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!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

New Website - and a very Happy Christmas!

Just launched my nice new website, here, designed and built by Ayrshire company, Paligap  I'm delighted with it, although it has certainly taken me long enough to get around to commissioning it! And I'm well aware that an out-of-date website is worse than no website at all.

Paligap built my first site many years ago, when they too were just starting out - I remember visiting them, two pleasant and enthusiastic young men, in premises tucked away down a little back street in the town of Ayr. I was very happy with that first website, but as time passed, my work changed. I thought about changing the site too, but I couldn't justify the expense to myself, in view of the fact that I wasn't at all sure any longer what I wanted it to say! So I concentrated on blogging, while I thought about it, and wrote, and then thought about it all some more.

Paligap, meanwhile, expanded and grew. They moved to nice new premises, and then - more recently - to even nicer premises in an old but very distinguished part of the town. And they gained some very distinguished customers in the meantime. (They are still a very pleasant, friendly company to work with though!)

And I went through a succession of changes in my working life, what I wrote, what I wanted to do with it, where I wanted to go with it. The single biggest change, though, was signalled by two things - the collapse of the mid-list as far as conventional publishing was concerned - and the advent of 'indie publishing' - the possibility of publishing work directly onto Kindle and other platforms, avoiding the increasingly complicated strings of gatekeepers which had interposed themselves between the writer and his or her readership. Suddenly, there was a very definite possibility of getting the work out there instead of spending years and years rewriting it to the demands of an increasingly prescriptive industry - and that came like a wonderful breath of fresh air.

I've written about that change more fully elsewhere, especially in the Scottish Review, here - where you can read a longish essay about the concept of the mid-list - what it is and what has happened to the writers who belonged there. Just as I was assembling ideas for my new website, I read a wonderful little book called How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months (I know, I know, we should all be so lucky!) - but it's a lovely, entertaining, useful book, full of bright ideas. And the biggest, brightest idea of all, the best piece of advice - although there's a lot more, you should buy it - is that the writer should spend time thinking about/focusing on/building a relationship with his or her readers.

It was a moment of enlightenment. I don't know why, because it's kind of obvious when you think about it - but over the past few years, writers have been concentrating so hard on the long and difficult hunt for an agent, and then the equally long and difficult hunt for a publisher - that they/we seem to have neglected the person who really matters - the reader.

Fortunately, enlightenment came just in time for me to make a few changes to my new website (thank-you John Locke!) and it's now aimed fairly and squarely at readers, or potential readers. Which is just as it should be.

Meanwhile, this will be my last post before Christmas - so let me wish all of you a very happy and joyful holiday season - and a very successful 2012.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Physic Garden - Just An Old Man's Story

There have been some very interesting blog posts and Facebook comments recently about the problems facing older writers when they try to sell novels which are not about the dilemmas of twenty somethings - especially this excellent and heartfelt post by Linda Gillard on the Do Authors Dream of Electric Books blog. I found myself identifying with this very strongly, and not just from a female point of view.


A few years ago, when I had finished a draft of a new novel called The Physic Garden, I sent it to my agent who sent it out to a young 'reader'.  The book - I'm planning to finish rewrites and publish it to Kindle some time in 2012 - is a historical novel, related in the mid 1800s, in the 'voice' of an old man called William Lang, who was once, many years before, employed as gardener in the physic garden of the old college of Glasgow University. The book is essentially about his relationship with one of the young professors, and is a tale of male friendship, class differences and extreme betrayal. I love this period, and I fell in love with my story - sometimes it seemed as though I was channelling William, rather than inventing - an uncanny experience, since there was a real William Lang, who was indeed a college gardener. I found out some things about him, but made most of it up. It could have happened that way.

But when my then agent, a young woman herself, gave the book to one of the agency's readers, another young woman, the only response was that it was 'just an old man's story' and a marked lack of enthusiasm. At the time, it hit home. And here, I find myself wondering all over again, just why even experienced writers such as myself, are so thoroughly lacking in confidence in our own abilities. Anyway, when I changed agents, soon afterwards, I also started trying to change The Physic Garden into a third person narrative, so that I could get away from that 'old man's voice.'

I was an idiot, and it was a complete nightmare. I  would lie awake, fretting about it. And in several months, I managed to change only a tiny bit of the book. It was like wading through treacle. William simply demanded to be heard and he wasn't having any of the changes. He was outraged by them.

Eventually, of course, I woke up to the folly of it. The novel is William's story and although there are plenty of other characters, and I do need to do rewrites so that they become more intensely themselves - still, the narrator is William and we are seeing things from his perspective, even if we, as readers, may not always agree with his judgement. But I'm left with the uneasy feeling that the real hurdle here was that very young reader's perception that nobody would ever be interested in anyone over the age of about twenty five. Linda is all too right when she asks 'What is this obsession with youth?'

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Some Thoughts About Literary Agents

Having parted company with my agent a few weeks ago, amicably enough, I've been pondering the topic a bit. I don't intend to look for another one. I'm going indie in all possible ways, although that's not to say that I wouldn't be prepared to pay for some help in the future. Just that I might be looking for dedicated editing or IP expertise instead. However, the excellent Passive Guy reposted an extract from this piece by US author Dean Wesley Smith, on his wonderfully informative blog recently, and it gave me one of those Road to Damascus moments, from which there is no turning back.

Essentially, the piece is a reflection on the changing role of the literary agent, and since I've lived through those changes, (the UK is not so very dissimilar from the US in this respect) and know a bit about them but had never quite clarified it all in my own mind, the whole piece gave me serious food for thought.

When you're asked to give talks and workshops these days, the most frequently asked question is usually 'how do I find a literary agent?'

With extreme difficulty, is the answer, but that doesn't deter writers, because received wisdom is that no publisher will look at a submission unless it comes via a literary agent. This is generally true. But what most agents won't tell you is that many if not most submissions will now be rejected out of hand, even with the backing of a literary agent.

What strikes me most forcefully, though, is how afraid we writers are. We are afraid of not getting an agent and we are afraid of not finding a publisher, or losing the agent and publisher we have, no matter how badly we have been treated in the past. We are afraid of saying 'no' to requests to work for commercial organisations for no money, lest we should be thought troublesome when anyone else in this position would be thought businesslike. But most of all, we are afraid of being without an agent in what seem like (and frequently are) shark infested waters. We are afraid that if we send multiple submissions to agencies, we will upset potential agents - and this is true. Some agents can get remarkably (and ridiculously) huffy about this. So we spend (waste) years submitting one application at a time, and waiting and waiting and waiting. If we are lucky enough to secure the services of an agent, we become remarkably humble, are terrified of rocking the boat with even mild complaints about lack of communication or lack of progress, or suggestions as to how we might want our career as a writer to develop. I know all this because I've been there, done that and got several tee-shirts in the art of supplication.

Let's pause for a moment, and think about it. As I write this, I'm waiting for our accountant to come and finalise our annual accounts - myself and my husband are both freelances. To be honest, we probably don't earn enough to pay an accountant, but our books are complicated by the fact that we do so many different things, and we've been with this small company for years. We pay a reasonable sum monthly, up front and he is efficient and friendly. Would I ever, in a million years, be afraid of upsetting him by making a suggestion about the way our business might go in the future? Why should I? We're both acknowledged professionals and he has a set of skills for which I'm very happy indeed to pay. The only time I'm afraid of my accountant is when he phones up and asks me if I can remember what I paid £53.47p for, a year ago and what was this sum of £28.73p which I lodged eleven months ago.

Unfortunately, the relationship between writer and agent is clouded with all kinds of other emotions, and I think - like so much to do with writing - there is a certain unsatisfactory imbalance about it that prevents it from being truly professional.

