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?

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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.

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I feel a TripAdvisor review coming on…

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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?

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The Craft and Graft of Novel Writing

Last night, I attended an ‘In Process’ Masterclass –“The art and craft of writing full-length fiction” delivered by James Robertson. The event was organised by the Scottish Writers’ Centre in collaboration with Stirling’s Makar, Anita Govan.

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download (5)I’d heard James speak before at the Linlithgow Book Festival but that event was aimed at readers rather than writers. Ever since, I’ve had ‘And the Land Lay Still’ on my TBR pile but I’ve yet to get round to reading it or any of the other three novels James has written. This was a pity as I’m sure I’d have gotten even more from the event if I had more background knowledge.  However, it was still an excellent session with James being open and honest about his writing career. He shared with us the fact that he writes between 5 and 7 drafts before he is happy to send a novel out into the world. But he said that he is never satisfied that a novel is perfect, it’s just the best job he can make of telling that story.images (3)

‘And the Land lay Still’ has been widely praised for its breadth of exploration of Scottish society in the latter half of the 20th century and in 2010, won the Saltire Society’s Scottish Book of the Year. And yet James was very humble about his writing talent and reassured the audience that his success hasn’t come easily.

For me, the most heartening snippet from James was that he wrote 3 or 4 novels and had many false starts before he was published. His key message was that writing is a combination between craft and graft. He reassured us that none of the writing we had ever abandoned is wasted as it all goes towards improving our writing ability. His analogy was simple and so true; a musician can’t play complicated pieces unless he has practised his art over and over again.download (1)

The talk from James was very encouraging for me as I’ve recently got back in the saddle with my writing and I’m attempting to start a brand new WIP. I’d finally accepted that the 20k words of a WIP that I’d produced for my MLitt dissertation was going nowhere. I wanted to start something fresh that came from the heart rather than the head. I’d spent a year over-thinking what I was writing for an audience of my uni tutor, mentor, class-mates, and to satisfy grades for my degree. By the end of the course, the WIP had lost its heartbeat after having the guts ripped out of it during endless revisions. There was barely a pulse left and I struggled to decide whether it was worth giving it the kiss of life to revive it or to put it out its misery and pull the plug on it.

download (2)Now, after taking a step back, I’ve slapped a DNR on the old WIP and I’m fired up again to write something new very loosely based on my own teenage years.  This WIP feels right, my ‘voice’ is authentic and I’m writing it just for ME. I believe that if my motivation is right, then it will show in the writing. This time I’m not writing for my ego and looking for praise from others so success or failure is irrelevant. I’m writing again JUST because I love it and I’m doing it for the journey and not the outcome.

I can’t run 13k but I can write 13k words and that alone makes me feel good. It’s very early days and this latest WIP might not have the legs to go the distance but I’m enjoying writing it and that’s really what it’s all about, everything else is a bonus.

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Have you given ever up on a WIP? Or do you stick with it until the bitter end?

Never Judge a Book by Its Cover

It’s a cliché but so true. Whether or not I try to convince myself that I’m open-minded about my reading choices, there’s no doubt that I’m as biased as the next person when it comes to making a split second decision on whether a book is for me or not based on a quick glance at the cover.

Since finishing my MLitt course and enjoying not being tied to a uni reading list, I’ve deliberately picked out books that are a bit lighter in tone. However, I draw the line at chick lit with candy pink covers as I’ve never been a fan of fluffy story-lines involving girl meets boy whilst strutting around in stilettos and carrying designer handbags, fate stops them getting together, blah, blah, blah, they finally become a couple and live happily ever after. The End.

That’s why I would have placed Me Before You by Jojo Moyes  back on the shelf. The artwork screams of formulaic chick lit. And yet I kept reading great reviews about this book and curiosity got the better of me (although I won’t be using that excuse to ever read Fifty Shades of Grey!).

The plot doesn’t sound like your usual chick lit scenario and I wondered if the issue of the right to die would be given the proper treatment. I wasn’t disappointed. The relationship between the main characters, Will a quadriplegic and his carer, Louisa are very sensitively played out and they quickly became engaging characters that I cared about- the ultimate wish a writer has for their readers. And the proof of this was that I ended up blubbing at the end of the book. I can’t remember the last time I cried after reaching the climax of a book and for me this is a huge indication of the quality of the writing that it can create emotion in someone as cynical as me.

At the end of the book, there’s a Q and A section with Jojo which I found very interesting. She admits that she was wary of writing about such a controversial topic but the bit that struck a chord most with me was when she said, “you have to write the book that is burning inside you”. Right now, I’m not 100% sure that my WIP is THE story that I should tell. I’m listening to advice from my unofficial writing mentor, Karen Campbell to put it to one side for now and to write something for sheer pleasure rather than pursing an on-going project just because I feel that I’m obliged to finish it. I’m hoping to find my ‘voice’ again and maybe also discover the story I NEED to tell, whether that’s the current WIP or something entirely new. Maybe I’ll  even open my mind to other genres…

So will I read more of Jojo Moyes? Possibly on the strength of Me Before You. Will I discount other books with pink covers? Probably, because despite this positive experience, deep down, there’s still a bit of the book snob in me. Have you ever misjudged a book by its cover?

Writing Research aka Behind the Scenes at the Crematorium

My excuse was that it was research for my WIP but it took a bit of persuasion before my hubby agreed to accompany me to the Open Doors Day (DOD) event at Craigton Crematorium in Glasgow.

