Tag Archives: Novel-in-progress

In progress

It’s been an up and down year with my novel in progress, The Ghost Marriage. There have been months when I’ve hated it, months when events (dear boy, events) got in the way, but I think we have come to an understanding with each other. At present, I’m enjoying the writing, becoming more and more interested in the characters (especially a few whom I didn’t originally give much thought to, whose roles are expanding) and I’m feeling better about its tone which has been an ongoing problem.

Structuring my week has helped a lot; encouragement from agent Jenny Brown, at the excellent Pitch Live event in Edinburgh recently did too (specifically, her advice to ‘stay in the emotion longer’ which has unlocked a few things for me). Having more of my stories published helps too to make me feel that I’m still getting stuff out there even as I wrestle with a long project. There are still days when I doubt the whole thing, am frustrated with my inability to make it as good as I want it to be, or when I procrastinate myself into unhappiness, even though I know I always feel better when I’ve written. But it is still very much a work in progress – I keep going back to it – and that’s something.

Other stuff going on:

After The Fall, the post-apocalyptic anthology from Almond Press which includes my zombie rock star story, The Comeback Tour, is now available as an e-book from Amazon (sorry about the tax thing): http://www.amazon.co.uk/After-Fall-Apocalypse-Collection-ebook/dp/B00FBOU8Z2/

Night Shift At The Cessnock Psychic Centre, which is in Gutter issue 9, is still available here: http://www.freightbooks.co.uk/inrude-health.html.

I’m currently teaching classes at Glasgow University’s Open Studies dept, regularly appearing on both Shereen (discussing the week’s news stories) and The Culture Studio (reviewing films) on BBC Radio Scotland, and, of course, still reviewing telly for The Scotsman, as well as occasional book reviews.

Also, watch this space as I have just had some proper author pictures taken, by the very kind Glasgow photographer Paul Harkin who specialises in writer/artist portraits – will put one up if it doesn’t make me want to die inside!
(Paul’s info here: http://www.swordfishphotography.co.uk/)

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New story news

Happy to announce that I’ve got another story accepted by leading Scottish literary journal Gutter for their next issue, which comes out in time for the Edinburgh Book Festival (around which I am available for readings, events and bar mitzvahs). It’s a story I’m particularly pleased to have published, so please read it when it comes out if you can. Some very distinguished company surrounds it and the full line-up is here: Freight Books.

I wrote a wee story about my childhood gullibility for National Flash Fiction Day, which was Highly Commended in their contest: read Lost For Words and all the winners here: MicroFiction Competition 2013. Thanks to Calum Kerr for these cool postcards showing my story, which you can see here: NFFD

And I also was a contest winner at fairytale magazine Enchanted Conversation, for a short piece that is not so much a story, more a character study or a meditation on Rumplestiltskin, one of my favourite mythological underdogs. Read it, with a lovely illustration, here: You Know My Name.
Thanks to Kate Wolford for my prize and for sterling efforts to publish it in the face of computer trouble. Check out her book of neglected fairytales, Beyond The Glass Slipper, while you’re at the site.

In other news, I’ve just finished four months of working with coach Philippa Johnston under a programme called Coaching For Glasgow Writers, supported by the agency Glasgow Life. This has been one of the best things I’ve ever done to improve my writing life: not my writing as such, but the ways of going about it, of directing and structuring creative ideas and professional development in all areas of my rambling freelance life of writing journalism, fiction and teaching. I’ve never done anything like this before; as a journalist, after my post-grad, you tend not to have the opportunities for continuing training that other professions have (and, these days, we’re just barely clinging on to it as a profession). And while I’ve found writing classes and workshops very helpful in the past, it was really thought-provoking to have these one-to-one sessions, being (gently) encouraged to think through problems and obstacles and to look for solutions rather than just flail around hopelessly, assuming that there was no other way, or that if I just kept trying harder to do things in the same way, magically it would somehow eventually work. I won’t go on too much about the specific things I worked on with Philippa for now – maybe another time – but just want to recommend her coaching, in particular, but probably any similar programme in other areas too, for anyone who shares my problems of procrastination, disorganisation, juggling jobs and trying to make writing a career. A good place to start might be: The Writers Compass. Final thanks to Philippa, for listening so well and keeping me on track.

