Paying the Piper, Again.

Excellent piece about 'getting paid' on Jenn Ashworth's blog - here . I think we all know this, but I also think that we can't be reminded of it too many times, because it's a hard row to hoe and we regress, unless reassured that fellow professionals, like Jenn, feel the same. The labourer IS worthy of his or her hire, and just because we love what we do, we shouldn't be conned into thinking that it isn't work. It is.

Telling Tales

Some time ago, I asked on Facebook - which is where I do a lot of my writerly networking - why so many people I knew were being told that some of their work was 'beautifully written, but too quiet.' It had happened to me too. At the time, it seemed a little unfair, and there were those who said that it was 'just one of those expressions' that publishers or agents use when they have to turn you down, but can't really think of a valid reason. Which is comforting, but not, I think, entirely true! One friend and well-published fellow writer, however, said that she was sometimes told the same thing. She said most publishers and/or agents are looking for the holy grail of the beautifully written, stonking great story, but if they can't have both in the same package, they will settle for the stonking great story any day. I'm sure this is absolutely true, and as time has gone by, and I've been working on the latest (big, Polish, historical) novel, The Amber Heart, I have started to see just how right she was and how very much story matters.
We are, after all, creatures who love to listen to stories. It is one of the things that makes us human. From the time when we can first talk, we are enthralled by narrative, by the act of listening, or turning the page, (even little children are fascinated by the physical act of turning over, long before they can read) or watching the screen, to find out what happens next.
I've come to realise, therefore, that we ignore this natural instinct at our peril. We can craft our elegant prose till the cows come home, but if the reader doesn't care what happens next, then we aren't going to get anywhere. Which is not to say, of course, that honing the prose doesn't matter, because it does. It matters a lot. But if we are writing for other people, as well as for ourselves, we also have to be aware of the need to hook the reader into the narrative so that he or she is desperate to turn the page, desperate to know 'what next', and may even stay up all night, if need be, to find the answer.
I've been thinking about this a lot, recently, because it strikes me that Firebrand, Gillian Philip's wonderful and deservedly well reviewed new novel, has exactly this quality. It is beautifully written, it is hugely imaginative, it is involving and surprising and original  - but, above all, boy does it have a stonking great story. Not only that, but when you get to the end of it, you're left thinking 'so how quickly will she have finished the next one, so I can find out what happens next.'
It's a gift, this extraordinary storytelling ability and Philip has it in spades.
But it is also - to some extent at least - a craft and one which, as writers, we should all be aware of.
It isn't possible to teach somebody with no talent how to write. But, given that somebody has a natural talent, a natural curiosity about human beings, and the desire to learn,  they can be helped towards an understanding of what makes a good story. And I sometimes think it is an aspect of the craft of writing that is all too often ignored in creative writing classes, because teachers (and I don't necessarily excuse myself here) concentrate a little too much on the beautiful prose, and not quite enough on the nuts and bolts of plotting, the generation of excitement and drama, and the sheer skill of telling a great story and telling it so well that - as with all the fine storytellers you can think of - Dickens, Stevenson, The Brontes, Austen, Hardy, M.R. James, E.F. Benson and so many more - the joins between the wonderful prose and the wonderful story don't show at all. We read the book, we are in the reality of the tale and - as I recently did with Firebrand - we finish with a sigh compounded of satisfaction, regret that it's finished and anticipation for what might come next.

Tell Me A Story: The Pillars of the Earth and Single Father

Last weekend, I almost broke one of my cardinal rules, when deciding which TV programmes to watch. I paid attention to the previews in the Radio Times: fulsome praise for Single Father and faint damns for The Pillars of the Earth, from David Butcher. Normally, I read them and then ignore them, preferring to make up my own mind. In this instance, if my husband hadn't suggested that Pillars of the Earth might actually be good, I might well have given it a miss. 'It ought to be either a romp or a sweeping saga but it's neither,' says DB. Why ought it? Afterwards, it struck me that I get bored by romps and sweeping sagas in about equal measure. The Pillars of the Earth has - so far - kept me glued to my television, in a way that few other dramas have, this year, and the main reason is that it is a wonderfully involving story, beautifully acted, visually stunning, thoroughly well told. In fact it's just sweeping enough to be exciting but not so sweeping that the viewer doesn't give a stuff; just enough of a romp to be emotionally engaging, but not such a ridiculous mangling of historical fact that it challenges the viewer's suspension of disbelief. I love it and I love it most of all because it's telling me a damn good story, and I find myself sitting, enthralled as a child. Believe me, that doesn't happen very often on UK television these days.
On the other hand, reading Butcher's ecstasies about Single Father, I did wonder if we'd been watching the same thing. Don't get me wrong. I've been watching this and been entertained by it. Any new TV drama is to be welcomed. But this has been mostly because of the very fine acting of David Tennant and Suranne Jones, who could perform the phone book together, and still make you watch them. Did I find it 'grabbing me by the emotional lapels and demanding attention'? Er, no. And I'll tell you the thing that irritates me most about it. It's that they have set a drama in Glasgow, and not made it about crime, drugs and murders (two cheers). But then, they've chickened out, haven't they? They've deliberately manipulated the plot so that they can go to Edinburgh to make it picturesque,with lots of touristy shots of the castle, Princes Street Gardens, and so on, ignoring all the very real beauties of Glasgow itself. Shame on them.
More about 'story' in the next post.

