Sunday, 19 December 2010

The north wind shall blow and we shall have snow - again?

Sue Purkiss, in her excellent blog about snow Dark Lords,Witch Queens, and Snow on ABBA yesterday, said -
'Snow changes what happens, we all know that: ordinary life holds its breath. You can't work any more, so you might as well play. 

But there's something else, something much deeper than that. We are taken back to an older time, when we were bound more closely to nature; to a time when people must have wondered if winter would ever end, and if they could possibly survive it even if it did.' 

We have just had almost two weeks of incredibly deep snow.  When it arrived so early it seemed quite beautiful and a lot of fun, but soon almost all travel was impossible, except on foot through snow that lay a foot deep.

That was when, as Sue says, ordinary life held its breath.  But it felt much more than that.

When day after day we looked out on this altered landscape through snow-crusted windows it should have been an opportunity to get lots done at home, but perhaps we are more instinctive beings than our modern lives would suggest?

Are we more tied to nature, making this deep wintry weather trigger some kind of survival instinct or dread that it would never end?  Is that why some people seem to have reacted strangely to the enforced holiday.

After the first day or so when we cleared paths only to have them as deep in snow by the following morning, it should have been easy to settle down to working at home or doing all those things that there never seems time for.

But instead I was unable to concentrate on anything for very long, as if life was on hold, breathlessly waiting to see when this force of nature would melt away and everything would return to normal.  My friends and neighbours reported the same sense of  waiting, of not-quite-holiday, when day after day we woke to more and more snow, just when we thought it was beginning to disappear, it all came back again, worse than ever.

Most of it finally melted away leaving behind small mountains of hard-packed ice and snow where it had been cleared from the roads.  Most of the deep snow may have gone but many icy paths and pavements are still covered by snow, hardened to solid ice by sub zero temperatures.  It is currently -7 outside  but the latest fall of snow seems to have avoided our little corner of the land and is currently immobilising the north and south.

The forecast threatens - as the nursery rhyme goes -    ' The north wind shall blow and we shall have (more) snow...'   Will we still hold our breath until it all goes away again? Will our instinct for survival make us fight the lethargy or make us want to hibernate until the spring?

Friday, 17 December 2010

Presents - what would you buy your characters for Christmas?

Do you know what to give your nearest and dearest this Christmas? Do you find choosing gifts a pleasure or a chore.

Perhaps there was a present you desperately hoped for as a child, but never got, or one that delighted you so much that the memory is still vivid?

Do you remember the worst present you have ever received or the present you wish you had never given someone else?

A great way of creating real, living, breathing characters is to get to know them as well, or better, than we know the people around us.  So here is a thought - what to get them for Christmas. or what would be their ideal Christmas present?

If you understand your characters well enough to breathe life into them on the page,  you should be able to think about what they would want for themselves, but also what some of the people around them would choose for them as a present.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Strident Publishing have 3 copies of Dead Boy Talking to give away.

 - It's giveaway time!
Strident Publishing have 3 copies of l Dead Boy Talking to give away.
To participate simply leave a comment on their facebook page - Strident publishing saying why you'd like the book... The contest will end next Friday 27th August when they will choose 3 winners at random.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Weegie Wednesday I'll be there, will you?

This Wednesday - 11th  August 2010- is Weegie Wednesday -   Their website describes it pretty well 

'an opportunity for writers, poets, publishers, booksellers, librarians, creative writing students or anyone else with an interest in books to get together socially once a month to talk about books, writing and publishing.'

It happens upstairs at The Universal Bar  in Sauchiehall Lane (directly behind Waterstones in Sauchiehall Street) Glasgow from 7.30pm.

There are two 10 minute showcases each month and this Wednesday  I will be sharing the spotlight with my good friend and fellow writer Nicola Morgan.

I will be speaking about the challenges of moving between writing soft and cuddly books for little tots and edgy realism for teenagers.

Nicola will be speaking about the changing face of publishing and what that means for writers and publishers.

 So why not come along for a chat and a glass of your favourite refreshment!   We'll be there...will you?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Congratulations Charlotte!- Bloomsbury 247 winner for July

I was delighted to hear that the winner of the Bloomsbury 247 story for July is Charlotte.

You can read her story here  The title for July was THE SECRET ROOM and her take on it is a rather sad, but well thought out story.

