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Sunday, 4 March 2012

Writing and the 10,000 Hours Theory


Last Thursday, appropriately on World Book Day, I met with the university’s other Royal Literary Fellow, Linda Cracknell to chat about my book- or lack of. My work in progress is not making much progress at all.



But there’s really no need to worry about the WIP as I must be an expert writer by now.  Expert? How can I dare to call myself an expert without having published anything or finished the MLitt course? You can blame my good friend Jill.

When Jill (who abandoned me to live in Michigan 10 years ago- I still can’t forgive her) came home to visit recently she told me about the 10,000 hours theory. I’d never heard of the book the Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and it claims that expertise is all about practice: You, too, can become Bill Gates (at least the talent part) or Tiger Woods if you spend 10,000 hours writing code or hitting a golf ball.



Basically, raw talent isn’t enough. You need to put in the time and effort as well. This was confirmed when I watched a short video clip made by one of my favourite writers, Kate Long in which she answers the question, “How did you get your first novel published?”




In the video, Kate tells wannabe writers that she had been writing for 10 years and completed three manuscripts before her best-selling novel-The Bad Mother’s Handbook was published. Kate describes her journey to publication as a decade long apprenticeship.

Unfortunately, I know that hard work by itself isn’t enough either. I believe that you need some degree of talent as well. Just by spending 10,000 hours writing, doesn’t mean I’m going to be an expert. I’ll probably be better at writing but that alone won't guarantee success. In the meantime, I'm off to clock up some writing hours...




Sunday, 26 February 2012

Creative Writing = Creative Writhing


This week, creative writing was more like creative writhing! 

By Friday night, I had a pounding tension headache. What was the cause of such stress? My WIP! My literary agent had given me feedback that my current idea was “too small” and I needed to be more ambitious. I needed inspiration and I’m not too proud to ask for help. I went into uni for a one-to-one session with Eleanor Updale, an award winning writer and a Royal Literary Fellow. Eleanor is based at the uni one day a week on behalf of The Royal Literary Fund Fellowship scheme which places professional writers in higher education institutions to offer writing support to all students.
Eleanor Updale- the author of The Montmorency Series
My MLitt course is entirely self-funded and I plan to get my money’s worth and grab every opportunity for professional help that’s available on campus. So I made an appointment to meet with Eleanor to discuss my WIP in an effort to help me move forward. The session was great for sparking new ideas and making me take a fresh look at the entire structure and concept of my WIP. Eleanor gave me some very interesting ideas but as I headed home, I was still left with one key question, if there’s already more than enough books in the world, does anyone really need mine?


Glug, glug,glug. I poured a large vodka, I had a headache already so a hangover didn’t frighten me. I moaned at my long suffering hubby and my old pal, Pierre Smirnoff, that life would be sooo much easier if I just tried to get a ‘normal’ job and save myself (and my family and friends who have to put up with me) all the aggro?

Yes it probably would, but I’ve never been one to take the easy option (this explains a lot of my life choices, hence hubby no 2) so although I’m struggling, I’m not willing to give in (not yet anyway). And the reason I need to carry on writing is simple. I write because I have to, whether the world needs another book or not. And thankfully my hubby and Pierre still believe in me!




Sunday, 19 February 2012

Writing as Escapism


This week, I returned to uni after the ridiculously long semester break. It was great to see everyone again and I was keen to get stuck into some writing exercises. And then I got THE call…

Earlier that day, I’d dropped my hubby off at hospital as a day patient for a “routine” procedure to tackle a minor heart problem. Unfortunately, he experienced serious complications and very quickly lapsed into a critical condition. It was horrendous to watch the man you love dearly suffer extreme pain and trauma. He needed a lifesaving operation and ended the day in intensive care rather than being home in time for Masterchef.

Edinburgh Royal Infirmary- the scene of my family crisis


Later that night, when the Holby city style drama had subsided, I realised that the overnight bag I’d requested my son to pack in a hurry was lacking a few basic essentials. I’d forgotten to ask for my pjs, a change of clothes and my make-up bag (after a sleepless night, I was a scary sight). But what I had remembered to ask for was a book, paper and a pen. Were these essentials? Yes!

When everything around me was out of control, the one thing that I did have control over was words. I read for escapism and I write for escapism too. When my soul mate’s life was at risk, I needed my book and my scribbles. I didn’t need the pjs or clothes but anyone seeing me the next day would argue that I did need my make-up bag!



Once my hubby was stable, he was able to joke with me that the whole experience would make a great short story. I don’t know about that, and I would rather not have writing material based on his distressing ordeal. But what I do know is that words helped get me through some of the worst days of my life.  And I’ve written a morbid poem to prove it!

My precious hubby in healthier times

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Is Being Published the Be All and End All?