Submissions, Rejections - and Reappearances.

This morning, my post contained a fattish package from Birlinn, who published my history of Gigha, God's Islanders, a couple of years ago. The package contained a very pleasant, albeit apologetic letter from the managing editor. Besides the letter, there was a little wedge of papers, the first three chapters, plus synopsis, of a novel called The Corncrake, which I had submitted to a Scottish publisher called Mercat Press, 'a number of years ago', having heard good things about them from one of their authors. I'm not exactly sure how many years ago, because I don't have my original letter and I had long since assumed that the submission had fallen into the Great Silence which usually befalls unsolicited manuscripts not sent through an agent. In 2007, Mercat merged with Birlinn, and 'some archive material was set aside and subsequently overlooked.' A quick glance at the chapters revealed that they had long, long ago been superseded by other work. What writer stands still for four or five years? Which made it all the more strange that they had 'reviewed it once more but regret that, bearing in mind current market conditions, we do not feel it would be suitable for our current list.'
This put me in mind, very vividly, of a story told with some relish by a friend who (sometimes) writes for television. She was surprised to find in her morning mail, a very old script, with a similar kind of letter. 'We have reviewed this but regret etc etc.' What was even more surprising was that the script had been bought, made and shown by this same company, some years previously...
Since submitting The Corncrake to Mercat all those years ago, I have - of course - moved on. I have a new agent, and the Corncrake itself has been more or less consigned to the dustbin. Writing is a job for me. Not a hobby. To be honest, I have taken a little of the material it contained and have rewritten it, comprehensively, into what amounts to a completely different novel. Both my new agent and I, myself,  feel that it is a much better novel. The characters are different, the names are different, the story is dramatically different. Only a little of the setting remains. But even that novel - although I am very fond of it -  isn't currently 'on the market' because it too has been superseded by a sweepingly romantic historical tale which my agent and I both feel is potentially more commercial, with the additional possibility of other novels on the same theme.
 I suspect that most professional writers would - if an old manuscript came dropping onto the mat - find themselves in much the same position. So while I genuinely appreciate the letter, which was kind, generous, and apologetic - I hope I meet this nice man, one day! - I find the assumption of stasis just a little worrying. But then, perhaps his experience has taught him that many people are content to recycle the same old stuff for ever and a day, without attempting to progress at all.

Some Useful Quotes from Playwright, David Mamet

I have found all of these useful, at some time or another, and not just for plays. They make sense when applied to other kinds of writing too!

 

1: Things have been disordered. The drama continues until a disordered status comes to rest.
We don’t have to worry about creating a problem. We make a better play if we worry about restoring order.

2: It is the objective of the protagonist to keep us in our seats.

3: Alice said to the Cheshire Cat, ‘Which road should I take?’ and the Cheshire Cat said ‘Where do you want to go?’ and Alice said ‘I don’t care.’ And the Cheshire Cat said ‘Then it doesn’t matter which road you take.’

4: How do we keep the audience’s attention? Certainly not by giving them more information but on the contrary, by withholding information. By withholding all information, except that information, the absence of which, would make the story incomprehensible.

5: The deeper you can think, the better it is going to be. Deeper, in the sense of writing, means ‘What would it be like to me?’

6: Clich├ęs in themselves are not necessarily bad. But maybe if we thought deeper, we could find a better way of expressing things.

Ten Practical Tips on Preparing a Manuscript for Submission.