What a link-tastic post! Oh, one more thing: I am on BBC Scotland’s The Culture Studio on Thursday afternoon, talking about new films including The Internship and Now You See Me (from 2pm, 4th July). I’ll also be back on the Shereen show on 20th July, despite making a TERRIBLE Iain Banks faux pas last time I was on a couple of weeks ago (mixed up the opening lines of The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road! How could I! Love Iain Banks and very sad to hear about his death). No mistakes next time, I promise …

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Filed under Competitions & Awards, Flash Fiction, Literary happenings, Stories, Writing

What it is and what it is not

I’ve been feeling a little low about my novel-in-progress lately and couldn’t work out why. I should be feeling really positive: I’ve made more progress with it than anything else I’ve written to date, I’ve had expressions of interest in it and over the last month or so I’ve solved some problems and really settled into a groove with the writing.

And that’s the problem – the book is now, for better or worse, shaped. There is MUCH to do, both in terms of actual writing but also, I’m not saying that the plot or structure or themes are set in stone. I’m sure I’ll change many things as I write and redraft. But in finally pinning down a sense of what the book is about and what its tone is, I realise that that means letting go of some of the things it is not about and all the ways it is not going to be written. And that act of having to choose, of having to settle on certain things, is kind of sad.

When you first come up with an idea for a book, or a story, or even an article, it exists in its most perfect, ideal form. And if you never actually write it, it will always be in that form. But no one will get to read it. So I will try to push on with my imperfect book and let go of its unwritten perfection.

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Granta & Hay

Photo by Martinliano

Here is a link to my Commonwealth prize-winning story on Granta. I absolutely love the picture they’ve chosen, the white jasmine emerging from the black background, beautiful, mysterious and a bit sinister – it’s perfect (thanks to Ted Hodgkinson at Granta, who edited the piece). The story was written a while ago now and since I’ve been working on the book version, and doing research, I SO wanted to change so much of it – for instance, Lucy is now from Scotland, which makes much more sense, the father’s history is quite different, the details are much more accurate – but it had to remain more or less as I’d entered it. And it was odd answering those interview questions … particularly as the emphasis (understandably) was on nationality and the idea of Commonwealth. It made me realise that it’s not something I’ve ever thought about much before, in itself, despite considering myself fairly well-informed and opinionated about matters of politics and colonialism. The answers from the other regional winners are very interesting too – as are the stories, which are also up on Granta. I’m really happy to be in their company!

At the weekend I went down to Hay-on-Wye for the book festival, to meet up with the Commonwealth Writers staff who were involved in various events there. Met lovely people, including the thoughtful Emma Martin from New Zealand, who won the Pacific region and the overall prize – her story Two Girls In A Boat is absolutely beautiful – and the charismatic Shehan Karunatilaka, from Sri Lanka, whose book Chinaman: The Legend Of Pradeep Mathew won the Commonwealth Book Prize (and sounds brilliant, despite being about cricket, will read it soon). Thanks to all the Commonwealth people and particularly to those of the judges who were there, Bernadine Evaristo, Margaret Busby and Nicholas Laughlin, for being lovely and encouraging. There was a reception and couple of other talks.

with Bernadine Evaristo and Margaret Busby


Other interesting encounters: the impossibly glamorous Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who arrived in a gorgeous, totally impractical vivid green frock and stilettos, and was so sweet that when she drew a little picture of me in a book (like a child would draw), me and the two adoring blokes with her melted into cooing praise like fools.

