Where to begin

It’s been so long: let’s start with the celebration of my second wedding anniversary. As I write, Mr D and I are ensconced in a converted cinema on the Fife coast, overlooking the Firth of Forth. Through the floor to ceiling window an anthracite sea disappears into a bruised winter sky – below us, the curved beach upon which we ran this morning.

Inspired by our friends B heart-25and B, we’re spending our anniversary flexing our creative muscles in an artists’ studio, away from distractions for a few nights. Mr D sits to my left, hat pulled down over his ears, shoulders hunched in concentration, fingers transforming three years of research into the final write up of his PhD. I try to write but my feet are cold and my eyes return to the sea again and again and again.

This blog is by means of a gentle easing into my next project. The same principle as stretching my hamstrings before a run.

I have news though. On the writing front. Quite a bit as it happens.

The last time I wrote I had completed my manuscript and was preparing to set it free. It took a couple more months before I did so, to one publisher, Freight Books in Glasgow. Four years previously I had listened to Freight’s Adrian Searle talk about the future of books during a panel discussion, after which I had turned to Mr D and told him Adrian was the person I wanted to publish my first novel. No matter that I had neither a manuscript nor even the inkling of one at the time. I would. One day.

indexWhen I sent out my manuscript, I had a wish list of two publishers: Freight was first. I also had a plan. Contrary to advice, solicited or otherwise, I decided to play the long game. Send to Freight, if they said no, send to the second on the list. If both turned me down, then I would lengthen my list and take it from there.

What were the chances, I was asked, that the first publisher you send it to will want to publish it? Even the best authors are rejected many times, I was told, some have even published books of their rejection letters. You should send it to at least a few, I was advised, just in case, not that it isn’t good.

I smiled, took a deep breath and dispatched my manuscript to my first choice. And waited. Two months later, at the end of August, they made me an offer.

If, from this news, you’ve made the assumption that the process was simple, I apologise. It wasn’t, isn’t. I didn’t finish my manuscript in a flurry of brilliance, send it to my preferred publisher and wait to bask in the glory of a publishing deal. Instead, when I was happy that I’d written, proofed and edited as well as I could, I sent it to half a dozen people to look at for comments on cadence, repetition, narrative flow and readability. Half were friends whose opinion I trusted, the other half acquaintances. Next I sent it to two people to edit: a friend whose editing skills I trust (and who isn’t afraid to be critical when necessary) and another much newer friend with relevant editorial experience and little knowledge of me or my story (remember the book is a memoir).

Armed with the collective feedback, I had a good idea of what worked and what needed tweaking. And yet, there was still something niggling me. Every person I’d shown it to knew either me or my story to varying degrees. I needed someone unconnected to me, with no prior knowledge of my story, to give me their unbiased opinion. I found them through a friend of a friend. Only after I received their assessment which, as it turned out, was similar to that of the others, could I conceive of sending the manuscript to Freight.

angela-writingDuring the manuscript ping-pong, I used the time to research my choice of publisher. I’d already read some of their authors but I read others, ones I might not have come to naturally. I noted the style of writing, choked down the panic that rose in my throat at the brilliance of some of the use of language, and read interviews to try and get a feel for the relationship between author and publisher. Through published articles about Freight, I developed an understanding of its ethos and vision.

By the time I sent my manuscript out, I was as prepared as I could be. Despite that, when Freight responded I was stunned and delighted. I still am.

And that’s not all. Mr D and I have also been dabbling in spoken word, as those of you who’ve read my blog will know. We developed a twenty minute performance based on extracts from my manuscript, chosen to reveal my state of mind on different days during my wait for a new heart. Mr D intercut these with guitar music to reflect the tone of the writing. We added an original song, an exchange of dialogue and poetry. The piece began and ended in the same way, with the line ‘the heart that beats within me is not the one I was born with’, spoken over a guitar riff that was passed through a looping pedal and slowed to replicate a heartbeat (the technical stuff is all Mr D).

Inspired by the positive feedback we received after our performances, I applied to the Starter for Ten project at the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) – funding and support to develop new theatre. I knew it was a long shot. I wasn’t chosen but I was told my idea had scored very highly and I was invited to NTS to speak to them.

Last week, Mr D and I visited NTS to discuss my idea and were overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and offers of help to realise the project. We now have further meetings with people in the theatre industry to look forward to.

