Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Writer's Garden

At this time of the year everything in the garden shouts for attention: from the dazzling pinks and reds of rhododendrons and azaleas to the riot of purples and yellows in the rockery.

Alongside these vibrant colours, however, there's also shade and texture in the palette of greens, silks and succulents of new-burst leaves and emerging buds.

A bit like writing, really. There's the blaze of an idea that you just want to burn onto the page before it dims. Then you watch the fire settle and add/change colour, texture and tone.

Currently BOOKMARK - - has the delightful Joan Lennon as our writer in residence for a six month period in the run up to the festival. She's started posting writing prompts on the festival blog on a Friday to be completed by the following Wednesday. Great fun and so exciting when you surprise yourself by coming up with an idea or an angle which you'd never previously considered. Everyone should have a go!

Yesterday was the deadline for applications to the Scottish Book Trust for the '2014 Next Chapter' award which is specifically aimed at writers over 40. Just made it and no more! Anyway, the chosen applicant gets to spend time with a mentor in the beautiful setting of Moniack Mhor where I'd just love to be right now.

This month's reading has ranged from a Neil Gaiman children's fantasy called 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' to Maggie O'Farrel's 'Instructions for a Heatwave'. Both proved to be fascinating in their different ways. Neil Gaiman is such an original writer whose creation of the world at the end of the lane oscillates between childhood memory and fantasy. Returning as an adult to a once familiar childhood landscape and prompted by Old Mrs Hempstock. a magical old lady, he finds himself drawn into memories of the past which hover on a string-thin borderline between fantasy and reality. 'Lyrical, scary and beautiful . . . a fantasy rooted in the darkest corners of reality.'  - Independent on Sunday.

Maggie O' Farrell is a favourite author of mine. I love the way she gets into the back of her characters' heads and gives the reader teasing glimpses of what makes them tick. 'Instructions for a Heatwave' explores the emotional layers of one family's dynamics when they are forced to come together to investigate the sudden disappearance of their father. Tautly written, it gives the reader a compelling insight into the consequences of unspoken histories.

Off to the greenhouse to ensure my summer garden will glow with colour, light and texture.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Recently I was invited to participate in a blog tour, answering the same
four questions about writing approaches that other writer bloggers have been contemplating. So, here are my observations. Have a look at some of the other participants’ blogs and compare notes. The responses are fascinatingly different.

What am I working on?
Currently, I’m working on redrafting my first novel which has lain in a drawer for two years. No bad thing, you might say and, in many ways, I agree. The main problem with the lying about in a drawer approach, however, is that the longer the slumbering opus lies there, the more difficult it becomes to waken it. It took a very encouraging ‘Winter Words’ writing workshop to finally prompt me to open the drawer.

Alongside the editing, I’m working on a new short story ready to enter the next round of competitions. This is my way of keeping up the momentum: list the entry dates for one or two competitions in the forthcoming months, then get writing. A recent entry in the annual Fish Publishing memoir competition was short-listed. Not a winner but maybe next time . .  .

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Apart from an academic textbook, ‘Textual Analysis’, published by Oxford University Press, my only other published writing is a series of children’s stories ‘The Colonel’s Collection’ - - based around a handsome cock pheasant called The Colonel. These are essentially animal fables with a gentle lesson to be learnt from each. I like to think they are different from other animal stories by virtue of their strong characterization and humorous illustrations created by Louise Gow. They are designed to appeal to adults as well as children. It’s my belief that parents are much more likely to read stories to their children if they (the adults) equally enjoy them. I can remember chortling over Raymond Briggs’s stories while reading them to my children. There was a delightful adult sub-text running through the narrative and that kept both reader and audience entertained.

Why do I write what I do?
I started out writing children’s stories because all the ingredients were there on my doorstep: a rural landscape, a castle and a wonderful array of wild creatures, each with its own distinctive personality. As the series progressed, so did my enjoyment of watching the interaction between these creatures and inventing new situations in which to develop this interplay of characters.

