The Scent of Blue

I remembered this poem when I posted on a Facebook thread about vintage scents. I love them, and have a small collection. The better the scent, the longer it lasts. You can sometimes find bargains on eBay, and these old perfumes last a long time. I have a very old (and very large) bottle of Mitsouko, that still smells wonderful, given a little while to settle on the skin, My favourite, though, is Guerlain's l'Heure Bleue. 

I wrote this poem years ago, published it in an anthology, and put it on an old blog too, but when I went in search of it online it had disappeared. So here it is again. 


A concert in Edinburgh, years ago.

She manages to find a single seat,

sees a famous conductor,

silver haired, sharp featured like some

bird of prey, but smaller than you would

expect in evening dress.

On his arm a thin woman,

taller than he is, strides with

striking face, her hair a cloud of

grey blonde curls.

Not a young woman but a

diva surely, inhabiting her clothes,

inhabiting her skin with such confidence.

She wants to be like that some day,

longs for self possession

and she remembers the scent of her,

musky, mysterious, a heavy, night time

scent, flowers after dark.

The scent of passion.

The scent of money.

The scent of blue.


She searches for the scent for years. 

Her mother wore Tweed.

Now she wishes she could

open a wardrobe door, and

smell the scent of Tweed, her

mother’s plain sweet scent,

almost as much as she

wishes she could tell her mother so.


As a girl, she wore Bluebell,

fresh and full of hope, or

Diorissimo, like the lilac she once

carried through the streets,

on her way from meeting a man

she desired and admired,  thinking

Girl with Lilac, still so young,

self conscious, not possessed.


Later, she tries l’Air du Temps and

Je Reviens (always unlucky for her)

and Fleurs de Rocaille but they are

none of them the scent of blue.

She wears Chanel, briefly, with dreams of Marilyn,

loves to watch her, loves to hear her voice,

soothing as chocolate but

Number Five is not her scent,

never suits her, never will.


She discovers Mitsouko.

Some tester in some chemist’s shop somewhere.

An old, old fashioned scent,

syncopated, unexpected, not to every taste.

Whenever she wears it,

women ask her what it is,

I love your scent they say.

How strange the way scent lingers in the mind. 

How strange the way scent

changes on warm skin.

On her it ripens to something peachy,

mossy, rich and rare.

But it is not the scent of blue.


She loses her heart.

It is an affair of  telephone lines

more profound, more sweet and

bitter than Mitsouko,

a sad song in the dark,

and the colour of that time is blue.


Afterwards, she searches through

Bellodgia, Apres L’Ondee,

Nuit de Noel, Mon Peche, Apercu

until drawn by nostalgia

she finds Joy,

dearly bought  roses and jasmine,

a summer garden in one small bottle.

She marries in Joy.

But she wears Mitsouko

and she forgets the scent of blue.


Older, she discovers Arpege,

Not just rose and jasmine but

bergamot, neroli, peach, vanilla, ylang ylang,

one essence piled on another like the

notes on the piano she used to,

sometimes still does, play:

love songs mostly.

Oh this is not a scent for the young.

It is too dark for that

a memory of something  lost,

an unfinished story.

This scent has a past.


She sees him across a room.

Another woman ushers him,

this way and that, makes introductions,

a little charmed the way women

always did flutter irresistably around this man.

It used to make her smile the way

women flocked around this

wolf who walked alone who

belonged to nobody but himself.

And never will.


She is wearing Arpege.

Not a scent for the very young,

vertiginous as the layers of time between.

With age comes wisdom,

but as when mud is

stirred at the bottom of a  pool,

memories bubble to the surface.

Not wisely but too well they loved.

Now, they are waving across the

chasm of the years.

They speak, in measured tones,

they speak and walk away,

they speak again in careful words, that

every now and then

recall the scent of


It will not do.

Only in dreams

can one innocently recapture that

first fine careless


So much more is forgotten

Than is ever remembered.

And the clock insists

let it be let it be.



One summer evening

a young man observes the way

twilight closes the flowers,

whose scent lingers on the last heat of the day,

the way the light goes out of the sky,

painting it dark blue, how

soon the war will tear this place apart.

How soon all things resort to sadness.


In a new century,

She finds among jasmine and rose,

vanilla and violet,

a dark twist of anise, like the

twist of a knife.

First last always.

The scent of the diva.

The scent of passion.

Fine beyond imagining.

She sees it is essentially

sad, sad, sad, a

sad scent:

L’Heure Bleue.

All things come to sadness in the end.

The beautiful bitter foolish scent of blue.

Catherine Czerkawska




When Life Give You Lemons ...


Last week, I found some lovely big Italian lemons in Lidl, with the scented leaves still attached. I used two of them to make delicious lemon curd, in the microwave - much easier and quicker than using a double boiler, so if you fancy making some, here's the recipe. 

It came from my old and battered Farmhouse Kitchen Microwave Cookery Book, and is one of the most successful microwave recipes I've ever tried. 

You need the rind and juice of 2 large lemons, like the ones above (or 3, if they're smaller) 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk, beaten, between 6 and 8 ounces (175 - 225g) of caster sugar, and 4 ounces (125g) of butter. I like very tart lemon curd so I only use 6 ounces of sugar, free range eggs and a good solid butter, but it doesn't need to be unsalted. Don't try to make it with spreadable butter though. 

You melt the butter, sugar, all of the finely grated rind and the juice of one lemon on full power for 3 minutes, stirring every minute and making sure the butter and sugar have dissolved. You need quite a large basin for this. 

Add the remaining lemon juice and the beaten egg - I put it through a sieve.

Then cook the whole thing on full power, uncovered, for about six minutes, whisking it every minute, until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. It's fiddly, but quick. You can give it another minute if need be, but it will thicken considerably as it sets. If you don't whisk it enough in the early stages, it will turn into scrambled eggs.

Put it into heated jars, cover with waxed paper, allow to cool, then put the lids on and refrigerate. It's supposed to keep for six weeks in the fridge but ours never lasts for that long. It's usually gone within a week or so but it's easy to make more. You can use baby food jars if you want to give some away because there's only enough here for one and a half normal jam jars. It makes a great cake filling, and it's lovely mixed with Greek yoghurt too. 

Good luck!

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. 

In the Salt Mines.

Wanda and Karol Kossak in Ciechocinek

Back in the very early 1970s, as a young woman, I took a trip to Poland, to stay with my father's relatives in Warsaw, and in a place called Ciechocinek, where my great aunt Wanda and great uncle Karol Kossak (the last of the celebrated family of Polish artists) lived. The picture of them above is so vividly reminiscent of my time there that every time I see it, I'm back with them, sitting at that table. I loved them dearly. 

