About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

On the Need to Invent and Reinvent

I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about the process of writing, in a personal sense, of course. I can't make judgements for other people, only myself. And - you know - I increasingly feel that the online world tries to do just that. It's relentlessly judgemental - full of people, often spectacularly unsuccessful themselves - who are all too anxious to make sets of rules for other people to follow. I've been tempted down that route myself from time to time although frankly I've always been a bit of an anarchist.
I spend one day a week helping students with their academic writing but that is completely (and blissfully) different from dictating how people ought to write creatively. With so many years of experience in so many different areas of writing, I can look at a piece of academic work in a discipline I know nothing about and still make helpful suggestions. Often it's because I know very little about the subject under discussion that I can see the wood for the trees, and suggest what seem to me to be minor structural changes which - so people tell me - are often immensely helpful.
But creative writing? Well, I find myself increasingly reluctant to say anything about anybody else's work. I have a handful of writer friends - less than a handful, to be strictly accurate - for whom I do the odd bit of reading - as they do for me. I trust them, I hope they trust me. But I'm never really criticising what they do in the sense of judging it. I may interrogate the work itself and them from time to time, to give them a sense of how what they've written comes across to a friendly reader. I may reinforce their own doubts about certain aspects of the work with the occasional gentle query. (We always have doubts. I was going to say, even seasoned professionals. But I think they -we? - have more doubts than most. We all know enough to know what we don't know!) I will be scrupulously honest and as observant as I can be. And I often find myself praising what is genuinely wonderful in the hope that my feedback will help balance those doubts which do beset all writers from time to time. I like to think that I can be of some help - but I'm too busy wrestling with my own creative angels to be judgemental about anybody else's!
So over the past year, I have spent rather a lot of time thinking about what I write myself, and why. How I feel about it. How I want to feel about it. And why - over the past year - I seem to have ground inexorably to a halt in some aspects of my writing, while in others I am so full of ideas and experiments and insights that I hardly know where to begin. As writers we are naturally inventive. 'Where do you get your ideas from?' is an incomprehensible question to most writers. We are usually full of ideas and we neither know nor care where they come from. That's never the problem. The problem is all too often the translation of those thrilling ideas into words on the page. Because sometimes, you look at them and they seem so pedestrian. What soared in the mind limps along on the page.
Which leads me to the idea of reinvention. But it's late. And I'll save that for another post.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Politicians

Woke up this morning, and switched on the radio to hear a Labour politician pontificating in the teeth of the 10p Income Tax row. This - for those of you who may be reading this blog from elsewhere - involves our Labour Government which is supposed to look out for those on low incomes (one of the reasons why I, for one, voted for them) suddenly deciding to hit a significant cross section of low earners with increased taxes, while handing a few hundred pounds a year more to those who don't really need it. It has caused predictable ructions among back benchers. What really struck me about the interview though, was its uncanny similarity to a whole series of interviews with Tory politicians before their eventual debacle all those years ago. I remember them well. Not only would they never admit to being wrong, but in those peculiarly plumptious, moralising and deeply enraging tones which politicians always assume when they have become blinkered by power, they would tell us that we simply didn't understand what they were trying to do, ie we were thick, they knew best and if they could only speak slowly, loudly and clearly, so that we could get our poor little heads around it, we would be persuaded that they had been right all along.
This morning it was Labour's turn to assume that familiar, condescending, hectoring tone. I'm sure I heard somebody saying not that they might have got this one wrong (they sure have) but that they needed to 'explain their policies more clearly to the electorate'. Or some such guff.
Well here's some news. We don't need an explanation. We understand all too well, just as we understood back then. It may come as a surprise, but we just don't agree with you. You can explain till you're blue in the face, but it won't make a blind bit of difference. And - this being a democracy - you know what follows, fellows.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Journalists versus Creative Writers

