As Easy As A Nuclear War

photo.JPG hhh

I’ve been to Paul Cuddihy’s previous book launches to hear about his writing and also because one of my close pals is his sister-in-law so it’s a great excuse for a wee night out. Following Paul’s writing career has been an interesting ride as he’s the author of a trilogy of historical novels – Saints and Sinner, The Hunted and Land Beyond The Wave – as well as a non-fiction book, Read All About It, which charts his year of falling in love with literature again. As Easy As A Nuclear War is his first collection of short stories which link to the titles of Duran Duran songs. Not content with merely reading a few stories at the launch in Bishopbriggs Library, along with his specially formed band, PC and the Bookends, Paul treated his friends and family to a few of Duran Duran‘s hits. As a fan of Duran Duran, hearing songs like Rio took me back to 1982, all that was missing was the dodgy hairdo and leg warmers!

I was keen to learn more about Paul’s latest venture so I’ve fired a few questions at him…

What’s so special about the music of Duran Duran to inspire you to write a collection of short stories?

I have always been a fan of the band since I heard their first single, Planet Earth, back in 1981, and that has never wavered – I’m looking forward to their new album being released in the autumn and going to see them at the Hydro in Glasgow in December (I’ve already got the tickets). Like other bands from the ‘80s, their music takes me back to my teenage years, when I was younger, thinner and in possession of a full head of hair (which has now transferred itself to my chin!). I suppose nostalgia can be a positive or a negative thing. As long as you don’t look back with regrets or a longing for what might have been rather than what was and is now, then it can be enjoyable. I’ve had this project in mind for a long time, and it has taken me a while to write enough short stories to make up the collection, but it has been a real labour of love to complete, and I’m delighted to see it finally come to fruition.

What’s your favourite Duran Duran song and why?

Old PaulIt’s got to be Save A Prayer. There are a number of reasons for this – first and foremost because it’s a great song. It was back in August 1982 when it was released and it remains so to this day. As I mentioned about Duran Duran’s music, there’s also a real sense of nostalgia when I listen to it. I had just turned sixteen when it came out, and any time I hear the song, it does take me back to being in fifth year at Turnbull High School, Bishopbriggs, remembering all the people I was at school with, and the great time I had then. If I want to sound like a Duran Duran obsessive, I would also pick Secret Oktober, which was the B-side to their 1983 single, Union of the Snake, again, just because it’s a brilliant song.

What are the challenges of writing short stories as opposed to a novel?

I like writing short stories because everything’s contained within a very short form, and you can just offer a snapshot of what’s happening with the characters and then leave them. I think the best short stories are the ones where you feel you’ve stumbled into someone’s life and then you leave before anything comes to a definite conclusion. It’s a different discipline to writing a novel. For me, writing a novel involves a lot of planning before I actually start writing so that I know what I’m doing and where I’m going with the story, which gets more involved and complicated with every chapter. With a short story, I feel you can have the germ of an idea and then start writing and see where the story takes you.

What did you learn from putting a collection together and what tips would you offer other short story writers?

photo.JPG hhhhhIn putting these stories together, the common theme with them all is the fact they’re named after Duran Duran songs. The stories themselves don’t really have any other connection. When I was working out the order in which they appear in the book, I tried to vary the story lengths, so that after reading one that might be 4,000 or 5,000 words long, the reader would get a breather through reading something shorter, maybe about 1,000 words, or even shorter than that. There are also five stories in the book, each of which has a link to one of the original five members of the band, and they are all between 400-600 words in length.

I think short stories can be great in terms of practising your writing, being able to tell a full story without feeling like you’re going to run out of steam or get lost in some aspect of the plot. They’re also a good way of trying out different writing styles or trying to find your writing voice, and many short stories have subsequently gone on to be developed into fully-formed novels.

The market for short stories is supposedly booming. Do you think it’s because readers find them easy to digest and the bite sized chunks can provide an emotional buzz or epiphany in one quick hit?

