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, December 21, 2009

Round Robin Newsletters

This year, we sent the concoction below to selected friends:

Well, it’s that time of the year again folks!
Our year began with the news that Alan’s great aunt Charlotte, a silver surfer if ever there was one, had placed an ad on the Hearts R Us website, the success of which was something of a suprise to us all, as Rodney was forty years her junior. An even bigger surprise, a month later, was that Rodney’s other partner, Claude, had also moved in. All three live happily together, doing their bit for the planet by growing their own brand of herbal tobacco in the loft. Aunt Charlotte writes that she occasionally sprinkles some of it on her scones and says they’re very nice. She’s planning to send us a home made Christmas cake this year so we may manage to sample some too.
Meanwhile, Catherine’s cousin Vladek, from Romania, reports that he has moved into a new home, a derelict castle, which he plans to renovate over the next few years. A Place in the Country indeed! This is very exciting news, especially since he also tells us that he is determined to visit us here in the UK. He says he’d love to experience the night life in Scotland, and – what an enterprising young man he is – is making his way to the Baltic coast, from where he plans to sail to Whitby. Why Whitby, you ask? We don’t know, except that he seems to have discovered a link with a great great great grandfather – the joys of genealogy, eh? We’ll let you know when he arrives. We’ve never met Vladek, but he posted some pics on Facebook– he looks like a very handsome young man, so he’ll probably break a few hearts when he’s here!
Aunty Alice, that’s the lady from Pendle we told you about last year, for those of you who haven’t ever met her, reports that she has been enjoying her new evening classes and is about to graduate from necromancy to summoning demons. What fun!!!
This was the year that our great nephew Franklin – that’s the boy who was admitted to Miss Smither’s alternative academy for really really gifted children at the age of three (a record we believe) - graduated from Edinburgh University with a first class BSc Honours degree in Nuclear Physics at the tender age of eleven. His tutors admitted that they had never encountered anything quite like him although, sadly, his advanced male pattern baldness continues to trouble him. All gifts of woolly hats gratefully received!
Franklin’s cousin, Madonna Jordan, has won the Miss Teeny Tiny Jam Tarty Pageant in Texas for the third year running. She has a bedroom absolutely stuffed with trophies. Her mother, Balenciaga, tells us that she is thrilled with her daughter, whose special talent involves twirling a vast number of fiery batons around her head. She practises in the front garden of their wee house in Nitshill, attracting a great deal of attention, most of it very welcome!
Alan is still recovering from those five operations on his finger. He finds to his astonishment that he can now play the piano, and has already received an invitation to play at Carnegie Hall next year. Book your tickets soon because a full house is expected. We only wonder what else he will discover that he is able to do in 2010!
Best wishes to everyone for a Merry Christmas, and a Happy (and funny) New Year
Catherine, Alan and Charles.
PS The five operations really happened!!!!

So far, so funny.
But you want to know the really funny (or should that be worrying?) thing? It was just how many people - men, they were all men - read it as far as Franklin and beyond - and took it seriously. Even the graduation at 11 didn't phase them, and evening classes in Necromancy must be perfectly acceptable in some quarters. It was only Madonna Jordan and her fiery batons that made them suspect the spoof. Well, that or the fact that their wives read it too, and pointed out the joke...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Away with the Fairies

Which is not the name of my upcoming play, but a reasonably apt description of it. Except that it is more serious than that. Much more serious. Ever since I first read Robert Kirk's The Secret Commonwealth, many years ago, I have wanted to write a play about it. A couple of years ago, I actually submitted this as a potential radio play. The (independent) producer liked the idea very much and badly wanted to do it, but the BBC - unsurprisingly - didn't.
Then, earlier this year, David McLennan at the Oran Mor in Glasgow decided that he too loved the idea and commissioned a play for the new A Play, A Pie and a Pint season, 2010. This suited me much better, since I soon realised that The Secret Commonwealth was crying out to be a stage play. What I didn't realise at the time was that the play was going to open the new season, on 1st February. However, all those years of working on the story, albeit sporadically, must have paid off because both David, and the director, Jennifer Hainey, approve of the finished play.
Robert Kirk was a seventeenth century minister of Aberfoyle. He was well educated and obviously intelligent. He also believed in fairies and wrote a treatise about them, a sort of natural history of the supernatural world, at a time when witchcraft was still a capital offence in Scotland. He would wander up the Doon Hill, listening to the music which he swore that he could hear, coming from below the ground. He died up there, ostensibly from a heart attack, but then he appeared to a cousin and said that he would reappear at the baptism of his posthumously born child. The cousin must throw a dagger over the apparition's head and shout 'cauld iron' - this metal being anathema to the fairies - whereupon Kirk would be released from his enchantment. He duly appeared, but the cousin was so gobsmacked that he forgot to throw the dagger, and poor old Kirk was doomed to live in the supernatural world for ever. Or so the stories go.
The play, though, is about more than that. It is, I think, a play about two cultures, about one culture replacing another, about a set of beliefs and customs which are in the process of being banished - sent underground if you like - and about the possibility that what Kirk was writing was not so much a treatise about fairies, as a subversive text. It is also, I hope, constructed like a poem. As ever, I find myself walking along the boundaries between poetry, drama and prose and enjoying the sense of experiment, the sense of trying to get at things that lie just below the surface - bit like Kirk himself really. The play is going to be a single hander, with music. It is still to some extent, 'in development'. New drama always is, until it has been through the production process. But I think it's just about there. And I hope it says something interesting, in an unusual way. More as it happens!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Word Fatigue and New Plays

I've had my head down finishing (a) quite extensive rewrites of a new novel and (b) a first draft of a completely new play, which is scheduled for a lunchtime theatre production in Glasgow, early in 2010. I'm a writer who hates first drafts but loves to rewrite. My first drafts are always remarkably chaotic, and I don't usually let anyone see them but me. But then, as soon as I actually have something on the screen, the process of playing with the words and the structure, of rewriting many times, of printing it out and looking at it on the page, of correcting and rewriting all over again, is one which I find infinitely pleasurable. In fact I usually have to stop myself from doing yet another draft. Sooner or later, you have to write 'The End' and let somebody see it!
So working on the novel, which has been through more incarnations than Doctor Who, has been a pleasure. But working on the play has been hard. In the normal course of events, I would have written this, let it sit till after Christmas, gone back to it with a fresh eye - spent some time reworking it over the holiday period, let it lie again - and perhaps produced the finished article in time for Easter. I'd have been working on other things, of course. But time is always a factor in what I do. However, this is a play, and it has a schedule. The director has to see it. It has to be sent to actors. Music has to be considered. And all this has meant that the pressure on me to produce - not just my usual slapdash first draft - but something that I am reasonably happy for other people to see - has been a nightmare.
It's finished, after a fashion and it's sent. I worked on it day and night for a spell, until I was - frankly - sick of the sight of it. I had word fatigue. And I'm still not sure that it's any good or that it says what I want it to say, in dramatic enough fashion. Increasingly these days, I find myself walking along the boundaries between poetry, prose and drama.
I've made it clear that it is a working draft only. I haven't looked at it for a few days, and I don't intend to look at it for another week. Then I'll go back to it and wonder what the hell I was thinking about!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Points of View

