Good Reads and Independent Booksellers

Two main reasons for this post: It’s  Independent Booksellers Week in the UK (20th to 27th June 2015) and I’ve only done one book review so far this year.

It’s not that I haven’t been reading. I’ve read more books than usual since January. I’ve just not made time to get the reviews done. Apart that is from my (ahem – modest cough) prize-winning review of JJ Marsh’s Cold Pressed which I posted here.

So now seems like a good moment to flag up the best of the rest of the books-read-so-far in 2015 and to ask that if you’re tempted to buy any of them, you perhaps consider going to your local independent bookshop and making your purchase there. Even if they don’t stock the book they’ll be able to get it in for you. Independent bookshops offer a real booky atmosphere and a personal touch and they need booklovers to use them. (Yes, I’ve included Amazon links but only so you can find out more about the books before you go out and buy them :-) )

I should also mention that my two local bookshops have just agreed to stock my novels and I appreciate their support very much. Let’s hear it for Tippecanoe and for Aros.

To keep it manageable I’m doing mainly brief reviews. The books are an eclectic mix, fiction of several genres, non-fiction, bestsellers and lesser-knowns, established and debut authors.

And so here they are – my five star reads for 2015 so far:

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Torn by Gilli Allan: A contemporary romance-plus novel – no gush or slush – believable, flawed, three-dimensional characters, vividly drawn setting and not one, but two expertly crafted will-they-won’t-theys. An evening or  bedtime curl-up read. [Accent Press]

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Get the Happiness Habit by Christine Webber: (only available as e-book so not one for the book shop) Self-help book on how to improve your emotional wellbeing. Easy to read, practical down-to-earth advice on how to improve your optimism levels and to recognise daily moments of happiness. Focuses on taking exercise, practising altruism, developing an inquiring mind, building resilience, maintaining a social network – in the real world as well as online, finding soul-feeding moments, for example through mindfulness or meditation or just going for a walk or listening to music, adopting a stoical view of life and taking time to care for ourselves. All sensible and doable. [Bloomsbury Reader]

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Us by David Nicholls: It’s David Nicholls so hey, I was expecting an entertaining read. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a contemporary story of midlife crisis and re-evaluation told in first person by husband and father Douglas. His marriage is failing and his relationship with his teenage son is fraught. The holiday he hopes may set things right doesn’t go to plan. This is a sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, always brilliant story of a guy whose good intentions pave a chaotic path. [Hodder & Stoughton]

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: Contemporary thriller.  The story is told through the eyes of Rachel, Megan and Anna. Rachel is the girl on the train, commuting to work, fantasising about the people she sees from the train window, but then the fantasy becomes a much more challenging reality, a scary, tense and engrossing reality involving all three women. This is a gripping read – a definite page turner. great twists and storytelling. [Doubleday-Transworld]

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The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: I quickly followed up reading this book by reading its sequel The Rosie Effect. Both are great. Narrated by main character Professor Don Tillman, both books tell of life as experienced by Don, a brilliant geneticist looking for and failing at romantic love.  He also happens to have Asperger’s syndrome. His unique take on human relationships leads him to set up a project to find a wife. Against all odds it succeeds and the two books follow his finding Rosie and later marrying her. Both books are charming, witty, funny, highly original and are just sublime storytelling. [Penguin]

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Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: This book, published twenty years ago, is a writing manual – except it’s not. Oh sure it has lots of good advice for writers about facing the blank page, about getting started, persevering, getting support and getting published, but it’s also about so much more. It’s really a sort of wry look at life in a way – in that a lot of Lamott’s advice can be applied generally and not just ti the act of writing. It’s warm, instructive and wise.

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Killochries by Jim Carruth: This was a first for me. I’ve never read a verse-novella before. Carruth is a prize-winning Scottish poet. He was poet laureate of Glasgow last year. This slim wee volume is stunning – brief and beautiful. It tells a redemptive story of two men, distant relatives, both very different from one another. One an atheist poet, the other a bible quoting, stoical Christian. They are forced by circumstances to live together for a year on the older man’s somewhat bleak farm but as they do so they gain a mutual respect and a renewed perspective on life. [Freight Books]

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In the Shadow of the Hill by Helen Forbes: There’s an Ann Cleeves meets Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson vibe going on here – fans of crime fiction will know what I mean by this.  This book is not just any old crime fiction, it’s Tartan Noir crime fiction, and it’s set in the Hebrides –  so before I even started reading this book it was already ticking important reading boxes for me. This is the author’s first novel and I can’t wait for the next one. It’s starts in Inverness on a slow burn and gradually picks up pace until after several clever, unforeseen twists it reaches its exciting conclusion on the island of Harris. The characters are believable and well fleshed out, especially the main character of DS Joe Galbraith who is both flawed and likeable. I definitely look forward to getting to know him as well as I know Jackson Brodie and John Rebus. [ThunderPoint Publishing]