HATE musicals with a passion. And yet, I have a fond childhood memory of watching South Pacific with my gran and the catchy lyrics of the show song, ‘Happy Talk’ being forever lodged in my brain,
“You got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?” 

The message is simple and one that I apply to my writing. Ever since I started to take my writing seriously, my dream has always to be published (in the traditional sense).  There are many aspiring writers who will say that it’s not important for them to get published. Or so they say. They claim to write for the love of the art form, blah blah blah. Am I one of those writers? No. And I’m not ashamed to admit that being published is a key goal. It's not the be all and end all, but for me it still matters. Will I keep writing if I don’t get published? Yes, absolutely and for many other good reasons.  But will I give up on my publishing dream?Not on your Nelly!



I wasn't the only aspiring writer in the family sharing this dream- I had competition. My 9 year old nephew, Ryan is also a prolific writer of poems and short stories.  One of the best Christmas presents was his own reworked version of a Christmas Carol (his 7 year old brother, Frazer was the illustrator).

His current WIP is his novel, ‘The Last Dinosaur ‘and I joked that his writing would probably be published before mine.  We decided to make it a challenge. I’m a bad loser but I had to admit defeat when Ryan produced a letter saying that one of his poems is due to be published in an anthology. Is it wrong to be even a teeny weeny bit jealous? Of course it is, even for a poor loser like me, that would just be pathetic. I'm well chuffed for him but Ryan’s victory was followed by an email from my agent; one that I had feared might land in my inbox.

Ryan goading  me  with showing me the letter from his publisher!
This time last year, my literary agent was sending out my last novelto publishers. I got some really great feedback but ultimately there was nobook deal at the end of it. My agent then went on maternity leave and everything was put on hold until she returned to work at the beginning of the year. Then I got the email...

“I think at this point, very sadly, we need to draw a line under it. The business is moving fast with the rise of e-books and the continued growth of Amazon, creating less space for smaller books and generally an enforced sense of competition and that each book must stand out very robustly to the shrinking of margins and of retail display space.”


Was I gutted? Hell yeah. But the upside is that she still has faith in me and wants to see my WIP when it’s finished. In the meantime, I'm hoping Ryan will look kindly on his struggling auntie and share some of the secrets of his success. In the meantime, I need to dust myself off and keep on trying because,"You got to have a dream..."


Friday, 3 February 2012

Love Your Library






Why do I care that tomorrow is National Libraries Day?

didn't grow up in a house filled with books (I don’t think the Littlewoods catalogue counts). But I did grow up with my mum taking me and my sister to the local library. The weekly pilgrimage was the only way we could afford to satisfy our appetite for books. I can still remember being transported from my terraced Council house to the seaside boarding school from the Malory Tower series. And I spent hours copying pictures from reference books to create my handmade (does this count as self-publishing?) non-fiction book, ‘Fashion through the Ages’ (my love of books and clothes has never faded). From picture books right through to reference books for my teaching degree, the library was a big part of my life.

When I was a student the first time around, I had a Saturday job as a Librarian’s assistant in the neighbouring town of Denny.


This photo of the shopping precinct, including the library, helps explain why Denny was nominated for a 'Plook on the Plinth' award for being the most dismal town in Scotland.

Being on the other side of the Returns desk was an eye-opener. The staff were regularly abused by local neds, used as a free crèche and often we had to reach for the antibacterial spray and a cloth when some of our dodgy  interesting characters returned books (you really don’t want to know why!)

But most folk appreciated how important the library was to their local community and respected the staff. A library isn’t just about books. My village library is very small but there’s music, DVDs and a wireless computer network. It has a Book Group, Toddlerhyme and plays host to the local history group as well as being a venue for mini exhibitions and gatherings.



In the digital age some might argue that libraries are now redundant when information is available at the click of a mouse from the comfort of your own home. But not everyone has internet access or a place to read quietly, especially in deprived areas. I’ve always felt strongly that libraries should also be open on a Sunday when families have more time to visit, students need a place to work and the community can meet for social events.





Libraries are not just the heartbeat of a community; they are a political statement to demonstrate a nation’s commitment to free information for all, regardless of your postcode. It’s so sad that library opening hours are being cut and some libraries are even being threatened with closure.  I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy most of the fiction books I read but I still visit my library most weeks, whether it’s to borrow a travel guide, hear a visiting writer or pick up a copy of the magazine Booktime. I also pop in to get free doggy poo bags that are handed out so I won’t have anyone say libraries deliver a crap service (excuse the pun) when there’s something for everyone, even my dogs.
.   


Forget Valentine’s Day, love your library while you still have one!




