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!

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Lucky Sagittarius - Bird of Passage, Good Housekeeping and The Physic Garden. Lots Happening!

On special offer for 7 days!
It's that time of year again - my birthday, and it comes round hell of a fast these years. Mostly I'd prefer to forget about it. But this year, I have a lot to be thankful for, especially where my writing is concerned.

First though, let me flag up a birthday gift in reverse. I'm giving something away. Well, almost. Bird of Passage is going to be on a Kindle countdown deal (that means it's cheap, albeit not very cheerful) for the next seven days, on Amazon in the UK here and  in the US here. That's from 3rd - 9th December. If you find yourself reading this later on, I'm sorry you missed it but there will be others.  There's sometimes a small delay with implementing these deals, so if you go to the page today, the 3rd December, and find that it's still at full price, do try again later!

An Irish Industrial School
Bird of Passage is a powerful and occasionally explicit story of cruelty, loss and passionate obsession against all the odds. It is also a subtle homage to Wuthering Heights - a re-imagining rather than a retelling. It's a big dramatic read. The horrific background story of suffering in an Irish Industrial School and the way in which a child could be snatched from his mother is very current  - although I first wrote this novel some years ago, and started researching it even earlier. The more I read about the truth of what happened to so many people, the more appalled I became. It's a disturbing story, (it was disturbing to write, too) but many readers like it a lot even though it makes them cry.

Next on my list of exciting events is the publication of my small collection of short stories in eBook form by Hearst Magazines. You can find it here and pretty much on all other platforms as well. This is a small book, but a big step for me, because I'm in such very good company with some fine writers in this series of eBooks. In conjunction with this, the Good Housekeeping website has published a longish interview with me - 20 interesting questions for me to answer - and very enjoyable it was too! I hope you find the answers quite illuminating as well. You can find it on their Lifestyle pages along with all kinds of lovely Christmassy things.

Finally - and perhaps saving the best till last from my point of view, anyway - my new historical novel The Physic Garden is due to be published in March 2014 by Scottish Publisher of the Year, Saraband. (You can read all about their award here.)

I'm more than a little ecstatic about this, as you can imagine. Somebody asked me last week if it was my 'first book' and I had to reply, with a sigh, that no, it wasn't. I did a bit of arithmetic in my head and still got confused. But it will be my eighth full length novel, of which some were traditionally published, while some I published myself in eBook form. Besides that, there are a couple of published non fiction histories - one of them an enormous labour of love called God's Islanders -  a whole clutch of professionally produced and published stage plays, and several collections of short stories, most of which have been published in magazines. Plus a couple of poetry collections from way back. I sometimes get tired just thinking about it all.  But I'm the epitome of a 'hybrid' writer and I'm enjoying it.

I was speaking to a group of postgraduate Creative Writing students at the University of Glasgow last week. I had been invited to speak alongside a couple of representatives from the Society of Authors about the (considerable) benefits of joining. You sometimes walk a fine line between trying to tell people about the realities of  a career as a writer and your desire not to disillusion people. After all, most writers could no more give up writing than they could give up breathing. But I do try to tell people that a writing career is - with a very few lucky exceptions - a switchback, a massive game of snakes and ladders. One year you're up, the next you're down. But if you do find yourself at the bottom of a long and hideous snake, at least you know that there might be a ladder at the next throw.


Meanwhile, my experience with Saraband has been overwhelmingly positive. They produce the most beautiful books. Plus they gave me a brilliant editor. The novel didn't need much editing at all, thank goodness, but the points the editor made went straight to the heart of the few doubts I had and showed me how they might be addressed. I'd almost forgotten what a pleasurable experience it can be to work with a good editor, who loves your book.

The Physic Garden is a about friendship and  betrayal, about new developments in medicine and the tensions between 'physic' and surgery  - but above all, it's about the lifelong effects of treachery on William Lang, the narrator. I loved William. Still do. Even when I was writing the book, even though I was well aware that I was writing in the persona of an old man, remembering a long life, remembering the events of his youth in particular, it still felt oddly as though I were channelling him. I knew what he would say and how he would say it. I knew what he was thinking. It was one of those pieces of writing (I find it happens more with plays than with novels) where you read it afterwards and think 'I wonder where all that came from?'


The Old College of Glasgow University.

I'm told the proof copies are with the printer! Excited? Moi? You bet!

















Friday, November 08, 2013

The Curiosity Cabinet - On Special Offer Now!

Cover image by textile artist Alison Bell.
I wrote The Curiosity Cabinet a long time ago - in fact as I've already said elsewhere on this blog, it began life as a trilogy of radio plays inspired by the real historical story of Lady Grange (but very different from her story) and set on a small Scottish island a bit like my favourite Hebridean Island of Gigha. The plays involved two intertwined parallel love stories, one modern, one historical. But when I decided that I wasn't very happy with the modern day story in the plays, I started all over again with the novel. It was one of three books shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize and it was subsequently published by Polygon. Lorraine Kelly read it and sent me a lovely note about it which I still treasure. Later, when it was out of print, I published it on Kindle myself, where it has been sellling very well ever since. It has had some fabulous reviews from readers here in the UK and in the US as well. My very favourite review was from a US reader who said that the writing was so tight you could 'bounce a quarter off of it.'

You know, as a poet and playwright as well as a novelist - not to mention as a reader too - I've never really subscribed to the notion that a book has to be over complicated and inaccessible in order to be good. I suppose what I'm always aiming for is an accessible and readable book which is nevertheless thought provoking. Some of my favourite writers - especially short story writers like William Trevor and Bernard MacLaverty - are clear and readable - but their work stays in your mind afterwards and works away like yeast, changing the way you think! That's always what I'm aiming for - but I know I don't always achieve it. And if you can read any of my books and say that you've enjoyed them, then that's good enough for me.

The landscapes of the Curiosity Cabinet were inspired by the wonderful little island of Gigha which I've been visiting for years. Even the ferry in the novel is very like the Gigha ferry.

As for the historical story - well, as far as I know, there is no Manus McNeill, sadly, though there were and still are lots of McNeills in the Western Isles and some of them may have been called Manus and may even have been a little like my lovely, irascible but honourable hero. But there is an ancient grave in the old ruined kirk at Kilchattan on Gigha and somehow, in my mind, I always associate it with my fictional Manus although I know that it's much older than the hero of my novel and even though it's nothing like the grave described in the book.

All the same, every single  time I visit the island, I go to the old kirk and leave a little posy of wild flowers on his grave. I can't explain why I feel the need to do this, but I do.



The Curiosity Cabinet is on special offer on Kindle now and for the next five days. You'll find it for 99p here on Amazon UK and also at a reduced price on Amazon.com in the US.


Monday, November 04, 2013

Something Magical About My Kindle

These guys think so too.

Right from the start, let me say that I love paper books. Always have, always will. We have books in every room in the house. Too many, really. Periodically, I'll have a clear out and send a few boxes off to my charity shop of choice, but they creep back in again, especially non fiction books that I come across and know I'll need for reference: illustrated books about textiles and Scottish history and folklore and cookery and gardening books and lots more.

I'm currently reading a big, brand new hardback book. It's an extremely good book, but I'm not going to name it here, because that doesn't matter. It could be the best book in the whole wide world and I would still feel the same about it. How I feel about it is this.

The very peculiar smell of time.
It's a really beautiful, well produced artefact. Contrary to popular myth, it doesn't actually smell of anything at all, other than a faint odour of new paper, (but then so does bog roll). Actually, I think old books smell lovely, but then I think antique paisley shawls smell lovely too, have been known to bury my face in these gorgeous old textiles and breathe deeply - the slightly stale and very peculiar smell of time and use and dust and old scent and ... well, you know. Not everyone feels the same, but I don't care.