A writer friend who teaches on various creative writing courses told me the other day that he had started one course by attempting to give students advice about layout, revisions and how to submit a manuscript. 'They laughed,' he said. 'They thought they already knew all about it.' Predictably, as soon as the coursework started to come in, he realised that they knew almost nothing about it. They just thought they did.
I've been considering this thorny issue recently for a number of reasons. My nice new agent, when reading through my latest manuscript, The Amber Heart, told me that he thought the actual novel was 'wonderful', but then went on to issue a rather stern admonition about my use of commas which was - seemingly - not all it should be. He was right, of course, and I went back over the manuscript with a fine tooth comb. But I've also spent some time, recently, reading other people's manuscripts for a literary competition which I was asked to judge, and although the standard of the actual writing was - in many cases - very high, the standard of presentation, even among the prizewinners, was not good. And it wasn't just commas and a bit of careless word spacing, either!
So here are my ten practical pieces of advice on preparing your manuscript for submission.
1 Never send in a handwritten manuscript, even if it means bribing a friend or relative to type it up for you.
2 Never attempt to save paper by copying or printing on both sides of the paper. Printer paper is cheap, especially in supermarkets (you can buy 500 sheets of good 80 gm paper in Morrisons for rather less than £3.00) and just for once, forget about saving the planet.
3 Never attempt to save paper by formatting your manuscript in 9 point with no spaces between lines. You need decent margins, 2 or at the very least 1.5 spaces between lines, and 12 point font, something clear like Ariel or Times New Roman. So it uses a bit more paper. See (2) above!
4 By all means use a Fast Draft setting for your own printouts, but when preparing a manuscript for submission, make sure that it is printed out properly, even if it means buying a new print cartridge. (These are always cheaper online.)
5 Never staple the pages together. Leave them loose. For stories or poems, you can use a paper clip, top left corner. For novels, leave all the pages loose. They can go in a box or wallet file if you are posting them.
6 When sending speculative submissions to publishers or agents, these should never be more than the first three chapters and a synopsis, plus covering letter and CV if applicable.
7 Do not lay out your manuscript, whether story or novel, in the 'report' format that seems to have become increasingly acceptable for academic essays. Have you ever seen a published novel laid out like this? It is very disconcerting indeed to see these strange blocks of paragraphs, with acres of white space between them and no indents. Write your story in the format that you see on the printed page with proper old fashioned paragraphs, with indents, with dialogue also indented, and with the occasional space which may indicate the passage of time within a chapter, or a change of perspective.
8 If you are not good at punctuation, try to get somebody else to check it for you.
9 Make sure you use your spell checker before sending your manuscript out.
10 Make sure that your whole submission, whether it is for a competition, an agent or a publication, looks neat and professional. If you ever find yourself thinking 'that'll do' you can be sure that it won't. And all of the above apply, even if you are making an online submission.

This may seem a little pedantic, and it is! But consider for a moment - the person you are submitting to may well be seeing not just dozens but perhaps hundreds of submissions every week. There is never enough time, nor enough people to read them and - as an editor once confessed to me - the easiest way of sorting them, initially, is to take all the badly laid out, badly spelled, poorly presented manuscripts and put them right at the bottom of the pile. Where they may well remain for ever. If you don't care enough about your work to devote a little time to presenting it in the right way, why on earth would you expect anyone else to care enough to read it?

Play 200 and the Lunardi Bonnet

Play 200 at the Oran Mor - and an excellent review by Joyce Macmillan. I haven't been to see this - or my own contribution - yet, but plan on going on Saturday.  The show consists of lots and lots of 2 minute plays, loosely themed on Glasgow Then and Now. It's remarkably hard to write a 2 minute play without turning it into a comedy sketch. Mine was about eighteenth century balloonist Lunardi's visit to Glasgow. They tethered his balloon in Glasgow Cathedral, since it was the only public space big enough to hold it. I find that image enchanting! I've cheated a bit, though, since I've already used that story in a novel called The Physic Garden. Or perhaps I should say a 'half written novel' called The Physic Garden. Mind you, it's as good an illustration as any of how ideas germinate and grow and change. The Physic Garden started out as an idea for an Oran Mor play, which I even drafted out, but was never very happy with. At last, I decided where the problem lay. The whole idea was much too big for a 45 - 50 minute play. It kept fidgetting, pushing against the time constraints, desperate to break out. So then, I thought I might write it as a full length play. But I kept postponing it as a project, or tinkering around the edges, never feeling very happy with it. And all the time, I could hear this voice inside my head, telling a tale that - somehow - needed to be told. So I let the voice take me where it would, and some 90,000 words later, it turned into a novel. But that wasn't the end of it. Because - some months later - having left those 90,000 words to lie fallow, and having let one or two people read the novel, I now think that it's only half the story. So what I'm about to do is write the other half, prune the 90,000 words I've already written, interweave the two tales - and bob's your uncle. Or not, as the case may be.
Will it work? I've no idea. And if other, more pressing projects intervene, I'll probably shelve it and get on with more immediate work. But I know that it will be there, lurking at the back of my mind, waiting its turn. And I think that I now know what needs to be done. Just a case of getting on with it, really!
Meanwhile, I found the story of Lunardi and his balloon lurking in there, when I was looking for inspiration for a two minute play - so in a way, it wasn't only a response to a request for a contribution - it was also a small way of experimenting with the ideas in the novel, trying to find out if they might have a life of their own. I think they probably do!

The Publishing Angel

My agent is in Frankfurt, my novel is with my agent, and I'm here in Scotland, waiting to see what happens next.
Meanwhile, I'm saying prayers to the Publishing Angel.
Is there such an entity? I hope so. Because the Parking Angel works pretty well. I should know. I've been using his services for many years now.
I first heard about him/her from a friend who said that she always found a parking space by asking the Parking Angel to find one for her. I was suitably sceptical, but at the time I was doing readings in a wonderful tea house called Tchai Ovna, on the South Side of Glasgow. This has since closed, although the West End Tchai Ovna is still open. The South Side Tchai Ovna was in Shawlands, a place in which it is notoriously difficult to find any kind of parking space, in the evening - this is because it consists of rather narrow streets with lots and lots of small flats and houses. There was one memorable occasion when - having driven round for about an hour, occasionally hampered by pizza delivery vans parked in the middle of the road - I just turned around and went back home again. I thought I would have one last try, drove up to Shawlands in some trepidation and invoked the help of the Parking Angel.
Almost immediately, a van pulled away from the kerb, and a very large parking space materialised. Moreover, it was right in front of a church!
Since then, I have regularly employed the services of the Parking Angel in all kinds of tight places, and I can state that he almost never lets me down.
But it has occurred to me to wonder why I can't therefore invoke the Publishing Angel as well. I mean, there must BE one, mustn't there? And if there is one, I reckon he might look a lot like the rather militant chap above, who lives in Glasgow's amazing Necropolis. In other words, 'a bonnie fighter.'
So come on, Publishing Angel. Lend me your muscular right arm. Please.

