Friends with Benefits (of the literary kind only!)

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Max and Jess lapping up the spring sunshine

Yesterday I walked my two dogs in the fields behind my house on a beautiful sunny spring day. And I felt lucky. This isn’t going to be a ‘count my blessings’ cheesy post but I do try to appreciate simple pleasures and I don’t take anything for granted, especially having a loving family and great friends in my life.

 

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Having a support network is really important to me (I’ve certainly tested those close to me over the years!) and it means a lot when folk are genuinely interested in my writing journey. When I finished my MLitt in 2012, I was cut loose from the demands of the course and could easily have let my writing ambitions drift without assignment and dissertation deadlines. After being part of a tight-knit group for a year, it would also be easy to feel isolated and worry that I’d need to take the next steps on my writing journey on my tod.

That’s why I feel lucky when I meet up with friends from my uni class to go to literary events and to catch up for a good blether. Last week, the gathering was at my house (my hostess skills were challenged with hubby aka the Kitchen King absent). We’ve made an effort to stay in touch after graduation and this was a chance to share our news, talk about books, writers we admire, how our own writing was progressing (or not!) and put the world to rights including a lively discussion on the media coverage of the Referendum (I finally got round to reading And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson – a must read before the independence vote. It’s an epic tale of Scotland’s political history over the last 50 years and is very cleverly structured). Over a few glasses of fizz and between me stressing over the lasagne not cooking fast enough and forgetting to feed the stove, we also talked about senses and how smell is so important when remembering someone close to you – lentil soup and Imperial Leather soap reminded one of our group of his granny. These wee chats might seem insignificant but for me they stimulate all sorts of ideas for my writing.

download (2)But the benefit of our get-togethers is the feeling of being part of a supportive like-minded group of creative people.  This is an issue which was highlighted in the latest edition of Mslexia magazine. The article, ‘What Katie Did Next’ by Katie M Anderson acknowledged that after finishing a degree many students return to full-time jobs making it harder to maintain momentum. She suggests meeting fellow students, attending literary events, writing workshops, and submitting to competitions (smug tick in all the boxes for me!).

Seven months after finishing the first draft of my novel and STILL editing, I also related to “the problem of heightened expectation…an MA is not a ‘golden ticket’ – most of us don’t appear on the other side with a finished publishable work to show for it.”

download (3)The article was particularly relevant following the stushie in the media over Hanif Kureishi comments in The Telegraph that creative writing courses are a waste of time (the subject of a previous blog post). The Buddha of Suburbia author attacked expensive University courses and their ‘talentless’ students, despite the fact he teaches creative writing at Kingston University and claimed it would be “madness” to pay thousands to enrol in an MA.

In the Mslexia article, a small survey of graduates stated that after graduation, 55% finished the book they were writing, 30% were taken on by a literary agent and 27% were published.  So was it worth it for this group of graduates? Only the individual can decide what ‘success’ means to them. At the very least, whilst my novel is still a WIP and unpublished, I have been successful in gaining a group of friends I admire and respect, and that’s something I value highly and can’t put a price on.

Was your creative writing course worthwhile? Do you feel the need for support from a writing group? How do your family and friends support your writing ambitions?

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Writers Write

So, my last post was guest writer, Paul Cuddihy sharing his top ten tips for writing and the most obvious one was no. 10- WRITE!!! It’s simple. Writers write.

But if you need external encouragement you could always sign up to NaNoWriMo (National Writing Novel Writing Month) to keep your momentum going. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Nanowrimo is an annual internet-based creative writing project which challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30 and it accepts entries from around the world.

The project started in 1999 with just 21 participants, but by the 2010 event over 200,000 people took part – writing a total of over 2.8 billion words. I’ve never participated before but I did consider it this year, albeit only for a nanosecond (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

But why when I claim to be a writer do I need a gimmick to keep me going?

I read a tweet recently by a writer saying if you call yourself a writer then you should be writing a minimum of 100 words a day (Paul and most other serious writers do 1000+) and if not, why not? No excuses.

I had to hang my head in shame.