Still working on major fiction editing job, hence the woeful lack of posts on here. Most of the time, I have my head down over the laptop and only crawl downstairs occasionally for food and tea and - at the end of the day - alcohol! I love this process, but it is very difficult in that it involves a certain amount of wrestling with the tricky business of 'point of view.' This is something that most readers don't think about. It is also something that many writers don't actually think about either until hit with the problem of how to tell a story. Exactly whose point of view is the story being told from - and what difference will that make to the finished piece of writing?
Now I'm aware that there are lots of highly prescriptive websites out there, listing all kinds of 'rules' about this. I'm also aware that, wearing my other hat, as a playwright, it's something I tend to forget about as well, for the simple reason that when you are writing a play, you have to get inside the heads of ALL your characters. This is because actors have an alarming habit of asking you why their particular character is behaving in a certain way - and woe betide you if you don't know the answer, for even the most minor characters. It's extremely good for the writer, though, in that you can't get away with anything less than a comprehensive understanding of what you are writing about!
For this particular project, a novel, I thought I was telling the story - which is in the third person - from a particular character's point of view, but I see that I'm not. I'm telling it from the points of view of two characters with the odd digression into a third - which I believe is something called 'limited omniscient' - the writer is God, but only with regard to a handful of characters! Now, I am trying to introduce a body of material which is known in its entirety only to one particular character - and it's difficult, although it is also essential, in that I was short-changing one of my characters by deciding not to explore his background. Now, I know what happened to him. And he certainly knows it. But how should that knowledge be 'stitched in' to the story. Should I write it as a 'found' account - a device often used by writers - and one that isn't unknown even in non-fiction, witness an excellent and rivetting book called The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale in which a letter from Constance Kent goes a long way towards clarifying previous events, but also includes its own element of mystery.
Should I - on the other hand - have him tell his tale to one of the other characters - something he has done to some extent in a previous version?
Should I go the whole hog and access his knowledge within the body of the book, thus making the whole thing more dense and rich. Or should I attempt some combination of all three - and see what happens.
It is, in a sense, a little like unpicking a complicated garment, retaining the fabric, but stitching it up again in a slightly different way, and any seamstress will tell you that this is actually a more difficult process than starting from scratch! I'm feeling my way into it, and - as it turns out - I'm working in layers. I don't make drastic changes all at once. I go over and over and over it, and feel my way into making the additions, and do nothing too major until I can see how the previous draft has worked. It is time consuming and tiring, but hugely interesting and - so far at least - it seems to be working.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Editing and Other Necessary Frustrations

Head down and working away on major rewrites of the 'work in progress'. Actually, this work has been in progress for some time. I wrote the first 'incarnation' - it has undergone so many changes that I hesitate to call it a draft - some years ago. Editorial comments were mixed and I was a bit miffed. Over the years, though, I realised that they had been quite right. There were all kinds of things wrong with it, and although I had been equally right to wait, and ponder, the book essentially needed such major rewrites that it is now a completely different novel! Cue forward some years to my new agent, who has given me additional feedback, of such an interesting and inspirational nature that I'm busy with more rewrites. These are in the nature of additions, a whole new dimension added to a character - which means that other sections can go, and yet others can be changed accordingly. The process is fascinating because it doesn't so much involve change as interrogating what was already there to find out what else I need to know. I was right about this particular character - but only as far as it went, and it didn't go half far enough. It's like turning a casual acquaintance into a close friend.
It is a precarious process and in undertaking it, you are queasily aware that one false move could result in an implosion and the whole project could disintegrate. On the other hand it's very exciting - and besides, I have the previous draft, so nothing is lost. But it's part of what makes the whole process of creative writing so fascinating. You're never quite sure where it's going, and if you did know, from day one, that process would become so boring that you wouldn't need to write at all. I think above all else, you write to find out. If you don't want to find out, then there's no point in writing at all.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Criminal Justice

What a fine actor Maxine Peake is! She can do more with a look than most people can do with a flood of words - it must be wonderful to write for such an actor, because you could allow yourself to be understated, knowing that she wouldn't need everything to be made too explicit. She seems to have gone from strength to strength over the years - not always a 'pleasure' to watch because she goes unerringly for roles which are demanding, of the viewer, as well as the actor. But always admirable, always real, always moving. Criminal Justice - five hours, five nights, finished last night and for a wonder, I managed to see every episode. I can't say I would ever want to watch it again. And I think if I had had a young child (remembering how vulnerable one feels on their behalf) I would never have managed to stay the pace. Too distressing. But none of that is to say that it wasn't categorically the best thing on TV for a very very long time. Everything else pales beside it. When it was finished, the now familiar announcement came on - 'If you were affected by any of the issues in this drama...' etc and we chorused 'who the hell wouldn't be?'

Monday, September 28, 2009

Of Mobiles and Reading

I did a reading last week - a very short short story, but one that depends heavily on atmosphere - so as reader, concentration is important. I don't usually have too much trouble - I enjoy public readings, like the opportunity to be ... well, theatrical. This was in a small but very congenial gathering in a room in a hotel. And all was going well, until a mobile rang and the middle aged professional man (old enough to know better) sitting to the right of my eyeline, proceeded not only to answer it, but also to have quite a long, if muted, conversation!
Of course what I should have done - when I thought about it with all the benefit of hindsight! - was to stop the reading, ask him if he wanted to take the call outside the room, give him a moment to go - and then carry on. But a combination of extreme surprise (oddly enough, this has never happened to me before) and innate politeness made me soldier on. It was alright, but only just. My concentration had a wobble, and the rest of the audience was clearly outraged but too polite to say anything. Now that it has happened once, I think I'd react more swiftly next time. I'd ask for mobiles to be switched off first, and then if one did happen to ring, I would almost certainly stop. But in my experience to date it has become habitual for most people to switch off their phones before a reading or performance of any sort. And as somebody said to me afterwards - lots of us have had the embarrassing experience of forgetting, but if the phone rings under those circumstances, there's a mad scramble to switch it off. You don't answer the thing unless your wife is about to go into labour, and even then, you take it outside the room!
A friend, pointedly, asked him afterwards, if he had been 'on call'. He hadn't and he did apologise, saying that he thought the person would ring off, but frankly, that's not good enough.
It's getting to the point now where younger people have better 'mobile phone etiquette' than the middle aged. I sat next to a pair of women in a cafe the other day, friends sharing a coffee. One of them took three long and essentially unimportant (I know, because I could hear every stupid word) phonecalls, while her friend sat there, staring out of the window, drinking her coffee, and mentally, I have no doubt, drumming her fingers on the table. I have a 'friend' who sometimes does it too, usually moving outside the cafe to take the call. It drives me nuts. Even my son, who might be expected to take a few liberties with his mum, never does it when we are sharing a coffee and a chat. He switches his phone off, and says if it's anything urgent they'll text him or leave a message. The oldies really should know better.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Playing About

Went to Glasgow at the weekend, to see a director about a play. It's an idea I've been mulling over for a while - in those moments between trying to earn a living - thinking - as you do - 'I want to write about that, that person, that situation, that time and place, and those ideas' - but not quite sure how to find a way into it. The director is young, and that's good too: uncynical, full of imagination and enthusiasm. I love writing for theatre, but periodically become disillusioned, mostly because finding outlets for drama is quite hard, even with a track record. But there's a part of me that adores collaboration, that loves the process - you work away at something in the privacy of your room, in the privacy of your head, and then you take a deep breath and dive into the development/rehearsal process. What emerges is - often - somewhat different from your original intentions - but if you're lucky, it's better! I love that precarious sense of holding on, and then letting go - the sense that it could all go horribly wrong, but usually doesn't, the sense of something growing and changing which is what theatre is all about. But I couldn't work like that all the time - I confess. Which is why I spend a lot of time writing prose as well. And then I get sick of my room, the blank screen, the loneliness - and have a sudden hankering for plays and players, for looking at interesting spaces and faces, and listening to words - for the sheer excitement of working in theatre all over again.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Transitions and other things.