The Amber Heart and Made Up Truth



The Amber Heart, all 130,000 words of it, is now finished and with my agent. I have come to think of it as 'The Great Polish Novel'. Great is right in one sense, at least. I printed it out, last night, and it would make a pretty efficient doorstop. It is loosely based on my own family history, but - of course - very much fictionalised. I've been thinking about this project and researching it for years. In fact, I've made previous attempts to write it, but this is the first time I've achieved something I'm really happy with, and my agent seems to like it too. This is the first of two planned novels. The sequel, called The Winged Hussar, is already under way. The story is almost impossibly romantic (in the best sense of that word, I hope!) But as ever, when working with factual material, the trick is to give yourself permission to move away from those facts, and shape it into a work of fiction: what that fine writer Bernard MacLaverty calls 'made up truth.'
As a writer, when you are working with beginning writers, they will sometimes say 'but it really happened like that' - whenever you query some aspect of a piece of fiction that doesn't quite seem to be working.
It is, I think, one of the first and hardest lessons you have to learn. When you are writing fiction, you are aiming for 'made up truth.' It has to be believable in the sense of being self consistent, in the sense that your readers will say 'yes, life is like that' or 'yes, people are like that' or 'yes, I believe in this world you have created for me.'
But 'it really happened' is no guarantee that your readers will suspend their disbelief. You are wooing them and winning them and drawing them in. Therefore, if you are writing fiction, and not biography, you have to give yourself permission to do whatever it takes to achieve that!

Firebrand by Gillian Philip

I've been reading the new novel by Gillian Philip - Firebrand. This is the first book in the Rebel Angels series of novels.  It is also the best and most exciting read you will have this year. Or - quite likely - next year as well. Go out and buy it now! This is, nominally, young adult fiction, but I suspect anyone from teens onwards will be captivated by it. I remember talking to Gillian about this book, the first of a series, some time ago, and thinking 'I'd buy that. I'd read it.' Well, here it is, and it surpasses all expectations. This is fantasy, but a world so fully and vividly realised, so self consistent, that you immediately enter it, believe in it, become involved with it. This is, of course, down to the quality of the writing, which is exceptional.
Firebrand is the tale of Seth, the young Sithe warrior, through whose eyes the story is visualised - flawed, deeply attractive, deeply likeable, utterly real. It is also a tale of two worlds, running side by side, and of what happens when the border between those two worlds begins to be compromised. Gillian has based the setting of this tale on old Celtic legends of the Sithe, the People of Peace, the fairy folk of old Scottish stories, with the result that there is an essential familiarity about all this. It doesn't feel 'made up' at all. It feels entirely and disturbingly real.
Coupled with that, of course, we are in the hands of a superb storyteller and a fine writer. The pace of this is mind blowing. Once you start reading, you won't want to stop. Once you get to the end, you'll want to read the next book in the series. Personally, I can't wait. And I'm more than honoured that Gillian used a quote from my play, The Secret Commonwealth, at the start of the novel.
Firebrand is published by Strident, one of the most exciting and innovative publishing houses in Scotland and is available from major bookshops including Waterstones, and online from Amazon.

Scottish Shorts - Short Plays from Scotland

On Thursday of last week, I went over to Edinburgh to the Playwrights' Studio summer party, and the launch of  Scottish Shorts, a new anthology of short plays from Scotland, edited by Philip Howard, just published by Nick Hern Books and which includes my own play, The Price of a Fish Supper. This was the first time I had actually met Nick Hern - and it was a great pleasure to meet a publisher who (a) seems to enjoy his job so much and (b) is tremendously positive about books in general and plays and playwrights in particular. Some years ago now, Nick Hern published my full length play about Chernobyl, Wormwood, in another anthology called Scotland Plays, and has kept it in print ever since. The play was first produced at the Traverse in Edinburgh, and I have already had tentative enquiries about another production to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster. Nick Hern says that these anthologies are still selling pretty well and I can vouch for the truth of it because a nice little payment arrives each year . He offers writers a small advance and a royalty, and also handles enquiries about licensing of the plays for professional production. The books are well  produced and edited, and - unlike so many publishers - he keeps things in print, with small runs. Wormwood is on the Scottish Higher Still syllabus, so schools which offer courses in drama (not - sadly -  South Ayrshire, which seems to approve of neither drama nor history at secondary school level) buy a number of copies.
But, as talented playwright Jo Clifford remarked to me at the launch, what a pity that, although all these plays are kept in print, they are seldom if ever produced again. There is a vast body of  vibrant and exciting work floating about out there which can be read, thanks to Nick Hern, but not seen and heard. And there is an argument to be made that - unlike, for instance, a novel - a play which is not being produced, which has no audience to see it, and interact with it, is frozen, static, not quite alive.
Years ago, when my son was studying English at school, it saddened and infuriated me in about equal measure, that there seemed to be no notion of taking students to see productions of the plays they were studying. They were being asked searching questions about the text which could only really be illuminated by seeing the play as an entity on the stage.
In the current financial climate, and with current government attitudes to the arts, things are clearly not going to get better any time soon - but with that small light on the horizon of a possible new production of Wormwood, I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed!

