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?

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.

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.

The Magic of Moniack Mhor

I have a new love in my life: 15 miles from Inverness, more than a little easy on the eye, with a generous heart. Love at first sight.

View from my room

View from my room

For the last week, Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, has nurtured, inspired, cajoled and encouraged me, and eight other writers, to put some narrative backbone into our Works in Progress. Anything we could possibly want or need was anticipated and provided and if it wasn’t there already, all we had to do was ask and it appeared the following morning: Christmas every day (though I’m not sure it would stretch to a pony … mind you, neither did Santa in my experience). I even had my own white-washed garret, which, to my utter delight, turned out to be the one in the photograph from my last blog.

The writing workshops were a treat, led by two very different writers; Stephen May and Marilyn Bowering, who each brought their own interpretation on how to structure a novel and drive the narrative forward. The one-to-one tutorials were insightful, from small suggested changes, to seeds of ideas to make us question our direction in order to test the robustness of our approach.

My fellow writers spanned a wide range of both age and experience and shared a love of words in all their forms (including diversionary chatting when the written words were fighting shy). We ate lots – especially cake, and laughed plenty. There was morning yoga (an extra surprise provided by Stephen’s lovely wife), guided and free-range walking and an outdoor storytelling circle with expansive views to the surrounding mountains, the perfect place for contemplation.

Evening entertainment was provided by visiting authors Mikey Cuddihy, whose memoir, A Conversation About Happiness, was among the books I read in preparation for writing my own LPoW, and Moira Forsyth of Sandstone Press, who advised us on what to do and more crucially, what not to do, when sending your manuscript to a publisher. By the time Moira left, I think we all wished she or someone like her, could publish our novels.

Our tutors also gave readings from their Works in Progress and answered questions about their writing journey with honesty and humour.

Book at Moniack MhorFriday fizzled with nervous energy – it was the last night, and our turn to provide the entertainment, with readings of our own. To ease us in (and smooth our frayed edges), liberal drams of Glenmorangie malt whisky found their way into our hands and we were led outside to listen to Hamish, a young lone piper, before following him, crocodile-style, around the house and back inside for haggis, neeps and tatties. And if anyone noticed the tears in the eyes of me and A, at the sound of the pipes, it was just the wind, honest.

The readings took us from Canada to a whole other world; we were dragged to a mental health institution and driven to the doorstep of a posh house on Christmas Eve. We shouted rude words with our pals, cavorted with an over-excited fairy avatar, attended a spiritualist funeral and tripped out of a taxi on our way to a job interview. The variety and breadth of writing was exciting, each reader carrying us through to the end of their extract with skill and passion.

In the evening’s embers, Mr D arrived in Happy, and played his guitar. Those of us left, huddled around the wood-burning stove and sang along to Bob Dylan and Steve Harley.

I arrived home last night; my smile and hips (I didn’t starve) a little wider, my LPoW a few thousand words heavier, my head and heart crammed with memories.

As for Moniack Mhor, I can’t recommend it enough. Don’t take my word for it though, visit and experience it for yourself, you won’t be disappointed.

For those that experienced the week with me and all at Moniack Mhor: thank you, it was made extra special by your support, laughter and generosity of spirit. Until the next time.

Retreating into Writing

Excited. And nervous. Excited and nervous is how I feel at the moment: thanks for asking.  In less than 48 hours I’ll be ensconced on a writing retreat at Moniack Mhor. Just me and my laptop and a couple of books. Well, not quite – me, my laptop, a couple of books, several other writers, a publisher for one of the days, the Moniack Mhor team, I imagine several, no lots, of other books and a huddle of laptops; but you get what I mean. No mobile (no signal), no TV (not that Mr D and I have one), no supermarket at the end of the road (though I doubt I’ll starve) and no Mr D (though there will be company – see above for other writers, etc).

moniack mhor bedroomSince winning the Work In Progress grant a few weeks ago, I’ve been wavering between excitement and nerves. A week to write, that’s exciting, but with a group of people I’ve never met before, that’s nerve-wracking. On more recent days, I’ve even been a wee bit scared: what if my writing isn’t good enough? What if I get there and everyone else is so much better and more confident and –

‘What if it’s absolutely fantastic?’ said Mr D. ‘What if you love every minute? What if you don’t want to come home?’

What if he’s right? I hope he’s right (except for the not wanting to come home). I’m sure he will be.