One of the most interesting observations made by Dean Wesley Smith was about the way in which agents started to demand rewrites, to become - in effect - our editors. He linked this with a seismic shift in publishing which threw a number of young editors onto the market - editors who then became agents, because they thought they knew 'what the market wanted'.

I can distinctly remember that shift myself - my old agent for plays, back in the seventies and eighties, would buy me the occasional lunch, chat to me about how my writing was going, make suggestions for industry openings, negotiate contracts skilfully and ruthlessly - but would never have dreamed of offering detailed script re-writing suggestions. That was not his job. 

Move forward some years and when I finally secured an agent for my prose, she asked for  (and got) rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. Publishers, she said, 'demanded an oven-ready product'. She was a good editor, and I learned a lot from her, for which I'm very grateful - but I was and still am a natural 'mid-lister'. I spent (wasted) a lot of time blaming myself for not being able to give her what she wanted, when in fact she wasn't looking at what she could do with what I so clearly was. There was, I now realise, an  imbalance in the relationship.  But when we parted company - with the triumph of hope over experience - I still looked for another agent.

I don't know what the solution is, but it strikes me that it might be healthier all round if we paid our agents a fee, just as we pay our accountants or website developers - without giving them any 'equity' in our product. But I can't see that working, can you?  And we writers are curiously reluctant to pay professional fees for a professional job. Instead, we are content to relinquish equity in our intellectual property in the innocent belief that some day - with the help of our magician/agent, we will strike it very very rich. This is unfair in all kinds of ways - not least to agents themselves who, whatever else they may be, are not magicians, but it's probably because so many of us are poverty stricken and don't have much confidence in the value of our own work. We'll believe practically anyone who tells us that if we do this, this or this, all manner of things will be well.

It ain't necessarily so.

Don't get me wrong. A good editor is a pearl of great price. If he or she asks the right difficult and searching questions (rather than attempting to rewrite for you, always a crime, in my book)  you - in answering them - will become an infinitely better writer. If your editor is a friend or colleague who loves your work, and has your best interests at heart, there is no relationship quite like it! I've known it once or twice with radio producers, and theatre directors.

For fiction, there are excellent  professional editors who - for a flat fee - will analyse your work, and put you on the right track. As usual, the trick is in identifying the genuine pearls. I don't have any easy answers, but it's something we should certainly be discussing. Before embarking on the long and frustrating search for an agent, we should certainly pause and ask ourselves why, these days, that generally means any agent at all, not the right agent for us - and that being the case, why is our opinion of ourselves so low while our expectations of them remain so unrealistically high?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Breaking Into Video Game Design

 I've spent a bit of time recently, helping my clever son to edit his own first publication for Kindle, a  career guide about breaking into video games design. He has always been keen on writing - and very good at it, I think - but then I would say that, wouldn't I? This isn't a big book, but I do think it's one that could be very useful for any young person who thinks he or she might want to work in the games industry.


For years, Charles has known that he wanted to work in video games. As a very young child, he was always drawing and colouring in what came to be known in this family as his 'disasters': pictures full of 'happenings' - usually pretty disastrous ones! People would come into our kitchen and look at all these drawings pinned up on the wall and say 'well - er- yes!'  For a while, we thought he might want to study art, but it didn't turn out that way. Instead, he did an honours maths degree. He had always been mad about board games, games of all kinds really. Every careers advisor he had ever spoken to had said that he would need to be a demon programmer, but when he did two years of computer science at Glasgow University, he found out that he didn't enjoy it much! None of this dampened his interest in games though.

After graduation (and a few months as a kitchen porter) he worked in the games industry for a couple of years - including a spell with Rockstar - on short Quality Assurance contracts, getting his name on several major titles in the process. Then he was accepted onto a postgraduate masters course in Video Game Development at the University of Abertay in Dundee - a course about which he speaks very highly indeed. Now, he and three colleagues from that course have set up their own development studio, called Guerilla Tea - also in Dundee.

As he would say himself, he knew what he wanted to do and to be - just didn't know what that job was called.  Design, in video games, involves not just coming up with ideas (although that's a part of it)  but making the game itself work as a game. He tells me he uses his maths and his QA experience a lot. Also all those years of creating disasters and writing about them!

If you're interested in the games industry and how it works - even if you aren't actually aiming for a career as a video game designer - you could do worse than download and read this guide. I think it's very nicely written but it also gives a fascinating overview of an industry which is changing and developing so rapidly that our kids generally know more about it than we do.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Bird of Passage - The Cover


Here it is, at last - the cover for my new novel, which I'm scheduling as an eBook for Kindle, with a publication date of around the 18th November - that's if I can get enough concentrated time to finish the final edits and the formatting.

The cover is by a young digital artist called Matt Zanetti, a partner in the new Dundee based video game development company, Guerilla Tea. You can see some more of Matt's amazing art on GT's website, (quite different from this) and he was recently featured extensively in 3D Artist magazine. I find this cover very moving. Bird of Passage is a novel about institutional cruelty, about childhood trauma, betrayal and abiding love and it seems to me as though the cover brilliantly reflects all of these things - I couldn't have asked for anything better.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bird of Passage - What's In A Name?


If you have a quick look at the last post but one, you'll see that I was debating over the choice of name for my new novel, the one that I'll be publishing to Kindle in a few weeks time. I've scheduled it for 18th November, and I'll be having a launch event on my author's Facebook page, on or near that date - depends how quickly I can pull everything together. I say 'my new novel' but there are three novels - Bird of Passage, a big, romantic Polish epic called The Amber Heart and a brand new Scottish historical novel, which isn't quite finished, but soon will be, called The Physic Garden. I've scheduled Bird of Passage as an eBook this year, and I'll make some decisions about the others early in 2012. Watch this space!

Don't ask me how I've managed to get so much work ready to go, all at the same time, but a lot of it has to do with being 'distracted' by plays over the years, but wanting desperately to carry on writing prose fiction at the same time. Well, I did carry on writing it, but it's definitely 'mid-list' fiction, which doesn't slot neatly into any one genre. I've been having a hard time selling it in the current market - and that's even with an agent. I've had lots of 'rave rejections' as my colleague Maggie Craig calls them - editors saying how much they love my writing, but 'the marketing department doesn't think they can sell it.'

Only a little while ago, I heard yet another a literary agent talking about the death of the mid-list. Well, I hope she's wrong, because not only do I write it, but I love to read it. Besides, I'm pretty sure she wasn't taking Kindle and other platforms into account.  eBooks are - thank heavens - providing a home for the kind of mid-list fiction that so many of us love - well written, thought provoking novels, telling stories we want to read, a slow burn rather than a flash in the pan - perhaps not wildly experimental or narrowly structured, but absorbing fiction that leaves us satisfied in some deep way.

Anyway, after much agonising and consulting of friends (and then ignoring their suggestions, sorry folks - but the consultation really helped!) I went with Bird of Passage.It seems to me to encapsulate everything that the book is about. The novel has been described as 'Wuthering Heights Meets The Bridges of Madison County.' I've always loved Wuthering Heights, and it did start out as a sort of homage to that novel, albeit with a Scottish/Irish setting, and a story spanning the years from the 1960s to the present. Back when I was regularly dramatising classics for BBC Radio 4 - and although they let me loose on everything from Ben Hur to Treasure Island - they would never let me dramatise Wuthering Heights. I've blogged (crossly) about that before! So I decided that I had to write my own novel.

It's about a boy called Finn, who is sent to a Scottish island farm to work as a 'tattie howker' - the Scottish name for potato harvester. (There's a very old photograph of them above and a painting by my husband, Alan Lees, below.) Even when we moved to Scotland in the 1960s, people still came over from Ireland, usually from Donegal, to dig the tatties. They were sometimes treated very badly, and their accommodation was not the best. In Bird of Passage, Finn strikes up a friendship with the grand-daughter of the farmer, a girl called Cairistiona, always known as Kirsty.



