Detoxing: Book festivals, events and fun

IMG_2021The last time I posted, I was fresh back from a month in France with nothing to do but write. What a world apart from the last few months, where I’ve been scurrying around from one thing to the next, trying to squeeze in a few minutes of scribbling time here and there.

The weekend just past, I was wearing my organiser badge for Portobello Book Festival – a wonderful, warm local festival that attracts all sorts of writers, readers and interested folk. There was a lot of running around as usual, but all came together in the end and the committee was as hard working and passionate as always.

IMG_2018I was especially pleased that my mum’s book folding workshop went well and that the two events I was chairing (Peter Pan The Graphic Novel with Stref and Fin Cramb and Daring Debuts with Lucy Ribchester and Catherine Simpson – all of whom were a total pleasure to chair) were as great as I hoped.

IMG_2027Just as I was recovering from the fun of the festival, it was time for the launch of the Book Week Scotland programme – I’ve been helping out with the event listings over the last few months, in a freelance role for Scottish Book Trust – and there are just so many fantastic events taking place all over Scotland.

Living where I do, I’m totally spoilt for choice when it comes to readings, signings and bookish events but they obviously aren’t quite so thick on the ground in more remote areas, so it’s awesome to see libraries, councils and bookshops coming together to celebrate reading in all kinds of ways!

I’ve also been super happy this month to get my hands on contributor copies of two different books/journals – I Am Because You Are, an anthology of stories inspired by General Relatively edited by Tania Hershman and Pippa Goldschmidt and Banshee Lit, a fab new Irish Journal.

Today, my mind is reeling and still packed with information about other people’s books, ideas and words – it’s time to have a mini detox so I can catch up where I left off, and hope it’s easy to slip back into the imaginary world I left behind!

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Writing chat and camera shyness

A few weeks ago the lovely Lucy Ribchester and I headed along to SummerhallTV for a wee chat about the New Writer Awards and all things book and writing related. It was fun. I was nervous. It turns out I gesticulate a lot more than I thought I did. Interviewer Nicole Brandon was lovely and we nattered on for ages. Overall, a nice first-ever on screen interview experience.

Scottish Book Trust : New Writers Award from arts-news on Vimeo.

New York dream time

"Working" in our apartment's garden

“Working” in our apartment’s garden

It’s been about three weeks since we got back from New York and it already feels like I made the whole thing up. I didn’t though, I really did spend a whole month living in a flat in the East Village, where I did a minimal amount of work and a lot of walking around.

I don’t think of myself as the kind of person who gets to go and spend a month somewhere like that (we’re not exactly rolling in the dough) and there are so many spots that recall films and TV series that we watch on the sofa at home that the experience was rather dreamlike.

It all started with the madness of NYCC, where Fin and Sean launched Walk Don’t Run and I ran around trying not to buy too many cool things, and ended with a day lost at the Met then a desperate swapping of books and weighing of luggage as we tried to stay under our allowance. Beautiful.

I’d meant to get a lot of writing done while we were away. I always mean to get a lot of writing done. And I’m a little sad to report that I didn’t. I did have an amazing time though, and had the chance to not only see a lot of things I really wanted to, but also to spend some extra time reading which is always a treat in itself.

Also, the ABC: Why Children’s Books Matter exhibition at the NYPL happened to be on, meaning I unexpectedly found myself face to face with the original manuscript for The Secret Garden. This, somewhat unexpectedly, caused my to blubber like a fool. Maybe because I’d only just found my childhood copy a few days before we left. Maybe because it reminded me how fragile such things are. Maybe because it made me feel as though it doesn’t matter what we do with our words or with our days, as long as we try to fill them with an adventurous spirit.

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

A book that’s like coming home

A while ago, I had a moan on Facebook about how difficult I was finding it to get hold of a book I loved when I was a kid. The Reluctant Vampire by Eric Morecambe snared my imagination when I was still young enough to try and turn my bunk beds into a coffin with the help of a spider-webbed sheet scavenged from the garage and I’ve never forgotten it since.Reluctant

I didn’t have my own copy, I borrowed it from the library over and over again (thanks Portobello Library for letting me!). I’ve been wanting to get my hands on this book for a long time but hoping I could find it without having to pay six times its cover price. I’ve been keeping an eye open but hadn’t thought about it for quite a while when a package came through my door last week.

My friend Jason spotted a well-loved copy of this very book and bought it for me. Then shipped it all the way from NYC without telling me what he was doing. I ripped open the envelope feeling mild curiosity that was quickly replaced by a big bubble of elation.

