RLS Fellowship: A retreat is a better than rest

DSC01698As far as I can tell, writers are pretty bad at taking holidays. You’re either working or you’re writing and often those two things are one and the same, but it’s not the kind of work it’s easy to shut the office door on. Wherever you are, there’s a little voice in the back of your said squeaking ‘this is all very nice, but shouldn’t you be writing?’ And maybe you should. On the other hand, sometimes you have to have some actual real world experiences, if only to generate new things to write about.

For the last year and a half, all my self-organised trips were short writing breaks. I went for a day or two at a time and each was great but not the same as an actual rest, so when I found out I’d been awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship through Scottish Book Trust and was off to spend the whole of June in Grez-sur-Loing, France, I was both incredibly stoked and a little bit nervous. Would I produce enough work while I was there? Would I find that a long-dreamed-for month of writing time was better in my imagination than in reality? Would I go crazy?

DSC01960Happily, I stayed pretty sane (no thanks to the mosquitos who all thought I was the best thing since sliced bread – a loaf of Mother’s Pride, no doubt – and thanks in part to the other artists at the hotel) and managed to write a bunch, even though the first few days were largely taken up with feeling weird and wondering what I was mean to be doing. In the end, I decided I was meant to be eating lots of poire amades, exploring the area in a very low key way and just thinking about things.

It was very inspiring to stay in a hotel so beloved by generations of artists and writers and the building and its grounds are so charming I felt like I’d stepped into another life. One of the best parts was the fact that I was away for so long, which meant that even though I was researching and thinking and writing, it actually did feel a little bit like a holiday too. I’m getting the feeling I prefer the working kind anyway.

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Writing Without a Goal

Most days, I sit down and I write copy for one client or another. Sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes it’s incredibly dry and other times it’s frustratingly vague, but all client work has something in common – a very clear objective and a defined finish line to cross. The work is done when it meets the criteria agreed in the brief and the client is happy with it. So far, so satisfying.

And then, later on in the day, I’m likely to be sitting down for a second time and writing something that just doesn’t have the same kind of clear cut boundaries. I’ll be switching to the fiction part of the day and unless it’s a commissioned story or I’m writing for a themed event, THERE ARE NO RULES. The only objectives are the ones I made myself and the client is, well, anyone I can persuade to read the results. So far, so woolly!

There’s something very freeing about knowing you can write about absolutely anything you want, but it can also be kind of unnerving. Especially if you get stuck thinking that every piece of writing should have a specific end point and a worth measured by a client or reader’s satisfaction.

Once you start putting on that kind of pressure, you can end up feeling as though writing your own stuff is the very opposite of freeing.

If I'm really stuck, I might actually sketch instead!

If I’m really stuck, I might actually sketch instead!

In fact, it’s almost paralysing, because to be honest, not everything you write should be seen be someone else. Sometimes, you should be writing just to try something out, to get a random idea out your head or even to fail so that you can get it right next time.

Think of that writing you do that might not end up in a novel or as its own, perfectly formed short story as just another page in your artist’s sketchbook. Just like painters, everything you do has merit, even if the result is nothing you’d want to hang on the wall. Let yourself write without a goal and just when you’re doodling and scribbling away at something just for the fun of it, there’s a good chance you’ll hit on an idea you want to take forward after all.

Summer writing: RLS Fellowship

RLSThis summer, I’m scooting off to the south of France to do nothing but write, read and think for an entire month. This incredible luxury has been offered courtesy of the RLS Fellowship in association with Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland, an excellent endeavour that’s been sending Scottish writers to the Hôtel Chevillon International Arts Centre at Grez-sur-Loing (where Robert Louis Stevenson spent some inspiring months) for the last 20 years – including many that I really admire and a few I’m lucky enough to call friends.

I’m off in June (this year’s other writers, Alan McKendrick, Michael Pedersen and Malachy Tallack, will be travelling at different times) and I can’t wait. The longest retreat I’ve ever been on was for a week and I normally only go for two or three days at a time, so a whole month will be just amazing. Here’s hoping my atrocious French doesn’t cause too much embarrassment. Luckily, bread, cheese, coffee and apples are all nice and easy to remember – and say – so I should survive.

Perseverance: Writing until you improve

As a child, I was not persistent. Not in the ways that mattered, anyway. I was probably tireless when it came to demanding more bedtime stories/snacks/attention, but when it came to hobbies or pursuits, my tenacity wavered quickly.