51eN1UpFqkL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX324_SY324_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_The presumption would be, in an age when people are apparently always on the move and don’t have the same amount of time to devout to reading, that short stories would be ideal, giving someone a fully-contained story which can be quickly devoured. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know. Certainly, publishers still seem to put out the line that ‘you don’t make money out of short stories’. That might be the case, and publishers know the business better than me, but I’d like to think that the market for short stories is getting bigger, even if it’s not quite booming. I also believe that the more short stories are published and promoted, the more people who perhaps don’t normally read short stories will enjoy reading them. 

What’s your latest writing project?

I’m working on a couple of things just now – a novel which involves a road trip from Glasgow to Benbecula with three generations of the same family, and a book of poetry called ‘Life Is Just Like The Jeremy Kyle Show’, with each poem the title of a Jeremy Kyle episode. For example, ‘Why would I tattoo your initials on my face if I’d cheated?’ Now, who wouldn’t want to read that poem!

You can contact Paul via or on Twitter @PaulTheHunted. You can also email him at
And if all this talk of Duran Duran makes you want to relive your youth, sit back and enjoy the original version (no offence Paul!) of Rio…

Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Award

“Fame hungry, attention seeking, shock tactics, who, moi?”

I’ve blogged before about the Scottish trait of finding it hard to blow your own trumpet and it definitely applies to me. It’s never easy trying to sell yourself at a job interview, and I’ve squirmed whilst watching desperadoes through my fingers during the auditions for the X Factor (did anybody see the woman  lap dancing for Louis in the fishnet body stocking last Sunday? So wrong on every level!). But it was my turn this week to try avoid clichés like, “I was born to write” and somehow convince the Scottish Book Trust (SBT) that I should be given a New Writers Award.

Cove Park overlooks Loch Long on Scotland’s beautiful west coast.

Every year, the SBT makes several awards to “individuals living in Scotland who are committed to developing their work as a writer. The winners will receive a £2000 cash award, allowing them to focus on their work, as well as a tailored package which can include mentoring from writers and industry professionals, training in Press and Public Relations (PR), Performance and the opportunity to showcase work to publishers and agents.

This year it will also include a week-long retreat at Cove Park. The retreat provides time, space and freedom to create new work and to find new ways of working in idyllic surroundings.”

All I had to do then was put together an application that stood out from the hundreds of others that the SBT receive each year.  This wasn’t an easy task. How could I prove my passion for writing? I began by rewinding my writing journey and listed my achievements to date.  At the start of 2012, I hadn’t been published at all so I’ve achieved my goal and been quite successful if I say so myself!

The artwork for the stunning cover was designed by Forevermore Tattoo Parlour in Glasgow.

My latest published story is featured in the debut edition of Octavius and it was a real thrill to see my wee flash fiction in the magazine. Sadly, I missed the launch date as it was the night before my house move (I didn’t think swanning off to Edinburgh and leaving hubby to deal with the last-minute packing would’ve gone down well).

I’m also waiting to see one of my more risqué short stories printed in Valve journal due out any day now and I’ve  just heard that another one of my flash fiction pieces will be published later in the year in Paragram anthology and a short story in the New Voices Press anthology is to be published by the Federation of Writers (Scotland). So all in all, I’m doing quite well with getting my work out there; in fact my bank of stories is pretty much empty. Time to get writing more while I wait for news of the award!

Of course, AFTER I submitted my application, I stumbled upon a blog post giving applicants advice from one of the panel members.  The part where she said, “Don’t: Include links to your blog, ebook etc. I will not read these. Ever”, made me cringe as I’d inserted a link to this blog on the naïve assumption that it would demonstrate my “personal challenge to blog every week or so and I have sustained this commitment by writing 47 blog posts amounting to 25k words on a wide range of writing related topics.” Hey ho, she won’t read this anyway! But on a more positive note, she did add, “the odds are much, much better than the Lottery.”

I know of lots of great new writers who haven’t made the shortlist so I’m not overly confident but you can’t knock me for trying. Did you apply this year? Have you received any grants or awards to help you develop your writing?