When I came to work on my new book, The Last Lancer, about the Polish grandfather I never met, his turbulent milieu, his family and his life, I found myself remembering them all over again. They were a link to a past that for many years was inaccessible to me. The book is currently with my publisher, and I'm working on all the other elements surrounding it. Meanwhile, it has suddenly become current in the worst possible way, since my family came from that part of Poland called Galicia, much of which is now in Ukraine. That instant 'relevance' is very hard to come to terms with, even though it has cast  a blinding light on the tragic past of my forebears.

One thing I keep remembering though. And I tell the tale here because it too is relevant, in the worst possible way. 

As part of my trip, my family had arranged a visit to Krakow. Among other things, they organised a trip to the salt mine at Wieliczka.  You can get some idea of what a beautiful and intriguing place this is from their website, but even back then, with the communist party still firmly in control in Poland, it was a wonderful place.

I went on a conducted tour with a guide who spoke in Polish and English. At some point during that tour, I became aware of what can only be described as a general sense of unease among the rest of the group. To this day, I can remember the feeling,  although at first, I didn't know what it was. It was just short of tangible. A current. A vibration in the air. The kind of feeling that makes you shiver. If I was a cat my fur would have been standing on end!

Then, I noticed that we had, as we moved forward, split into two parties. My group was a mixed bunch of mostly Polish tourists with a couple of English speakers. The other consisted of one grim faced and silent older man, flanked by two other men who occasionally muttered to him. If they had been wearing notices that they were plague carriers, the way in which everyone avoided them could not have been more obvious. We went on with our enjoyable tour, but at some point, an older man from our group bent down and whispered in my ear 'KGB'. 

I've never forgotten it. It flashes into my mind occasionally  - much more so over the past few weeks. That palpable sense of unease had another element to it, and it was only later that I realised what it was. It was hatred. Something I hadn't encountered at all in my life to that time: raw, primitive hatred. Because some of those Polish tourists had vivid memories of exactly what Russian soldiers had done to them and their families during the war. 

Nothing happened. We enjoyed our tour, the unwelcome guests got into a fancy car and drove off - and I resumed my holiday. But once you've encountered the reality of justified hate, you never forget it and the force of it. Like my father you can choose not to allow it to ruin your life, but there will be times when it surfaces, just as it surfaced on that long ago day, even though we were deep underground. 

Early Spring - too warm too soon!


I love my springtime clutter here in this 200 year old house. It has been unusually warm and sunny here for a couple of weeks, and that means that when the weather changes, as it is going to do later on this week, and becomes much much colder - with frosts too - the incautious blossoms will be nipped. 

Currently wondering if I can cover the beautiful magnolia stellata with something to protect it. At least the very old apple tree at the bottom of the garden is always very careful and bides its time! 

Just a Little Ukrainian Boy, Weeping.


It was a few days ago. I was scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, I can't even remember which, before going to bed. Thinking that I must stop, because the more I see and read about Ukraine the less I sleep. 

The feeling of helplessness in the face of monstrous events is dreadful. Yesterday, an elderly lady in our local Co-op stopped me just to express her horror and indignation. Not anyone I knew. She just had to speak to someone about it. We stood amid the cereals and packets of tea, trying to comfort each other.

But it was the short video of the little boy that made me cry.

There he was, walking along a road - towards Poland? Another country? He couldn't have been more than ten years old. He had a good warm jacket on - a jacket that looked nice and new. Bought for winter, probably. He had his little backpack, the kind kids take to school. He was carrying something in his hand - a phone? Passport? He was trudging along with dogged persistence, an exhausted little boy who knew that he had to keep going because there were monsters behind him. 

And he was crying his eyes out. Real, terrible, anguished tears.

Questions flooded my mind. As, I'm sure, they did for any other human being who saw him. Was he really alone? Where was his mother? Had he lost his family? Were they just ahead or behind him? Who was filming? Who comforted him, hugged him, tried to make it a little bit better? What happened to him? Where is he now?

It has haunted me ever since. I keep thinking of all the children who had just had Christmas. Who were going to school, playing games, enjoying the ordinary pursuits of childhood in ordinary homes, looking forward to spring. 

For the past three years or so, I've been researching a new book, about my family's own sad history in Eastern Europe. And there too were so many stories of displacement, unspeakable cruelties inflicted on the innocent at the behest of evil men. The fact that most such evil men face a terrible reckoning  - as they almost always do - is no comfort at present. 

All I can think about is that little lad, trudging along, crying his eyes out. 

Mice Under a Broom

For the past three years, I've been researching the history of my Polish family and its relationship with Ukraine. My forebears, including my father, were Eastern Poles, living in and around the city of Lviv, then called Lwow, that had been under Polish rule for many hundreds of years. But it was complicated. I number Ashkenazi Jews who had fled East to the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, and people of Ukrainian Orthodox persuasion among my ancestors. Most of us from that part of the world do. Although our history has been chequered and sometimes hideously violent, the one thing we share is our seemingly intractable problem with our near neighbours. Poles and Ukrainians never confuse state and nation. We are so intertwined as to seem like the same people, but both of us know what and who we are and hope to live in peace, accepting that knowledge. 

It is the small things that are on my mind as I write this. The ten year old girl, her life just beginning, killed at the behest of a psychotic old man with dreams of empire. The uncannily round, expressionless face of that same old man, glimpsed in passing on TV, as though even the broadcasters are reluctant to show it too often, like a bogeyman of folklore. The doctor in the Kyiv hospital, staying to look after his young patients, many of them cancer sufferers, as he closes his eyes, briefly, to gather himself together to try to answer another question. How do you feel? The young president Zelenskyy with his family, his face a map of exhaustion and defiance. The women, thousands of them, trekking towards the border, with babes in arms or hand in hand with toddlers, as women have done for centuries, victims of other narcissistic men with dreams of empire. The bewildered young Russian soldiers who thought that they would be welcomed with open arms. The brave people of all ages in Moscow and St Petersburg, risking heaven knows what fate, to protest against a war of aggression they didn't want and couldn't vote for. The footage of bombs raining down on the parked cars of a block of flats where only a week ago people were leading ordinary lives, mundane and precious, coming out of a pandemic and looking forward to spring.