I haven’t written a word of fiction since I submitted my dissertation at the end of August. Did I have a good excuse? Well I could say that after a piece of writing has been reworked over and over again, I was sick of the sight of my dissertation by the time I handed it in. Or I could say that I was busy looking for a new day job now that the course has ended but lots of writers work full-time and still manage to reach their daily word count. Or I could say that after moving house I had lots of DIY projects to keep me away from the laptop.

Or I could just be honest and say that I am a writer that isn’t writing at the moment, no excuses.

I have an idea though. It’s THE story I believe that I need to tell. Some writers would start scribbling the minute they had the idea but I’m letting my story-line grow until the roots have formed properly and it is ready to poke its head into the daylight and sprout leaves. I’ve also been reading a lot to inspire me. If not having a daily word count to boast about means I can’t call myself a writer then so be it. For now anyway…

Meet my Writing Mentor- Karen Campbell

This week, as a change from me blabbing on about my ‘writing’ experience, I thought it would be a welcome break to hear from a professional writer (who just happens to be a good pal too) and has been there, done that, got the T-shirt and wore it out!  This guest interview is a first for my blog (and possibly the last as I don’t have any other author friends to ask!) and I was able to grill chat with Karen Campbell when she stayed at my house after speaking at Falkirk library as part of their ‘Write Good Murders’ author visits.

Karen and I met 18 years ago when I worked at Glasgow City Council and I wanted to go job-share after having my first son. Karen was my other, some might say, better half. We made an odd-looking couple for the years we worked together with Karen being slim and 5 foot ten without heels and me, being anything but slim and a mere 5 foot nothing.  Despite the fact that we worked on different days, we became close friends and when Karen left the Council to become a full-time writer I followed her progress with envy  pride.  She is an award-winning Scottish writer of contemporary fiction and so far, her novels have been inspired by her time spent as a policewoman in Glasgow’s notorious ‘A’ division, but her fifth novel, due to be published in 2013, breaks away from the police series.

Karen has been my unofficial writing mentor for years now and (because I’m so generous) I wanted to share some of her words of wisdom with you.

Karen, you did the MLitt at Glasgow University; do you believe that creative writing can be taught? Or have I just wasted £3,400+?

When I started the course, I thought we’d get sessions on ‘how to write a novel’ and ‘ideas for plot’ and all that kind of stuff – and I remember feeling quite confused when that didn’t happen. We seemed to be learning by osmosis – listening to established writers talk about their craft, working in small peer-led editorial groups, and so on. Very quickly though, I realised the MLitt was more about giving you the space, inspiration and, crucially, confidence to find – and use – your voice; the voice you already had, but that needed coaxed out of you.  A special mention has to go to my tutor Prof Willy Maley, whose enthusiasm and attention to detail is brilliant. Many writers in Scotland have cause to thank him, I reckon.

What advice would you give other wannabe writers like me who are just starting out?     

Don’t try to second guess the ‘market’. Write without constraints and without hesitation. Let your mind take you anywhere it wants to go, write middle chunks of stories, do the end before the start, have characters talk to their dead grannies if you want. Just let it flow – you can tidy it up & shape it afterwards. To me, plot is less crucial than character. If you create convincing, interesting people, a story can arise simply from how they spark off each other – in any place or any situation.

Was your journey to publication easy peasy?

Absolutely not. I did a 2 year degree, finally secured an agent towards the end of that, then it was another eighteen months at least  – and many, many knockbacks – before I got a publisher. In the interim, I kept writing, kept sending short stories out to magazines etc, and got bits and pieces published that way. But it’s incredibly hard to keep the faith when you’re sending your ‘child’ out into the world, and folk keep sending it back, saying ‘your wean’s a bit ugly, isn’t it?’

Your new novel, ‘This is Where I am’ comes out next year and is a departure from your successful police series, why did you decide to tackle a new subject area? 

It’s not really a huge departure – I’m still writing about social issues, still writing about Glasgow – it’s just the people in it aren’t cops this time. I’d only ever planned to write 3 or 4 books about the police, and with each one of them, I’ve moved further away from my own experiences anyway. My new book is about asylum seekers & refugees – in particular, how removed the face you present to the world can be from the real ‘you’ inside. When I think about it, that’s exactly what the police books were about too.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m about two-thirds through a novel set in Argyll. It’s about standing stones and wind farms and has a cast of thousands, which I’ll need to whittle. But I’m letting them all have their say at the moment, before the cull begins.

