The Journey is the Reward

imagesIn the build up to Book Week Scotland 2015 in November, the Scottish Book Trust has posed the question, ‘Have you walked a new path, taken the road less travelled or been faced with a crossroads?’

SBT have provided an opportunity to share a personal story on their website and become part of their national campaign to get Scotland writing.

Here’s the challenge…

Write about a journey in your life. This could be a real journey or an emotional journey, the day you stepped out into the unknown. Did you end up where you planned to go? Did the experience mark a turn in the road or show you the way forward?

download (1)To trigger ideas for the ‘Journeys’ theme, SBT organised a series of free writing workshops across Scotland and when I saw that Jenni Fagan was the writer leading a workshop at the Central Library in Edinburgh I rushed to book a place. I LOVED Jenni’s book, The Panopticon and have previously heard her talk about her writing so I was really keen to take part in her workshop.

Jenni set the scene with some quotes connected to the theme of ‘Journeys’ and my favourite was, “The only journey is the one within” – Rainer Maria Rilke.  This quote related to the Five Dials piece Jenni shared with us that she wrote on letter writing and her life’s journey.

To get us thinking about our own writing, Jenni asked the group to write about why we write and also our earliest memories of reading and writing. The questions made me reflect on how I have developed as a writer and a person. When I was wee, I was a ‘teacher’s pet’ and used my reading and writing ability to fulfill my desire to be a ‘people pleaser’. This need for validation to feed my self-confidence lasted well into my adult years and seeped into my writing. It meant I held back for fear of upsetting or offending a reader until finally I realised that I can’t please everyone and that my writing had to be truthful. This has been an emotional and intellectual journey that’s taken years and one which I’m still on.

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Close up of my favourite tile on the wall of the Central Library. The letter ‘H’ is from a quote from the Book of Proverbs and states, “‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom and with all thy getting, get understanding”. Very apt for a learning journey in a library!

But from the writing prompts which Jenni provided, the one that immediately inspired me was, ‘Write about a journey that starts with fear‘. I remembered a physical journey I took when racing to A & E after my youngest son was injured at school. The emotions from that day are still vivid and as Jenni suggested I will write 100 words on this memory to see if I’m fired up to continue writing. If not, then I’ll dabble with the other writing prompts such as, ‘Write about a journey you were forced to take: grief, separation, illness‘ which instantly reminds me of the trauma of my dad’s sudden death.  Or I’ll try something more light-hearted like my ‘journey’ to lose weight. Who knows yet which path the workshop will lead me down…

As well as spending an afternoon meeting other lovely writers such as Catherine Simpson and Marie-Thérèse Taylor,  I made the journey home energised and keen to write about a journey which meant a lot to me.

Fancy writing about your journey? You can submit your entry here. And if you’re looking for great examples, I recommend reading the submissions by Stephen Watt, Angela Hughes and Nicola Burkhill – a talented trio of writers.

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* Postscript*

It was hard to choose a journey to write about but in the end I settled on the one involving my son’s emergency admission to hospital. If you’d like to read, Burn Rubber, it’s now online on the SBT website.

http://scottishbooktrust.com/writing/journeys/story/burn-rubber

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Free Your Mind

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For two years, all that connected Anne to the outside world was a single door that was hidden by a bookcase.

A few years ago, I went with my pal Katy on a city break to Amsterdam. At the top of our ‘must see’ list (along with every other tourist there!) was a visit to Anne Frank’s house. The lengthy queue was worth the wait as the experience was very moving. Katy and I had also been to Auschwitz on another trip so we left Amsterdam with an even greater understanding of the horrors of being victimised and hunted down by the Nazis.

This period of history has always interested me and so when I recently went on a tour of Stirling University’s art collection I came across their latest exhibition, ‘Anne Frank: A History for Today‘. As part of the programme, the university were offering a free creative writing workshop, ‘Living in Hiding’ so of course I signed up.

 

download (1)The aim of the workshop was to “examine Anne Frank’s desire to become a journalist and novelist and how these aspirations would have been tempered by the daily fear of discovery.” 

Whilst discussing Anne’s diary with the group, it made me think of the theme of feeling trapped and how your home can also be your prison.

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Burying victims of Leningrad’s siege in 1942.

I’ve made a tentative start on my next novel which refers to the Seige of Leningrad. Thankfully there’s lots of historical information available as authentic and poignant as Anne’s diary. These documents will help me imagine the reality of not being able to leave your city and suffering starvation, stress and exposure resulting in civilian losses at around 1.1 to 1.3 million.

 

download (3)Being denied freedom is a common theme in books and one that was executed brilliantly by Emma Donoghue in Room.  The bestselling book tells of Ma, who has been kidnapped and locked in a room for seven years by “Old Nick”.  Ma and Old Nick have a son, Jack who also lives in the room without being able to leave. Ma tells Jack,“Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.”