I jumped up, had a little dance to myself, ran through to show Fin then sat back down and reacquainted myself with this little book that has somehow become a big part of the story of growing up. It was bloody brilliant.

The Next Big Thing: Draigton’s Miracles


There’s a nice little bloggy round robin whatsit doing the rounds on the literary scene at the moment. The Next Big Thing is basically a chance for local writers to connect and share their current projects and the idea is that each writer answers some questions about their next big thing and nominates five new folks to do the same.

The lovely and talented Marianne Paget blogged about it beautifully last week and asked me to do the same this week, so here goes!

1. What’s the title of your latest story?
Here’s me, off to a typically tricky start. At the moment, it’s called Draigton’s Summer of Miracles, An Article of Faith, or ‘That Bloody Thing’, depending on the time of day and what mood I’m in.

2. Where did the idea for the story come from?
I found myself thinking about the changes that have befallen Scotland’s coastal villages within the last hundred years. At the same time, I became a little bit obsessed with stories of martyrs and people’s capacity to believe and somehow the two stands became nicely intertwined.

3. What genre does your story fall under?
Probably literary fiction I suppose. Or a subsection of that, anyway. Although, if there’s a genre that better describes a story about a small town unable to decide if it’s at the centre of a series of miracles or not, then that’s it.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?
This is a toughie. Also, unless it’s actually going to be a film, I’d like for people to picture the characters however they want to, rather than putting a specific face to a name.

5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your story?
After eight years in foster care, a teenager returns to her recession-gripped home town on the east coast of Scotland and starts wreaking havoc by seemingly performing a succession of small miracles.

6. Will your story be self-published or represented by an agency?
I think I’d prefer the help of an agency, to be honest. Although some people are doing very well going it alone, I’d love some support and advice along the way.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?
I’d say I spent about a year on the first draft. Although, I’ve been working on it for about a year and a half now and some sections are on their third or fourth draft while others are brand spanking new!

8. What other stories would you compare it to within your genre?

I can’t say compare, because that would be awfully presumptuous of me, but the books I adore that I think have inspired me to tackle a novel with such a broad collection of points of view have to be; White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson and We the Drowned by Carl Jensen.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this story?
The wonderful and terrifying power of the human mind to bend reality (what reality?) is the driving force behind this particular story, I think.

10. What else about your story might pique a reader’s interest?

There’s death, there’s sex, there’s plenty of scathing put downs and, hopefully, enough laughs to keep readers smiling despite some of the tough times it describes.

Next week, we’ll have the chance to read about some of the big things some of my favourite local(ish) writers have on their books. Kirsti Wishart, Karen Thirkell, Caroline von Schmalensee and two more who’ve still to confirm will let us know a little about the wondrous tales they’re currently weaving.

Books: the flings and the forevers

many books on shevles and stacked on the floor.

A long gone bookcase

How many times have you read a book and fallen head over heels about it, blabbed on at all your friends about what a life changing experience it is, given it a pride of place on your shelf, then gone back to it a year later to find that, actually, you’re not that in to it? I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this, and I reckon it’s the ‘lust and love’ effect.

You know, when you’re in the mood and you want something a little special to happen, and you pick out a book that looks like just the kind of thing you’re after, and then you project all of your good feelings on to the book and turn it into something its not, just so you can have a little literary fling. And of course, lusty, hungry encounters like that, filled with your own expectations rather than the author’s, rarely last.

These books, the ones you inevitably feel disillusioned by, it’s often that there’s not anything wrong with them, you just turned them into something they’re not. Don’t disregard them, recognise that you needed what they had to give at the time, and relegate them to a special moment in your past.

You’ll probably find that they offered you a few wee lessons along the way, so that when you come to the books that fill you with a real, long lasting sense of satisfaction, you’re able to appreciate every sentence, luxuriate over all the right words. Because those ones might not always be the ones that look as attractive or sounds as exciting, but they might just be ones that you’ll come back to again and again and love forever.

How to be in a room with people

Sometimes, when you’re a writer or employed in another similarly lonesome way, it’s quite hard to be in a room with other people. You get used to being on your own. You have to, because otherwise you go nuts and never get anything done. And being alone is generally great for your productivity (as long as you stop yourself from searching out fleeting connections online).

The thing is, humans are by nature incredibly social creatures and that means that if you want to hang on to as many of your marbles as you can, you’re best to make contact with the outside world occasionally. It’s been about eleven months since I gave up my day job to be a freelancing lounger and literary bounder. So far, it’s been ace and I’ve not really missed sharing office space one bit.