Kirsty becomes a talented and ambitious artist, but her work is inextricably tied up with her love, not just for the island itself, but for Finn, who comes and goes like the mysterious corncrake which visits the island every summer. Finn, however, is psychologically damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories piece by piece.  What happened at the brutal Industrial School, to which he was committed while still a little boy? For the sake of his own sanity, he must try to find out why he was sent there in the first place, and what became of his mother. As he struggles to answer these questions, his ability to love and be loved in return is called into question. He is the Bird of Passage of the title – a wanderer from place to place, a summer visitor who can call nowhere home.

Looking back at the novel now, I can see that what began as Kirsty’s story, gradually, over successive rewrites, began to change, and began to focus more and more on Finn. I found myself needing to know exactly why he was the way he was. It was as though he was insisting on telling his story and the more I wrote, the more central it became. Now, I think the balance is probably right. Kirsty is still a major figure, but Finn has his rightful place too. And there is a mystery at the heart of the novel that only Finn can solve - for himself, but for us too.

Meanwhile, a young digital artist called Matt Zanetti has done some superb cover art for me, a picture which seems to reflect the feeling of the novel  precisely. A picture, moreover, which convinced me that I had got my title right. But I'll save that for a later post! 

Friday, October 07, 2011

Some Thoughts About eBook Pricing - and Guilty Lending.





The other night, in one of my frequent sleepless spells (my mind doesn't seem to take any notice of my body's manifest need for sleep, these days) I found myself thinking about the price of eBooks. Most writers who are publishing their backlists or their own new 'inventory' tend to go for the cheaper option, keeping the price around the £2.00 mark or less. Much less, in the case of small collections of stories, for example, which generally sell at 80 - 90p. 
I've heard various pronouncements from conventional publishers on this score, most of them attempting to justify their prices for downloads which are generally much closer to the prices charged for 'paper' books. 
But no matter how good the cause, there is an optimum price beyond which people - especially young people, who are in the habit of downloading music and games - are reluctant to go. In fact there is some evidence from the overall download industry, that reasonably low priced downloads tend to curb piracy. Illegal downloads are and will increasingly become a problem, but all the same, current evidence suggests that the majority of people are law-abiding - at a price! It may not say much for public morality, but it's a fact that if people can download cheaply and legally, that's what most of them will do. 
I've heard publishers and even writers justifying their higher download prices by talking about 'payment for content' and it's a reasonable point to make. 
The amount of work that goes into a novel is huge. Nobody is more aware of that than a novelist! But then the amount of work that goes into - for example - even a small downloadable I-Phone game is also huge, and generally involves three or four or more people going flat out for months. The single geek, working alone in his bedroom, much loved by news programmes, is rare these days. Game development is a professional pursuit and commercially licensed software costs a fortune. So does the necessary hardware. And yet these downloads are generally sold for pennies rather than pounds, with their makers depending on volume of sales to bring in the cash. 
Besides, the pronouncements of publishers declaring that they (and we) must 'pay for content' would be somewhat more credible if conventional advances were not already so low and royalties so tiny that most authors almost never manage to 'earn back' even very low advances, so that they are left in a constant state of guilt - an unhealthy state of affairs and one which isn't conducive to good working relationships.
However, the thing that gave me my small moment of clarity, at three o'clock the other morning, was the fact that I was finishing an extraordinarily good book called Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris and - dear reader - I must guiltily admit that I had bought it from the second hand bookshelf in our community shop. You can salve my conscience by going away and buying a copy right now. Not only that, but as I finished it, with a sigh of satisfaction (it really is a very good book!) I found myself thinking of my various relatives and friends who might also like to read it, mentally making a little list, who to give it to first, and then she could pass it on to that friend and so on and so on...A chain of people, reading the novel, and not a sou going back to Joanne or her publisher, who put in all that work in the first place. (I do buy new books, often, honest - but I still felt guilty!) 
But it also struck me that - now that I have a Kindle - if I had come across this novel at, say, £1.90, as a download, I would have clicked and bought it without a second thought. But if I had seen it in a bookshop, I maybe wouldn't. If I had money I might, but I can't even afford to heat my house, so books are a luxury. Reading, however, is as essential as breathing, so I can justify low priced download treats.And it also struck me that most of the friends to whom I had considered lending the book would almost certainly have done exactly the same. And then I started to add up the small amounts of money which would be generated for writers and publishers by each of those downloads, and it very quickly came to more, quite a lot more, than the price that somebody paid for the original book, the same paperback copy which lots of people will have read, by the time it has been passed around. 
I can't believe that publishers live in such commercial seclusion that they are unaware of just how much casual borrowing of paperbacks goes on, here in the real world. Wouldn't it be better if we paid just a little for a download instead?
Of course, charity shops will suffer in the future, if this takes off in a big way. But then there's all the difference in the world between the small charity or village shop with its shelf or two of paperbacks, and the big charity business, competing with struggling bookshops, and selling thousands of freely acquired, almost new books at commercial prices, with no benefit to writer or publisher at all. The former will have no trouble finding donated books. The latter may begin to struggle a bit. I know they do sterling work, but still - I find it quite hard to have much sympathy. 



Sunday, October 02, 2011

Enticing Book Titles - Decisions Decisions.


I've been thinking about titles this week, and here's the reason why. I'm planning to publish a new novel to Kindle in time for Christmas - I'm currently aiming to have it ready to go in November, but the title is giving me pause for thought. And the time is coming when I'll have to make some definite decisions, if only for the sake of the cover artist.

I know a great deal has been written about titles, and how attractive or otherwise they are. There are certainly fashions in titles. The wonderfully quirky and excellent 'Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' spawned a whole set of less than wonderfully quirky imitation titles which made me - personally - want to avoid the other books like the plague so I never found out whether they were good or not. A recent analysis revealed that best sellers often include specific words: dead, blue, girl, spring to mind, but there were others. The devil was more popular than God - in titles, anyway. But maybe he has the best books as well as the best tunes.

In my many years of experience of writing stories, plays and novels, I've come to the conclusion that you either know the title right away - probably before you have written the book.... or you have real problems. There is no happy medium. I knew that The Curiosity Cabinet could never be anything but the Curiosity Cabinet, and that was long before the novel was written, when it was in its first incarnation as a trilogy of plays for BBC Radio 4.

My story A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture had a name, even before the first draft was written. I had the idea for the story when I was wandering round a 'museum of torture' in a small Italian town on a quiet afternoon in October. My work in progress - a novel called The Physic Garden - will almost certainly stay with that title come hell or high water, because it seems so right for the book.

But sometimes, even while you love what you're working on, the title doesn't quite gel. My Polish historical novel went through almost as many titles as drafts before I finally settled on The Amber Heart. And this is also what has happened with the book known as The Summer Visitor. This is another novel with a Scottish island setting, similar to The Curiosity Cabinet, although the story is quite different. I don't know why I felt the need to explore this setting again in fiction but sometimes these things just happen.



It starts in the early 1960s when a young Irish boy, Finn O’Malley, is sent from Ireland to Scotland, to work at the potato harvest. He forms a close friendship with Cairistiona (Kirsty) Galbreath, the farmer’s grand-daughter. But later on, when Kirsty moves away from home, the threads that have bound these two friends so closely together begin to unravel, and it seems that only Kirsty’s ambitions as an artist can give her the fulfilment she seeks. Kirsty’s work is inextricably tied up with her love, not just for the island itself, but for Finn, who comes and goes like the mysterious corncrake which visits the island every summer.