Writing Prompts

If ever I need a writing prompt, I only have to dip into one of the many boxes that I’ve labelled, ‘loft’ for my house move this week. Sifting through the bits ‘n’ bobs I’ve accumulated over the years has jolted lots of memories which have ‘short story begging to be written’ all over them.

‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’ by The Blue Nile- a timeless classic!

I reminisced when I  came across my collection of all-time favourite records (it was just lucky that I don’t have a record player anymore or there would’ve been no packing done that day) and immediately I was transported back to the 80’s and the drama of my teenage years.

In amongst more stuff going from one loft to another was the old camera my gran gave me when I admired it. My gran died six years ago last Thursday and I still think about her all the time. She gave so much and asked for nothing in return.

Me and my beloved namesake

Her wise words have stuck with me and phrases like,“Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye!” was one of her favourites. Aged 17, she gave me and my pal Gillian a parting piece of advice when we left to meet up with two boys from Hull on our holiday in Filey.

“Now remember girls, keep yer haun o’er yer ha’penny”.

But much as I love all the sentimental stuff I’ve gathered, I knew I needed to downsize.  The theory was better than the reality and although I tried to be ruthless, I admit that I’ve not managed to get rid of things with a story attached to them. The whole process reminded me of a website I came across recently called, The Burning House. The concept is simple, what would you save if your house was on fire? It’s a conflict between what’s practical, valuable and sentimental. What you would take reflects your interests, background and priorities. The website invites people to think of the idea as an interview condensed into one question.

Each photo tells a unique story

The photos of the choices made by folk are fascinating as an insight into how someone defines themselves.  And each photo tells a story of the person behind the random selection of objects.

I doubt that my teenage record collection and old camera would be at the top of my ‘burning house’ selection but unless I feel the flames licking my backside, they’re coming with me to my new address.

Apart from the obvious things, which unusual item would you save if your house was on fire? Have you used objects to prompt your writing?  What’s the story behind your favourite thing?

Writing About My Favourite Place in Scotland

The Scottish Book Trust and BBC Scotland are inviting folk to write about their favourite place in Scotland. When I first read about the project, I was immediately fired up to write something.  I love my country so there are tons of places I could write about, and then I stalled.

“Scream if you wanna go faster!”

I have happy memories dotted about all over Scotland- family days out to the shows at Burntisland, working and partying in Glasgow, playing in the woods across from my gran’s house, the list is endless. But having to choose just one favourite place was much more difficult. It would be like asking me to choose which one of my sons was my favourite. So when I saw the opportunity to sign up for a free writing workshop run by top writers like Bernard MacLaverty and Alan Bissett, it was a no-brainer, I jumped at the chance.

The workshop I attended was held at the East Kilbride Arts Centre and the tutor was one of my all-time favourite Scottish writers-Janice Galloway. I’ve heard Janice talk in her inimitable larger-than-life style at book festivals before so I knew what to expect. Up close and personal, she filled the meeting room with her presence, leaving myself and the eight other participants hanging on her every word.

Janice started by asking the question, “Why do we want to write about places?”  The group’s answers included history/nostalgia, to admire/celebrate a place and to record visiting a place but basically all of the answers had a common theme- places are a crucial part of your life story, whether that be a negative or positive experience.

We then looked at examples of famous pieces of writing to analyse the art of writing about a place. We looked at which ones drew us in and examined how the writer achieved this effect.  Janice had brought along a range of random postcards and images of places and she used these to prompt our reactions to the different places.

The final part of the session was to make a list of three places in Scotland that we’d actually been to and love- not whole cities but specific places like a café, a park etc. We then had to pick one of the places, picture it and make quick notes on,

Who is there? One or more people? Just you?

What/who is missing?

What thing impresses you most of all and why?

One sight, one sound, one touch, one taste, one smell.

What does it make you imagine/bring back/remember?

Unfortunately, with only one hour, the workshop was over all too soon but Janice encouraged us to go home and take 20 minutes to write about our favourite place. She also reminded us of the Ernest Hemmingway quote, “The first draft of anything is shit”, to avoid us getting too hung up about our initial attempt. We then had to read it again over the next few days and MAKE IT BETTER! This would mean cutting out non-essentials, adding clarity and making it vivid to appeal to the reader’s senses. But the most important thing was to use your own ‘voice’ so that the writing was not just about the place but how YOU see it in YOUR mind and in YOUR words.

