Showing posts with label am writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label am writing. Show all posts

How Not To Be A Writer - Part Four: Money Matters

 


This is a small diversion from the chronology of  previous 'How Not To' posts.  Whenever writers get together, we don't talk about what we're writing. We moan about money. 

It's worth pointing out yet again that, with a few starry exceptions, writers are at the bottom of the heap as far as payment goes. Full time professional writers earn, on average, £7000 a year. That means that vast numbers earn considerably less and payments are falling all the time. I wrote my last big project on a £500 advance. It took 2 years to research and write. 

If you look this up on Google, you'll be presented with wholly unrealistic salaries in the £35,000 plus range. Some deluded websites claim a staggering £45 - £55000. I don't know anyone who earns anything approaching this from their writing, even those you would think of as successful. Those who do, earn it from writing related work, such as teaching creative writing in universities, so that they can encourage more people to be poor. Or writing for television. (Lucrative, but also hard to get into.) Or specialised writing, such as technical writing, for large companies. Those who write for children can earn a living of sorts by doing schools visits and talks, but again, these are a diminishing resource. And as another writer friend pointed out recently, these are payments for actual work undertaken in the school or college, not for the books themselves.

As far as large publishing companies are concerned, creative writing and publishing is a massive pyramid scheme, with the writers beavering away for peanuts at the bottom, and literally everyone else being paid more than the people without whom there would be nothing to publish or produce. 

There is no real solution to this. The big corporations will always pay their top executives handsomely and the astronomical advances will always go to celebrities, who probably haven't even written the damn books themselves.  Those organisations that are supposed to represent writers can do little about the imbalance. Small or medium sized publishers struggle constantly with rising prices of resources like paper, which means rising prices of books, and a corresponding fall in quality of the end product.

Almost everyone who writes, and most of those running small publishing companies, have to find other means of earning a living. I have colleagues who lecture, who teach in schools, who are alternative therapy practitioners, who follow quite different full time careers and write on the side. Creativity will find a way. I deal in antique textiles and toys from an Etsy store called the 200 Year Old House. 

And now, I self publish on Amazon under my own Dyrock Publishing imprint, eBooks and paperbacks, with some excellent professional design and formatting help from a company called Lumphanan Press. I make no fortunes, but there's always the faint possibility that something will take off and bring in some real income.

I'll leave you with three things to think about. 

Getting an agent doesn't automatically mean that you will get a publishing deal these days. Don't waste years of good writing time submitting endless query letters to agencies and waiting for them to respond.
Most books don't earn out their advances. The system is designed that way. It's perfectly possible for a publisher to profit from a book while the author, even from a mass market success, is paid sixpence a copy, as part of the deal. It's going to take a long long time to earn out even a modest advance at those rates. 
When people tell you that there is 'no money in the budget' to pay the creatives, what they mean is that there is, in fact, a budget. They just expect that you'll work for nothing. I still do sometimes work for nothing, but these days it's only for local organisations, small charities, good causes. Places where I can sell my own books. And seldom in winter, when I hibernate. But for big media corporations? Book chains owned by US Hedge Companies? I don't think so. Not any more.




Old Titles, New eBooks, Gorgeous New Covers

 



Late last year, I received some welcome rights reversions from my publisher, Saraband, mostly of my fiction titles. At present, The Physic Garden, The Curiosity Cabinet and The Posy Ring are reverted in all formats, with the Jewel only reverted in eBook form. Saraband still has my two non-fiction titles, A Proper Person to be Detained and The Last Lancer, as well as the Jewel in paperback. However, these things take time, as you can imagine, while the publisher runs down previous stock as far as possible, so with the exception of The Posy Ring, the paperbacks are still available in their previous incarnation.

Over the past few years, I've published a number of  my older fiction titles under my own Dyrock Publishing imprint, so - among other things - I'm hoping to re-release all my reverted novels under the same Dyrock imprint before the end of the year. 

For now, I've published the above named four novels in eBook form, on Amazon, with the excellent assistance of Lumphanan Press in Aberdeenshire. I know this is something you may be able to do yourself - but like everything else in this world, it makes sense to use a skilled professional when you can. 

Although Saraband has kindly allowed me to use the old covers, it struck me that, for a couple of the novels at least, I wanted a change. It also struck me that The Posy Ring  - if not exactly a sequel to The Curiosity Cabinet - is certainly a companion novel, inhabiting the same small island world, with a similar structure, and with some of the same characters. I needed to 'brand' them together. 

Enter a Polish photographer friend called Michał Piasecki. This is one talented family! His wife, Iwona, had been incredibly generous and helpful with my research for The Last Lancer, doing some sensitive translation of family documents and letters, but she's a talented artist as well. Their son, Tom, drafted out complicated family trees for me, for the same book. When publication day came around last year, a dreich February day with no acknowledgment of the occasion, except from my lovely husband, not so much as a 'well done' postcard from anywhere else, Iwona and Michał arrived at the door with flowers and chocolates and we opened a bottle of 'bubbles' and had our own Polish celebration. 