Finn, however, is psychologically damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories piece by piece – and slowly. What happened at the brutal Industrial School, to which he was committed while still a little boy? For the sake of his own sanity, he must try to find out why he was sent there in the first place, and what became of his mother. As he struggles to answer these questions, his ability to love and be loved in return is called into question.

So that's what it's about. Loosely. You'll have to read the book to find out more! But the title is still giving me pause for thought.

It started out as a novel called Darragh Martin. The story was completely different and has been drastically rewritten since. Somewhere along the way, the main character changed and his name changed too. Later on, it became The Corncrake, which I still quite like. I thought about The Bonny Irish Boy, but I don't think that does it, because he isn't bonny at all. The Corncrake is a mysterious bird - a summer visitor - and that's exactly what Finn is. So The Corncrake is still an option. Eventually I settled on The Summer Visitor which I still like. But then somebody suggested that The Water's Wide might be better and now I'm not sure. A quick poll on Facebook and Twitter has resulted in more confusion since nobody seems to be in agreement and yet all their reasons are valid and interesting! (Focus groups, eh?) Some kind person, however, has just messaged me on Twitter to say that he likes either The Summer Visitor - or Summer Visitor. And I'm thinking he may have hit on something. Because for some reason, Summer Visitor is better than The Summer Visitor, in my mind anyway - but I'm not sure why!

ALL SUGGESTIONS AND CONTRIBUTIONS GRATEFULLY RECEIVED!










Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Burns on the Solway Now on Kindle


I've just uploaded my play Burns on the Solway to Kindle (with extreme difficulty, I might add, so if you buy it, please forgive any formatting glitches!  Plays are much harder than novels to format!) It was staged at the Oran Mor in Glasgow, and is a play about the last few weeks of Robert Burns' life, down on the Solway Coast of Dumfries and Galloway. I remember clearly when I first had the idea for this play although it was many years before I wrote it and even more years before the actual production.
We were camping on the shores of Loch Ken, as we used to do every summer when the village kids were young, going off in a huge group (sometimes as many as 50 adults, kids and dogs. We used to tell the police that we were all going to be away!) to camp and go canoeing and boating. The kids, all grown-up now, still remember it as a magical time. The adults all remember it as fairly magical too, although we also remember the extreme cold, on occasions, and the thunder-storms and the mud and the endless barbecues. But on the whole, it was wonderful.
It was on one of these trips that - since son, husband, and others were out on the lake - I took myself off in the car, alone,  to a place called Brow Well on the Solway, which was the 'poor man's spa' to which the seriously ill poet was sent by his doctors, and advised to go 'sea-bathing' in an effort to find a cure for what may have been a terminal heart condition, although there are still debates about the cause of his death. It doesn't look as if it has changed much in all the years since, a simple, picturesque place with a chalybeate spring, and a few cottages. From there, it's a short walk down to the coast, where the mud flats stretch to infinity and there is a wild rock garden fringing the whole place with big clumps of pink thrift, rustling in the breeze, and other small flowers clinging to the edges of the land. A deeply atmospheric and evocative place. And I was there at the same time of year - July, when the thrift was dying.
Not hard to imagine the poet here. And then you realise, with a shock, just what 'seabathing' must have entailed. The water is wide and shallow and for him to wade until he was waist high must have entailed a terrible struggle through cold water. He was still a young man, his wife Jean was about to go into labour with his last child, he was terminally ill and he was totally poverty stricken, with people pursuing him for unpaid debts. A few weeks later, after his death, he was already being lauded as The Bard and people had descended on poor Jean in ravening hordes, begging for manuscripts, anything written in the poet's hand. Ghoulish souvenir hunting is not a modern phenomenon.
This is what the play is about, as well as everything that lead up to it. There are only three characters: Burns, played by Donald Pirie, looking and sounding and  being as like the poet as it was possible to be - uncanny really - an equally superb Clare Waugh as Jean, and Celine Donoghue as the musician, weaving her sinuous way between the two of them, playing a variety of instruments perfectly.
It was a lovely, well reviewed production and a totally happy process, directed by Michael Emans.
I have more writing on this theme planned - a couple of novels which are gnawing away at my imagination as these things have a habit of doing - but I can't imagine myself making a start on the first of them until next year. We'll see. Perhaps another visit to Brow Well will be needed. I love the poems and - in particular - the songs of Robert Burns and find myself coming back to the work and the man, as well as the women in his life, time after time. So perhaps it is time for me to tackle something longer on the subject.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Secret Commonwealth on Kindle


I'm in the process of uploading several of my plays - professionally produced, but as yet unpublished - to Kindle. Two of my previous plays, Wormwood and The Price of a Fish Supper are in conventional print, the former in a collection called Scotland Plays and the latter in Scottish Shorts, both published by the excellent Nick Hern Books. But even though Kindle isn't the obvious home for plays, I've decided that three or four of them might sit well as downloads and The Secret Commonwealth is the first. It's essentially a monologue, which means that it's very readable - and I'm told it's also poetic and fairly densely written, so I think people may get something - a different experience, but nevertheless an interesting one - out of reading the text. It's probably the same with the other two plays, Burns on the Solway and Quartz, but I'll blog about those in the next week or so.
The Secret Commonwealth was produced at The Oran Mor in Glasgow, during one of their A Play, A Pie and a Pint seasons of lunchtime theatre. It is the story of the Reverend Robert Kirk, a minister of the church, in Aberfoyle, in late seventeenth century Scotland. He communicated with the faeries on the mysterious and numinous Doon Hill, or Dun Sithean just outside the town, wrote a treatise about them called The Secret Commonwealth, and was said, eventually, to have been taken away by them to the faery realm, for giving away their secrets. Even his grown-up son believed that his father had 'gone to his own people.'

Liam Brennan and Deirdre Graham

It is possible, however, to read that treatise in another way. Kirk was no fool, and had been instrumental in helping to translate the metical psalms and then the bible into Gaelic. He was writing at a time when all the ancient customs and beliefs of the Gael - beliefs which early Celtic christianity had somehow managed to accommodate quite comfortably - were under threat from a new and much less compromising religion. There are some who see Kirk's treatise as subversive text, asserting the value of those old beliefs which had underpinned life in the Scottish highlands and islands for so many years.

It is this that is addressed in the play which was very well reviewed. Joyce MacMillan called Kirk 'a hero for our time' and that was, I think, exactly what I was trying to achieve with a 'lyrical yet driven 50 minute lament over Scotland's failure to integrate its dour Presbyterian faith and dogged Enlightenment rationalism, with the wilder, more beautiful and more sensual aspects of its Gaelic heritage.'

If you want to read more about the play, you can find a couple of splendid interviews here
One with Liam Brennan who played Kirk with great sensitivity and understanding, and one with brilliant young director Jen Hainey who talks about visiting Dun Sithean, or the hill of the fairies, outside Aberfoyle.


Dun Sithean

If you'd like to read the play itself, you can buy The Secret Commonwealth from Amazon's Kindle Store as a very reasonably priced download, here.
Finally, my son the video games designer has made me some lovely covers for my plays. I wanted them to be reasonably simple - I didn't want to add too much to the cost of the eBooks - but striking, and evocative of each play, and I think he has managed to achieve that.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Invisible Woman

The issue of the 'invisibility' of middle aged and older women seems to be everywhere, the word itself cropping up with disturbing regularity. I know the feeling. For a writer it's sometimes an advantage to be able to lurk quietly, watching what goes on, making mental notes, unheeded and unnoticed. At others, it can be deeply frustrating. But here's the thing. We aren't invisible to other women and especially not to middle aged and older women. Often, you'll catch a faintly jaded eye across a crowded room and know that she is feeling exactly the same as you: a mixture of indignation and amusement. That prickly sense of identification will pass between you like electricity.

