2016 – The Year of the Reading Slump

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For the last couple of years, I’ve kept a record of the books I’ve read (I know, I need to get out more!) and 2015’s total was 44. This wasn’t as many as I’d hoped to read but life got in the way. This year, the total is a pathetic 14!

But I have a very good excuse… life didn’t just get in the way, it changed, BIG time. The major change was that along with my business partner, Anne Glennie, we set up Cranachan Publishing and this made a massive impact on my reading habits.

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I started the year with a healthy tbr pile courtesy of Santa but sadly some of them remain on my beside table. No sooner had Cranachan opened to submissions our inbox was flooded with sample chapters and there was a steady flow throughout 2016 which equated to hunners of thousands of words being read by us both! From these initial submissions, we requested 12 full manuscripts and from these we signed 7 authors. This makes my lack of ‘pleasure’ reading in 2016 understandable but still disappointing as I’m constantly hearing of books I “must read”.

With limited time for my own choice of reading material, it’s meant that I’ve had to be even more ruthless and I’m far more likely to abandon a book these days after only a few pages (I used to operate a ‘you’ve got 50 pages to hook me’ rule). I also now find it hard to read without my editing ‘hat’ on and with a critical eye, the act of reading isn’t as relaxing.

fullsizerenBut the upside is that although I’ve given up on quite a few books, the ones I did finish were all very good apart from two * which disappointed and weren’t worth persevering with to the end. The others on the list were all excellent. Last year, my top pick was by Benjamin Myers and this year I read Beastings by him and it blew me away too. How to be Both by Ali Smith didn’t appeal but it was highly recommended and I’m so glad I listened to the praise as it was such a very clever book.

But hard though it was to choose, I settled on my favourite book of the year as My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal. This short video explains why I picked it and reminded me that I was glad I had an appointment at the hairdresser the next day!

 

Here’s the full list (in order of reading) which is once again dominated by female writers (10/13 to save you counting!) although the gender bias is always unconscious.

  1. How to be Both by Ali Smith
  2. Armadillo by Pauline Lynch
  3. After You * by JoJo Moyes
  4. Viral by Helen Fitzgerald
  5. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
  6. My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal
  7. The Jump by Doug Johnstone
  8. Asking for It by Louise O’Neill
  9. Beastings by Benjamin Myers
  10. Paulina and Fran * by Rachel B. Glaser
  11. The Siege by Helen Dunmore
  12. Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
  13. Docherty by William McIIvanney
  14. The Mountain in my Shoe by Louise Beech

What was your favourite read of 2016? My new year’s resolution is to get my personal reading back on track and tackle my TBR pile that Santa will hopefully add to!

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Cover Reveal for Mary’s the Name

ross-sayers-bio-photoAnyone who is a regular reader of this blog, or follows me on social media, will know that I’m a huge fan of Roddy Doyle. Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha had a big influence on me as a writer and one of my favourite books is The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe. I also recommend The Good Son by Paul McVeigh which is another book by an Irish writer with a child as a narrator. It’s easy to spot the theme!

I enjoy reading and writing black comedy which features settings I can identify with and focuses on endearing characters. So perhaps it’s not hard to understand that when I was wearing my Cranachan Publishing ‘hat’ I was very excited when we received a submission from a new Scottish writer, Ross Sayers. His debut novel, Mary’s the Name, is told from the point of view of eight-year-old Mary and her story stole my heart.

The blurb explains why I wanted Cranachan to publish Mary’s the Name.

“When me and Granpa watched James Bond films, he told me not to be scared because people didn’t have guns like that in Scotland. That must’ve been why the robbers used hammers.”

Orphaned Mary lives with her granpa, but after he is mixed up in a robbery at the bookies where he works, they flee to the Isle of Skye.

Gradually, Mary realises that her granpa is involved. And the robbers are coming after him—and their money. Mary’s quirky outlook on life, loss, and her love of all things Elvis, will capture your heart.

Full of witty Scots banter, Mary’s the Name will have you reaching for the hankies, first with laughter, then with tears

Mary’s the Name is a very special book and needed a very special cover. My business partner, Anne Glennie, is the design guru and the pressure was on her to create a cover that lived up to the contents.  Anne describes the process behind the final cover…

marys-the-name-pitch-cover-002“The initial cover concepts all included child-like handwritten fonts for the title. As the narrator, Mary’s eight-year-old voice brings the text to life – it seemed to make sense to allude to this on the cover. However, despite several images and concepts, we failed to capture Mary’s energy. We then took a different tack, trying a more stylised cover. Mary loves music and plays her keyboard throughout as she hopes one day to become a concert pianist – so we mocked up several piano themed covers – and all agreed on a very simple, but striking, black and white cover depicting some piano keys. Then we left it to the side, to marinate.