Bella's Betrothal

Bella’s Betrothal by Anne Stenhouse: (only available as ebook) This is a historical romance and it’s set in Georgian Edinburgh. And with this novel I’d say we’re sort of in Jane Austen meets Bridget Jones territory. But as well as the history and the will-they-won’t-they romance, there’s also a mystery at the heart of this novel. It’s an enchanting story and the author gets the tension level just right. There’s a great cast of characters from Bella’s good friends and her lovely aunt and uncle to her horrid mama and menacing pursuer. Being an Edinburgh native, I loved all the references to places I know and was impressed by the author’s attention to the details of the city’s development as its New Town was being established. Best of all though was Bella herself. Bella is no wimp. She’s resilient and feisty in the face of scandal and suffering and in the face of a real threat to her personal safety. She makes informed choices and she does what’s right even when it puts her at risk.  [MuseitUp Publishing]

So there you have it. What’s your favourite read of 2015 so far? And which independent bookseller do you support? Please do reply below.

 

 

 

 

The Silver Locket: – 21st century schoolgirl meets Bonnie Prince Charlie and he needs her help.

The Silver Locket

Out now paperback and e-book. Online and in bookshops

Out now paperback and e-book. Online and in bookshops. Published by Rowan Russell Books

The Anne you know from this blog had a previous life. Oh yes, I’ve not always been Anne Stormont, old bat and writer. I had an earlier incarnation, pre-wifehood, as Anne McAlpine.

So it seemed fitting, when I was looking for an author name to go by when writing for children, that I resurrect my younger self. And guess what? She’s only gone and written her first novel for children.

Cue fanfare and skirl of bagpipes-

‘Bagpipes? Why Bagpipes?’ you say. Well that’s because I guess you could describe the novel as a sort of modern day Alice in Outlander Land – only it’s Caitlin not Alice and it’s suitable for children and––oh, anyway you get my drift––or you will if you read on.

Yes, The Silver Locket is published and available for sale in paperback and as an e-Book.

I wrote it mainly for nine to twelve-year-olds, however, I hope anyone who likes a story with a bit of history, danger and time-travel in it will enjoy it.

It’s set in Scotland and tells the story of three twelve-year-old friends from the 21st century who travel back in time to 1746 and the Battle of Culloden.

Battle of Culloden monument

Battle of Culloden monument

Blurb alert – try reading it in the voice of that bloke who voices the film trailers––it’ll get you in the mood and you’ll not be able to resist the urge to read the book––

The Battle of Culloden, 1746, and Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite cause are defeated. Can three young friends from the 21st century ensure he escapes and that history stays on track?

It’s the last week of the school holidays and twelve year old Caitlin Cameron is bored. But when her new childminder turns out to be the eccentric Bella Blawearie, otherwise known as Scary Lady, everything changes.

Scary Lady lives up to her name. She seems able to read Caitlin’s mind. She sees visions in a snow globe and tells the time from a patchwork clock.

And things get even weirder when Caitlin and her two best friends, Lynette and Edward, accidentally open a time portal in an old tree and are hurled back through time to the eighteenth century.

They find themselves caught up in the blood-soaked aftermath of the Jacobite defeat at the battle of Culloden, and discover they’re there for a reason. A reason Scary Lady knows all about.

But all the friends have is questions. What is the significance of the silver locket passed to Caitlin by her grandmother? Can the locket help them ensure Bonnie Prince Charlie makes the right decision about his future?

And if they fail, will Scotland’s history books rewrite themselves, meaning  Caitlin and her friends will not even be born?

Join them in their 18th century adventure as they make new friends, encounter great danger and strive to carry out their mission.

Now before you dash off to your local bookshop to buy it, or fire up your tablet to get it online, just wait a minute and I’ll give you a bit of the background to how I came to write it.

First of all of course, as for many of my fellow Scots, the chapter of  Scottish history headed The Jacobites, sub-heading Bonnie Prince Charlie, is one of my favourites. What’s not to like?  A stirring cause, a handsome prince, gruesome and bloody battles, a stunning and dramatic backdrop… Need I go on?

Culloden Visitor Centre, Inverness, Scotland

Culloden Visitor Centre, Inverness, Scotland

Then  a couple of years ago, when I was still a teacher, I went with a class of Primary 6 children to the amazing Culloden Visitor Centre  in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a wonderful museum built at the site of the battle – do visit it if you get the chance. It also has an excellent education unit. There, me and the  children got to dress up as Jacobites and Redcoats, and we re-enacted parts of this important battle on the actual battlefield. And inspiration struck. I had one of those ‘what if’ moments and I thought, ‘what if we were all suddenly transported back to the time of the real battle?’ And that was it.

Yes, the rest truly is history.