To some extent, this disregard of the ‘other’ happens all the time and to everyone. It's the cause of many crass political and business decisions: this inability to put yourself in another's shoes, the assumption that just because you feel a certain way everyone else feels that way too. There was a scene during the last series of The Apprentice which neatly illustrated the problem. One of the contestants, an intelligent, determined and talented young woman, was unable to fathom why anyone might want to buy a back pack which would convert into a child's car seat. I can remember a time before motherhood when I might have felt exactly the same. But as it turned out, she was wrong, because it was a mega order for these same back packs that won the opposing team their treat. We all do it, making the assumption that everyone feels and thinks the way we do. But I suspect we do it more relentlessly when we're young through sheer lack of experience. One wrong business decision, based on a mistaken generalisation, needn't be a disaster. But this state of mind can have wider implications and the one that concerns me right now is my own field: writing and publishing.

Earlier this year, a colleague called Linda Gillard published to Amazon’s Kindle Store a beautifully written novel called House of Silence which was proving – as she herself says – ‘impossible’ to sell in the conventional way. ‘We actually ran out of editors to send it to!’ she says. Now this is no beginner we’re talking about. Linda is a talented and experienced writer with a successful, award winning track record and a good agent. The book in question was widely praised, but met with what another fine writer, Maggie Craig, calls the ‘rave rejection’. The problem with these – and I’ve had plenty of them myself – is that there’s nowhere to go with them. More often than not, they will say things like ‘This is a wonderful novel’ or ‘I just love this!’ And believe me, editors don’t lightly admit to loving something. If they don't like your writing, they won't pull their punches out of consideration for your feelings. But the problem invariably lies with the perceptions of those doing the marketing who may not even have read the book. Linda’s novel didn’t slot neatly into any narrow genre. Worse, as far as they were concerned, a significant percentage of her readership (although by no means all) consists of middle aged and older women in search of a thoughtful, well written novel: books that used to be called ‘midlist’ and were deemed to be eminently publishable. Now these same books, their writers and their voracious readers seem to have become largely invisible to conventional book marketing. But these are so often readers with the incentives of time, intelligence and a certain amount of disposable income. Now, in ever increasing numbers, they also have e-readers. And more will be acquiring them for Christmas.

Recent experience would suggest that an older woman in possession of a Kindle or a Nook, wants a more varied choice of reading matter than that generally on offer in your average supermarket. And that’s in spite of the mountains of paper books published every year. Those of us who love reading can identify with the demoralising experience of visiting a big book chain and – in spite of the many exclamatory promotions – finding nothing we really want to read. Inevitably, the marketing departments of publishing houses have become concerned with selling to big stores rather than selling to readers. But the buyers for those chains of stationers and supermarkets with a sideline in books will be focussing on a narrow demographic. Happily for Linda, there is a much bigger market out there. Her novel has become a great success and continues to sell widely and to be received enthusiastically. She sold more than 12,000 downloads of House of Silence, (and counting)  in approximately 4 months and she is already building on that success with another eBook called Untying the Knot.

She is not alone. With the collapse of the mid-list, there are many experienced, professional writers who are struggling to find publication for widely praised and properly edited work, writers, moreover, who already have a significant following among the reading public. My agent is currently sending out a new historical novel for me, in the usual way, and I'd be happy to find a publisher with whom I could work in the long term. But we aren't exactly being knocked down in the rush. Besides that, I have numerous pieces of good work including novels, which don't quite fit the mould of what he is currently sending out. Most of it is, I believe, work of quality, writing that a significant number of people would enjoy reading. And there seems little point in hanging onto it in the hope of some hypothetical jam tomorrow. That's the other thing about reaching a certain age. You become braver and more confident in your own abilities. (Maybe the invisibility helps.)

So I’ve started my own Kindle business with a trio of short stories, one of which rejoices in the title A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture and a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet which was shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize, published in the conventional way, sold out within the year, was well reviewed, widely praised, but never reprinted, and which Scottish poet and novelist John Burnside called 'a powerful story about love and obligation... a persuasive novel very well written.’ I'm following it up with three professionally produced but unpublished plays. Some of my plays are in conventional print, and continue to sell well. I know that eBook readers are not the most effective way of dealing with plays, but the three I'm planning to publish in this way are - I think - a 'good read' as much as anything else. After that, there will be more short stories and a new novel called The Summer Visitor in time for Christmas.

There are no easy answers to any of this, but I sense that a great many writers are exhilarated by these new opportunities. As a Canadian friend remarked ‘You have a great inventory there. You should be doing something with it.’ Perhaps most of all, we need to become much more businesslike in our dealings with the industry that surrounds us, becoming proactive partners. Some of us feel that the answer to our perceived invisibility may well lie in what we can do for ourselves and for that seemingly disregarded group of 'people like us'. Because although it's wrong to assume that everyone feels the way we do, it's also true to say that there are lots and lots of people out there who do. And if the needs of that group are not even being acknowledged, still less met by the current business model, it's now open to us to seize the initiative and do something about it ourselves.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why Do I Write?

'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.'
So said Samuel Johnson. Overused and inaccurate as it is, it’s a line that has been running through my head a great deal recently. It can’t be true, of course, since my income from writing has gone down, rather than up over the years and still I write. So why do I do it?

Maybe I write out of habit. I have been writing for as long as I can remember: poems, stories, plays, articles, but now novels, lots and lots of long novels about which I think I feel more passionate than I have about any other form of writing. For me, coming to grips with this form has felt like coming home after a long and difficult journey.

Is that why I write? For the profound absorption of being in the middle of a new project? For the sense of achievement when I've finished? But there are other things I could do that would give me the same feeling, surely: less exhausting, better paid things.

So do I write for pleasure? Is it always a pleasure? Of course not. But it’s more of pleasure than not writing, which is a pain. When I don’t write, I feel ill. I could no more take a decision to stop doing it than I could take a decision to stop breathing. It's how I cope with life, the universe and everything. I write about it.

Are you still writing? Well, am I?

Of all the questions anyone can ever ask a writer, that is surely the daftest. And the most aggravating, although I reckon only another writer would fully understand why.

But who asks the estate agent – are you still selling houses? Or the doctor – are you still diagnosing? Or the plumber - are you still making a fortune out of….. ?

So why do all my friends and acquaintances, whenever I chance to meet them after a gap of years, or in some cases mere months, inevitably ask me ‘Are you still writing?’ Like that other comment ‘I would write a book if I had the time’ it implies that writing is some casual pastime, a mere indulgence, which you can abandon at will. Not a real job at all. If D List celebrities can conjure 2 book deals out of thin air there can’t be anything too demanding about it, can there? So are you still writing, or have you found something better to do with your spare time? Like canoeing, or cookery.

So, why am I still writing?
Why do I write?
I wonder.

Because I can’t do much else.
Because I want to. Even when I'm not doing it, I desperately want to be doing it. This must be how a vampire feels about blood...
Because when it is going well, there is nothing like it.
Because I go around most of the time with my head in another world
Because characters insist on populating my mind, and somehow I have to find out about them.

I have to find out, I have to know, I need to explore. Not knowing is...

This is what it is!

And that, I suppose, is the real answer.
I write to find out.
Whatever I write, whether it be a play, a novel, or a piece of non fiction, I am writing to find out what happened, what really happened, what happened to make this character the way he/she is, what is happening now and what will happen next? It’s the insistent, persistent desire to know. Non writers always think that you know it all before you start. But in my case at least, it is a constant process of interrogation. Even by the time you type The End you don’t always know. And when you write a play you never know because the actors come along and start asking you questions and then you know you don’t know much at all. Which is half the fun of it. Every book, every story, every play is a quest to find out.