Wuthering Heights Again

I blogged about this when it was first shown, but last night - weary to the point of catatonia, and with absolutely nothing else to watch while I drank a late night cup of tea - I switched to the repeat of the first episode of ITV's recent dramatisation of Wuthering Heights, half hoping that it might have improved in the intervening months. It hadn't. The best thing about it was still  the scenery, which was gorgeous. Everything else was wrong.
I have a great many friends who adore WH (and about as many who loathe it!) and I think all of us who love it tend to share the same reservations about the many and varied dramatisations to which we have been subject over the years. These are major reservations which are almost never inspired by - for example - the dramatisations of Austen novels which have come to our screens over the past few years. We may have a few quibbles about these, but on the whole, they are forgivable and in some cases - the film version of Sense and Sensibility springs to mind- we get so caught up in the brilliance of the production that it's hard to find any fault at all! This never seems to happen with Wuthering Heights. Instead we watch, with the triumph of hope over expectation, only to have our fears realised yet again. They can't ever seem to get it right.
I know it's a difficult novel, but I still find myself wondering why, since when I talk about it to the friends who DO love it, we all seem to love it for the same reasons: the intensity, the passion, the cruelty, the primitive, mythic quality, the uncompromising nature of so much of it, the way in which we don't need to like these characters to be caught up in their story.
So what was wrong with the latest version? Well, just about everything except the landscape jarred with me.  Wuthering Heights itself was all wrong, for a start: much too big, too clean, too grand. It looked more like Thrushcross Grange. The Heights of the book is described as a Yorkshire farmhouse in the old style, sprawling rather than monumental, with its yard, and its sheepfolds and stables: low ceilinged, dark - except for the roaring fire at the very heart of the house, whose flames run through the book, warming the place and the people, central to the story. I've never pictured it as the large, light building of this adaptation. Cathy was all wrong too, but then they never do seem to get Cathy right. She's always too wishy washy and while I'm at it, the real Cathy would have scorned to call Heathcliff 'my love' all the time, the way this one seemed determined to do, whining about his desire for revenge. She's never ever strong enough. Frankly, she should be lovely to look at but mad as a fish, difficult, dangerous and not very nice to know.
Heathcliff looked all wrong too, but maybe that's a personal judgement. Worse, his lines were all wrong. The central conceit of WH is that Heathcliff is utterly obsessed with Cathy, and no matter how badly she treats him, he would die rather than take his revenge on her. But that won't stop him taking his revenge elsewhere. (In many ways, this has the strange, claustrophobic atmosphere of a Jacobean revenge drama). If she asks him not to do something, whether it's refaining from killing lapwings, or refraining from killing her husband, he'll obey her but only because it's her. When she's gone, when she is no longer there to temper him, he becomes utterly demonic. But this doesn't make any sense at all, if you haven't shown the extraordinary nature of that relationship first.
Better to quote from the book itself, don't you think?

'You teach me now how cruel you've been—cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they'll blight you—they'll damn you. You loved me—then what right had you to leave me? What right—answer me—for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you—oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?'

'Let me alone. Let me alone,' sobbed Catherine. 'If I’ve done wrong, I'm dying for it. It is enough! You left me too: but I won't upbraid you! I forgive you. Forgive me!'
'It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,' he answered. 'Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer—but yours! How can I?'

I strongly submit that if you can't live with that central premise, can't accept the novel on its own terms, rather despise it in fact, then you had much better dramatise something else: Jane Eyre or Villette for instance. Instead, they always seem determined to transform Emily into Charlotte, even if it means rewriting the whole story in the process. It won't do. Definitely could do better.

The Amber Heart


I'm currently revising my great Polish story, now called the Amber Heart, which is loosely based on episodes from my own Polish family history. Browsing my bookshelves, recently, I came across some illustrations of work by artist Juliusz Kossak who was the rather famous grandfather of my own gorgeous great uncle Karol Kossak (below).



I met Karol in Ciechocinek, where he was living with my Aunt Wanda, when I was a very young woman and he was an old man. I think I fell a little bit in love with him, and even wrote a poem about him called Potato Fires:

I remember

talking with my uncle Karol,
walking arm in arm
on Polish evenings when
mist spread over flat fields
and women were burning
the last of the potato leaves.