I've been trying to analyse the feeling that keeps me awake at night. It sits like a hard knot at the centre of my chest. I can't rid myself of it. But I think I know what it is. Anger is too mild a word to describe it. It's rage. Pure, white hot, unadulterated rage and I don't know what to do with it. I think about the few members of my family who survived the last war when so many did not. I think about the young, vibrant aunt who died in Bergen Belsen, and my grandfather who, with thousands of others, was stricken by amoebic dysentery, after imprisonment in Russia by another psychopath. He's buried with other Polish soldiers near Bukhara, on the Silk Road. He was thirty eight years old. I think of his brothers, one shot in front of his wife, the other dying of old injuries from a previous battle. The much loved friends and relatives who disappeared, nameless numbers on lists that were lost. 

I went looking for a quote for this post, but everything I found seemed inadequate, hackneyed, lame. The only thing that resonated with me was from a book by my cousin Teresa Kossak, who found herself as a child, fleeing Russians and Nazis and trying to find sanctuary somewhere. 

'We were' she wrote, 'Mice under a broom.' 

Kyrie Eleison sings the Kyiv Chamber Choir. Lord have mercy. The ancient words and sounds of sorrow and supplication combine in this 15th Century Monody. It is also a small thing, but for me, right now, it seems to be the only thing keeping the hard knot of rage in place, manageable. The frailty of the best laid schemes of mice and men. The grief and pain. As our Scottish poet, Robert Burns knew all too well, even mice under a broom have a right to the quiet enjoyment of their home. 

The Amber Heart - The Story of a Story - and a Valentine Freebie.


I've blogged before about my new book, The Last Lancer, the story of my grandfather's life and milieu.  It's currently with my publisher, awaiting edits, while I sit here watching developments in Ukraine with a sick sense of deja vu. 

Meanwhile, here's one I wrote earlier. The Amber Heart is set in the middle years of the 19th century, in what was then rural Eastern Poland  It's the story of Marianna and Danilo. She is a wealthy Polish landowner's daughter, born and brought up in the beautiful manor house of Lisko, while he is a poor Ukrainian estate worker. The lives of these two young people from vastly different backgrounds are destined to become hopelessly and tragically entwined from the moment of their first meeting. 

Back when I wrote the first draft of this novel, I had a good London based agent. I'd just had a novel published, and she was confident that she would be able to sell this one as well. I thought so too. Our confidence couldn't have been more misplaced. 

There were a lot more publishers in the 80s, although the Great Amalgamation had already begun, in which so many good small publishers were swallowed up by big corporations, gradually reducing the options for publication and the options for writers too. At the same time, and probably no coincidence, the so called 'mid-list' was disappearing - those well written, readable books that were never going to be mega sellers, but still sold steadily over many years, if they were kept in print. Which wasn't what the big corporations wanted at all. 

Desperate times, until Amazon, the Great Disrupter, saw not just a gap but a yawning chasm in the market and went for it like the proverbial rat up a drainpipe. Good for them. Now, smaller independent publishers are springing up, but they have a hard row to hoe, and so do writers. A  whole publishing infrastructure was destroyed in the rush to consolidate traditional publishing houses into ever bigger entities.

My agent couldn't sell the novel,  no matter how hard she tried, but it had - as she herself said - the most fulsomely complimentary set of rejections she had ever seen. One editor said she had 'stayed up all night reading it, couldn't put it down, wept buckets.' 

The stumbling block seemed to be its Polish setting. Nobody wanted to read a novel set in Poland, they said. 

Dear reader, I filed that original manuscript away in a box, where it sat mouldering for years. I still have that copy somewhere, out of pure sentimentality. It's on old flimsy paper,  typed - as far as I remember - on an early IBM Word Processor. 

I pressed on with my radio drama career and my theatre career, and even when I went back to novels and had some success - originally with a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet that is still in print with its gorgeous Saraband cover and many glowing reviews - I occasionally thought about chucking the Amber Heart in the bin. But I would start to read it, and realise that there was something about it ... something about Poland too. I wrote a stage play about the rise of Solidarity and three radio plays with Polish settings: Gnats, Amber and Noon Ghosts. 

Many years later, the novel was still nagging away at me. In between projects, I got down that faded manuscript and typed it up again. It's a long book and it was a big task, since I was editing as I went. In between times, I had acquired another agent. He read this new version and liked it, but suggested deleting the last third. Later, a different agent suggested deleting the first third. It was certainly much too long. Over several years, in between other projects, I reworked it completely in the light of all that I had learned since that first draft, and did, in fact, delete quite a lot of it, but not the beginning or the end! It's still quite a big book. 

Now, I can say with a certain amount of confidence that this is the definitive final draft and I don't intend to edit it ever again. It has to get out there and take its chance. It's on Amazon as an eBook and also as a paperback, designed by the talented Lumphanan Press, so you can take your pick. 

The criticisms I have had of it over the years have mostly been from mostly male Polish historians, who thought there was 'insufficient historical detail' and wanted it to be a factual account of those times. But that wasn't what I was writing, although I think such detail as there is, is accurate. 

Let's hope they like The Last Lancer better, although it's still a saga of conflict, love and loss, albeit a true one, so extraordinary that I could never have made it up. 

Anyway, if you fancy reading the Amber Heart, you can download the eBook free on 14th February (and for the two following days as well), Valentine's day, which seems a pretty good day to offer my readers the gift of a big bold tragic love story. 

Northanger Abbey: Who Does John Thorpe Remind You Of?

I've been rereading some Jane Austen. I do it every few years, because each time, I find something else to admire in her work. The older I've grown, the more I've come to appreciate her satire. Sometimes I'm blown away by the acid that seems to drip from her pen. 

One of my favourite novels is Northanger Abbey - and I know that I'm probably in a minority here. So I'm rereading it all over again, and still finding it wonderfully scathing about women's role in the society in which she finds herself. It's all too easy for us to overlook just how revolutionary she was - especially at a time when an unmarried woman, from a less than wealthy family, was in an invidious position, the poor relation without an 'establishment' of her own. 

'The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have already been set forth ... I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance.' 

No wonder her (presumably male) bookseller sat on this book for ten years without publishing it! 

One of the reasons why I love Northanger so much is that I know the Gothic novels she's satirising rather well. If you haven't read  - for example - the Mysteries of Udolpho (which I dramatised for radio) or the Castle of Otranto, it may be hard to see how amusing poor Catherine's situation really is. A bit like trying to appreciate Cold Comfort Farm if you've never come across all those novels depicting rural passions for an urban audience. 

This time, though, something else occurred to me. Here is our heroine encountering the odious John Thorpe. 

'Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, not to know how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead. Her own family were ... not in the habit of telling lies to increase their importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next. She reflected on the affair for some time in much perplexity and was more than once on the point of requesting from Mr Thorpe a clearer insight into his real opinion on the subject; but she checked herself, because it appeared to her that he did not excel in giving those clearer insights in making those things plain which he had before made ambiguous. ... 

'Little as Catherine was in the habit of judging for herself, and unfixed as were her general notions of what men ought to be, she could not entirely repress a doubt, while she bore with the effusions of his endless conceit, of his being altogether agreeable.' 

I was irresistibly reminded of our Prime Minister. Is Boris Johnson a rattle? 

New Short Story Collection


I've always been fond of short fiction, both as a reader and as a writer, although I must admit that nowadays when I'm writing I tend to want the elbow room of a novel or at the very least a novella. Over the years I've had various stories published in all kinds of magazines, literary and popular. 

In the small hiatus between completing a draft of the current project, The Last Lancer, and thinking 'what next?' I decided to put a small collection of stories together, editing one or two of them. Here it is: a dozen short stories of all kinds from the reasonably literary to a couple of scary ghost stories that turned out to be very popular when first published. 

It's cheap although not always cheerful. But it might entertain you on a train journey or a flight, where you need something that you can pick up and put down as your journey dictates. 

The decision to edit or not to edit past work is an interesting one. On the whole, if something has already been published, it may be better not to change it. As I was working my way through these, I realised that the stories that had been published didn't need polishing. But there were a couple that hadn't found a home, and I took the opportunity to edit them, mainly because with the passage of time, I could see much more clearly what I had wanted to say. Could, in fact, see the wood for the trees. 

You'll find them here - A Bad Year for Trees - and I hope you enjoy them. 

Twenty Five Years of Work in One Small Box


One small box
In the above picture, you're looking at twenty five years of my radio drama, packed into one small box. I sorted them all out when I was decluttering my office recently and these were on their way to the excellent Nigel Deacon who runs a radio archive, as well as being an expert in apples and a fine musician too. My chief feeling when I looked at them was one of exhaustion bordering on depression. So much work, and so little trace of it left.

This isn't strictly true, of course. Some of them still exist in CD form, and some of them crop up on Radio 4 Extra from time to time - my dramatisation of Ben Hur for instance was repeated quite recently, and I enjoyed listening to it again. 

The cassettes are a mixture of original drama, dramatisations, mostly for the old Classic Serial slot, and one or two abridgments, but that wasn't really my thing. I had completely forgotten about some of them, which is hardly surprising, since I started writing for radio when I was in my very early 20s. 

Drama made in Scotland
My first two plays were The Hare and the Fox and A Bit of the Wilderness: two slightly weird half hour plays, made with the late Gordon Emslie, who died much too young. They were broadcast only in Scotland. Those were the days when Scotland actually had its own radio drama budget and could make decisions about what it produced, without - as now - filtering everything through a London editor. Revolutionary idea, eh?

O Flower of Scotland won a UK-wide best original play of its year and Bonnie Blue Hen won a Scottish radio industries club award. I remember going to London to pick up my award for Flower and being hissed at by the young woman waiting to usher me onto the platform to 'be quick, we're running out of time'. Even then, radio was the poor relation. No acceptance speeches for me. 

Maydays, the Butterfly Bowl, Sardine Burial, Cloud Cuckoo Land, Bright as a Lamp, Simple as a Ring, Madame Butterfly, Tam o' Shanter  - there they all were, bringing so many happy memories with them, especially of the radio drama department in the welcoming warren of a building on Queen Street. It was originally in the old BBC building at Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow, but most of my work was made in Edinburgh. In all the years I worked on productions there, I never could find my way around it without help - but I loved the place. And I certainly remember the ultra strong coffee and hot scones that kept us going during long hours in the studio.

There were original series: The Peggers and the Creelers, Running Before the Wind and The Curiosity Cabinet that later became a successful novel. (Usually it works the other way round, but not this time!) 
Looking back, I still think my titles were intriguing. 

There was a trio of Polish themed plays directed by Marilyn Imrie, with whom I worked for years - Gnats, Amber and Noon Ghosts, of which I liked Noon Ghosts best. This was the last performance of distinguished Scottish actor Callum Mill, with the equally wonderful Harry Stamper. The BBC wanted to repeat it but found that they had deleted it and nobody had a copy that was good enough to broadcast. 

Then came a series of big dramatisations: Kidnapped and Catriona. Ten hours of radio. Such luxury is practically unheard of nowadays. The Bride of Lammermoor, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Treasure Island, the Mysteries of Udolpho and good old Ben Hur with a starry cast that included Samuel West, Jamie Glover and Michael Gambon. 

Sound effects and serials
When I started out, the tapestry of sound effects had to be done in the studio, simultaneously with the recording, rather than added after. Some technical wizard would run between record decks, fading sounds in and out - a lark in a clear sky, a bumble bee buzzing past. It involved an awesome amount of skill and a real commitment to the script. 

'Spot effects' were, and probably remain, good fun. Actors standing on chairs shaking bunches of keys sound remarkably like men on horseback, with the jingling of harness, but the swords in Kidnapped were real enough. They belonged to my husband, and still have the notches to prove it. 

There were Bradbury's Tales of the Bizarre that I dramatised with Brian Sibley - each of us allowed to choose favourite stories. A wholly enjoyable experience that one, with the brilliant Hamish Wilson producing - so brilliant in fact that the Beeb did its usual trick of suddenly making this international prizewinning producer redundant only a few years later. I doubt if he ever got over it. I certainly didn't.  

There were a few random post-Woman's Hour serials, for a slot that no longer exists, because - you know - current affairs. Hilary Spurling's brilliant and bizarre La Grande Therese was by far the best and most enjoyable of these, but my own original Voices from Vindolanda worked well too, and one of these days I may do something else with that material. The last serial I did was something called Feelings Under Siege by Bridie Canning, with an excellent producer who had wanted to work with me, but by then the BBC had decided to borrow the role of script editor from television and impose it on a system that was already working well. This one stuck an unwelcome oar into the relationship between producer/director and writer, and I think the result was unsatisfactory for all concerned. 

After that, my last radio play was The Price of a Fish Supper. I suspect that was only because my stage play had received such glowing reviews, and went on to have another life as a successful touring production, that they couldn't quite bring themselves to turn it down.

After that, silence. My name became the kiss of death on any submission. For a while, I had young producers who wanted to work with me but I had to tell them that there was little point in it. Like Hamish, a few years earlier, my face just didn't fit any more. Once or twice, Marilyn Imrie, with whom I had had a long and productive working relationship and friendship until her death eighteen months ago, would suggest an idea with my name on it, but it would always fall at the first hurdle. 