Michał has his own Facebook page as Keen Photographer, and I had noticed how skilful and imaginative his landscape and night sky photographs were, but also realised just how good they might be as book covers. 

Here are two of them - perfect for pairing two titles that belong together. Read The Curiosity Cabinet first, and move on to The Posy Ring, to see what happens to some of the characters next, and to meet a whole new set of people. I love both these images, and for me, they seem to reflect something of the quality of both novels: dual time novels, where nobody goes back in time, but where in some strange way, the present reflects the past within this small Scottish island world. 

Michał created the perfect magical images, while Duncan at Lumphanan made them into gorgeous covers. 

We're not done yet. I'm about to publish a collection of my own poetry, Midnight Sun, spanning many years. This will be in paperback form with another Piasecki cover image. (I began my writing career as a poet, and carried on, intermittently, writing poetry.) And a little later this year, I'll be changing the cover of an older novel, using another perfect landscape image by Michał - just because I couldn't resist it. More as and when it happens! 






How Not To Be A Writer - Part Two: School Days

 


Here's me, somewhere in the Galloway Hills, playing at Wuthering Heights. My companion's name was Andy and he was a gem of a dog, a Sheltie Border Collie cross who, fortunately, combined collie intelligence with sheltie good nature. He lived to be eighteen, and was one of the most loveable creatures I've ever known. 

We moved to Ayrshire when I was twelve, and dad - a research scientist by then - got a position at the Hannah Dairy Research Institute just outside Ayr, I spent most of my secondary school years here, first at Queen Margaret's School in Ayr and then travelling to St Michael's in Kilwinning for my two senior years. We spent a little while in 'digs' rented out by a peculiarly unpleasant elderly lady. I had a bedroom, but mum and dad had a sofa bed in the living room. The landlady had to come through this room to get to her kitchen, where she would cook her habitual meals of boiled fish. Looking back, I suppose she was strapped for cash and hated having to rent out rooms, but instead of knocking on the living room door, she would say 'knock knock' and come in. Dad swore that one day he would be stark naked when she did this. Unable to stand the smell of boiled fish any longer, we moved to a small caravan park outside town while my parents waited for completion on a house they were buying off plan. 

I made a couple of friends who lived nearby, which was just as well, because school was a different matter. I was an ungainly adolescent with the wrong accent. Everyone seemed to have known each other for years - which they had. The school had burned down just before we came north (I was yet to become familiar with the West of Scotland habit of burning down schools and any other inconvenient buildings) and half our classes were in portacabins. I didn't know that when the teacher asked a question, you were supposed to shut up and pretend you didn't know the answer. Which made me quite popular with some teachers, but not at all popular with my classmates. I also didn't know that when people asked you which school you went to, they wanted to know if you were a Catholic. All these years later this still happens. The response is always a sort of loaded silence. 

The other shock was how often teachers used the 'tawse' or 'belt' as we called it - a leather strap. I don't think I had ever seen corporal punishment administered till we moved to Scotland. At my primary school, we knew that the formidable head teacher had a cane in her office, and the 'big boys' might be sent there for terrible transgressions. At my girls' secondary school, it wasn't used at all. I recently came across early 20th century instructions from the Education Department in Leeds about the use of corporal punishment that seemed particularly enlightened - to be used sparingly, if at all. 

Nobody had told Scotland. The vast majority of teachers belted pupils every day, sometimes whole classes, and often for the most spurious of reasons, such as wrong answers or lack of understanding. I encountered more sadists in those few years than I've ever encountered since, skipping up and down with glee as they wielded the tawse. It did no good. The lads who were belted most often were proud of themselves, their hands grown horny so that they felt very little. 

I can still remember the awful sensation of approaching breaktimes when we would be turfed out into the playground, and I would either find myself alone or grudgingly absorbed into some group or other. Listen to Janis Ian's 'At Seventeen' and you'll know exactly what I mean, although thankfully, by the time I myself hit seventeen I had escaped to university and a whole new group of genuine friends. Occasionally, talking to people who were my classmates back then, I find that their memories are quite different from mine. They have no memory of the little digs, the jibes, the rolled eyes, the giggles. I was an incomer. Would I have behaved any differently in their shoes? Well, perhaps not. 

Once again, I escaped into my imagination. When we moved to our new house in Castlehill, I would walk out to Burns Cottage on spring and summer Saturdays and daydream about the poet. We were an adventurous little family. Dad had acquired an elderly car by this time, and we drove out into the countryside, went hillwalking, went on camping holidays, visited castles and stone circles and all kinds of places, perfect for feeding the fantasies of somebody like me who still wanted to be a writer. 