We wrinkled our nostrils.
It was a kind of myrrh for us
preserving the moment yet
bitterly telling time.

There was no cure for it.
Though I hurtled through youth
for love of him
he’d gone too far before.


In truth, he was the closest I would ever come to meeting Count Danilo from the Merry Widow, and it occurred to me that that was indeed his world. It was part of my heritage too, but as impossibly strange, remote and magical to me as a fairytale - or a Viennese Operetta!


The pictures by Juliusz Kossak, and his equally famous son, Wojciech, were something of an inspiration for me, when I was writing. There's a heroic quality to many of them, for sure, but also a lovely evocation of atmosphere and detail that is something all writers of historical fiction are searching for.  Even now, when I look at them, I get a little thrill of excitement. It's the equivalent of walking through the fur coats and out the back of the wardrobe - and it's part of my own family history. How wonderful is that?

Focus

A couple of years ago, feeling that my career was somehow 'stuck' and that I was floundering about a bit, I booked an advice session from the Cultural Enterprise Office in Glasgow. It turned out to be very helpful in allowing me to assess where I was at, and where I might want to go in the future and I would certainly recommend it to any writer who, in mid career, has that familiar feeling of frustration that things may not be going quite the way he or she expected or wanted.
The single most useful piece of analysis, however, and - as it turns out - the thing that has stayed with me over the succeeding months, has been the idea of 'focus.' What emerged from an afternoon of detailed one- to-one discussions with the adviser, was a sense of my own dissatisfaction with the way I work - not so much with the work itself, which I love, as with my propensity for spreading myself too thinly. Am I a playwright who also writes novels? Am I a poet who writes plays? Am I a historian who writes lots of other things? A number of conclusions and recommendations emerged from the session but the one that I have carried with me all this time is the idea that - for various reasons, some personal and some of them practical - I have always found it hard to focus. I don't mean that I start things and don't finish them, because I do. I finish lots and lots of things! But ... when I'm working on a novel, I do find myself wondering if I should be writing a play. When I'm writing a play, I'm distracted by the thought that I could be making more money writing for business. I'll have a spell when all I want to do is write poems, and then, quite suddenly, the need to do this will vanish, and everything I want to write will present itself as a novel or a short story.
Over the year or so since that session, however, it has become increasingly clear to me that my main focus, the place where my true love of writing lies, is definitely with novels.  There is quite simply nothing I would rather be doing. And the result is that I have a couple of manuscripts to sell, and another one on the way. But this is also a frightening realisation since it is now so hard even for agents to find publishers, and yet novels take up very large swathes of your time! And so, it's time to recognise my own fear - and do it anyway.
I was considering all this last night, when - having watched The Dragons' Den - I was involved in a discussion about successful people in all walks of life  - how some people make it, while others, arguably with equal amounts of talent - don't. The conclusion we reached - and it may seem obvious, but I hadn't clarified it in my own mind until that point - was that the people who had made it in a big way all had massive 'focus' in some aspect of their working lives. My friends who have been most successful are those who - perhaps not immediately, but at some point in their lives, maybe even quite late in their lives  - have found out what they really want to do and then gone for it, relentlessly. This may or may not have involved money. For some of them the money-making was purely incidental. For others, they made very little money, but didn't care. The focus on something was all important. If you look at successful people currently in the media you'll find plenty of examples. Mary Portas has that same almost scary focus - in her case, on the retail experience. The Dragons themselves seem to have a focus not so much on their individual businesses - but on making money. I know a few people like that. We probably all do! They are the businessmen and women who seem to have the midas touch. All their enterprises prosper, and it isn't necessarily because they are ruthless or greedy. It's more that the actual business of making money, of profit and loss, seems to fascinate them so that they focus on it more clearly, more exclusively than any of their competitors, regardless of whatever business they are involved in.
Looking at some of the most successful writers I have known or worked with, the single most important thing they seem to have in common is that same ability to focus. And I don't just mean the ability to ignore distractions and naysayers. It's more than that: it's a kind of singlemindedness. Given the obvious necessity of a baseline of real talent (without which, nothing)  success so often seems to come to those who are very clearly focussed on some aspect of writing. They seem to know exactly what they want to do and they go for it, like an arrow, strong and straight and true. Obviously, they may then go on to do other things, to branch out and experiment but I become more and more convinced that part of the trick of professional success in all walks of life, is to find out exactly what you want to do - and go for it.
Of course, the finding out can be tricky. Self help books tell you to listen to your 'inner voice' - but I'm not sure that it always tells you the truth. Because your inner voice can be frightened as well. And of course - as we concluded in our late night discussion - it may be that what you want is not to focus on any one thing. My own father was a case in point. He was clever man and a distinguished research scientist, with a myriad of other interests. He had a good career, but by no means as starry as some. It didn't matter to him. His interests were many and varied, he loved his life and his family, and he was one of the happiest people I have ever known.
All the same, I've reached some conclusions, the main one being that from now on, my focus has to be on novels. Long fiction seems to be where my heart lies, as well as my head!

