A Change is as Good as a Rest

February 28, 2016 Leave a comment

This week I’ve been turning things upside down.  Instead of working with words at my desk and working with yarn in the sitting room, I swapped things around.  I spent several hours in an armchair working on my latest novel – 50,000 words so far and very baggy and saggy, thanks for asking – and then I spent an hour cutting shapes out of home-made woollen felt.  (It’s for a top secret project, so I can’t tell you any more about it just now.)

It felt a bit strange doing things the “wrong” way round, but I needed a clear, bright space to do the felt-cutting and my desk was perfect, so it worked well for that.  It worked well for the writing too.  The change of place seemed to give me a boost and I got far more done than I’d expected.  The only downside was that being much closer to the kettle while I was writing meant that I drank at least twice as much tea or coffee as usual.

So there you have it, stepping out of your normal routine can be beneficial to the writer – just watch out for caffeine overload!

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Beware of caffeine overload!.

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Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to conference I go

February 18, 2016 1 comment

Writing can be a lonely business.  For so much of the time it’s just the writer and the words.  I work mostly from home, just me at my desk with my laptop or my notebook.  The people I meet when I’m writing are all in my head or on the page, unless I venture out and about with my writing implements, in which case I will come across and maybe even exchange a few words with some real-life, live human beings in a local coffee shop or library.

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Sometimes I do have the assistance of a furry friend

And I do talk to other people every day – hey, I even live with some of the real-life variety (my family) and I’m not a complete writing hermit.  I do have a social life and even some paid (non-writing) work that involves interacting with people.  But I don’t often get to talk to people about the nitty gritty of writing.  I don’t have a work colleague at the next desk to chat with over coffee or moan about things when they go badly or celebrate with when they go well.  I do a certain amount of writerly chit-chat over social media, but it’s not the same as a face to face conversation.

Which is why it is so exciting to be going to a writing conference this weekend.  A whole weekend, devoted to all things writerly, spent in the company of other writers – people who will understand the trials and tribulations as well as the punch-the-air-with-delight moments of the writing life.  I am so looking forward to it.

It will be a great opportunity to meet up with people that I mostly know on-line and people I haven’t yet met.  We have a packed programme which will be looking at all sorts of different aspects of writing, but we will also have time just to chill out and chat and get to know each other.  I’m hoping to learn lots, be inspired and share my own thoughts too – maybe even discover some thoughts and ideas I didn’t know I had.

So I’m off to pack my bags now.  Excuse me if I whistle – heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to conference I go…

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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?