise or outrage — but Evangelicals often classify this as blasphemy, unless it is clearly part of a prayer.

I do not personally consider it blasphemous or profane. A Catholic monastic is so profoundly steeped in God's company that every breath belongs to and refers to the holy, and it is hard to write about monastics without including this quirk of speech. Fortunately, in the Evangelical wing of the church there is no high regard for Our Lady or for the Mass or any of the saints. So the way round the problem is to use their names instead. The outraged monk is allowed to exclaim "By the mass!" or "Sancta Maria!", even if his distributor is going to be Kregel.

Vulgarity is also a difficult issue. It's not easy to write about the Middle Ages omitting the word "piss". Shit is also big in any human life — and fiction has above all else to be truthful — but you cannot say that either. So you have to open the thesaurus and be a bit inventive.

Thus, I might have a character say: "I've been sent down here to dig out the gong. For my sins, I generally get to be the man who has to shovel the smelly stuff. I've been shifting ordure all morning, and right sick of it I am."

Please note the avoidance of repetition as well as of words that might give offence. Nobody says "shit", though that is evidently what he means. "Shovel" is not used twice, the second time he says "shift". "Ordure" and "the smelly stuff" are used to create alternative instead of repetition. 

In my early days of writing I'd have simply let "the gong" stand. Nowadays, arcane phrases the reader probably won't know annoy me — so I'd either footnote it or put it in the glossary. The gong is the accumulated pile of shit you get in the garden, just outside a house beneath the outlet of the drop toilet in the bedroom. 

Then there's the delicate business of writing about sex. 

Have you ever heard of a demi-sexual? It turns out I am one. I have an aversion to graphic or overt expressions of sex outside the context of close personal relationship. If sex scenes come on the telly, I have to shut my eyes and put my hands over my ears. If sex scenes are included in books, I stop reading right there and get rid of the book.  However, I am entirely comfortable with my own sexuality, and have no sense of inhibition within the context of my faithful, monogamous, personal sexual partnership. I know. Odd, isn't it?

That's just specific to me, but as I writer I must also work with the parameters of my publisher and marketplace. 

The publishers I have met seem to have little or no problem with sex in novels (less than I do myself), and enjoy what they regard as "a bit racy". Everyone uses this phrase to describe Catherine Fox's writing, but I cannot comment — because they all say it's racy, I've never read her work.

The gatekeepers when it comes to the marketplace (I'm talking about Christian fiction now) are the distributors and retailers, and they have definite and rather fierce standards about sex in fiction: there mustn't be any.

I'm okay with that as a writer — but the thing is, humanity is sexual, and that's just the way things are. You have to find a way to give it expression somehow. You have to say it without saying it. 

Actually, it brings to my mind a poem penned by D.H. Lawrence, deeply fed up after they burned his Lady Chatterley:
Can you tell me what's wrong
With the word or with you
That you don't mind the thing
But the word is taboo?

I must say, I think he did have a point.

The line in the sand is differently drawn depending where you are. 
There is real life, then there is UK Christian fiction, then there's US Christian fiction.
My book The Clear Light of Day was first published by Monarch for Lion Hudson in the UK. At the end of it, two people share a bed. They are romantically involved with each other, but because this is Evangelical Christian fiction they must not have sexual intercourse. So they don't, though in real life they (probably) would.
But when later David C. Cook, a US Evangelical Christian publisher, picked up that book, the last chapter had to be re-written so that the two people in question did not share a bed; one of them had to stay downstairs on the living room sofa. It was okay. The character didn't mind. He was happy to make that alternative choice, and it was his sofa.
I think either version of the story worked all right — but I was intrigued by the variation in requirement.

Elsewhere, I sometimes used terminology we often associate with sex to describe a character in a non-sexual setting, thus establishing their physicality and sensuality, to make their humanity properly rounded and give it depth.