I read avidly and I wrote terrible adjective laden poetry and short stories. I was in love with the Beatles, especially John, and wrote fan-fiction before anyone had invented the concept. I discovered Tolkien, via my father, who found old copies of the books in Ayr's Carnegie Library long before they became so popular. I read and loved Alan Garner's novels and wrote a fan-girl letter to him, but made the unforgiveable mistake of mentioning Tolkien which elicited a dusty answer. He didn't like the comparison at all. I was mortified. It didn't quite put me off his books, but it taught me the valuable lesson that not all successful male writers are prepared to be patient with eager aspiring females, even very young ones.

For me, I think it was the beginning of the perception of just how many people will confidently tell you what you ought to be writing and how you ought to do it, although it would be many years and many disasters before I was confident enough to act on that perception. 

We all need to learn. The very best editors - and I've had some - will question you closely about your work. In finding the answers to those often very challenging questions, you'll make the work better - but it will still be yours. The worst editors and directors  - and I've had plenty - will confidently demand the kind of changes they think you ought to make, unaware that they are trying to shape you in their own image, trying to force you to write the book or play they would have written - if they had the time.

Years later, somebody I had worked with on a couple of projects said to me 'you know - you were far too compliant. You should have argued more.' He was right, but why he didn't tell me this at the time I will never know. That's how not to be a writer as well. You learn your craft by reading and writing and polishing over and over again. Not by blindly following advice from people's whose credentials you're unsure of. If you don't believe me, read Stephen King's brilliant On Writing. That's more or less what he says too. 

How Not To Be A Writer - Part One: Childhood

 

Here's me with my plaits. My hair was so long that I could sit on it. Mum plaited it every day - I must have been one of the few kids in my school that didn't get head lice, probably because they couldn't get any purchase on the tight braids. 

I don't remember learning how to read and write. My school was a small Roman Catholic state primary, not particularly close to where we lived in Leeds. There were always books in our house, including a set of old Wonder Books that had belonged to my Aunt Nora, beautifully illustrated extracts from the classics, poems and short stories by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I loved them, but I don't remember when I moved smoothly from having them read to me (along with little Noddy and The Faraway Tree) and being able to read them for myself.

We had a good, kindly infant teacher called Winifred Burgess, one of the very few teachers I remember with real affection, but I would always rather be at home than at school. The 'big girls' bullied us every playtime, pretending to balance us on the school wall, but in reality threatening to topple us over. Ever since my school days, I've marvelled at the naivety of adults about children and schools and the low key nastiness that went on, and I'm sure still does go on. 

My wish to be at home was granted in terms of a constant stream of childhood illnesses, interspersed with serious asthma, so I spent a lot of time at home, mostly in my nana and grandad's house, at 32 Whitehall Road, sitting on the rag rug in front of their fire, listening to their wireless, and reading. My parents started their married life in a tiny two roomed flat above their adjacent small shops - a sweet and tobacconist and my grandad's fishing tackle shop. When I was well enough, I would take myself along to his shop and sit with him in there, bothering him with questions that he never minded answering. He called me his little queen, in the old Yorkshire - nay, the old English - way. His 'little woman'.  I was very much loved and wanted for nothing, except perhaps a pair of patent leather ankle strap shoes, and I'm pretty sure I got those as well. Mum and dad took me to the 'pictures' - the Gainsborough in Holbeck - to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Afterwards, I made the whole family reenact it, alongside all my toys, with myself in the starring role, of course. An early venture into theatre.

I don't remember learning how to read and write, but somehow I could and did. I listened to the wireless - Listen With Mother, then Children's Hour, and the terrifying excitement of Journey Into Space. I have another memory of what must have been an early dramatisation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and its haunting opening lines 'last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again' - so vivid that I can still see it in my mind's eye. We had no television, nor would have for years, so the words had created the pictures long before I was old enough to read the book. 

At some point, I must have thought 'I could do that'.  

I was right. I could and, some fifteen years later, I did. On the whole, it was a mistake. It was a wonderful medium, but once television came on the scene, BBC radio drama was the poor relation. The cheap option. Of which much more later in this story. The talent they had accumulated was prodigious, but they neither knew nor cared just how extraordinary. It did, however, teach me how to write dialogue, and how to visualise things when I wanted to write about them, how to orchestrate. For some years, it would earn me a living of sorts, and even a couple of awards. All that, though, was far in the future.

When I was twelve, we moved to Ayrshire in Scotland. I was an incomer. An interlowper. I was an awkward adolescent and my accent was all wrong. Good experience for a writer-in-training, but not very comfortable at the time. No wonder I retreated into my head. It was a time that I still think of as 'bullying and Burns'. Great experience for a would-be writer though. 





How Not To Be A Writer - Introduction

Two cool cats

There are times, as a full time freelance writer, when  you think to yourself  'you're doing this all wrong.'  Rather a lot of times for most of us. More recently, as I start to take back control of what I do and don't want to write and publish, and how, that realisation, sometimes howled at the stars, mostly muttered sotto voce, changes into 'You've definitely been doing this all wrong.' 

