Never Say Never

I don’t want to believe that my latest novel will never be published. Never is a strong word. But it’s a word that I might have to accept. This time last year, I was editing my novel after receiving feedback from two trusted readers and established writers. Both gave me constructive criticism and I spent another couple of months taking it on board and editing my novel, again and again.

By April, I was ready to submit my novel to literary agents and the few publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts. I’ve been through this process before so I was aware of how difficult it was to secure a publishing deal, especially for a novel using Scots dialect which might only appeal to a niche market. I braced myself for rejections and sure enough I got several knockbacks, and most didn’t even bother to reply.

Some of the feedback softened the edge of the rejection, “I was very impressed by your writing…” Although there was always a BUT and ultimately, no matter how nicely worded, the emails ended in a rejection.

I’ve tried my very best to find a publisher as passionate about my novel as I am, but I’ve reached the point where my optimism has run out. Last week, I made a final attempt to attract interest by taking part in the #XpoNorth Twitter pitch event where writers tweet about their novel in the hope of hooking an agent or publisher. I got ‘likes’ from potential readers but not even a nibble from anyone in the industry. In some ways it gave me a sense of closure, at least for now.

The highlight of my research trip to St Petersburg.

Committing to writing a novel is a huge investment of time and effort. I spent two years reading, researching (including a trip to Russia!) and writing about characters and a story I wanted to share. The stakes were high, and I poured my heart and soul into this novel although on this bet the gamble hasn’t paid off.

What am I writing now? The answer is nothing. Writing a novel is a massive undertaking and you need to really want to tell the story so badly that you’re prepared to spend many months tapping away on your laptop with no guarantee of it ever being read.

Right now, I don’t have an idea for a novel that is strong enough for me to risk using up all that energy. I’ve only got so much to give on every level and time is precious. I still hope to be invited to deliver creative writing workshops and speak about my novel and my writing ‘journey’ but for now I’m a writer who isn’t writing.

Filling the void isn’t hard. I’ve always loved art and for the last couple of years I’ve been going to life drawing classes. I’m loving getting back into drawing. This creative outlet is my main focus at the moment and will maybe give me timeout to let writing ideas simmer in the background.

I’ve also got a grandson due to make his appearance in the world at the end of March and I want to have lots of time to spend getting to know him, rather than being bent over a keyboard.

A Year of Books

Too many books, too little time.

This realisation will haunt me to my grave. I’m constantly adding titles to my ‘to be read’ list in the full knowledge that I can’t read fast enough to keep up!

That’s why I have to be very selective and only read books that I feel confident won’t be a waste of precious reading time. I make my choices based on reviews featured on literary blogs, magazines and word-of-mouth recommendations and unlike previous years, this year I’ve not abandoned a single book. The fact that I finished all 55 books means I rate them but some more than others which means they don’t earn a place on my bookshelves. I love books but I also love space. This means I don’t want to clutter up my home with bookcases everywhere so when I moved to this house seven years ago, I bought two bookcases and decided on a ‘one in, one out’ policy rather than having to add more shelving. The books that don’t make the grade get donated to the charity shop or passed on to friends and only very few books keep their place on the shelves permanently.

Some of these retain their spot for sentimental reasons such as the signed copy of Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. He came to give a masterclass when I did my MLitt so the book has happy memories of a year when I immersed myself in books and writing. Favourite authors have been awarded a whole section when I’ve read several of their books. I have all 7 titles written by my close friend, Karen Campbell, whose latest novel, The Sound of the Hours, came out this year and will always be guaranteed a space in my bookcase. If you haven’t read it yet, make sure it’s on your 2020 tbr list – I promise you’ll not be disappointed!

Looking at the list of 55 books, like last year, I notice that I’ve read a few memoirs. My default setting is cynical, and I think that’s why memoirs appeal to me. Sometimes fiction novels can be too farfetched for me and I like a story based on true life or an insight into someone’s world.

