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Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Writing and 2012 - New Year and a New Me!

For many people, it’s that time of year again for coming up with New Year’s resolutions.  And for most, it’s the same list, just a different year.

I'm very much a 'Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today' person- leaving my job to go to uni is a prime example. I'm good at being bossy taking control of my life, except in one area- my health. I'm not usually a big fan of New Year resolutions. I don’t need it to be the 31st of December for me to realise that I need to get some exercise (the only time my heart's raced recently is at the 50% off signs at the sales) and to eat/drink healthier (I know that just because it's 'diet' Irn Bru, it doesn't make it good for me). The book on my profile pic helps to hide several chins (but it’s hard to constantly walk around with a book in front of me, and it can be dangerous when near traffic!).

And this year, I’m looking at the whole process from an entirely new perspective (wheezing at the top of the uni stairs). Last December, there was as much chance of me returning to uni to do a writing course as there was of finding a vegetarian pit bull terrier.  But now as a mature student, it has made me take a fresh look at my new lifestyle as an aspiring writer. And a doctor's appointment gave me a reality check.

Now that I actually have an excuse to sit on my fat backside every day, I really do need to think seriously about beating the bulge before my rear end had its own postcode. Losing my tractor sized spare tyre will also mean I can get nearer my laptop and literally closer to my work in progress. A writer is supposed to avoid clich├ęs but I'm making my main resolution to lose weight. Slimming World will have a new member on Wednesday night (after a final Hogmanay binge, well I am Scottish- it's the law here!). 

It seems  that I’m not alone with this problem. In Jane Wenham-Jones’s excellent book, ‘Wannabe a Writer?’ she even devotes a large section of the chapter, ‘Occupational Hazards’ to ‘Writer’s Bottom’ and shares her very funny dietary tips. My favourite being, “Have lots of great sex. (N.B. If you’re married, best not to let your husband or wife find out.)”

But apart from the usual physical health resolutions, this year, as an aspiring writer, I’ve added another three psychological goals.

1.       Avoiding folk who might judge me on whether or not I should be doing a uni course with no guaranteed job/career prospects at the end of it.

2.      Sending my inner critic on an extended holiday and growing thicker skin (but with a thinner person inside).

3.       Believing in myself as a writer and adopting a “fake it till you make it” strategy in the meantime. 

"Cheers to a New Year and another chance for us to get it right."- Oprah Winfrey

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A Writer's Ego

Dear Santa,

I’ve been a good girl during my first semester at uni. I didn’t miss a single class and I handed all my assignments in on time. So I was wondering if there was any chance of getting my dream Christmas present this year.

On Christmas morning, I’d like to wake up without a hangover AND also the confidence to actually call myself a writer, out loud in public. I’ve accumulated a fair amount of titles in my adult years- student, teacher, wife (no1 and no2), mother, Training Officer and student again but I’ve yet to feel that I’ve earned the title ‘Writer’.

In the winter edition of the Society of Author’s journal, ‘The Author’, Robert Hull has written a great piece on ‘Am I an author?’ where he states that “somehow one can be a writer without publishing anything, the term paradoxically seems also to imply a route to authordom.” So, what’s my problem? That could be me he’s talking about, I write.  So I am a writer. But I also paint watercolours and I don’t call myself an artist.  I pull weeds in my garden but I don’t call myself a gardener. You get the idea.  For me, the problem with choosing the title, ‘writer’ over any other title, is one of ego.

To be a writer, I think you need to have a big enough ego to put your work out there.  You need to believe that people will be interested enough in what you write to want to invest the time (and possibly hard earned money) to want to read it. You need to believe that you’ve something really worthwhile to say in a world where there are already too many books and more creative writing graduates than you can shake a pen at.  My ego was big enough to make me quit my job so that I could call myself a student, but not big enough to call myself a writer.  Not yet. It’s my personal work in progress.

Oscar Wilde said, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” Now that’s an ego! I’m not greedy. I don’t want an unhealthy supersized McEgo, just a regular ego with fries and a diet coke.