In my book The Long Fall, one of the characters who is celibate because he's a monk, and is also substantially disabled by a stroke, is taken for a walk in a wheelchair by his friend, at night:


‘Are you all right?’ Tom asked quietly, releasing his hold on the handles of the barrow and resting his hands lightly on Peregrine’s shoulders.
‘Y-es. Oh ... T-om ... th-th-th ... s-s-stars.’ His voice was filled with the sweet agony of his yearning delight. ‘I l-l-lo ... m... .’
‘Yes. I know. You love the stars.’
In silent consummation Peregrine drank in the beauty of the night; the wide enchanting wilderness of stars, the close enfolding of the secret dark, losing himself in the music of loveliness. He closed his eyes and lifted his face hungrily against the exquisite kiss of the night air. ‘Oh, le bien,’ he sighed. ‘Oh mon Dieu, comme c’est bien ...’
Tom stood a long while, perfectly still, unwilling to intrude upon this silent communion. Then he took the handles of the chair again, and pushed it along the path, slowly, among the scented plants. He stopped beside a rosemary bush that had grown out across the path so that it brushed against them. Peregrine leaned over and buried his face among the thrusting young shoots.
‘Oh, mon Dieu ...’ He breathed in the heady, resinous aroma; ‘Oh le bien!’ He reached out his hand and rubbed the fragrant leaves against his face until the air was suffused with the scent.
‘Smells so clean and good, doesn’t it?’ said Brother Tom. ‘It makes you feel more alive.’
‘M ... y-es. Oh y-es.’ He righted himself in the chair, and they continued slowly through the fragrant paths of the physic garden.

Nothing sexual takes place here — but the component parts (intimate friendship, night-time, losing oneself in intense sensory experience, the semi-articulate expressions of pleasure and delight) would all be at home in a context of sexual experience. It's a way of writing a sexual being (character) without writing sexual doing (event).

The same was true in writing about the abbot's attraction to a married woman in my novel The Beautiful Thread. One way of proceeding is to stay with the character's emotions and impulses, without taking them through into any form of physical expression. This can even intensify rather than weaken. Like this:

"The last light shone from the west and though the sun had not yet gone down, the shadows began to gather in the hollows. John turned his head to look at Rose. To his consternation, though he did not move, his hands could feel the warmth of her shoulders and the texture of her linen dress, his mouth knew the feel of her cheek as if he had kissed it. The sense of intimacy and immediacy jolted through him like a shock, something more than he could assimilate. He felt the power of it travel through his whole body. The loveliness and gentle wisdom of this woman. He looked away again. In the grass, a forget-me-not, ardent sweet blue, just coming into flower. He wanted to pick it and give it to her. Caught in the confusion between the insistent clamour of warning arisen with him, and the anguished rebellion of his heart, he did not move. He sat as still as a stone.

Resonant upon the dying light, the bell rang out for Compline, calling the community to put the day to rest. Rose stood up, turning to look down at John as he still sat on the step. ‘Father John?’ she said. ‘Time to go.’ And so it was."

In other contexts (for instance, The Breath of Peace, which is actually about the marriage relationship) it would have been seriously incongruous to not include a sex scene. Even so, publishing into an international (primarily UK/US) Evangelical Christian marketplace, the cautions and boundaries remained, and had to be honoured.

So there are always paths around these obstacles, and part of the interest and enjoyment in being a professional writer is figuring them out. Writers and publishers for the Christian marketplace often rail against them, wanting fictional characters given freedom to swear, to use vulgar expressions, to engage in fully expressed sexual congress. Is this not all part of being a grown up human being? Isn't it real?

Somewhat to my surprise, I have come to value the peace and respect implicit in working within these established boundaries. Some readers (me, for example) may find it invasive and unwelcome to be confronted with strong vulgarities and explicit description of sexual congress. And it isn't necessary. We, being ourselves real, understand what is implied; we don't need it played out in full graphic detail righter there in our faces.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Editing repetitions and clichés

The fault of repetition besets all writers. It comes in four forms — the favourite, the oral, the recent and the vivid.