I may reread Room and Anne Frank’s diary as a reminder of how the smallest of worlds can represent the biggest issues.

Have you used source material such as diaries and first-hand accounts to inspire your writing?

 

 

 

 

 

Mixing the Colours – Writing about Sectarianism

I’ve been to lots of reader events in 2013 but it’s been well over a year since I’ve attended a writing workshop. I’ve deliberately avoided signing up for workshops as I felt that after finishing my MLitt course, my writing had been workshopped to death and the life critiqued out of it. I also felt it was hard to justify spending any more money and adding to the hunners and hunners I’d already spent pursuing my writing ambitions.

downloadBut I saw a workshop advertised that really appealed to me for several reasons. The main reason was that it addressed the issue of sectarianism and this is something I’m very interested in and it is a theme which features in my WIP. Also, the workshop was led by poet and writer Magi Gibson and I knew she was an excellent tutor. And the event was free! So it was a total no-brainer to head to the wonderful Glasgow Women’s Library.

The workshop was organised as part of the Mixing the Colours project to challenge the view of women in relation to sectarian issues in Scotland. Scottish writing has stories, poems and dramas that explore the Catholic/Protestant experience. It’s part of our history, part of our culture, but women’s voices are all but silent.

Magi asked the group to share their experience of sectarianism and what it meant to grow up as a Protestant or a Catholic girl in Scotland.  It was fascinating to hear the diverse range of experiences and I knew that the group would produce thought-provoking pieces of writing. As a prompt, we were all asked to start writing with, “I remember…” and put these experiences down on paper.

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The lively group of women went very quiet as we all scribbled furiously before sharing our writing. And what an inspirational group! The writing styles varied and meant that some of the tales made us laugh out loud whilst others made us gasp in horror. But the key feature of them all was a talent for giving a voice to the issue of sectarianism from a female perspective.

The piece which I produced was based on a childhood memory of being verbally and physically abused because I was brought up as a Catholic but lived in a council scheme dominated by Protestants. This was not an isolated case and I witnessed many forms of sectarianism on both sides throughout my childhood and as an adult in the workplace.

NBM-Boy-PosterI do believe that times have changed for the better and organisations such as Nil by Mouth are doing fantastic work to tackle the problem and to rid Scotland of the destructive social impact that sectarianism has upon our lives and upon our society. But I’m keen to be involved in any way I can to help raise awareness of the issue.

The group is going to get-together in two weeks after polishing our initial drafts and I’m looking forward to meeting up again to benefit from the energy and ideas of talented women. I hope to incorporate my piece into my WIP or as a short story so I’m glad I took myself and my writing back into a workshop setting again.

Is sectarianism an issue that has featured in your writing? Do you regularly attend writing workshops?

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 Best Beginnings


Starting something new is always exciting. That’s why I really like January, (apart from the dreich weather and hurricane winds that have caused major roof leaks in my house!) it’s the month of new beginnings.  The beginning of a new diet, an exercise routine,or even a novel.
One of my fellow students posted on Facebook that she wrote the first line of her novel at the stroke of midnight.  She’s kidding us on that it starts, “It was a dark and stormy night…” We’ll need to wait for her workshop submission to find out the real opening line.


But her FB post made me think of the best way to start a novel. I think every writer obsesses about making an impact with their first sentence. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but that doesn’tapply to first lines. One of my favourite well-known opening lines is,




“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger.

But the best beginning that I’ve read recently was from a brilliant book- Precious by Sapphire- “I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver.”  Iwas immediately plunged into the world of an illiterate black girl who has never been out of Harlem and is pregnant by her own father for the second time and kicked out of school.  The novel is a fantastic exploration of abuse and deprivation but also totally uplifting. Read it!  I dream about being able to write such a powerful story.

But what got me writing in the first place? It was another FB post that got me thinking. It was a post by a new literary magazine for students in Scotland called Octavius. They aim to bridge the gap between being an unpublished student and submitting to professional magazines and journals and accept work of any genre and looks for writing which is fresh, unique and exciting.
Their FB post asked for a photo of your desk/laptop/outside of the library you work in, etc, and a brief description about what being a writer means to you and details about what made you start writing. This was my reply.

I don’t have a proper desk, so I escape to myboudoir bedroom to write at my dressing table. But don’t be fooled by the pink laptop and flowery décor, my writing can be dark and gritty.

I started writing when my best friend gave mea lovely notebook in 2006 for my birthday. The message inside read, “I wouldlove to buy a novel by you. I’m sure you have the talent and wit and‘experience’ to make it a great read. Thought you could keep some notes here.Have fun. Love Veronica x”

I love a challenge and her encouragement was the trigger to write my first novel. Almost six years later, I’m now working on novel number three and have finished the first semester of a MLitt in Creative Writing.