This week, on social media, somebody asked me what was the title of my novel. Which novel? There are nine of them and counting. And three fairly hefty non-fiction books as well, involving a whole lot of research. Then there's half a lifetime of assorted plays, stories and poems, many of them still in print or regularly repeated on R4 Extra.. 

Have I, I wonder, been so careful about not over-promoting my own work that I've hardly promoted it at all? I can think of several writers who seem to be in positions of power and influence in the Scottish literary establishment (for want of a better word)  who have so little actual writing to their names that you begin to wonder if their relentless self promotion works. Those of us who spend most of our time writing can only look on in wonder at just how effective such promotion of so little substance can be. Very effective indeed, presumably.

It's doubly irritating, I think, because for the vast majority of writers, the very last thing we want to do is talk or write about what we're working on right now. If, as often happens, somebody asks 'what are you working on?' having first disguised the involuntary gasp of horror, you find some way of fudging it. You never go into detail. You're happy to talk about what you have written, but never about what you are writing. And that's because the more you talk about a project before you've finished it, the more it simply disappears, like, as our national poet describes it, 'a snowflake on the river, a moment white, then melts forever.' 

There are millions of blogs and websites and books out there full of advice about How To Be A Writer. When I look back at my long and varied career to date, most of it could best be described as How Not To Be A Writer. 

And you know what? I reckon that might be more helpful than 'how to' for a whole lot of people. I've been putting pen to paper for a long time.  More or less since I could read. Since I was the little girl in Clark's sandals, sitting on a doorstep in smoky Leeds, with my nana's cat, Jimmy. My late, very much missed Canadian friend Anna, a formidable lady with a stellar career in education, once asked me about what she called my 'inventory'. Everything I'd written, worked on, published, over many years. 'Why aren't you richer?' she asked. It's a question I and my artist husband have asked ourselves many times. I mean 'rich' would be lovely, but the question really should be 'why aren't you reasonably comfortable?' Or even 'why are you still struggling?' 

Clearly, we've both been doing it wrong. 

Come back soon for another thrilling installment of what not to do. 

Blending Fact and Fiction - Writing Advice




This is one of my occasional 'how to' posts, although I don't ever presume to tell people how to write - so it's more of a 'how do I do it' kind of post. Or even 'how did I do it' because there's no guarantee that I'd do it the same way in future. Writing is always a learning process. The theme of this blog was suggested by writer friend Wendy Jones. It was originally intended as a podcast, but fell victim to various unforeseen circumstances earlier in the year. I'd already drafted out some notes in response to Wendy's questions  - so just in case they might be useful - here they are - and the podcast may still happen at some point. 

To illustrate this, I'll be considering a couple of novels published some time ago, but still available online: The Physic Garden and The Jewel.

The Physic Garden was inspired by the true story of a Scottish gardener, but it evolved into a tale of friendship and terrible betrayal, set in late 18th and early 19th century Glasgow. It's a first person narrative, told by an old man looking back on his life.  The narrator, William Lang, had a voice so strong that he simply had to tell his own story. One of my (disappearing) agents suggested that it would work better as a third person narrative and I tried it, but I just couldn't. William wasn't having it. During one of my book group sessions, after publication, a woman asked me how I could have written 'a whole book about such an unpleasant old man.' I was gobsmacked. William may be crabbit. A little tetchy from time to time. A man whom bitter experience has changed irrevocably. But this is the story of his youth, of tragic events that have made him the man he is. I loved him from start to finish. 

In the Physic Garden, (physic as in medicinal, NOT psychic as in supernatural, even though everyone thinks that's what it is!)  the garden itself is a backdrop, and the novel is inspired by a true story. Years ago, I found an old book called The Lost Gardens of Glasgow University and one of the chapters was about William Lang, who was made head gardener of the university physic or herb garden, at a very young age, after the death of his father. Sadly, the garden was dying because of industrial pollution from the Type Foundry that the university had permitted to be built nearby. Soon, young William was blamed for something he could do nothing about. It was clear that the real William had support from one of the university professors, Thomas Brown. I thought he was an older man who had taken William 'under his wing' but when I did some further research, I realised they were quite close in age. Close enough to become good friends in spite of the difference in their respective statuses. 

That relationship was the basis for my novel. I used fact - that original book - as a springboard. I also went to the Hunterian museum, and the Glasgow University library to look at various books that are key to the story. Then at a certain point in the tale, I gave myself permission to make things up. I didn’t know what the (fictional) great betrayal was that tore the friendship apart till quite close to the end of the story and this is not the place for spoilers, but I knew it was something horrific and unforgivable. 