Back to books. This book in particular. It is driving me nuts. Not the content, which is excellent, but the delivery system. I keep wishing it was on my Kindle or at least as a nice, soft, bendy paperback. It may be beautiful, it IS beautiful, but it's also big, heavy, unwieldy, spiky at the corners and difficult to handle. The book itself keeps getting in the way of my undoubted pleasure in the contents. I read a lot in bed, but to cope with this one, I have to prop it on a pillow in front of me, and even then it keeps sliding about. The weight of it sets off my carpel tunnel syndrome and I get pins and needles and have to hang my hands over the edge of the bed to recover.

I'll finish it, because it's so good, and I'll treasure it and I may even want to read it again. But as soon as it's available in paperback or as an eBook, I'll probably buy another copy. Wrestling with this object made me think again about eBooks, and the reading I do on my Kindle, made me think about the uses of books and why we might want them in a particular form. As a part time dealer in antique textiles, I'm all too horribly aware of the transience of fragile things, the need to preserve some important or beautiful objects against time and change. Similarly, some books are so crammed with wisdom that you fear for their transience and want to see them in as robust a form as possible, disseminated as widely as possible.

But as far as reading, experiencing, absorbing the contents is concerned (which is, after all, the real purpose of writing and publishing) there is undoubtedly something magical about my Kindle.

In the way that a really good radio play, well acted and produced, seems to be transferred straight from the mind of the playwright to the mind of the listener (and can therefore be uniquely disturbing, when the themes are distressing or highly emotive) - there is something incredibly immediate about the experience of reading a really good, intense, well written piece of fiction on a Kindle or other e-reader or tablet.

Over the past year or so, I've been doing more and more reading on my Kindle and have noticed that the experience can seem more intense and more immediate than anything I've experienced for a long time. Maybe I've been lucky in my choice of reading matter. But it seems to me to have something to do with the medium itself. I can only think it's because there is so little to get in the way of the words and images and ideas. I've found myself more intensely involved with fiction than ever before, even dreaming about the books I'm reading, about the events and the characters - vivid, disturbing dreams in which I'm the character in the novel, or I'm witnessing and participating in the events in the book. It reminds me a bit of the way it used to be when I was very young and stories were so fresh and new and exciting that I felt as though I were completely absorbed in this amazing new world. I love it.

I'd be really interested to know if other readers feel the same way!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Orange Blossom Love and other stories ...

Another lovely cover image from Michael Doig
I've been so busy with all kinds of writing over the past few weeks that I've hardly had a spare moment to update this blog. Here in the West of Scotland, we're in that time between seasons when the trees are beautiful - especially the rowans - but the days are shortening all the time. Soon our clocks will be going back an hour and then the nights will seem very long - and very dark.

BUT I've been cheering myself up with working on the first in a series of unashamedly romantic novels, set largely in the beautiful Canary Isles. And really wishing I was sitting on the deck of a catamaran in the sunshine. But if I can't do that, then the next best thing is to write about the islands, and dream about them. And share some of those dreams with readers.


This all began many years ago as a short story called Sardine Burial which - coincidentally enough - has just been republished in eBook form by the excellent Hearst Magazine Company: one of four short stories in a new mini collection of my stories, available on all ebook platforms - but you can find it here on Amazon in the UK and here on Amazon in the US. I love the way Hearst are embracing short stories in this form - mainly because I'm a big fan of the short story myself, not just as a writer, but as a reader.

I experimented with Sardine Burial as a radio play - it was actually produced on BBC R4 years ago - but I really wanted to write it as a novel. Its first incarnation was published and pretty much sank without trace. I'm quite glad, because it wasn't ever the way I really wanted it to be. It's a romantic story, no doubt about it. And why not? But what I really wanted to write was a novel about two people from quite different backgrounds, who fall in love and marry in haste. What happens next? Do they repent at leisure, as the old adage would have us believe? So I went back to the beginning and began all over again. Especially with my hero - lovely Luis - who plays the guitar and sings - and cooks, too. OK, OK, he's a man in a million. But he has his faults. As you'll find out if you read the book.

That's what I've been writing about in Orange Blossom Love.  (Try THIS LINK  instead, if you're in the US!)  This is one of the more sensuous and unashamedly romantic pieces of writing I've ever done. It's a very grown up love story. And I'm afraid it does end on a bit of a cliff-hanger. There was no way round it. You'll see what I mean when you get there! But I'm hoping to be able to get Part 2, Bitter Oranges, out on Kindle in time for Christmas. Or very soon after.

My only worry is that there is an important - and quite different - project which might just possibly get in the way. I'll tell you a bit more about that later because it's very exciting too and it will have to take priority for a while.. But if I manage my time properly, I should be able to do both. And maybe winter in Scotland will be a very good time to visit the gorgeous, sunny Canary Isles, even if it's only in my imagination! On the other hand, Bitter Oranges is set partly in Glasgow. So I might just have to make do with Luis, who brings his own brand of sunshine with him! Always has. Always will.


Monday, October 07, 2013

The Curiosity Cabinet on Pinterest


I've been a convert to Pinterest for a while. It's a lovely, easy site to use, and I can never visit it without a little lifting of the heart.  Maybe because it's good displacement activity. (Well, it is!) Maybe it's also because I have a very visual imagination. When I'm working on a novel or a play, I tend to surround myself with all kinds of inspirational images, pictures that help to fire my imagination, even when I'm feeling in the doldrums. Pinterest is a nice addition to those resources: pictures of landscapes and food, textiles, interiors, costumes and all kinds of things. Pictures of heroes, too.

I now find I use it quite a lot when I have a work in progress - I'm using it with my Canary Island trilogy at the moment. One of the good things about the site is that it isn't very time consuming, or it needn't be. You can just go there briefly, have a little browse, pin a picture, be intrigued or inspired and get back to work.  Or you can spend hours on it, especially if you follow the pictures back to their original websites. But you don't have to.

Sometimes, like now, I've been moved to create a Pinterest board for a work that was done and dusted some time ago - purely for fun. I've just done it for my novel The Curiosity Cabinet and you can see the board here. Most readers will have their own ideas about the landscape of the novel - and the embroidered box of the title. But all the same, I thought it might be nice for readers to see some of the images that inspired it.

The Curiosity Cabinet is a novel which has had a long and complicated life. It started out as a trilogy of radio plays, was totally rewritten as a novel, shortlisted for a book prize, published by Polygon, and then went out of print but not before it had been released as an unabridged audio reading and abridged (without the sex and swearing - not that there is a LOT of it - but very nicely done!) for the People's Friend. It had been so well reviewed, had so many readers who had taken the time and trouble to tell me how much they liked it, that it became one of my first Kindle books. It had a new and very beautiful cover by my friend, textile artist Alison Bell. And in 2014, I plan to re release it in paperback, via Amazon's Createspace.

I've been visiting the little Hebridean Isle of Gigha for many years now - I even wrote a history of the place called God's Islanders for Birlinn - and I love it. The Garve of the novel isn't entirely Gigha and other islands are certainly available! Coll, for instance. But the landscapes of Gigha definitely inspired the landscapes of Garve, past and present, in the novel. They went on to inspire the landscapes of the anonymous Scottish island in Bird of Passage too - but differently. Maybe I'll do a dedicated Pinterest board for that novel too, in due course.

I'll be adding a few more pictures to the Curiosity Cabinet board over the next few weeks. This is the landscape of the novel - when I visualise the film of the book in my head this is the kind of thing I see. Well, a girl can dream, can't she?




Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Curiosity Cabinet on BBC Radio 4 Extra


Earlier this week, a friend pointed out that my trilogy of plays, The Curiosity Cabinet, first written and produced for BBC Radio 4's Afternoon Theatre slot, some years ago, is due to be repeated on Radio 4 Extra on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this coming week, 2nd, 3rd and 4th of October. You can read more about the plays and broadcast times here.  There are three episodes: The Brown Swan, The Mute Swan and The Swan on the Lake.