Couldn't keep away, could I? Back at the beginning of August, I had decided to wind down Wordarts, and concentrate a bit more on The Scottish Home. Well, I took a break, did a lot of thinking, read a few books, talked to a few friends working in other artforms, did rather a lot of work on The Scottish Home in general - and my antique textile business in particular - and now feel ready to reactivate Wordarts again, a bit sooner than I had expected, even though I'm still in what I now realise is something of a transitional phase between one way of working - and another.
Two of the books I read were recommended by The Sunday Times Style Magazine's 'Aunt Sally' - so thanks to her for Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck. It's very funny, and very wise and for those who like lots of little 'exercises' to do, it will be ideal.
But even better from my point of view - and for creative individuals everywhere - is Transitions - Making Sense of Life's Changes, by William Bridges. This is an easy book to manage - it doesn't demand very much of you except thoughtful reading - but it gives a huge amount back, perhaps because its author rewrote his original book in the light of all that he had learned in the thirty years between his forties and his seventies - and it shows! It's a book full of poetry, wit and wisdom and I was a lot happier with myself at the end of it than I was at the beginning. It helped to explain me to myself - and I'm rereading it again right now.
Both of these books seem to have helped to get me back on track with my writing. Bridges in particular offers no glib solutions. But he does offer the distilled wisdom and reassurance of his own considerable experience. As a result, the book is full of profound insights and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is in the middle of one of those phases of change and confusion that beset all of us from time to time.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Taking a Break

As of today, I'm taking a break from Wordarts, and will be concentrating on developing the Scottish Home into a bigger and better blog over the next few months.
There are a number of reasons for this.

First and foremost is the fact that I have been spreading myself too thinly and crunch time has come. I need to cut down on the demands I'm making on myself. This has forced me to focus and prioritise and I'm in the process of trying to organise my time in more profitable ways.
One of those ways is to concentrate much more on my own creative writing. Its the activity I love more than anything else, but there are too many days on which I find myself squeezing it into the late hours at the expense of my own health and happiness. One way of resolving that is to spend much more time on my writing and much less time writing about writing. I've become so sick of opinionated people - but the opinionated person I'm most sick of is probably myself!

When I ask myself who or what I am, the answer seems to be that I'm a creative writer with a passion for history. The Scottish Home began as a companion blog to my online shop which deals in gorgeous vintage and antique textiles - 'upcycling' of the nicest sort. Quite often the items I sell have a fascinating history and I like to blog about them to give people extra information. Now, it strikes me that there's scope for developing The Scottish Home even further - for writing not just about textile history but about garden history, and all kinds of interesting artefacts.

I'm not saying I'll never come back to Wordarts, because I'm sure I will. But if you've been following this blog, I think you'll find plenty to interest you on The Scottish Home instead.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Creative Pay

Every so often, for the writer or artist or other creative individual, the thorny issue of payment for services rendered, will arise. In fact, it has arisen on this blog more than once! Most of us so called ‘creatives’ – i.e. people who in one way or another, make things up for a living – are quite willing to work for nothing, so long as they feel that the enterprise is worthwhile, and nobody else is making a killing. Will I write for a small literary magazine for nothing? Of course. Will I work for a large company for nothing? I don’t think so.

Somewhere on You Tube is a clip of film of a Hollywood writer called Harlan Ellison. It’s called Paying the Writer, and it is angry, funny, scurrilous: a tirade against the idea that writers should work for nothing ‘for the publicity’. I don’t mean promotional events – nobody expects to be paid for punting their own work. Even as I write that, I realised that actually, lots of people do expect to be paid for punting their own work – mostly celebrities, with a fair sprinkling of politicians. But if you are promoting my book or my play, I’m not going to quibble about coming along and talking about it and/or reading from it as excitingly as I possibly can for as long as you like - for free.

No, I mean those occasions when somebody from a major broadcasting organisation or newspaper phones you up and asks if you will devote a large chunk of your time and expertise to them – but they are very sorry, there is no money in the budget to pay you. Will you be credited for your work? Only indirectly. So will anybody know about you? Doubtful. In short, they are asking you to act as unpaid consultant for precisely zero benefit to yourself.

My other beef – while I’m in money mode – is fellowships. Once again, some clarification is needed. There is a school of thought – and there is a part of me that acknowledges it as true – which says that nobody should be paid just for being a writer or being an artist. Grants and bursaries should not be awarded, so the thinking goes. They are self indulgent and people should just be left to get on with it. This is a perfectly valid point of view, and I have writer and theatrical friends who adhere to it, never apply for any kind of public funding, and manage at least as well as those of us who do. Speaking personally, I’ve received occasional grants and bursaries over the years, and they have been in the nature of godsends, buying me time to finish work which would probably never have been completed without it. Niche projects may be worthwhile but aren’t always commercially viable, so it’s occasionally very helpful to be awarded some money towards buying the time involved – and believe me, most writers can make a little extra money go a very long way indeed.

There is another, even better option and that is the kind of fellowship which I’ve just (very regretfully) finished. The Royal Literary Fund pays writers for a fixed term, to spend one or two days per week in universities all over the UK, helping students with their academic writing. The host institution provides a room, IT support, and a friendly co-ordinator who acts as a facilitator. Essentially, the professional writer spends two days a week in the university, doing one-to-one appointments with students. It doesn’t involve copy editing or rewriting. What it does involve is what writers have to do all the time –teaching students to structure their work properly, to edit what they have written and to produce better, more coherent pieces of writing in a multitude of different academic disciplines. Most of us are amazed and moved by the improvement that this kind of teaching can generate, especially in adult returners to education, who may not have written anything for years. The RLF pay writers as self employed people and they pay only for the one or two days per week during which the writer is expected to be present in the university, with an additional few hours’ reading time at home. The money is good, but there is no sense in which the RLF claim to be paying for anything more than half a working week. The rest of the week is entirely the writer’s own, although in practice most of us try hard to use it for creative work.