 

The Silver Locket by Anne McAlpine is available from your local bookshop – just ask them to order it if it’s not in stock. It’s also available online from Amazon (click on image of book above to be taken to it in the Amazon UK store), both as a paperback and as an e-book. It is published by Rowan Russell Books.

 

 

 

 

Life-Writing: Memories of my Father

Memoir Writing

I mainly write fiction. Other than this blog and the pieces I write for the bi-monthly online writing magazine, Words with Jam, my main output has been in the form of novels.

But recently I find myself drawn to having a go at non-fiction – specifically creative non-fiction and memoir writing. I’ve enjoyed reading books in the creative non-fiction genre by such wonderful authors as Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane and Chris Arthur.

So, when the Edinburgh Writers Club, to which I belong set a life-writing competition I decided to give it a try. The competition asked for 2000 words of biography, autobiography or memoir and it was judged by Professor Bashabi Fraser. I’m proud to say my entry came third and I’d like to share it here.

 

Dad

shutterstock LisaS

image via shutterstock LisaS

I loved it when…

I watched you shaving.

Me, in navy-blue gymslip and fawn knee socks, perched on the edge of the roll-top bath in the freezing bathroom of our Edinburgh tenement flat. You, in your vest, working the shaving soap into a lather with the badger-hair brush. The scrape of the razor as it pared away the  dark stubble on your face and neck. And the smell of the soap and Old Spice aftershave that summed you up––my dad.

I loved it when…

I watched you tie your tie.

You, looking in the mirror above the fireplace. Me, too short to see in the mirror, but mimicking you with my own school tie.

I loved it when…

I watched you get the fire going each morning.

We were always first up, you and me.  You’d clear out the ashes, set fresh kindling and coal in the grate, and there would be the heady, tarry smell of Zip firelighters. Then, you’d hold the previous day’s Evening News across the gap to help the chimney draw down air. And the thrill when the fire caught, ensuring that at least one room in the house would soon be cosy, and the water would be heated. And next, we’d set out the wee sisters’ clothes on the fireguard to warm and you’d get the kettle on and the baby’s bottle heating in a pan on the stove. You’d light a flame beneath the porridge pot, the oats ready to go after their overnight soak.

image via shutterstock KieferPix

image via shutterstock KieferPix

I loved it when…

We watched films together.

Saturday nights, black and white television, watching Mickey Rooney in Boys Town,  Spencer Tracey in Captains Courageous, or Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. No popcorn, but instead paper bags of sweeties; a quarter of  toffees, or chocolate eclairs or pineapple cubes all bought from Guthrie’s.

And, on Sunday afternoons there would be Film Matinee with classic World War Two epics like The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky and The Great Escape. And the westerns, oh the westerns, full of romance, nostalgia, suspense; films like Shenandoah, The Big Country, High Noon and anything with John Wayne in it.

Such stories. Such great films.  And, before they started, you’d introduced them, sum up the plots and pre-announce the big set pieces. Your enthusiasm and knowledge about the lives of the stars and the making of the movies only added to the whole wonderful experience.

But the absolute best was when you took me to the cinema. Just me and you. The first time it was to see South Pacific, and later, when you bought the LP of the songs from the movie, I learned all the words to I’m Going to Wash that Man Right out of my Hair and it became my party piece.

I loved it when…

You reassured me about dying.

I must have been about eight years old. Granny had just died and I’d become aware of death for the first time. It terrified me. I would dream I was dead, even though I didn’t know what it meant. But you sat me on your knee. You told me everyone dies, but that it wouldn’t happen to me for a very long time. And that was it. I stopped worrying.

I loved it when…

You explained that there were many people in the world whose skin wasn’t white.

A new family had moved in nearby. You said they were from another country called Africa and that everyone in that far away place had dark skins. You told me to be sure and make friends with the little girl from that new family when she started at my school. And you urged the same action when the first Sikh family came to the neighbourhood, and the Burmese doctor’s family.

Not long after that you got us to watch a man called Martin Luther King on the television as he talked about his dream, and then you had to tell me he’d been shot for speaking out. And I loved that you were angry and sad, though I wasn’t exactly sure why.

I loved it when…

You shared your life and work with us.

You brought home the friends you’d made through your voluntary work. The Phoenix Club was a social meeting place for disabled people, and once again you made sure me and the wee sisters welcomed people who were different from us.

It saddens me that you often spoke of how you’d like to earn your living by working with disabled people or with young offenders. But the weight of responsibility you felt for the family finances meant you wouldn’t take the risk of leaving the secure but dull job you already had.

But I liked it when the perks of your job as a bookbinder and printer meant you sometimes came home with paper and pencils and free proof-copies of books and posters. Without these otherwise unaffordable free gifts, I’d never have had paper to draw on and write stories on, never have had ‘The Girls’ Wonder Book of Stories’ or my atlas of the world and its accompanying flag poster. What power and outlets they gave to my imagination.

