From Russia with Love

Between novels being published, there’s often not a lot of news for a writer to share but this update is a big deal for me!

I celebrated a milestone birthday (21, again!) last week and used it as a good excuse to go on a special holiday to Russia, a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. We started off in Moscow and did all the usual touristy stuff but then took the train to St Petersburg for a few days.

This was more of a ‘work’ than ‘play’ trip as the novel I’m writing refers to the Siege of Leningrad and I wanted to do some research. To get a feel for the impact on the city, I went on a private walking tour of the main sights related to the siege and also to the museum dedicated to the events (essential to have a guide as the signs are only in Russian)

After the tour, I met with a retired curator who is an expert in the albums referred to in my novel which contain messages of support and solidarity between the women in Leningrad and Airdrie and Coatbridge, my local area. Irina’s specialist input and generosity in sharing her extensive knowledge was invaluable preparation for the following day.

This final appointment took a lot of planning to make it happen but it was well worth the effort. The highlight of my visit to St Petersburg was when I had the absolute privilege of a private viewing of the album which was sent from Scotland and is now in possession of the state history museum. To be allowed this opportunity was an honour and an emotional experience. I’m now home and even more fired up to attempt to bring this amazing story to life. Better stop eating birthday cake and get back to my desk and writing then!

Have you made a special trip for research? Or celebrated a big birthday somewhere that was on your ‘bucket list’?

Filling the Well

On Facebook this week, a ‘memory’ popped up in my newsfeed of a post I’d written a year ago about heading off to Moniack Mhor on a writing retreat. I’d claimed that I needed to cut myself off to get my next novel underway. My excuses for the retreat were that I had two demanding jobs at the time and had been too busy promoting Buy Buy Baby to focus on new writing. So, a year later, what’s the progress with my WIP (work in progress)? Not very much!

I’ve only got one part-time job now and the book promo has died down so there’s no real reason for me not to be churning out the words. Except that I needed space and time to catch up with myself and as Julia Cameron refers to in her book, The Artist’s Way, it was important for me to “fill the well”. She feels that we need an inner reservoir to draw from if we are going to be able to create. The reservoir is like a well which acts as a creative ecosystem that we need to care for and she warns that, “If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked.” This makes perfect sense to me. I still feel strongly about the idea for my WIP but I also feel strongly that it’s important to read, try new things, go to events and basically reengage with all the other stuff I love doing in life and also sometimes to do nothing but relax.

Feeling elated to have achieved my ‘Everest’!

Fan girl moment with Roddy Doyle!

Overwhelmed by the feat of modern engineering at the Queensferry Crossing.

So over the summer I’ve read a lot more, been hill walking all over central Scotland, got into swimming again after years and even tried Zumba, visited Crawick Multiverse, Millport, Chatelherault Country Park, Skye, Wester Ross and Marseille, read new work at Woo’er with Words, went to the Workhorse photography exhibition, went to the pictures to see The War of Planet of the Apes, Girls Trip and Dunkirk, enjoyed a spa day with my bestie, went to book launches and festivals to be inspired by Bernard MacLaverty, Jenni Fagan, Russel McLean, Ciaran McMenamin, Keith Gray, Claire Fuller, Lisa McInerney, Roddy Doyle and Isla Dewar talking about their work, attended a fab performance of The Darling Monologues by Angela Jackson and the brilliant launch of the Fierce Women poetry anthology, got soaked on an excellent Glasgow Women’s Library heritage walk but stayed dry on their trip to the Museum Resources Centre, and was lucky to walk across the new Queensferry Crossing before it opened for traffic which was a “once in a lifetime experience”. That’s not a bad selection of activities to top up my well!

Lapping up the sunshine and beer in Marseille.

And although I’ve added only a feeble amount of words to the new novel, I have written some flash fiction, entered a short story competition and even tried writing poetry which is completely out of my comfort zone!

The main thing is though that after an intense spell of work and not enough play I’ve been busy in other ways. I’ve learnt and laughed a lot and that’s far more important to me than a word count.

How do you fill up your well?

Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone

Thanks to Eddie McEleney for fab pics which captured the mood of the afternoon.

The hostess with the mostess! 😉

On Saturday, I was the guest host for [Untitled]’s monthly spoken word event in Falkirk.

There’s never any guarantee of how many readers will turn up to share their work so to cover the worst-case scenario of a lack of performers, I decided to dig out something to read. The last few times I’ve read at [Untitled], it’s been extracts from my novel, Buy Buy Baby (on promo at only 99p for this month!) but I felt I should try out something new.

I’m not ready yet to share any of my work in progress (which isn’t progressing much at all at the moment!) so I was struggling to think of a piece I could read that would standalone. It’s quite hard to find extracts from novels that make sense without setting the scene to explain the background of characters and the context of the piece. That’s where poets have it easier.