Marit Barentsen and The Scent of Blue

Had a lovely email from Dutch artist Marit Barentsen asking if she could use an extract from my poem The Scent of Blue, in a design for a 'skinny' card, which she wanted to show on her blog. I was delighted -and I love her card. You can see it here if you scroll down the post. And what a fascinating website this is! One I'll definitely go back to again and again, I think.
I wrote the poem The Scent of Blue some time ago, and then later on, published it in a pamphlet of the same name. You'll also find the whole text of it somewhere in this blog!
I don't know why my poetry writing is so erratic. I think it's probably because novels are certainly my first love, followed by plays, with poetry and short stories hovering somewhere in the background. I have ideas for more novels than I will ever have time to write, and spend a lot of my life half in and half out of whatever fictional world I'm currently involved in. Mostly, it seems much more real to me than the 'real' world I inhabit! However, I began my writing life as a poet, years ago, but poetry seems to come and go with me and when it's gone it's gone. Then, quite suddenly, something like The Scent of Blue will arrive, and I'll spend an intensive few weeks working on it - only for that particular muse to desert me all over again.

The Price of a Fish Supper - Scottish Shorts

My play, The Price of a Fish Supper, is about to be published by Nick Hern Books, as part of a new anthology of Scottish Plays  - Scottish Shorts. It's already flagged up on Amazon, and I'm told it'll be published in time for the Edinburgh Festival. The editor is Philip Howard, late of the Traverse - a lovely director to work with  - and I'm slightly phased by the distinguished company I find myself in with plays by Stanley Eveling, Louise Welsh and David Greig among others. I've a soft spot for this play so it'll be nice to see it in print, especially since Nick Hern has a reputation for keeping books IN print.

The Amber Heart

Many years ago now, I began to research my impossibly romantic Polish family history. That was in the days before the internet made these things easier, but it was also while my father was alive, and - fortunately - I persuaded him to write down as much as he could remember. He even made little sketches of the estate where he was born, and the house he had lived in, as a child. This was an essential part of the process, because he had come to the UK just after the war (via Monte Cassino, in Italy) bringing with him a handful of photographs and almost nothing else.  Then I set about the fascinating, frustrating but ultimately very rewarding task of trying to track down the history of a family which had - essentially - been swallowed by all the upheavals taking place on the fluctuating Eastern borders of the country to which I owe half my blood: Poland. It was a journey full of serendipitious discoveries and surprises and I found it at once moving and exciting. Of the discoveries which engaged me immediately, one involved a remote relative who was said to have had many wives, (albeit not all at the same time!) and to have died in a riding accident in his late eighties. Another one involved a widowed Polish great grandmother who - although born into the nobility - had married her Ukrainian estate manager which was completely explicable, once I had ferretted out other details of the relationship. And thirdly, I found out about a great uncle of the family who was a medical doctor, and a politician, a Polish representative to the parliament in Vienna, a lovely man, by all accounts, who was immensely popular with the younger members of his family. I even managed to access his obituary from a Viennese newspaper of the time. All of these things began to ferment in my head, and have resulted - eventually - in a tale of epic proportions, loosely based on fact. I say loosely because as all historical novelists know, you have to give yourself permission, as a writer of fiction, to depart from the factual truth as you know it, and make sure that you are writing a readable story! The Amber Heart is the result. It's currently with my agent, along with another novel, The Summer Visitor, and now I must wait and see what he makes of it. More about the Amber Heart in future posts.

Debating Creativity

About to start writing a series of articles on the thorny subject of Creativity, for the Scottish Review. Eventually, I'm hoping that they will form the basis of a whole book on the subject, but there's a long way to go in terms of reflection and research.
At least some of this has been inspired by a great many interesting discussions with a friend who is a visual artist. We find ourselves profoundly disturbed (actually, sometimes the emotion seems closer to rage!) at the way in which the word creativity has been commandeered by so many people who wouldn't know what it was if it came up and bit them on the bum.
More to come!

Flowerfield




This is the working title of a new project: an idea that has been nipping away at me for weeks now. It is very hard to describe this process - the sheer compulsive delight of it - to anyone who doesn't work creatively. But it is, I suppose, the answer to that perennial question - every writer has heard it, at almost every reading - where do you get your ideas from?
THIS is where you get your ideas from, except that it's almost impossible to define what 'this' is! It's a process, I suppose and you feel it as much in your stomach as in your head! Butterflies, like the feeling you got as a child, when you were anticipating something wonderful. Something seen or heard or discovered, sparks something else in your imagination. And then you spend days, weeks, sometimes months, thinking about it all, often in the early hours of the morning. On this occasion, I was quite alone, visiting a place, (briefly) at a particular time of day, at a particular time of the year. It was a place I had written about before, but the character who came into my mind had nothing to do with that. This was a new person, new to me, but it was as if I was suddenly looking at something through her eyes and with her memories. This is a very odd sensation, for sure, but it is also very wonderful, and more exciting than anything else I know. I knew instantly who she was, what she was doing there, why she had come back there, and what her memory of the place was. I also knew something about the history of the place. And I knew that there was doing to be some connection between the two. What I didn't know - and still don't, not in any great detail - is what exactly that connection is, and how the story is going to pan out. But I'm slowly but surely starting to put the pieces together. It always amazes me how this feels like 'finding out' rather than 'making up.' It's as if the story exists somewhere as a truth, and the writer's job is to tease it out, rather than invent.