I loved it when…

You let me stay up to watch the first moon landing with you, back in 1969.

Mum was on night shift at the hospital and the wee sisters were all in bed. You made us a flask of tea and some sandwiches and together we saw Neil Armstrong take those first grainy grey steps on the lunar surface.

I loved it when…

You did your share at home.

Not just papering and painting either. You changed nappies and pushed the pram.

You cooked Sunday lunch. You did a lot of the cooking. It wasn’t really Mum’s thing. You could do a mean roast, tasty soups and an awesome Christmas dinner. And you did your own ironing and showed me how to do mine.

You supported Mum in other ways, supported her dream of winning a seat on the city council. You were so proud of her. We used to tease you, call you the other Duke of Edinburgh.

I loved it when…

You visited me at school camp.

Parents were allowed to visit during the middle weekend. I was only ten, first time away without the family. You travelled down to Lanarkshire on the bus. Mum stayed at home with the little sisters. You remembered the camp from when you did your national service in the R.A.F. You told me the proper name for the huts was billets and you told me your R.A.F. ghost story. You said it was true. You said you and some mates had been breaking the rules playing cards for money upstairs in your billet and a Polish airman, you recognised the badge on his uniform as Polish, he came to warn you the military police were on the prowl. Only you found out later there was no Polish airman stationed there––not anymore––not since the war.

I loved it when…

We had shared moments.

Like when you met me from the Brownies and you bought us a bag of chips to share on the way home.

Or when you said were proud of your ‘bright wee cuckoo in the nest’, and were puzzled that I won prizes at school, or were baffled as to ‘where I got it from.’

And I didn’t really mind when…

Mum sometimes sent me to fetch you from the pub to tell you that tea was ready.

image via shutterstock Peter Hermes Furian

image via shutterstock Peter Hermes Furian

But I hated it when…

You changed.

By the time I was a teenager, your habit was to stop off at the pub every night on your way home from work, and you’d come in just itching for an argument. I always rose to the bait, defended Mum, or disputed some daft political point you wanted to make. And it ended in you shouting and me in tears.

I hated it when…

Your reliance on drink developed into alcoholism.

This in turn led to depression, made you abusive. What had started as good-natured bewilderment at the haircuts on Top of the Pops and being nonplussed by the hippies and the anti-Vietnam protestors became bitter and personal. Your politics completely changed. You became right-wing, narrow-minded, racist, intolerant. You resented youth and you took it out on me and the next-oldest sister.

Your criticisms were hard to bear. I was too clever for my own good. No-one in our family went to university so why did I want to go? It was no wonder I had no friends as I wasted my time reading and studying. I had no personality. I was no longer your ‘bright wee cuckoo’.

But I went to university anyway, got a maximum grant, no need for your support. I had to get away. I was scared by your bullying, the verbal abuse, the rage and the shouting. Mum always backed down but me and the next oldest sister, we stood up to you, protected the little ones.

I hated it when…

image via shutterstock jcwait

image via shutterstock jcwait

That first Christmas I came home from St Andrews, you got very drunk.

The police came to the door, must have been about midnight. You’d been found in a shop doorway, you’d taken a load of pills on top of the alcohol. Mum went to hospital with you. Me and the next-oldest sister looked after the little ones and we bought a Christmas tree and put up the decorations. And after you got home, she and I did everything we could to make it a normal Christmas for the wee ones and the grandparents. But it wasn’t long into the new year that the next-oldest sister ran away from home. She ran away to St Andrews and I let her hide out in my room in the hall of residence until she left for London and a new life.

But I loved it when you rallied…

When I made you a Granddad twice over.

And some of the wee sisters followed suit. You rejoiced in your grandchildren. Took them ice-skating, played football with them, spoiled them rotten. At least you did until they grew older, till they had opinions, ideas of their own about what was important to them. But when they were little you really did seem fond of them.

Yes, you were still on the booze, but for a while it was a steady, quieter sort of alcoholism. You were mostly topped up, not really drunk. You seemed to enjoy your retirement, the garden and the holidays abroad, and cooking big family meals for us all when we gathered.

And when Mum died you surprised us all. You seemed to cope. You moved house, made a new life, formed new friendships, rekindled a couple of old ones.

image via shutterstock hanohiki

image via shutterstock hanohiki

And then you declined…

You became demanding, made the youngest sister’s life a misery. She had the misfortune to live close by and found herself at your beck and call. You stopped socialising, stopped going out for your walk and your paper, stopped taking any sort of care of yourself. You fell, broke a hip and succumbed to post-operative, vascular dementia.

But I love it now…

You’re in a care home, a place you like and seem happy in. The dementia means you’ve forgotten you’re an alcoholic, forgotten you’d cut off one of your daughters over some imagined slight and so are reconciled, forgotten a whole load of other emotional baggage. Yes, it’s sad you don’t remember Mum, but you know us, your girls. You can recite our names in order and you’re always pleased to see me.