Was I sad about it? Well, at first I was. My first intimation of trouble ahead was when a big commission was summarily cancelled just before the contract was due to be finalised. That had been money that I was counting on as a significant part of our household budget, so there was a certain amount of panic. But of course freelance work is always uncertain and until the cash is in your account, nothing is ever sure. 

Moving on
In the long run, it was very good for me, forcing me out of my comfort zone.  I wrote a few well reviewed stage plays but, more importantly, I turned to fiction, and found that I loved it. Some nine novels later, although radio paid a whole lot better, I would never now go back to it. Besides, it isn't what it was, perhaps because budgets hardly ever allow for the 'elbow room' of a big bold production like Ben Hur. Radio drama has been subject to a slow process of attrition with slots disappearing all over the place. It's wonderful to see new writers coming forward, but the BBC allowed experience, especially technical experience, to leach away, getting rid of the old before they had time to train the new in the nuts and bolts of how to make a good radio drama. 

I'll tell you what I do miss though. I miss the collaboration. I miss the good working relationship with an excellent producer/director. I miss the script readings with fine actors, and the technical expertise, and the sheer pleasure of that experience. I miss the way I used to write in the knowledge that I would go on to work with a group of talented people to create something that was faithful to my vision, but better - alive, engrossing, a thing apart. Novel writing is a solitary business by comparison. 

Oh, and I miss the tarry coffee and the hot scones as well. 

Bird of Passage - A New Cover for an Old Book

A couple of weeks ago, I sent a draft of my new book, The Last Lancer, to my publisher, Saraband. I can't say final draft because it isn't. And I can't say first draft either, because it's about the fifth draft so far. It's an in between draft. As good as I can make it for now, but there will probably be more work to be done. It's a piece of non-fiction about the Polish side of my family, more specifically about my grandfather, a man I never knew but always missed. 

But more of that in due course. 

When you've spent two years and more focusing almost exclusively on one project, everything seems very empty. I have a new project in mind but I'm not quite ready to start it yet. My wee office had Quentin Crisp levels of dust and monumental levels of clutter. It took me four days to sort it out and it's a small room. It's still cluttered, but it's clean, and everything is where it should be. 

Then I went back to the various projects I'd neglected while I focused on the new book. 

When I shared a stall with my artist husband at a pre-Christmas fair, I noticed that my novel Bird of Passage attracted far less attention than any of my other books, traditional or independently published. People DO judge a book by its cover. Now I've remedied that, with the help of my husband, Alan Lees, who provided the cover art, and Lumphanan Press, who made a great job of the original formatting, and then redesigned the cover for me. It already looks a lot more attractive. And much more suitable for a novel set mostly on a small Scottish island. 

One or two friends have commented how much they love this novel, and I've thought 'me too'.  But until I took the decision to publish it myself, it had always been my orphan child, the book that nobody in the industry wanted. Unlike the Amber Heart, that kept being turned down with fulsome praise, because 'nobody is interested in Poland', which seemed in theory at least to be a credible marketing decision back in the 1980s, no agent or publisher would even read Bird of Passage, in spite of its Scottish setting and Irish background, and in spite of the fact that it tackles some harrowing issues that are still very much current. In short, it was turned down unseen.

In this case, I suspect the kiss of death was the Wuthering Heights connection. No matter how much I was at pains to say that this wasn't a rewriting of the incomparable original, (how would I dare?) but was a kind of homage to it, nobody in my industry believed me enough to read it and see for themselves. 

Wuthering Heights was my late mother’s favourite novel. I was a Yorkshire lass, although one with a rich Polish and (like Emily) a rich Irish heritage as well. We lived in Leeds until I was twelve years old. You can read more about my family background in a book called A Proper Person to be Detained (Saraband 2019), part personal memoir, part family history. I was named for the heroine of Wuthering Heights, a doubtful compliment some might say, and I was trundled over the moors in my push-chair to Top Withens, the setting for the Heights in the novel, if not for the house itself. As soon as I was old enough to read and begin to understand the novel, I fell in love with it, although I soon realised that it was a powerful and absorbing evocation of a cruelly obsessive love, with very little of romance about it. Since then, I have reread it almost every year, and have found more to marvel at with every reading.

Top Withens

Cue forward some years, and after a spell of writing for the stage, I began to focus almost wholly on fiction, with occasional ventures into non-fiction. Most of my work since then has been beautifully published by Saraband. But I still kept going back to Bird of Passage. Most writers have ‘bottom drawer’ novels: the books that you write before you are  published. I have several, and most of them should never see the light of day. Bird of Passage always felt different. Felt like irritatingly unfinished business. 

Back then, I had an agent, but I had other work waiting for submission, and Bird of Passage languished on the far recesses of my PC. Nobody wanted to know. Nobody had the time to read it. Nobody cared except me. 

 All the same, I couldn't get Finn and Kirsty out of my mind so when, some years ago, I took the decision to combine self publishing with traditional publishing, this was one of three novels that I felt deserved another life beyond the confines of my computer and my own imagination. It has done well as an eBook, but the new paperback copies arrived yesterday. The cover is exactly what I wanted, and seems to reflect the story as accurately as possible. It's a grown up story set in Scotland, exploring the kind of mutual passion that is attractive in theory but ultimately destructive. It's a novel about the nature of obsessive love and the terrible damage of childhood trauma, all set within a landscape that is almost a character in itself. 

If this sounds like your kind of novel, give it a try. 

Plotters and Pantsers - which one are you?


A friend inspired this post and I'm grateful to her. She observed that she had been taken by surprise by the ending of one of my novels called Ice Dancing and my immediate thought was 'so was I!' I honestly had no idea how it was going to end until I started writing the last couple of chapters, and suddenly saw what should have been staring me in the face at the same time as the narrator herself discovered it. The odd thing was that it didn't involve any manipulation of the story. When I looked back, the clues were all there. I didn't have to plant them at all. 

Which in turn led me to think about a couple of other novels where the ending had taken me by surprise. Without any spoilers, in Bird of Passage, I discovered the trauma that the 'hero' (if he can be called that) Finn was trying to remember at about the same time that he realised it himself. Until that moment, I knew there was something, but didn't know what it was. I literally woke up in the middle of the night saying 'So that was what happened!'

Similarly, in The Physic Garden, I knew that the ending involved a shocking betrayal - because that's how it begins. With the narrator mentioning it, without explaining it. Again, I realised the nature of that betrayal and its consequence only when I got to that part of the story. 

