About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Writers and Notebooks - A Love Affair.

Some of the current collection
Today, a friend on Facebook posted about the way many notebooks are more expensive than actual printed books. She's right, of course. They are. But I still buy them.

I know lots of other writers who have a notebook habit. We accumulate them. Sometimes we sit and admire them without actually writing in them. The special ones are hoarded for some hypothetical future project that will be worthy of the perfect notebook.

I have very specific tastes in notebooks. First and foremost, the pages have to be blank. I hate lined paper. You'd be surprised how many shops seem to have stopped stocking blank paper notebooks altogether. Sometimes you have to hunt among the art materials to find them.

The paper has to be good quality, preferably off white or cream rather than bright white. I often write with italic or 'handwriting' pens, with broad nibs (yes, I know, but I was taught to write that way at school, a long long time ago and I can't help it!) and if the paper is nasty, the ink sinks in. It's so disappointing when you open a notebook with a beautiful cover to find that the paper inside is flimsy and impractical.

I quite like hard cover notebooks, especially brightly coloured hard cover notebooks: pink, turquoise, red, blue. Soft covers are OK though, especially for travelling. I have a couple of beautiful little notebooks I bought in Oxford last year, with Kraft paper covers, and ladybird designs, including an edge design like one of those wonderful old books that have a painting along the depth of the pages. I like them to be a decent size, although it's handy when they can also fit in my handbag. And if they have a little compartment into which I can slip notes for talks, train timetables etc, so much the better.

I have an ongoing love affair with Moleskine. I love these notebooks with a passion, which is a bit sad since they're not cheap. But they are the kings and queens among notebooks. Everything about them, including the quality of the paper, is wonderful. If any notebook might magically be able to make you into a better writer, these are the ones to try. (And no, they're not paying me to say this.)

I generally buy mine online, from Amazon or from T K Maxx, where you can find a good selection of notebooks and nice paper of all kinds. Although once you've discovered the Moleskine shop, you might well be enticed in. I use one every day, for lists of things to do. I've also been using one this year to keep track of the many events I've been asked to do, venues, contact details, train or bus times, hotel bookings  - and again, Moleskine provides the perfect notebook: robust, with a piece of elastic to keep it firmly shut, a bookmark and a wallet at the back.

Oddly enough, I use a Kindle for reading all the time, and although I love paper books and have too many of them, I can't say I feel excessively attached to them, can't say I miss them, especially when I'm reading fiction. I also write directly onto a PC and would never dream of writing a novel in longhand now. Too slow. It would drive me mad.

But when it comes to research, planning and plotting, or making my various lists, I prefer my notebooks. I really do love to use pen and paper.

I've a feeling that you can never have too many notebooks. I wonder what other people think. Do you have favourites, pet hates, perfect specimens?


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Excellent Events and a Wee Bit About Payment

Book Fair at the Carrick Lodge Hotel,
organised by the ever excellent Ayr Writers. 
This year, I've been snowed under with book events, and I've loved every minute of it, loved talking about Jean, and chatting to readers and signing books. Some events have been purely promotional, launching the Jewel at various venues, while others have come under the category of paid work, talks at excellent book festivals, workshops and visits to writing groups.The latest - the Pentlands Book Festival in Juniper Green - was a model of how to organise such things and a pleasure from start to finish. (Very many thanks to my hosts for their hospitality.)

I'm aware that I'm lucky and that many writers just starting out would be glad of the opportunity. But as a freelance writer married to a freelance artist, I've been trying to balance event payment with promotional value for years now. This has also been something that the Society of Authors has been tackling on behalf of all its members, although it has to be said that Scottish book festivals are extremely good at paying their writers.

So here are some general thoughts, ending with one plea in particular.

The vast majority of writers do not earn large sums of money from their writing.
Book events of all kinds are excellent promotional tools. We build our readership one satisfied reader at a time, hoping that they will tell somebody else if they've enjoyed a book.
Book events are, on the whole, extremely enjoyable.
Book events are also hard work!

The truth is that most writers are happy to do a limited number of free events in any one year, especially local events, so there's no harm in asking. Personally speaking, I'll do bookshop events when I can, especially with a new book, and I'll also do a number of freebies for local book groups, or even local non commercial organisations such as the WRI (although in my experience they are scrupulous in paying travel expenses and offering hospitality.) I'll also happily do some book events where - for example - travel and accommodation are paid by a proactive and enthusiastic host. There are no hard and fast rules. But out of sheer practicality the paid events and the actual writing will have to take precedence. If you take a look at the News and Events Page on my website, you'll find more details.

Many groups in Scotland can and do apply for writer funding under the Scottish Book Trust's excellent Live Literature Scotland scheme, and that's good for all concerned. The host organisation is funded, the writer is funded, and everyone's happy.