But something wasn’t right. We hadn’t captured Mary’s essence – or any essence – the cover was too plain and too simple – it was definitely a case of style over substance. Covers need to intrigue or attract readers, to generate some sort of response. It was back to the drawing board – again! We reviewed the initial concepts with a fresh eye… and the image of Mary and her granpa by the edge of the sea under a stormy sky was the definite winner. It encapsulated the relationship which is central to the story, it provided a clear setting – and the storm clouds foreshadowed the events which would unfold. With a change of font and colour – we had a cover that we all loved. And the funny thing? We’d come full circle – choosing in the end the very image that we’d started with in the first place.”

mtn-ebook-cover-finalWe’re both chuffed to bits with the result and the main thing is, Ross is too! Here’s his response to the cover…

“We considered a lot of options, but I couldn’t be happier with the final result. I love the evocative landscape and the way the pink really leaps off the page.”

What do you think? Do you love it as much as we do?

You Don’t Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

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A dream come true! Couldn’t resist a ‘shelfie’ in Waterstones in Falkirk.

After writing hunners of thousands of words over the last ten years which made their way into short stories and three novels I FINALLY achieved my dream of having a book traditionally published. Along the way there were more rejections than boosts but I kept the faith and kept writing and I did it!

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With brilliant Falkirk launch host – writer Paul Cuddihy.

The climax of the ‘journey’ was to stand in front of my family and friends and read from Talk of the Toun at the packed launch events in Falkirk and Glasgow in association with Waterstones.

It was so exciting to get to this point but scary too as I didn’t want to disappoint the folk who’d encouraged and supported me along the way. This was a milestone in my life and not only did I want to enjoy it, I wanted it to be a success. I felt under pressure to live up to the hype I’d been drumming up for months. The nerves kicked in days before when it all started to feel surreal when I opened a copy of the Daily Record and the Herald and there was my book and my face in national newspapers. The madness continued with the blog tour meaning there was lots of online book banter and I still found it hard to get my head around the fact that I had readers, like a real writer!

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Glasgow launch host – talented writer Karen Campbell.

It’s a privilege to be published and an honour to think people want to spend their hard-earned cash and precious leisure time getting to know the characters I created.

It’s been a helluva ride and I’d like to take the chance to thank those who’ve helped me achieve my dream. Top of the list is my husband Donald, the love of my life, who has always believed in me and supported me every word of the way.

I am also lucky to count Karen Campbell and Anne Glennie as close friends and my unofficial mentors and they continue to be a great source of encouragement and inspiration.

 

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My MLitt classmates from Stirling University.

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Pals who took the cover theme to another level!

Credit too goes to my MLitt classmates and tutor Paula Morris, fellow Thunder Point writer Margot McCuaig, and far too many long-suffering pals to name here who acted as cheerleaders, minus the pom poms.

A special thank you must also go to Seonaid and Huw Francis at ThunderPoint who have worked hard to make Talk of the Toun a reality.

 

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Me with hubby and youngest son (unfortunately my eldest son had already left before the family photo shoot!).

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Sharing the moment with my proud mum and wee sister.

 

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My dog Jess loved Talk of the Toun – I hope if you read it you enjoy it too!

 

(Falkirk launch photos credited to Grandaddy Flash photography)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to be a Learner

Two of my friends, Matthew Boyle and Anne Glennie are involved in the Each and Every Dog website. It’s dedicated to exploring what it means to learn, to be educated and to use learning and education to help create a socially just society. Continually learning together should be an opportunity to make the world a better place in which to live.  The site is a forum and magazine to explore practices, ideas and the people that they believe are doing this. Click here to find out more.

Following their recent podcast, they invited listeners to submit a post about something they have found hard about learning, or have struggled with.  I took up the challenge and submitted this post.

After 25 years working in education and training I was comfortable in my role. I knew what I was doing and that I was good at it. This meant a hassle free work life and it would’ve been an easy option to continue spinning round on the hamster wheel. But my job wasn’t fulfilling and as far as expressing my creativity, I was in serious danger of ‘use it or lose it’.  I had two options. I could accept that my job didn’t stimulate me and suck it up or I could pursue my aspirations to be a published (in the traditional sense) writer and go back to uni to study for an MLitt in Creative Writing. I was lucky to have the support of my hubby so I took a deep breath and plunged into life as a mature student.

