Don’t Annoy the Writer

January 22, 2016 4 comments

Sometimes people ask me if I ever base characters in my books on people in real life. Some people get really nervous around writers for this very reason.  They’re scared that the writer might put them in a book and that they might not like how they’re portrayed.  And it’s true that some writers have taken revenge on people by making terrible things happen to them in a story.

I think my mum might be slightly worried about this, because she bought me this mug for Christmas.


Sneakily, you can only really read what’s on the mug when you fill it with a hot drink, because then the background changes colour.


Ta-da! When the mug is filled with coffee, the words appear like magic.

I have put one real-life character in The Wishcatchers – but she’s only ever referred to and we never actually meet her.  Pupils at Corstorphine Primary school might recognise her, but shhh! Don’t tell anyone else.

In general though, I don’t put real life people in my books, even in a disguised form.  Many of my characters have bits of me in them or bits of people I know well or even have just met, but none of them are wholly based on a real person.  I might include events in my books that have happened to me or somebody else I know.  I might include bits of conversation that I’ve heard (or overheard) or use a way of standing or a habit I’ve observed, like shrugging or someone never quite coming to the point of what he wants to say.  But much of who my characters are and what they do comes out of my imagination.  I wonder what they would do if such and such a thing happened or how they would feel if someone said a certain thing to them.  My characters are a big mixture of things I’ve heard or seen or experienced, as well as things I’ve completely made up.

So don’t worry, I won’t put you in one of my books.  Although I can’t guarantee I won’t steal some of your words or one of you mannerisms…

The terror of submitting work

December 4, 2015 2 comments

Submitting work is like sending my only child out into a wolf-infested forest. In the dark.  Without a torch.

All right, so I’m exaggerating – but not that much.  When I send out a novel or a story, I’ve put so much into it.  It’s so much more than words on a page.  It’s part of me.  There’s so much tension between wanting it to be out there in the big bad world and fearing for its very life.  When I drop that brown envelope in the post box, or, more often these days, hit the send button on an email, my heart is in my mouth.  What happens to my story matters to me so much.

Sadly, it doesn’t matter to anyone else that much.  In fact, indifference is often the outcome of a submission.  So often I don’t hear anything back, not even a one-line form email rejection.  If I don’t hear back straight away, then it’s a good sign – it might mean that my submission is being considered. (After all, each time it took months for the work I have had published so far to be accepted.) But as the days stretch to weeks and then months, slowly I have to accept that this time I’m not going to get a response at all.  And that no response just means no.

But I keep on submitting because in my best days, I believe in the strength of my writing.  I believe it’s tough enough to survive the wolves and come out on the other side of the forest and into full view, where, if I’m lucky, the sun will be shining.

Music or Silence

October 23, 2015 4 comments

Some writers like to listen to music while they work.  Some even have specific playlists that they listen to while writing a particular book. It’s a way of connecting with the characters and the story, I would guess, or of getting yourself into the right frame of mind to write that book. Others need silence, or are more like Janice Galloway, who when she was asked at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival if she listened to music while writing looked horrified said firmly, “When I listen to music, I listen to music.” On the other hand, Lari Don has blogged about how she makes playlists for her books, not to listen to while writing, but while doing something else but still thinking about her current book.

When I was a student, I used to study regularly with my headphones on, listening to the radio or whatever album was my current obsession, but now I don’t usually listen to music while I’m writing.  I find it too distracting.  I start concentrating on the music instead of the words I’m supposed to be writing.  But I don’t need complete silence either.  In fact, I work particularly well in a café or somewhere similar where there’s an element of background noise.  That kind of noise I find easy to tune out.  Sometimes I think it’s less distracting than silence.

What about you?  Do you need silence to work?  Or do you like to listen to music or even talk radio?

Wisdom from the 2015 Edinburgh Book Festival

September 7, 2015 3 comments

Now that it all seems like a dim and distant memory, here are a few of my highlights from this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival

Janice Galloway was on great form as ever.  I loved her comment on short stories compared to novels:

“Writing short stories is like baking a selection of fancy biscuits for visitors instead of one cake.  Why would you risk your baking reputation on one cake?”

Why indeed? And she got quite heated on the difficulty of getting published, especially as a new author and especially as a writer of short stories:

“It’s hard to fault the profit logic – but what about the moral logic?  The aesthetic logic?”

I was thrilled to see Translation Duels back on the programme this year – these are where two literary translators are given the same passage to translate, the translations are put side by side and the translators and the chair discuss the differences.  The translators only get to see the other translation just before they come on stage.  Although it’s billed as some kind of linguistic death match, actually the translators are incredibly humble and generous and are more than willing to admire the other’s turn of phrase, to admit their own word choice is lacking or to acknowledge there is another equally valid (or indeed better) way of expressing something.  I went to the French language event this year and it was an hour of pure pleasure for anyone interested in language as we teased out the exact meanings of words and phrases and explored the nuances of different expressions.  I’m getting a shiver of delight even just remembering it.

Listening to Kirsty Logan read from her novel The Gracekeepers was a definite highlight.  Kirsty is such a talented performer of her work and I could have listened to her all day.  I’ve since read the book and enjoyed it hugely.  I had to force myself to read it slowly so that I could really savour the richness and beauty of the language.  I liked what she said about her writing:

“I know I’m onto something when I don’t want someone else to read it, when it’s revealing parts of myself that I’m not comfortable with.”

Patrick Ness is always a joy to listen to, funny, humane and profound.  He had lots of wise words to share.  My favourites included:

“Everything has to be earned by the story – then you can do what you like.”

“The good thing about having anxiety is that it’s future-focused – so I don’t have any regrets.”

“(On Ali Smith) I wish I could be as good as that.”

