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?

When time is tight

There’s a truth, widely acknowledged, that the more time we have at our disposal the less we get done.

time-warpTime is a glorious trickster: look here, it says, holding out minutes, hours, days, this is all for you, time is infinite, an abundance, no need to panic, everything will get done, just sit back, take a load off. Look, here’s sunlight trickling along the windowsill, spilling over the carpet, come on over, lie down, let the warmth ease the creak out of those bones.

Listen, says time, it’s your favourite song on the radio, close your eyes, stretch out your arms, feel the heat. You’re on a beach, or in a meadow running through wildflowers; singing. Feet on grass. Sizzle of wet sand between your toes. Beach. Meadow. The Meadows. University. Ah. Remember – tequilas and dancing on tables? Tequila shots. St Patrick’s Day in Chicago. Green river. Remember? See, no need to rush.

Plenty of ti –

Bugger, bugger, bugger. I’m late. I should be at the hairdresser’s right now. Got to run. Damn you time. Damn you.

And so it goes.

On the flipside, the less time for us to play with, the more we achieve. Or at least it’s been true for me over the last few weeks.

Take your place at the pinball machine, pull back the lever and…

Go.

Glasgow. Frippery of festivals: West End and Mela. Cardamom, cumin, cerulean, crimson. Glasgow put your hands in the air. Hip-flicking, toe-tapping. Burnt sugar taste of summer. Twenty points. Ding.

Ball drops down and off to the right: Edinburgh. Another twenty points. Sun-drenched cocktails, chocolate torte and William Trevor. A gaggle of giggles and espresso. Lights flash. Onoffonoffonoffon.

Quick sideways spin to Dunkeld. New campervan, new friends, new hearts. Art, food, afro-ed dogs and gulls with attitude. Cheeky ten points. Easy.

Rolling south towards Stranraer. Campervan comparisons, wayward chickens, travel envy and warm hugs home from hotter climes. Bonus points: radial heat from a harbour wall with brine-washed seaweed seasoning. Ding. Ding.

Flick of the wrist and bounce back up to the right. Perth and the longest day. Guitar bands and fiddlers – punk trumps trad. Over-priced vegans and under-sold vintage. Blue. Rose. Code. Bang your hand on the machine. Jump around. Fifty points and bonus ball.

Coastward to Elgin. Non-forgotten faces and dogs and beaches and cake; lots of cake. Shared histories of the times of tequilas and table-tops. The other me. Familiarity breeds laughter and unfinished sentences –

Winner!

And here’s the curious thing, I’ve written more in the last few weeks than I have in the preceding year. I now have several completed chapters and lots of descriptions of senses, memories, ideas and characters – vague recollections half remembered. When I’m not writing, I’m often thinking about writing. Or scribbling overhead conversations, observing character traits: that smell, where am I? Where does that song take me? Is the colour of that flower the same as – ?

Jellyfish Janice GallowayWhich takes us to last weekend at the Solas Festival near Perth. Mr D and I, saturated with music, turned our attentions back to literature and Janice Galloway. One of my favourite writers, Janice was at the festival to talk about and read from her new short story collection, Jellyfish. Attention to detail and nuance in everyday life is what, for me, makes a story sparkle: being able to imagine the extraordinary from the ordinary.  Janice, along with my other well-loved writer, William Trevor, has an incredible ability to do just that; and make it seem effortless. Jellyfish is my new bedtime absorption.

The best piece of advice I ever heard on writing was also from Janice Galloway who, on another occasion, said (and I paraphrase): the only person who cares if your book gets written or not, is you. No-one else. Just you.

Over the last month, amidst time’s bag of conjuring tricks, I discovered that I really do care. I care very much indeed.

* Jellyfish by Janice Galloway is published in Glasgow by Freight Books and is sure to be in a book shop near you. If you don’t read it you’re missing out. Trust me.