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 and the Dangers of Cabin Fever

Wednesday the 25th was a big day for famous literary birthdays. Robert Burns, William Somerset Maughan and Virginia Woolf all share the same birthday.  I saw one of Woolf’s well-known quotes, “A room of one’s own” (well I spotted the 75% off sticker first) on a china mug in my local Waterstones. I snapped up the bargain as a wee gift for my good friend, the award-winning novelist, Karen Campbell as she’s been acting as my unofficial mentor for years and purple is her favourite colour.
http://www.karencampbell.co.uk/

I met  Karen for lunch in Glasgow yesterday and as always, it was great to catch up with her news and she gave me some really helpful advice about my WIP. As the saying goes,it’s good to talk. Woolf was right, having somewhere to lock yourself away to get on with your writing is the ideal scenario but what I’ve discovered during this ridiculously long semester break is that I suffer from cabin fever. 
Classes finished at the end of November and it’s been too long a break for me. I haven’t yet reached for the axe but you only have to watch The Shining to remember how dangerous cabin fever can be…


I need to get out of the house regularly. The romantic idea of being locked away in a remote writer’s garret is not for me. There’s not a lot of inspiration to be gained from my view of the petrol station across the road! During the break from uni, I’ve been going to a botanical art class, swimming every other morning, meeting up with friends and working my way through a list of ‘must visit’ places. This week I went to GOMA in Glasgow to have a look round the polymath, Alasdair Gray’s, ‘City Recorder’ exhibition. His paintings of Glasgow life in 1977 are brilliant. It’s hard to believe that one man can be so talented in so many areas. It’s not fair!

Gray has captured the life of the city’s streets and its people

I also had a quick look round the GOMA’s ‘You, Me, Something Else’ exhibition of contemporary sculptures. The idea of the exhibition is to question established assumptions of what a sculpture can be. It certainly achieved its aim as there is no way I’d call a stack of Ryvita boxes or a crumpled pile of plastic sheeting a sculpture! I’m sure all the artwork on display means something, but whatever it does, went right over my head. I wasn’t alone in lacking appreciation for the artwork. A comment in the visitors’ book read,  I’ve lived in Glasgow all my life, so I’ve seen some shite, but this really is shite.” This wasn’t the only derogatory comment and “shite” was a popular word choice!



Over the break, I’ve been writing short stories and everything I’ve written about recently has been triggered by observing and interacting. In my last job, I travelled all over Scotland to visit schools and train teachers. I met new people everyday and I now realise that I need people and places, not just a room of my own, to keep me inspired.