But for me, poetry isn’t easy. The one and only time I submitted a poem it was actually published. This instant success didn’t spur me on to write more and I’d never read out the poem in public. The poem was published in 2003 and I had a different surname, my previous married name, and a very different life. When I reread the poem, it was hard to recognise the person who wrote such a dark and melancholy poem. I felt exposed just reading it privately.

I also remembered that included in my WIP, the main character writes a poem to describe her relationship with her new friends. Again, the voice didn’t feel like mine. But I did have two poems to read if I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone.

As it happened, there were eleven readers keen to share their work on Saturday and I relaxed in the knowledge that I wouldn’t need to air my poetry. But here’s the thing… several of the readers had never performed their work before and were understandably a wee bit nervous. In my role as host, I did my best to support them and encourage them to be bold and put themselves and their words out there. And yet, I realised I was a hypocrite who was avoiding reading my own work. On the spur of the moment, I decided (with grateful audience encouragement) to practise what I preached and I read both of my poems.

Genuinely, to my surprise, they seemed to go down well. Later, I even got a tweet from one of the readers who said, “@HelenMacKinven poetry was wonderful. Poignant and delicate. You should write more poetry!” That made my day and I was chuffed to bits although I think I’ll leave writing poetry to poets and stick to prose. But it felt good to push myself a wee bit and it gave me the boost that I needed to keep writing, in whatever genre…

When have you stepped out of your comfort zone? Do you enjoy sharing your work in public or is your writing private?


Guilt Trip!

‘How’s the writing going?’ 

It’s a common question to ask a writer. But what if you’re a writer who isn’t writing much, if anything at all? Kinda embarrassing, eh?

Here’s the truth…

downloadMy Work In Progress (WIP) isn’t doing much as far as the ‘P’ goes – I’ve only written two chapters so far. It’s no wonder then that when my fellow Cranachan author, Barbara Henderson tagged me in a Facebook thread for writers to share the opening sentence in the first few chapters of their WIP, I felt guilty. I’ve failed to sustain the momentum since I started writing my latest novel last year. I could trot out the usual excuses of life and work getting in the way but in reality, I need to stop faffing around and get stuck in!

But in the spirit of playing along, here goes… although bear in mind that as it’s a VERY rough first draft, these words might be ruthlessly chopped during the editing process.

Chapter 1 – September 2014

Saturday 19th – The Day After Scotland Decided

There was nothing else for it but to get pished last night.

Chapter 2 – October 2014

Tuesday 7th – The Naming Game

Eve had put me under pressure, I hadn’t actually promised to return with my great-granny’s badge and it wasn’t as if she knew where I lived or looked likely to do her messages in ASDA.

How’s your writing going?

Or if you’re a reader, does a novel set in Airdrie, North Lanarkshire, in the year following the independence referendum sound of interest? It’s also going to weave in the story of the Siege of Leningrad too so it’ll be something very different for me to explore. Exciting and scary at the same time!

Birth of a Book

After nine months of tapping away on my laptop, I’ve done it! I’ve finally typed ‘the end’ and completed a first draft of my novel.  Woo hoo!

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It’s a girl! I’ve not finalised the name yet but I’m delighted to announce that I’ve given birth to a book. She weighed in at a healthy 87k words, 310 pages long and I’m pleased to report that mother and baby are doing well.

But a first (VERY rough) draft is only the beginning, not ‘the end’ of the journey so I’m trying not to get too hyper (although it was still a good excuse to pop a cork). I know now from experience that there’s still a LOT of work to be done. It’s still a ‘work in progress’ and will be for quite some time…

imagesThis is the third time that I’ve written a novel but it’s the first time I’ve used the ‘freefall’ technique. My verdict? It’s definitely the best method I’ve ever tried so far. The idea is that instead of beating myself up about getting every word right and every sentence perfectly constructed, I gave myself permission to let the story flow out, without fear, without checking for typos, without any inhibitions. This meant that I didn’t get bogged down in one particular section and was able to keep the momentum going.

images (2)The freefall method is all about being creative but now it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of the text and start the editing process. This is the point where I have to be ruthless with my red pen.

I know before I start to reread the draft that there will be chunks of text where I’ll cringe at the first draft howlers where I’ve made mistakes and simply written a load of guff. But hopefully there will be enough raw material to polish into something shiny and worth showing…

How did you feel when you finished your first draft? What’re your best editing tips?

edit face

W.I.P. Milestone

Milestones-300x259I’ve reached a writing milestone. Whoop whoop! I celebrated by dancing naked round the garden waving cheerleader pom poms. Okay, that’s a lie and a scary image. I celebrated with my hubby and my old pal Pierre Smirnoff.

imagesThe milestone was writing over 50k words in my Work in Progress (WIP). The reason it’s such a big milestone (apart from actually finishing obviously!) is that the end is in sight. The length of an average commercial novel is between 80-90k words long. So to pass the halfway mark means I can start to visualise a whole book.

wipWhen you start a new WIP, it’s easy to be carried away with the first flush of excitement as your idea begins to take shape. But then after the first few thousand words, reality chaps  your front door in the form of a fantasy Writing Guru and delivers a harsh message, “This ain’t gonna happen unless you sit your fat ass down and type for hour upon hour upon hour. So why’re you standing there staring at me? Go girl, and get writing!” (The fantasy Writing Guru has a dodgy American accent).