I love the sweet old man you’ve become, love the daft things you say, love telling you over and over that the children in the photos are your great-grandchildren and hearing you wonder anew each time you hear it.

I love that it’s ending okay.

 

The Writers Craft: Four Days of Learning

 

'Write Enough' production centre

The Garret

Writing is both an art and a craft. As such it’s something that requires inspiration,  skill, ability and knowledge. So it’s important that writers sometimes leave their solitary garrets and go ‘fill up the well’ .

image via shutterstock

image via shutterstock

And that’s what I like about attending writing conferences, events and courses. I love the buzz and intensity and I really love those light-bulb, now-I-see moments that arise when listening to a speaker or conversing with a fellow delegate.

image via shutterstock

image via shutterstock

And so it was that from Wednesday to Friday of last week I was a virtual participant in a worldwide book event and then on Saturday I was an actual participant at a local workshop for writers. I got a huge amount out of both. I made contact with other writers and with professionals who had so much expertise to offer. I learned a lot.

ALLI badge-185x185-author

IndieReCon: Indies at the London Book Fair

Last week was a big one in the world of publishing. It was the week in which the London Book Fair (LBF) took place. And it wasn’t just the big publishing houses who were there. Indie publishers – that is individual authors publishing their own books and small co-operatives of authors pulling resources and expertise in order to self-publish – had a real and significant presence there too.

The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) ran an Indie Author Fringe Festival in association with the LBF. It was delivered in  live-streamed and  watch-when-you-can formats over three days and it was called IndieReCon. So while some events were live and interactive and could be attended in person, some (including those live ones) were video (vlog) presentations that could be watched at your own convenience and some were written presentations in blog format where ‘attendees’ could leave comments. All the presentations, whatever the format, were designed to either inform self-publishers how to improve their products or to tell them about the sorts of services, expertise and marketing that are available to them – just as at any trade fair.

And on the third day of the fringe fest there was also an indie book selling event at Foyles bookshop  where indie authors could promote and sell their own books.

So, despite being hundreds of miles from London, I was able to take part. And I’m very glad I did.

The online organisation was mostly slick and with only a few technical hiccups – and it’s important to bear in mind this was a first time and a unique event.

Below is a roundup of the events, talks, discussions I attended.

  • Discussion between ALLi founder Orna Ross and Smashwords (eBook publisher/distributor) chief, Mark Coker. It was a good introduction to e-publishing for those who’ve not done it before and a good round up/reminder of the pros cons and possible future developments for the more experienced.
  • David Farland shared his recipe for fiction that sells well.
  • Ben Galley led a lively and useful interactive discussion on online bookstores.
  • Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware did a live session on the need or otherwise to register copyright.
  • Miral Sattar gave a talk on the basics of online book selling – excellent for first-timers.
  • David Penny and Joel Friedlander shared an often amusing, as well as enlightening, conversation on the principles of good book design. As Friedlander said, the design should be so good the reader doesn’t notice it. He also flagged up his Book Construction Blueprints available free on his site bookdesigntemplates.com
  • Guido Caroti also did a useful presentation on cover design and on copyright issues around covers.
  • Neil Baptista of Riffle and Katie Donelan of Book Bub gave good advice on how to optimise your book for inclusion on their promotional sites.
  • One of the best talks, for me, was the one given by Rebecca Swift of the Literary Consultancy. She stuck her head above the parapet by addressing quality in self-publishing. She made comparisons with the Victorian era’s Penny Dreadful novels. She wasn’t dismissing or deriding self-publishing, but she was making a plea for high ethical standards of editing, for good content both genre and literary and for expert reviewers. She made the point that it shouldn’t be the writers with backgrounds in marketing and with money to spend who flourished. Good thought-provoking stuff.
  • Other highlights were Jessica Bell on self-editing. As an experienced editor as well as a writer she provided a first-class editing checklist which I’ll definitely be using. Ricardo Fayet advised on finding and working with publishing professionals such as editors. Yen Ooi’s excellent ‘What is your Message?’ addressed how to grab readers’ attention. She talked about the importance of crisp, precise description of your book and how to apply it. She suggested thinking in terms of newspaper headlines followed by a suggestion of content. Jay Artale advised on the use of Pinterest for authors – something I’d been wondering about. And finally, Robin Cutler’s piece on getting your manuscript together and on the four most lucrative genres was also interesting and helpful. And finally, author, poet and campaigner Dan Holloway performed his outstanding new poem calling for social diversity in publishing. You can read it here.

All of the above people have their own websites, blogs, twitter (etc) accounts and I recommend you check out any who grab your interest. It’s also my understanding that most of the events will be available to view on the ALLi/IndieReCon website within the next fortnight.