I’m also drawn to shorter novels. If a book is a doorstopper it puts me off. I like to read a different book every week so one that will involve a couple of weeks reading time is a big commitment. I read Becoming, Michelle Obama’s chunky 400 page memoir and although I found it interesting and inspiring, there was far too much detail for me.

Stand out books of the year? As always, it’s hard to pick only a few but the ones that have secured their place in the bookcase alongside The Sound of the Hours are: –

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

 

Which books would you suggest that I add to my 2020 tbr list?

Blether, Banter and Books

Book Week Scotland (BWS) is an annual celebration of books and reading that takes place across the country and I love it both as a reader and a writer.

This year’s theme was ‘blether’ to encourage people of all ages and walks of life to come together in libraries, schools, community venues and workplaces to share and enjoy books and reading. For me, it meant clocking up 259 miles to get to 6 very different events.

To kick off BWS, I was lucky to get the chance to meet readers at Fallin Library on the outskirts of Stirling. I’m sure the warm welcome by Linda, the librarian, not to mention the home baking and tea enticed the audience to venture out on a bitterly cold afternoon to attend the event. I’d guess that the average age of the audience was 78 and blether was the perfect fit for this group who loved the banter.

I had a quick turnaround for an outfit change (Fallin Library was very warm – need I say more!) before I made my way to Grangemouth Library where I hosted Falkirk Libraries Writing Rammy prize giving event. It was a real pleasure to meet such a talented group of writers and an absolute privilege to hear them read out their winning poems and short stories. Very inspiring!

On Tuesday night I could relax as I was in the audience rather than on the stage. This BWS event was organised by In Motion Theatre, a Scottish-based theatre company who worked with 15 writers to create a 10-minute play inspired by their favourite book. I was there to support my writing pal, Alison Gray, whose piece was called Selkie Story inspired by Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales by Theresa Breslin. It was an interesting evening as all five plays were very different and had the potential to be developed into longer pieces.

Another day, another BWS event and Wednesday found me travelling to the Stirling Campus of Forth Valley College. I was there to hear Kerry Hudson talk about her memoir, Lowborn describing the challenges she faced growing up in poverty. I’ve read all of Kerry books and it was lovely to meet her in person. I’ve got huge respect for Kerry sharing her traumatic story and feel it’s a ‘must read’ for anyone working with children. It’s not an easy read but a very worthwhile one.

​On Thursday, I headed east to visit Broughton High School in Edinburgh to work with Higher English pupils on their creative writing. I really enjoy working with groups to help them express themselves in words and hopefully the pupils I met will build on the ideas and tips from the session to develop their writing in school and beyond.

That night, I attended the final BWS event for me which was held in Wishaw Library where I went to hear Melanie Reid discuss her memoir, The World I Fell Out Of. I’m ashamed to admit that until reading Melanie’s book I’d never really considered how someone paralysed by a spinal injury manages to cope on a daily basis. It really made me stop and think about how lucky I am to be able-bodied and I’d challenge anyone to read it and not be moved and inspired by her story.

So, it was a busy week for me zig zagging across central Scotland and I thoroughly enjoyed every event. As a reader, I got to meet 2 authors I admire, I saw 5 short plays and as a writer I got to meet readers and new writers of the future. What’s not to love about a week where it’s all about books and reading?

Did you attend any BWS events?

 

The Waiting Game

When I first started blogging, the aim was to record my writing ‘journey’ and the experience of being a mature student on an MLitt course. A lot has happened since 2011, and back then there was no shortage of topics to explore when guest speakers visited the uni, attending workshops and book events, and all the ups and downs of having two books published.

But I haven’t blogged regularly for quite some time. Mainly because the ‘firsts’ such as the excitement of my debut novel being launched are behind me. Also, the act of writing is a solitary one and it takes a long time (in my case) to write a book so there’s not much to say in between typing ‘Chapter One’ and ‘The End’.