Not, of course, that there is - on the whole - that much difference between us. Most so called 'creative writers' I know have done, still do some journalism- as I do myself. Many novelists began their working lives as journalists. Many journalists become novelists, write stories or poems. But having just spent an interesting, and pleasurable day in the company of a group of full time journalists, I found myself realising that there is a big (and perhaps growing) difference between the ways in which our minds work.
My fellows on what was an informative and busy trip, aimed at allowing us to gather information about a particular event and write about it afterwards, were a mixed group of 7 or 8 more or less full time journalists from the US, London, Ireland and Germany. Several were involved in online magazines (in a couple of cases their own ventures). And at some point in the day it struck me that they have a completely different attitude from those friends and colleagues who are wholly involved in creative writing. It's more than confidence. I think they expect to be treated as valued professionals and guess what? Everyone round about them seems to live up to those expectations. I had to keep mentally pinching myself. I was with a group of writers who were discussing a booming business, and not how awful things were!
It got me thinking about how so often we, at the creative end, devalue ourselves. We constantly 'talk' failure, and don't seem to have the confidence of our own professionalism. Just as an example, last year, when I was commissioned to write about the wonderful Drovers' Inn on Loch Lomondside for a magazine, it never even occurred to me to tell the management what I was doing. Any of these (in some cases much younger) people would have set the whole thing up in advance, been well treated, and paid out not a bean. And why not, if they are going to be using their expertise in the service of one business to promote another? Consultants, even in the strapped for cash arts, get very handsomely rewarded for their services!
I know of course that many forms of writing are undertaken purely for pleasure, or in a spirit of exploration, and those are never going to pay well. But - perhaps because we spend so much of our time on those aspects of our work - we forget that there is a business end of the market. And when we are involved in it, we forget or perhaps are too timid to value ourselves and what we do, so it should come as no surprise when other people take us at our own valuation, and treat us accordingly. Some years ago, I was asked to attend a script meeting about a BBC radio production, in Edinburgh. There was, said the producer, 'no money in the kitty' to pay for travel expenses. So I went at my own expense. Any one of those young journalists would have said 'sorry, but no money, no meeting'. Not only would they have been right, but you can bet that the cash would have miraculously appeared from somewhere. It is high time that we changed our perspectives.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Writing - Five Ways to Get Started

By which I mean 'get started in the morning or afternoon or evening' - whenever you write, in fact. But I don't mean 'get started' in general. To write, you really have to want to write. You have to have ideas, to live with people and places milling about your head, to see as a writer sees and hear as a writer hears, and have that essential desire to communicate. But all the same, sometimes it can be hard just to 'get going'. The blank screen is as bad as the blank page in that respect. You can spend plenty of time planning and plotting, even more time researching - particularly now that you can browse online. But sooner or later, you have to get down to it, and write something. And in my years of experience of running workshops, that can be the most difficult thing for people to do. It's a problem I have myself sometimes - now for instance - although for me it comes and goes a bit. And sooner or later, I know that I can bite the bullet and get down to it. But here are some of my own favourite ways to get started. All reasonable contributions welcome!
1 - Post to a blog. There is something about blogging that - for me at any rate - primes the pump, gets the words flowing. To be used with care though. All too easy to think that - having posted to your blog - you've actually achieved something. Well you have. You've achieved a blog post.
2 - Drink a mug of strong - real - coffee. Alcohol makes me think that I can write all kinds of brilliant things. I no longer believe it. Not, you understand, that I'm against it in principle. Just that it's deceptive. If you write under the influence of any mind altering substance, you'll soon realise that when you read back what you've written you'll be doomed to disappointment. But strong coffee - that always works for me.
3 - Stop while you are in mid creative flow. This is a really useful piece of advice and I can't remember who first gave it to me, so if I'm infringing anyone's copyright I apologise in advance, and will post a proper attribution! Do not stop at the end of a scene, or chapter. If you can bring yourself to do it, stop while you still want to go on rather than when you feel you are winding down. That way there's a chance that some of the magic will still be there when you resume the following day.
4 - Go for a long walk first. Not always possible I know, and not advice which I follow half enough myself, but there is something inspirational about walking, something that seems to lift the pressure and make you want to get started.
5 - Fall in love. I owe this rather startling piece of advice to Scottish poet Robert Burns who in a letter to Maria Riddell said that he had to be in love himself before he could write a really good love poem - or words to that effect. He had, let's face it, another agenda. But he was right in this as in so much else. Being in love - as I remember it - can be pretty inspirational - so long as you can control a certain disastrous tendency to write only about the object of your affections.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Time Management for Writers - The Reality and the Dream