Orna Ross and her team and all the presenters deserve a very big thank you for all the hard work they put into this successful event.

image copyright Suriya KK via shutterstock.com.

image copyright Suriya KK via shutterstock.com.

 

Emergent Writers Workshop

Then, on Saturday, I was off out into the real world to a local arts centre for a day’s workshop on self-editing for novelists. This was run by community interest company, Emergents, which as XPONorth offers support to writers in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Novelist, literary agent and editor, Allan Guthrie delivered the workshop. Now, when I was at the Scottish Association of Writers Conference at the end of March,  I’d attended an interesting and informative workshop given by Allan on the topic of getting published (which I wrote about here) so I had high expectations.

I wasn’t disappointed. It was superb and I came away with sheets and sheets of notes and again, I learned a lot.

Writing can be a lonely pursuit. It’s easy to let self-doubt eat away at motivation, to wonder if it’s worth it. It’s easy to be daunted by all you don’t know. It’s easy to get stuck. Having a network of fellow writers and of publishing professionals is vital. And striving to improve is vital. So for me those four days were sound investments in my writing. I learned so much and my own writing-well is full to the brim once more.

If you’re a writer, or other type of creative artist, how do you ensure you keep learning, developing and continue to be motivated?

 

 

 

Writers as Travellers in Time

Marking Time

image via shutterstock

image via shutterstock

Writers as travellers in time.

How do you like your history? Do you prefer it linear or layered?

As writers we get to move freely through time. We can set our fiction in the past, present or future and our characters can even move from one time period to another as we allow time to shift or slip around them. If we write non-fiction, it can be a personal record of the past by way of a biography or memoir, or an analytical record of past events; it can involve speculation about the future by extrapolation form where we are now, or  it can chronicle the present as, for example, so many bloggers do.

Then there’s creative non-fiction. Writers in this genre can really blur the timelines. Some blur them beautifully as they muse on past and present – H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and On the Shorelines of Knowledge by Chris Arthur – being two fine examples. My current personal favourite is Robert Macfarlane who just writes so beautifully about the etching of time on our landscape, in its high places and in the rocks beneath our feet.

shutterstock_234238399

image via shutterstock

 

Many sunsets and moonrises ago ( a less brutal way of putting it than admitting to the forty years that have passed since I started uni) I studied history as part of my MA degree. My other subject was psychology. So I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m fascinated by the nature of time, by how we humans measure it and perceive it. And I’ve also noticed as both parent and grandparent, and of course as a teacher, how children often perceive time in a more intense way than adults, but also in a more fluid way. The year between a seventh and eighth birthday is much longer than the year between a fifty-seventh and a fifty-eighth one. Last week is as far away as a decade ago. It’s no accident that so much of children’s fiction involves flexibility in the laws of time and space. And yes, that’s what I do in my soon to be published novel for children – but more of that in a future post.

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image via shutterstock

 

On the subject of time and space, I was equal parts enthralled and bewildered by Professor Brian Cox’s BBC television series on quantum physics and its relation to time. But what the programme did confirm for me was that there’s more to history than the linear approach. And on a less highbrow note, I LOVED the recent movie Interstellar in which Matthew McConaughey travels through a wormhole and through vast amounts of time in an attempt to (what else) ensure humanity’s survival. The movie gave a first class and very entertaining portrayal of time travel.

But back on Earth, when considering history whether in terms of personal, national or world events, we tend to think in a more practical and yes, down-to-earth way about time, i.e. in terms of a timeline. Even when going very far back to pre-history and the beginnings of human life, we still tend to view all that has happened in a one-event-after-another sort of way. Days in history in one long line.

In each twenty-four hour period things happen, have always happened. Some of these things are considered important enough to be noted down. Long ago they may have been recorded as cave paintings, chiselled onto stone tablets or scribed on parchment scrolls. More recently they’d be published in newspapers, journals and books, and of, course on the internet.  And those recorded events provide reference points on the timeline. They’re there to be read, understood and interpreted. They’re there to give structure and meaning and a bit of an underpinning to our lives.

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I find it fascinating, in a weird sort of way, that there’s a date every year that will become the anniversary of my own death. Yes, I’m at an age where I’m aware of time passing, of my own mortality and the end to my own personal timeline. It’s not something that scares me exactly, but I don’t want it to come around just yet.

I try to make each day count, I try not to waste time and I try to be mindful of this day in my own history. I strive to enjoy the gift of the present and to leave my own tiny, but positive, marks in time.

This day in history, its moments, its joys and disasters, it’s all we ever truly possess. However, we can be so pressed for time that we often experience our days as fleeting. We wish we could fit more in, wish we had more leisure and more time for our loved ones. On the other hand, on some days the hours pass too slowly, filled with yearning for days gone by, or perhaps with impatience for days still to come.

So, what of all those other days? Days of past and future history. Are they truly inaccessible; the past behind us and the future further on up the line? What if we imagine history as layered rather than linear? So instead of looking back, or even forward at a particular day in history, we look down and through.