So there it is. I write to find out. And all the other things as well. And for money. Of course, whenever I can, I write for money!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cover Art for eBooks.

 There have been some interesting discussions lately, on Facebook and on various writing blogs, about covers for eBooks  - so here's my take on it. I thought it might be informative to make a comparison between a few of my own covers. To the left is the cover image which was commissioned by Polygon for the print version of The Curiosity Cabinet. It was done by James Hutcheson and I think it's a fine piece of work, in rich reds and browns. Central to the story of The Curiosity Cabinet is a Jacobean casket in 'raised work' embroidery. You can see an image from something similar here.  I know that a real cabinet of curiosities was quite different, but the casket in the novel has been on display in the island's hotel for many years, along with its intriguing contents, and this is what the hoteliers have nicknamed it. There's a scene, early in the book, where one of the characters gazes at the casket and its contents and makes the connection that they are all women's things. She finds herself wondering about the person who once owned them. I think it is this scene which is reflected in the cover. I never met James, although I was certainly asked for cover suggestions, during the publication process, and I think my ideas were taken into account.  I know this doesn't always - or perhaps even often - happen. I've heard tales of wildly unsuitable covers inflicted on writers in the name of 'marketing' - covers which would probably mislead readers about the nature of the novel -  and it would be true to say that there are fashions in cover design, like everything else. For a while, it seemed as though every historical novel seemed to display a nearly headless female in fancy dress, a fashion which seems fortunately to have faded!

When it came to deciding on a cover for the eBook version of the Curiosity Cabinet (now in Amazon's Kindle Store) I was delighted when my friend, distinguished textile and digital artist Alison Bell offered to design a cover for me. She's an 'island' person herself, having lived and worked on the Isle of Arran for many years, and she made the cover (below) as an artwork in response to the book itself. She says 'The narrative works on many layers of memory and time, some hazy, some forgotten, but the island's presence is constant, a refuge and a place to grow and start afresh. I wanted the colours to be soft, subtle, muted, with hints of turquoise, like the sea up there. It is a gentle book which drifts into the mind's eye as each chapter unfolds.'
It was a real pleasure to me to have the artist read and respond to my book - yet another of the serendipitious pleasures of Kindle publishing, tricky as the process may be!



I first started thinking about cover art some years ago, when I published a small poetry collection called The Scent of Blue - mostly poems that had been published elsewhere, in literary magazines and anthologies. I used my own photograph for the cover: a closeup of an antique Chinese embroidery. The designer incorporated that image into the overall design. It was very effective and attractive and I've been complimented on it ever since but it certainly made me think hard about cover image reflecting and in some way interpreting contents. I know how complicated is the connection between design and marketing and how many other factors must be taken into account, such as an overall 'house style' or an image that means that a reader will recognise you as a brand . However I do think that in this brave new world of eBook publishing, we should be just a little wary of succumbing to the same pressures that beset conventional publishing.
We need to acknowledge the expertise of artists and designers, and we will need to buy that in. But I think we also need to reserve the right to take some decisions for ourselves. If we are going to become empowered as writers, then we need to take charge of our covers too. And that may mean taking a 'horses for courses' approach. It may mean working with - and giving free rein to - artists who want to read and respond to a text or it may mean giving an artist a definite brief and I suspect the same writer may want to take different approaches for different books.


When the 'artist response' approach works well - as I think it has for the new Curiosity Cabinet cover - it results in the creation of a companion piece of art with a life of its own. There is much  that can be done with this as an image for an individual book, for an individual writer, rather than a branding exercise for a  publisher. I've had postcards made of The Curiosity Cabinet eBook cover, for instance, and they are a promotional tool not just for me and my book but for the artist as well.
 
But I'd be the first to admit that this is only one of a number of possible approaches, for an eBook 'cover' is at once more and less than a conventional book cover. The thumbnail hooks the potential reader in, the larger picture reinforces the purchase. I think we have to examine each project individually. I'm currently working on covers for three of my professionally produced plays which I intend to release onto Kindle, and these covers will have a certain similarity of theme, so that they are recognisable as part of a little series. The same goes for stories. But I'm already planning the publication of my next Kindle novel, and I can 'see' in my mind's eye the way I want the cover to look, the way that I want it to represent what is quite a dark, Gothic, Wuthering Heights-ish sort of tale - albeit with a Scottish setting.
 
All of which leads me to another point - and perhaps a subject for my next post. There is a lot of advice out there. Almost too much. And - of course - I'm only adding to it! When I started out on my writing career, many years ago, there was too little advice. We soldiered on, made mistakes, begged for help where we could find it, and wished that we had learned some things earlier. Now, however, a person with only a tiny amount of experience can represent themselves as an expert. We all need advice, all need to learn, all the time. But when following advice about writing and publishing, do it with your own critical faculties well tuned. If the person giving the advice is an experienced writer or editor, somebody whose work you respect, then by all means take them seriously.  But just be aware that sometimes we have to make our own mistakes and find out what works for us. On the whole, the more experienced the advice giver, the less prescriptive they will be about telling you exactly what you need to do!

Friday, August 26, 2011


Henrietta Dalrymple's Receipt for Cosmetic Lotion


Take a quart of dew, gathered at sunrise upon a May morning, with half a pint of fumitory water. Put to them of lavender and rose water, two ounces of each, then let all the ingedients be properly mixed and put in a vessel to settle.

Now take clean water into which you have thrown dried chamomile flowers, and allow it to simmer, gently, for some time. When it has thoroughly cooled ,use it to wash your cheeks, neck and breast. Next, when the skin is quite dry, gently apply the dewy lotion, scented with rose and lavender, and your skin will soon appear very clear and bright and white.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Curiosity Cabinet on Kindle - Sources of Inspiration




With the blessing of my agent, Edwin Hawkes at Makepeace Towle, and with the encouragement and very practical help of a number of friends who have gone before (Linda Gillard, Chris Longmuir and Bill Kirton, especially) I’ve now uploaded the Curiosity Cabinet to Kindle. It’s for sale at the bargain price of £1.94 and – right after the steep learning curve that is Kindle - I’m embarking on another exciting venture: publicising it. People keep asking me questions about all this, just as I kept asking other people for advice, and I want to blog about the experience as much to pass on some of the generous help that I received, as anything else.

But first things first. The book. Let me tell you a bit about it. Because it’s no coincidence that TCC is my first Kindle novel. When you write a novel, you have to fall in love with it. Not just with the characters, but with the idea of the book in your head. It’s hard to describe this process to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. It isn’t anything like the white heat of inspiration that new writers seem to think has to strike before they can write. So much of writing is perspiration rather than inspiration. But I’ve blogged about this feeling before. It probably applies to all creative ventures. The idea of it must excite you as much at the end of the work as it does at the beginning. Most writers have far more ideas than time to write them and we all keep ideas folders or notebooks, or similar . But the ideas we pick up and run with are those which excite us most, ideas which carry on exciting us from start to finish, no matter how many edits we have to do. Twenty or more drafts is not out of the ordinary. It can be exhausting, it can be irritating, it can even be superficially boring. It is always hard work, but all the same, you never quite lose the feeling in the pit of your stomach that here is a world you love to be in, with people you need to know more about. And that means that you are able to live with an idea for a very long time, even while you are working on all kinds of other creative projects. Which is what I did with this novel.

