All in the Name of Research

One of my fellow uni students and good pal, Ethyl, is writing a historical fiction novel set in the time of the Reformation in Scotland. I am in awe of this feat.To me, writing a novel which requires extensive research just makes the whole process more difficult and adds another layer of time and effort. But then again, others might argue that the facts are already there and ALL a writer has to do is bring them to life.  Does that mean historical fiction is far easier to write than making everything up such as in a genre like science fiction? Or is creating a believable planet Zog harder than just making sure factual details are accurate?

But even contemporary fiction is historical in the sense that by the time it gets published, then any cultural references are already dated. And even although my WIP is pure fiction, I’ve still got to research some facts or I’d be open to feedback that “there’s no way that would happen”, if the story sounded unbelievable and didn’t ring true. I know as a reader, I’m the first one to scream, “yeah, right, as if!” so I want to avoid the same criticism.

For most of my research, a quick google search tells me things like the Tattooing of Minors Act of 1969 means that it is an offence to tattoo a person under 18, even with parental permission and many other ‘interesting’ snippets that help make the story credible. I can’t imagine writing without the internet as a resource.

But I’ve also used the old-school approach and visited the library as one of the main characters in my WIP is a pet psychic and I don’t know any facts about the Other Side (who does?). It was here, where I found a book withdrawn from their stock (can’t think why!) about pets and the afterlife (the best 30p I’ve spent in ages) The book, ‘All Pets Go to Heaven’ by Sylvia Browne used to live in the reference section (yes, this book is honestly classed as non-fiction-133 Parapsychology & occultism) and has provided me with the best source of research and unintentional comedy evah!

I bet, like me, you didn’t know that lions and lambs can frolic together in heaven as there is no need to eat in the afterlife so therefore no animal is at risk of becoming dinner. Also, spirit guides talk in a high-pitched voice, “that sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks or an opera singer after inhaling helium”.

I’d never heard of the author before but again my pal google spewed up her website and numerous YouTube clips. Click on the link below if you want to see Sylvia in action but don’t blame me if you come out in a nasty rash when you suffer a bad case of the heebie-jeebies after watching the most crass and cringe worthy ‘reading’ I’ve ever seen (all in the name of research).

I wonder if Ethyl’s research into the Reformation was as blood-curdling? Have you encountered any weird and wonderful facts during research?

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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 On

Last week, I blogged about whether I could sustain a blog about writing without the backdrop of my MLitt programme for material with the worry that the source of content might run dry.

I was being too narrow-minded. One of my twitter writing pals, Josephine Corcoran, rightly pointed out that, “Updates about a chapter, re-writes, books you’ve read, workshops you’ve attended, articles you’ve read, programmes you’ve listened to, places you visit, conversations you overhear – however you engage with all of this material” is all related to writing. Wendy Storer, said blogging is, “just like writing anything really – write through the blocks and you dig up all sorts of stuff you weren’t planning or expecting.”  And one of my long-time friends, Jill commented on Facebook that I shouldn’t feel pressure to blog about something related to writing and just write about “whatever comes up your proverbial”.

So it’s business as usual and this week I do have a bit of ‘writing’ news.  Firstly, one of my short stories is to be published in the 2nd edition of Valve Literary Journal and I’m absolutely chuffed to add this to my literary CV.  Put yee and ha together to make Yeeha!

The second piece of news is that, I joined a local writers’ group. Ever since finishing the MLitt classes, I’ve felt a bit adrift at no longer belonging to a like-minded group of people. I’m very lucky to have a supportive home life but none of the three males that I share a home with share my love of literature (the most they read is the Glasgow Herald and 2/3 only read the Sports pages). It can be a lonely existence when there’s no one around to discuss POV, WIP, 3rd person narrative, dramatic function blah blah blah. I missed the group structure, submission deadlines and banter of being involved with other writers all on the same page. So I took the plunge on Tuesday night and went along to Stirling Writers’ Group (thanks for the recommendation Laura).

As a virgin (it’s been a long time since I could make that claim), you don’t share your work and are only expected to observe/participate in the discussions at your first meeting. It is early days and I’ve joined at the penultimate meeting for this session, but in the words of Arnie, “Hasta la vista baby”.

Before I went along, I was cautious about committing to a writing group (I kept a close eye on the door but it remained unlocked and there was no initiation ceremony where I was asked to spill blood) who might not match my writing ambitions. I’d heard scary stories of amateur hobby groups who met only for a good blether and bitch about each other’s writing.

Stirling’s first makar for nearly 500 years but well worth the wait!

But the beauty of this group is that they have regular professional tutors to give proper constructive feedback. On Tuesday, the tutor was Magi Gibson and I was well impressed by her sharp, intuitive constructive criticism on the work of the members. Without the input of an experienced writer to facilitate, there’s always a danger that a writing group could simply be a case of the blind leading the blind but this is not going to be a problem at SWG.

So next week, I’ll offer up my words for the group to chew on and possibly spit out but the beauty is that I’ll have a deadline and an audience for my work. And that can only be a good thing, whether they like my writing or not!

To Blog or Not to Blog, That is the Question

Long before I started the MLitt course, I was aware of the advice that aspiring writers should build an online platform and have a blog. But what was I supposed to blog about? I didn’t have a book to promote and I wasn’t part of the literary scene so I had no readers and no juicy gossip. And then I enrolled on the uni course and began a whole new chapter of my life. Being a mature student along with other aspiring writers seemed the ideal subject matter for a blog. I hoped that my experiences would be of interest to other wannabe writers and also keep my family and friends up-to-date with my progress, for better or worse. But the main reason that I wrote the blog posts was for me to record the highs and lows of my writing ambitions.