So the word count creeps up but in the early days there’s always the danger that you’ll hit the wall and can’t keep up the momentum. I imagine that it’s a bit like reaching the 20 miles mark on a marathon and you don’t feel you’ve got the energy to keep running ( I’ll stick with imagining thank you. The idea of running at all is as frightening as the naked garden dance).

But I’ve been using the classic concept of the Story Arc narrative, so I’ve got a clear idea of the chronological construction of the plot of my novel and this has really helped me steer the characters up and over the climax. Typically, a narrative arc looks something like a pyramid, made up of the following components: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. I’ve already reached the climax and can picture the journey to the final resolution.


I’m confident now that I can make it to the finishing line.  I’m not going to set myself a ridiculous target to complete the novel but if life doesn’t get in the way too much, I’d love to have it finished by the end of the summer year. Watch this space…

Have you ever hit the wall with your writing? Is there a point when you know you’re within sight of the end?

do it

Inspiring Words from Jackie Kay

Last Thursday night, I returned to the campus of Stirling University for the first time since completing my MLitt course to hear a former student who studied English at the university.


That student was Jackie Kay who went on to become a multi-award winning poet, novelist and playwright. Fiere, her most recent collection of poems was shortlisted for the COSTA Award and her memoir Red Dust Road won the Scottish Book of the Year Award. Talk about a success story!

images (2)After suffering a blip in the progress of my WIP, I was in need of an injection of inspiration. I wasn’t left disappointed as Jackie kept the audience hanging on her every word. When Jackie announced at the start that she planned to read for 45 minutes from various pieces of her writing, my heart sunk. I’m not good at staying focused on lengthy readings and I’m not a great fan of poetry. But I’d never experienced one of Jackie’s readings. This was a performance more than a reading and she had the audience laughing out loud one minute and swallowing a lump in our throats the next with the roller coaster ride of emotions. Jackie oozes stage presence and has a Ready Brek warmth around her persona that lifted my spirits. That might sound cheesy but it’s true and I’m not easily impressed!

download (1)I’d read Jackie’s memoir about her story of how she tracked down her birth parents – a young nurse from the Highlands and a Nigerian student at Aberdeen University. I loved the book and when the floor was open for questions, I grabbed the opportunity to ask Jackie if she ever worried about any negative impact of her memoir on her family and friends.

Jackie acknowledged that she did have concerns over how her family would react and was anxious when her brother rang her up to challenge her on a section where he was featured. But to Jackie’s relief, it was only to correct the model of the motorbike he was driving. She feels that as long as the writing is not done with malice, then there should be no problem with a writer telling her story.  She said that as a writer, she found that self-belief and self-doubt come in equal measure. This was so reassuring for me after my recent worries about using anecdotes from my own life in my fiction.

downloadphotoI queued like a star struck fan for Jackie to sign a copy of Reality Reality, her latest short story collection. She told me that worrying was part of the job and if you didn’t worry about your writing, you’re not doing your job properly. Wise words indeed from a very talented lady.

Have you had advice from a writer which has inspired you?

Should You Publish and Be Damned?

imagesIs it possible to use material from your own life in your writing and still be on good terms with your family and friends? That’s the question I’ve been mulling over this last week.

download (2)In my current WIP, I have used threads of real scenarios from my own teenage years to stitch together and create a fictional story. The key word in that last sentence is ‘fictional’.

images (1)But after successfully using the ‘freefall’ method and going with the flow, suddenly I stopped in my tracks to consider whether I should be using factual memories for the sake of creating a juicy piece of fiction.

Is there ever a case for writing whatever you like without worrying about the effect on others? But if you start to self-censor, where do you stop? Does the writing become so toned down that it lacks power?

downloaddownload (1)I can hide behind the label ‘fiction’ and “the names have been changed to protect the innocent” get-out clause. But how do the writers of memoirs and autobiographies cope with the knowledge that their version of the ‘truth’ might not be palatable for their nearest and dearest? I recently watched an excellent documentary in the BBC One Imagine series, ‘Jeanette Winterson: My Monster and Me’ where the renowned author talks about the cathartic process of writing about her difficult relationship with her mother.  After the publication of ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’, a semi-autobiographical account of Jeanette’s troubled childhood, her mother said to her,  “It’s the first time I’ve had to order a book in a false name.”