My adult novel aims to be the type of book I enjoy reading: character-driven and concerned with exploring the psychological and emotional reactions of a few individuals in a testing situation. I’m not a fan of the broad-sweeping saga: too many characters and not enough time to explore each one. I am interested in people and what makes them tick, especially when put under some kind of pressure. So, that’s what I want to write about.

How does my writing process work?
A bit of an odd question as it assumes my writing process does work! Sometimes, I start with a given when I’m writing a short story for a competition and a subject is prescribed. I quite like this approach as it disciplines my focus and dictates length. More often, I get an idea for a short story or a novel from something I observe and note, or experience and remember for days after. The novel I’m editing at the moment began life that way: I had been to hospital for a check-up and, coming out at the main entrance, I was confronted by a young man holding his head in his hands, obviously deeply distressed. For some reason, I felt drawn to him and the memory of his face and hunched shoulders stayed with me for days until I felt I had to write his story which started off as a short story but soon developed a life of its own and expanded into a novel.

I plot out the main stages of the story on a white board and fill in detail where I can see it at this stage. I usually know how it will end, although that can change as the writing develops. I’m a slow writer so it takes some time to complete a project. Then it’s edit, edit, edit . . .

I try to write every day but that’s not always possible. Today, for example, I’ve had to work on arrangements for this year’s BOOKMARK book festival - - of which I’m the Chair. The nearer I get to the main festival weekend  (10th - 12th October), the less time available for writing. I’m planning on rescheduling my day so that I can write in the early morning during the light, summer months. We’ll see how long that lasts!

Blog Tourers Before and After

I was invited to take part by:
Ann Swinfen
She was invited to take part by:
Catriona Troth
These writers will be following me and posting their answers to the four questions on Monday 14th April. There should have been three but one was a no show! They are:

Joan Lennon grew up in Ontario, Canada, and came to Scotland in 1978.    Now she lives in Newport-on-Tay, Fife.  Joan writes fiction for children - historical series, big fat fantasies, novels for less robust readers, and silly stories about dragons, ferrets and poo - and poetry and fiction for adults.  She also runs creative writing workshops for all ages, and is just beginning a six-month post as Writer-in-Residence for Blairgowrie, Rattray and the Glens.

MIRREN JONES is the pseudonym for the creative writing partnership of Marion Duffy from Scotland and Elaine Atkins from Wales.  Marion and Elaine have been writing together for 17 years: books, journal papers, articles, academic courses, workshops, short stories and poetry.  And they're still good friends!  Their debut novel was Eight of Cups.  Marion currently works as a medical practice manager, and Elaine was formerly a senior NHS manager – their experiences bringing realism to their novel- in-progress,  Never Do Harm

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Raring to Write: Light Lifts My Spirits

Raring to Write: Light Lifts My Spirits: I am one of the multitudes residing in the northern hemisphere who suffer from winter light deprivation. Not the full b...

Monday, 17 March 2014

Light Lifts My Spirits

I am one of the multitudes residing in the northern hemisphere who suffer from winter light deprivation. Not the full blown S.A.D. variety but, nevertheless, quite debilitating. I find the omniscient grey wallpaper dulls the senses and depresses the creative spirit.

So, in that mood, I made myself sign up for a three day writing workshop as part of the  'Winter Words' programme at Pitlochry. It turned out to be the kick-start I needed, not so much because of the tutor's input (she was fine) but more because of the way the group gelled: it ranged from a couple of lively twenty-somethings to a wonderful seventy-plus lady who exuded genteel modesty but turned out to be a wickedly funny rebel. We were honest and constructive with each other. sparking ideas until the River Room, overlooking the fast-flowing Tummel, threatened to ignite! The end result is the novel, consigned to the bottom drawer for the last two years, is now back on my desktop. And the Spring bulbs are aglow.

The weekend after the workshop, I was back at Pitlochry to hear Sally Magnusson talk about her latest book, ' Where Memories Go -  why Dementia Changes Everything', a moving memoir of the way she and her family dealt with her beloved mother's dementia. I had read the book and been very moved: what I wasn't prepared for was the intensity of the empathy which came from the capacity audience. It seemed almost everyone in that theatre had a story to tell about caring for a loved one with dementia. And Sally Magnusson handled their questions with such care and passion - a passion which has already seen her chair an important debate on the subject in an attempt to focus the minds of those who have the power and, we hope, the will to drive this topic to the top of the political agenda. 