By contrast, the Jewel is a third person narrative, the untold story of  Jean Armour, the wife of  Scottish poet Robert Burns, but with the focus, the 'experience' of the story very much told from Jean’s point of view. In this novel, I stuck to the truth as far as was humanly possible. There is a mass of information 'out there', but very little about the poet's wife. I went back to primary sources: the highly illuminating Kirk Session Minutes from Mauchline, for example, or accounts from people who had known the couple, but I did lots of online research as well. The result is that everything I wrote about in this novel either did happen (you’d be surprised by how much!) or could have happened. I even found out one or two things that aren’t in the public domain at all - for example, the fact that the whole village seemed to know that Jean was expecting the poet's twins well before they were born.

One of the keys to writing historical fiction based on fact is to realise that you can’t put everything in.  The research is just a means to an end. My advice would be to immerse yourself in the time and place as far as possible, but then write the first draft of the story without checking too many facts. You’ll soon find out what you don’t know and you can go back and fill in any gaps later, before revising and editing. You need to get inside your characters’ heads, to allow them to speak, to listen to them. 

William Lang seemed to dictate his story to me. With Jean, the poet's jewel of them all, I needed to know more about her, to explore her emotions, how she felt about her talented, mercurial, lovable and sometimes reprehensible husband and why. Fiction gave me the elbow room to do just that. 

If your book features a well known character, like Robert Burns, you will find yourself defending your point of view and sometimes your protagonist too. So many men and a few women have written about Burns. Almost all of them ignored Jean. I knew that there would be some challenges to my version of the story – and there still are!

Above all, you have to choose something that obsesses you, something you love. You are going to be living with these people and in this time and place for a very long time. (My husband swore he saw Jean in our bedroom one night, because I’d spoken of nothing else for months!)

An important point: don’t allow your characters to have thoughts and feelings they could never have in that time and place. Jean Armour was a strong and admirable woman, but she was an 18th century woman who had terrible trouble defying her parents. If I had written her as too feisty, too modern, nobody would have believed in her. I wouldn’t have believed in her. Ditto Burns, who was a man of his time and place, but one who liked women, made them laugh, charmed them. Back then, I expect I'd have fallen for him too. In the Physic Garden, William is an intelligent and imaginative man born into the wrong class at the wrong time. But he can only tell his story from the perspective of his emotions at that time, disliking the constraints, celebrating the successes, lamenting a betrayal that he still knows he himself could never have committed, but even so mourning what might have been. 'It is as though something was planned for me, some pathway I could not find, could not take,' he says. And later acknowledges that he has 'a sense of regret so profound, so bitter that it is like a physical pain in me.' 

Above all, be prepared for your research to change your mind about characters and events. Because it will. Inevitably.  That’s half the pleasure of it. We all write to find out.



 


An Uncanny Image


Even though words are my business, I find it very hard to describe my feelings when I first saw this small animation of one of the few pictures of my grandfather in existence. 

My dad brought this tiny head and shoulders image with him when, at the end of the war, he ended up in a Polish resettlement camp at Duncombe Park, near Helmsley in Yorkshire.  This is the grandfather I never knew, the person I wanted to know more about, the man I occasionally fantasised might turn up on our doorstep in the Leeds of my childhood. 

He never did, of course. He was long gone by that time, another of Stalin's victims. But one of my reasons for writing The Last Lancer was to try to find out more about him, to get to know this person my father had loved so much. 

Then a friend posted a vivid animated picture of one of her handsome forebears online and thanks to her, I realised that My Heritage would allow me to do the same thing to this image of Wladyslaw Czerkawski.

I uploaded the picture, clicked and waited. 

My grandfather looked out at me and smiled. It is movement, however small, that brings people to life. 

It was the strangest and most spooky feeling. Not in a bad way. I knew that he was a kindly man. Had always known it. He had his flaws and faults, of course, but he was a man whom many people loved and so do I.

My heart still aches when I recollect what happened to him. But I feel a little closer to him now. 

   



The People of the Black Foot and Other Curiosities

 



When you start to research a piece of writing - in my case new fiction  - you can find yourself following strange threads that lead you back in time to something unexpected. As happened to me last week.

I love research. My first degree was in Mediaeval Studies, and then I did a Masters in Folk Life Studies. Everything I learned then still informs the things I write. But the problem is knowing when to stop. You enter a labyrinth and you may never find your way out again.

Some years ago, when I was researching and writing my novel about Robert Burns's wife,  Jean Armour, The Jewel, I came across the notion of a 'go between' - somebody whose job it was to arrange the courtship and marriage between two young people. Here in Ayrshire, at the time of Burns, that person was colloquially called a 'black fit' or black foot. And no matter where I looked or who I asked, I could find no very convincing etymology for the term. It was definitely in use. To quote my own book: 'A black fit was somebody, often an older woman or man, whose help might be enlisted to carry messages back and forth between lovers. ... Sometimes a black fit was needed where parental disapproval might be a bar to meeting. Sometimes it simply meant that a respectable person would act as match-maker within a small and curious community, easing the means of two young people getting to know each other.'

