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So, where am I now?

Firstly, here’s a blog I wrote for The Scotsman on the first Edinburgh Historical Fiction Festival this weekend (it’s below the one about ‘Thatcher’s musical legacy’).

The shortlist has just been announced for this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize and Granta will again be publishing the regional winners – I’m looking forward to reading them and wish them all best of luck! In the meantime, Granta have published short updates on the five of us from last year and you can read it here if you like: ‘Where are they now?’ Or, if you’d rather not be scared by a horrible photo of me, I thought I’d put up my original answers to their email questions, which had to be understandably cut down for publication. I hope it doesn’t seem too self-indulgent, but for me anyway it was an interesting exercise to think about how to answer these. Especially the last one.

How has the experience of being selected by Commonwealth Writers and having your story published by Granta altered your perspective of yourself as a writer, if at all?
Oh, it was such a boost. I really believed in this story but it’s a bit of a strange one, so it was amazing to have someone else – especially people as eminent as the Commonwealth judges – say that they got it and they enjoyed it. It really gave me confidence that I was on the right track: I know I have a lot to learn about writing, but this award said that I could do it. I went down to the Hay-on-Wye book festival for the official announcements and it felt like a small taste of a potential future. And, honestly, the prize money came in handy too. The only downside was having to provide a photo for the publicity. Ugh.

Granta was the first literary magazine I ever read, or even heard of, back in 1990. I still have those first issues on my bookshelves. So for me to have a story published under the same imprint (albeit online) as all the big beasts of contemporary literature is something so special that I’m almost embarrassed to talk about it. I was very, very pleased and it has been the highlight of my writing career so far. It was also lovely just to see it laid out on the screen page, with pull-quotes and that beautiful photograph to illustrate it.

Has anything resulted directly from your story being published by Granta and/or winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize?
Since the story was published, I’ve been approached through my blog by a couple of agents wanting to discuss my work, had someone want to translate it and even heard from a cousin abroad whom I haven’t seen in 25 years!

What are you working on at the moment?
I have been developing The Ghost Marriage into a novel, with substantial changes. It’s a long process, but I’m making good progress so I hope to finish by the end of this year and then try to get it published. But I also take breaks from the book to write short stories, on all kinds of subjects – from working in a call centre to a WWI war crimes trial to a zombie rock star.

How did you find the experience of having your work edited?
Great – I just want my stories to be the best they can be. An outside perspective helps make sure that everything’s coming across clearly, so the reader knows what they need to know but the story still has space for ambiguity and imagination. I’m used to being edited anyway because I have a journalism background, but there you don’t tend to get much of a say about it! Fiction allows for so much more nuance and multiplicity of meanings, so there has to be a bit more of a discussion between writer and editor. It’s more personal, yet you don’t want to be self-indulgent, so there’s almost a collaboration going on.

If you were in a band, what would they be called?
The Procrastinators. We’d rehearse a lot but never get around to playing any gigs.

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Retreat, move forward

A cottage on a small island surrounded by sea; no interruptions or tedious chores; just writing and pottering about with the dog and skimming stones and cooking and eating and no phone signal and … bliss. My partner and I were both pretty tired and needed a break. Going anywhere abroad just seemed too much effort (and expense): all we really wanted to do was have time to write. So we did and it was wonderful.

My goal for this unofficial writing retreat was to rework the first part of the book. I know there’s a school of thought that you should power on till the end and then go over the entire first draft, but I felt like a lot has changed since I began, both in terms of how I’m telling the story and also due to what research has thrown up. There were a lot of fiddly problems that were putting me off the whole book because I knew they were sticking out. 

I feel like I had a breakthrough, or rather a series of small breakthroughs. I solved a structural problem that has dogged me since the very beginning and found a way to do so that is a small private joke with myself about it (though no one else should notice). I took an unsatisfactory minor character who has seemed, in her one scene, like a silly caricature and – I think – made her more like a real person. I joined up bits that have been hanging with “WRITE MORE HERE” stuck between them like a temporary hoarding. And so on. I’m really happy with what I got done and it’s re-energised me to carry on. 

Here is a picture of where I sat to write. Spot the small dog trying to lure me outside.

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And when I wanted a break, I’d go and look at this. Are you jealous?

 

 

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In other news, I spent the week before the holiday reviewing shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. This is something I used to do every year, for the full stretch, until it sent me insane. After a break of a few years, I thought I could handle doing just a week … the thing is, at the Fringe, as with everything else, 90 per cent of what’s on is rubbish. Which is why proper reviews by someone with a bit of experience are actually important. But for some reason while I can easily read a bad book or watch a bad TV show or film, and still get something out of it, when I’m stuck watching an hour of bad theatre, I just want to bite my own fist off. Sometimes if you give something a negative review, someone who knows the people involved, or who just enjoyed it themselves, will leave angry comments. I wish I could convince them – and I’m sure this applies to most professional critics – that I HATE not enjoying something to the extent that it deserves a poor review. I would so, so, much rather write positive ones (although writing a scathing review is certainly more fun than writing about something which was okay, nothing special, watchable/readable but not memorable. Those reviews are absolute killers to write). Of course, I am sure I will change my tune if my book gets loads of horrible reviews. I will then declare all the critics to be idiots who didn’t even read it and can’t read properly anyway. 