But don’t worry Santa, if asking for a bigger ego is too much, I totally understand that this is something I will probably have to find myself or search for it on eBay.  If your elves can’t sort out a writer’s ego for me, then here are a couple of ideas for substitute gifts.

P.S. Another bottle of double strength ‘Patience-of-a-Saint’ tablets would also be very much appreciated for my long suffering hubby- he’ll need them for next semester!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Writing a novel? Just Do It!

There are hundreds of ‘How to…’ books on the market forwannabe writers and during this semester, I’ve read several set texts on the craftof writing, the most useful one being oReading Like a Writer by Francine Prose (avery apt surname for a writer!).

But the best book I’ve ever read about the creative writingprocess was not on the uni reading list. It is On Writing by Stephen King andis brilliant, not just for the tips on writing but also as a fascinatinginsight into the life of one of America’s most successful writers. 

The man has written a gazillion novels and his estimated networth is $ 400 million so it’s fair to say that he definitely knows what he’stalking about in the realm of bestsellers. I’ve seen most of the film adaptionsbut not read any of his books but you don’t need to be a fan or an aspiring writer to enjoy thismemoir of the craft. This isn’t a book for literary snobs but it’s certainly abook for anyone trying to hone their writing technique and find out what makesthis guy tick.

It’s a great mix of life story and writing advice where hecuts through the crap and is completely honest about the highs and lows of his career (literallythrough his years of drink and drug addiction) and his miraculous recovery froma near fatal car crash.

I’m proud to say that King has Scottish roots and this showsin his completely unpretentious attitude to telling it like it is. He sees his phenomenalsuccess story as being down to sheer hard work. King writes 2,000 words a day and urgeswannabes to read a lot and write a lot. Simple theory- practise makes perfect (oras good as you’re ever gonna get).

"Don't wait for the muse ... This isn't the Ouija boardor the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like layingpipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows whereyou're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. If hedoes know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up, chompinghis cigar and making his magic."

The book is packed full of words of wisdom.  I wish I’d read it years ago and realised thatonly timid writers use passive verbs and that “the adverb is not your friend". I’ve got a lot to learn but now that the uni semester is over, it’s time for meto stop reading the ‘How to…’ books and in the words of the great Greek goddessof victory, Nike, just do it!

If you’ve never read the book, it’s not too late to add itto your letter to Santa. Just remember King’s advice about adverbs  and don’t write that you’d screamloudly, be extremely happy, wildly jump around excitedly on Christmas morningand promise to really cherish the lovely gift if you find it in your stocking!  

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Creative Writing is my Guilty Pleasure

This weekend, I was asked (again!) what kind of job will I be able to get once I’d finished the Mlitt course? Deep breath and a silent scream later I replied that I had no idea. I’ve only just finished the first semester and already I’m being forced to look to the future. Is it so wrong to live in the moment?

When wind and rain battered my bedroom window this week, I got up and looked out at the bleak weather. Then I slipped on my cheetah print fleecy dressing gown and snuggled back down to read a brilliant book (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz- if you must know) as part of my day’s “work”.

This time last year, I would have been driving to work in the dark and coming home in the dark with frizzy hair, fed up and frustrated. 

So if I’m 10 times happier, why am I suffering from a weird side effect called guilt?

 I often feel guilty for doing something I really enjoy. I’m convinced that this Calvinist attitude is an unfortunate default setting for Scottish folk. If you don’t believe me, read Scot’s Crisis of Confidence by Carol Craig where she examines Scots’ attitudes and tendency for negativity. She explores how the self-deprecating joke of “getting above ourselves” is a destructive national trait and how Scotland’s Calvinist heritage includes a highly developed work ethic with a deep sense of duty and social responsibility.

So how does this relate to me?

My friends are busy doing REAL jobs- like social worker and teacher whilst I’m faffing about at uni sweating about whether the latest chapter of my novel works. I applaud their career choice and admire the fact that they’re doing a job that’s important. Good on them! But can I please have one year out of my whole life to indulge my need to have a serious attempt at being a writer without feeling guilty?