Are you a plotter or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser?

Ah – as you well know, I was the brains behind our partnership (yeah, right, whatever you say!), so it may surprise you to learn that I’m definitely a fly-by-the-seat kind of girl when it comes to writing. You can plot backwards as well as forwards, filling in gaps or tightening up threads as your story emerges. Often, it’s only when you’re drawing to the end of a piece of writing that you truly ‘know’ what it’s about.

How many drafts do you do before you send a novel off to your agent/editor? 

I tend to edit as I go, then do a final sweep for continuity, pace and so on at the end. So it’s technically a second draft that I send, although it will have been revised as it’s being written.

What is your best writing tip?

Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. If you’re struggling, give yourself a word count to hit every day & make yourself sit down & do it – even if you’re just writing about the emotion you’re feeling at that moment. From that, you might only get a phrase or a piece of description, but you might get something brilliant.  Exercise your creative brain like you would any other muscle. I once got a whole short story out of the gungy feeling of picking meat off a chicken.

And your worst writing habit?

Oh, procrastination, like many writers. I can faff for Scotland.

Best moment in your writing career so far?

When an agent, then an editor, said they believed in my writing. These were professional people, who – unlike your mum – didn’t have to say they liked it. My new book is coming out with Bloomsbury, and that’s been a huge thrill too, to move to such a prestigious publisher. Just saying the name ‘Blooms-burry’ – I get pretty excited about that.

What book do you wish you’d written? 

Of books read recently-ish, I’d say ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell –brilliantly inventive structure.

Who is your favourite writer, alive and dead?

Loads – Jane Austen, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, AS Byatt, Virginia Woolf, James Kelman, AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway.  I love writers who make language sing.

Do you have a writing routine?

Not really. I tend to write in the day rather than evening. At the moment, my best stuff seems to come in the morning, when I’m still a bit dopey. Don’t know what that says about me…

What book(s) are on your beside table right now?

‘The Gate at the Stairs’ by Lorrie Moore & ‘Black Mamba Boy’ by Nadifa Mohamed, which my lovely agent Jo sent me.

What’s the weirdest question you’ve been asked at a reading?

Well, the most recent wasn’t so much a question as a comment from a nice old gent who’d been nodding & staring intently at me for most of the reading. After, I was told he thanked the organisers & said he’d been ‘much taken’ – by my cleavage…Which, let’s face it, isn’t what it used to be.

Thanks Karen!

You can buy Karen’s books here and as Mrs Doyle would say to Father Ted,”Ah go ongo ongo ongo on……” 

Are Creative Writing Classes Worth the Time and Money?

Ever since I enrolled in the first MLitt in Creative Writing offered by the University of Stirling, I’ve read with interest the various opinions of the value or otherwise of creative writing programmes. I’d already written two novels before I started the course and many might argue that I didn’t need to pay thousands of pounds to become a writer. Surely all you need is a pen and paper? There’s constant criticism that you can’t teach people to write, but you can learn the craft of writing and this was what I needed to help me write to the best of my ability.

Kathleen Jamie

In last week’s Arts Supplement in the Glasgow Herald, Rosemary Goring, openly sceptical about creative writing classes, interviewed Kathleen Jamie, a renowned poet and the Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling. When asked if creative writing classes are a waste of time and money, Professor Jamie’s reply to Goring was to calm down and that students were “not designing missile systems”. She’s absolutely right, but words can be powerful and dangerous too and I’d like to think the course has taught us at least that much.

Angela Hughes

But rather than read about my experience again, I thought it would be a welcome change to find out what the course meant to one of my fellow students, the lovely Angela Hughes, who made us smile week in week out with her quirky and quaint take on the world. Here’s Angela’s account of the course ‘Mastering Creative Writing.’

It’s Wednesday, it’s 4pm – and no it isn’t Crackerjack; and yes I am that old – it’s time to join my fellow MLitt Creative Writing victims, oops, I mean students, in our weekly Writers’ Workshop. Five students breathe easily, two look nervous – I’m one of the two whose turn it is to have their work critiqued by our tutor, Paula Morris, and the rest of the group.