Along the same vein, I also sent my idea to the Tom McGrath Trust Maverick Award. Again, it was a shot in the dark. Again I didn’t win. Again I received an email to let me know I’d been shortlisted, that they liked my idea and offering support.

gin-and-tonicWhere things go from here, who knows. I loved doing the spoken word (or rather I loved it after each performance had ended and I was drinking a large gin and tonic) but my first love is writing and my next novel has been brewing inside me for far too long.

Time to get writing again. Time to hit those keys and type the first letters on a blank screen. Time to begin. Gin and tonic anyone?

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A bird in the hand

In my hand (well, trapped between the keys of my computer) is the equivalent of a new-born spring chick – the completed manuscript of my first book. Key words to note: completed and manuscript. After a gestation period longer than that of an elephant, my book made its first appearance mid March. Since then, I’ve fed and watered it, burped it, changed its nappy and passed it around a few people for admiration, validation and reassurance at my ability to be a responsible parent.

Over the last couple of months we’ve grown together, my book and I, and I’m now faced with the terrible realisation that I need to send it out there, into the world, to find out if it can make it on its own.

spring chickOkay, that’s more metaphor than enough for one blog post. The reality is this: I’ve written a memoir based on the sixteen days I spent on the urgent transplant list, waiting for a new heart. Sounds morbid? It’s anything but. I won’t lie, there are dark days but throughout, the narrative sparkles with joy and laughter. Above all it’s a love story, not only mine with Mr D but also the one with my friends and family. For sixteen days I waited, on the brink of death, for someone else to die. Difficult both physically and emotionally. I didn’t wait alone. On Christmas Day, my donor and their family gave me a gift more precious than any other. My own friends and family made sure I was (and still am) able to receive and make the most of it.

book birdBut I digress. This post isn’t about the content of the book, it’s about how to set it free. How and when do I release my Caxton bird-in-the-hand skywards in the hope that it can fly?

To get to this stage, the first edit was easy – read-through and correct all the obvious spelling and grammar mistakes. Next, kill, or at least mutilate, all my darlings (at least most of them – the ones I missed were culled by a couple of ruthless editor friends). Follow this with reading for continuity, flow and cadence. And then the hard part.

Close reading and editing. Sentence by sentence, word by word, until my eyes crossed and watered. This stage, in my experience, is the trickiest. Get too up-close-and-personal with the narrative and you run the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture: maybe it’s okay to use that verb again, perhaps there is no better word than this one. It’s difficult but worth it. Which leaves me with the shiniest and most robust version of my manuscript.

champagne uncorkedLike every anxious parent (I’m wringing the last droplets from this metaphor), I’ve equipped my fledgling with all the survival skills at my disposal, what happens next is out of my control. It’s time to leave the nest. To fly.

If I succeed in publication I’ll celebrate, likewise if I don’t. A manuscript, complete, is an achievement in itself and should be celebrated. As the saying goes (I think), I’ve come a long way to get this far: time to pop the bubbly!

Now, what to do with the empty nest.

Immortal Memory

Still on the theme of literary firsts, I had been invited to give the Immortal Memory at a Burns’ Supper, organised by F, a friend of mine, to raise money for the Fife branch of the Scottish Green Party. To be honest, although I’ve been to a couple of Burns’ Night celebrations, I wasn’t really sure what the Immortal Memory involved so, in my naivety and because it was for a friend, I agreed. After which, and the key point here is in the word after, I decided perhaps a bit of research would be helpful. So I googled, panicked, asked a few friends and began to hyperventilate. A lot. For quite some time.

indexWords such as big responsibility, key-note address, significant, well-researched, lengthy, humorous, were used. I decided to lie down in a darkened room. For quite some time. And then I remembered one other phrase that cropped up: personal tribute. That, I thought, I can do.

I am, by birth, a Yorkshire lass – born in Barnsley but uprooted at an early stage to the Scottish Highlands, where I was schooled before being let loose on the world at large. Yet, even in my earlier years, I was aware of Scotland’s national bard. My grandfather was a Scot from rural Perthshire on whose bookcase, in the corner of his living room, several books of Burns’ poetry rubbed spines with, amongst others, Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, In Place of Fear by Aneurin Bevan and Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Often, before dinner (or tea, as it was in those days) he would recite The Selkirk Grace – or ‘the poem about having meat, grandad’. On other days, for no fathomable reason, he would stand me and my brother and sister up and stack us, oldest to youngest, behind him, whereupon he would march us around the house singing Scots Wha Hae.

