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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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…

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.

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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.

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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

Everyone Has A Book In Them


Is it scary but true that everyone has a book in them? 



And writing a book is easy isn’t it? Anyone can do it. Or so I’m told all too often since starting the MLitt course.

If I had a pound for every person that’s said to me recently, “I could write a book” then my uni fees would have been paid ten times over! I want to scream at them, “Well what’s stopping you write it if it’s so easy!” Because clearly anybody that can hold a pen or sit in front of a PC can write a book. My dog could probably knock out a Booker prize winner if he wasn’t so busy licking his balls.


But as the literary critic Christopher Hitchens once said, “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.” 


Do I think I’m able to do anybody else’s job?  Do I assume that I can cut my own hair, fix my car or carry out medical procedures on myself? Thankfully not!



I’m under no illusion that I’m the next Charles Dickens. I haven’t got enough facial hair for a start. But for all you fellow wannabe authors, here are my midterm musings on my experience of the world of words….

Our Creative Writing group has been kindly permitted to gate crash a programme of seminars arranged for the university’s post graduate publishing students. So far, this allowed us an insight into the life of an established literary agent- Maggie McKernan, an innovative publisher- Adrian Searle and a successful writer-Paula Morris.

We we’ve been treated to fascinating but often frightening facts from these highly respected guest speakers.

Here are a few key messages that stick in my mind…

With the on-going struggle with market forces and the challenges thrown up by the ‘digital revolution’ in publishing, the Maggie McKernan literary agency rarely takes on a new client unless they have been recommended. .

Adrian’s publishing company, Freight Design recognises that it’s even harder than ever for debut novelists to be taken on by a major publisher and many established writers have become ‘London orphans’ due to their failure to secure major book deals.

And the biggest reality check came from Paula who blew away the myth that if you’re a good enough writer you’ll get published. Nah! There’s a lot more to it than mere talent.

Becoming a published author? Easy peasy lemon squeezy! What’re you all waiting for?