It’s been a while.

I ran out of steam somewhere in October. I wrestled with myself for a bit (quite a bit): I should… be writing… be editing… be researching… be submitting. But I was tired and needed to let everything rest, to lie fallow.

Fallow: land that has been ploughed and harrowed, but left for a period without being sown in order to restore its fertility and avoid surplus production.

Consider all the dull-looking earth in the picture above. It’s hard to imagine there could ever be growth, greenness, new life, never mind any sort of surplus.

When I stop I find it hard to imagine waking early in the morning, a tumble of delicious words ready to be written; to imagine creating images that didn’t exist until I put pen to paper; to imagine sculpting a new story from thin air. Stopping is a scary, scary thing to do.

During this fallow period I heard that I hadn’t got a Scottish Book Trust new writers award for the second year. If I allowed myself I could have seen that as confirmation that nothing will grow.

Instead, I pruned two stories to make them fit the word counts for two competitions. Storytelling tradition calls that desprender las palabras,* to throw away some of the words of the story to make it stronger. I heard this week that they’ve both been longlisted, one in Reflex Fiction’s winter flash fiction competition, the other in Words and Women’s prose competition.

After repeated rejections, no feedback and attempting to wrestle a novel into shape (it won by two falls and a submission and I will have to find a different way to engage with it), these two longlistings look like the first sign of spring.


*That’s in Spanish just because ‘las palabras’ is so much tastier than ‘the words’. Perhaps that’s another sign that spring is coming.


Ten minutes

‘Send us 10 minutes of your best writing’

That was the call from the lovely people at the City of Literature Trust, back in May.

Who’d have thought 10 minutes could turn into so many riches.

I didn’t have anything short enough, but despite being unsure whether I could do it, I decided to have a go at editing The Priest and the Snow Bear down from 2,000 to 1,500 words.

I was overjoyed when my story was selected. At last, someone who’d judged my writing anonymously thought it was good enough. Good enough to be read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Along with the 16 others – one of us for each day of the festival – I was invited to a social, took part in a half-day voice coaching masterclass (see Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! post) and had the beginning of my story recorded. You can listen, and read the whole story, here.

During the festival we were all invited to a party. In the Party Pavilion in Charlotte Square, no less. We met Story Shoppers – that’s what we’re called – from previous years. Some of them are published now.

At last the day came and I read my story. I got to spend the day in the Authors’ Yurt. My name was on the screen in the entrance tent and on the board outside the Spiegeltent:

spiegeltentLots of people came to hear me read – lots of people who’ve been supporting me over the past few years as my writing has become so much more than a hobby.

That’s not the end of it, though. No-one wanted it to be over, so quite a few of us turned up to listen to the final Story Shopper and hang out in the Spiegeltent one last time. One of our number has invited everyone round to her flat next week. And we’ll all be invited to next year’s Story Shop party.

I mentioned riches at the start of this post, and here they are:

  • editing was fun, and my story survived the cuts
  • working out how to read my work, then rehearsing, made a huge difference. And it was fun, too
  • I liked having an audience, and enjoyed reading enormously
  • community and support are incredibly important – thank you, thank you, thank you everyone

Those 10 tiny minutes are allowing me to time travel to the future – with new contacts, new ideas and renewed confidence. Who knows what they’ve started, or where they’ll lead.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

As you probably know, in 1949 Joseph Campbell wrote a now very famous book: The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, Campbell describes the hero’s journey, the archetypal journey that the main character of many stories goes on.

In the first stage of the journey the hero sets off in innocence; he or she doesn’t know what they’ve said ‘yes’ to. Here are some film examples:

In Speed, Annie (Sandra Bullock) was just on her way from a to b on the bus, when…


In Paddington, Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) thinks he’s invited a small Peruvian bear in for one night, but…


In When Harry Met Sally, Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) is only sharing the drive to New York with her friend’s boyfriend, however…

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Why am I telling you this?

Firstly, the idea of the hero’s journey will come up again (so pay attention – there may be a test at some point!)

Secondly, it’s what’s just happened to me. When I applied for a slot in Story Shop I hadn’t really thought through the consequences if I was accepted.

On Friday I spent three hours with most of the other writers who are going to read their stories… and a voice coach, the brilliant Alex Gillon.

It was informative, fascinating, very helpful… and somewhere between daunting and terrifying.

‘Oh yes. The animal noises,’ Alex said as I stood up to read.

My story has a bear in it. A huge polar bear. A huge polar bear, who speaks. With a huge, loud, deep voice.

Oh my.

Performing is not really my thing. But if I’m going to give the best account of my story I will need to perform it. Including the huge, loud, deep voice of the bear.

There’s another lesson here. Everything I’ve heard and read about being a published writer tells me that promotion and publicity will involve me reading my work to readers. I’ll need to get good at it. So, like many others who’ve gone on the hero’s journey, taking the first step will lead to things I never expected, but good, useful things.

This afternoon’s task is to watch Paddington. Michael Gambon’s rendition of Uncle Pastuzo may help. And if Ben Wishaw can make that much noise when he’s speaking ‘Bear’ to Mr Brown and Judy, surely I can too.





Emerging local writer


This is where I’ll be at 3pm on Friday 25 August. It’s the Spiegeltent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and I’ll be reading my short story, The Priest and the Snow Bear.