In my novel, Rab and Jean use the services of an older woman called Katy Govan as their 'black fit' to facilitate their courtship - as indeed it's believed they did. 

Back in 2020, in the middle of lockdown, I wrote several posts about the history of this part of South  Ayrshire or Carrick. You can find the first one here - A Little Bit of Ancient Carrick History   and the second one, on Place Names and Clan Names.   There are two more and you'll find links to them in each post.

But now, I think I may have drawn the wrong conclusions about the 'tribe' who lived in this part of Carrick, the people who may have had dark, curly hair. Because somewhere among my reading over the past few weeks, I came across another reference to the 'tribe with black feet' in Kirkmichael. And this time the writer suggested that they may have been so called because they were people who wore hand made hide brogues, with the dark 'hairy' side facing out. Making them distinctive. It seems odd, but possible. Especially when you realise that nearby Maybole  has a long tradition of boot and shoe making, extending right into the 20th century!

At the same time, another historian pointed out that the Celtic 'tribe of the black feet' were the 'kindred' - the Galloway and southern Ayrshire clan - who would later become the all powerful Kennedies, one of whose prerogatives was to organise marital alliances between various members of this huge extended family. So maybe you would go to the 'black fit', aka your Kennedy chief or kenkynol of your muinntir or household, if you wanted to arrange a wedding!

Following the threads of this research, I also came across a wonderfully haunting song called Oran Bagraith, which is judged to be the earliest known example of the Galloway language, (other than place name evidence which is much older and prolific) - a  mixture of Gaelic and Brittonic, with some words that nobody can translate. But it certainly belongs here, containing references to various local place names and to the people of the black foot. You can read about it on this site and listen to the song here.   The song is a 'song of defiance' and may have been composed as a lament for the 2nd Earl of Cassilis, Gilbert Kennedy, who was murdered in Prestwick in 1527 by Hugh Campbell, Sheriff of Ayr. 

'Wrapt up in the folk of the black foot
in their agriculture and grazing
in the genealogy of the folk of the wolf
well mounted diamain* warriors
They would be salmon fishing in Lochinvar
They would be deer hunting in Carsphairn
They would be badger hunting in Glen Shamrock 
They would be feasting in Dalry'  

NB This is St John's Town of Dalry and Glen Shimmerock is a few miles to the North East of that town. *Diamain seems to have some Gaelic correspondence with Scots Gaelic Diobhain  This paper is interesting, but essentially only if you're already a Gaelic or Welsh speaker. If anyone can tell me what diobhain actually means, I'd be grateful! 

So there you go. No conclusions, but lots of questions. Galloway had plenty of MacLellans who were the 'folk of the wolf'. But the Kennedies were the 'black feet' and maybe these early Kennedies spoke a unique Galloway language with words and grammar that seemed to belong partly to Gaelic and partly to some form of Brittonic. Wikipedia will tell you that these people were 'erroneously' called Picts. But more recently scholars have recognised that some carved stones in Galloway certainly have what seem like Pictish symbols. 

Mystery upon mystery. 
Of course I'm writing fiction now, so I have a bit of leeway. But the facts and speculation underpinning all this are fascinating. 












You Don't Need to Pay to Write

Lidl has lovely notebooks

I was troubled, recently, to see somebody posting online that she couldn't afford to pay for creative writing courses and retreats. The person in question seemed to have swallowed the myth that it isn't possible to write without them. 

I'm here to tell you that this is not true. 

If you want a recommendation for a 'how to' book, you should buy Stephen King's excellent On Writing, more memoir than instruction manual. The advice he gives is both simple and cheering. Read a lot, write a lot and avoid 'workshops' like the plague. 

I've written since I was a child, beginning with poetry, moving on to plays and short stories, and now all kinds of fiction and non-fiction. None of it has ever paid very well, and therein lies a problem. 

The numbers of writers who can earn a living from their fiction has become vanishingly small. This is why so many of us teach the thing we know most about - creative writing. For many writers tutoring classes and retreats is the only thing to keep what Robert Burns called the 'poortith cauld' - cold poverty - away from the door. They can be useful and helpful, no doubt about it.

But that doesn't mean any of them are compulsory.

'The only way to learn how to write is to write,' a novelist told me, when I was first starting out. So I did. 

You could, if you lack confidence, find a local writing group: one where you can receive encouragement or pointers or inspiration. These are usually much less expensive than the big professional courses. Joining a book group might be an even cheaper alternative, where you'll read and discuss books with other people, and gain an awareness of why some books are more popular than others and whether that matters, and what kind of  books you like best.

But don't let anyone fool you that you have to be able to pay to do courses or retreats or classes to learn how to write. If you don't have access to a computer, join a library, and buy yourself a big fat notebook and some pens. (Lidl has great, cheap notebooks. So does T K Maxx.) 