All writers have favourite words or phrases they over-use. One of my own is "little".  I've got wise to this now, but look at this passage from the opening pages of my first novel (and the first book of any kind I wrote for publication), The Hawk & the Dove. I've highlighted "little" in red. Ignore the blue for the moment:


My mother. She was not a pretty woman, and never thought to try and make herself so. She had an uncompromising chin, firm lips, a nose like a hawk’s beak and unnerving grey eyes. Eyes that went straight past the outside of you and into the middle, which meant that you could relax about the torn jersey, the undone shoe laces, the tangled hair and the unwashed hands at the dinner table, but you had to feel very uncomfortable indeed about the stolen sweets, the broken promise, and the unkind way you ran away from a little sister striving to follow you on her short legs. My mother. Often, after tea, she would stand, having cleared away the tea things, at the sink, just looking out of the windows at the seagulls riding the air-currents on the evening sky; her hands still, her work forgotten, a faraway expression in her
eyes.
Therese and I would do our homework after tea, sitting at the tea-table in the kitchen. The three little ones would play out of doors until the light was failing, and then Mother would call them in, littlest first, and bath them in the lean-to bathroom at the back of the kitchen, brush their hair and clean their teeth, help them on with their nightgowns, and tuck them in to bed.
This was the moment of decision for Therese and me. Ours was a little house in a terrace of shabby houses that clung to a hillside by the sea, and we had only two bedrooms, so all five of us sisters slept in the same room on mattresses side by side on the floor. Mother hated electric light—she said it assaulted the sleepy soul and drove the sandman away, and when the little ones were ready for bed, she would tuck in Mary and Beth, and light the candle and sit down with Cecily, the littlest one, in the low comfortable chair in the corner of the room. If she put them to bed and left them, there would be pandemonium. Cecily would not stay in bed at all and romped gaily about the room, and Beth and Mary would begin to argue, starting with a simple remark like ‘Beth, I can’t get to sleep with you sniffing,’ and finishing with a general commotion of crying and quarrelling.
So Mother resigned herself to stay with them as they fell asleep, and she sat, with the littlest one snuggled on her lap, in the room dimly glowing with candle-light, softly astir with the breathing and sighing and turning over of children settling for the night.

Therese and I, at sixteen and fourteen years old, had to choose between staying alone downstairs to read a book or paint or gaze into the fire; and creeping upstairs with the little ones, to sit with Mother in the candle-light, and listen to her lullabies.

And that was the final published version after my editor had pointed out I over-used the word "little" and I went through the text pruning it out!

When you write, look out for your own favourites and prune heavily. If you self-publish, it can be most helpful to recruit a second pair of eyes to look over the text — it's surprising how oblivious we are to our own predilections.


Repetition based on oral usage crops up frequently in the work of writers who are also preachers or otherwise public speakers. When addressing an audience, repetition is helpful for anything you want to stress — but other forms of emphasis are better for the written word. In the Hawk and the Dove passage above, I've picked out in blue an example of this. If you were telling the story, repeating "eyes" like that would create a heavy footfall on an important point to draw attention to it and linger on it. In written prose, it's merely irritating. I'd have done better to re-phrase "unnerving grey eyes. Eyes that went straight past" simply as "unnerving grey eyes that went straight past".

Then there's the unintended repetition of words or phrases used recently — and again, all writers do this, so a second pair of eyes is almost essential to weed out instances of it.

An example might be:
"I like to wash my hair in gentle shampoo, especially in the summer when my hair gets especially dry."

There, the word "especially" is the unconscious repetition. In editing it, I'd suggest swapping out one of them for "particularly". But notice there's also the prose-clogger of repeating "my hair". For that, I'd suggest either changing "I'd like to wash my hair in," to, "I like to use," or else swapping out the second "my hair" for "it".
So you'd end up with:
"I like to use gentle shampoo, particularly in summer when my hair gets especially dry."


Then there's the repetition of vivid phrases. These are the unusual expressions that stand out and stick in the memory. They do so for the writer as well as the reader, and can lead to unintentional repetition.

An example might be: 
"He had not only helped himself to half the plate of bread and butter and eaten all the coffee cake, but taken a stonking great hunk of the fruit loaf as well."

Two paragraphs further on, or later in the same chapter, or early in the next chapter, you come across something like: "Trying to walk five miles in Wellington boots left her with a stonking great blister on her left heel." Pleased with the unusual turn of phrase, the writer has unintentionally repeated it. God bless the editor who's paying enough attention to spot it.