I met Charlotte, who is just 15, a couple of months ago and she is a very talented young writer.  I am sure we will hear more from her in the future.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Questions about writing #2 - Writing for 'children'

I have several times been send queries by email from my website and when I try to reply these have bounced. One such came in recently from a lady called Jacqueline who is writing a 'children's story'.  If you read this Jacqueline, please email me again!

One thing that always worries me when someone says they have written a 'children's story' is that this is such a 'catch all' that it tells me almost nothing.  The first question that comes to mind is who is this story for?  Children require different books at different ages  and the books they want are quite different in concept.  For example -

A space story could be a picture book perhaps something like Stella to Earth by Simon Puttock

or Simon Bartram's stories about Bob (the man on the moon) such as Bob and the Disappearing Moon

For older children a short novel  is more their kind of book - a space adventure story like Theresa Breslin's    Alien Force.

So if you are thinking of writing for children, or have written a book or a short story for 'children' please go back and think about who it is for and what kind of book that child will be wanting to read or have read to them.  See which publishers publish which kind of books so that you are informed about the market.

If you want to get your story published you do need to know what kind of books are being published NOW for children today. Don't rely on what you might remember about when you were a child but go to the bookshops and look at the books. Read them and see how long they are, if there are pictures, and the way the story is told. Find out where your story fits in generally.

After that you may have to change your ideas or the way your story is told and don't mistake a shorter book or a picture book for being one that is easier to write. Usually the fewer words there are, the harder you have to work to get it right.

If you do all these things there is still no guarantee that you will be published, no one has the right to expect a publisher to put out money to publish and promote a book unless they believe it will sell enough to make more than it cost them - that is only common sense!

My best advice is  - be professional, get to know the market and make it the best you can.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Giveaway - Win a free copy of Dead Boy Talking

Over on  The Bookette  there are 5 copies of DEAD BOY TALKING to be won.  The giveaway is open internationally until 26th July 2010. Thank you, Becky!

On the same site see a great  REVIEW of Dead Boy Talking 

and my guest post The Long and the Short of it  discusses whether you want a long book or a short book and does it make a difference?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Arvon magic

Snuggling into rolling hills, away from the cares of the world, Moniack Mhor in Inverness-shire is the most northerly Arvon residential writing centre.  I'm just back from tutoring a course on Writing for Children with Cathy MacPhail.

I love the atmosphere at the Arvon centres,  the air seems to buzz with creative ideas. Perhpas it is something to do with being so remote and far from the interruptions of our normal lives, no television, away from emails and the internet and amongst like-minded people who are all there to write.
Cathy and I had the tutor  rooms, in the cottage, overlooking the wonderful view.

Midweek our guest speaker was Kathryn Ross from Fraser Ross Associates who talked about the job of a literary agent. She gave the students lots of useful information and they grilled her all evening - with lots of interesting questions.

Our 16 students were keen and worked very hard over the week producing work that was at times quite dark but at others you could probably have heard the peals of laughter for miles around.

There were moments of sheer delight as they read the results of their 'homework' exercises with tales of fantasy, adventures, sadness and love.


                                  Taking a break  in the kitchen between sessions.


 an intense debate 

                                                                                      Discussing a class exercise

At the last session they excelled themselves and we even had one hilarious story about a rather disgruntled spider with literary aspirations who had secretly joined our group and fallen in love, only to find it was unrequited!

Well done everyone - for working so hard and thank you for being such good company.


Thursday, 24 June 2010

Over on ABBA today- With a Launch or a Whimper- the birth of a book

over on Awfully Big Blog Adventure . today.

With a launch or a whimper? The birth of a book - 

As I write this my latest book Dead Boy Talking has just been launched and sent into the world by an enthusiastic bunch of 13/14 yr olds from North Berwick High School.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Catalyst Book Award - Shortlist announced!

I am delighted that Spider is one of the three shortlisted books.
The shortlist is ....

Auslander                       Bloodchild                               Spider -
  Paul Dowswell                           Tim Bowler                           Linda Strachan

The shortlist was announced on their blog today.  The three books were chosen from a longlist of 23 amazing books- check out the  Catalyst Blog  to find out more about the award


Monday, 14 June 2010

What’s in your box?

 I love boxes, all shapes and sizes, boxes made of metal, wicker, wood, old boxes, dusty boxes. 
 Boxes are the stuff of imagination and curiosity. 