Which leads me to my final beef of the week. The initial idea of a Writer’s Fellowship back in the late sixties and early seventies, was a good one. It involved a host of some kind – a library, a university, a council – sponsoring a writer for approximately forty hours per week, of which roughly half was to be spent on one-to-one advice sessions, a few workshops, school visits if appropriate, and a handful of other writerly jobs, while the sponsoring body would generously allow the writer to get on with his or her work for the rest of the week. The stipend was deemed to cover a full working week.

I don’t remember when it first occurred to me that something had gone wrong with this system – whether it was a change in my own perceptions, or whether it was simply that such fellowships had all too obviously ceased to keep up with professional wages. I do remember a friend complaining that while she was Writer in Residence for a region which had better remain nameless, she had written almost nothing of her own, because the work - which didn’t just involve workshops and advice sessions, but also demanded a large measure of what seemed very like ‘social work’ for which she didn’t consider herself really qualified - had expanded from twenty hours to fill the whole week and more. Quite apart from the increasingly therapeutic demands made of creative professionals – a whole other can of worms and something which I plan to write about at a later date – the main problem is that the payments for these fellowships are now too low. I’ve made a few comparisons over the years, but it was brought home to me recently by an advert for a fellowship where the stipend was £17,000. Sounds like a lot of money and for most writers, it is, indeed, a fortune. Digging deeper into the ad, however, revealed that the payment was for a full forty hour week, for a year, (i.e. not pro rata) with half the week to be spent on the writer’s own work and half on various admittedly interesting community projects. They were also looking for an experienced, and well published writer, not a beginner. At the same time, I was shown an advert for an arts lectureship in a Scottish university, based on a salary of around £40,000 per annum -and this wasn’t even a senior lectureship.

It struck me then – and I’m still of the same mind – that you can hardly blame the councils or other bodies involved for whittling down the fees, since times are hard for everyone. But hosting organisations can’t have it both ways. They are congratulating themselves on their selfless support of the arts, and reaping the positive publicity while only paying for the actual time devoted to the fellowship. I would have no problem whatsoever with this, if they came clean and said that was what they were doing. In the case of the RLF, it is a wholly admirable arrangement, supplying something the student body badly needs, while leaving the writer free to do whatever he or she wants with the remaining days of the week: usually a mixture of different sorts of writing. I have no idea why more sponsoring bodies don’t do this, instead of conspiring in the fiction that they are paying a seasoned professional for a full forty hour week. It would be more honest, they would get exactly what they were paying for, which would be fairer - and I reckon they would get more applications. Me for one! I can think of only two reasons why they wouldn’t do this. The first is that they want to cling on to the belief that they are giving something away for free. The second is that they want the possibility of gaining a little more than their pound of flesh. A writer ‘on call’ for forty hours a week, is a writer who is probably going to be accessible for more than twenty. But that couldn’t possibly be the reason. Could it?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Alison Bell - Textile Artist

My friend and wonderful textile artist Alison Bell had a residency at a local secondary school last year and you can see some of the results here. The first thing to leap out at you is the fabulous use of colour. It may seem at first glance rather un-Scottish - this is after all, perceived to be a country of subtle landscapes, misty hills, grey skies. But then Scotland isn't all subtleties, as anyone who has witnessed gorse bushes in full bloom, marching foxgloves or a heathery hillside can testify. The eye can be dazzled here, as well as lulled.

Have a look at Alison's own website. I find her work exciting, original, but most of all inspiring. While I'm never tempted to interpret it in words - the pieces surely speak for themselves - it always, somehow, makes me want to go away, reflect and write. Which is one of the reasons why these loose collaborations between people involved in various artforms interest me so much - not that you have to be working together - because creative people are so often people who value their solitude - but that in freely responding to another person's work you may be lucky enough to find the insights gained influencing your own practice, whatever that may be.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Three Cheers for Philip Pullman

and the other children's writers, in their stand against the proposal to vet them before they are allowed to undertake schools visits. Read about it here although it was all over our media yesterday - part of a growing tendancy to see all adults as potential paedophiles. Visiting writers usually work with large groups of children. Since most of them are not qualified teachers, they should not be left alone the kids - the teachers are meant to stay in the classroom, not slide out to do a bit of marking. I do very few schools visits - and when I do, because of what I write, I tend to be working with sixth years, so it's no big deal if the teacher occasionally leaves me alone to get on with it. But on the other hand, it's not good practice either - the best classes have been well prepared by an interested teacher, who knows the kids well, and can prompt questions or participation if things go a little slowly. That way the visit is beneficial for all concerned.
But why writers - who, as Pullman is quick to point out, mostly earn much less than he does - should be expected to pay yet another stealth tax, inspired by little more than irrational panic is beyond me. On a scale of risk, the possibility of being abused by a visiting writer, who usually spends his or her short session in the school working with large groups of children in very public places, must be on a par with the possibility of being struck by a meteor while waiting for a bus.
At this rate, they'll be telling us that our kids should never be allowed outside the door - you never know who might be watching.

Monday, June 29, 2009

I'd write a book if I had the time...

Fabulous post by Nicola Morgan about 'Things not to say to writers' here
The same probably applies to artists as well!

Back Again

Apologies to any regular readers for the long silence from Wordarts! Family ill health has played its part, but it is also because I've been coming to the end of my Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the University of the West of Scotland, with all that that implies in terms of winding things up, clearing my much loved little room, writing a long report and saying sad goodbyes. These fellowships, which are time limited, involve employing full time professional writers to help students on a one to one basis with their academic writing. The work - which general involves two days a week spent in the university, with another half day's 'reading time' at home - is demanding, but hugely interesting. And I think it has improved my own editing skills enormously, so I have a great deal to thank the RLF for - and when a few years have elapsed, I will probably apply for a fellowship again.
I met one of my students in a nearby small town recently. She ran after me, to tell me that not only had she got an excellent mark for her dissertation, but she had also done extremely well in her exams. I wasn't at all surprised, because she had worked very hard, but it was more proof, if proof were needed, that the knock on effect of a small amount of intensive tuition (and it has to be quite small because of the considerable demands on the fellow's time) can influence everything for the better. If you focus on improving one area of your writing, absolutely everything else will improve too - which is, I suppose, a good lesson for all writers, myself included.
It may not be possible to teach talent, but you can teach somebody how to self edit, to rewrite and polish. By the same token, we can all improve our own editing skills. Anyone who has ever been involved with judging writing competitions, will be able to relate horror stories of careless submissions, in which the writer has obviously not taken the trouble even to reread, never mind correct, those first rapturous outpourings. The result is invariably garbage but such writers can get quite cross with you, when you suggest that a little rewriting (well, actually, a lot of rewriting!) wouldn't go amiss.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Professional Development