I am what I believe is known as a 'pantser' in creative writing circles. I write by the seat of my pants. Although that isn't how I'd ever describe it myself. I write to find out. I always know the beginning, and I sometimes have a very vague idea of the ending, sometimes as little as the last few lines - but I never know how to get there. And if I did, I would get so bored that I would never finish writing the book.  

Outlines were always anathema to me, because I could write them (with difficulty) while knowing full well that the finished book would be nothing like the outline. How could it be when I just didn't know? Plotters do seem to know. They plan everything out, including detailed character sketches. I never do that either, because I've only just met these people. It doesn't feel precarious. It feels uncannily as though the story is already there, waiting to be uncovered. 

All the same, for many writers, plotting works extremely well. I don't write crime fiction or the kind of thrillers that depend upon intricate plots that must fit together but I suspect they do need to be pretty well plotted in advance. Otherwise you might find yourself desperately trying to tie up too many loose ends in the last chapter. Or in the last episode, as happened with a recent, deeply annoying TV series. But it would be interesting to hear from crime writer friends if this is indeed the case, or if there's a sort of half way house where you have a broad outline that you flesh out as you're writing. 

There is, of course, no right or wrong way - only the way that works well for you. The trick, as with so much writing, is to find out what suits you best. And the only way to do that is to carry on writing. 


There Was a Lad and all that

Happy birthday to Robert Burns who was born on this day, here in Ayrshire in 1759. I knew little about him when we moved up here in the early sixties, but I quickly became a fan. Over the years, I've written a radio play and then a stage play about him. But my biggest project was The Jewel, a novel about the poet's wife, Jean Armour, and a companion anthology called For Jean, Poems, Songs and Letters by Robert Burns for his wife. He called her The Jewel of them all, and so she was. But although the novel is a third person story (he said, she said)  it is nevertheless very much told from Jean's point of view, So of course, I too began to see the poet from his wife's point of view. 

And was equally charmed by him. 

Whenever I've done book events or talks about the novel, somebody in the audience - usually a woman - has asked me what I thought about him, and I've always had to confess that I reckon in Jean's shoes, I'd have fallen for him too. Hook, line and sinker. 

One of his most attractive qualities must have been his sense of humour. He made people laugh. He made women laugh. He genuinely seemed to like women, young, old and every age in between  - which for a man of his time was a fairly rare quality. If he had to fall in love to write a love poem - as he himself admitted - he also had many genuine friendships with women throughout his too short life. He had his faults, but my goodness he must have been attractive. 

Anyway - hope you've got your haggis and neeps and tatties for tonight. (I love Burns, but haggis, not so much!) - and perhaps a wee dram as well. 

Here's my very favourite version of Rab's song about himself, from the late, wonderful and much missed Andy M Stewart: Rantin Rovin Robin. 

There was a lad was born in Kyle,

But whatna day o' whatna style,

I doubt it's hardly worth the while

To be sae nice wi' Robin.

Chorus  - Robin was a rovin' boy,

Rantin', rovin', rantin', rovin',

Robin was a rovin' boy,

Rantin', rovin', Robin!

Our monarch's hindmost year but ane

Was five-and-twenty days begun

'Twas then a blast o' Janwar' win'

Blew hansel in on Robin.

Robin was etc

The gossip keekit in his loof,

Quo' scho, "Wha lives will see the proof,

This waly boy will be nae coof:

I think we'll ca' him Robin."

Robin was etc

"He'll hae misfortunes great an' sma',

But aye a heart aboon them a',

He'll be a credit till us a'-

We'll a' be proud o' Robin."

Robin was, etc

"But sure as three times three mak nine,

I see by ilka score and line,

This chap will dearly like our kin,

So leeze me on thee! Robin."

Robin was, etc

"Guid faith," quo', scho, "I doubt you gar

The bonie lasses lie aspar;

But twenty fauts ye may hae waur

So blessins on thee! Robin."

Robin was, etc

Guest Post: A Career in the Video Games Industry

I don't normally have guest posts on here. It's not that sort of blog. But I make an occasional exception - and what better exception than a post from my professional video game designer son? I'm hosting this post because I know that it's a dream job for many young people. The industry itself, worth some $180 billion worldwide, is developing and changing at speed, but for anyone looking for advice about getting into the industry, this is a good starting point.

A Career in the Video Games Industry

In the eyes of many, a career in game development is seen as the holy grail of working life. Video games are a fascinating and rapidly evolving entertainment medium, and by their very nature, are a special blend of technology and art, the likes of which is encountered in few other areas of creative work. As a result of this, I firmly believe there is something for everyone within the video game medium, extending from simply enjoying playing games to a variety of career opportunities within the industry, not all of which will be recognized by careers advisors.

The focus of this post will be one of the most sought after roles: the game designer. It is often a misunderstood role, and is notoriously ambiguous and challenging in terms of finding an entry point. In all honesty, a little luck is needed to enter the industry as a designer: being in the right place at the right time for the stars to align. However, for anyone genuinely interested, I'll go through some of the pragmatic things you can do at different stages of life and education to swing the odds in your favour.

The Game Design Role

One major caveat is that the design role will vary somewhat from company to company, but in general, you can think of designers as essentially architects for the games. Designers come up with the rules and create the experience a player will have when playing a game. This differs from programmers, who are actually coding the tangible product or ‘things players do’ (e.g. mechanics like shooting a gun), and artists who are creating the perceptible visuals (e.g. environments and characters) that players will see in the game. Game designers are working ‘between’ programming and art disciplines to craft the player’s enjoyment.

Design work typically involves documentation, spreadsheets, and special software tools, along with open communication between the various disciplines. This ability to communicate is important. There are different sub-specialities within the broad scope of design, and of course differences between how various companies approach the role. To name a few, there are narrative designers who create the story, system designers who work on various features such as combat, and my own speciality, which is economy design. This involves working on those aspects of the game concerned with the long term progression and engagement of a player. There is also level design, which is often seen as a separate branch of design. Level designers use special software to physically lay out game environments and create the actual minute-to-minute experience for the players.

Despite the various specialisations, members of a design team will work closely together, with overlap in the work, so it is important to keep an open mind, and enjoy a working environment where no two days are the same.

Stage 1: In High School

At this early stage, even if you see yourself as a game designer in the future, one of the most important things you can do is to keep your options open! I can’t stress this enough. You never know what you'll end up truly enjoying or being good at. Despite this, you will likely gravitate towards science or art, so if you’re technically minded, consider subjects like Maths, Physics and Computer Science. If you are more arty, then naturally you'll choose Art but try not to abandon the STEM subjects entirely, because a working knowledge of some of them will help. The key is versatility.