This is not just another book about the suffering of one individual and her family but an extremely well-written and often joyous account of a daughter's search to preserve the 'self' of her mother in memories.

During the long, dark winter days, I try to keep the writing going by entering competitions. Periodically, I make a note of some of the most noteworthy ones . Usually it's short stories I enter but last month I submitted a memoir for a change. Initially, it felt quite strange writing in this genre but, once I'd found the right voice, it flowed quite easily. It was good to cut to the heart of things and put the magnifying glass on the detail. I found you can't be sloppy with the language of emotion in a memoir: to be credible, you have to distil and then some more until you feel the essence of the experience.

Back to books but this time two books for older teenagers: 'Ferryman' by Claire McFall and 'Slated' by Teri Terry. The first tells the story of Dylan who is killed in a train crash en route to meet up with her estranged father. But she emerges from the crash into a strange Scottish landscape where she meets a boy, Tristan, the Ferryman of the title, whose job it is to escort the souls of the dead across to their final resting place. 

Crossing this wasteland, they encounter menacing demons and wraiths who try to prevent them from reaching the safe houses along the route. They also encounter a developing relationship which, ultimately, presents both of them with difficult choices. As the blurb asks, 'Life, death or love - which will Dylan choose?' 

A sort of modern day retelling of the ferryman story of Greek mythology, this is an unsettling book which poses many questions about life after death, about the power of love and, ultimately, about the complex relationship between body and soul. Big and testing questions for teenage readers as well as for adults.

The second is set in the not too distant but scary future in which anyone under the age of 16 is made to undergo a surgery if they are believed to be 'terrorists', or if they are believed to be threats to the society. Their minds and memories are completely wiped and drawn blank. This procedure is called being 'Slated'. Their emotions are controlled by a device called a Levo which registers when the individual is experiencing strong, negative emotions. The state's idea is to control these individuals by keeping them in a permanently level, emotional state

The central character, Kyla is one such 'Slater', confused about all the terrifying flashbacks that keep returning to her - like the man who keeps returning to her dream, smashing her fingers with bricks. And yet, the only answer she is given is that she's "different". She is befriended and protected by Ben - kind, funny and interested in Kyla for who she is. 

The gripping plot involves Kyla trying to find out who she is, who she once was, and who she needs to be.

My only real disappointment was with the ending. The book is the first in what is going to be a series and the ending suffers from that. Too many loose ends are speedily gathered up in an unsatisfactory conclusion, victim of the drive to leave the reader with enough of a 'hook' to warrant a sequel. But, nevertheless, a compelling read.

This morning the light wakened me at 6.30. I could have been irritated by this but, instead, basking in the knowledge that the Spring Equinox is almost here, I threw off the duvet and welcomed the day!


Saturday, 9 November 2013

'Brilliant BOOKMARK'

That was the headline we got in our local press after last month's book festival here in Blairgowrie - our very first, in fact. So, that's my excuse for not having posted here for months. The whole festival thing just took over my life. But it has been so worthwhile. When you get lovely people like Liz Lochhead, Andrew Greig, James Robertson, Mairi Hedderwick and others all saying how much they've enjoyed participating in the event, you feel an enormous pride at being part of the organisational team. And what a team! All volunteers who've given up huge amounts of time and kilowatts of energy to the project. And they're already planning for next year's event!
Books supplied by our own independent book store!

Andrew Greig signs a copy of his latest novel, 'Fair Helen'.

Fiona Armstrong chats to Karen Campbell about 'This is Where I Am'. 

On the Saturday of the festival the heavens parted and we were treated to a spectacular but continuous downpour which threatened to seep inside the Royal Hotel venue. But, ironically, the weather proved to be a bonus as it swept people into the venue to buy up the few remaining tickets. It also meant that the closing whisky tasting event which followed on from an engaging session with internationally renowned whisky writer, Charles MacLean, put people in the perfect mood for later carrying on the 'tasting' in the bar to the accompaniment of a good going ceilidh!