Some years ago, a mixed group of writers, artists, craftspeople - myself included - attended a series of business development workshops laid on by - I dimly remember, it was a long time ago - Scottish Enterprise. They were fun days and opportunity to do a little networking with like minded people was very welcome. The problem was that the sessions were aimed at developing creativity. And when we talked about it afterwards over the excellent free lunches, we all agreed that developing creativity was not what we needed. Creativity, we had in spades. What we didn't have, however, was the ability to take our undoubted skills and talents and use them in a commercial setting. The buzz word according to Blogger is 'monetise'. And let's face it, people who work in what have come to be called the 'Creative Industries' have little idea of monetising their own expertise.
Last week, on the advice of a friend, I booked a two hour Professional Development session with the Cultural Enterprise Office in Glasgow. At the end of the afternoon I staggered into a cafe with my head fairly buzzing with ideas and insights. I had been challenged, I had been inspired, and I had been forced to look at my working life from a dozen perspectives that might not have occurred to me.
The session consisted of exactly what was lacking in those earlier workshops - the creativity was taken for granted. Instead, the advisor focussed on where I consider myself to be, where I want to be and how I might get there. She acted as a facilitator. I did most of the talking but she asked difficult questions, challenging my perceptions of what I did and what I might be able to do, offering inspirational suggestions, not about the work itself, so much as about ways of organising my time, ways of getting to where I want to be, ways of 'seeing' who I am and what I do. Most of the time she was prompting me to think differently and it was very exhilarating.
Frankly, the session threw up so many exciting ideas and insights that I'm still thinking about it all. I can't speak too highly of this organisation, or my advisor. It was exactly what I needed. It remains to be seen whether I can act upon the findings over the coming months and years - but I'm certainly going to give it a go.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sandbox Games and the Non-Linear Story

There's a fascinating post on my son's blog at passion4games which is all to do with those games that have nonlinear stories - as he says, writing for such games is difficult, because they have 'numerous branching storylines' - the player enters the world of the game, but doesn't follow the story through in a linear fashion - instead the player explores a whole new world. As he says, this is an experience that other media can't provide - not even the book - although the potential for such interactive books may be there in the future, with the advent of e-readers.
On the other hand, would such books have any appeal to most readers? Or is such a structure very much something which is better realised through this new and fascinating medium of the complex and intensely creative world of video games - a world which is, moreover, developing all the time.
And isn't this something that - sooner or later - we as writers are going to have to address, a new medium that we ignore at our peril. It seems to me that most people of a certain age still assume that video games are the province of geeks who sit alone in their rooms writing code. But the new games are nothing less than artforms in their own right. And if we want to see video games developing in even more creative ways in the future, then as writers, we surely have to get involved.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Brow Well on the Solway

I've a longish piece about Brow Well on the Solway in this week's Scottish Review. It's an evocation of the place - and its connection with the last few weeks in the life of Robert Burns. It's a little visited site, but one I've always loved. This online magazine, incidentally, goes from strength to strength and has a superb, elegantly acidic piece about the Swine Flu panic by editor Kenneth Roy. Sign up to have regular issues delivered into your mailbox.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Boy was Back in Town

Went up to Glasgow last week, to the King's Theatre to see Marti Pellow in the Witches of Eastwick. We were a mixed and hilarious bunch of friends, twelve of us, all ages, the youngest only seventeen - women, of course. In fact, the audience was predominantly female, although with a fair scattering of the weaker sex who had obviously been encouraged there by their better halves. The ushers had that bemused look that young men assume when confronted by large groups of ultra confident women intent on enjoying themselves - trying for faintly superior but achieving faintly scared.
It was completely brilliant: cast and production both - which is no mean feat when the songs themselves are not madly memorable. It didn't seem to matter because the whole show is hugely entertaining - and as thoroughly naughty as anything you're likely to see.
It was a polished production in every sense, not least because the boy was back in town in the shape of Clydebank born Marti Pellow, sexy as ever - and not just singing like an angel, but acting up a storm as well. I knew what he was capable of, having seen a clip of his fine Billy Flynn in Chicago, but I suspect it still came as a surprise to some of the audience. They came because he's well loved here - but they left, blown away by admiration for the performance as well as the man.
Funniest part of the whole night was when devilish Daryl Van Horn kisses one of the 'witches'. There arose from somewhere in the front rows, a loud cry that was something between envy, anguish, and despair, a fierce amalgam of all three. It was funny because it so accurately reflected what most of us were feeling!
Nicest part of the night was the applause at the end and the genuine smile on Pellow's face. The boy was back in town, and the affection was palpable.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Snakes and Ladders

I have often thought that a writing career is like a lifelong game of snakes and ladders. Sometimes an unexpected ladder gives you a leg up to the next stage. Sometimes - sadly - you land on the square with that horrible long snake that carries you right down to the bottom again. Sometimes both things can happen within the same short space of time. It's been one of those weeks.
A couple of years ago a friend pointed me in the direction of a horoscope site here. Now I normally read my horoscope for fun, without believing any of it, but this lady often seems to be uncannily accurate. Here's what she said: 'As you begin April, Mars will still be in your home sector (fourth house), but will move very close to Uranus until these two planets make an exact conjunction on April 15. On this day, you need to expect the unexpected. What will surface could easily rock you, but there won't be much time to think, for an instant response will be required from you. Uranus rules all things that we would never anticipate - even things that are a bit weird or off the grid.'
I read it at the time, shrugged my shoulders, thought 'que sera sera' and promptly forgot all about it until I arrived home one day last week, checked my emails and found that my agent no longer wanted to be my agent. What she said, among many other extremely nice things about me and my work - with regard to the Physic Garden - was that ' I think it will take real conviction and passion to find the right position for this book, and to guide you forward with your work, and I think that means we will have to part company.' Much later, having picked myself up off the floor, dusted myself down and drunk several large glasses of wine, I checked the date -it was April 15th.
So here I am, looking at my options all over again. I've spoken to lots of writer friends and had conflicting advice. I've had lots of splendid support from the closest of them (writer friends are as essential as breathing - they understand exactly how it feels because it or something very like it, has happened to most of them at some time!)
Oddly - and after I got over the initial shock - it's quite exhilarating. I feel a bit like a kite that has been cut adrift.
But now I have two complete books to sell - The Summer Visitor, and The Physic Garden and my problem is - I think - that they are somewhat different animals. One is 'contemporary women's fiction' I suppose while the Physic Garden is a fairly literary historical novel. My ex agent didn't think it was 'experimental' enough to be literary, but perhaps our criteria of what constitutes literary are different. I've recently placed stories in New Writing Scotland, The Edinburgh Review and with Scottish PEN and all of them have been judged to be 'literary' enough. The Physic Garden is no different, I like to think it's an accurate, intelligent, accessible historical novel - but it is very Scottish.
I can't say I blame my agent much. I might have done the same thing in similar circumstances - and there has been no big falling out. But I do rather wish that she had made up her mind about this some months ago, when I would have been able to remain with the old agency, who even had an agent allocated to me, instead of waiting until her own circumstances - with a number of new and starry clients - forced her to rationalise her list. So at the moment, I'm pausing for thought and considering my options. Since I have recently had some enormously positive responses to my writing here in Scotland, I will almost certainly be looking for another agent. It would be lovely to be able to find a Scottish agent, but I'm aware they are somewhat thin on the ground.
At the same time, however, I'll be sending out the books on my own behalf and letting them take their chances. If the experiences of the last few months have taught me anything it's that treading water is no longer an option.
Meanwhile, the proof copy of my Edinburgh Review story 'Civil Rights' dropped into my inbox - it will be published in May. And I spent a very happy hour or so in Glasgow with lovely producer Turan Ali of Bona Broadcasting recording my story 'The Sleigh'. It was a pleasure to get back into a radio studio after some time, and even more of a pleasure to find that I remembered how to do it - to read with an audience in mind, to manage the technology, and to thoroughly enjoy it as well!
One long snake, two small ladders. Here we go again.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Long Interlude.