I’m not out there battling the elements or saving lives.  I’m staying cosy in my jammies and making up wee stories in my head. But I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I’m determined to shake off John Knox’s legacy (aka Knoxplex) and any hint of guilt to enjoy every minute of the course while it lasts.

"Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, 
concentrate the mind on the present moment"

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Writing Feedback-Cruel To Be Kind

As a mother of two teenage sons, I’m no stranger to tough love. I like to think that I know what’s best for them even if they rarely agree. Do I rise to their moaning that “everybody is allowed to…” blah blah blah? No chance!  I tell them to suck it up. It’s part of my job description as their mum to be cruel to be kind. I have to tell them things that they don’t want to hear.

But being on the receiving end of a home truth isn’t easy. My second experience of a writing workshop wasn’t any less painful. Hearing your work being criticised and not being allowed to interrupt is not for the faint hearted. 

Luckily I had just read the latest post on Nicola Morgan’s excellent blog, ‘Help! I Need a Publisher’.

This week’s post, ‘Beware of Praise’ really helped me accept the blows when I later read the written comments (although a lovely Cabernet Sauvignon Rose wine helped even more).
Nicola’s analogy is that praise is very like chocolate.It tastes great at the time. Too much of it is (regrettably) bad for you.” Oh how true!!

Would it have been nice to walk out of uni with praise ringing in my ears? Hell yes! But would it have made me a better writer? Duh! Of course not, so I have to suck it up like I tell my boys.

Nicola warns wannabe writers to accept praise with extreme caution. And not to listen to your family and friends if they gush over your writing.  Step away from praise. It can be your enemy unless it comes from someone qualified in the publishing industry or whom you trust and value.

It’s sound advice. At the beginning of the year, I experienced a line by line edit by my literary agent on my previous novel.  She made comments like,
“This section should hit me like a punch in the stomach. It doesn't. You can do better.”

So you would think that by now I’d have skin as thick as a rhino’s. Alas, it’s not that simple. I value the opinions of my fellow students and my lecturer and if I didn’t care about my writing it wouldn’t hurt. As Jane Fonda would say, “No pain, no gain!”

Next semester will mean a fresh bout at the workshop. I will grit my teeth and stock up on rose wine! Bring it on!!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Writing and Giving Yourself the Freedom to Fail

It was a big deal for me to sign up for the MLitt course and I was full of self-doubt before I arrived at my first class. The fear quickly faded by being amongst a group of supportive fellow students and enjoying every week of a well-structured meaningful course. I’d made the right decision BUT…

What if my work isn’t good enough? What if my submission is ripped apart in the workshop? What if I don’t do well in my assignments? What if my family and friends think my writing is rubbish? What if I can’t make it as a writer? What if? What if?

There’s no end to the list of insecurities! I don’t think a writer is ever free of self-doubt. It seems to come as part of the job.

But if ever I needed a boost, the visit to uni this week from the award winning writer DBC Pierre was inspirational. In 2003, Pierre won the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, Vernon God Little. Wow! But how did he manage to win the world's most important literary award?

A contemporary The Catcher in the Rye

Anyone who’s ever heard of him will know that his juicy life story is as interesting as any of his novels. But for Pierre, the positive side to hitting rock bottom meant that no one had high expectations of him and he was free to fail.

No one likes to fail and it’s hard not to be your own harshest critic. My internal editor is always sitting on my shoulder and instead of just getting the words down on paper, I constantly go over my work getting hung up on every sentence. And then there’s the expectation of others.

When I told my mum I’d finished my first attempt at a novel. She told her friend. And a week later her pal phoned my mum to ask why she couldn’t find it in Waterstone's!!

No pressure then…

Pierre’s key message was to give yourself the freedom to fail. He wrote the first draft of Vernon God Little in a stream of consciousness in five frenzied weeks. But it took several drafts and many months of sifting through the original material and reconstructing the writing to create a phenomenal novel.  Everyone needs TIME to experience failure before they can achieve success.  No artist uses watercolours for the first time and has the painting hung in the National Gallery.  It takes years of hard slog to achieve such glory- just ask Jack Vettriano! I know now that I need to give myself permission to produce crap and then keep writing in order to get better.