Paula Morris

Someone coughs, another giggles, and I sit quietly, avoiding eye contact and hoping that the Valium will kick in soon. Tension builds, papers rustle; my work is summarised by another student, and we’re off.For half an hour I say nothing – well not out loud though there may be some below-the-breath muttering, and the group looks at things such as character, plot, dialogue and point-of-view. If you think that to remain silent while my work is discussed is daunting, you’d be right. It’s not easy to have your writing come under such close scrutiny, especially when you’re in the room, and especially when you’re banned from shouting out ‘that’s not what I meant, surely you can see that … come on!’ But the feedback is balanced and constructive and has definitely helped me develop as a writer.

At Stirling the Creative Writing options included The Art of Fiction, a walk-through of the technical aspects of the craft, and a Short Story module to provide an interesting background to the writing tradition. In addition, we read voraciously and considered writers from Jorge Luis Borges to William Trevor, Alice Munro and James Salter; no I hadn’t heard of some of them either but trust me they’re worth a look, particularly William Trevor who I now have a literary crush on but hey, that’s a whole other story!

Throw in an inspiring master class with Booker Prize Winner DBC Pierre; visits from the Royal Literary Fellows and a literary agent; and talks by Andrew O’Hagan and New Zealand poet Bill Manhire, and you can see why I enjoyed it so much. It’s hard work but it’s been a privilege to share my writing journey with others – the community spirit has, and continues to be, incredible, Paula is supportive and encouraging, and nestled amongst the nervous chortling there have been lots of laugh-out-loud moments. Try a creative writing class, enjoy it, have some fun – go on, you know you want to!

The class of 11/12- rising stars in the literary world!
L-R we have Paul Docherty, Angela Hughes, Sophie Gitzinger, Ethyl Smith, Paula Morris, our brilliant tutor, little old me, Stephen Stewart and Sharon MacDonald

Write Now! @ Aye Write!

I’m not a ‘morning’ person (some would argue that I’m not an afternoon or night person either) so I am relieved that my uni classes are timetabled later in the day. A slow start suits me best (my family know to stay well back until at least 9am) but I’d registered for the Write Now! Conference so I found myself on a train into Glasgow yesterday and Friday, long before it was safe for me to be near people.

It was well worth the effort of getting out of bed early. The conference was held in the Mitchell Library and was part of the Aye Write! Book Festival. The days were packed with guest speakers and by the end of the closing remarks, my bum was numb but my brain was buzzing. The blurb said. “The event is aimed at early career writers (folk like me) and scholars of all sorts and to allow attendees to share their research and creative output but also to foster a community of writers and researchers.

Did it do what it said on the tin? Yes! I certainly got my money’s worth out of the two days. An added bonus was getting the opportunity to meet up with the lovely Anne Glennie, a fellow writer I’ve met via Twitter.

The opening session was called ‘Publish and be Damned?’ and looked at the impact of digital publication and social media on the publishing industry. Scary stuff was aired about the global domination of cultural barbarians, Amazon and Google but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Independent publishers like Cargo and new literary magazines like Octavius mean that the Scottish publishing scene has never been more exciting.

The first day was a Skills Day and I opted to go to the http://www.WRITER session run by Cat Dean. Despite technical hitches, Cat did a great job introducing our group to the wonders of WordPress.com and helped me get this new website up and running.

Over lunch (I passed on the diced dried veg in dirty dishwater aka Scotch Broth and nibbled at the dullest sandwiches I’ve seen at a buffet since 1978), there were readings from creative writing students from Strathclyde University and the talent showcased was intimidatingly good! Watch out for names like Iain Ferguson, Craig Lamont, Mary McDonough and Bryony Stocker.

But the highlight of Day One for me was undoubtedly the keynote address by Christopher Brookmyre. The award winning writer inspired and entertained the audience with his frank and funny account of his writing career. I was heartened by the fact that he wrote four novels before being published so there’s hope for me yet!

I finished the day by attending William McIlvanney’s event at Aye Write! with my best friend Veronica. Wow! He was an engaging mix of humour and humility about his phenomenal talent.We were almost moved to tears when he read out snippets of his latest work. The man is a living legend in Scottish literature!