If you've read this story as a novel (currently available on Amazon's Kindle Store, here in the UK and here in the USA ) you may be surprised to learn that it was first written in dramatic form. It's generally the other way round. Novels are 'dramatised' as plays. But way back when I first thought about this story, I was writing lots of drama for radio and theatre and that was how I first 'heard' it in my head - as a series of plays. The novel came later.

Actually the idea for The Curiosity Cabinet had been in my head for a long time, ever since I visited an Edinburgh museum and happened to read the story of Lady Grange who was kidnapped to a remote Scottish island at the instigation of her husband. Like so many writers, I began to think 'what if?' What would it be like for a young woman (younger that the real Lady Grange) to be snatched away from all she held dear, not knowing why, and then to find herself plunged into a completely different culture? For Gaelic and Lowland cultures were very different and still are to some extent. The Henrietta Dalrymple of my imagination could not even understand the language, could hardly make herself understood, even in her state of panic and desperation. This was how the story began to take shape in my mind, but my Henrietta is nothing like the real Lady Grange. The story is set at a different time. The plot is very different. And my fictional island is a bit like Gigha and a bit like Coll and could be any one of a number of small Scottish islands.

I always knew that somehow the historical story would be intertwined with a modern day tale. I just wasn't quite sure what that story would be.  You can hear the tale in its first incarnation in the radio version but I was never very happy with the present day part of the story. This was, I should point out, nobody's fault but mine. The production was excellent and as always with the wonderful Hamish Wilson in charge it was a very happy time. But I knew I was going to have to revisit the story itself, knew I wanted to do more with it. Felt that it wasn't quite doing what I wanted it to do.

Paperback version by Polygon
When it came to the novel, the historical sections are pretty much the same but the modern day version changed a lot. I wrote the two stories separately, printed them out, and then did a literal cut and paste job of weaving them together, before replicating that on the PC. This was never going to be a real 'time slip' novel. That wasn't quite what I had in mind. My stories were always intentionally parallel. None of the characters move back and forth between past and present although the present day Alys (yes -  even her name was different in the novel version!) gradually becomes aware of Henrietta if only through some of her possessions. All the same, the stories are linked in subtle ways. This is a story about keeping secrets and learning to trust, about belonging, about motherhood and obligation. It's a story about the possibility of redeeming the past in the present. It's about the way small islands often seem to encompass past and present, layers of time, one overlain on another. It's a love story: not just the love between man and woman, but that between mother and child.

The novel was one of three books shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize and was subsequently published by Polygon. It's well out of print, but you can still find the odd paperback copy on Amazon and there's also an unabridged audio version by Oakhill, beautifully read by Caroline Bonnyman. In due course, I'll bring out a new paperback version with CreateSpace.

There's another thing about the novel. Before I was a playwright and a novelist, I was a published poet (I know, I know. Couldn't settle to anything!) and I found myself pruning and polishing this book in much the same way as I used to work at my poems. But now, I'm not entirely sure it was the right thing to do. Sometimes, you can polish a little too much. There's a fine line between the simple and the facile. With later novels, I gave myself permission to prune less. But as ever, the trick is in knowing when enough is enough and I'm still learning!

Perhaps because of this, The Curiosity Cabinet has occasionally been called a 'bit of froth' and a 'guilty pleasure' at the same time as John Burnside was describing it a 'powerful story about love and obligation.' You pays your penny, as they say...  But of all the many very nice comments and reviews this book has received, (when readers like it, they like it a lot) the one that probably pleases me most is the US reviewer who remarked that the book is 'so tightly written you could bounce a quarter off of it.' That one made me very happy indeed!

I find it hard to listen to Radio 4 Extra, here in deepest rural Scotland. I can only get it on my television. But if you are around next week, why not give it a try? It's a lovely, evocative production and it may also give you some insight into how ideas can change and evolve - sometimes quite drastically - over time.





























Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Writing About the Canary Isles: A Handsome People.

Teide in the snow.
There has been a small gap in my Canary Island Winter posts, mainly because I've been so busy with the first in my Canary Island trilogy of novels - Orange Blossom Love - that I've had very little time for blogging. The result has been that I've been neglecting Wordarts a bit in favour of my regular Authors Electric blog post (on the 18th of every month) although I'll sometimes reblog it on here if I think it deserves a second outing.

Writing about the Canary Isles has brought the place back to me with almost heartrending immediacy. I want to be there right now although it doesn't look as though that will be possible for a little while at least.  Luis, my hero in the novel, is a 'Gomero' born and bred, fiercely proud of his heritage, a guitarist and a chef. A slightly quirky combination, I know, but that's the way he turned out and whom am I to challenge him? Every writer knows that there is a stage in any novel when a character decides to be what he or she wants to be and there will be little you can do to change it. It's one reason why writers react so badly to other people saying 'can't you make him do this or that?' Many of us don't feel as if we're 'making' anyone do anything. We can shape the story, of course, change the structure, polish and prune and even change what happens, but there's a sense in which the characters make themselves, and that's an uncanny feeling. So, Luis is who he is. And good looking with it.

Earlier this year, when I was in the middle of doing some additional research for this trilogy, I discovered two fat volumes about the Canaries written by one Olivia M Stone, an Englishwoman who had visited the islands back in 1884. This was wholly thanks to Amazon. I didn't know about these books at all. A Canarian academic friend, who had helped me with the translation of some traditional poems, confessed that she didn't know about them either, but then they had been written in English, published in England in 1887 and had long been out of print. The re-emergence of facsimile editions on Amazon was only very recent. I typed 'Canary Islands History' into Amazon and these two volumes instantly popped up, with a long, engaging and informative review by a previous reader. I ordered them and was enchanted by them. Olivia had obviously fallen in love with the Canaries too.

Back when we were living there for that short time, it had struck me what good looking people the locals were. Olivia thought so too. She found the men handsome, especially their guide, the divine Lorenzo, and was not afraid to say as much. Even though she seems to have been a happily married woman, accompanied by her photographer husband, she was also quite a young woman and her obvious appreciation of a handsome and mildly flirtatious man seems curiously modern. She also noted several times that the island girls too were unselfconciously beautiful.

All of this is still true. Spaniards are a handsome people, but there is a fair mixture of the DNA of the original inhabitants of these islands - as recent tests have proved - especially on La Gomera. This isn't too surprising. Historians used to posit the idea that the Spanish invaders had massacred all the original inhabitants, but wholesale genocide is (mercifully) rare. Youth, life, sexual attraction tends to have its way. Like the early Scandinavian invaders of Scotland and Northern England, it seems as though those Spanish invaders - as well as shedding a lot of blood - did a lot of what we had better call intermarrying, although initially at any rate I doubt if it was as benevolent as that term suggests. But these were young Spanish settlers on a fertile land with a kindly climate and the surviving Guanche women were a handsome people of Berber ancestry. And sooner or later, men grow tired of war. The DNA evidence suggests that a great many of those incoming Spaniards must have taken Guanche wives, settled down and raised families, becoming Canary Islanders themselves.

This seems to have resulted in a happy combination in more ways than one. The Canarians are still a handsome, sunny natured people. It's as though the fierce energy of the incomers - but one which could all too easily tip over into cruelty - was tempered by the more peaceful qualities of the indigenous people. This is to oversimplify, of course. The Guanches were as capable of brutality in a brutal age as their conquerers. But it doesn't seem to have been their natural inclination. Whatever the truth of it, it does seem as though a partiality for artistry, cultivation, music, courtesy, peacefulness and a natural appreciation of beauty have to a large extent prevailed on these islands so that the old perception of them as 'blest' - as the garden of the Gods - is not too far from the truth.

www.wordarts.co.uk












Monday, September 02, 2013

THE AUDIO BOOK - CAN YOU DO IT YOURSELF?



This piece -  originally written for the Authors Electric blog - was  very popular with readers, so it seems worthwhile to reblog it here. Lots of indie writers are thinking about audio and wondering whether they can go it alone or not, so here are some things to think about before you do.