Through school, in Yorkshire and Scotland, and university, in Scotland and America, I studied and grew to love and appreciate many of Burns’ poems and ballads. That he wrote more than 550 in his short lifetime, leaves me breathless with awe: as well as the wide range of themes he covered. With so much to choose from, I am sure that anyone willing to delve into his collected works, would find something to suit their tastes and sensibilities.

As for the language; my first experience of reading, as opposed to hearing, Burns was in primary school in Doncaster, where we studied To A Mouse. Did I understand the language? Not a bit but oh how I loved the way the words felt in my mouth, how they rolled off my tongue: sleekit, cowrin, bickering brattle, sleety dribble, cranreuch cald. I may not have understood each word, I didn’t need to, I could feel them. With his description I shrugged off my own skin and slipped inside that of the mouse; felt its heart beat, fast and furious. And isn’t that the genius of any writer, to be able to lure their reader deep into the depths of the story, of the character, to make us believe, to care.

Tam o ShanterFor those of you who love Burns, I’m sure you have a favourite. I have two (because, as we’ve established before, I’m not so good with the definition of the term favourite) – the first is Tam o’ Shanter. In my second year of university, I spent a semester in America and this was one of two Burns poems we studied, the other being To A Louse. Reminiscent of my primary school encounter with Burns, I struggled to get a grip of the language with the rest of my classmates but loved the imagery: ‘Nursing her wrath to keep it warm’; ‘But pleasures are like poppies spread, / You seize the flower, its bloom is shed’; ‘There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast; / A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,’. The rhyme and metre, the change of pace, the tension:

Tam tint his reason ‘ thegither,
And roars out, “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”
And in an instant all was dark:
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.

                                    From Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns

F pipingThe real appreciation of the poem came much later, performed by F at another Burns’ Night celebration. That’s when I really understood the brilliance of the language. The poem came alive in the telling, not least because F, who comes from the same part of Scotland as Burns, really inhabits each and every line. He was brought up on the bard – his father performed at many a Burns’ Supper, as did his grandfather. By a quirk of fate, his father also died on Burns’ Night, which seems somehow appropriate.

The other favourite of mine is A Man’s a Man for a’ That. It reminds me again of my grandad; of his socialist ideals. It reminds me of the sort of world in which I’d like to live, where riches come not from material possessions but from friends and family, from a sense of community. A more equal world where we all watch out for each other, where we care of for those less fortunate and for our environment. Idealistic, maybe, but isn’t it a world worth hoping for? A world worth working towards?

What though on hamely fare we dine,

Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;

Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;

A Man’s a Man for a’ that:

For a’ that, and a’ that,

Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;

The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,

Is king o’ men for a’ that.

                                         From A Man’s A Man for a’ That by Robert Burns

When my grandad died a few years ago, the family asked that A Man’s A Man be played at his cremation. ‘Reet you are,’ said the Barnsley undertaker, ‘who’s it by?’ On being told, he agreed to sort it out. A couple of days later, my uncle visited the funeral parlour to check on arrangements:

‘There’s been a bit of a problem,’ said the undertaker.

‘Oh right, what’s wrong?’ asked my uncle.

‘We couldn’t findt Robert Burns version oft song you asked fo so we got this un by Ewan McColl instead. Will that do?’

‘Yes,’ said my uncle with a wry smile, ‘that’ll be great.’

IMG_1321At Saturday’s celebration, F performed Tam o’ Shanter, Mr D played and sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That and I gave the Immortal Memory.

We ate haggis, drank whisky and had fun. It was, I think, a fitting tribute to our National Bard and a good way to remember two other Scotsmen no longer with us.

Iconic Influence

Over a quarter of a century ago, I stood towards the back of a crowded, but not especially large, venue in Edinburgh. On the stage at the far end there were the usual microphones, drum kit and guitar stands; the skeleton of a performance waiting for the musicians to flesh it out and bring it to life. Nothing special; just an ordinary back-line. The man who took the stage was anything but. The one and only time I saw David Bowie perform.

david-bowie

It was the Sound+Vision Tour and I was 23 and working in local radio. In a syndicated interview earlier that day, Bowie had described the tour as a farewell (it wasn’t but it electrified his performance). The songs he would be playing weren’t his choice – he’d asked his fans to vote on which should be included. If he had to choose though, what would it be? He would, he said, like to go out on Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide: that would be a fitting end.