I’ve tried to follow Janice’s advice and I’ve uploaded my piece on to the Scottish Book Trust website. My wee story is about my husband proposing to me and you can read, ‘Wallace’s Monument and My Very Own Braveheart’ here along with other folk’s submissions.

What’s your favourite place in Scotland? Once you’ve decided, get writing! You can book onto a ‘My favourite place writing workshop’ here if like me, you could do with some inspirational tips.

The closing date to submit your writing is 31st August .You can submit your story, poem, song, letter, diary entry or sketch  here, so go on, what are you waiting for?

Writing and Rejection

I was chuffed to bits to reach a milestone recently by having my first short story published. It was the wee boost I needed after being on the receiving end of the dreaded ‘R’ word.

“I’m afraid your novel is not right for our list”

“unfortunately, the piece is not for us”

“we will not be publishing your short story”

“thanks, but no thanks”

However it is worded, a rejection still hurts. It feels like someone telling me that my sons are ugly and they aren’t worth loving. Do I see any flaws in my boys? Of course not, they’re my flesh and blood and I wouldn’t change a thing about them (well maybe their selective deafness, eating habits, untidiness….) And my writing is my baby too and that’s why it gets messy with tears and snotters when another knock back drops into my inbox.

We’ve all heard the stories of famous writers being rejected and I’m sick to the back teeth of being told, “Don’t worry, J.K. Rowling suffered 12 rejections from publishers before she found the lucky 13th company to publish Harry Potter into literary history.”  Yeah, whatever. Only 12, I want to scream? That’s nothing, she had it easy!

So the lesson is that I need to get used to rejection. But does it get any easier I wonder? I doubt it; I think it’s more about accepting that rejection seems to be part of being a writer and living with it.

The trick I suppose is to learn how to cope with rejection. Here’s my 3 step strategy:

1) I try not to take it personally, although I’m glad that I don’t actually know any of the editors/judges so I don’t have to worry about awkward social contact in the future and bumping into them whilst drowning my sorrows with my old buddy, Pierre Smirnoff. There’s no risk of me telling them exactly what I think of their crappy literary journal. And who wants to be published in it anyway?

2)I also try to get straight back on the saddle and fire something else out to another magazine or competition.

3)But most importantly, I make it my goal to keep writing, with the hope that the more I write, the better writer I’ll become. I need to stay upbeat with PMA and all that guff (although PMA deserts me more often than my hubby would like).

My gran had a wooden plaque in her hall with the inscription, “Don’t take life too seriously, nobody gets out alive anyway”, painted on it along with the manic face of a circus clown. I can still picture the plaque and the message must have stuck in my brain because although it’s rotten receiving a rejection, I remember that rejection is not fatal, nobody died. And I laugh it off (courtesy of large vodka or two).

Oral History and why Memories Matter

Who doesn’t like to reminisce? This week I was greedy and indulged myself with a double dose of happy memories. Hubby and I went to the Riverside Museum. Glasgow’s well-loved Museum of Transport relocated last summer to the banks of the River Clyde. The trip has been on our ‘to do’ list for a while and we were keen to see the new building that was designed by internationally-renowned architect, Zaha Hadid and houses 3000 objects, each with their own story.

What really surprised me most was that amidst exhibits such as a glamorous 1910 Bentley, I saw part of my own story, a humble Raleigh RSW bike. It was the same colour and model as my first ‘real’ childhood bike.Memories of my dad sourcing the second-hand bike for me (not the one I dreamed of!) came flooding back and inspired me to write a short story about an ungrateful child (don’t know where I got the idea from!). Here’s a short extract,
“It is brown. Not candy pink or baby blue like my sister’s bike. Brown. The colour of shit. And it has a brown and green checked shopping bag on the back. For shopping. I am ten. This is a lady’s bike. This isn’t a Chopper. This isn’t cool. It’s crap.”