The crematorium was one of over 100 buildings and over 50 walks, talks and events all completely free which were organised to celebrate Glasgow’s buildings, parks, streets, architecture,  history and people. Glasgow’s Built Heritage Festival is in its 23rd year and allows the public access to many of the city’s most exciting venues.

Craigton Crematorium on the south side of Glasgow

I’d read a ‘Lifelines’ article in the Herald profiling the job of Harry Tosh, the Crematorium Manager at Craigton and it mentioned that the crematorium was going to be open for a behind the scenes tour during the DOD programme. As the main character in my WIP is a celebrant for the Humanist Society and frequents a crematorium as part of his work, I thought that it would be an interesting experience.  And in true Glasgow patter, it was indeed a pure dead brilliant tour (sorry, but I couldn’t resist the pun).

What would you choose as your funeral song?

We had Ian as our tour guide and the place was packed so I wasn’t the only person who wanted to find out more about what goes on before and after a cremation. We were taken to the service room to learn about the music system and that relatives can even log on to watch the service from abroad thanks to the installation of a web cam.  The most popular songs played at Craigton are My Way by Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner’s Simply the Best (popular with Rangers fans) and Angels by Robbie Williams but Ian told us that last week, he’d had a request for Great Balls of Fire by Jerry Lee Lewis. It seems that these days, anything goes with photos, videos and it is more about a celebration of life and has moved away from the traditional two-hymn service.

The service room at Craigton-complete with webcam!

I asked Ian what the worst part of his job was and he replied that he loves his work and it’s the best job he’s had but is always upset when it is the body of a child. Of course for most people on the tour, it was to find out what happens after the service that was the reason for their visit.  The first myth we dispelled was that the oven was directly behind the wooden doors where the coffin disappeared after the curtains swish shut.  In fact, the area behind the doors is a ‘holding bay’ to create a buffer between the service room and the cremating room as the equipment involved in the cremation process is very noisy and would disrupt the next funeral service.

Thankfully, a ‘live’ demo was not part of the tour!

I’m sure that I could feel that there was a nervous tension rippling through the group as we were taken to the cremating room. Ian explained that within 10 to fifteen minutes of the cremation process the coffin has burned away and all that’s left is the body.  The bit that gave me the heebie- jeebies the most was the technician’s task of using the ‘peephole’ in the oven to check how things are progressing as it depends on how big the body is before the cremation is complete.On average is takes an hour and a half and all that remains is the bones. These are then placed in what Ian referred to as a ‘tumble dryer’ with large stone balls to crush the bones and create ashes. A giant magnet is used to collect any metal in the remains and replacement joints are sent to Holland to be recycled! The ashes are then placed in a final machine which ‘hoovers ‘them to remove dust.  I’m not sure if I could’ve been so emotionally detached during a tour of the crematorium where my dad’s service was held but the tour of Craigton was utterly fascinating and dispelled common myths  such as the funeral directors buy back the coffins or that remains could ever get mixed up. Highway to heaven or stairway to hell, if you get a chance, I’d highly recommend that you go along next year to find out where the journey starts!

What’s the weirdest place you’ve visited as part of your research? I think I’ll struggle to beat a venue like the cremating room!

What’s in a Name?

Everything, especially if you’re naming a baby. Wendy Storer uses the baby analogy in her excellent blog post, ‘10 Reasons why writing a book is exactly like bringing up a child’, so the title of your novel is important. Often I’ve heard of writers having very little control over the title of their novel and I’ve experienced this for the first time.

My WIP was believe it or not, originally called, ‘Shades of Grey’. The main character is called Graeme Hunter and he’s forced to confront the truth that there is no such thing as pure good or evil, there’s lots of shades of grey when deciding on the best course of action. The title seemed inspired a year ago when I first started writing it but unless you’ve been living under a stone in recent months, I don’t need to explain why it’s not such a great idea now.

The most effective book title was something that was discussed when I recently made my annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Book Festival. With limited time and money, I normally choose an event based on my love of the writer’s work, but this year, I took a risk (I know, life on the edge, eh?) and went along to see Kerry Hudson and Lisa O’Donnell, both debut novelists and I haven’t yet read either of their books. My gamble paid off. These writers were really inspiring and very engaging.  Both their novels are set predominantly in Scotland; both take place on council estates; and both are narrated by fierce teenage girls in difficult situations, just my cuppa tea!

Lisa and Kerry were asked to discuss the intriguing titles of their books. Kerry’s novel must have one of the longest titles I’ve come across, ‘Tony Hoggan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma’ (THBMAIFBHSMM) and one that I can’t wait to read.

Kerry explained that the title came from a line in the novel and was one of many suggested titles but seemed the most appropriate to sum up the sense of her gritty, semi-autobiographical tale of being born into a matriarchal family of Aberdeen fishwives and living in a series of caravans, B&Bs and council estates.

Lisa’s novel also has an interesting title, ‘The Death of Bees’, which has nothing to with nature’s ecosystem but shares the common theme of the underdog with THBMAIFBHSMM. This novel is a chilling tale of two abandoned sisters who bury their negligent parents in the back garden of their Glaswegian home but is full of dark humour. Lisa explained that her book had several potential titles, including The Council Estate Cookbook (complete with recipes at the beginning of each chapter), The Dole Cheque Kid and Echoes of Small Fires before ending up as The Death of Bees. So now I’ve got another striking title to be added to be my TBR pile!

What’s your favourite book title? The Goodreads website lists the most eye-catching or distinctive book titles voted by their members. Number one is, ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’  by Seth Grahame-Smith. Which book title would you vote for?