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……” 

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Writing-Be Yourself; Everyone Else is Already Taken

This week in class we were given an exercise to write about a journey set in a variety of locations. We also had to describe our home town in 3 words. The results were dramatically different. I really enjoyed hearing the range of descriptions and it proved the point that we have all developed our own distinctive writing voice.



Who else in the group would describe his hometown as “infested”? It was such a loaded word (apologises to anyone from Alloa) that it could only belong to one guy and his characteristic way of describing his world view.

This week, we submitted our first assignments and these will be identified by our student number only as per the uni’s guidelines. This is of course only right and fair but pointless really. After spending weeks together, I’d be confident enough to bet my left arm that our lecturer could match up the writing to the person without any names attached to the work. No problemo.

But how do you find your writing voice?



This quest has taken me time and effort. And it’s like my novel- a work in progress!
When I first started writing seriously I didn’t really understand what was meant by finding a voice that worked for me. So I tried to think of it in musical terms and then it became clearer. You couldn’t expect camp as Christmas Johnny from the X Factor to be able to sing Barry White’s, ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe’ in his high-pitched voice could you?  Although anyone who’s ever watched the X Factor knows that Louis Walsh’s crap song choices are legendary. Who could forget Wagner bashing bongo drums and trying to sing Ricky Martin’s ‘She Bangs’ last year? My ears are still bleeding! And I wonder if Pat Butcher ever did get her earrings back from him? 
                                 
                                    “You made that song your own”- and ruined it for 13 million viewers!



But I digress. So I had to experiment and find a voice that felt right for me. One that suited the story.

Eventually I realised that I was never EVER going to be able to write like Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf however much I tried. I could only write like ME. And here’s another revelation that I finally worked out the hard way… using big words didn’t make my fiction writing read any better. I was trying too hard. And it’s not big or clever to regurgitate the Oxford Dictionary and exhaust a Thesaurus. Using fancy purple prose in fiction is just not my natural style.




Of course a writer needs to be able to create a variety of different voices just as I wouldn’t use the same tone and tempo of voice in a letter of complaint to my bank manager as I would on a holiday postcard to my best pal. But I still need to make sure that I sound sincere and authentic when communicating my message whether it’s, “I wholly object to the exorbitant bank charge” or “the voddy cocktails are amazzzzzing!!!”



Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” I like to think of myself as very much a ‘what you see is what you get’ type of person but it took me a while to be true to myself in my writing. I’m no longer attempting to fake it to make it on paper. I’m just working hard to be me – a better writer with my own unique voice.