The following day, I ended up thinking about my dad again. I was at a workshop, an introduction to Oral History at the Scottish Oral History Centre in Glasgow.  The day’s programme included how to plan a project, interviewing techniques and I got the chance to play around with Zoom,the latest in digital recorders. Technology has come a long way since I belted, “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me” into my tape cassette recorder, convincing myself that I was just as good as Lena Zavaroni (I’m still deluded that I can sing!) 

The workshop made me appreciate how oral history has helped to preserve hidden histories, especially under represented topic areas and marginalised communities. The concept really struck a chord with me when I thought about my dad’s background. Professor McIvor used his book, ‘Miner’s Lung’ as an example.  The book is an exploration into the diseases suffered by miners due to their horrendous working conditions. One of the men he interviewed could have been my granda, Peter Meechan. He was a miner living in the small North Lanarkshire village of Croy and would have experienced the same brutal working conditions. No such thing as Health and Safety regulations in those days! 

Home life was just as tough too. My gran, Annie died aged 44. She had given birth to 15 children (Peter junior never survived). My dad, Archie was the eighth child of 14 and told me that in his house, “first up, was the best dressed.” And yet although my dad never played down the reality of his childhood (the wrong bike was never an issue!), the stories he told were always full of laughter. Maybe telling his own oral history he romanticised some of the details to entertain me and my sister but does it really matter? But it does matter that the history of communities like his are faithfully represented and their story is told.

I haven’t got the skills or knowledge to record the lives of the families like my dad’s for historical purposes; I’ll leave that to the experts.  But if my dad was still alive, I’d have a Zoom recorder ready to capture his special stories. It’s too late for that now. My dad didn’t leave a record of his life but he did pass on his storytelling ability. And for that I will always be grateful.

The only childhood photo of my dad.


Writing Competitions-In It To Win It!

My name is Helen and I’m addicted to quality stationery.There you go, I’ve admitted it publicly. And one of my annual highlights is always starting a fresh diary (I know it’s sad). This year’s object of my affection is a lovely Writer’s Diary (thankfully my eldest son responded to repeated hints (I don’t do subtle) for a Xmas present I would actually use. The diary is produced by Mslexia and is packed full of ideas and info for women writers.  On one of the first pages it has a Submissions section for you to record when and where you’ve sent your precious masterpieces.There’s nothing quite like pages of blank columns to make me feel under pressure.  And as the publisher, Bloomsbury has dubbed 2012 as the year of the short story, I felt that I should get cracking and enter a short story competition.

I’ve not got a lot of experience of writing short stories and I know it’s not easy. With strict word limits you can’t afford to waste a single word.  I’m in awe of writers who can pull off a powerful story succinctly. The ultimate in flash fiction, a short form of storytelling, has got to be Ernest Hemingway’s work of genius, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Wow! How can six words be so evocative? Maybe stunning examples like that are why I’ve avoided the genre, but it was time to face my fear.

I needed a theme and a deadline to motivate me. And I found it on a trip to visit the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.  Hubby and I went as part of a festive trip to Auld Reekie.  The gallery is a fantastic neo-gothic red sandstone building and has something to suit everyone’s taste whether you like traditional paintings of Scottish lairds or photographs of Glaswegian slums.  It’s well worth a visit and it’s free entry! On the way out, I picked up a leaflet for a competition called, ‘Inspired? Get Writing!’  There’s still time to enter! I chose to write about a striking (and a bit scary) portrait of the acclaimed writer, committed feminist and social activist, Naomi Mitchison, painted by Percy Wyndham Lewis. She sounded like my kind of woman!  

A very clever lady but what a dour faced looking besom!

sent off my submission this week and felt quite smug at being able to make my first entry under the Submissions section of my new diary. Entering the competition has fired me up to enter as many as I can in the hope of being published. Read a lot, write a lot is my new mantra and the competitions will give me a goal and the chance to practise, practise, and practise my writing skills. The chances of winning are slim but as they say, if you’re not in it, you can’t win it. Watch this space…