With Chimamanda at Hay


A very posh lady, whose identity I never quite got but who had lots of intense anecdotes and seemed to know everyone, who told me a story about hearing ghostly footsteps “when my husband at the time and I were living at Longleat for a while with Alexander” (ie the Marquess of Bath – pronounced AlexAUNNNder). Two very nice writers from north Wales, Mary and Debz, who took pity on me when I was hanging around on my own and were good company. Debz runs Bridge House Publishing and Paws’n’Claws; among other things they publish children’s books in aid of the Born Free Foundation. AND, though it shouldn’t really count as I didn’t actually speak to him, Salman Rushdie who ate his dinner just two tables away from me (I was tempted to do a Bridget and ask him where the toilets were).

Hay Festival Commonwealth Writers

Having booked at the last minute, I was staying in a weird dorm room with 16 small bunk-beds crammed in. Thankfully only two others were occupied, but the 1970s decor and low heights made it feel like a claustrophobic Girl Guides’ trip. I can’t complain about the price though: £22 a night including a great breakfast! The only other thing available was a luxury yurt at £200. And the hotel it was in, while also untouched by the fashions of the last few decades, was the original Baskerville Hall, where Conan Doyle stayed and took the name (relocating the place to Dartmoor). It was a bit out of the way though, down a dark country lane, and it took two buses to get to the festival site. And unfortunately the weather at Hay was bloody awful. The tented village may have kept the rain out but not the cold and wind, so being around there all day was a damp and depressing experience. I’m sure the festival is really good usually (though I don’t get the sense they have as big and varied a programme as the Edinburgh book festival), but I only saw it at its grimmest. And the journey was quite complicated with a succession of dull bus and train journeys – and stop-offs of several hours in Hereford (quite pretty, nice cathedral) and Crewe (incredibly boring and ugly town centre). I came back home exhausted and immediately succumbed to quite a rotten cold. I’ve spent the last few days snuffling and moaning and cuddling the dog. You know, just in case literary success went to my head or anything.

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Filed under Competitions & Awards, Stories

I won!

To my genuine amazement, my story The Ghost Marriage has been named the winner (Europe & Canada region) of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize!

I am delighted, of course, thrilled that the story is going to be published in Granta online, hopeful that this will lead to ‘Things’ but mostly … relieved. I’ve been calling myself a writer, carving out time to write, sending off stories, going to events, doing readings, boring people by telling them about my novel and generally trying hard to shut down that bit of brain that scoffs: yeah, right. You’ll never do it. And why would anyone care if you did? Winning a prize doesn’t kill off that voice, but it does gag it for a bit. And it’s wonderful to be able to tell friends, be congratulated and feel how pleased they are for me. I am basking, just for a bit, and it feels like those days when you’ve just finished a big piece of work or just sat a test or completed a contract and you’re free, free …

(Yes, I know I still have a lot to write. And I will. It’s a tremendous motivation to revise what I’ve already done and move on)

The list of regional winners – I love how varied we are, from an accountant in Lagos to a Jamaican environmental activist!

Interesting discussion of the prize on Radio 4’s Open Book with the fab Mariella Frostrup.

Official announcement of winners on the World Service’s programme The Strand

More details in Granta. Excuse the dodgy old picture with fringe.

Whee!!!!!

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Commonwealth Short Story Prize

I’m delighted (and shocked) to have been shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize!
It’s for a version of The Ghost Marriage, which I’ve been trying to turn into a longer book over the last year, so this is a massive encouragement that I’m working on something which is worth pursuing. I’m so relieved I can’t even tell you.
Since writing this version, I’ve done a lot more historical research and made many changes to develop and expand the book. But it retains the essence of the initial story which I enjoyed writing so much that I didn’t want to leave these characters and that setting.
The prize is open to stories from 54 countries which is amazing: I imagine the entries were incredibly varied so it’s a real honour to be shortlisted. I have to admit, the Commonwealth as an entity is not something I’d previously thought about very much, but looking at the Foundation’s website, they seem to do some great work (there’s also a useful site for writers). They say: “We exist to empower charities, non-governmental organisations, professional associations, trade unions, faith groups and cultural practitioners; the lifeblood of any healthy society. We equip these groups with the tools required to contribute to national and international goals of democracy, good governance, sustainable development and cultural diversity.”
All good things, but the latter I think is something which is particularly in need of celebration at the moment, when “multiculturalism” has become a dirty word in some places and people are either deliberately or thoughtlessly denying the historical circumstances which have made the world the way it is.
My story is all about making connections (Scottish, Chinese, Japanese; men and women; the literal and the metaphorical; the physical and the poetic; commerce, war and Empire; the 19th Century and the 21st) so maybe that’s what made it a good fit for this competition. Or maybe not, I dunno!
I’m looking forward to finding out more about the other shortlisted stories. There’s also a prize for best (published) first novel – anyone read any of them?