The night I saw him, he ended on Heroes. The people’s choice.

As a man, I knew little about him: his private life was off limits, particularly in later years, and I admired him all the more for it. As a musician, writer and performer, I was in awe of his talent. His creativity was boundless. An eclectic chameleon of the arts. For me he not only made it ok to be different but positively revelled in it. We all wear masks, adopt different identities and change our behaviour in response to any given situation. Bowie made it into an art form.

I didn’t love everything he did but I loved that he did it. And how. Growing up, what I learnt from David Bowie (and other such influential icons) was this: everything is possible, it’s all up for grabs. Be weird, unusual, geeky, different, wild, ridiculous, funny, happy, crazy, belligerent … or not.

Grab it. Life. With both hands. Wring every drop of experience from it. Every. Drop.

To David Bowie: thank you for blowing my mind.

In with the new

I don’t know about you but a New Year excites and scares me in equal measure. Much like that blank page, at once seductive and accusatory: come on, you can do it, write on me, just one word, one little word. If you DARE! A new year is all the things I’d like to do. All those opportunities I’m going to grasp with both hands – if only I had the cojones. All those what ifs to explore and act upon before they fade into regrets at the year’s end.

Not this year.

This year I’m going to breathe deep, pull my shoulders back and gather my cojones while I may (sorry Robert Herrick), particularly with regard to my writing.

am writing honestIt’s going to be a year of writing firsts. Starting with my memoir: by the end of this month, the first draft will be finished – there I’ve said it. And then, dig deep for this breath, I’m going to write a synopsis, edit and send it out. Yep, to actual publishers. Will they like it? Enough to publish it? That I don’t know but I do know it’s taken me over a year to write and it’s time to move on. Not just from the memoir but from the heart transplant. It was a seismic event that shook the ground beneath not just my feet but that of Mr D, my family and friends. A nine on the Richter scale. But we remained standing; all of us. The aftershocks are less frequent now and we’ve repaired and rebuilt enough road to be able to continue our journey. It’s time.

Here’s another thing: I believe my book is good. For months I’ve shied away from saying so out loud for fear of … what? Over confidence. Arrogance. Tempting fate. To be clear, I don’t believe it’s the best book ever written. I believe it’s the best book I could have written, at this time, on this subject. Absolutely. And that’s enough for me.

As a child, whenever either I or my brother or sister had exams at school, we’d come home to be asked by our parents how we had done: As long as you did your best, the result doesn’t matter, they’d say. If my book gets rejected, which it will by some but hopefully not all, I’ll be disappointed but I’ll know that I did my best.

To test my mettle, I decided to join the Twitter frenzy of emerging writers and tweet-pitch my book: one day, Wednesday 6 January, for new writers in Scotland to pitch their book to a panel of publishers and agents. 135 characters to sell your idea, followed by the appropriate hashtag. If anyone likes it they’ll contact you.

I wrote my pitch. A few hours later, I wrote another. My anxiety levels rose through the morning until, over lunch, Mr D persuaded me to let it go. Whether you’re picked or not says nothing about the quality of either the book or your writing, he said, it’s a marketing exercise. He’s right to some extent. 135 characters demonstrates only that you’re good at pitching but that in itself is an art – after all, the first stage is to engage the interest of the publisher or agent.

laptop and notebook

Maybe my pitch wasn’t good. Maybe my book isn’t of interest. Maybe the subject matter isn’t engaging or commercial enough. Maybe they don’t think it would sell. There are so many variables involved over which I or any other writer, have no control. All we can do is write the best book we are capable of writing.

Which makes me appreciate even more, those writers who do make it. That their book is in print at all is, for the most part, nothing short of remarkable. Something we should celebrate. And so, this morning I did something else I haven’t done before, I contacted someone I’ve never met (through their website – technology is amazing) to tell them how much their book had moved and delighted me.

The Iceberg by Marion CouttsThe Iceberg: A Memoir by Marion Coutts, shadows the progression of her husband’s brain tumour and how it affects their lives, from his diagnosis to his death, two and half years later. The prose and subject matter is stark, raw and beautiful. Her husband was an art critic and writer; she is an artist. Armed with words, together they rally against death. Though they don’t defeat it, they manage to defy the worst of its agonies, denying it the opportunity of robbing them of their life together with their young son. It’s a lesson in how to live in the face of death. The narrative pulled me in and held me. I emerged on the other side, gasping for air.