There are some phrases you can only use once in a lifetime, never mind once a novel.

One of my favourite writers to read and learn from is Raymond Chandler. His style is so sharp and infused with humour, his phraseology so vivid. In his novel Trouble Is My Business, he says:
"But he's in a racket and he knows people. Things can happen a long way off from where Marty is. And Marty is no bath mat. He gets up and walks."

I have treasured that passage for a lifetime — I mean, how brilliant is that? "No bathmat"! It still makes me laugh. But you couldn't use it twice could you?

It's often the vivid and funny turn of phrase that passes from person to person until it fossilises into a cliché. "No pressure!" is a sterling example of that. "For Pete's sake think of something different to say," I mutter as contestant after contestant parrots it on TV competitions. "No pressure, then! No pressure!" Yawn.

One time when I was editing somebody's book of pastoral theology, I came across his observation that organising his congregation was like herding cats. I stopped, and added the margin note, "This phrase was once amusing but has become boring through overuse. Think of an original image." 
He came back with the fresh and delightful phrase "packaging clouds", and the book was better for it.

As well as words and phrases that are overused and unintentionally repeated, there are some you can never say — you have to find ways to walk around it. But let's have a look at those next time, because I expect you have some other things to be getting on with.


Editing for publication

Not everyone who reads here is a writer, but many of you are, so I thought you might be interested in further thoughts about editing your own work or other people's.

Here are some things I look out for.

Word count is a big issue — many are the novelists who turn in a 100K manuscript when their contract says 65K. It comes back to them to be cut drastically, and this is hard work. If it's a magazine article you're writing, and they asked you for 400 words and you sent them 496, the editor will have to shorten it — and who's to say if the 96 words taken out are the ones you would have chosen to lose? If you're basically lazy like me, get it right the first time; if the content matters to you, see to it that you won't imperil it by sending in excessive word length. 

If you follow the system I described in the previous post, problems of word count will simply go away.

De-coking the prose is an inevitable task. Let me give you some examples.

Suppose you get a passage like this:


Whether editing someone else's work or my own, here's how I'd tackle that section:


First I'd look for, and eliminate, flocks of thats (given in red).

Every writer overdoes the thats, even skilled and famous ones. Look, for instance, at this famous prayer by Thomas Merton:


Beautiful, isn't it? I love it. But it does have a flock of thats. Had I the privilege of editing it for him, here's what I would do:


You may need to click on it to see properly, because all the thats are identified in red, but I've left some in and taken the extraneous ones out. I think the rest is fine.

So get rid of the flocks of thats.

Back to our passage again:


In green I've shown small and weak words. Some may be essential, but — like the weak cross-shoots in an apple tree — they'll need pruning. 

The purple word — 'has' — is a repetition. Repeating boring little words slows down your prose. 

In blue, I've identified instances of the verb "to be". Limit it.

In pink, are the qualifications hesitant people insert into what they say. Mine usually diminish: I'll say, "It's a little bit chilly today," or, "I'm rather hungry." I find it hard to convince myself that the "little bit" and the "rather" can just go.

By contrast, some writers/conversationalists pump up their content — everyone they meet is EXTRAORDINARY or AMAZING. So, "Simon has done the most EXTRAORDINARY work in the AMAZING orphanage he's started."

Irritatingly, you learn nothing there about the orphanage (except that it exists), and not much about Simon (except that he started it). Instead, you are fed your own response. This is mere marketing.

So, I might reduce our passage to this:


But then I see I've lost something (literally). Look at the original:


The first three black words are "Something . . . important . . . me".  
The writer is telling us about herself, not about architecture. How I rendered the passage —


— puts the house first and the person second, which is wrong for the feeling the writer intends.

So I might try this:


That's better. The prose is crisper than the original, given interest by  breaking it up into question and answer, starts with the person and lets the house follow, and includes the important addition of why the windows are important — not for the look of the building but for the light they let in.

Three other essential considerations: repetition in its various forms, clichés and Unmentionables. I think I'll come back to those tomorrow, though, or this post will become a little bit  indigestible.