For my latest novel, Sisters in Solidarity, it’s been an even longer process as it included a research trip to Russia (which definitely merited a blog post!). After having my manuscript critiqued, I’ve now completed a third full edit and in many ways I’m back to where I started all those years ago – seeking a literary agent…

Any writer will tell you that this isn’t easy. Literary agents receive thousands of submissions a year and sometimes I feel as if there are more writers out there than readers! The job of finding an agent involves scouring the internet, reading their submission guidelines and then preparing the material requested.

It can feel as if every agent wants a different submission package. Some want a 10k word sample, others want the opening three chapters or 50 pages. Some ask you to write a one line ‘elevator pitch’, a back cover blurb or a three-line synopsis. The variations can mean that it’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’ and requires a lot of time and effort. This is especially true when you’re asked to select the agent you’re submitting to which can mean you have to read a dozen biographies before you try and guess which one will be the right match for your writing. It can seem as if you have as much chance of winning the lottery!

Then you sit back and wait. And wait and wait and wait. Most agencies aim to respond, within 8-12 weeks IF they’re interested in reading the full manuscript. I started the process a couple of weeks ago and submitted to an agency on a Friday and received a standard form rejection on the Monday. Another has got back to me with the feedback that my novel sounds “too niche” for them. That’s the harsh reminder that literary taste is highly subjective. One person’s “too niche” might be another’s “exactly what I’m looking for”.

Of course, a poorly written novel won’t stand a chance of being snapped up, but even a well written novel has to rely on luck. Will it arrive in the right agent’s inbox at the right time? All I can do is hope someone out there is interested in my manuscript and all my time and effort pays off. Wish me luck!

In the meantime, all I can do is keep submitting and wait…

2018 in Books

It was amazing to visit Moscow for my 50th.

So, it’s that time of year again when I blog (a rare occurrence these days!) about the books that I’ve read during 2018.

It’s been an interesting year for me, the highlight was turning 50 which was a great excuse to go on a special birthday trip to Russia. The trip was part holiday, part research for my latest novel which I’m currently editing. This meant that a few of the books I read this were either related to the Siege of Leningrad or were fiction novels set in Russia.

I also read more non-fiction books and memoirs than I usually do, my favourites being Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey saka Loki and I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell.

As in previous years, I’ve made a conscious effort to read more books which are set in parts of the world that I’ve limited knowledge of and which feature issues I’d like to learn more about. Ones that stand out from these are Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais, White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris and Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo.

Again, I also tried to read more books by male writers and novels which made a big impression on were The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers and Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When choosing a book, I rarely make bad choices as I visit review websites that I rate and ask for word of mouth recommendations. But inevitably, there will be some books that I abandon for a variety of reasons, mainly because I haven’t connected with the characters and don’t care what happens next. This year, I started and failed to finish 6 books (if it feels like a chore to keep reading then it’s time to stop). The most notable one that I gave up on halfway through was this year’s Booker prize winner – Milkman by Anna Burns. I was keen to read this book and initially I was engaged by the voice and the setting. However, the stream of consciousness style became wearing and I grew bored with the slow pace. I skipped to the end, read the last couple of chapters and was glad to feel that it didn’t seem as if I’d missed much!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In total, I read 54 books and the fact that I finished them means that I rate them all, although some more than others. There were a few books that I really wanted to love but left me disappointed. These were This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan, My Beautiful Friend by Elena Ferrante and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney.  But these, along with the six books that I couldn’t bear to finish, are highly acclaimed novels which emphasises the point that taste in books, like everything else, is highly subjective.

It’s really hard to choose a favourite book from the 54 so I’ll pick out 9 (because that number fits nicely into the template for the images of the book covers). It’s an eclectic mix and I would highly recommend each title as being books which kept me thinking long after I read ‘the end’. For me, that’s the mark of an excellent book and as a writer, to engage a reader on a deeper level is the ultimate goal.

 

What were your top reads of 2018?