It’s not my first time on a retreat. I’ve been to several meditation and yoga retreats, particularly during my yoga teacher training – I’ve even been on one which involved fire-walking and a solo one in a hut above Loch Voil. And I’ve loved all of them (and been happy to go home when they ended).

Moniack Mhor viewThere’s something about being allowed the space and time to write (or meditate or do yoga or whatever); the permission to forget about all distractions and concentrate on the thing you love. And Moniack Mhor, just looking at the picture of it draws the tension from my shoulders. How could I fail to be inspired?

And so I’m off. I’ll take lots of pictures and write about it when I get back. Until then …

Now, dungarees or jeans? Walking boots or wellies? Books –

A Sixth Sense for Celebration

I’ve been having a bit of a crisis of confidence as far as my Longer Piece of Work is concerned. I hold responsible all the great writers out there, the ones that tuck me up in bed, curl up with me on the couch or help me relax in the bath.

William Trevor, your brilliance at one line character descriptions makes me want to rip out the pages of my notebooks and set them on fire.

laptop and notebookJanice Galloway, stop with the mesmerising ability to weave an extraordinary story from what to others, are unremarkable occurrences in day-to-day life. Likewise, Lorrie Moore.

AL Kennedy, enough with the sharp, witty dialogue that perfectly encapsulates a moment in time – or I fear my laptop will follow the notebooks into the flames.

And I haven’t even mentioned the new writers on the scene: Kirsty Logan, Anneleise Mackintosh, Sara Baum (whose title for her debut novel is one of my most favourite ever: Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither – in relation to the seasons). All writers with that special something that makes a piece of literature glisten and come alive.

Oh and let’s load on the pressure from those that have tutored and mentored me: Paula Morris, shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times EFG Short Story Competition, and the tutor who whipped me into shape on the MLitt; and Karen Campbell, my mentor through the WoMentoring Project, who prodded and cajoled me into finding a structure and voice for my LPoW. Both dazzling in their eloquence.

And to add insult to injury, at my lowest ebb, a story submitted to a literary magazine didn’t make the cut.

Now do you see my problem? Ok, I know, I know, it’s been said to me many times that the way forward is not to compare my work with others (and it’s not the first time I’ve been rejected). But, come on…

And yet, in general I’ve been pleased with my writing. My LPoW has a structure, several completed chapters and an outline plan for completion. I’ve been writing much more regularly and even had glimpses of the finish line. So why now? Which, I think, is precisely the point. It’s now because I’m close to the end – because I’m approaching the point where I have to let it go and send it out there to fight for a toehold and dig in.

Terrifying!

I realise that by now you more-than-likely think this post it about a plea for reassurance or worse still, a chance to indulge in self-pity. Here’s the good news: it isn’t.

For those of you who read my last blog, you may remember that I ended with a line about receiving good news. Here it is.

A week before Mr D and I rode off on our honeymoon in Happy, I saw the following on the website of Moniack Mhor:

Work In Progress Grant

… the opportunity of a supported place for one unpublished writer with a work in progress. Application process: Please provide us with a sample of your work of up to 750 words and a short summary outlining your work in progress.

‘You should apply,’ said Mr D. So I did.

Moniack MhorOn the first day of our travels, from out of nowhere, it suddenly struck me that I’d won the grant.

‘I think I just won the Moniack Mhor grant,’ I said to Mr D.

‘Really? How do you know? Did you get a text?’

‘No, I just know.’

The first chance I got I checked my emails. Nothing. The next time, nothing. Several times during our honeymoon, on the return journey and back home. Nope. Nothing.

‘I don’t know what happened, I was sure I’d won,’ I said.

The evening after we got back, Mr D was cooking and I was systematically checking through my emails. I noticed one entitled Work In Progress Grant. It was dated two days previously and yet I’m sure it wasn’t there when I looked.

I opened it. Screamed. Mr D dropped the stirring spoon and ran, closely followed by A.

‘What’s wrong? Are you alright? What happened?’ Worried faces stacked up in the living room doorway.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘I won.’ They did and I had.

And so my confidence perked a little, straightened its back, cracked its knuckles and started to make its way homeward.

Moniack Mhor offers creative writing courses throughout the year and comes highly recommended from a host of writers.

If you’d like to read a little more from my LPoW, here’s my submission: The Glass Spider_extract