Turns out my pal gave me the best present ever-belief in me that I could write something worth reading and who knows,maybe one day I’ll be able to give her a special mention in my published novel…

Writing Feedback-Cruel To Be Kind


As a mother of two teenage sons, I’m no stranger to tough love. I like to think that I know what’s best for them even if they rarely agree. Do I rise to their moaning that “everybody is allowed to…” blah blah blah? No chance!  I tell them to suck it up. It’s part of my job description as their mum to be cruel to be kind. I have to tell them things that they don’t want to hear.

But being on the receiving end of a home truth isn’t easy. My second experience of a writing workshop wasn’t any less painful. Hearing your work being criticised and not being allowed to interrupt is not for the faint hearted. 

Luckily I had just read the latest post on Nicola Morgan’s excellent blog, ‘Help! I Need a Publisher’.  http://helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com/2011/11/beware-of-praise.html

This week’s post, ‘Beware of Praise’ really helped me accept the blows when I later read the written comments (although a lovely Cabernet Sauvignon Rose wine helped even more).
Nicola’s analogy is that praise is very like chocolate.It tastes great at the time. Too much of it is (regrettably) bad for you.” Oh how true!!

Would it have been nice to walk out of uni with praise ringing in my ears? Hell yes! But would it have made me a better writer? Duh! Of course not, so I have to suck it up like I tell my boys.

Nicola warns wannabe writers to accept praise with extreme caution. And not to listen to your family and friends if they gush over your writing.  Step away from praise. It can be your enemy unless it comes from someone qualified in the publishing industry or whom you trust and value.

It’s sound advice. At the beginning of the year, I experienced a line by line edit by my literary agent on my previous novel.  She made comments like,
“This section should hit me like a punch in the stomach. It doesn’t. You can do better.”



So you would think that by now I’d have skin as thick as a rhino’s. Alas, it’s not that simple. I value the opinions of my fellow students and my lecturer and if I didn’t care about my writing it wouldn’t hurt. As Jane Fonda would say, “No pain, no gain!”



Next semester will mean a fresh bout at the workshop. I will grit my teeth and stock up on rose wine! Bring it on!!

Wolves at the Writing Workshop


Can you imagine the terror I suffered when a fellow student posted this comment on Facebook days before my work would be critiqued in class?

 “The rewrite, the self-edit, the horror of it being fed to hungry wolves; some starting off kind of sympathetic, but eventually succumbing to the pack mentality, each taking turns to rip my literary efforts to shreds using their razor-sharp criticisms, but only when the pack leader allows, and she will allow!”

That night I woke up in a cold sweat and I was sure I could hear the sound of wolves howling in the distance. I checked my jammies were still in one piece and hadn’t been shredded to pieces. And yet I was sure that I could feel the hot breath of the hungry pack at the back of my neck. Or was that just my hubby snoring at my side? And then I noticed the scratch on my shin. Could it just be that my hubby’s toenails needed a good trim with a Black and Decker?  Maybe that explained the scratch. It was going to be a long night….

A friend claims that the best thing for insomnia is to get up and read.  Good idea. And that’s when I felt the panic set in again.

Never mind the wolves, an article by Cila Warncke in the latest edition of Mslexia (Issue 51-Oct, Nov, Dec 2011) about what’s wrong with the teaching of creative writing also had me worried. The title of the piece is, ‘Are You Wasting Your Money?’ This is not something you want to dwell on the week your P45 slips through the letter box and your bank statement shows the course fees have indeed been deducted!

Warncke completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University and is highly critical of the workshop model. As she says, “great literature is not written by committee” and argues that fellow students often feel under pressure to pass judgement which is largely based on their individual taste. I can see that this is a potential problem as we have a very mixed group who are all writing in different genres. However, our lecturer was quick to point out that within any group, you have to decide whose opinion that you rate as not everyone is your target reader. I think this issue has also been overcome in our group by focusing on more specific issues such as POV, characterisation etc and avoiding petty comments on personal taste.



Until last Wednesday, I’d only participated in critiquing the work from two of my fellow students. They emerged from the wolf hunt workshop claiming that the feedback on techniques and common errors was valuable and the workshop model was an ideal opportunity to gain an insight as to how your writing is working for a variety of readers. They also felt that the whole vibe of the workshop was supportive rather than critical. But it didn’t stop the nightmares.

So did I survive the wolf pack feasting on my fiction?

Well, I definitely walked away with a few nasty cuts. Of course it hurts to sit silently and watch your work chewed up and spat out. But once the wolves have left you to lick your wounds, you realise that the comments were vital in shaping your work and making sure it delivers. With a little TCP and a lot of rewriting the wounds are healing nicely. When my turn comes round again next semester, I will hopefully face the pack as a better writer without suffering a wolf themed nightmare and have a hubby with manicured toenails.