At the book signing, Pierre wrote on my copy of Vernon God Little,
“Be free to fail- only by staring into that abyss can we write!"

No excuses left now…

Friday, 11 November 2011

Writing-Be Yourself; Everyone Else is Already Taken

This week in class we were given an exercise to write about a journey set in a variety of locations. We also had to describe our home town in 3 words. The results were dramatically different. I really enjoyed hearing the range of descriptions and it proved the point that we have all developed our own distinctive writing voice.

Who else in the group would describe his hometown as “infested”? It was such a loaded word (apologises to anyone from Alloa) that it could only belong to one guy and his characteristic way of describing his world view.

This week, we submitted our first assignments and these will be identified by our student number only as per the uni’s guidelines. This is of course only right and fair but pointless really. After spending weeks together, I’d be confident enough to bet my left arm that our lecturer could match up the writing to the person without any names attached to the work. No problemo.

But how do you find your writing voice?

This quest has taken me time and effort. And it’s like my novel- a work in progress!
When I first started writing seriously I didn’t really understand what was meant by finding a voice that worked for me. So I tried to think of it in musical terms and then it became clearer. You couldn’t expect camp as Christmas Johnny from the X Factor to be able to sing Barry White’s, ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe’ in his high pitched voice could you?  Although anyone who’s ever watched the X Factor knows that Louis Walsh’s crap song choices are legendary. Who could forget Wagner bashing bongo drums and trying to sing Ricky Martin’s ‘She Bangs’ last year? My ears are still bleeding! And I wonder if Pat Butcher ever did get her earrings back from him? 

                                    "You made that song your own"- and ruined it for 13 million viewers!

But I digress. So I had to experiment and find a voice that felt right for me. One that suited the story.

Eventually I realised that I was never EVER going to be able to write like Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf however much I tried. I could only write like ME. And here’s another revelation that I finally worked out the hard way… using big words didn’t make my fiction writing read any better. I was trying too hard. And it’s not big or clever to regurgitate the Oxford Dictionary and exhaust a Thesaurus. Using fancy purple prose in fiction is just not my natural style.

Of course a writer needs to be able to create a variety of different voices just as I wouldn’t use the same tone and tempo of voice in a letter of complaint to my bank manager as I would on a holiday postcard to my best pal. But I still need to make sure that I sound sincere and authentic when communicating my message whether it’s, “I wholly object to the exorbitant bank charge” or “the voddy cocktails are amazzzzzing!!!”

Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” I like to think of myself as very much a ‘what you see is what you get’ type of person but it took me a while to be true to myself in my writing. I’m no longer attempting to fake it to make it on paper. I’m just working hard to be me – a better writer with my own unique voice.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Writing and the Joys of Working from Home

This week I’ave mostly been eating Haribo. 

And working on my assignments for uni. But a more accurate version would be that I’ve been TRYING to work on my assignments!

When I studied for my first degree over twenty years ago, I had the same assignment deadlines but in very different circumstances. Back in the day, it was a straight forward case of taking myself off to the library and only emerging when I needed food and drink. Simple. Hassle free.

Second time around there is a whole new set of problems…

Don’t even get me started on how easy it is to lose hours on the internet. And there is no chance of completely opting out of daily domestic life whenever I feel like it. Not when my other name is “mum”. My two sons might well be teenagers now but they’re still as needy as ever. And then there’s the new pup and older dog at my feet.

How do I get the peace and quiet to get my uni work done AND write a bestseller?
An ex-colleague often set her email notification as ‘out of office’ even when she was sitting right beside us. It was her way of telling us that we might be able to see her but she wasn’t there. It seemed mad at the time but now I can see her logic.

Is there a way of being ‘out of office’ at home? I can’t lock myself away in a home office or a study because my house doesn’t have one. So I’ve set up ‘office’ in my bedroom and use my wicker dressing table as a desk. It’s not ideal working in amongst my pots of anti-ageing creams and looking out at my view of the petrol station across the road. But my dream keeps me going…

It all started last May when I went with my best pal to the Ideal Homes Show at the SECC in Glasgow. I saw it from a distance. I swooned. I pushed through the crowds and ran towards it. I could hear Vangelis play Chariots of Fire. I was soon close enough to breathe deeply and inhale the smell of the fresh new wood. I stroked the texture of the cladding, I felt my knees go weak at the clever design AND there was a lock on the door. I was in love…

This is the object of my desire.  