Being back on campus surrounded by bright young things the same age as my sons was weird. I didn’t know where I was going or how to get tokens to operate the printer or how to upload an assignment digitally. It was all new. It was daunting. It was scary.

IMG (2)Having spent my career training teachers and assessing schools, it felt odd to be the pupil and to concede that I wasn’t the expert in the room. This role reversal was a difficult transition for a control freak like me. I was used to dishing out the feedback and enjoyed the balance of power being in my favour.

A major element of the course was to have my writing ‘workshopped’ by the tutor and others in the class. This was the hardest part of all.  Offering up my words to be ripped apart made me feel very insecure. Was I wasting time and money on the course? Was my writing good enough? I had to learn to take harsh criticism and to decide whether to accept it or reject it. Ultimately, the challenge was to find my writing ‘voice’. I played around with different styles and tone until I found a voice that matched what I wanted to say. 

In my writing, I want to explore issues such as social class and identity and it became apparent that the best way for me to create authenticity was to use Scots dialect. It’s taken me ten years of writing to work out that I want my writing to reflect my working class upbringing in a credible way. My third novel, Talk of the Toun, is due to be published by ThunderPoint in October and will be my debut.  The journey to publication has been a long one with many disappointments and frustrations along the way. But it’s also been fun, exciting and the climax of a lifelong ambition. And however hard it might be, I’ve still got a lot to learn…

Walk the Walk,Talk the Talk

photo.JPG gggPowerPoint is an essential element of my day job but many dread the thought of sitting through slides of bullet points and falling victim to ‘death by PowerPoint’. But it’s my comfort zone and needn’t be boring if it’s used in an interesting way. My buddy, Anne Glennie, gave me an excellent book as part of my Christmas package of pressies (she also had postcards made with a line from my novel and filled a Christmas tree bauble with quotes from the story (now that’s what I’d call a thoughtful gift!)

 

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The book, Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, highlighted that the best presentations revolve around human stories and that images with very minimal words are most effective. I kept this advice in mind when I was asked by my cousin, Jane, to speak at the Holy Cross Women’s Guild in Croy (in desperate need to fill her programme of speakers).  My connection with Croy, a small mining village in North Lanarkshire, is that it’s where my dad was born and brought up as one of a family of fourteen (yes, you read that right – fourteen!) children.  He told me and my sister Marie many stories of his childhood, some funny and some sad but all highly entertaining. When he died suddenly over eight years ago, I was devastated to realise that I’d never taken the opportunity to write these stories down and so lots of them died with him. For my talk to the ‘guilders’ I showed family photos and used images of places like Moniack Mhor to help to illustrate how I’ve developed as a storyteller like my dad and gran.

I retold some of these stories to the women who’d turned up at the chapel hall to hear the ‘surprise speaker’ and I hoped it was a pleasant surprise to listen to my stories and follow my writing ‘journey’. Public speaking is my day job so I wasn’t nervous about standing up in front of the group. But this was my first ever gig as a writer and also in front of my auntie Rachel, auntie Sadie and cousins Jane, Anne S and Anne P so I felt under pressure not to disappoint them. I’d given myself the title as ‘writer’ in my introduction so I wanted to prove I could live up to it.

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My dad’s childhood was a rich source of stories.

It was also a challenge to keep the interest of a diverse age range of women who hadn’t chosen to come to hear me and none of whom are writers and some not readers either. I needn’t have worried, as my dad was a Meechan, the family connection meant they were a very forgiving audience and I felt genuine warmth from the women.

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Being presented with beautiful ‘thank you’ flowers by my lovely cousin Jane.

 

At the end, many of them spoke to me to say that they were proud that I’ve achieved my dream of having a book published after all these years. A sense of identity is a key theme in my novel and being surrounded by loving folk who are happy to see me achieve my goal was a great reminder of who I am and that family is what matters most.

How important is the support of family and friends in your writing?

The End of an Edit

Laugh at me if you like but I don’t mind admitting that when I reached the final page of THE BIG EDIT (TBE), I felt a bit emotional. If it hadn’t been a school night, I would’ve popped a celebratory cork (any excuse, I know).

download (2)It feels like I’ve been working on TBE for a looong time! In reality, I started the process last September and seven months later I’ve finally finished. In the course of TBE, I somehow managed to increase the word count by almost 20k. This wasn’t a conscious decision to pad out the story, it was simply the realisation that there were gaps all over the place and certain scenes were under-written. My writing can be dialogue heavy and I often forget that a bit more description is required to create a sense of place. So by darning a few holes here and there, the total word count is now 102k.