I was briefly in the Girls’ Brigade, Brownies and Girls Guides – I tired of all not long after being bought the unfirms (sorry, mum and dad). I pitched such a fit at my first swimming lesson I didn’t make it to the second. I decided I hated the rat-at-at of tap shoes so much that I cried until I was allowed to sit at the side and never returned (oh, how I later regretted that).

I gave up on maths, sciences, languages and playing the guitar. I slouched at the edges of the PE field, better to get in trouble for not trying than for people to laugh at my hand-eye coordination.

mini-meAt the time, I could’ve given you a handful of reasons justifying each of these decisions, all with some small amount of merit, but the truth was that I recognised that I wasn’t very good at being a Girl Guide or a tap dancer or a hockey player and instead of being inspired to improve, I decided to give up. ‘To concentrate on developing the things I was/might be good at’, I’d justify. Really, I was running away from failure.

I didn’t want people to see me struggle. I thought that if you weren’t good at something right away, there was no pleasure in it. Silly kid. Except, it took me a long time to grow out of it. So silly 20-something who wanted to give up on writing because she realised she wasn’t all that. Silly demoralised graduate who looked at all of the better writers out there and thought it’d be better to give up that really get started.

Luckily for me, lots of wise people patiently explained that persistence and perseverance is actually the name of the game – of nearly every game. There are few true geniuses in the world and plenty of other successful people who get good because they work at it. They try hard, they allow themselves to fail in public and they aren’t ashamed of sharing the process.

Now, those are the kind of people I most want to be like. Rather than wish for the ability to be instantly amazing, I hope for the kind of tenacity that will allow me to stamp down on fears of failure and embarrassment and just keep on going.

Showing off my literary city

lynsey-scanditravA little while ago I got an email from a nice editor in Sweden who wanted to do a piece about Edinburgh’s best bookish spots for Scandinavian Airlines inflight magazine. I jumped at the chance to take her on a tour of the writer’s side of Edinburgh, and not only because there were free scones and a peek in the amazing Playfair Library Hall on offer.

I’m very lucky to live in the first UNESCO City of Literature and to be honest, it’s easy to forget how great your hometown in – until you have the chance to show someone else around it. Happily, Emma was lovely and the photographer a star (I posed in such a diva like fashion that some tourists also stopped to take snaps outside the Central Library!) so it was overall a grand day.

ReykI had another chance to showcase a little slice of Scotland last week, too, when the nice folks at Reykjavik City of Literature hosted my fishing village-based story Harbour of the Youth alongside a wee selection of stories celebrating the end of their literature festival. All I need is an excuse to go visit a few Nordic countries now!

Edinburgh’s being brilliantly booky

Right now, I’m spending a lot of time circling a new novel, poking it with a whip every now and then, snatching my hand away before it can bite and jumping forward anytime it looks like it might slink away. But when you live somewhere like Edinburgh, there’s always something brilliant and booky going on that’s perfect for distracting yourself with. Ahem, if you let it. It’s all been good stuff though, promise.

Portobello Book Festival LogoFirst, I wrote a bookworm’s guide to Edinburgh and Glasgow for The List, then I showed a lovely Swedish editor for an airline magazine around some of my favourite literary places and if that wasn’t enough, it’s almost time for the Porty Book Fest – a great wee celebration of books at the seaside that I happen to be on the committee for. I’m particularly looking forward to chairing a chat with the fab Jenni Fagan, seeing some of my fellow New Writers Award recipients and hearing Isla Dewar. Ah, it’ll be ace – come and be distracted with me? I heard novels write themselves these days, anyway.

Writing prizes: Always read the fine print

Great for getting your name out there (and for forcing you to finish something before a deadline, ahem), writing competitions have got a lot going for them. Well, some prizes do, others, maybe not so much.

It can take a lot of gumption to start sending your stuff out so when you’re on a roll and submitting left right and centre, it’s very tempting to send your writing off to anything that looks remotely decent. And therein lies the risk.

Before you post your little sweetheart off to be judged, spend some time researching the competitions properly. The biggies – your Bath, Manchester, Bridport, Bristol and so on – have clear rules and even clearer benefits, but some of the smaller, more independent prizes can be a little hazy on the details.

A charcoal picture of a typewriter by Lynsey MayIgnore haziness at your peril.