If choosing school subjects is proving challenging, the general guide of sticking to the core traditional academic subjects at this early stage will put you in a strong position for a future career in games: Maths, English, Physics, History, Computer Science, Business Management, etc. are all helpful.

As a young teenager, there can be occasional opportunities to take short (week long) placements at game companies. This is something to go for if you have the chance. Even if this is not an official part of school, don’t hesitate to approach game companies and politely enquire about any opportunities they may have. Some companies see this as part of their outreach programme, so you may be lucky. Always make your approach personal and courteous. Never send out group emails to different companies at the same time. The scattershot approach just irritates the recipients.

Outside of school, it will be helpful to try to make games in your spare time. This can be tricky, as making a full game requires many different skills (which is really the whole point of this post!), not to mention expensive high-powered software. However, there are many more options out there. Try downloading software such as GameMaker, and see what you can put together. Maybe you can also take the chance to team up with a few other like minded people to create something original.

Stage 2: Higher Education

Although you will hear of exceptions, 95% of the time you will need to be educated to degree level to enter the games industry (with the exception of QA, see below) and sometimes to postgraduate Masters level.

Choosing where to apply for your higher education will present an important but tricky choice. Nowadays, there are very good degree courses specifically for game design. In Scotland, Abertay University in Dundee is a top place for computer games degree courses but there are plenty of others, worldwide. These courses do put people on the correct path to join the games industry, and if you are dead set on a career in games, across any discipline, then you should seriously consider one of them. However, you should also bear in mind that if you suddenly decide half way through such a course that it’s not for you, then choosing an institution where it’s possible to switch or perhaps just tweak your course options might be no bad thing.

If doing a dedicated game related degree is not feasible, or you are potentially unsure about what role you want, then getting a good degree in a core academic discipline will serve you very well. Look at English, Maths, History, Physics, Computer Science, to name several solid choices. Many people do an initial core degree, work for a few years and then do a dedicated postgraduate video game Masters degree, once they have more certainty about what they want and need.

This is also the time when it would be valuable to try to get an internship in your chosen field, or a place at a company in the Quality Assurance (QA) testing department. Some of these roles are part time, so can be fitted around a degree. Some are full time jobs which will allow you to get valuable experience after graduation. It’s worth stressing here that QA is not ‘beta testing’ where individuals play an almost completed version of a game. It is an important and often tricky job within game development where you test games intensively, usually sections of games, finding and reporting bugs. It is generally, although not always, a junior job and you can sometimes get work with few or early stage qualifications. That said, it is a vital job, and good testing jobs at very well-known companies will naturally require some qualifications.
Stage 3: Entry Level Game Design Jobs

The catch-22 of requiring work experience to get work is common within the game design discipline, but there are ways around it. As mentioned above, QA is a very good place to start for many designers, even after becoming qualified to degree level. Many companies actively promote good QA testers into the design team. This is because QA testing will allow you to experience the complex realities of working on a game and that practical experience is invaluable.

Other junior design roles are available, but you will need to be persistent and enthusiastic about the industry you hope to enter. It should go without saying that if you are applying for a position, you should be very familiar with the company and the product. With little or no experience, you really will need to be able to demonstrate your design ability through some sort of tangible artefact such as a working game prototype. This is something that doing a game related degree will help you with, as you will certainly graduate with a portfolio of prototype game projects and some knowledge of working in teams. On the other hand, you will be investing years of time and money into studying, so don’t let it completely define your decisions.

Some Final Words

In conclusion, a career in Game Design is a worthwhile, lifelong endeavour, so don’t be discouraged. For me, personally, studying mathematics at university level was by far the best option as a game economy designer although I also went on to study game development at Masters level. I knew roughly what I wanted to do, back then, but very little of the well-meaning advice I received as a teen reflected the rapidly evolving situation in the industry. It is certain that similar changes will happen for us all in the future. The best advice I can give is to love and play games, keep up with developments, study as broadly as you can, but prepare to be flexible, adjusting your goals as you learn more about what suits you as an individual within this extraordinary industry.

Good luck!

Charles Lees-Czerkawski

To Beta or not to Beta: That is the Question!


I've been working on a big research and writing project throughout Covid - a piece of narrative non-fiction that seems like a companion book to A Proper Person to be Detained

The Last Lancer is about the Polish side of my family, especially the grandfather I never knew - his background, his milieu and what became of him. It's a good story but it was probably the most difficult thing I have ever had to research and write. I now have a draft that I can send to my publisher. It will need more work, but I'm at the stage where I've done a lot of revision, but I don't know whether it's good or bad or indifferent. What I need now is time and distance and a fresh pair of eyes. 

Eyes I trust. 

When I was chatting about this on Facebook, somebody asked if I didn't use some kind of market research and let other people read it at this stage to judge the response. It's a fair question, because I know a number of writers who do just that and find it very useful. They call them Beta Readers, a select group of people who will give feedback on a reasonably early draft. 

The term originates with Beta Testers in the video games industry, although it's worth pointing out that Beta Testers aren't there to shape or question the essential idea and structure of the game, nor even its development. That is done by teams of professionals. They are there to discover annoying glitches in the almost ready project, and their parallel in the world of publishing is probably a copy editor - somebody who spots all your silly mistakes, the punctuation glitches, the names that change, the infelicities, the repeated words and so on. 

My gut response to that perfectly reasonable question was 'Noooo!' It surprised me that I had such a visceral reaction, but like many writers, I can hardly bear to talk in any detail about what I'm writing while I'm writing it, let alone allow anyone to read it. If I do that too soon, it so often melts away, like snow in sunshine, leaving a little puddle behind. I don't  even let my supportive husband read it at this stage. Not even when I've written it and done some revisions and have a decent early draft.  

All the same, you reach a point where you are too close to the wood to see the trees. At that stage you need to hand the manuscript over to some trusted individual, an editor, a publisher, an agent if you have one. 

I have many friends who are great readers, but I wouldn't want any of them to read an early draft of a book. 

Beta Readers may work well and if they work for you, that's fine. Every writer is different. But they're not for me. Partly it may be that I've taught creative writing to mixed groups who critiqued each other. Often, with the best will in the world, and often without knowing they're doing it, people will critique a piece of work according to the way they would have written it themselves, and that isn't always what's needed. Sometimes, too, a reader and a book are just not a good fit. Nothing wrong with the reader but nothing wrong with the book either. 