So far so good. Apart from the fact that last month I headed off to a fab Arvon course at Monaick Mhor and immediately was petrified by being in such a gorgeous and remote location with so many other people. Lucky for all on the Advanced Fiction Course, the group was completely nutter-free and we all got along peacefully and productively, but that didn’t stop me spending the first night wondering what the hell I was doing.

I was out of practice. I’d forgotten how to deal with people for more than the short amount of time you might spend chatting to them in a bar or over coffee and it made me feel horribly out of my depth.

Now I’ve been reminded that no matter how much of an anti social Grinch you can be in a working environment, it’s good for you to make the effort sometimes. Other people don’t normally bite, but you might if you spend too much time frothing rabidly and wrestling with words alone at your desk. Or is that just me?

The post book fest blues

The Edinburgh Book Festival is over. The tents have been packed away, the authors and booklovers have dispersed, the grass is starting its slow journey to recovery and all over town there are folks like me wishing we could do the whole thing again.

There’s nothing like being to pop along to Charlotte’s Square Gardens at all times of day and knowing you’ll be guaranteed to bump into someone who is as crazy about books as you are. The atmosphere is always amazing, the bookshop is a delight and chances to see some of the world’s biggest authors discuss their work are never sniffed at.

Me at Unbound. Pic by Chris Scott.

No wonder we tend to feel somewhat deflated when it’s done for another 12 months. This year, I was incredibly happy to see lots of my friends perform at Edinburgh City of Literature’s excellent Story Shop programme and the popular Unbound nights at the book fest Spiegeltent. I even got the chance to read a story for Illicit Ink’s Unbound event myself, which was a fab experience.

Plunged headfirst from the bookish wonder of the festival to the stacks of work abandoned at home, I realised this wasn’t the time to let enthusiasm dwindle, and decided to book a last minute place on an Arvon course at Monaick Mhor. I can’t wait to spend another week luxuriating among words.

A little belated love for introversion

Hiding in plain sight

Who gets ahead? The loudest, the fastest, the best talkers, the dazzling party guests, the fearless? Well, a lot of the time, I’d have to say, yes, those are the kind of people that tend to shine. If you’ve got the gift of the gab, you’re probably more likely to find yourself being promoted, racking up invitations to parties and (I haven’t tested this one) getting laid. No wonder I’ve always been jealous of you.

All those years, forcing myself into group situations, trying to be free and crazy and losing myself the night’s sprawl the way my extroverted friends did. Those were good nights, I enjoyed an awful lot of them, but here’s me only just now getting to grips with the idea that it’s OK not to love being in a big group.

Actually, it’s totally cool to be the kind of person who prefers to hang out one-on-one, and even actually tends to enjoy their own company quite a lot of time. It’s taken a lot of time to get around to thinking that way and this TED talk helped.

It gave a lot of validation to something I’d always assumed was the case but never bothered to seek evidence for – that some people simply feed off group emotions in a positive way, and others don’t.

As it often is, it was actually one of the simplest and most obvious points that really struck a chord – that no one is a true introvert or extrovert, we’re all on a sliding scale. So it’s possible to reconcile the buzz you get from giving a reading or dancing like crazy in a club with the person who would often rather stay at home on the sofa with a book and only some words for company.

I promise I’ll make up for lost time little, neglected inner introvert, and give you plenty of love from now on.

A writer’s game: competing to take part

The writing world is rife with competition – the prizes, the race for an agent, a publisher, the need to push your books into the hands of the readers over all of the others grappling for their attention – there’s no avoiding it. The second you start sending your work out, you’re pitting yourself against all other writing out there, simply by saying it’s worth someone time to read yours and not someone else’s.

That’s a big enough ask, but these days I’m finding myself getting caught up in trying to ‘win’, whether that means placing in a competition or having a story accepted. No big deal, maybe. Isn’t that the whole point? A shiny wee medal of encouragement and a pat on the back, who wouldn’t want that? But the more I find myself thinking about writing as something you can win or lose, the harder I find it to actually concentrate on what I’m writing.

With talk of branding, book as products, authors as equity, it’s easy to start to think about this business as a game, as something you can squeak past the finish line of. We’re in it to win it, but should we be?

Winning street sign

Competing for reader’s eyes, that’s important to most writers, but equally important should be fulfilling your own desires. If you’re always looking at the podium, imagining yourself there, spraying champagne, when are you going to spend time thinking about what you’re writing? How are you going to forget about everyone else and write something true?

A few recent near misses of one kind of another almost knocked me off course recently, until I remembered that I’m not writing for a gold cup or a badge, I’m doing it because I want to – just for me. And if you take part, it doesn’t really matter whether you win or not, because if someone else reads one of your stories, that’s a pretty awesome prize.