Sunday, 29 January 2012

Writing and the Dangers of Cabin Fever


Wednesday the 25th was a big day for famous literary birthdays. Robert Burns, William Somerset Maughan and Virginia Woolf all share the same birthday.  I saw one of Woolf's well known quotes, "A room of one's own" (well I spotted the 75% off sticker first) on a china mug in my local Waterstones. I snapped up the bargain as a wee gift for my good friend, the award winning novelist, Karen Campbell as she's been acting as my unofficial mentor for years and purple is her favourite colour.
http://www.karencampbell.co.uk/
I met  Karen for lunch in Glasgow yesterday and as always, it was great to catch up with her news and she gave me some really helpful advice about my WIP. As the saying goes,it's good to talk. Woolf was right, having somewhere to lock yourself away to get on with your writing is the ideal scenario but what I've discovered during this ridiculously long semester break is that I suffer from cabin fever. 
Classes finished at the end of November and it's been too long a break for me. I haven't yet reached for the axe but you only have to watch The Shining to remember how dangerous cabin fever can be...

I need to get out of the house regularly. The romantic idea of being locked away in a remote writer's garret is not for me. There's not a lot of inspiration to be gained from my view of the petrol station across the road! During the break from uni, I've been going to a botanical art class, swimming every other morning, meeting up with friends and working my way through a list of 'must visit' places. This week I went to GOMA in Glasgow to have a look round the polymath, Alasdair Gray's, 'City Recorder' exhibition. His paintings of Glasgow life in 1977 are brilliant. It's hard to believe that one man can be so talented in so many areas. It's not fair!


Gray has captured the life of the city's streets and its people
I also had a quick look round the GOMA's 'You, Me, Something Else' exhibition of contemporary sculptures. The idea of the exhibition is to question established assumptions of what a sculpture can be. It certainly achieved its aim as there is no way I'd call a stack of Ryvita boxes or a crumpled pile of plastic sheeting a sculpture! I'm sure all the artwork on display means something, but whatever it does, went right over my head. I wasn't alone in lacking appreciation for the artwork. A comment in the visitors' book read,  "I've lived in Glasgow all my life, so I’ve seen some shite, but this really is shite.” This wasn't the only derogatory comment and "shite" was a popular word choice!


Over the break, I've been writing short stories and everything I've written about recently has been triggered by observing and interacting. In my last job, I travelled all over Scotland to visit schools and train teachers. I met new people everyday and I now realise that I need people and places, not just a room of my own, to keep me inspired.



























Sunday, 22 January 2012

Oral History and why Memories Matter




Who doesn’t like to reminisce? This week I was greedy and indulged myself with a double dose of happy memories. Hubby and I went to the Riverside Museum. Glasgow’s well-loved Museum of Transport relocated last summer to the banks of the River Clyde. The trip has been on our ‘to do’ list for a while and we were keen to see the new building that was designed by internationally-renowned architect, Zaha Hadid and houses 3000 objects, each with their own story.

What really surprised me most was that amidst exhibits such as a glamorous 1910 Bentley, I saw part of my own story, a humble Raleigh RSW bike. It was the same colour and model as my first ‘real’ childhood bike. Memories of my dad sourcing the second hand bike for me (not the one I dreamed of!) came flooding back and inspired me to write a short story about an ungrateful child (don't know where I got the idea from!). Here’s a short extract,
“It is brown. Not candy pink or baby blue like my sister’s bike. Brown. The colour of shit. And it has a brown and green checked shopping bag on the back. For shopping. I am ten. This is a lady’s bike. This isn't a Chopper. This isn’t cool. It’s crap.”

The following day, I ended up thinking about my dad again. I was at a workshop, an introduction to Oral History at the Scottish Oral History Centre in Glasgow.  The day’s programme included how to plan a project, interviewing techniques and I got the chance to play around with Zoom, the latest in digital recorders. Technology has come a long way since I belted out, “Ma! He's Making Eyes at Me" into my tape cassette recorder, convincing myself that I was just as good as Lena Zavaroni (I’m still deluded that I can sing!) 

The workshop made me appreciate how oral history has helped to preserve hidden histories, especially under represented topic areas and marginalised communities. The concept really struck a chord with me when I thought about my dad’s background. Professor McIvor used his book, ‘Miner’s Lung’ as an example.  The book is an exploration into the diseases suffered by miners due to their horrendous working conditions. One of the men he interviewed could have been my granda, Peter Meechan. He was a miner living in the small North Lanarkshire village of Croy and would have experienced the same brutal working conditions. No such thing as Health and Safety regulations in those days! 


Home life was just as tough too. My gran, Annie died aged 44. She had given birth to 15 children (Peter junior never survived). My dad, Archie was the eighth child of 14 and told me that in his house, “first up, was the best dressed.” And yet although my dad never played down the reality of his childhood (the wrong bike was never an issue!), the stories he told were always full of laughter. Maybe telling his own oral history he romanticised some of the details to entertain me and my sister but does it really matter? But it does matter that the history of communities like his are faithfully represented and their story is told.