This is the third novel I’ve written and I’ve used an entirely different approach – the freefall method. I’ve blogged before about the pros and cons of the freefall method and the main negative is that TBE has taken much much longer than I’d have liked as my first draft was rougher than rough with hunners of typos, plot inconsistences, repetitive words and phrases – pretty guff in fact.  No wonder it’s taken me forever to reach page 364!

imagesI also used a new process for TBE. This time, I printed off the manuscript as I find it easier to spot mistakes on paper than on the screen. Picturing myself as Miss Jean Brodie, I unleashed my red pen until most pages had suffered a bloodbath of ink. I did the paper edit a few pages at a time and then read these pages aloud. Hearing the rhythm of the words really helped spot clunky phrases before I made any changes on screen. It was a three part process – edit on paper, edit aloud, edit on screen.

Hopefully TBE will have been worth all the time and effort and it means that I can now take the next step. After a few more minor tweaks (there’s always a better word, phrase…) I need to take a deep breath and send it to my two beta readers – both willing victims close friends. I’ve asked my colleague Anne Glennie, a literacy expert and writer Karen Campbell, my unofficial mentor to cast their critical eyes over my manuscript and offer their initial thoughts. I know from previous experience that they will give me honest feedback and not just tell me what I want to hear. There’s no point in asking your pal to massage your ego when you need a genuine critique although I hope they’re not too harsh…

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What’s your editing process? Do you use trusted beta readers to give you initial feedback?

 

 

 

Grey Hair and Graduation

Me, praying that I make it back to my seat without going head over heels down the stairs.

Twenty two years ago I graduated with a BEd in Primary Teaching and never for one moment expected to graduate again for a second time.  But last Friday, I was strutting across the stage of the Albert Halls (no, not THE Royal Albert Hall in London) in Stirling to receive my masters degree in Creative Writing. With Merit!

This time around I had a new surname (pronounced incorrectly at the ceremony. Grrr!!!) was much heavier, with wrinkles round the eyes and straight from an emergency hairdresser appointment to cover my grey haired roots. And yet, I still felt great.

There was a fantastic atmosphere at the ceremony and the Chancellor of the University, Dr James Naughtie delivered a thought-provoking and inspiring speech about his recent trip to Delhi where he encountered young children living in extreme poverty and yet they had high ambitions for their future careers.

Soppy caption alert! “Without your unconditional love and support, none of it would have been possible…”

It was a timely reminder for me that I am very lucky to have had the financial and the emotional support of my long-suffering hubby which allowed me to pursue my writing goals. He has been there for me every step of the way and almost never got to see me graduate when I somehow managed to lose his golden ticket for the ceremony, only to reclaim it at the ‘robing room’ with minutes to spare!


So now I can call myself Helen MacKinven BEd MLitt but I’m still wondering what I want to be when I grow up. When I left my day job to commit to the MLitt course full-time, I was never under any illusion that the qualification would lead to an amazing job in the literary world. But I did hope that it would mean that I could gain the credibility to call myself a proper writer, whatever that means.

My writing buddy, Anne Glennie likened the MLitt course as a sort of ‘kite mark’ for your writing skills in that it indicates a certain level of quality. Of course it doesn’t mean that because I’ve completed a uni course that I’m a better writer than someone who doesn’t have a formal qualification but it does mean that my effort to develop my writing skills has been professionally recognised.

The MLitt course at Stirling University was recently featured in the Herald’s Scottish Review of Books where the course was described as “taught by writers for writers”.  This was one of the highlights for me as the course was led by award-winning fiction writer Paula Morris and during the two semesters I had the opportunity to learn from Andrew O’Hagan, DBC Pierre, Linda Cracknell, Eleanor Updale and Ewan Morrison. There’s no way that I would ever have had the chance to engage with such talented individuals so for that reason alone the course was invaluable.

But where to now? Getting the degree was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. I’ve got the official rubber stamp to prove that I’m serious about my writing, it’s more than a hobby for me, but that doesn’t mean that I have a new career, well not yet. Like most other writers, I need a day job too and after a year out to indulge myself in pursuing my passion, I need to strike a balance between time for writing and contributing to the household income, well at least until I publish that best seller I’m working on…