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!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Bad Advice

A room with a view.
I'm at an age where - although not even considering retiring  - I've been looking back and taking stock of my career so far, wondering how and why I got here, what I'm planning to do next (that's easy - write a lot more novels) and what advice I might give to younger writers.

I do a lot of reflecting as I sit up here in my room-with-a-view, indulging in a certain amount of displacement activity before I get on with the next project. But regrets come when you wake up at four in the morning and can't get back to sleep, and fret over roads not travelled, decisions made or not made. Well, we do the best we can, and we forge on. I'm an optimist at heart.

But just sometimes, I think that I ought to try to pass on a little of my own experience because the internet is awash with advice for writers and so much of it seems to come from people with not as much wisdom, to quote my beloved Robert Burns, as 'a midge could rest its elbow on.'

Bad advice. My biggest regret is that over the years, I've heeded too much of what turned out to be bad or inadequate advice, even when my heart was telling me to ignore it. Often, it came from professionals. Often, they were wrong and my instincts were right. I should have taken the leap of faith and done what my impulses told me to do.

So what do I mean by 'bad advice'?
I mean situations where I trusted a fellow professional, but didn't pause to examine their motives and didn't give enough weight to my own instincts, the small voice inside me that told me to think again.
Examples?
Plenty, and not just about writing. But that's what this post is about. So:
Being advised not to go along with a request to adapt a piece of work for the stage because of the sensitive subject matter. I agreed with the advice, but it was the wrong decision.
Being saddled with the director from hell for a major stage production and being advised not to talk to the press and not to take my script and leave. Weeping in the loo was not a helpful option but it was the one I chose.
Was advised to stick my head above the metaphorical parapet on behalf of a certain organisation. Got shot down in flames. Said organisation decided there was nothing they could do about it.
Was advised by my then agent, producer and script editor, to work without any payment on a detailed proposal for a television serial because 'something' would come of it, it was such an original idea. Wasted the best part of a year on treatment, episode breakdown, pilot episodes. The whole thing was kicked into touch - then I saw the very same idea emerge as a successful movie for somebody else, years later.
Worked on another television idea, this time suggested by a large commercial organisation, again with no development money, revising it many times to suit their changing requirements, attended endless meetings, only to have it kicked into touch again. Unpaid because another adviser had told me that it would be worth it in the end.
I could go on.

Was I culpably foolish? You bet I was. Especially since in all these cases, the various organisations had approached me. I was still quite young. Very hopeful. Are writers doing exactly the same thing right now? Of course they are.  A career in writing is always the triumph of hope over reality. The only way to avoid some of the pitfalls (you'll never avoid all of them) is to step back and assess everything on its merits for you, personally. Even then, you'll make mistakes, but perhaps not quite so many as I did.

The reality is that you'll always have to do some work up front. Every creative entrepreneur does. Small companies go in for competitive tendering. Writers and artists work on proposals. Novelists write whole novels on spec. I know I do. Now that self publishing is an option, even if you're trad published, or hybrid, there's no real reason not to. But you need to know the limits, know when the game isn't worth the candle. If - for example - a large commercial media company wants a significant amount of work from you beyond that first detailed proposal or first draft, work that you can't really take anywhere else, then they should pay development money. If they aren't prepared to pay something, they don't want you enough and you've lost nothing by politely walking away.

The single most important thing you can do in all areas of writing, is to take charge of your own career, and make decisions based on what feels best for you. Expect to be a partner in any enterprise that involves your work. But remember that being a business partner involves significant responsibilities as well as rights: keeping to deadlines, keeping promises, not throwing toys out of the pram when you can't have everything your own way. In other words, you should be as professional as you can be.

Finally, take all advice with the largest pinch of salt possible. Including - I might add - this post!







Saturday, June 04, 2016

A Treasure Hunt and a Slightly Spooky Experience.


Last night was our annual village 'Car Treasure Hunt'. We've been doing these on and off for years. In fact it's a testament to the relative peacefulness of Ayrshire's roads, that they are still possible in these parts. For anyone who has never participated before, you pay a small sum towards whatever good cause has been nominated, get a sheet with a set of 'clues' and instructions - and off you go, filling in the answers to cryptic (sometimes very cryptic indeed) questions and directions as you go.

Last night there were four of us in a friend's car and the hunt involved an hour or so's drive along the winding back roads of Ayrshire, through the kind of countryside that Robert Burns would have known. It was a sunny night, and the countryside was looking its very best - in that wonderful time between spring and summer, when the verges are full of pink campion and a few remaining bluebells, where the hedges are creamy with sweet scented may blossom, and the gentle hillsides are ablaze with whin (gorse) blossoms. Everywhere, farmers were working hard at the silage while the weather was so congenial and the nights so long and light. It doesn't get dark till well past ten o'clock now and even at eleven there is still light in the sky.

In truth it seems very little changed in the 200+ years since Robert Burns roamed these hills and lanes with his current squeeze. It was a clear and very warm evening and it seemed as though around every corner was another stunning perspective across woods and fields, white farmhouses huddled into hillsides, and long vistas west towards the glittering sea and the hills of Arran, with Kintyre behind.

It often strikes me that the powers-that-be in Ayrshire do not know what they have in terms of scenery. If this kind of vista was anywhere else, it would be proudly promoted - the 'garden of Scotland', unspoilt landscapes of the Burns Country, and so on. I have no idea why there is, instead, a relentless focus on golf. I've no problem with golf, but there is so much more to Ayrshire and it's odd that even the people who live amid such beauty and such historical interest don't seem to notice it.

Anyway, there we were, driving slowly along yet another of the intensely pretty back roads when we passed an old farmhouse that seemed to be peculiarly sunk in time. It certainly leapt out at me and I couldn't quite say why. It wasn't part of the treasure hunt. There were no clues to be had here, and yet as we passed, I had the urge to ask our driver to stop so that I could go back, have a closer look, find out more. It just seemed ancient and interesting and for some unaccountable reason, it drew me. But, we were on a treasure hunt and we drove on.

Later, back at home (we didn't win, but we didn't do too badly either!) I followed the route we had taken on a map - not easy because we had been on a road that I didn't remember driving along before, even though I've lived here for many years - and there it was. To my amazement, I discovered that the house was Mount Oliphant. Which was the place where the Burness family moved from the cottage in Alloway where the poet was born. Rab later changed his name to Burns. It hadn't been a particularly happy place for the family - the land was, as ever with these small tenant farms, particularly bad. Landowners would rent them out and the poor tenants would be responsible for 'improving' them, often at the expense of their own health and strength. It was this kind of work in conditions much less warm and congenial than last night, that the poet described as the 'toil of a galley slave'. And so it must have been. It helped to destroy his own and his father's health.

The place is, of course, changed. But there is still something recognisable about it when you look at old pictures such as this one.

Mount Oliphant
There's something about the total immersion of researching a historical novel - which is what I've been doing for the past two or three years - that makes the researcher oddly sensitive to places. Whether it is or not, it feels supernatural.  And you find yourself meeting with slightly odd and unexpected coincidences like this one!

If you want to know more about exactly what I have been researching, you could seek out a copy of my most recent novel, The Jewel - all about the life and times of Robert Burns's Ayrshire born wife, Jean Armour. It's available in all good bookshops, as they say - and on Kindle of course, and in other eBook forms as well.