That is really all you need to get started. Give yourself permission to play around with words and ideas. Don't feel that you have to 'get it right'. Just enjoy yourself. Worry about all the rest of it later. 


Publishing Advice for the Faint Hearted


My new non-fiction book,
to be published in spring 2023, by Saraband.

There is an ocean of publishing and self publishing advice out there already, some of it very good indeed, and I don't propose to reinvent the wheel. But given that I'm a 'hybrid' writer - both traditionally and self published, roughly half and half - and also that I'm 'contaminated by experience' as somebody at the BBC once described us more mature writers and I'm sometimes asked for advice, I thought a few pointers might not go amiss. 

1 Don't self publish too soon. 

If you want to try for a traditional agent and publisher, then by all means go down that route first. Polish your manuscript till it's as good as it can be, and start sending out those query letters, those sample chapters, those synopses. Do your research. Be professional about it. Be polite. Don't harass people. (You should see the emails some would-be writers send to publishers!) But at the same time analyse your ambitions. Do you just want to get this one book 'out there' or are you planning for the long term. In which case ...

2 Don't wait too long to self publish.

By which I mean, don't hang about for years, hoping that you're going to hit the big time. Agents and wildly successful writers will tell you that if you persevere you will get there, and you may. But you may also waste half a lifetime on a single project. Bestsellers are the stuff of our dreams. Steady sales, even small ones, are possible. You might be surprised by how many writers combine self with traditional publishing these days.  

3 Don't keep polishing the same book, over and over.

Well, you can. I've done it more times than I care to remember, but mostly because I hadn't got it right the first or second or third or fourth time and in general I love to edit. Whatever you do, do not keep rewriting your book to the demands of a string of different editors, because nothing is more certain than that it will eventually implode under the weight of contradictory demands. 

Take The Amber Heart. That was by far my longest saga of rewrites, a book that I'm pretty satisfied with now. I'm very glad it's out there, and reasonably well reviewed. But at one point, two different agents had told me to delete a third of it. Unfortunately, one wanted me to lose the first third and one the last third. I did neither, but I certainly pruned it drastically and then rewrote large chunks of it as my skills as a novelist improved. I enjoyed it, but it took years, and I was writing plenty of other things at the same time. The trick is not to get bogged down in one project.


4 Do keep on writing. 

Write your next book while you're trying to sell the first, and write another book once you've written that one. Practice makes perfect. You'll be learning how to write while you're doing it. We all have bottom drawer novels that should probably never see the light of day. But once you have a significant body of work, you can decide which projects have 'legs' and which you've lost interest in. Then you can choose what, if anything, you want to do with them. 

5 Time is a good editor.

If you can leave a book - or any piece of writing - for a few months, even after you think you have edited it to within an inch of its life - you will see not just typos and repetitions and infelicities, but all kinds of structural things that you want to work on. This is another reason to be prolific, to leave one project in abeyance while you work on something else. The other tip is to send your manuscript to your Kindle and read it on there. Problems will leap out at you, because you're seeing it in a different format, much closer to print.

6 Write for love, try to publish for money. 

Samuel Johnson said no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, but almost nobody publishes for money these days and we're not all blockheads. Publishers, except for the big corporations, don't make much either. If you want money, buy a lottery ticket. But although you will and should write for love, remember that publishing is a business, whether it's yours or somebody else's, and you should treat it as such. Be polite, be thoroughly professional, but don't assume you always have to be a humble supplicant either. 

Bird of Passage was definitely a labour of love!

7 Be realistic about selling

I know a number of writers who boycott Amazon. Oddly enough, they don't ever seem to demand that their publishers boycott Amazon too. There are some truths in their stance. Amazon doesn't pay much tax here in the UK, but that's the fault of the government who don't ask for it. And it isn't only Amazon. If you're reading this on a smartphone, check just what your phone company doesn't pay in UK taxes either. At the same time, you could look up just who owns the UK's biggest bookseller. 

'I prefer to buy from a small business,' people say, and so do I. But the fact is that thousands of small businesses (some with bricks and mortar stores too)  trade on Amazon, thrive and pay their taxes, because no small business will get anything like the publicity, the digital footfall and customer security a site such as Amazon will deliver. I notice that Amazon is starting to flag up these small businesses, and good for them. 

8 Be realistic about your own skills

When I first decided to self publish some of my older titles, I did it through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing and still do. They have made it progressively easier over the years. I can also put new, experimental (for me) work out there, such as Rewilding. More recently, I decided that three of these older, recently revised novels deserved to be in paperback. While I can format for Kindle, which is fiddly but easy, I soon realised that formatting for print-on-demand paperbacks was a much harder proposition. Ironically, one of the ways I realised this was when reading a book that had been published by a small publisher, only to find 'printed by Amazon' on the back and to realise that the company had made a terrible job of formatting the paperback.  