For about twenty five years from the mid seventies to the turn of the new millennium, I wrote for radio. I have more than a hundred hours of produced radio drama to my name, including many original plays, series and serials as well as dramatizations of classics like Ben Hur, Kidnapped and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Because most producers want the playwright to be there for the duration of the production – studio time is always tight, so you’re expected to do rewrites on the hoof - I’ve spent weeks in radio studios. Kidnapped and Catriona in ten hour-long episodes involved so much time in a small, stuffy Edinburgh studio with no natural light, that the producer pinned up a quote from Kidnapped on the wall: day and night were alike in that ill-smelling cavern. We knew how poor David Balfour felt. Although the hot scones sent up by the canteen at tea time were excellent!

I’ve worked with some wonderful producer/directors and equally good audio technicians. I’ve seen huge changes in the way audio is produced. I’ve also read my own work on radio – short stories, talks and poems. And I’ve written audio tours for the National Trust. Which is why I consider myself reasonably well qualified to advise writers about reading their own work for submission as an audio book.

Mostly, my advice would be: think twice.

There are always exceptions. You may be an actor as well as a writer and if you are, you’ll know how to set about it. You may also know all about audio recording or know a person who does. If that’s the case, you can go ahead with confidence. Otherwise, you should approach such a project with extreme caution. The difference between a professional and an amateur reading is marked and obvious to the listener. Anyone who has worked in radio knows that even among actors, there are some who have a flair for the work. Audio is a subtle medium. Bringing a novel to life, not overdoing it, but not making it boring and all while being aware of the technical constraints, demands a certain level of professionalism and experience. If you don’t have that, don’t automatically assume that you are going to be able to do it from scratch and do it as well as somebody who has spent several years learning the craft.

But there’s more to it than that. An unabridged reading of a full length novel presents challenges that you may not even be aware of. I was in the middle of writing this piece when I read some comments elsewhere and realized that many people don't understand that there is a vast difference between a full scale dramatization of a novel and a straightforward reading - even when a novel is read in several different voices. They are birds of a different feather. Hell, they aren't even both birds. It's like the difference between, say, a novel and a film. They are written and made quite differently. Most of my radio work involved this kind of full scale dramatization. The technique is to produce a very rough draft and then leave the book completely to one side and work at producing a stand alone drama for whatever medium you're working in, be it film, television or, in my case, radio, only going back to the book later, to make sure that you have done justice to the original.





But for the purposes of this post, let's assume we're talking about a reading of the text of your novel, either the whole of it, or extracts from it. Trailers are fair game, as are short extracts and I’ve seen and heard some great examples online. But even with an ‘abridgement’, problems start to arise. For radio, these tend to be five or ten episodes of some fifteen minutes duration each and there are audio companies specializing in abridged readings. Fifteen minutes of audio is approximately five or six thousand words depending upon the pace of the text. So you can imagine what has to be cut out of an eighty or ninety thousand word novel to achieve an abridgement lasting ninety minutes. This in itself is a tricky job. I’ve done it a few times - albeit not with my own books - and it’s a great way of finding out the internal structure of a novel, of going straight to the heart of a piece of work. And I can imagine that it would be very interesting (and illuminating) to abridge your own novel for somebody else to read.

But an unabridged audio book? And you’re considering reading the whole of it yourself?
Before you do, here are some practical things to think about.

You’re going to have to read with clarity and subtlety, pulling your audience in, doing just enough but not too much of the ‘voice’ of each character. Remember that wherever you trip over your words – and you will trip over your words – even seasoned actors do it - you have to leave enough space for somebody (who?) to tweak the digital file so that when you resume, it sounds right. And what about turning pages? Although it would be easier and quieter to read from your Kindle. And those astonishingly loud tummy rumbles you weren’t even aware of but the microphone was picking up. Which brings me to how you are going to record it. Well – equipment is cheaper than it was, but you need the right acoustic. You need a dead room that excludes all extraneous sound. So you will still need to hire or borrow a studio and some technical assistance. A local college perhaps? Or you could find yourself a company who will do it for you.

The full length audio version of my novel The Curiosity Cabinet is on Audible. The reading, by Caroline Bonnyman, is superb. It was produced by an excellent small company called Oakhill which - back when it was first produced - paid me for the rights. This was when the novel was first published in paperback. If I wanted to produce a similar recording for my own use, and maintain control over it, I would have to pay somebody to do it for me. If you’re contemplating doing a recording of your own book, download a few similar novels read by actors – either unabridged or in short form - and ask yourself in all honesty if you could do it and keep it up for the several hours needed to read a whole book. Could you be consistent? And get the pacing and the overall tone right. And stop yourself from speeding up towards the end of a page or a chapter. Would you be able to continue a sentence when you turn over a page without hesitating between pages?  What about sitting too close to the microphone. Or moving your head too far away from the microphone. Or moving your chair, which creaks. Or finding when you play it back that you’ve done a horrible combination of all of these and introduced some weird extras into the reading. In other words, can you produce a polished and professional enough version to do justice to the novel you’ve spent so long perfecting? Well, you can do all these things with a good producer and a little practice. But I’ve sat in a studio with a producer and watched inexperienced readers taking an hour or more to record a decent, usable five minutes worth of radio. And that didn't even begin to involve the editing needed. So if you want to do it yourself, I think you need to acknowledge that you will need expert help. Or you could hire the right actor for your book.

I can do the short stuff myself. I’ve read my own short stories on radio. I have audio ‘times’ firmly embedded in my head, so I can judge the pace of a reading pretty well. I'm used to the peculiarly 'dead' acoustic that makes your voice sound odd to your own ears. I’m more experienced than most at this. I know a lot of the pitfalls.

This means that I would definitely like to have a say in who reads my book, just as most writers like to be consulted about casting for a stage play.

But would I read one of my own novels as a full length audio book?

I doubt it. I know too many good actors to believe that I can do it better than they can. I would never say never. But it would have to be the right novel, and it would have to be done in a professional studio with somebody who knew exactly what they were doing, producing and editing. Otherwise, I don't think it's feasible. But I'm quite happy to be proved wrong

Saturday, August 31, 2013

AUGUST WAS A VERY BUSY MONTH!

Carving by Alan Lees
For all kinds of reasons, August was such a busy month for me that I've been neglecting my blog. I found myself blogging about being a mid-list writer for the astonishingly varied and informative Edinburgh eBook Festival, attending the excellent and entertaining Inverness Book Festival with Lin Anderson and Sara Sheridan, to speak about indie publishing and promotion, while a week later, I was on a Society of Authors panel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival talking about 'Being a Writer in the Digital Age.' This was a bit contentious, but only insofar as one of the speakers found himself playing devil's advocate - and to be honest, I'm glad he did. Nothing like a little grit in the oyster to produce a few pearls of wisdom, and as one member of the audience commented afterwards 'It wasn't totally one sided, which proved to be a very good thing.' I agree. There is a debate to be had, and we should be having it - courteously and productively.

 I heard later that one of the panel had to put up with a certain amount of online abuse and I'm sorry about that. We need to be able to talk frankly about writing and publishing. We need to be able to talk about the challenges facing all of us. If we can talk about collaboration and making the best of things for all of us, so much the better.

Edinburgh is a blast at Festival time. We managed to see The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer, by Iain Heggie, with John Bett as the redoubtable Enoch Dalmellington. This is a marvellous piece of theatre - funny and satirical and wholly entertaining and I'm so glad to have seen it at last. Every time I see a play as good as this one, I have a terrible longing to get back to writing for the stage - and yet taking anything at all from page to production these days is fraught with so many problems that - after all these years and with a good track record - I do, kind of, find myself running out of steam with that particular aspect of my creativity! I had this conversation with somebody only a few weeks ago who told me that the only way was to 'get a group of people together and do it yourself' and I thought - yes. You're right. It's the only way. But do I have that kind of energy now? All these years after my first play was staged?  I don't think so. Besides, I have so many other fish to fry, you wouldn't believe.