Recently, I’ve not made much progress on my WIP but the blog posts have been like a weekly exercise for my writing muscles (the most strenuous workout my body gets). I’ve enjoyed the discipline of blogging to make me look at my world through the lens of a ‘writer’ and over the two semesters I feel that my ‘voice’ has become stronger.

I’ve also had lots of really supportive and encouraging comments so it’s great to know that it’s not just me and my hubby(aka personal proof-reader, although he’s available for hire) reading the blog.

“Move along, there’s nothing to see here!”

But now that the MLitt classes are finished, there are no more guest speakers to meet, workshops to take part in, assignments, writing exercises, or reading lists to tackle. So will there be a shortage of blog material without being at uni? On Planet Helen, the uni phase would’ve moved seamlessly into the story of my novel being published.

Unfortunately, after crashing landing back to Planet Earth with a bump, that fantasy scenario hasn’t happened (not yet anyway) so what will I blog about now? Do I keep blogging about just writing or do I widen the scope of the blog to include pretty much anything that’s happening on Planet Helen? Or does every blog have a shelf life and mine has reached its sell-by date?

Answers on a postcard please, c/o Planet Helen

Writing and Procrastination

“The road to success is lined with many tempting parking spaces.”

This is sooo true! The road isn’t straight, it has lots of twists, turns, a few nasty speed humps and plenty of options to park-aka procrastinate!

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My WIP has been sitting idle in a parking space for some time now. Last week, I had a genuine excuse as I was preparing for a job interview. But that excuse came and went by 3pm on Tuesday, along with my make-up (left in a puddle on the floor) and my ‘corporate’ clothes (peeled off like a 2nd skin) after I sweated like a race horse in 25 degree heat during my first interview in over six years.

On Wednesday, my excuse for not tackling the WIP was the weather.

How often does Scotland get temperatures that beat Majorca? It was waay too hot to be stuck inside on my laptop. And I managed to come up with loads of other excuses – physio appointment, Local Nature Reserve group meeting, viewing a house for sale, painting my toenails…

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It’s amazing how easy it is to waste fill my day without writing a single word of my dissertation (I hope my uni supervisor doesn’t read this). So why am I stalling? My motto has always been, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today”?  Is it because I got a rejection and my confidence is low? Is it because I’m afraid that my WIP will be no better than my previous efforts? Did I need a break after the course assignments? Or am I just being lazy? Who knows, but one thing is for sure, I haven’t got the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike, heatwave or not, I need to pull the finger out and get stuck into the WIP before the dissertation deadline creeps up and bites me on the butt. And get back on the road!

I’m sure that I’m not alone but how do others manage to stay motivated? I’d love to hear from other writers and read their tips, once I’ve topped up my tan, cleared the loft, walked the dogs…

#amwriting But Why?

This was the first week of no classes at uni and it was a lonely week with no writing banter. Writing is a solitary experience so I’ve been using Twitter to connect with other writers. It’s like a virtual water cooler or my trips to the photocopier in my last job where you’d hear all the office gossip.

In case you’re not on Twitter, a hash tag is simply a way for folk to search for tweets that have a common topic and to begin a conversation. A popular hash tag used by writers is #amwriting and it’s a good way to learn from others and share the ups and downs of writing. But I wonder how many writers using the #amwriting hash tag actually stop and ask themselves, WHY am I writing?

“Why do you write?” was the first question my mentor asked us when we met him last week to discuss our dissertation ideas. Myself and two others from my MLItt class are very lucky to be given the chance to be mentored by the acclaimed writer and filmmaker, Ewan Morrison.

He has just launched a new book, ‘Tales from the Mall’ that you really should get your mitts on as it’s been described by Catherine O’Flynn, Costa prize winning author, as “A wonderful and important book”.

Ewan asked us to quickly make up a list of the positive and negative reasons for writing and to be honest!  The two lists made interesting and sometimes cringe worthy reading. As they say on the X Factor, in no particular order, here is the group’s results.

Negative                                                                            Positive

Money                                                                                  Social/political commentary

Status                                                                                   Escapism

Self-aggrandisement                                                          Entertainment

Self-indulgence                                                                   Ethics/philosophy

Revenge                                                                               Experiment with language

The list was not extensive but it was enough to get us discussing the good and bad reasons for writing and to analyse the ones which related most to our own ambitions as writers. How many writers would be willing to admit that they believe that they might make a lot of money writing books, that they will be famous and will be respected and remembered? But even if you’re prepared to admit that fame and fortune were your original writing goals, for the vast majority of writers, that will not be the case and this means they need to work out the other reasons why they write.

For me, it is the love of words and a creative outlet that I can’t imagine ever giving up. I’ve always been an avid reader and I now have the egotistical desire to be a creator rather than just a consumer. I love writing or there would be no point in locking myself away for hours on end. And I definitely wouldn’t have given up a permanent job to do the MLitt course if I didn’t feel passionately about writing. Writing is part of who I am.

All I need to do now is get my head around why I need to write this particular story.  After endless revisions, I need to take a step back and figure out what exactly I’m trying to say with my WIP and then figure out the best way to achieve it.  The world does not need my book but I need to write it. I write because I have to, why do you write?