It was wonderful to see so many children and young people at the event. Mini BOOKMARK offered a full menu: a taste of the Scots language for under 5s with James Robertson; a suitcase full of ferrets with the very entertaining Joan Lennon; an inside look at how Katie Morag finally arrives on the page; an animation workshop with the multi-talented, Kyla Tomlinson and finishing off with a Gruffalo Trail which brought together both book and wildlife experience, courtesy of the Perth and Kinross Council's Countryside Ranger Service.

Those who are cynical about today's youth should have been present at BOOKMARK to see for themselves just how wonderfully mature, responsible and capable young people can be. For example, we had a group of senior pupils from Blairgowrie High School taking charge of the technical production. Sixteen year old, Daniel Duncan, set up his company, 'Jam Productions' when he was just fourteen and now supplies technical expertise to a range of events. He and his team took charge of things with a maturity well beyond their years and with a level of courtesy that would show up many an adult! And then there were young, BOOKMARK T-shirt clad marshals who dealt with the public politely and efficiently. Our young blogger, Briana Freedsmith, whose blogs you can read at, entered into the spirit of this her first ever book festival with an infectious enthusiasm and a mature professionalism. Well done to all!

The children were, of course, the stars of the show. Their faces say it all. And we loved it just as much as they did! We'll be back with a great BOOKMARK programme in October, 2014.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Raring to Write: Bookmarked, Baltic and Bliss!

Raring to Write: Bookmarked, Baltic and Bliss!: I'm acutely aware that I've been very remiss in posting any new blogs in recent months. My excuse? I've been up to the eyebrows ...

Bookmarked, Baltic and Bliss!

I'm acutely aware that I've been very remiss in posting any new blogs in recent months. My excuse? I've been up to the eyebrows in book fest. organisation. Last post I mentioned my moment- of- madness decision to seek funding for BOOKMARK, a new book festival to be hosted in Blairgowrie (East Perthshire) with fringe events in Rattray & The Glens. After months of delicate gymnastics (jumping through hoops of fire while tied to restraining hand and foot straps), the executive committee (three mad women) have finally submitted applications and await results with a mixture of dread and anticipation. Meanwhile, we have a draft programme (just mistyped as 'pogromme'!) in place but can't finalise anything until we get the green light from those who hold the purse strings ( in some cases to the point where fingers turn blue!).

But, at risk of completely contradicting myself, it's not been ALL work: there was a short interval of play when I took off from this wintry scene


 to some South African sunshine . . .

and a little wine from Laurensford Estate . . . 

Been back now for a couple of weeks and, although still recovering from the temperature shift (31 to 4), I've also been enjoying long walks in frosty, blue-skied days. Today's another story! I should have been out there climbing a hill to mark International Women's Day but high winds and driving rain - falling as snow up the glen - sent me scurrying back under the duvet. One's empathy has limits.

On these walks, I've had time to reflect: on the shameful contrast between the comfortable lifestyle of many (but not all) white South Africans and the endemic poverty of so many of their fellow black South Africans, despite heroic efforts (mixed with a liberal helping of corruption) by the ANC government to build new houses and provide clean water and electricity; on the privilege enjoyed by many UK residents and rural Scots, in particular, to roam freely without feeling threatened or compelled to live behind security gates and electric fences; on the sheer joy at being alive and fit (relatively!); on the central importance of writing in my life now that it has been so neglected over the last 6 months.

Five years after publication, I've finally got round to reading Steven Galloway's 'The Cellist of Sarajevo'. 

Coinciding as it did with my trip to South Africa, its reading had a particular resonance. The idea that in the midst of the devastation of war and all its attendant cruelties, beauty can emerge as a powerful instrument of truth and common humanity struck me with powerful relevancy.

So . . . it's time to get right back into that short story which I've been meaning to finish for weeks. Maybe it'll never have an ending but then maybe that will prompt the beginning of a new story. The circles of life are still being drawn.