Apologies to anyone following this blog - and I know there are some! - for the long silence. I'm currently working at the University of the West of Scotland on a Royal Literary Fund fellowship, and dissertation deadlines are looming - which means that I have been inundated with students seeking appointments for a bit of help and advice. The really heartening thing has been what a lovely bunch of young people they are. I've seen lots of final year education students over the past few weeks and - quite honestly - I would be absolutely delighted if any of them were teaching a child (or should that now be grandchild?) of mine. They are conscientious, polite, committed, imaginative, idealistic - fabulous young people, and a credit to the Scottish education system which has produced them - or perhaps simply a credit to themselves and their parents as well. I've kept up to my own writing - but blogging has rather fallen by the wayside.

Next week, I'm away to Glasgow, to record a short story called The Sleigh for a 'Homecoming' CD for Scottish PEN.

Meanwhile, out of the blue, a theatre company has contacted me - and wants to stage a production of my play The Locker Room. I sent this out a couple of years ago, but had more or less given up on it. When I would occasionally go back to it and reread it, I thought it was a good play. But sometimes you write something which people either love or hate, with nothing in between and this was one such piece of work. The responses to it were completely polarised. I submitted it to the Traverse a long time ago, but the artistic director hated it. He very kindly told me that their reader - on the other hand - loved it, raved about it. I submitted it to the Playwright's Workshop in Glasgow and got an independent reading of such monumental negativity that even I (insecure as I am) could see that another agenda was at work. They apologised and submitted it to another reader - who thought it was the best thing since sliced bread! So it goes. I suspect it has something to do with the subject matter, which is about abuse in sports coaching. Not a bundle of laughs. And something to do with the way it is written which is - I reckon - quite experimental. Written as I would write a poem. I find myself doing a lot of that these days. The Sleigh too is written very much as I would write a poem, and with just as much care, just as much polish and attention to detail.

So - the Locker Room will be produced in Glasgow later on this year. The Sleigh will be available on a CD. And meanwhile - I'm still looking for a publisher for The Physic Garden! Which is Scottish, historical, unashamedly literary - but also, I hope, a damn good story.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Success! Well, kind of...

I have managed to place three different short stories in three different publications over the past month or so - one in a literary magazine, one in a literary anthology, and one for a project involving readings and recordings about which I'll no doubt be writing in due course. I am chuffed to bits, but more than that, I'm heartened by the fact that all of the above were experimental pieces, nothing to do with writing for any particular 'market' but just writing for the love of it and because I wanted to explore certain themes and ideas.
Which ought to tell me something ...
Today, in the middle of a slightly disturbing conversation about pensions (or lack of them), somebody said to me 'when you decide to retire...'
'But I can't imagine ever retiring from writing. Why would I want to? It's what I do! I would never willingly want to give it up.' My own alarm at the very thought alarmed me.
'But you might decide that you want to stop, do different things. Nicer things.'
I have thought about that conversation on and off, all day. And it strikes me that it isn't just what I do, it's what I am. There is - literally - nothing I would rather be doing. And when I'm doing other things, I'm usually thinking about writing. Sometimes even when I'm sleeping.
Which is a bit disturbing really, isn't it?
A friend remarked recently that people are always telling her (with a certain amount of disapproval) that she 'lives in her head too much' -
'But it's what I do' she said. 'I'm happiest there.'
We're friends because we recognise some similarity in each other. In fact most of my closest friends are the same - and when we talk, we start from that basic assumption. We all start from some shared perception about what we do and why we do it. Artists and writers and probably musicians too.
It doesn't seem at all strange to me. We don't even make decisions about it because really, we can't. We may decide to give up, but it, whatever it is, won't give up on us. We are what we do and we do what we are, and when the world intervenes too much, and we can't get back to that still small centre of ourselves, for however short a time, we get angry with everything and everyone.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Red Road and Pirates

Watched two completely contrasting - and equally enthralling - films over the weekend, both of them because I was lazily channel flicking late at night and discovered them quite by chance. The first was Red Road which I knew about but had never seen. It was late, I had had a hard day and I was tired but it drew me in, relentlessly and I simply couldn't stop watching it. It finished at one o'clock in the morning and I staggered up to bed, marvelling how what could have been a trite story had been turned into this epic and brilliant tale of redemption by the sheer quality of the writing and the direction - both by Andrea Arnold. I suppose as I playwright, I couldn't stop myself from thinking about how easy it would have been to ruin it, to tell too much, to say too much, to explain too much. Instead, the pace of it allowed a tragic mystery to unfold before our eyes, much as the CCTV pictures - and the main character's response to them - unfolded. She seems to have a gift for showing that peculiar, claustrophobic, bleary eyed atmosphere of night in the city - a sense of alienation that is palpable.

The following night, I was doing a little late channel flicking again when I came upon an Australian version of The Pirates of Penzance, being broadcast on Sky Arts, an increasingly interesting channel. It was enchanting - this sexy combination of singing, dancing, burlesque, and raw energy and that was just the Pirate King. Seriously, best night's entertainment I've had in some time. The purists probably hated it, but I suspect it comes pretty close to the intentions of the original. Sadly, I've been googling for the DVD but it only seems to be available in the American version. Hope Sky repeats it soon!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sea Silks

Have a look at textile artist Alison Bell's wonderful blog here. This is three dimensional (or perhaps even four dimensional!) textile art, currently on show in North Uist. Beautiful, moving, engaging, enthralling - actually adjectives are superfluous when it comes to describing this amazing work. Best just to recommend that you look at the pictures and read the blog and think about it. The only response to it would have to be in poetry I think, and I haven't quite got there with it yet. You don't write poetry or stories to 'illustrate' other artforms - why would you? But they do sometimes inspire you to write - and Alison's work inspires all kinds of feelings in me that sooner or later want to translate themselves into words.
Was thinking yesterday that one difference between (some) academics and (most) creative writers and artists is that the writers and artists are often struggling with very difficult, complex, profound ideas - trying to simplify them - and as Alison says, to communicate them.
It does sometimes seem as though academics are struggling to over-complicate really quite simple concepts! To obscure them with language itself. Or is that just the view of a slightly cynical creative writer? Comments please!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day!

And here's a love poem of sorts, well, a piece of advice really, for those who fancy themselves in love. It's called....

NEVER KNIT A SWEATER FOR A MAN

Twenty years later, clearing out a cupboard,
she comes across a plastic bag containing
the remains of a sweater she had been knitting,
fair-isle, tricky, half a dozen yarns carried forward
and woven into a complex textile which was
she remembers - she has never done it since -
a task requiring the utmost concentration.