Day Two was a series of panel discussions. My favourite ones were’ What Happens when Elephants Teach Zoology?’  and ‘Teaching Creative Writing’ about the pros and cons of a creative teaching programme. The key thing that all of the speakers agreed on was that you can’t teach creativity but you can nurture confidence in writers.  The conference round-up was a great finale and threw up questions such as, is Scotland a vibrant creative culture or a provincial backwater for writers?

I left the Mitchell library hungry but full of confidence that Scotland’s literary scene is vibrant and ready to face the future.

Creative Writing = Creative Writhing

This week, creative writing was more like creative writhing! 

By Friday night, I had a pounding tension headache. What was the cause of such stress? My WIP! My literary agent had given me feedback that my current idea was “too small” and I needed to be more ambitious. I needed inspiration and I’m not too proud to ask for help. I went into uni for a one-to-one session with Eleanor Updale, an award-winning writer and a Royal Literary Fellow. Eleanor is based at the uni one day a week on behalf of The Royal Literary Fund Fellowship scheme which places professional writers in higher education institutions to offer writing support to all students.
Eleanor Updale- the author of The Montmorency Series
My MLitt course is entirely self-funded and I plan to get mymoney’s worth and grab every opportunity for professional help that’s availableon campus. So I made an appointment to meet with Eleanor to discuss my WIP in an effort to help me move forward. The session was great for sparking new ideas and making me take a fresh look at the entire structure and concept of my WIP. Eleanor gave me some very interesting ideas but as I headed home, I was still left with one key question, if there’s already more than enough books in the world, does anyone really need mine?


Glug, glug,glug. I poured a large vodka, I had a headache already so a hangover didn’t frighten me. I moaned at my long-suffering husband my old pal, Pierre Smirnoff, that life would be sooo much easier if I just tried to get a ‘normal’ job and save myself (and my family and friends who have to put up with me) all the aggro?

Yes it probably would, but I’ve never been one to take the easy option (this explains a lot of my life choices, hence hubby no 2) so although I’m struggling, I’m not willing to give in (not yet anyway). And the reason I need to carry on writing is simple. I write because I have to, whether the world needs another book or not. And thankfully my hubby and Pierre still believe in me!



Writing and Best Beginnings


Starting something new is always exciting. That’s why I really like January, (apart from the dreich weather and hurricane winds that have caused major roof leaks in my house!) it’s the month of new beginnings.  The beginning of a new diet, an exercise routine,or even a novel.
One of my fellow students posted on Facebook that she wrote the first line of her novel at the stroke of midnight.  She’s kidding us on that it starts, “It was a dark and stormy night…” We’ll need to wait for her workshop submission to find out the real opening line.


But her FB post made me think of the best way to start a novel. I think every writer obsesses about making an impact with their first sentence. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but that doesn’tapply to first lines. One of my favourite well-known opening lines is,




“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger.

But the best beginning that I’ve read recently was from a brilliant book- Precious by Sapphire- “I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver.”  Iwas immediately plunged into the world of an illiterate black girl who has never been out of Harlem and is pregnant by her own father for the second time and kicked out of school.  The novel is a fantastic exploration of abuse and deprivation but also totally uplifting. Read it!  I dream about being able to write such a powerful story.

But what got me writing in the first place? It was another FB post that got me thinking. It was a post by a new literary magazine for students in Scotland called Octavius. They aim to bridge the gap between being an unpublished student and submitting to professional magazines and journals and accept work of any genre and looks for writing which is fresh, unique and exciting.
Their FB post asked for a photo of your desk/laptop/outside of the library you work in, etc, and a brief description about what being a writer means to you and details about what made you start writing. This was my reply.

I don’t have a proper desk, so I escape to myboudoir bedroom to write at my dressing table. But don’t be fooled by the pink laptop and flowery décor, my writing can be dark and gritty.

I started writing when my best friend gave mea lovely notebook in 2006 for my birthday. The message inside read, “I wouldlove to buy a novel by you. I’m sure you have the talent and wit and‘experience’ to make it a great read. Thought you could keep some notes here.Have fun. Love Veronica x”

I love a challenge and her encouragement was the trigger to write my first novel. Almost six years later, I’m now working on novel number three and have finished the first semester of a MLitt in Creative Writing.

Turns out my pal gave me the best present ever-belief in me that I could write something worth reading and who knows,maybe one day I’ll be able to give her a special mention in my published novel…