Meanwhile, enough of the excitement. (And believe me, there has been a LOT of excitement of which more in due course) I really need to quit monkeying around and get some writing done - fiction, that is.

PS We also spent an hour in the company of the Amazing Bubble Man. You can watch him on YouTube here. Wonderful stuff.











Monday, August 12, 2013

August is a Busy (Festival) Month


Your Own Skipper

This is a time of year when most of my friends are off on holiday - or just back from it. It's shaping up to be one of my busiest months of the year!

First things first - this week, I'm 'mid-list' Writer in Residence, over at the Edinburgh eBook Festival. There's a regular schedule of posts, but if you can't be there all day (and who can? - it's a little like ANY book festival with a huge range of possibilities) - you can click on the Catch Up tab to the right of the home page and see what you've missed - and go to the post and read it at your leisure if you want!
Here's the link to my first mid-list writer post - but you can catch up with them at any time or read them all of a piece at the end of the week or later on.
Meanwhile, if you find anything you like, all the participants would be very grateful if you could spread the word even in a small way  - especially since there is so much which might be of interest to readers and/or of use to writers, whether indie or hybrid or traditionally published, new or experienced. There's comedy, ghosts, crime, life writing - you name it. And it's ALL free.

Just to make life more interesting (if a bit hectic) for myself, I'm back from the Inverness Book Festival where I was doing a seminar on Digital Publishing with the amazing Lin Anderson and the equally amazing Sara Sheridan. We do an occasional triple act for the Society of Authors in Scotland advising people about the possibilities for eBook publishing and marketing and  we always seem to get a great response and good feedback from the audience. Truth to tell, Sara is so good on the marketing aspects that I always learn something from her whenever we do one of these sessions. And this time, Lin was wonderfully eloquent on the democratizing effects of eBooks and online publishing, comparing these changes to the early days of libraries, when there was a certain amount of angst about ordinary people having access to books - how on earth would they cope without the intellectuals to tell them how to think?

Next week, I'm doing another session on digital publishing - a panel at the Edinburgh Book Festival this time, with Maggie Craig, and Mark Buckland with Lin chairing it. It's all go in the Czerkawska household and as if that wasn't enough, I'm working on revisions of my Canary Isles trilogy, aiming to publish the first book, Orange Blossom Love, by the end of this month. We'll see.

Oh, and there is a piece of bigger news to come - but I'll be posting about that soon!
And before I forget - I have another little trio of short stories out on Kindle right now. Your Own Skipper. These are a bit dark though. You have been warned!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

EDINBURGH EBOOK FESTIVAL 2013


Here's a press release from writer and publisher Cally Phillips, who works incredibly hard to make this whole festival happen. I can't do better than let her tell you all about the festival herself - but please do visit and spread the word. I'm participating myself  - in fact I'm mid-list writer in residence at the ebook festival - and I'm also happy to be part of a discussion panel  on Being a Writer in the Digital Age at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year - that's what being a 'hybrid writer' means, I suppose. (Like the roses - hardier and more inclined to repeat flowering!) 

Everybody's doing it.
Now in its second year, the Edinburgh eBook festival is back from the Glorious 12th of August right through to Sunday night August 25th. This is a unique type of festival. Billed as ‘the festival that comes to you’ it’s available online any time of the day and night, with limitless audience capacity and everyone gets the best seat in the house. Dress code optional. And it’s FREE for all.

During the day a regular set of ‘events’ are posted up on the festival site. You access it via your ereader, smartphone, tablet, ipad or computer so that you can literally be in two places at one time. Wherever you are, as long as you have internet or wifi access, you can take part.

Our programme features individual slots at roughly hourly intervals throughout the day from the Short Story slot at 11am, right through to the ‘Conversations’ slot at 11pm. In between we will feature residencies, workshops, ebook launches, and sundry other ‘events.’ We even have the world’s first weathersheep ‘Derek’ who will be providing a ‘sheeping forecast’ each day at noon. Derek is this year’s internet phenomemon and his ‘Fifteen Grades of Hay’ trilogy is the talk of the cyber valleys.

Residencies include Catherine Czerkawska’s Mid-list, Cally Phillips’ Drama Retrospective and Chris Longmuir’s mammoth exploration of the Crime genre. For Sci-Fi buffs there’s David Wailing, as well as Travel with Jo Carroll, Horror with Mari Biella and Ghosts stories dissected with Dennis Hamley. Sue Price will inspire you regarding Functional Literacy and Ingrid Ricks will do similarly about advocacy. There’s a chance for you to participate too. Kathleen Jones will be running a Life Writing workshop and Bill Kirton a Comedy workshop.

There’s plenty more. Mr McStoryteller Brendan Gisby will host the Short Story slot and Roz Morris offers a new spin on Desert Island Discs with her ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ event while Jian Qiu Huang confirms the internationality of the festival with his ‘Conversations with the Universe.’

There are slots on ‘Market Choices’ where writers and publishers reveal ways they have approached publicity and sales and there’s launches of ebooks as well as talk about the relationship between narrator, author and reader. Our festival theme is Beyond the Margins and we hope to explore this concept in a way which will be thought provoking ,fun and open doors and minds as to the possibilities of digital publishing.

The festival opens with a look at Stuart Ayris’ unique, inspired and inspiring ‘Frugality’ Trilogy and closes with Peter Tarnofsky’s latest short story collection ‘Everything Turns Out Just Fine.’

And if that’s not enough, there will also be a FREE Goody Bag available throughout the festival.

Last year we welcomed over 9,000 visitors through our virtual doors. With over 150 separate ‘events’ and featuring oodles of writers – some you know and some you’ll want to get to know – we hope that there will be something for just about everyone. We hope to show you that the digital revolution is alive and well and that Beyond the Margins there’s a whole new world just waiting for you to read and read about.

Daily previews begin on 1st August with some background information about the main participants and events, giving you the chance to ease your way into the technology. But really, if you already know how to use an ereader, tablet, smartphone or pc it’s simple. Just go to www.edebookfest.co.uk and the events will come to you. You can catch up on events you’ve missed with a click or two to the appropriate category. Remember, it’s all free and everyone is welcome.

The festival has a facebook page where you can post your comments and you can follow on Twitter @edebookfest or have your say at #edebookfest.

There’s really no excuse not to visit this exciting new festival now, is there?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Can we all grow up now, please?

Can we all grow up now, please?
I don't know when I first became aware of the treacherous nature of the word 'nurture'. Well, treacherous when applied to writers. But it can't have been all that long ago. I think it may have been in one of the many well -informed comments on the Passive Voice blog. Somebody wrote 'Nurturing is for babies.'
I read it and saw the light.

Last week a few things happened which made me think about it all over again. The word cropped up in an interview with a very big publishing name. She was still talking about 'nurturing' as one of the desirable functions of a publishing house or a literary agency. She could have used words like facilitate, assist, or partner. But she didn't. She used the word 'nurture' with all its implications of cherishing an infant or other helpless being.

At the same time, a few colleagues reported a number of professional exchanges which had been a little less than businesslike, which had involved rather patronizing put-downs. We've all had them. They range from the vitriolic to the thoughtlessly rude: the slapped wrist, the long silence after the carefully framed professional enquiry, the manuscript returned with a curt letter and coffee stains, three years later, by which time it has already been published elsewhere, the endless hedging of bets. This is the unfortunate downside of nurturing. If you allow your publisher and agent to cast themselves in a parental, rather than a professional or client role, they will feel justified in imposing a little tough love from time to time - all for the infant's own good, of course. And they will be outraged, absolutely outraged, when that same infant, aka business partner or supplier elects to stop behaving like a humble supplicant, becomes grown up and businesslike and expects the kind of basic (not fulsome) courtesy which would normally be extended in every other area of life.