I have realised over the past few years that this is not my forte but I seem to have grown infinitely worse as time has gone by and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just that life has grown ever more complicated. I don't remember having quite this trouble when I was young and madly excited by whatever I happened to be working on at the time. Now there's the added complication of earning a living, doing that mysteriously expanding thing known as 'paperwork' and trying to help maintain a house and garden in something like full working order. I can perfectly well understand why certain writers have a dedicated office where they go 'out to work' every morning.
Once or twice I have assessed what exactly it is that distracts me from flat out work, and the list goes something like this -
Coax self out of bed about 7.30 (mornings are not my best time) and drink copious quantities of tea. Shower, dress, dry hair. Best ideas always occur in shower. Make some notes. Make bed. Sometimes change bed and sling washing in machine.
Check online business, The Scottish Home (antiques - our bread and butter these days) answer questions about listed items, send invoices where appropriate, etc. Sort out stock to list later on today, usually in the evening.
Field and answer various emails, often to do with writing of one kind or another. Promise self that will not check emails compulsively through the day in case amazing offer from publisher or preferably film maker is lurking in inbox.
Post has arrived. Mostly junk. Some bills. Visualise bills as cheques (Yes, I've read The Secret too!)
Wrap and address anything that has been sold. In the case of textiles this involves tissue paper, pretty stickers, nice postcards and envelopes. Presentation is important in this business.
Take packages to post office.
Do some PC maintenance. In extreme cases (like last Sunday for instance) this took up most of the day while I tried to restore elderly and sick PC to factory settings and then couldn't get printer to work. No disk. Found HP disk for other machine. Tried it. It worked. Miracle.
Make very large cafetiere of very strong coffee. Drink very large mug of said coffee.
Spend a little while blogging - make resolution not to spend too much time on this, but it does seem to prime the writing pump.
Do a bit of online research for latest project.
Read dissertations which students have sent via email. (Do one day a week on RLF fellowship at local university)
Sun is shining. Notice that all plants in conservatory are panting and wilting in heat. Water them. Drink second mug of coffee.
Husband says 'Can you just....' Could be anything from ordering paint and canvas to invoicing somebody. Remember that have not done any online banking for ages and everyday working account is probably overdrawn. Not disastrous since agreed overdraft, but should do it now. Am slightly horrified by falling balances and rising bills.
Ring at doorbell. Could be friends or relatives popping in for morning coffee, man to read electricity, oil or coal delivery etc etc etc.
Phone rings. Cannot ignore phone. May be publisher or film maker with unrepeatable offer. It is invariably somebody asking personal questions in an effort to sell me something. Either that, or friends, or relatives. Occasionally it's work. Always delighted when it is agent. Last week it was an American offering to sell us shares in an oil company. You must be joking, I said, and put the phone down. (Query, why do these people who have, after all, phoned you up always get quite shirty when you won't play ball?)
By now it's lunch time. Drink tea, eat large bowl of yoghurt. Will write this afternoon.
Sun is shining. Garden is a mess. Do garden and feel guilty about writing. Or do writing and feel equally guilty about garden.
Phone rings. Kwikfit offering to renew car insurance at reduced rate if I do it now. Decide to save time by doing it now. Answer questions about self and car. Have to go upstairs to find car documents.
Do photo session for listings later this evening while light is good.
Write. Bliss. Room is quiet. Radio is off.
Notice that there is a heap of bills, invoices, receipts waiting to be filed. File them.
Eat meal cooked by husband. Sometimes cook meal. Drink some wine. Government says women must not drink wine under pain of assorted apocalyptic disasters. Drink another glass in a spirit of anarchy.
Upload pics to PC and tweak them. Do some listings. This involves a lot of descriptive writing since bulk of antiques are textiles, vintage clothes etc. And measuring. And laundry. Finish blog post from this morning. Check emails and reply. Waste time on Facebook. Restrain self from looking at son's Facebook page. Must not spy on grown up offspring.
Watch an hour or so's TV.
Friend phones for a catch-up.
Make tea.
An hour later check online listings that are coming to an end and send out invoices.
Go to bed anytime between twelve and one and read for however long I can stay awake - sometimes an hour or more, sometimes ten minutes.
None of this - of course - includes shopping, buying antiques at auction, designing and ordering postcards for online business, ordering office supplies, putting in the washing, stacking the dishwasher, stain removing and laundering the old textiles, car booting, going to meetings, really doing the garden, dusting, baking and cleaning the loo. Husband always does more than his fair share. He even irons the textiles (much better at it than me.) It does not include having my hair cut and my teeth fixed and browsing bookshops and doing an art history course and looking at handbags in TK Maxx. Nor does it include my all time favourite occupation which is sitting in Caffe Nero, preferably very early in the morning, with cool music playing, drinking a very large capuccino (without chocolate on top.) and making notes for poems in the back of the little diary I always carry with me. Three cheers for Caffe Nero. I would actually be quite happy to spend all day working in there if they would keep me supplied with coffee. Would they like a writer in residence? It could be me.
My dream - I'm working on it - is to have a small studio flat, preferably in Glasgow's Merchant City (a quiet street of course, somewhere high up and at the back of a building, quite close to Caffe Nero would be good) with few distractions - a nice desk, a laptop, a comfortable bed, a shower room a small kitchen area and very little else. I would spend three or four days a week there with occasional sorties for coffee and probably get more done in those three days than I ever do in a week of trying hard at home. Plus my husband would be glad to see me when I came back. I would, of course, tell very few people where it was, lest shoppers should decide to pop in unannounced and leave carrier bags with me. But in any case I could pretend that I wasn't there. Paradise. If anyone out there is reading this and wants a tame writer to flat sit on an occasional basis, just let me know!