She pulls it out, unfolding a back,
a single spiralled sleeve, an unfinished front
still on the needles and barely past the rib
with holes here and there where moths
have eaten their way in, feasting on her work
and at the bottom of the bag a few
skeins of wool, their colours dulled
and inexplicably tangled by time.

When did she lose the thread,
the will to see it through to the bitter end?
Was it after she and its intended recipient had
unravelled or was it even earlier?
Was it, she now sees, always beyond her skills -
a garment too difficult to be contrived by human hand
let alone worn?

She peers into the bag wondering what if anything
can be salvaged but the dust lodged
deep in the fibres brings a tear to her eyes
and makes her sneeze.
Bless you she says and throws it in the bin.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Anarchists Rule OK

Last September, returning from a ten day break with my sister and brother in law in their nice wee flat in the South of France, I realised that I was feeling more than usually well rested and up-beat about life in general. I'm sure a large part of that was down to good food, good company and excellent wine. They have the sense to have a flat right above the village's wine, fruit and veg shop where you can take large plastic bottles to be filled with the mellow red from the owner's vineyards at a few euros a pop. While you're at it, you can buy bags of uneven but tasty tomatoes, local apricots, anchovies, olives and all kinds of other delights. The weather helps as well. And a large intake of oily fish in the shape of barbecued sardines at the annual 'sardinade'. In fact we were doing all the right things. But the other factor, I realised, was that we hadn't watched television, we hadn't even listened to the radio, and we certainly hadn't bought an English newspaper. It wasn't so much the lack of news. It was the lack of fear and guilt that had turned us into shiny happy people.
I realised - almost as soon as I got back and turned on the TV - that I am completely, utterly and heartily sick of being told what to do. Or what not to do. Or what hideous dangers we face, at every twist and turn of our miserable lives.
I am so sick of being threatened with doom, death and destruction. I am sick of the presumption of people who think it is any of their business what I eat, what I drink, how many children I have, and what light bulbs I use. I am sick and tired of a hundred so called 'experts' who turn out to be boyish or girlish recent graduates who are not really expert in anything other than how to be an expert, giving me the benefit of their considerable naivety. I am sick of health and safety legislation that seems happy to go for soft targets, with sets of rules that used to be called 'common sense' (my husband gave up demonstrating woodcarving at public events when he had to do complicated risk assessments in case somebody nicked one of his chisels and cut themselves on it) all the while allowing some of the worst abuses to go unchallenged and unpunished.
I am sick of government agencies spending my money on immensely threatening 'we know where you are' adverts warning me about blocked up arteries, road tax, income tax and television licences. And while I'm on the subject, I am very very sick of picking up letters from that same TV licensing authority threatening apocalyptic retribution on a friend who isn't in the country and doesn't even have a TV to watch.
I've come to the sad conclusion that most of the people now working in the media seem to be blissfully ignorant of history in any area of life whatsoever. This results in presenters who are so naive that they allow politicians and others to pull the wool over their eyes. I object to the lies that are told with statistics by people who don't understand them and who also mistake theory for proven fact. I object to the ways in which we are browbeaten into believing impossible things before breakfast.
We read about the strangehold of the kirk over life in eighteenth century Scotland. Or at least, I've been reading quite a bit about it myself, of late. And from this distance in time, we view it as untenable that any single body should be able to dictate the way lives are lived. But hold on a minute. Rules and regulations, doom laden pronouncements about this or that risk, fear and panic, control and harrassment, threats of all hell breaking out and the constant snooping of those who sincerely believe they have our best interests at heart? Isn't there something remarkably familiar about all that?
I'm practising a little anarchy. I'm a nice, cheerful, polite person really, (well most of the time, anyway) but I think my ambition is to become an exceedingly grumpy old lady. I'll have to start now though. Do it bit by bit. Work hard at it. That way, when I'm very old and the young, fresh faced and infinitely patronising reporter comes to ask me about 'how I'm coping with the cold weather' speaking slowly and loudly as if to a recalcitrant dog, I'll be able to tell him to go and ask somebody else, unless he's brought a bottle of good malt, a box of chocolates and a fat cheque with him.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Literary Envy

We are all, let's face it, prone to a bit of envy. In the writing business particularly. Even once you are sure that you have a certain amount of competence and talent - some well reviewed publications and productions under your belt - you still sometimes find yourself subject to bouts of thinking 'why him or her and not me?'
I was mulling this over in the wee small hours because I had been having a discussion with some friends about a certain wildly successful writer - and no I don't mean JK. We all like JK very much, think she's a brilliant storyteller and appreciate all the hard work that went into the books. So although we certainly envy her the cash, we don't envy her the success. Most writers of my acquaintance think it's very well deserved. And curiously enough, although we don't exactly applaud the phenomenon of 'celebrity' publishing, we don't reserve our most bitter complaints for the 'brand' writers - the Poshes and Cheryls and Madonnas of the world. If you've got a brand like that, you're going to exploit it and nobody in their right mind would pretend that the results are great works of literature.
But just occasionally somebody comes along who seems to make it big, really really big, gushing reviews and all, for no very obvious reason . The writer in question, who had better remain nameless, has no claim to fame except the work itself - and the work itself is - dire. There is no other word for it. You try to read it and are reduced to gobsmacked astonishment. Not only that, but I'm reliably informed that this particular writer has a fine sense of his or her own importance and is content to slag off other writers.
I thought it was just me, but then somebody pointed out the reviews on Amazon, and the majority of them said much the same thing, citing reasons. And no, they weren't the kind of moronic, let's-slag-somebody-off reviews you sometimes find. They were sensible, readable, thoughtful reviews. Infinitely better written than the books in question.
You're left wondering how it could happen. Why did nobody point out that the king or queen didn't have a stitch on, not the least little vestige of anything remotely resembling a garment? But then somebody must be buying the stuff or the publishers wouldn't carry on publishing it, would they?
As the incomparable Bridget Jones (whom I genuinely adore) is so fond of saying 'why? why?'

Friday, January 30, 2009

Bereft

Earlier this week I sent another revised draft of the Physic Garden to my agent. There is more to be done to it, and more to be researched. There are all kinds of facts and settings and other books to be checked - another month's work or more, including trips to Glasgow, Edinburgh, and elsewhere. All the same, the novelty of it - that sense of investigating a new world with new people in it - is gone. Well maybe. Except that it's a long, long process and I suspect there may be several more drafts to go. Or do I hope so?
As a writer, the world you create can seem much more real than the world in which you are attempting to live and function. Consequently, switching between the two is very hard and although you look forward enormously to the relief of clicking the 'send' button - once that manuscript it on its way you also feel quite bereft. The only answer is a new project. And I most certainly have one or two in mind.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Devil's Footprints