But this has implications for us as writers, too. We have to stop being so needy. We have to take responsibility for ourselves and our careers. We have to recognize that there are things we can and can't do all by ourselves - and that this will vary depending upon our level of experience and expertise, just as it does in every other profession. We should be prepared to buy in the help we need without giving away control of our product for a handful or even a hill of beans. If we are contracted to do work, we have to meet deadlines in a professional manner. And we have to maintain a certain level of courtesy at all times even in the face of intense provocation.

In exchange for that, we should demand respect. For the work itself and from those with whom we hope to work in partnership. You notice I'm not saying that we all have to go it alone all the time. We have to find out what suits us, what is the best way of making and then distributing our product - for us. For some people it will involve the pursuit of the traditional publishing deal. For others, it will involve writing for pleasure and disseminating for free. Or writing experimentally, pushing the boundaries without thinking commercially at all. For some it will involve a thoroughly businesslike analysis of the market, a five year self publishing plan and a series of useful partnerships. For others yet again, it will involve a hybrid model. But even this isn't fixed. I have friends who are working happily with three or four different traditional publishers without being tied in to any of them. Others who - like myself - are working on a mixture of traditional and self publishing. People who might like to write both experimental and genre fiction or something in between. There is no single right way. We have to work out what best suits us - sometimes by a process of trial and error.

What we can no longer hope to do, however, (unless we have the luxury of a private income) is to sit in our book lined studies and dabble in a little light writing while somebody pays us handsomely for a slim volume every few years while shaping our careers and generally treating us like a special snowflake who might melt away under the glare of professionalism. If they ever did. Which I very much doubt. I reckon it was always a myth. One of those publishing carrots that justified the occasional stick around the ears.

Time to grow up, folks.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ice Dancing


My novel Ice Dancing is FREE from today, 11th July, until Saturday 13th. You'll find it on Amazon Kindle, here in the UK and here in the US.  

I love the two main characters I created in this novel almost as much, I think, as they love each other!  Of everything I've written, I find myself going back to it from time to time, just because I can't quite bear to let Joe or Helen go. I already have a sequel planned, but it will probably be next year before I can write it. But I do want to spend just a little more time in their company. And like all writers, I want to know 'what happens next'  for them. Sometimes a story is complete. Sometimes there's more to be told and I think, for Joe and Helen in Ice Dancing, there is a bit more to be told. I keep 'seeing' them here and there. I could swear I saw Helen at a village dance last year, an attractive but unobtrusive woman of around forty with a very sweet smile. I followed Joe around Morrison's supermarket one day, intrigued to to find that when somebody is mildly scruffy but tall and athletic and that good looking they do indeed stand out from everyone around them, even in a crowded store! And 'what happens next' keeps nipping at me, even while I'm working on other things. Because I know what happens next and it probably isn't what you might think. 

All the same,  I'd be the first to admit that Ice Dancing is a book full of slightly unusual themes and settings. I'm not surprised it was a book that my agent told me she liked very much (she likened it to The Bridges of Madison County and I was flattered but I can understand why) but thought she would find it very hard to sell to a big traditional publisher. I think she thought it was a niche novel and maybe it is. But so far, all kinds of people have told me that they have enjoyed it and been very moved by it.

It's a novel about village life: supportive, strong and loving, but also stifling and small minded because people are connected and interlinked in ways incomers don't usually grasp for some years. It's a novel about the way in which small communities are so finely balanced that even a small change can create a major upheaval. 

It's also - of course - a sexy, unconventional and very grown up story about the lightning strike of love at first sight: ‘He came gliding into my life,' says Helen, 'And changed everything. He didn't intend for it to happen any more than I did. I think it took us both by surprise. Like a bolt of lightning. Like a puck to the head, as Joe would say.’ 

It's a novel about ice hockey. But you don't have to know anything about hockey to enjoy it. Helen knows nothing about it when she first meets Joe! She's a Scottish farmer’s wife, approaching forty, living in a rural backwater, with her only child about to fly the nest. She has almost resigned herself to the downward slide into mildly discontented middle age. But when she meets and falls in love with Joe, a Canadian ice hockey player spending a season with a local team, she realises that nothing will ever be the same for either of them again.

Hilary Ely, reviewing this novel for Vulpes Libris, writes, 'The narrative brilliantly describes the physical imperative they have to be together – not just the snatched times alone, but the magnetic pull they have towards one another when other people are around, their almost uncontrollable urge to touch one another and the risks that brings.'

Finally, this is also a novel about a shockingly dark side of an upbeat sporting world, for although Joe skates like an angel, he has his own demons to cope with, a sadder, more complicated and much more shocking past than Helen could ever imagine. 

If you're reading this on 11th, 12th or 13th July - why not give it a try?

Friday, July 05, 2013

List Making for Beginners: How To Organize Your Writing Life

I'm taking a little break this week from my Canary Isles Odyssey, mainly because I'm so obsessed with my Canary Isles novel, Orange Blossom Love, that I can't find creative space for very much else. Instead, I'm going to be writing about another obsession: lists. A recent excellent blog post by Laura Resnick all about the writing process and how we work as individuals (I can recommend it, especially if you've ever found yourself not so much 'blocked' as 'stuck') mentioned her liking for lists and I immediately thought 'that's me, too!'

I'm a compulsive list maker. A few years ago, I had a conversation with my lovely laid back sister-in-law, in which she mentioned, quite casually, that she 'never ever made lists.' It was my own response to this that fascinated me. I imagined doing without lists and instantly felt queasy. Then I felt a spasm of envy. Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, to be free from the tyranny of the list?  So I tried. I really did. I went cold turkey, tore up my lists. (Sneakily left them on my PC though, just in case.) I lasted about five days. Then panic set in. Just one little list, I thought. But you know how it is? One thing led to another and soon I was hooked, back in full list making mode again.

I sometimes go away for a few days and deliberately leave my lists behind. It's very liberating and I enjoy the break but I can only do it for so long and in specific places. My beloved Isle of Gigha is a pretty good place for doing without lists, a place where maƱana is a concept with altogether too much urgency about it. But once I get home, I'm back on them again.

Gigha: a good place for doing without lists.
On the other hand, list making may be a virtue rather than a vice. I'm so reliant on mine that I'm phased by people who - in a professional situation - seem to forget to do the urgent things while concentrating on the unimportant. Don't they ever make lists? Don't they know about organizing and prioritizing? Well, perhaps not. So in case you're a list making novice, and especially if you're a writer and a list making novice, let me give you a few tips from the depths (and believe me they are very deep) of my own experience.

One of our big problems as writers is that we often have an embarrassment of ideas, but don't know which to choose. Or we have said 'yes' to too many proposals and don't know which to work on first. Or we simply have too much to do and find ourselves trying to do everything at once, in a panic. We need to prioritize and the easiest way to do that is by means of a list. Or several lists. Ongoing, organic lists where nothing is fixed. And the easiest way to manage this is on your PC, because you can shift things around. Although I'm a compulsive printer-outer as well. I like to see my lists on paper! You should take a conscious decision to divide your lists into at least two kinds: work and life. If you try to amalgamate the two it will all go pear shaped. Writers love displacement activity and including 'mow the lawn' or (in my case, at the moment) 'sort out the flower pot mountain at the bottom of the garden' on the work list is inadvisable. Work lists are just that - professional projects which involve your business. And if nothing else, the list habit might encourage us all to be more businesslike.