The Armadilla. 

A lot better looking than Roald Dahl's old shed! Although The Armadilla is not worth as much. Even though his estate must amount to millions of pounds, his granddaughter recently launched a public appeal for £500.000 to save it. Bit of a Roald Dahl and the Giant Cheek if you ask me! My youngest son loved his books and I admire his brilliance but how about getting B & Q to sponsor it?  Don't ask me to fund it. I'm saving up for The Armadilla!

Do you want to share my fantasy of the perfect writer's sanctiary?
I challenge any aspiring writers not to drool!

Maybe one day I will lock the door behind me and gaze out to lambs gambolling in lush green fields ….

But in the meantime, back in the real world, my youngest son needs help with homework, the eldest wants to know what's for dinner,  the pup has peed again on the bedroom rug and the older dog has chewed a hole in my hubby's slipper…

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Write About What You Know

As Oor Wullie would say, "Jings crivens help ma boab!"

It’s been a busy and intense first few weeks and I can’t believe that it’s mid semester already. My head is jammed with new information and ideas!

The MLitt course has made me accept the sad realisation that there are so many books and so little time. No matter how many years I have left on the planet, I won’t live long enough to get through all the books I want to read and all the books I should read. Not a class has concluded without several recommended texts. Please no more! Have mercy on my groaning bedside table and my Amazon account. But being a reader of quality novels is vital to making me a better writer.

Apart from a time issue, reading books is the easy part. The difficulty is then deciding what I should write about? I’ve often heard the advice that you should write about what you know. 

Hmmm...It’s an interesting statement in the week that the film, 'Anonymous' was released claiming that Shakespeare didn’t actually write his plays. The bard is portrayed as an uneducated drunken idiot and suggests that the Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere actually penned the great works.  The conspiracy is based on the idea that there is no way a working class man could write brilliant literature and so these must have been the masterpieces of a well-travelled aristocrat.  If you should write about what you know then surely Shakespeare was incapable of writing distinctively Italian plays when he never actually left England?

For over 150 years, the question has been did he or didn’t he? So was Shakespeare a fraud? We’ll never know. And does it really matter anyway? I haven’t seen the film yet but it does make me consider the idea of writing about what you know.

If a writer is only to write about what they know there would be no science fiction or fantasy novels (not that I’d be upset) as they couldn’t possibly have travelled aboard a Time Machine. And what about the crime fiction genre?  Do we expect a writer to commit a murder before she can effectively write about one?

Who wants to read about ordinary people living ordinary lives?  That’s why I don’t plan to take the phrase literally in my writing.  If I want to write a historical piece (although that sounds like really hard work to me) then I don’t need to have lived in those times (that’s what the internet is for).  But I do need to know about human emotions such as fear, love, anger so that readers can relate to the story and empathise with the characters.

This week I hate to admit that I got a tiny bit excited at the thought of using my new Dyson (well to be fair it is a DC24 Ultra-Lightweight Dyson Animal Ball Upright Vacuum Cleaner for pet owners!) but it’s hardly going to inspire a great work of literary genius. If I stuck to just writing about what I know it would make a very dull read. That’s why I’m off to hoover the bedrooms while I plan out how I can write about a drug dealing gangster…

Monday, 24 October 2011

Everyone Has A Book In Them

Is it scary but true that everyone has a book in them? 

And writing a book is easy isn’t it? Anyone can do it. Or so I’m told all too often since starting the MLitt course.

If I had a pound for every person that’s said to me recently, “I could write a book” then my uni fees would have been paid ten times over! I want to scream at them, “Well what’s stopping you write it if it’s so easy!” Because clearly anybody that can hold a pen or sit in front of a PC can write a book. My dog could probably knock out a Booker prize winner if he wasn’t so busy licking his balls.