So - I first had the idea for The Curiosity Cabinet more years ago than I care to remember. I had read a little piece – I forget where now, but suspect it was in an Edinburgh museum – about Lady Grange who was kidnapped to St Kilda on the instigation of her husband. Incidentally, there is an excellent new book about Lady Grange,  The Prisoner of St Kilda by Margaret Macauley, whom I met recently on Gigha. I can recommend this wry, beautifully written and immensely readable slice of history. The Curiosity Cabinet is, of course, nothing like this story, or only insofar as it involves a woman, in early 18th Century Edinburgh, being kidnapped to a remote Scottish Island, for reasons which are not revealed till the end of the novel. At the same time, I had been working on a truly mammoth dramatisation of Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona, for BBC R4, in ten episodes. Gradually, these things fermented away in my imagination and eventually resulted in a radio trilogy produced and directed by Hamish Wilson.

But still the story gnawed away at me, as though there was more to be told. I hadn’t got it quite right. And that was when I embarked on the novel which is markedly different from the plays. It seemed to me that I was trying to tell a passionate love story, but one in which, in some strange, almost supernatural sense – (and without being in any way an overt ghost story) - the tragedies of the past stood a chance of being resolved in the present. I spent a great deal of time on the Isle of Gigha while I was writing the novel, and eventually wrote a factual history of that island and its people called God’s Islanders (Birlinn 2006). But the island inspired the story of The Curiosity Cabinet, as much as anything else – the sense of a small world, with many layers. The sense, as Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie Maclean calls it, of a ‘thin place’ where the boundaries between this world and whatever lies beyond can be very slight indeed.


The novel was eventually submitted for The Dundee Book Prize, was one of three shortlisted, and was published in 2005 by Polygon. That edition sold out. People liked it. My hero, John Burnside, liked it. Lorraine Kelly liked it. Although for some it was seen as a ‘guilty pleasure’. Why? Because it’s unashamedly a love story of course. Well, I make no apologies for that. It is indeed a love story spanning three centuries. Of which more, later, in future posts.

For this new edition, there’s a brand new cover, beautifully made by my friend, textile artist Alison Bell, who interpreted her response to the book as follows: ‘The narrative works on many layers of memory and time, some hazy, some forgotten, but the island’s presence is constant, as a refuge and a place to grow and start afresh. I wanted the colours to be soft, subtle, muted, with hints of turquoise, like the sea up there. It is a gentle book which drifts into the mind’s eye as each chapter unfolds.’

And of course, she’s right. As an ‘island person’ herself, she can see all too well that the island’s presence is central to the book. So if you like love stories, but also if you love Scotland, and Scottish history – and small Hebridean islands too – this may well be the book for you.


Monday, August 01, 2011

Onwards and Upwards - The Curiosity Cabinet

A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture, already has two lovely reviews, for which I'm deeply grateful. And now, after an intensely sociable, enjoyable - albeit tiring - weekend, I'm starting the process of formatting and checking the manuscript of the Curiosity Cabinet before launching that too onto Kindle, as well as searching for, (and finding), the rights reversion letter which proves that the copyright has reverted to me. As a writer, you become so deeply involved in the world of current work - the 'work in progress' - that it's very hard to pull yourself out of it, and pay attention to other projects. At the moment, I'm working on a newish novel called The Physic Garden, which has undergone several changes over the past year, about which I'll write in due course. Watch this blog! But I'm also spending some time rereading The Curiosity Cabinet so that I can make sure the upload goes as smoothly as possible. I don't think I'll be making many changes to it, except perhaps to the acknowledgements which now need updating.
This was a novel of which I was very fond - and I find that I still am. I don't mean in any self satisfied sense. I just mean that I still like these characters, still love this setting. It's a strange experience, rereading something you wrote a while ago (in this case, five or six years ago). It's almost like a re-encounter with something written by somebody else. Sometimes you even find yourself thinking 'how the hell did I write that?' But The Curiosity Cabinet was a project I lived with for a very long time, because I first wrote it as a trio of plays for BBC Radio 4, produced by Hamish Wilson. That was a tremendously happy production, and the novel that followed was - for some reason which I can't quite fathom - an equally happy experience. It's a quiet story, really - a Scottish love story spanning centuries - but when I think of it, it still warms my heart. I find it easy to summon up the sense of enchantment and involvement I had when I was writing it - and that doesn't always happen, believe me!
Meanwhile, because we had a great many visitors over the weekend, many of whom asked me what I was working on these days, I also had the 'Kindle' conversation with a number of people.
Me: I'm publishing some work onto Kindle. It's very exciting.
Friend: Oooooh, nooooo!
Me: But it's such a beautiful little device.
Friend: But I love books so much!
Me: Er yes, (looks around at house bursting at the seams with real paper books) So do I! But I love being able to download something at the click of a mouse. And I love being able to carry all these words about with me in one little package.
Friend: Hmm. Yes. Well, there's that. My mother/brother/sister/best friend has one. She swears by it. Well to be honest, I'm thinking of asking for one for Christmas!
There was a variation on the conversation and it went like this
Me: I'm publishing some work onto Kindle
Friend: Aaah. (cautiously) How do you feel about your Kindle?
Me: I love it.
Friend: Oh good. (sigh of relief) I love mine too, but I wondered what you might think...

Friday, July 29, 2011

Three Short Stories on Kindle


Apologies for the silence on this blog over the past couple of weeks but I've been publishing a trio of short stories to Kindle, and it has been a fairly steep learning curve! You can have a look at the results here. And if you want to download them, you'll get three stories for the price of one. They are all stories about 'love' - of a kind. But not conventional love stories. In the title story, A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture, a young couple on holiday in Italy with their new baby, begin to understand  how parenthood will change their lives for ever. Incidentally, that was one story where the title came first. We holidayed in Tuscany a few years ago, albeit not with a new baby, and spent a quiet afternoon of our own - well, an hour or two - in the 'Museum of Torture' in Volterra.  What makes these rather revolting places so popular I wonder? But I suppose we always are intrigued by cruelty observed from a position of safety. At any rate, it was that particular quiet afternoon, in conjunction with memories of those early months of motherhood which inspired the story, first published in a New Writing Scotland anthology, a couple of years ago.  In the Butterfly Bowl, a young woman has to make an impossible choice between the demands of love and her own integrity. And Breathe is a celebration of an unsung life, a lost way of living and enduring family affection.
When I decided to take  Kindle publishing seriously, I thought I'd publish something reasonably short before attempting anything more ambitious. And I'm still working with my agent on looking for a conventional publisher for a couple of novels, as well. But where Kindle is concerned, I had some tremendously helpful advice from several friends who are already having plenty of success with this method of publishing, especially Linda Gillard and Chris Longmuir.  It's fiddly rather than difficult, and I could imagine it would be even more tricky if you didn't have a well edited manuscript and a certain amount of confidence with manipulating documents online. You need patience, rather than techie know-how. Amazon's notes are incredibly helpful and I think most professional writers know all about the process of writing and rewriting again and again as well as checking things again and again - and again.
I've made mistakes, plenty of them, and no doubt I'll make more - but like everything else, familiarity with the medium will help. And because a number of us are feeling our way into this new and essentially liberating format there's a mutual willingness to help that's invaluable. Writers are, after all, nothing if not communicators. Yet even those of us who could reasonably claim to be experienced professionals seem to spend far too much of our working lives struggling desperately to get work 'out there.' Which is not to deny that the gatekeepers can be useful. And most of us would accept that a good editor is beyond price. But still - it can be very gratifying to be in control for a change.
My next venture will be the Kindle version of my novel, The Curiosity Cabinet  and it should be ready some time during August. This was one of three novels shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize and was very nicely published by Polygon in 2005. Lorraine Kelly was kind enough to call  it 'heartwarming, realistic and page turning.'  It sold out within the year, but Polygon declined to reprint. Given its Scottish setting plus the fact that it's a love story or rather two deliberately intertwined love stories, past and present, with two deeply attractive heroes, past and present - I think it stands a good chance of selling well. We'll see. Meanwhile, I'm making sure it's properly formatted, and talking to a lovely artist friend about the professional cover she's designing for me. Right now, it all feels very exciting indeed!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Kindle: A Blessing for The Midlist?