Some positive reviews: 

Jimmy McGovern’s The Accused, with Sean Bean http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/tv-and-radio/tv-preview-accused-person-of-interest-1-2464089

New play, The Death Of Chatterton http://www.scotsman.com/the-scotsman/scotland/festival-review-the-death-of-chatterton-pleasance-courtyard-venue-33-1-2465073

New production of More Light (I loved this play, hadn’t seen it before and now want to know more about Bryony Lavery) http://www.scotsman.com/the-scotsman/scotland/review-more-light-c-eca-venue-50-1-2469210

 

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July update

Not too much writing news to report this month, just keeping on going … well, sort of. I have to admit I had a post-Hay Fest slump and took a couple of weeks off, then went to Hawick for a retirement party ceilidh, but I’ve pulled myself together now and particularly looking forward to going away next month for a full-on, no computers/phones/roads week of island isolation up north where my plan is to completely revise the first section of the book and, if possible, also revise a long short story that’s been sitting around for a few months.

I have been doing other work though so here’s a few links:
Book review of ‘Breasts: A Natural And Unnatural History’ by Florence Williams in Scotland on Sunday – interesting popular science book.
Book review of ‘You Came Back’ by Christopher Coake in The Scotsman – lovely new novel.
Non-Olympic telly preview – I made sure to get a dig in at Fifty Shades of Grey.
A piece about the reaction to Aaron Sorkin’s new show The Newsroom (it has got worse since I wrote that: the latest “are you KIDDING me?” moment is that the supposedly brilliant TV news producer woman somehow is unable to understand basic economic concepts).

Plus a few radio appearances: Good Morning Scotland on the 28th to discuss the Olympics Opening Ceremony, Call Kaye this morning (30th) and on the 15th, the Shereen Nanjiani Sunday morning show – I’ve done tons of radio but never been on this show before. It’s quite intense, because you’re on for the whole hour and the discussions basically cover all the main news stories of the week and the Sunday papers. I really had to swot up, particularly since the other guests (veteran foreign editor David Pratt and former investment banker turned consultant Ian Blackford) are so knowledgeable – bit nervous but I think I did alright, really enjoyed it anyway.

In other news, here’s the info for the writing workshop I’m due to teach next month – please pass on if you know anyone who might be interested.
Writing Historical Fiction – Thursday 23rd August 10am-4pm – Strathclyde University Centre for Lifelong Learning – £30 – 0141 548 2116
Interested in writing a short story or novel set in the past? Whether Ancient Rome, the Victorian era or WWII, each historical period brings its own challenges for writers: how do you convey the way people lived and talked then? How do you choose the right details to really give a flavour of the time? How do you create believable characters and storylines? What resources are available, how much research is necessary – and how much is too much? This class is jointly led by a writer [that’s me!] and an historian [my good pal Dr Ben Shepherd, Reader in History at Caledonian University, author of War In The Wild East and other books], with advice, discussion and exercises used to help you find ideas, get the most out of research sources and write great historical fiction (though many elements will apply to any kind of writing). It is suitable for both beginners and more experienced writers. Strathclyde University Summer Programme online.
There will also be a longer version of the class, with weekly writing critiques and exercises, running at Glasgow University on Wednesday evenings at 6.30pm from 3rd October for eight weeks (details: 0141 330 1835) and again at Strathclyde University from January 2013 (details: 0141 548 5778).
In both terms I’ll also be running literature classes, including Now Read The Book II – the sequel to last year’s book-to-film adaptations class.

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Recent articles

The Scotsman now has an Arts Blog (at long last) – here is a silly thing I wrote for it: Shane’ll Fix It & Other Strange TV Ideas.

I don’t normally put my articles up here but while I’m here, a few more seasonal ones:

How Charles Dickens trademarked Christmas.

Why this series of Strictly Come Dancing offered light relief.

And from last year, a piece I really enjoyed researching about
Christmas in Scotland over the years (can’t link direct, but scroll to Page 28-31; note that the system takes a minute to load).

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Obligatory lame introduction

It is apparently vital for every writer, even a timid, not-much-published one like me, to have a website, so here it is, the very-much-beta version.

I have a story up at the lovely online project For Every Year (short stories thematically linked to years in history – mine is the year 1633) called The Big Girl. It’s about Trintje Keever, the tallest woman in known history.

And here’s my most recent TV review in The Scotsman, on BBC Scotland’s The Field Of Blood.
Thank you for reading.

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