From Russia with Love

Between novels being published, there’s often not a lot of news for a writer to share but this update is a big deal for me!

I celebrated a milestone birthday (21, again!) last week and used it as a good excuse to go on a special holiday to Russia, a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. We started off in Moscow and did all the usual touristy stuff but then took the train to St Petersburg for a few days.

This was more of a ‘work’ than ‘play’ trip as the novel I’m writing refers to the Siege of Leningrad and I wanted to do some research. To get a feel for the impact on the city, I went on a private walking tour of the main sights related to the siege and also to the museum dedicated to the events (essential to have a guide as the signs are only in Russian)


After the tour, I met with a retired curator who is an expert in the albums referred to in my novel which contain messages of support and solidarity between the women in Leningrad and Airdrie and Coatbridge, my local area. Irina’s specialist input and generosity in sharing her extensive knowledge was invaluable preparation for the following day.

This final appointment took a lot of planning to make it happen but it was well worth the effort. The highlight of my visit to St Petersburg was when I had the absolute privilege of a private viewing of the album which was sent from Scotland and is now in possession of the state history museum. To be allowed this opportunity was an honour and an emotional experience. I’m now home and even more fired up to attempt to bring this amazing story to life. Better stop eating birthday cake and get back to my desk and writing then!

Have you made a special trip for research? Or celebrated a big birthday somewhere that was on your ‘bucket list’?

My #FridayReads of 2017

Each week, I use the hashtag #FridayReads to tweet about the book I’m currently reading. I also enjoy keeping a record of all the books I’ve read over the year. Last year ended with a dire (for good reasons) total and I hoped that I would reach 50 (I like round numbers) books in 2017. Unfortunately, my current read will only make a total of 46.As in previous years, I noticed that I unconsciously read more books written by women and also mainly set in the UK, particularly in Scotland or Ireland and contemporary rather than historical. I suppose it’s natural to veer towards the genre that I choose to write but this year I made an effort to try to redress the balance.

Out of the total, I also read 1 short story collection, as well as 1 non-fiction, 1 children’s novel and 2 Young Adult novels as research for my day job work.

I enjoy reading book reviews and seeing recommendations on Twitter which means that I carefully pick my next read and the result is that I rarely make a poor choice.

But occasionally, I make an impulse buy and one of these was the only book I failed to finish this year. I’m drawn to dark themes but sometimes I like to lighten the mood with a more heart-warming book. I bought a major bestseller at the airport for a holiday read but I abandoned The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan after 100 pages. It had an interesting premise and I liked the opening pages but the characters and plot felt too twee for my tastes and I couldn’t bear to read on. There was only one book which I wished I hadn’t bothered to finish and it was Mercy Seat by Wayne Price. I was thankful that it was a charity shop purchase or I’d feel robbed.

Out of the 46, it’s very difficult to choose favourites but the top ten (in no particular order, as they say on the X Factor) which stood out are:

1) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
2) Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers
3) Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty
4) My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
5) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
6) His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnett
7) Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
8) Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
9) The Party by Elizabeth Day
10) Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

One thing I noticed about several books I read this year was that speech marks weren’t used for dialogue. This seems to be a trend but for me it serves no purpose other than making the reader work harder than necessary. This style didn’t put me off any of the books but did irritate me. Call me old-fashioned but speech marks have a function so why not let them do their job? I understand that sometimes the style is used to convey a stream of consciousness and can be effective but often it adds nothing to my experience as a reader. As a writer myself, I’m more concerned with keeping the narrative flowing rather than adopting pretentious quirks. Rant over.

I also noticed that slavery seems to be a popular theme in fiction and my current #FridayReads is Sugar Money by Jane Harris. This is the third slavery themed novel I’ve read this year and it’s shaping up to be as powerful a read as the other two.

The next novel on my TBR pile is The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. I have high hopes for this chunky novel and look forward to 2018 being a bumper year for quality fiction (with speech marks, please!).

 

What were your top picks of the year?