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February update

Just noting a few of the writing-related things I have been up to this month (which has also seen a depressing number of rejections – oh well).

On the 13th, I went through to Edinburgh for Blind Poetics, where I was a ‘featured’ performer. Now, I just assumed that the name referred to the venue, the Blind Poet pub, but it turned out that I was the only non-poet reading (and, as well as the fantastic Colin McGuire, there were a dozen or so Open Mic-ers). I felt really self-conscious about this as my stories seemed really long by comparison, but everyone was very polite and attentive. A fun night and met some nice people.

On the 16th, I read briefly at the Love Words event at the Museum of Modern Art, organised by the Federation of Writers (Scotland).

On the 25th, the anthology A Thousand Cranes was officially launched at an event at the Arches, part of the Margins festival, reading my story The Unbeaten Track. Helen Sedgwick, Iain Paton, Raymond Soltysek and Katy McAulay also performed and a number of other people from Glasgow Writers’ Group who have stories or poems in the book were there too. It was a surprisingly good turnout (oh, the relief – at one point only 12 tickets had been sold) and quite daunting facing an audience in the large space of the Arches theatre. Some of my friends who don’t normally come along to literary events, along with my partner’s parents, came to support me, which was lovely, and afterwards we drank much wine in the bar. So that’s the anthology now officially out, complete with its foreword by Alex Salmond, and if you could possibly buy a copy that would be very nice (all proceeds to the Japanese Red Cross).

Finally, I went to London for four days this month, piggybacking my partner’s work trip and taking advantage of the free hotel room! An aside: I got the train, he got a BA flight and we left the house at the same time but I got to the hotel by the Barbican literally two minutes after he did … Anyway, my purpose in going was not just to have a Me Party like Amy Adams & Miss Piggy in The Muppets film, but to do some research for my novel in progress.

I had a brilliant time at both the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum (looking into accounts of sea voyages between Britain and China in the mid-19th Century) and then at the British Library Reading Rooms for various other matters. I am a complete library geek and this was my idea of heaven; I’d visited both places before but there was something really exciting to me about getting a Reader’s card and being able to request material from their stacks, waiting for them to be delivered, taking copious notes in pencil (no pens allowed) in the wonderful quiet atmosphere. Absolutely my idea of the perfect London trip (I also saw a great Dickens exhibition) and it has reignited my love for this project.

I’ve been working on it for a while but I feel that I finally have the shape of the story clear and have enough general research (I will still need to check various specific things as I go along) to really achieve what I’m trying to do. Getting the balance right between researching and writing the first draft has been interesting and has thrown up a lot of issues about writing historical fiction. As a result, I’ve put together, with my mate the historian Dr Ben Shepherd, a one-day workshop which will run at the University of Strathclyde on August 23rd, where we’ll be discussing that very thing (more details to follow).

Overall, quite a productive month really (I’ve also written a new, long short story and several thousand more words of novel). I hope this doesn’t sound like showing off; for me, I have to keep note of the good things as a counterbalance for the inevitable crappy feelings that I’m way behind, I keep being rejected, other people are better etc etc. Got to accentuate the positive, talk myself up (to myself) – that’s what Miss Piggy would do.

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