Is the answer to publish and be damned and simply to advise anyone who feels they might recognise scenes from your writing not to read it?  Or at the very least, remind those in your life that it’s fiction, not fact? I think it’s a tricky situation of getting the balance right and telling a good story but without crossing a line of confidentiality.

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Have you ever fallen out with family and friends over something you’ve written? Do you self-censor your writing to avoid upsetting anyone in your personal life?

Writing Withdrawal Symptoms

Over the last two weeks, it’s been a busy time for me with the day job which involves travelling all over Scotland. I’m an all or nothing kinda girl so I realised that I might have to put my WIP on hold whilst I concentrated on giving my work commitments 100%.

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Setting off. If I knew then, what I know now…

Also, my brain isn’t big enough to jump from training teachers in a numeracy programme to instantly switching to writing fiction. But ever the optimist, while I was on the road and staying away from home, I packed my notebook and laptop in case inspiration struck. However, the reality was that I was just too tired at the end of the day to feel creative.

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One of the many times I was at a complete standstill.

One of the worst journeys I’ve ever encountered was a trip to Oban when I drove on completely untreated roads to battle through the snow. Between Callander and Tyndrum I forgot to breathe I was so tense. I still don’t know how my trusty wee beetle didn’t end up in a ditch like many cars I passed or stuck on a hill like the lorries littering the road. I drove the 100 miles with white knuckles and in 2nd gear most of the way, arriving at my hotel like a washed out dish cloth.

room 201

I feel a TripAdvisor review coming on…


Room with a view!

Imagine my disappointment to be given the smallest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in complete with its own distinctive stale soup ‘aroma’ at no extra cost. Thankfully, I’d packed my slippers as I wasn’t chancing a meet and greet between my feet and the dodgy carpet.  The grim view of the fire escape did nothing to enhance a wet Wednesday night in Oban and the tired décor transported me back to the 80’s. Then there was the dog yapping in a room down the corridor and next door’s telly blaring.  Inspiration had not checked into room 201 with me.  It was a long restless night…

imagesAwake most of the night, it gave me time to think. I’m in awe of the fact that Chekhov practised as a doctor throughout most of his literary career and said, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.” But I’m most definitely not one of the greatest writers of short stories in history and had absolutely no energy whatsoever for getting down and dirty with my WIP at the end of a hard day.

downloadBut I missed writing. I didn’t have the shakes but I did feel withdrawal symptoms of frustration.  The only consolation is that I compensated for neglecting my WIP by reading more instead so that was a bonus. I’ve just finished one of the best books I’ve read in ages – Snowdrops by A.D. Miller. I was totally hooked from page one by the evocative descriptions of Moscow and the flawed characters in this fascinating psychological thriller.

So there are positives and negatives in every situation. The good news is that my diary is clear of work commitments for the near future so there’s no excuse for me not to get stuck into my WIP again. The bad news is that being self-employed means that no day job shifts is not good financially. But as Oprah says, “You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at once.”haveitall_crop380w

Have you ever experienced writing withdrawal symptoms? Do you ever feel annoyed if you’re not able to work on your WIP? Or do you keep writing no matter what else is going on around you?

Freefall Writing

imagesAlthough I think of myself as a creative person, I’m also a self-confessed control freak who likes order, routine and structure. That’s why it felt good this week when I hit my first milestone in my current WIP. Getting to 20k words is quarter way through an average 80k word novel so I already feel that I’ve bitten off a decent chunk of the story.

Even when I was writing full-time during my MLitt course, I’ve never written as much in a matter of weeks.  I believe that the main reason why I’ve been so productive is that for the first time ever, I’m following a writing technique known as ‘Freefall Writing’.

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I didn’t realise that there was a label for my new approach until I read a blog post by Sandra Jensen on the Mslexia website and it described the way I’ve been writing recently. Sandra writes about her experience of Freefall which was originated by W.O. Mitchell and developed further by Barbara Turner-Vesselago.

Freefall writing is defined as, “a method some writers discover spontaneously, but many have to (re)earn : the technique of writing from the larger Self beyond reach of the ego and its censors” and is likened to writing without a parachute.

This is a very different style from my usual method of revising as I go along but it often means that I get so caught up in fine tuning every sentence, that the momentum of the storytelling dies. When I decided to start a new novel, I was apprehensive that the plot wouldn’t be strong enough, the characters would be too dull, the themes would be too weak…, you get the picture.

images (3)And then I stopped beating myself up and decided to write without worrying about getting it right on every level. It’s a FIRST draft so I have to lighten up and write freely, without the fear of failing.

I’m convinced that’s why the words are flowing. I know eventually I’ll resort to my default perfectionist setting when I get to the end and accept that the WIP needs edited. But right now I’m learning to let go. The polishing process can come later…

Have you tried Freefall writing? Would this approach work for you or do you constantly edit as you write?