“I need to know how I’m going to lead the reader out of the book” (Generally he has the last line of a book before he starts.) “I need a few scenes that I’m excited to write” to get going – and he doesn’t write those scenes until he gets to them.  That sounds to me like a good way of motivating yourself when writing a book.

When I went to see Paul Magrs, I’d already bought his book, Lost on Mars, but he made me want to read it even more by describing it as – “Lost on Mars is basically a mash-up of The Little House on the Prairie and a Ray Bradbury soap opera.”  And his reading clinched it.  Who could resist a book containing the line:  “The two old women were giving the sun-bed ideas.”

So just a few memorable moments from my Edinburgh Book Festival visits this year.  I’m still feeling quite sad that it’s all over – but I can always look forward to next year.

Secrets of a writer’s desk

June 24, 2015 4 comments

There are many, many secrets of being a writer.  Of course, I can’t tell you what they all are, as then they wouldn’t be secret any more.  But I think I could maybe let you into one or two, as long as you promise not to tell anyone else.

On my desk, I have this lovely little chest of drawers, a present from my sister.


It’s one of those things that I didn’t know I needed until I actually had it and it’s now become a vital element in my writing toolbox.  In this drawer, I keep map pins, which I use to pin things to the noticeboard over my desk.


In this drawer I keep something really vital for my writing – handwarmers.


My fingers get so cold that sometimes it’s hard to type or write, so I put my handwarmers on.  I knitted them myself from some Jacobs’ humbug one ply yarn handspun by Jennie Howes. In fact, knitwear is quite important to me in my attempt to keep warm while getting words onto the page – I’ve already written about my embarrassing cardigan.

In this drawer live my memory sticks – an important belt-and-braces extra place to save my latest work, just in case anything happens to my laptop or the cloud or the files I regularly email to myself.


These next two drawers are for keeping little chocolatey treats to help coax the writing process along.


As you can see, they’re currently empty.  I need to do some filling up very soon as chocolate and tea/coffee are pretty essential to my writing process. Any chocolatey donations will be gratefully received…

Which leaves this drawer.


And I’m not going to tell you what’s in it.  A writer has to keep some secrets after all. You can ask all you like, but my lips are firmly sealed.

What would you keep in a secret drawer?

The dreaded synopsis

So, I started the day with good intentions.  After this morning’s dog walk, I had two more things on my to-do list and then I was going to work on the synopsis of the book I am working on at the moment.  By 12.30, the other two things were ticked off my list, so I decided to have lunch and then crack on with the synopsis.

And after lunch, I did sit down at my desk and put on my embarrassing writing cardigan, as it had turned a bit chilly, and opened a new file, ready to start.

I would like to say that this workmanlike attitude resulted in a finely crafted synopsis, licked into shape by the end of the afternoon, but sadly, if I did, I would be lying.  I find synopses really hard to write – and from what I’ve heard from other writers, I’m not alone in this.  The synopsis needs to tell the story in a compelling way.  It needs to sell the book.  It needs to stand out.  It needs to make the reader (an agent or an editor at a publishing house) want to take my book on – or at the very least, to ask to see the full manuscript.  No pressure there then.

While it’s true that the pressure of trying to do all these things in a page or so of A4 makes it a pretty tough job, for me I think the worst thing is trying to get enough distance from my book (which I’ve been working on for a long, long time) in order to distil the entire plot into just a few words.

It’s a classic case of not being able to see the wood for the trees.


I find it so hard to decide which bits to put in and which to leave out; which plot line to follow through and which to skate over. Even once I’ve decided which bits to include, I then need to decide how to group them, so that the whole thing makes sense.

Is your head hurting yet?  Mine was.  All I have to show for my afternoon at my desk is a Word file with the words: “The Wrong Rose – Synopsis”.

But I did do some thinking.  And I did finally come up with a name for the other world in the book, which has been bothering me for a while.  And I did tinker a bit more with the text of the book.  So I’m hoping that my subconscious has been working away without me noticing and that when I next sit down with my blank file, all will become clear.  Or at least that I’ll get some more words on the page to start working with.

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Making it last (or why bread is like books)

April 23, 2015 4 comments

DSC02568You know that feeling, when you’re in the middle of something really good, but you know it has to come to an end and you can’t quite bear it?  It happens to me when I’m reading a really brilliant book.  I ration myself, carefully hoarding the last precious pages.  And then when I do get to the end, I’m so tempted to start from the beginning all over again.  Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy was like that for me and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White.  None of these could be described as short books.  Far from it.  And yet, when I got to the end I was almost screaming “No!  You can’t leave it there! I want to read more.”

I get the same feeling when I am on holiday by the sea in St Abbs, one of my favourite places.


Actually, the beach is officially in Coldingham, but it’s only 5 minutes walk away.

However long I’m there – and last summer I was lucky enough to be there for six whole weeks at a stretch – I’m never ready to leave. Having just come back from two weeks in St Abbs, I’m in that grumpy in-between mood, when I just want to be back in a house with the sea at the end of the street and the sound of waves in my ears and the taste of salt on my tongue.  But I’ve found a way of making the transition more bearable, and it involves bread.

Yes, bread.  You see, when we’re in St Abbs, we buy truly delicious bread from the local baker (Lough’s) in Eyemouth.  When we’re there, we get through it so fast.  But when we bring some home with us, we all seem to have the same urge to slow our consumption down, to savour the taste which will soon be gone.

It’s not just about the bread, delicious though it is – especially the multigrain.  It’s also about taking a little bit of that seaside bliss back to everyday life.

Sadly, there’s only enough bread left now for today’s lunch.  It may be getting a bit hard now, but I will toast it and savour every bite.