But as the literary critic Christopher Hitchens once said, “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay.” 

Do I think I’m able to do anybody else’s job?  Do I assume that I can cut my own hair, fix my car or carry out medical procedures on myself? Thankfully not!

I’m under no illusion that I’m the next Charles Dickens. I haven’t got enough facial hair for a start. But for all you fellow wannabe authors, here are my midterm musings on my experience of the world of words….

Our Creative Writing group has been kindly permitted to gate crash a programme of seminars arranged for the university’s post graduate publishing students. So far, this allowed us an insight into the life of an established literary agent- Maggie McKernan, an innovative publisher- Adrian Searle and a successful writer-Paula Morris.

We we’ve been treated to fascinating but often frightening facts from these highly respected guest speakers.

Here are a few key messages that stick in my mind…

With the on-going struggle with market forces and the challenges thrown up by the ‘digital revolution’ in publishing, the Maggie McKernan literary agency rarely takes on a new client unless they have been recommended. .

Adrian’s publishing company, Freight Design recognises that it’s even harder than ever for debut novelists to be taken on by a major publisher and many established writers have become ‘London orphans’ due to their failure to secure major book deals.

And the biggest reality check came from Paula who blew away the myth that if you’re a good enough writer you’ll get published. Nah! There’s a lot more to it than mere talent.

Becoming a published author? Easy peasy lemon squeezy! What’re you all waiting for?

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Wolves at the Writing Workshop

Can you imagine the terror I suffered when a fellow student posted this comment on Facebook days before my work would be critiqued in class?

 “The rewrite, the self-edit, the horror of it being fed to hungry wolves; some starting off kind of sympathetic, but eventually succumbing to the pack mentality, each taking turns to rip my literary efforts to shreds using their razor sharp criticisms, but only when the pack leader allows, and she will allow!”

That night I woke up in a cold sweat and I was sure I could hear the sound of wolves howling in the distance. I checked my jammies were still in one piece and hadn’t been shredded to pieces. And yet I was sure that I could feel the hot breath of the hungry pack at the back of my neck. Or was that just my hubby snoring at my side? And then I noticed the scratch on my shin. Could it just be that my hubby's toenails needed a good trim with a Black and Decker?  Maybe that explained the scratch. It was going to be a long night….

A friend claims that the best thing for insomnia is to get up and read.  Good idea. And that’s when I felt the panic set in again.

Never mind the wolves, an article by Cila Warncke in the latest edition of Mslexia (Issue 51-Oct, Nov, Dec 2011) about what’s wrong with the teaching of creative writing also had me worried. The title of the piece is, ‘Are You Wasting Your Money?’ This is not something you want to dwell on the week your P45 slips through the letter box and your bank statement shows the course fees have indeed been deducted!

Warncke completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University and is highly critical of the workshop model. As she says, “great literature is not written by committee” and argues that fellow students often feel under pressure to pass judgement which is largely based on their individual taste. I can see that this is a potential problem as we have a very mixed group who are all writing in different genres. However, our lecturer was quick to point out that within any group, you have to decide whose opinion that you rate as not everyone is your target reader. I think this issue has also been overcome in our group by focusing on more specific issues such as POV, characterisation etc and avoiding petty comments on personal taste.

Until last Wednesday, I’d only participated in critiquing the work from two of my fellow students. They emerged from the wolf hunt workshop claiming that the feedback on techniques and common errors was valuable and the workshop model was an ideal opportunity to gain an insight as to how your writing is working for a variety of readers. They also felt that the whole vibe of the workshop was supportive rather than critical. But it didn't stop the nightmares.

So did I survive the wolf pack feasting on my fiction?

Well, I definitely walked away with a few nasty cuts. Of course it hurts to sit silently and watch your work chewed up and spat out. But once the wolves have left you to lick your wounds, you realise that the comments were vital in shaping your work and making sure it delivers. With a little TCP and a lot of rewriting the wounds are healing nicely. When my turn comes round again next semester, I will hopefully face the pack as a better writer without suffering a wolf themed nightmare and have a hubby with manicured toenails.