I'm currently reading a novel called The Devil's Footprints by Scottish poet, novelist and general all round good guy John Burnside and am enjoying it more than I can say, although perhaps enjoy isn't quite the right word. It's a story with a peculiarly Scottish quality - I was trying to describe it to somebody this morning and found myself searching for the right word. There's a sense of darkness about it that is hard to define but is certainly encapsulated by the title itself. This is a literary novel, for sure, and yet not one that is in any way hard to read. The prose, elegant, beautiful, slides down like honey. Things take you by surprise. And then you find yourself stopping and thinking, what was that? What did he just say? Hell's teeth, what did he just say? In short I love it. But it got me thinking because in order to read it, I had abandoned a much bigger, and much more commercial novel which I had better not name here. Besides, there are so many like it that it would be unfair to victimise any one writer. It was a good enough story, and for a while I was enjoying it, particularly for that late night reading when you want to forge on through a chapter or two before going to sleep. But then I found myself slowly but surely getting bored. Why were the characters so two dimensional? Why was the plot so unnecessarily convoluted? Why was something that was meant to be commercial becoming so much hard work? So I found myself doing something that is a sure sign of losing it with a novel - I skimmed the upcoming pages, not as sometimes happens because I couldn't bear not to know what happened next - but really because I couldn't bear to waste any more time ploughing through the plot to get to the story.
And then I turned to The Devil's Footprints, and was captivated. Which should, I suppose, teach me something about perceptions of the difference between literary and commercial fiction. We sometimes assume that because the former will be reasonably demanding and the latter reasonably easy to access, our levels of engagement will reflect that difference. This isn't always, or even often the case. And just because the whole publishing industry seems to engage in the 'fiction' that there is a great divide between literary and commercial writing, I don't think we as readers - or even as writers - should subscribe to it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Scottish Review

You can now subscribe online to The Scottish Review, a Scottish current affairs magazine where you will find some of the best journalism about Scotland being written to day - and that includes a number of newspapers with supposedly broadsheet credentials. Kenneth Roy is a journalist and writer of many years' experience, with a prose style that is so concise, so elegant and so easy to read that he almost makes you forget the wonderfully incisive mind behind it, until you find yourself agreeing with just about everything he writes.
'It is no longer enough that the BBC's journalists and presenters report the news' he tells us, in the most recent issue 'they must also manufacture it.' It's the kind of piece that seems deceptively simple, but it highlights, analyses and enlarges on an issue that most of us - if we take the trouble to think about what we are seeing and hearing - notice every single day. Why in God's name have they spent a large chunk of a bulletin on some 'issue' which isn't news at all, but which seems to be solely the invention of a presenter with a sound bite to fill?
Why not sign up for the Scottish Review and see for yourself?

The Lake House and Sources of Inspiration

Stayed up to watch the Lake House with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves last night and consequently went to bed in a (pink) fog of romance. Quite apart from his sheer physical beauty there is something lovable about Keanu that defies any criticism of his acting abilities. He's constantly slated for being 'wooden' but actually in the Lake House he looks rather relaxed. I always think he's only 'wooden' in the way that big, beautiful sportsmen have that strangely massive quality - he was once an ice hockey goalie and it shows.
This week I discovered that Andrew Collins, the Radio Times film critic - somewhat unexpectedly - shares my views . He's written a piece about 'why it's impossible not to like Keanu Reeves' which you can read here.
From the 'excellent' Bill and Ted onwards, through brilliant successes (Speed, Point Break) and the occasional dubious undertaking (the last Matrix film, what the hell was all that about?) I've followed Keanu's career and have to admit that from time to time he has provided me with inspiration for a character. Many writers do sometimes use actors as sources of inspiration. Occasionally it's as though they've envisaged a whole film, cast and all. The Bridges of Madison County is a good example - who can read that and not see it as a film with Clint Eastwood in the part?
It can help to have pictures to pin up around the desk, help to watch an actor working and to imagine them as your characters - even if you don't actually describe those characters in too much detail because you're leaving room for your reader's imagination.
I've found myself doing it in The Physic Garden with - oddly enough - one main character, but not the others. The 'I' of the story is an old man reflecting on events of his youth, and I found myself from time to time 'seeing' him as a particular Scottish actor. I doubt very much if anyone reading it could guess who, because the character doesn't really describe himself and the actor in question is just that - an actor rather than a 'star' who is different in every single role. All the same, it helped me to envisage this particular actor creating the part. But then I've spent a lot of my working life watching the miraculous way in which good actors can gradually bring characters to life.
The other main characters in the novel were wholly invented. Or were they? Don't we always take bits of this or that person, this or that event and weave them into something new? Which I suppose is what the actors themselves do. What a fascinating business this is!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Chefspeak

I usually find myself watching Saturday Kitchen (BBC's cookery programme) often while cooking myself. It's quite soothing, chopping things and half heartedly watching somebody else doing the same thing only much more efficiently. Occasionally though - it happened this morning - the linguistic quirks peculiar to chefs really get to me. It's the phrasal verbs - boil off, reduce down, why use one perfectly good word when two will do? - that irritate - as well as all those peculiar usages such as 'pan fry' (what other way is there to fry something? Well, I suppose you might count frying eggs on shovels or bacon on the boiler plates of engines.) and then there's the use of spurious words like 'jus' when there's a perfectly good English word available in 'gravy'.
And while I'm at it, there are other conventions. Meat is always described as 'rare' when any normal diner might label it 'raw' with the blood oozing onto the plate. Sprouts (of which I'm quite fond) are so undercooked that you just know it will be like chewing a mouthful of marbles. I've only seen one chef over all my years of watching cookery programmes admitting that he actually liked slightly overcooked sprouts - not, of course, boiled to within an inch of their lives but buttery rather than crunchy. Brave man. And while I'm in complaining mode, why does Masterchef have to show us the appalling sight of those two middle aged guys stuffing food into their mouths and chewing, in deeply nasty close-up. Yeuch. But I'm straying well away from literary territory here and into visual horrors.
Gary Rhodes. He's the best. He could make anything, even raw meat, seem madly appetising.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Playing About

Because I have a part time fellowship at a Scottish University, I work with a number of students who are doing creative writing courses of one kind or another - in this case it's mostly people who are writing plays or film scripts. I know there's a great deal of discussion about the validity or otherwise of so called 'creative practice' degrees and it's a debate I don't really want to get into here. Or should that be a can of worms I'm not too anxious to open? On the one hand I have reservations. On the other hand, if such a course had been available when I was starting out, I would probably have done it and enjoyed it and found it useful. But there is one element in all this that both intrigues and worries me and a conversation with an artist friend last week only confirmed my reservations. We both realised that we had found ourselves saying exactly the same thing to students - about scripts and about artworks. 'Play about. Enjoy it. Play with the ideas in it and see what happens!'
That word 'play' is so important to the creative process. You come up with an idea, you work on it and then you play about with it, question it, experiment with it, see where it takes you. Above all, you enjoy the process. You never just see it as a means to an end. The process of getting there is at least as important as the end product; the absolute absorption in the moment that is one of the joys of all creative activities.
But all of that seems to be in conflict with the aims of modern university courses which are mostly to do with getting somewhere, getting something, and ultimately getting a job, rather than learning for its own sake.
Which is all very well, I suppose, for vocational courses: accountancy, dentistry, medicine.
But creative writing? Art?
So when confronted with an anxious student who is agonising over a script I find myself wondering how to reconcile this idea of creative play with the demands of modules and courses.
I suspect there is no real resolution. More of this later.