After some searching, I discovered Scottish based Lumphanan Press, who now help with my formatting for paperback. I pay a flat fee and they make a truly excellent job of formatting text and cover so that I can upload it myself. I'm delighted with the finished product and it means I have some copies to sell alongside my traditionally published books, at various events. I either use my own photographs or my husband's artworks for the cover images. (I'm aware that I'm lucky to have a painter on hand.) I should point out here that Lumphanan offer a full spectrum of services, so if you want more extensive professional help with your project, you can get it. They are emphatically not a 'vanity press'  and they will never do the hard sell -  but they will obviously charge realistic rates for the services they offer. Finally ...

9 Live in hope.

I don't make any fortunes out of my writing. I never have. I have had spells of making a reasonable living but it was always a switchback. A giant game of snakes and ladders. Now, between my traditionally published work, some paid events, a pension and a small monthly payment from Amazon (who pay every month, on the nail) - my artist husband and I get by. I also sell antique textiles online to supplement my writing income. I'm not retiring any time soon and have a big new project in mind. But I know people who have made quite a lot of money. Those self publishers who have done this have treated it as a business. They do indeed write for love and publish for money. And they are prolific. Not all of us can or would want to do that and some people just want a traditional deal. For some, seeing their work in print is enough. There is no single right way - but it is good to be aware of your options. Do feel free to comment or add questions. 

 Whatever you decide to do, go for it wholeheartedly. Love what you do. And good luck! 


Ice Dancing is a grown up love story and - in terms of reviews -
probably my most successful book! 





Tacit Knowledge and Creative Writing Workshops

Not-a-workshop in Grantown-on-Spey
 

I have regular Zoom chats with three friends, started before the pandemic as real life meetings, but continued online. All of them are professional artists. I'm the single writer, and it's always interesting and enlightening to compare the way I work with the way they work - although obviously they don't all work in the same way either. 

A few weeks ago we started talking about tacit knowledge and they asked me how that applied to my work. My first impulse was to say 'it doesn't.' But I've been thinking about it ever since, and of course it does. It's just that most writers either don't realise it, or feel uncomfortable acknowledging it. 

Most creative professionals don't retire but as time goes by, we tend to acknowledge what we do and don't want to do. We learn how to say a polite 'no'. Here's an awful admission. I've always disliked doing workshops. Worse, in all my years of actually delivering workshops, I've had an uneasy feeling that I don't know what a workshop is or should be. 

Nor do most of the people who ask you to do them. I've seen all kinds of events described as workshops from writers speaking about their books, how they researched and wrote them, to full on, participatory 'how to' sessions for a few people, which is more or less what I think of when I see the word. I still love doing the former, but the latter? Not so much. 

If you write non-fiction or historical fiction, you can give an entertaining and informative talk about your work and how you set about researching it. For example, I've enjoyed every talk I've given about The Jewel, my novel about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, and I hope other people have too. This is partly because I'm comfortable with describing my research, but also because the audience for this kind of talk is usually knowledgeable, so they will ask interesting questions, and offer their own contributions. 

I've taught intermittently throughout my working life, three happy years teaching English as a foreign language to adults in Finland and Poland, numerous drama and script-writing workshops, radio workshops, and some hugely rewarding years as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at our local university, helping students with their academic writing. 

I enjoyed the RLF fellowship most of all. In those one-to-one sessions I was using my tacit knowledge as an experienced writer (although I didn't call it that) to help students see their own way through. 

'How can you read my essay and immediately point out the main thread, when I'm floundering about?' one of my students asked me. It was down to years of practice. We never did the work for them. We just showed them a way of working things out for themselves. Mostly by asking the right questions. It's what good editors and producers do for writers too. They ask the right questions and in finding the answers, you make the work better yourself. 

That same tacit knowledge is what I use when I'm writing - for example - dialogue. I've had years of writing plays for radio and the stage, and now in fiction. But if I'm asked to do a workshop on writing dialogue I feel a sense of panic. I can do it. I know what works and what doesn't. But I don't know how to explain how I do it to people who don't have an ear for it. 

It's like when my woodcarver husband takes a block of lime and cuts off all the pieces that don't look like whatever he wants to make. He can teach people the basics. Teach them about wood and tools and techniques, but if they can't see the wonderful thing inside the wood, can't feel the shape of it, it will take more than a couple of workshops to acquire the feel for it that is the result of years of practice. It's the same with writing. I can give people rules for writing dialogue. I can frame exercises to help them. But there is no shortcut.

None of which is to denigrate the role of really good mentoring, done with a light touch. Somebody with lots of tacit knowledge helps us to find a way through our problems, often by questioning what we're not doing, rather than telling us what we ought to be doing. 

Intuition is a whole other can of worms. On the whole, I think the more you work at  your craft, whatever that is, the more intuition you will acquire. That way, your tacit knowledge becomes intuitive, so that you can look at a piece of work, get the feeling that something is wrong with it and often, but not always, fix it for yourself.