But when funding of various kinds is applied for and obtained or when it's offered by a festival, some starry writers (there are a few!) or perhaps even writers who have another and more lucrative profession, will waive their fees.
Which is very nice of them, but I wish they wouldn't.
The problem is that the cash may actually be ring fenced, so can't be used for anything else. But even more of a problem is that it sets a precedent, while most of us - however much we would like to be able to do the same - simply can't afford to do too many free events.

So my plea to the handful of rich writers out there is - please, for the sake of the rest of us, accept what's offered, and then if you really don't need or want the money, donate it to whatever worthy cause you choose - your local school library or one of a number of excellent book charities that help children all over the world to obtain books. Many of us would love to be able to do the same. One day, some of us will be able to.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Female Desire


Of all the feedback I've had about The Jewel - and people have said and written some very nice things about it, which is a great relief, because when you send your baby out into the world, you never know what the response will be  - I think the judgment that I found most gratifying was from a bookseller. Almost casually, she remarked 'You write female desire very well.'

I hope so but it was nice to have it confirmed by another woman. It got me thinking though. I'd be the first to say that women can write successfully about men, just as men can write successfully about women. But not always. Like all kinds of writing, it demands the ability to step outside yourself, crawl inside somebody else's mind, make yourself comfortable (or uncomfortable, depending on the character) and write from their point of view. Which is hard to do. So just as we have women writing impossibly romantic male characters, we have men writing women who gaze at themselves in a succession of mirrors, thinking thoughts that no woman I have ever known would think. Or - and this is a topic for another post - people write only about themselves, seemingly unable to see beyond the fascination of their own lives.

I found the 'female desire' remark so pleasing because that is one of the things I set out to do when I wrote The Jewel: to tell the story of why and how an otherwise sensible young woman might fall for and continue to love (but clearly not always like) an unsuitable man against all the careful counselling of family and friends. What is it all about: this web of connections and attractions, the pain of rejection, the physical and mental fascination verging on madness?

Unfortunately, any woman writing about female desire, even as part of something much larger, will be misunderstood by the literary establishment. No matter how well crafted the book, no matter how 'true' the depictions of said desire, a love story will seldom be taken seriously. Except of course by readers.

Fortunately, they're the ones who matter.



Tuesday, November 08, 2016

NaNoWriMo

It's national November novel writing month again. I'm not really taking part, even though I do have a new novel to write - well, actually, I have three - and I'll certainly be hustling to get that first draft of the first book onto the PC before Christmas.

If you're doing it, good luck. You're more than a quarter of the way through. If you're flagging, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going.

I was thinking about this last weekend at a small gathering of friends, most of whom also happen to be writers. One of them asked me if I was disciplined and wrote at a set time each day.  To which the answer is, no, I don't. But I do try to write almost every day. And if I'm not writing, I'm thinking about writing, plotting and planning and getting to know my characters. But the truth is that some days, all kinds of other things get in the way. I find deadlines help. And when I have a fixed deadline, I find that my work rate escalates so that I might be writing for many hours in a day and half the night as well. Just not at the beginning. It all spirals upwards!

So why is this relevant to NaNoWriMo? Well, if you can do it, and stick to it, you'll get over the significant hurdle of the first draft, the horror of the blank screen. All writers work differently. Some of us are plotters and some pantsers - we write by the seat of our pants. That's me, more or less. I know the beginning and often the end, but a lot of the time I don't know how to get there. I write to find out. That's where the fascination lies. It's as though the characters have to tell me their story. On the few occasions where I've been persuaded to write more than two or three pages of a synopsis, I get bored and find myself writing something else. But not everyone works that way, and it's fine. We're all different.

However, I've tutored a lot of writers over the years and the single biggest problem for most them when it comes to making the leap from short fiction to novels, from one act plays to full scale dramas - seems to be in finishing the first draft of something so dauntingly long. The temptation to stop, revise, rewrite, change your mind, is almost overwhelming.

That's where something like NaNoWriMo comes in. My advice to most people starting out on a big project such as a novel, has always been to forge on. Don't worry if you find you have to leave gaps, miss out chapters, realise that there are gaping holes in the plot. Don't worry if you find yourself writing passages of what seems like gobbledegook. Just keep going, tell the story, get to the end. Nobody else is going to see this draft, warts and all unless you want them to. Nobody but me ever sees my first drafts.

But it's so much easier to revise and restructure a draft, however rough and ready, than it is to face the blank screen.

A couple of other useful tips.
Stop each day at a point where you really want to go on.  I wish I could remember who first told me this, because I bless them. That way, when you come back to the project the next day, and reread the last few pages, you'll get into the story a lot more quickly and easily than if you've stopped at a nice neat chapter ending.
The second thing to remember is that novels, like bread and beer and gardening, need time. Once you've got your first rough draft done, set it aside, don't be tempted to go back to it for several weeks. It's another reason why November is a good month for a first draft. You can enjoy Christmas with a clear conscience, and then get back to some serious editing in the New Year.