In our society, we are often quick to complain but not to let people know when they’ve done a good job. I wrote because I wanted her to know I loved what she had written. To say thank you for the effort. Whether I’ll make a habit of writing to other authors, I don’t know. Maybe I should. Maybe we all should.

For now I have a book to finish.

Time Well Spent

The lack of activity on my blog is, I’m glad to say, primarily due to the fact that I’ve been writing. Yep, you read right, I’ve been boosting the word count and piling up the pages. And no, before you ask, my LPoW is not yet finished, but it is beginning to fill out pretty well. Even better, I’ve finally settled into my writing groove and am enjoying that liberating sense of timelessness that comes from losing yourself in something you love.

But you know what they say: all work and no play …

IMG_2696A fortnight ago, Mr D and I loaded up Happy with champagne, chocolate, walking shoes and my parents, and headed north in convoy with our friends F and L in their campervan, Sunny. Findhorn-bound, we stopped off half-way to picnic in the sunshine and kick start the holiday with leftover quiche and cold potatoes.

Two hours later, we tumbled out of our campers and set up home in an old fisherman’s cottage with a free-standing bath. We were joined by more friends the following night and, when Sunday dawned and promised to live up to its name with regards to the weather, we spilled out onto the beach.

Friends and food at the seaside: the very essence of bliss. There were games and laughter; a curious seal; ebullient dogs; bird-watching; paddling – swimming even! We took photographs (including a rare one of me with my best friend), traded stories, told jokes, and sat side-by-side watching the sea as it kept on coming. The world was huge, time limitless, and as the sun began to pack up for the day, we followed suit and headed back to the cottage, a weave of arms and rolled up trousers and sun hats and dogs.

IMG_2716The rest of the week was quieter: opera in Elgin town hall; pummelled by rain on Burghead promenade; Berghaus bargains in a Nairn charity shop; fresh vegetables bought from the side of a path through the Findhorn Foundation; huge plates of Buckie fish; and the impish greens of the Northern Lights.

On our penultimate day, B and G visited with strawberries and truffles and told us of Pluscarden Abbey, the place where B told me she had gone when I was in hospital, to ask the monks to include me in their prayers. We arranged to meet her there later, where we listened to the Gregorian chanting of the monks during Vespers, the last wisp of sunshine trickling through the stained glass, fragments of blue and pink and green scattered across their hooded heads.

A quiet calm accompanied us on the journey home in Happy.

Art on the Fringes

fringe logoFor the past few months I’ve been volunteering for the Stirling Fringe Festival: a small multi-arts festival now in its third year. The festival begins this Friday 18 September and runs until Saturday 26 September. It will host a variety of musicians, comedians, singers, actors, poets and writers, across a range of venues throughout the city. That it runs at all is nothing short of remarkable.

Stirling, as a city, both benefits and suffers from its proximity to Glasgow and Edinburgh – particularly in relation to the arts. In less than an hour by train, you could be right there, in the heart of one of the biggest arts festivals in the world, or discovering some of the best venues, museums and galleries in Europe. How can Stirling compete with that? How can any smaller town compete?

The simple answer is it can’t. But it can offer something innovative, fun, funky and inspiring on your doorstep, which is exactly what the Stirling Fringe set out to do: with a bucket-load of enthusiasm, very little money, a skeleton volunteer staff, the goodwill and support of other venues throughout the city and some funding from EventScotland and Stirling Council.

And it works.

imagesThis year, in partnership with the Tolbooth, Scottish hip-hop artists and political agitators, Stanley Odd kick off the festival. Throughout the week, you can have your spirits raised by a range of artists: enjoy a relaxing night at the Guildhall Music Club, catch up with local music scene, laugh along with an array of comedians at various venues, and celebrate the spoken word with local writers and poets.

There’s theatre, a family day with children’s entertainers, craft stalls and games, storytelling for schools, dance and opera.

And to round it off on a high, there’s a night of salsa (tequila optional) – preceded by an hour’s dance lesson, so you really have no excuse!

All of this is possible thanks to a team of volunteers whose motivation is not monetary but is the promotion and celebration of the arts in Stirling, Scotland and further afield. Who give their time freely and devotedly. Why? Because they believe in the ability of the arts to make our hearts sing; to add colour and flavour and depth to the world. And in today’s world, that’s something of which to be proud.

I for one, can’t wait for the Stirling Fringe to begin. See you there.

For tickets visit: http://www.macrobertartscentre.org