First and foremost, I have a Mega List of planned projects. This includes all kinds of proposals and ideas, everything I may or may not be working on over the next few years, everything from the novel I'm working on right now to the tenuous ideas that intrigue me but may come to nothing. This is a long but fairly uncomplicated list, by the way. I keep detailed notes for each project, not just on the computer but in folders too. I'm paranoid that way. At the moment, my Mega List consists of brief descriptions of fiction, long and short, with one or two non-fiction projects. If I've promised an article to somebody, it might be on there too, but not blog posts like this one. They belong on a different list altogether. I revise the Mega List often and I use it mainly to prioritize but also to sort out my own thoughts about the work. The projects at the top of the list are what I'm working on right now. And they are important to me. The projects at the bottom of the list are interesting but non urgent. I may never work on them, and some of them will almost certainly fall right off the end but that's fine. If I grow bored with an idea, I shouldn't be working on it anyway. Also, outside factors will influence this list. If I find that I have a potential project which is pretty high on my list, and has suddenly become flavour of the year for reasons beyond my control, I can push it up the list. If I'm reluctant to do it, then that tells me something about my own commitment, so I'll think again. I will often add projected dates, but I do try to be realistic. And often - especially at the top of the list - there will be projects which I know will run in parallel with each other so this list will allow me to allocate time to each and to see where I'm overstretching myself. Most of all, this list allows me to focus, set some things aside but remember them and think about them from time to time. And sometimes, for no particular reason other than my own preoccupations, a project will leap over everything else and find itself at the top of the list.

Next is my Things to Do This Week list. 'This week' is a little ambitious, I'll admit. 'This month' would be a better title. This is also a work list, and again the trick is to be realistic in what you can achieve. (I give myself some very good advice but I don't always follow it!) And once more, you need to prioritize. At the top of mine, right now, is 'Short story proofs to be read and sent back' as well as 'Orange Blossom Love, onscreen revisions.' Everything else, including 'For God's sake do your tax returns' can be shuffled down the list a bit, because my accountant has gone on holiday for a few weeks. But he'll be back by the 21st July, so 'You have really GOT to do your tax returns' will probably be top of the list by the end of next week, and I'll bite the bullet and do them.

Finally, for work, I have a Today list and that really is all the things I need to do today in order of priority, including meetings, phonecalls etc. I sometimes allow other things to intrude on this list, but only if they're genuinely urgent and even then I always try to prioritize the work above the household tasks.

Because I sometimes sell antique textiles on eBay to help the budget along, I have an occasional 'Listings list' but the more I self publish, the less I trade on eBay and this is a fairly simple affair. Come October, though, when people turn to eBay for their linen tablecloths for the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday seasons, as well as quirky gift items, it might grow longer and more complicated.

Besides these, I have a House list and a Garden list and a Shopping list. (I told you, I'm compulsive) The House list involves all the biggish jobs that need doing. This changes - sometimes it's in order of urgency and sometimes, like now, when I'm having a bit of a clear-out, it lists jobs from room to room. It's a very static list! The Garden list is always in order of priority. And yes, sorting out the pot mountain at the bottom of the garden is definitely top of that list. So is the weeding. But even with the weeds it's quite a pretty garden, so the garden list can run and run and run, like the bindweed.

The garden manages quite well on its own!

Recently, I introduced another list. Ever since I started self publishing, I've been uneasily aware that I should be wearing two hats: my publishing hat and my writing hat. My Mega List is a writing list. But this second big list is a sort of Promotion and Publicity list and at the moment, it's in the form of a dialogue with myself. What exactly do I write? What do I want out of the business? What do I want to work on right now? Can I market everything at once? (NO) What's the solution? This has turned out to be the most useful list of all. I don't know where the answers to those questions are coming from, but they have helped me to organize the publishing and promotion side of my business, balancing it with the need to spend the majority of my time on the writing. And it has influenced my Mega List in all kinds of unforeseen but useful ways.

Now it may sound as though I spend all my time writing lists, but I don't. Honestly! Once you've set this up, it only takes a few minutes each day (or the night before) to adjust the To Do Today list, while the Mega List and the Promotion List are only revised once a week - if that. Once a month would probably be enough.

The benefits are considerable - but only if you like lists! You don't forget urgent things. You consciously send non-urgent things to the bottom of the list and stop pretending you have to do them now and using them as displacement activity. You can clarify things in your own mind and get on with what you need to do first. Best of all, you can tick things off!

I do have a small confession to make. I have been known to write things on the list after I've done them, just so that I can have the satisfaction of marking them as done. But I suspect I'm not alone.

So go on, are you a list maker or not? If you are, what's your system? I'd love to know. Why not post a few of your own ideas below!











Saturday, June 29, 2013

Canary Island Winters - Part Six: More Animals

Muriel's home
Many boats lying at anchor in Los Cristianos bay had resident dogs and cats - quite a sensible precaution when there are rats about. One small yacht managed to accommodate a massive Newfoundland dog which came into its own whenever his owners went ashore. Unbidden, the dog would leap into the water, grasp the painter firmly in its mouth and tow them ashore in their inflatable dinghy, waiting patiently at the harbour until they came back from their shopping trip, whereupon he would repeat the process in reverse. He seemed to enjoy the whole thing enormously although the smell of big wet dog aboard a small boat must have been overpowering. 

Then there was Muriel. I loved Muriel. She lived on an old trawler which lay at anchor in the bay for months on end - a small black and white mongrel dog. The trawler also had a resident black cat. Every time her owner went ashore, Muriel would sit on the deck, raise her muzzle to the skies and howl in uttermost despair until he came back again. The cat, meanwhile, would walk along the guard rail, peer scornfully down at her distraught companion, and then stalk off to stretch out in the sun. You could almost hear her saying, 'What on earth are you making all that fuss about?'

I actually immortalized Muriel in a piece of writing called Diary of a Seadog. I changed her into a 'he' and made her owner a bit younger, and invented a whole story about their voyage to the Canaries. My dad, who was an extremely good artist on the side, as well as a scientist, did some lovely, quirky pen and watercolour illustrations for me.

My agent - as with so much else that has become inexplicably popular since then - didn't think she could sell it. But I still have it. And I have the illustrations. And if you can bear to wait a little while, sooner or later, it will turn up in eBook form.

Doggi
Finally, there was Doggi. Doggi was local. He was a stray - there are plenty of strays on these islands, dogs which scavenge for food and sleep on the beaches. But Doggi had been injured at some point down the harbour at Santa Cruz where he lived, and for a little while he wandered about in great distress. Alan had seen him on a previous flying visit and been horrified by his condition, but had lost sight of him and hadn't been able to do anything for him.

By the time we went back, things were definitely looking up for Doggi. He had more or less been adopted by the harbour. When boats left, they would pass him on to other people. Somebody must have paid for a vet to treat him because he was fit and well again, he had an oil drum kennel with his name painted on the side and he looked well fed and very happy with his life!

Doggi's house

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Canary Island Winters - Part Five: Harbour Life

Spinning Jenny of Lune

When you're lying at anchor in a busy harbour for any length of time, you make friends with a great many people and a regular sense of community begins to grow. Los Cristianos was no exception. We met all kinds of interesting people during that winter in the Canaries, from those who were on their way around the world in impossibly small craft to early retirees who had decided to fulfill the dreams of a lifetime by wintering aboard their boats in the sun.

All these years later, there are people we still remember and talk about. Bob and Mary Mason had a beautiful yacht called Spinning Jenny of Lune. She was built of concrete (yes - it is possible!) with a pretty little tender called Mule - naturally. Bob had retired early from his own business, built a boat and with Mary had headed south. We were rafted up alongside them for quite a while, for companionship and security and we got to know them very well and like them very much. In fact we still count them as friends.

Beautiful Mule
We were all afraid of cockroaches and with good reason. Once you get cockroaches aboard a yacht, they're very difficult indeed to get rid of and there are plenty of them in the Canaries: big, brown cockroaches. I hated them with a passion. On one memorable occasion, Alan took a party of charterers ashore at the big port of Santa Cruz. landing them at the fish quay, which was the most convenient place for putting them ashore at the time. They were very smart people and they had dressed up for a night out on the town, the women in lovely strappy sandals. As they walked across the hard standing, one of the women remarked that the gravel underfoot was quite uncomfortable to walk on. 'I didn't like to tell her,' said Alan afterwards, 'that the crunching underfoot wasn't gravel at all. There was no gravel. It was a carpet of cockroaches.'