Good luck. And if you've any questions, add them to the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.


Sunday, November 06, 2016

Remember Remember ...

 Last night we had our annual village bonfire and fireworks display. It's always well attended - especially since every year there seem to be fewer of the big municipal displays in the nearby towns. Ours is organised by the community - a lot of work. It's free, but we sell hamburgers and glow sticks and collect donations which go towards next year's event.

I love it, love the fireworks, love the primitive and enticing quality of the fire. It always has a feeling of something that has been going on for hundreds of years as of course it has, not always on 5th November but always around this time of year when people even now feel the need to fend off the encroaching cold and dark.

These last few years, though, it has felt just a little sad for me too. There are ghosts:  my dear late mum and dad, who always used to come - my dad just loved a bonfire and fireworks. Lots of other lovely people who lived in the village and are no longer with us but are always remembered. They're all missed, but at this time of year, you can almost see them and certainly feel them, drawn to the warmth of our fire, and the joy of the people watching.

And then, of course, there are all the grown up children. Some have come back especially for Bonfire Night, some are far away,  their places taken by lots more wee kids, scooting about, full of excitement. But if you look long and hard enough, I swear you can see all of them, all these people, as they once were, caught in the light for a brief moment in time.



Thursday, November 03, 2016

New Projects

I'm on the cusp of starting a new novel, and it's always a strange feeling. I know what I'm going to write and have even worked on the first few chapters. I've done the research, done the planning, know where it starts and where it's going - although I don't plot meticulously or in any great detail. I have an outline, but I'm the kind of writer who may know the beginning and the end, but not precisely how we get there. I write to find out - otherwise I'd get bored.

The other thing I do is forge on to the bitter end, even if it all goes to hell in the middle. The main thing is to get through it all. If I kept stopping to rewrite, I would never finish anything. That's another reason why I put off starting. Once I really get going, I don't much want to stop, no matter what. My current plan is to finish this first ragged draft by Christmas. Then I'll have a bit of time off for parties and celebrations (and - OK - maybe a bit of work on something else, another project very dear to my heart!)

Once the first draft has lain fallow for a few weeks, I'll go back to it, probably in February, and then start to work on it steadily through the spring and early summer, polishing away. It's the first novel in what I'm hoping will turn into a series. But that's all I'm saying about it right now. Most writers know that if you talk about a project too soon, it all dissolves, disappearing as certainly as fairy gold, leaving you with a few dead leaves!




Tuesday, November 01, 2016

A New Look for November


Just back from a flying visit to our beloved Isle of Gigha. I'd been asked to do a book event about The Jewel for the Tarbert (Loch Fyne) Book Festival which meant that we were so close that it seemed a pity not to carry on as far as our favourite island. The ferry at Tayinloan is only eighteen miles along the road. The festival, incidentally, was a real pleasure - a very positive audience, asking lots of interesting questions. I hope they invite me back some time!

The long drive from Ayrshire to the Kintyre peninsula is spectacularly beautiful at this time of year, so vivid, so dazzling, that it seems impossible to choose any single photograph. We generally take the car ferry from Gourock to Dunoon, and then drive along the side of Loch Eck, heading for Loch Fyne and Inveraray. This is a route pretty much lined with trees: birches and all kinds of conifers, so you can imagine the sheer beauty of the autumnal colours.

Along the way, we generally stop off at The Tree Shop, next to the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. There's an excellent cafe (great cakes!) and a garden centre specialising in conifers and other trees, so it's well worth a visit. Frankly, whenever I browse there, I imagine myself moving to Argyll and planting a hillside garden. Well, I can dream, can't I?

You'll have noticed that I've been playing about with the look of this blog. Partly it's to cheer myself - and you - up because November tends to be my least favourite month, although the sun is shining brilliantly, as I type this. But here in Scotland it does 'get late early' as a friend used to say - soon darkness will be falling by four o'clock in the afternoon. We have to pay for all those long light summer nights.

Partly, though, it's because I plan to do more, shorter posts. I want to keep readers and friends up to date with all my new projects. And because I'm tired of seeing so much writing advice online that seems to me to be both discouraging and not particularly helpful I'll be including an occasional short post with a few professional hints and tips. I've been writing full time for the past 40+ years, more or less successfully, although I've switched from poetry to fiction and non fiction, to plays and then back again to fiction during that time. The truth is that you're always learning. But I quite often see dogmatic writing advice that I find debatable, and even dangerous for anyone starting out. The one absolute rule is that there are no absolute rules.

More as it happens.