Time for some lateral thinking.

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We live on a small but beautiful, very old planet that spins in an ancient and vast universe. Contemplating history and the passage of time on a planetary or universal scale is truly mind-bending.

Astrophysicists view time as a fourth dimension. They suggest not only that time can bend, but that it flows at different rates depending on location. They posit that its rate of flow is relative to the other dimensions of space and to the amount of gravity that is present.

The everyday, human version of time is just a construct. A useful construct, and one that facilitates the organisation of our lives, but a construct nevertheless. Our clocks and calendars measure something that is relative and is organised in neat lines and circles by a shared understanding and agreement. But it’s not fixed and it’s not absolute.

Supposing I left the Earth today and travelled on out of our solar system and our galaxy. Suppose I went through a wormhole – a bend in time and space that would let me travel hundreds of thousands of light years in a blink, perhaps even to another of the possibly many universes – I would be far away, not just in spatial terms, but in terms of time as well. And then, after maybe a couple of years holidaying on a far away world, I return to Earth. I would be two years older but it’s theoretically possible that fifty, a hundred, maybe five hundred years would have passed here. My days in history would be very different from, and totally  out of step with, those of you who remained earthbound .

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I don’t fully understand the astro-physical concept of time and space, but I like the idea of it. I find it comforting that time isn’t fixed and that the atoms that make up our bodies have existed since time began, and will always exist in some form as long as time continues to be.

I love that when I walk the Earth’s surface my footfalls connect me with all the layers of life and time on our wee blue planet. Layers of geology, topography, ancestry, experience and time. Layers not limited by days, months and lifespans.

I love the possibility that all my days could exist simultaneously and forever, all of them layered up, down and through the planet’s physical layers and throughout all the multiverses. I love that I might magically get a glimpse of these other days. I love that, even if it’s just in theory, there could be places in time and space where my days in history have other and infinite possibilities.

I love that time is immeasurable, and I love that the marks we make on it are immeasurably small.

I love that as writers we can, at least for a short while, make time do our bidding.

 

 

 

 

Review of Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh

Crime Fiction at its best.

Cold Pressed

Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh

This is the fourth book in a series based on the personal and working life of Scotland Yard officer, Detective Inspector Beatrice Stubbs. However, it’s not necessary to have read the others in order to be able to follow this one. Like its predecessors it can stand alone.

I have read and enjoyed the other three and so my expectations were high, but I was also apprehensive in case this latest one didn’t live up to the high standards of the earlier books. I needn’t have worried. It was the best yet. Author JJ Marsh has produced another excellent piece of crime fiction.

Beatrice Stubbs is a wonderful creation. She’s complex, flawed and utterly believable.

She’s not only a clever, successful and gutsy police officer, but she also has mental-health issues and faces some difficulties in her relationship with her long-term partner, Matthew.

Her occasional malapropisms only add to her endearing qualities. For example she mentions ‘not upsetting the apple tart’, and needing ‘forty wings’ when sleepy.

Beatrice’s job often takes her abroad and involves her working  jointly with  foreign police forces. In Cold Pressed,  when a British woman, a passenger aboard a cruise ship sailing around the Greek islands, dies after being thrown from a cliff whilst ashore, Beatrice is sent to investigate alongside Inspector Stephanakis of the Greek police.  The setting, of course, lends itself to beautiful visual descriptions, and Marsh certainly brings Santorini, the Cyclades and the Dodecanese to life. The reader can see the bluest of seas, feel the hottest sunshine, taste the delicious food.

But there’s menace too and there are serious crimes to be solved, and what Beatrice had hoped would be a straightforward and brisk investigation, becomes a more prolonged and difficult case when two more of the ship’s passengers are discovered to have been murdered. Beatrice and  Inspector Stephanakis  must stay with the ship and get to know the captain, crew and guests. Before both police officers find their own lives in danger when they discover a dark secret and a murder suspect out for revenge.

But Cold Pressed is much more than a simple police-procedural tale. Marsh is an excellent story-weaver. The plot twists and turns, the suspense is compelling. The intertwining of the details of the case and Beatrice’s personal demons is clever and credible and gives the plot a multi-layered feel. All the characters, major and minor, are well drawn and believable. As a reader, you’re drawn in and made to care about them as you feel the terror and panic that sweeps the ship.

Marsh’s economical, highly visual prose make this book a deceptively easy read, but at the same time a most satisfying one.

The book is available in ebook and paperback here.

 

 

 

 

 

Scottish Association of Writers Conference 2015

It’s fine to be indie and judging a book by its cover…

Seizing the Day and Getting Our Work Out There seemed to me to be the main themes of the above conference held on 27th to 29th March 2015. It was also the year that conference finally and fully embraced going indie as a legitimate and positive choice as a route to publication.