A Warm Welcome Back to Wordarts


I've been away for quite a long time. Actually, I haven't been away at all. I've been writing and revising madly, pondering and contemplating changes and coming up with lots of new ideas. There's something about springtime that always has this effect.
Besides, I'd found myself getting bored with my own blog and that will never do! I needed a break, but here I am, on the first of the month, back on board. Moreover, I have a nice new agent, with a nice new agency, a whole host of new projects, several things on the boil at once, and hope in my heart. And here's a nice new picture of an old source of inspiration for me - the isle of my heart and the setting for a brand new novel, with this time - I hope - the stonking great plot that eluded me for so long. Well, if not a 'stonking great plot' then an interesting plot. Involving, dramatic - and rather sad, too. Or so I'm told. Let's hope nice new agent can find a very very nice new publisher to take this one on board.

Random Strange Derivations (1)

There is a (somewhat revolting) expression for perspiring profusely, which is known as 'sweating cobs'. I'm not sure whether it's peculiar to my native county of Yorkshire, but that's where I heard it first. It was only when I was studying Old and Middle English that I learned that the word for spider is 'attecoppe' - meaning 'cup of poison' which is fairly self explanatory.
The word cob is sometimes used for spider in Yorkshire - hence 'sweating cobs' meaning that the droplets are running down, like little spiders! Strange or what?
When I was a child in Yorkshire, we also used to call those floating seeds that sail through the air in late summer 'hairy cobs'. We would blow on them and hope that they would float upwards, chanting 'hairy cob, hairy cob, bring me some luck' - or sometimes 'bring me some money'. I assume that these too were seen as 'hairy spiders'.
Not a lot of people know this! I didn't even know it back then, when I was using the word!

Stonking Great Stories.

Am gearing up to do yet more rewrites on what has come to be known as The Book, in this house. There are other books, some almost written, some half written, some planned. But THIS is THE BOOK. It has been through more versions than I have had hot dinners. Well, not quite, but it feels like it. And yet, each new draft seems to have been an important part of the process, leading me on to something new, exciting, interesting.
When I sent the latest version - so far from where this project started that it seems to me now like a completely different book - to my agent, I kind of expected editorial suggestions. But I also thought that I might finally have cracked it.
When he wrote back to me, with some notes, he also said - more or less - 'this is a very good book, but it isn't a great book. I think you have the potential to turn it into a great book. Do you want to have a go, because I will quite understand if you don't. It's up to you. I'd be happy to send it out, or wait for you to write something else - or have another go at this one. Your decision.'
He also used that dread word 'quiet'. Not, he was quick to stress, that he thought it was 'too quiet' - but he knows his market, all too frighteningly well. And he knows that that is the word that editors will use when they get back to him. 'Beautifully written - but quiet.'
After a little thought, I went onto my Facebook page and without specifying any details, asked my fellow writers (pretty much the majority of my Facebook friends are writers!) how they would set about addressing the problem of 'quietness'. I got a drift of answers at least some of which were helpful. Somebody (who had probably never read anything I had written, folk are like that!) said that I had to make my characters 'real' - but that has never been my problem. Actually, I suspect it's quite the opposite. My characters are sometimes all too real, which may mean that I sacrifice the drama. Another friend, a very fine writer herself, said that she gets the same reaction, and has been told by her North American editor, that she needs a 'stonking great story'. Several people told me that I must follow my heart. And there's some truth in that, as well. But, but, but....I can't ignore advice from somebody who clearly has my best career interests at heart.
I had a conversation with this same agent, a few days later, and he pointed out a particular scene in the novel which he thought worked perfectly, and was, in fact, an example of exactly what he meant. Considering his comments (actually, I have spent several hours in the middle of several nights, doing nothing but consider them!) I realise that what he is after, what the publishing world is really after, is a stonking great story, beautifully told. Failing that, of course, they will go for the stonking great story without the beautiful telling, every time.
All of which begs the interesting question - can I pull it off without the whole book coming crashing down around my ears.
I have to try.
And at least some of my midnight ponderings have revealed something else. The book itself has changed. What I thought was the 'story' of the book, is more like a sub plot. A very important sub plot, vital to the whole thing - but all the same, not quite the main theme, spine, story. That lies elsewhere, or not so much elsewhere, as seen from a completely different angle. And I'm still not telling it. Why? I'm not sure. Perhaps because it frightens me somewhat. It is, let's face it, a stonking great story, but also a scary one.
But I have to have a try, because now that I'm aware if it, it isn't going to go away.
Lots more work. I'll keep you posted.