Lots of prizes charge an entry fee. This is generally used to cover admin costs and to help boost the prize money pot. Absolutely fair enough. Unless you’re paying £10 to enter a competition that only offers £100 to the winner and book tokens for second place. A well advertised prize is very likely to attract a substantial amount of entries, so where is all of the rest of the money going?

There’s also the worrying possibility that you’ll pay to enter a competition that won’t still be in existence by the time the winners are meant to be announced, so do assess the slickness of the website, the reputation of the judges and the history of the organiser before parting with your cash.

Even free competitions can offer a bad deal if you fail to read the fine print. I was once shortlisted for a competition only to find that my name appeared nowhere on the publicity, online or in newspapers (the winner, happily, did). The thing is, the story was included in a pamphlet that was available to a select group of people (although not for sale) and for many publications, a piece of writing loses its value once it’s been printed elsewhere. So after being shortlisted, my story became much harder to place and the only real benefit for me was a small ego boost.

Other competitions, typically ones for novels, may offer the chances of publication. Excellent news! But they could also only be offering first refusal and once your manuscript is in their hands you might find they’re under no obligation to make a decision or get your book printed within a certain timeframe. Read the rules closely and look at the publishers’ backlist before submitting – there are plenty of competitions (like the Dundee Book Prize) that actually will get the winner in bookshops.

You spent a long time making sure that bit of writing is as good as it can be, take the extra few minutes to make sure you’re not packing its lunchbox and sending it off to a very shady neighbourhood.

Have you ever had a bad experience with a competition? Please tell!

Confessions of a freelancing café hopper

coffee2I’ve toyed with hiring desk space and to be honest if there was a viable option in walking distance from my house, I would. But there isn’t. Luckily, there are a large number of largely welcoming cafés for me to camp out in while I do my work. Sorry guys.

1. I basically want the exact same order every day

I know you’ve been sprucing up your menu and you slave over your specials, but I like things plain and reliable. I basically want one of the same two or three things every time I visit. This is not the time for experimenting.

2. I think you’re ace but I don’t want to chat
It’s nice to be nice but the last thing I want to do is turn all these two minute polite exchanges into a chat about the ins and outs of our personal lives. If that what I was looking for, I’d have stayed somewhere with colleagues.

3. I do feel bad about nursing this coffee

I’ve worked in a few cafés and small businesses, I know that it’s important that you make enough money to scrape by and that’s why I try to make sure I order enough drinks and snacks to justify my table. Leave me to it and guilt will make me spend or free the space.

4. Sometimes, I am spying on you all
When I’m stuck for inspiration or working on a particularly dull project, my mind does tend to wander and if you’re talking about something interesting, well, the notes I’m making might just include a few of your juicy details.

5. You aren’t the only place I’m visiting

Variety is one of the things that makes the freelance life so much fun, so even though you may have the best drinks and the freshest baking, I’ll be three or fourtiming you on a weekly basis. This is also necessary for maintaining points two and three. It’s not you, it’s me.

6. Without you, I’d be crazy
Bearing all of that in mind, it’s thanks to you guys that I get dressed and escape the house – you keep me sane as I work and for that, I thank you.

Between too busy and just busy enough to write

Lynsey May at NYC LibraryThe great writing dream is surely a completely clear schedule. Day after day, week after week of time to yourself, to think and dream and immerse yourself in a consciousness not entirely your own. I dream about it often enough, especially when I’m juggling a bunch of different and quite disparate projects. In reality though, I know it probably wouldn’t suit me.

What does suit is a fine balance between being too busy to start getting my thoughts in any kind of order and having so little to do that my brain starts to hibernate and hunts for low-impact tasks to keep it ticking over (making soup, reorganising my desk and so on).

It’s not an easy balance to achieve – it’s far too easy to tip one way and then the other – but when it’s working well, everything is energised. Work achievements energise writing and getting something creative done fills me with wellbeing that spills into everything else. For me, this elusive balance is probably the real dream and it’s in its pursuit that I stopped helping out at the excellent Edinburgh Review.

I’ll miss that place but I have lots of other extracurricular activities to keep me going (I’m looking at you, Edinburgh City of Literature and Porty Book Fest!). Of course, there’s the regular day job too, but I’m lucky enough to be freelance.

There have also been a few little injections of writing faith in recent weeks, including a spot on the Bristol Prize Longlist, which sometimes throw you off balance but always in the best possible way. Is the desire to be busy, but just a little bit busy, pretty average for writing types or do you think that a window of completely free time is what you really need to get going?

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.