As writers, most of us can also be expert procrastinators. We allow self doubt, the rejection and criticism of others, the difficulties of getting published traditionally, the effort required to self-publish, the muse being away on leave, the dust on the shelves, the ironing in the pile, the worms in the dog – anything – to get in the way of just getting on with the job. We get distracted. We get discouraged. We get lonely. But writers groups, clubs and conferences – online and in the real world – can be a great antidote to the writing blues. There we find we’re not alone and, hey, we’re not weird after all, no, it’s just that we’re writers.

Although I live on the Isle of Skye, I am a member of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club (EWC). Yes, this is probably taking the club’s definition of ‘country’ member to its limits, but it’s such a good, friendly club with access to annual competitions, informative and inspirational speakers, and general writing support, that I was reluctant to give up my membership when I left the city many years ago. One of the advantages of belonging to such a club is that it’s affiliated to the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW) and therefore my membership of the EWC entitles me to attend the annual SAW conference weekend.

This year’s conference took place last weekend in Glasgow, and I made the long trek south to be a part of it.

It was definitely worth the effort. I caught up with old friends and made some new ones, I was inspired, encouraged, and I learned such a lot.

The keynote speaker was Alexandra Sokoloff,  an award-winning  thriller author and Hollywood screenwriter. Her talk was both inspirational and motivational. She has no truck with doubt, fear or procrastination when it comes to pursuing a career as a writer. Her determination and self-belief have been hard won, as has her success, and she urged all of us to believe in ourselves as writers and to ‘just do it’. She ended her speech with the following Goethe quote – Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now. This is a quote I’ve had above my own writing desk for years.

During the weekend, Alexandra also delivered two very informative workshops on story structure and pace. She talked about the three-act-drama format and about how the hooking process used in films and in television drama can and should be used when writing stories. She’s written a book on the subject if you’re interested to know more.

There were workshops on several topics including  writing non-fiction, writing for children, writing drama, writing dialogue and writing for women’s magazines. All of them included advice and information sharing on getting our work published. All of them embraced both traditional and self-publishing and in the case of non-fiction all of the workshop participants were encouraged to find their markets, no matter how niche and were also advised on where to look.

One of the workshops I attended dealt specifically with getting published. It was delivered by Allan Guthrie. Allan is a literary agent at Jenny Brown Associates in Edinburgh, the biggest literary agency in the UK outside of London. He is also an editor and an award-winning author of crime fiction. And as well as all that he’s a co-founder of publishing company, Blasted Heath. He began by acknowledging how publishing has changed in the last decade and he also pointed out how self-publishing has evolved and how the quality of books produced in this way has improved.

He then went on, in an excellent workshop, to point out why having an agent is a good thing if you’re going to be traditionally published.  He offered advice on how to get an agent and gave us copies of both good and bad query letters. He also gave us a ‘skeleton hook’ – that is a brief (less than 75 words) agent-slanted blurb containing all the essential information about your book.

It was refreshing and reassuring to hear that he, and in his opinion, other agents are open to taking on previously self-published authors. Although he did say that the first thing a prospective agent will do will be to do an online search of the author’s profile with a particular interest in level of sales.

Of course not  all self-published authors want an agent or to be traditionally published. But for those who do, and for those who are hybrid, it was good to see how the conference in general, and the guest professionals in particular, now accept the indie route as legitimate and of an acceptable standard.

Also on that note, this was the first year that there was a competition for self-published novelists included along with the other dozen or so annual conference competitions. I entered my own novel, Displacement  and I’m proud to say I was runner-up. Yeah! First prize went to Dundee International Award winner, Chris Longmuir. The adjudicator of this competition was Michael Malone.

Michael is both an author of several crime thrillers and a sales rep for a major publisher. His job as a book rep involves him going round bookshops and getting the store buyers to give shelf space to the books produced by his employer. In his adjudication speech he emphasised the importance of the book cover for getting a book into bookshops. He advised a matte finish, saying that for booksellers gloss equals amateur, and the same goes for not using cheap, white paper. He said how bookshop buyers will often neither look at the blurb nor the inside of the book, but will make a judgement based purely on the cover. Food for thought there.

I’ve only provided a snapshot view of the SAW conference here. It was an amazing and worthwhile experience – even more amazing when you realise what a lot of work the SAW council must have put in to organise it and make it all go so smoothly. The council members are all volunteers fitting in SAW work around day jobs and otherwise busy lives. It’s obvious when they speak that it’s a labour of love, but labour it is and the results were awesome.

Thanks to President, Marc Sherland, and all the council members, to the workshop deliverers and speakers, to the lovely staff of the Westerwood Hotel in Cumbernauld – and of course to my fellow delegates – for making the 2015 SAW conference such a worthwhile experience.

Oh, and a PS –  I was also highly commended in the conference Book Review Competition for my review of crime thriller Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh. I’ll post the review here on the blog very soon.