I haven’t got the skills or knowledge to record the lives of the families like my dad’s for historical purposes; I’ll leave that to the experts.  But if my dad was still alive, I’d have a Zoom recorder ready to capture his special stories. It’s too late for that now. My dad didn't leave a record of his life but he did pass on his storytelling ability. And for that I will always be grateful.


The only childhood photo of my dad.

           


Saturday, 14 January 2012

Writing Competitions-In It To Win It!


My name is Helen and I’m addicted to quality stationery. There you go, I’ve admitted it publically.  And one of my annual highlights is always starting a fresh diary (I know it’s sad). This year’s object of my affection is a lovely Writer’s Diary (thankfully my eldest son responded to repeated hints (I don’t do subtle) for a Xmas present I would actually use. The diary is produced by Mslexia and is packed full of ideas and info for women writers.  On one of the first pages it has a Submissions section for you to record when and where you’ve sent your precious masterpieces. There’s nothing quite like pages of blank columns to make me feel under pressure.  And as the publisher, Bloomsbury has dubbed 2012 as the year of the short story, I felt that I should get cracking and enter a short story competition.

I've not got a lot of experience of writing short stories and I know it’s not easy. With strict word limits you can’t afford to waste a single word.  I’m in awe of writers who can pull off a powerful story succinctly. The ultimate in flash fiction, a short form of storytelling, has got to be Ernest Hemingway’s work of genius, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Wow! How can six words be so evocative? Maybe stunning examples like that are why I’ve avoided the genre, but it was time to face my fear.

I needed a theme and a deadline to motivate me. And I found it on a trip to visit the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.  Hubby and I went as part of a festive trip to Auld Reekie.  The gallery is a fantastic neo-gothic red sandstone building and has something to suit everyone’s taste whether you like traditional paintings of Scottish lairds or photographs of Glaswegian slums.  It’s well worth a visit and it’s free entry! On the way out, I picked up a leaflet for a competition called, ‘Inspired? Get Writing!’  There’s still time to enter! 
http://www.nationalgalleries.org/education/competitions I chose to write about a striking (and a bit scary) portrait of the acclaimed writer, committed feminist and social activist, Naomi Mitchison, painted by Percy Wyndham Lewis. She sounded like my kind of woman!  

A very clever lady but what a dour faced looking besom!

sent off my submission this week and felt quite smug at being able to make my first entry under the Submissions section of my new diary. Entering the competition has fired me up to enter as many as I can in the hope of being published. Read a lot, write a lot is my new mantra and the competitions will give me a goal and the chance to practise, practise, and practise my writing skills. The chances of winning are slim but as they say, if you’re not in it, you can’t win it. Watch this space…


Saturday, 7 January 2012

Writing and Best Beginnings



Starting something new is always exciting. That’s why I really like January, (apart from the dreich weather and hurricane winds that have caused major roof leaks in my house!) it’s the month of new beginnings.  The beginning of a new diet, an exercise routine, or even a novel.
One of my fellow students posted on Facebook that she wrote the first line of her novel at the stroke of midnight.  She’s kidding us on that it starts, “It was a dark and stormy night…” We’ll need to wait for her workshop submission to find out the real opening line.


But her FB post made me think of the best way to start a novel. I think every writer obsesses about making an impact with their first sentence. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but that doesn’t apply to first lines. One of my favourite well known opening lines is,




“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger.

But the best beginning that I’ve read recently was from a brilliant book- Precious by Sapphire- “I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver.”  I was immediately plunged into the world of an illiterate black girl who has never been out of Harlem and is pregnant by her own father for the second time and kicked out of school.  The novel is a fantastic exploration of abuse and deprivation but also totally uplifting. Read it!  I dream about being able to write such a powerful story.

But what got me writing in the first place? It was another FB post that got me thinking. It was a post by a new literary magazine for students in Scotland called Octavius. They aim to bridge the gap between being an unpublished student and submitting to professional magazines and journals and accept work of any genre and looks for writing which is fresh, unique and exciting.
Their FB post asked for a photo of your desk/laptop/outside of the library you work in, etc, and a brief description about what being a writer means to you and details about what made you start writing. This was my reply.

I don’t have a proper desk, so I escape to my boudoir bedroom to write at my dressing table. But don’t be fooled by the pink laptop and flowery décor, my writing can be dark and gritty.

I started writing when my best friend gave me a lovely notebook in 2006 for my birthday. The message inside read, “I would love to buy a novel by you. I’m sure you have the talent and wit and ‘experience’ to make it a great read. Thought you could keep some notes here. Have fun. Love Veronica x”

I love a challenge and her encouragement was the trigger to write my first novel. Almost six years later, I’m now working on novel number three and have finished the first semester of a MLitt in Creative Writing.

Turns out my pal gave me the best present ever-belief in me that I could write something worth reading and who knows, maybe one day I’ll be able to give her a special mention in my published novel…