One day, Bob and Mary decided that it would make sense to buy a whole stalk of bananas to last them some time, so we went ashore with them, drove to a plantation, wrestled an enormously heavy and cumbersome stalk of semi-ripe bananas aboard the dinghy and ferried it back to Spinning Jenny. It weighed a ton and took four of us to haul it on board. Then, a day or two later, somebody told Bob and Mary that the banana plantations were infested with cockroaches and that they laid their eggs among the bananas. Thoroughly alarmed, they decided that they would have to wash all their bananas. If you wash them, they ripen in double quick time. For some weeks, whenever we visited Spinning Jenny, we weren't allowed to leave without eating one or two bananas. Mary discovered new and exciting ways of cooking them: bananas fried in rum and brown sugar were a particular favourite. Although after a while, even those began to pall a bit.

Bob and Mary and a whole lot of bananas

Then, there was handsome Mirek who owned a classy sandwich bar (back when such things were new and exciting) in central Glasgow and one of the classiest yachts in the harbour to go with it - a sleek and elegant Amel, made in France with everything about it just perfect. I must confess I'm a bit of a fair weather sailor, but even I could see that it was something really special. Mirek was a lovely guy but terrified of rats and cockroaches invading his beautiful boat. With good reason.

Rats are as ubiquitous as cockroaches, especially in the bigger harbours. Sometimes you would see them peering out at you from holes in the wooden piles as you sailed in. Alan would cut plastic water or lemonade bottles in half, crossways, and slide them along the mooring ropes so that the rats couldn't scurry along them once you were tied up. One day, Mirek returned to his gorgeous Amel to find little ratty footprints crossing his pristine pillowcases. He turned the whole boat upside down looking for it, but it had been a temporary visitor and he never saw or heard it again. It didn't help his stress levels though. For some nights he would lie awake, listening for sinister rustling. 

We met another couple, a property developer and his wife. She had answered his (perfectly genuine) advert for a cook, fallen in love with her boss and married him. They had a beautiful yacht, much bigger even than Simba, bigger than your average house. One day, he remarked to Alan that he was considering buying some property in Tenerife. Alan thought he meant an apartment, but it turned out that he meant a whole village. They were, however, as sociable as all harbour dwellers at that time and in that place. They had a new baby and an elderly parrot, who would walk about the saloon and every so often, tweak up the skirts of women visitors to peer underneath. The bird always seemed faintly irritated by what he found there. Not quite sure what he was looking for, but much later on, I put him in a novel! (The Physic Garden)

During that winter, we had many evenings where everyone would gather on one boat and contribute a course and a bottle of wine to what was generally a very hilarious meal. We still have happy memories of rowing across Los Cristianos Bay in a dinghy, well, Alan would be rowing (since we were aware that we were going to be drinking rather a lot of alcohol, we wouldn't take the outboard) and I would be clutching a large and wobbly trifle or something similar. Returning to Simba was even more of an adventure since Canary nights are warm but very dark, Alan would, of course, be rowing backwards and I would be peering into the gloom, trying to find our anchor lights in the distance.

Running Bear


We would invariably sing as we rowed. It was always Running Bear. With its 'Oompa Ugga' chorus. I still can't hear it now without smiling. 






















Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Tale of Two Canary Island Winters - Part Four: Charterers

Charterers who are still friends.
A yacht, however roomy, demands a certain amount of tolerance from people who are flung together in such a small space. It says a lot for the essential good nature of sailors that most of the people who chartered Simba were pleasant and interesting. The quartet of people on the left (that's me in the very middle with the gigantic sunglasses) became - and remained - friends, especially the couple on the right, Frank and Anne Mapes of Millport. If you've ever had the good fortune to visit the lovely little isle of Cumbrae, off the west coast of Scotland, and cycle round it, there's a fair chance that you'll have hired your bike from 'Mapes of Millport' - a wonderful cycle hire and old fashioned toy shop in the middle of the town. The couple on the left (with Barbara's head obscured by the boom) are their friends, potter Barbara Davidson and her husband Brian, of Larbert pottery fame.

They spent a fortnight aboard Simba and we divided the time between sightseeing on Tenerife, and sailing to La Palma and La Gomera. Sometimes they would eat out - often inviting us to join them - sometimes we would cater for them aboard the boat - with quite a lot of the cooking done by yours truly, a fact which still amazes me in retrospect. Of late, I've tended to subscribe to the Deborah Meaden school of catering. She once said on the television programme, Dragons Den, and much to the amazed disbelief of the other dragons, that she 'didn't cook.' And I thought, yes, I could live with that. But back then, I was young and energetic and didn't much mind catering. Or not in the Canaries with its abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables and wonderful seafood, anyway!

San Sebastian, La Gomera. The governor's tower, where Beatriz de Bobadilla lived, on the right. 
Two incidents helped to cement our friendship. The two couples had paid for a skippered, catered charter which meant that we were to sail wherever they wanted to go within reason and on the advice of the skipper who always has the last word, for reasons of safety. But a day or two before they arrived, we realized to our horror that the boat's account, which was meant to be topped up by the company in Scotland, hadn't received any money for a long time. Frantic phone calls ensued and money was promised. It didn't come. The reasons why were too complicated to go into here but it's always a hazard for yacht skippers working a long way from the parent company. The fact remained that we had four people arriving for a two week holiday, and we had nothing but the boat and - given that Alan wasn't exactly handsomely paid and I wasn't paid at all - a tiny amount of our own cash in the bank.

Panic.

Alan did the only thing possible, took Frank to one side, and explained the situation. To his eternal credit, Frank reassured us that it wasn't our fault, financed the whole thing, and said, 'Don't worry about it. I'll make sure I get my money when I get back to Scotland. And believe me, I'll make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen to you again.' He was as good as his word.

The second incident involved our first proper visit to the beautiful island of La Gomera, although Alan had sailed there before to top up with their excellent water. High on the hill above San Sebastian, the port and main town of La Gomera, you can just make out that there is a large statue standing on a hill. Alan's boss back in Scotland, who had spent a little time in the Canaries, assured us that this was a statue of Christopher Columbus, pointing west. Now Columbus did visit La Gomera, and is even reputed to have had an affair with the wife of the governor, the Princess Beatriz de Bobadilla, of savage repute, before heading off to the Americas. So it seemed perfectly feasible that a statue would have been erected to him.

Alarming cactuses and starry tabaiba bushes.

Feeling energetic one day, we and our four charterers decided that we would hike up the hill to pay our respects to Columbus. It was a longish climb up a steep hill. We managed to find our way out of town and passed by small houses, asking various people who were sitting outside in the sun, watching the world - and the visitors - go by, if this was the right way to the statue of Cristobal Colon. This is, of course, the Spanish name for Columbus and we were quite pleased with ourselves for knowing it.

Now the inhabitants of La Gomera are deeply, instinctively polite and kindly. So they all smiled at us, and nodded vigorously. Although we were aware of a certain puzzlement, nevertheless. You know what it's like when you think somebody's a bit odd, but don't really want them to know you think so, because it would seem rude? Well, that. We soon left the houses behind and hauled ourselves up the hill, past prickly pears and monumental cactuses and starry tabaiba bushes, closer and closer to the big statue, looking west.

Except that it wasn't Christopher Columbus at all. It was Jesus Christ, with a crown of light bulbs for stars, blessing the harbour. Some of his fingers had been damaged, which made it look - from a distance - as though he might well be pointing west. Not only had Alan's boss been just a little remiss in the matter of payments into the boat's account - he had also told a few porky pies about climbing to the top of this hill. We did the only thing possible, laughed a lot, sat in the sun for a while enjoying the stunning views, and then headed back to the boat for a few beers.


Not Columbus after all.