I'm busy investigating Kindle, although I won't be getting my hot little hands on one until next week. I can't wait! Meanwhile, I'm following the ongoing debate between those in favour of the conventional route, and those who see a multitude of exciting possibilities in online ventures. Like many writers, I can see - and  am involved with - both sides, since I have an agent who is pursuing the former route, with a new manuscript - but I'm also planning to get some material out there on Kindle, with his blessing, starting with a trio of short stories which I plan to release within the month, followed by an online version of a novel which was published in the conventional way. Friends who are doing it already are finding it reasonably straightforward. The big challenges seem to lie in making sure your manuscript is as well edited, as 'clean' as it possibly can be, without the benefit of a publisher's editor and then promoting your work in all possible ways.
Oddly enough, I think this is where the more mature writer, with a track record - as opposed to the younger writer with the stunning debut novel - can score. I'm thinking in particular of the beleaguered midlist writer who may have been dropped by his or her publisher or even agent, for never quite making the big time, never quite bringing in enough cash or simply falling out of fashion with an incoming editor.
In the last few years, that term midlist has more or less assumed pejorative overtones. But in the middle of what, exactly?
Let's leave aside for a moment the brands who aren't really writers at all, although their work is carefully crafted by real writers, good luck to them. You know who they are!
At the top of the tree, there's a scant handful of bestselling writers, who make millions. Far be it from me to knock them. I'd dearly love to be among them, and have a nodding acquaintance with one or two of them. The vast majority of them are best sellers for a reason: most of them are the finest storytellers working today, and the older I grow, the more I come to appreciate the value of an interesting story, beautifully told.
Then, there are the literary writers whose experimental work brings kudos to a publishing house. Once again, I'd be the first to say, good on them, and oh how we need them out there, pushing the boundaries of fiction and just occasionally becoming that rare beast, the unicorn among writers, the bestselling literary writer!
Which leaves me with the place where I probably belong right now: the midlist, encompassing everything from well researched, well written historical fiction to finely crafted contemporary love stories, original crime, quirky comedy and absolutely everything in between. A good read. In fact, the midlist tends to be what you and I like to read when we want something to get our teeth into but not something so tough that it's impossible to chew.
I think Kindle may be a gift for the experienced midlist writer, sitting on a body of fairly recent work, who has tumbled into the marketing black hole that now seems to exist between literary and blockbuster.  But let's look at a single not too recent example and imagine what might have happened today.
When the incomparable Barbara Pym was summarily and rudely dismissed by her editor at Faber, she spent the next few years in comparative obscurity before getting her second wind, later in life. You can read the salutory story here. But let's just imagine, for a moment, what might have happened, had a writer like Miss Pym had access to online publishing. She could have said 'hell mend you' or perhaps something gentler, got over the rebuff, got An Unsuitable Attachment out there, taken heart at her sales, made some money to pay the bills and moved on to the next novel. She had a wide and loyal readership. She had a thoroughly starry supporter in poet Philip Larkin, and there were other fine writers who supported her too. It wouldn't have been too hard for her to get the reviews. Just getting the work out there for the people who badly wanted to read it might have inspired her, and we might have had a few more novels from her. When we realise that her finest work, Quartet in Autumn, was yet to come, we are forced to wonder what else she might have written if she wasn't wasting her time touting good books around unresponsive publishers.
Which is a sad, and cheering thought, all at the same time, isn't it?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Poor Kids, A Response to the Film

I watched Jezza Neumann's moving film about child poverty in the UK last week and wrote a response, which was published here,  in The Scottish Review earlier this week. Click on the link, if you'd like to read more. The Scottish Review has an ever widening circulation and the response to this piece has been overwhelmingly positive - it seemed to strike a chord with all kinds of people as the film struck a chord with me and many others. But the overall media response to this film seems to have been fairly muted, which is sad. I do sometimes wonder if writers and artists are culpable too. And I don't exempt myself.
I've written what's known as 'issue based drama' in my day - quite a lot of it - but it sometimes seems to me as though too many poets, novelists and playwrights take a conscious decision to shy away from uncomfortable subjects. Perhaps we recognise that such writing will be hard to sell, hard to place in the current difficult market. And so many of us are struggling anyway. And when all is said and done, you can only write what you feel strongly about at the time. But still, I do sometimes find myself wondering, where is our Dickens? Where, for that matter, is our Robert Burns, writing passionately about poverty and injustice as well as about love?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Not Writing: Distraction, Disruption, Exhaustion.

I don’t think I’ve ever been quite this distracted before. No matter what else was going on in my life, I’ve always managed to concentrate on writing, often to the exclusion of everything else. When I look at the amount of reasonably successful work I’ve completed and had performed and published, over the years: poems, plays, short stories, non-fiction and, more recently, long and well researched historical novels, I feel an odd mixture of surprise and pride. But for somebody who usually manages to be both easy-going and utterly absorbed in her work, I've recently become aware that - in the immortal words of Joseph - things ain’t going well, hey, things ain't going well.
I’ve sometimes felt in the past that I wasn’t as focussed as I might have been, but that was generally because I had too many writing irons in the fire, rather than too few, too many projects on the go at once. Now, I seem to have far too many non-writing irons in the fire. This state of affairs seems to have crept up on me, for a variety of complicated reasons, but the time has certainly come to call a halt, take stock and do things differently. Which is, of course, far easier said (or blogged!) than done.
For the past couple of months, I’ve been struggling to balance work and finding ways of making an income, (just like most of the rest of the population, old Etonians excepted)  with daily life and the demands of friendship and family, but at the moment, I don’t seem to be managing any of them very well.  An involvement with a local community enterprise has only added to my woes and I’m beginning to think about straws and camel’s backs. Facebook is an additional distraction, even though it’s wonderful for networking and keeping in touch with friends and work colleagues.  And Twitter. And blogging. The garden takes time, even though I know it’s good for me. The house takes time. And then there’s the other job, (not really the day job, since I do most of it online, at night) dealing in antique textiles, which seems to be much less cost effective than it once was, and – although essential from a budgetary point of view  - also needs a bit of a rethink since it’s becoming hugely time consuming for what amounts to very little reward.
The harsh truth is that I'm doing too much unpaid work, and if I'm going to work unpaid, then it ought to be on something I want and need to do, as well as something with the potential to generate a little income in the future. Essentially, I need to be cracking on with new novels, especially given that the possibility of publishing online (and even making some money out of it) now needs to be added into the mix. 
One thing I’m sure of, I’m not alone.  Lots of female friends, professional artists and writers in particular, but others too, seem to be in exactly the same situation as me: all of us, not generally given to self pity, feeling agitated and tired and not working to our full capacity, while struggling desperately to make ends meet.
We seem to have gone straight from being distracted by  the demands of raising a family, and coping with elderly parents, to fending off the assumption that we are winding down towards retirement ourselves.
And it isn’t just that we can’t afford it. It’s that with – hopefully – up to a third of life still ahead – winding down seems ridiculous.
I’ve been reading an excellent book called Transitions by William Bridges, which has helped a bit, and discussions with like-minded friends help too. I’ve made lists and plans, but then I’ve always been a manic list maker. I’ve looked at time management. I'm not short of ideas.  But the harsh truth is that I need to do fewer things in my working day, but do them for longer, do them better, more exclusively, more intensively and with more deliberate and ruthless focus.
In short, I need to become more like a man.
All (reasonable) suggestions for achieving this desirable state of affairs gratefully received!