The other difficulty is that at this stage, too many different opinions may be problematic. One or two trusted professionals - that's fine. But even then, I've experienced two different agents reading the same novel and recommending that I remove a third of it. One was certain it should be the first third and one the last third. (I did neither although there were significant edits!) On another occasion, a young intern at an agency read a book called The Physic Garden, later beautifully published by Saraband, and said that it was 'just an old man telling his story'! I don't blame her. It simply wasn't for her. And it is a bit of a Marmite of a book. When people love it they really love it, but a few readers dislike the narrator (the old man telling his story) and tell me so. That's fine. He's crabbit. I'm very fond of him. 

Then there was an early experience of a play developed over several weeks of rehearsal, about which - after a very successful production  - the director pointed out that I had been 'far too accommodating' with editorial suggestions. I should have fought more, he said and I think he was right. 

I wouldn't use Beta Readers myself, although I would use an experienced editor, one who would ask all the right questions. But I'm old and wise enough (I hope) to  know what works for me. 

Essentially, whatever works for you is good, but remember that not everyone will like your book or your characters. That doesn't necessarily mean that there's anything wrong with them. 

Finally there is one bit of advice that may be useful. Beware of anyone attempting to rewrite for you. The best editors or directors or producers - in fact anyone who comments on your work - will never attempt to do this, although they may point out sentences or even paragraphs that are unclear or don't work effectively. What they will do is query and question you intensively, these days using Track Changes software, so that you can have an online conversation about the manuscript. The best editors will look at structural problems if there are any. Then they will hone in on those parts of the book or play that you have been most uncertain about - and there will be many uncertainties, if you're honest with yourself. He or she will ask the right difficult questions and in finding the answers to these questions, you'll make the piece of work better.  

This is a difficult, professional job. Choose your help wisely. 

Money Matters

Where's that pot of gold?

This is the time of year when we think about money. This year we're thinking about it more than most, with our energy bills about to rise, the prices in the shops already going up, and our annual paperwork revealing just how little we have earned, yet again, for large amounts of work. The accountant and I have just had our annual 'this time next year we'll be millionaires' conversation and even he has noticed that it's all wearing a bit thin.

We're told that Arts and Culture contribute £8.5 billion to the UK economy. So how come all the writers and artists I know, and we're talking full time or almost full time, long term professionals here, not hobbyists, make so very little cash? Every year in every way, we seem to do more work for less money. 

Where is it all going? 

And what, if anything, can we do about it? 

I don't have any easy answers to these questions, by the way. I'm just throwing them out there as points for discussion, because until we debate this, things can only get worse. 

Is it because people believe that anyone can put words on a screen or on a piece of paper? Maybe they're right. Maybe there is so much free stuff out there that people don't see why they should have to pay for it. Do artists have the same problem? Probably. 

I'm always a bit phased by writers who boycott Amazon, but are OK with people buying a single second hand copy of a book and then passing it around several friends. Do people ever stop to think about where the money to pay the writer -  or, indeed, the publisher - comes from in that situation?

I dimly remember a time when I made a decent living out of my writing. My husband was working as a woodcarver and I was writing mostly radio drama, with a little bit of television and theatre. TV was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but I never did enough of it to get rich. But radio paid reasonably well, and with one or two good drama commissions each year, as well as a bit of tutoring here and there, the odd story or feature article, a review or two for a newspaper, we were OK. 

Remember reviews? Newspapers with decent circulations used to pay professionals for reviews and freelance articles. Alan, meanwhile, was making new hand carved rocking horses  and restoring old ones. as well as working on some spectacular outdoor carvings. Again, we made no fortunes, but we could pay our bills and have the occasional treat. We made a living.

Now, many of the 'extras' that used to provide a decent portfolio of work have evaporated. Instead 'creatives' need to spend more and more time and money on promotion, time that we used to spend on the actual creative work. 

Once again, this is not so much a complaint as something that should be up for discussion. There are no easy answers. But I know very few full time creative people who make anything like a living from their work. People often come late to a creative career when they have a reasonable pension from a completely different job. They don't have to make money. The rest of us muddle along as best we can. Not very well at all. 

Writing Advice: Getting the Details Right

This isn't really a 'how to write' blog. But I've been writing in so many different media for so many years now, that occasionally things occur to me that may be useful for people who are just starting out on the long road to publication or production. I used to teach Creative Writing for various organisations, so I have a good idea of what works and what doesn't. For the New Year I've dug out my big folder of 'how to' notes and I'll be including an occasional post with what I hope may be useful advice. Some of it should be self evident - but isn't always. 

I've been reading a contemporary thriller. I won't name it, even though it's a very good read. It fairly gallops along with plenty of surprises along the way, although less than half way through, I've guessed at least part of the ending. That, though, is more my problem than the writer's. The more you write yourself, the more you tend to be able to guess what's going to happen next. 

No. The niggling irritation involved a garden. 

The story is set in spring (I think) a warm late spring, in the South of England. The house has a big garden. Early on, we're told that it is full of wild garlic and lavender. Now, although wild garlic flowers and scents the air with its wonderful pungency through the spring of the year, it tends to be found more in ancient woodlands, bluebell woods in particular, flowering from April to June after which it is masked by other growth. By May, the scent of bluebells usually takes over. Lavender stays green throughout the year in mild climates, so that's fine. Although it wouldn't be all mixed up with the garlic. Later though, that same day, we're told that the garden is miraculously full of flowers including foxgloves, night-scented stock, hyacinth? As any gardener, even the most amateur among us, knows, your foxgloves and night scented stock are summer flowers. Hyacinths? Not so much. Not even bluebells if that's what's meant. 

We all get details wrong. But it is this kind of precise detail that can pull the reader right out of the story, challenging her willing suspension of disbelief. On reflection, it's indicative of a wider problem, because I'm still not 100% sure at exactly what time of year the story is set. Sometimes it feels like summer but other details mean it must be spring. In which case, yay for the wild garlic and hyacinths. Not so much for the foxgloves and night scented stock.  

It shouldn't matter at all. But it sort of does. It irritates, because this is a much lauded traditionally published novel and it's exactly the kind of thing that a good editor should immediately pick up on, writing 'flowers? time of year?' in Track Changes. Then perhaps even extrapolating from that a question about timescales, the when of the story. That's what good editors do. They pick up on the small things with wider implications. They ask the right questions and in finding the answers, you, the writer, make the piece of work better. 

So much of writing involves finding exactly the right word. That goes for things as simple as garden flowers, as well as complex emotions. If you're not a gardener, then Google is your friend.