Each day during the book festival a different emerging writer reads a story as part of Story Shop, a showcase organised by Edinburgh City of Literature.

I wasn’t sure about the word emerging. After all, I’ve been here (or hereabouts) for nearly 59 years, and I’ve been writing for 14 of those years.  However, when I looked up the definition I changed my mind. Emerging means:

become known, become apparent, become evident, be revealed, come to light, come out, come to the fore, enter the picture, unfold

I like those!

Story Shop feels like the beginning of something; it’s the first time since I started sending out submissions that I’ve got an acceptance. It’s a great confidence boost.

And it’s a lovely process – two social events, a workshop with a professional voice coach and text and audio recording of the stories on the City of Literature Website.

Lots of people have said they’ll come along to hear me read, which is also lovely, and another confidence boost.

Now just let’s hope the voice coach can teach me to speak like a bear…


Kill your darlings

‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’

Take a look at the acknowledgements in a few of the novels on your shelves (or perhaps in the teetering stack next to your bed). Chances are you’ll find the authors thank their editors, with phrases like: ‘…without whom this book…’ or ‘…whose tireless work made this book a far better…’ or ‘…who gave this book her heart, her pencil and so many of her hours.’

I’m just back from a two-week writing retreat at Casa-Ana, up in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Andalucia, where I had my first experience of working with an editor, Mary-Jane Holmes of Fish Publishing.


An editor, as far as I can tell from this initial encounter, is someone who cares enough about your writing to point out your darlings and help you kill them; someone who is tough enough to ignore your attempts at bargaining and special pleading, and; someone who reminds you, again and again, when you say you’ll kill them, but then don’t.

An editor is a bit like a cross between a midwife and the Grim Reaper. And she’s brilliant and uncompromising in both of those roles.

The quote at the start of this post is Stephen King paraphrasing William Faulkner, who in turn was mis-quoting Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said:

‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

Murder. Not kill. Murder means intent, malice aforethought. No accidents. Maybe no regrets.

Now there’s a idea to conjure with.

And here, because I can’t resist it, is another. Quiller-Couch might have had a bit of bother with an editor: two adverbs in twenty-eight words? Oh dear.




The breakfast of champions

The observant among you have noticed that I haven’t been here for a while. Here are the headlines of what’s been happening since my last post on 8 April. I:

  • finished the first draft of my second novel, a clean heart
  • wrote a short story
  • attended four Friday afternoon writing classes (output so far: three poems)
  • signed up for an online course on blogging run by Women Writers School; attended the first webinar
  • edited a short story and sent it off for consideration for Story Shop in the Edinburgh International Book Festival
  • started my application for a 2018 Scottish Book Trust new writers award (goodness, that came round again quickly)

What? Oh, you noticed that, did you? Yes, that’s right. No submissions to agents.  Which was, after all, the point of this whole process.

I’ve heard of writer’s block (and seem to be blessedly immune from it), but I appear to be suffering from something I haven’t heard of: submission block.

When I’m really struggling with something I always turn for advice to the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century: Winnie the Pooh.

In my favourite Pooh story, In which Tigger comes to the Forest and has breakfast, Pooh has to try to find something that Tigger likes to eat.  This is tricky.  Each time Tigger is offered something he says, ‘that’s what Tiggers like best’, but it transpires that he doesn’t like Pooh’s honey, nor Piglet’s haycorns.  And he really, really doesn’t like Eeyore’s thistles:bumblebee_thistle_4

‘Are these really thistles?’ he whispered.

‘Yes,’ said Pooh.

‘What Tiggers like best?’

‘That’s right,’ said Pooh.

‘I see,’ said Tigger. So he took a large mouthful and he gave a large crunch.  ‘Ow!’ said Tigger.  He sat down and put his paw to his mouth.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Pooh.

‘Hot!’ mumbled Tigger.

‘Your friend,’ said Eeyore, ‘appears to have bitten on a bee.’

Eventually, Tigger discovers that what Tiggers like best is Roo’s strengthening medicine (malt extract).

I’ve been trying to eat thistles. My search for the equivalent of Roo’s strengthening medicine continues.



Today is day two of my holiday. No work for eleven days. No trying to get published for eleven days. It feels great not to have to think about either of those things for that long.

Writing, however, is a different matter. I can’t imagine taking a holiday from that. The longer I do this, the more I understand Stephen King’s confession in On Writing:

‘I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the fourth of July and my birthday. That was a lie. I didn’t want to sound like a workaholic dweeb. The truth is that when I’m writing I write every day.’

I was reading John Boyne’s my wrting day in the Guardian earlier this week and he said something similar.  He also talked about writers who say they hate writing.  Like him, I wonder what on earth possesses anyone to write if they don’t enjoy it. They’d probably get paid more doing almost any other work. And possibly get more positive feedback.

I had rejection email number five yesterday, by the way.

I can live with that beacuse I love writing. I’m nearing the end of the first draft of novel number two: just two chapters left to write. Maybe. It’s always possible someone will do something unexpected, almost certainly outrageous, to change that. That’s fine because I feel the way I do when I’m reading a really good book: I want to keep going to find out how it ends, and I want it to last as long as possible. So – no writing holiday.

Back to Stephen King:

‘When I’m writing it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.’