When they are closed, locked, fastened or nailed shut, almost anything might be inside.  In fact until the box is opened absolutely possibilities are limited only by that which our imagination can conjure.

It might be a picnic box, a toy box, a box of old treasures.  Left in an attic it might contain old railway tickets and legal papers, bric a brac and old clothes, photographs, ornaments or certificate; their meaning or sentimental value lost to the ravages of time and perhaps the passing of their owners.

To a more fanciful mind a box might contain the egg of an alien creature, a cloud of magic dust, a book of mystic powers waiting to be unleashed on the unwary.  It may not be a box at all but the opening of a passageway into the underworld, or an alternative time and place.

A box is a story waiting to be told, its contents secret and mysterious until the moment when a curious mind creaks it open, and reveals all.

What's in your box?

Sunday, 30 May 2010

When is a picture book NOT a picture book?

I am reminded of the old joke. When is a door not a door?  When it's ajar!
Okay, so not the funniest joke ever but it is simple and for children of a certain age it is mildly amusing. Recognising what is appropriate and interesting to children, and at what age, is one of the first and potentially most important considerations when writing a picture book.

Picture books are delightful, bright and full of fun.  They also come in various shapes and sizes, some wordy and others with few if any words at all. So I can understand the confusion that can cause if you are new to writing them.   But at the heart of it all has to be the child it is intended for and as a writer you have to keep that child at the front of your mind.

I sometimes (although rarely) agree to read someone's picture book text before they send it to a publisher or agent.  I rarely accept partly because the time spent doing this is time I am not spending writing, but also because it will only be MY OPINION.  There is no guarantee - even if I love it- that it will find a publisher or an agent prepared to submit it to a publisher. It is their opinion that matters, not mine.

What I can often tell, almost at first glance, is whether it is actually a picture book text and not better suited to a slightly older age group or a book with few if any pictures.

 So how do I know?

It takes more than the space and time allotted here to tell you in detail but there are certain things that stand out.

1- A picture book is basically exactly that.  A book where a minimum of 50% and more often much more is picture.  The text can be minimal and often it is better if it is.  A guide (not a rule!) is that it should be no more than 1000 words but often the wordy-ness  (if that is a word) can be cut out to great effect.  Remember it is a book of two parts. Two creative skills working together the author and the illustrator. Both together makes a picture book so much more.

2-  The pictures carry some of the story - this means that the text does not describe everything that is going on or even what the characters look like or what they are doing.  This is a common mistake and it is obvious that the author has not been thinking visually.  It doesn't mean you have to draw anything  but as the story is forming in your head you need to be thinking of it as if you could imagine the pictures.  Often this makes it a little difficult when you eventually see what the illustrator draws because it can  end up nothing like you had imagined- that is not necessarily bad, in fact it is a plus.

3- The text needs to be readable.  A picture book is normally a book that is read aloud to children and for that reason it should be easy to read out loud and even better if it has a good rhythm.  Many people think it should be in rhyme but I would say little or no rhyme with a strong rhythm is much better. One main reason, to be honest, is that good interesting rhyme is incredibly difficult to do well. Publishers will also tell you that it is more difficult to get the all important translation deals if it is in rhyme.  One great test of readability is to read it out loud yourself, or even better get someone else to read it to you.  Then you will see the cumbersome parts!

4- Appropriate subject matter. By this I mean writing about things that are not right for the age group, either too complicated or not something that small children are interested in.  Something that might be appealing to an older child or something that as an adult you recall being interested in when you were young.  Ways to make sure it is right for the age  group (generally picture books are aimed  at children of 5 or under) are to spend time with small children if you can, listen to what they talk about,  read to them to see what they enjoy, or at the very least spend time in a good children's bookshop or the library and read lots of picture books.

5- Keep it simple!  The very best books are simple but that can be deceiving - make no mistake - that is where the real 'craft' is.  

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Dead Boy Talking - teenagers as publicists

Platinum Pages Publication Promotions

are a group of 13/14 yr old students from North Berwick High School who have taken on my new book Dead Boy Talking to promote and launch it.

Please do look at and follow their new blog  to see what they are up to.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

A visit to ISA

This is Buster, the mascot of the International School of Aberdeen, reading one of my books during a visit there at the end of April.  You can find out more about it on my website

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Where ideas live- sparkles on the water.

I've been in the woods for a while recently.

Not literally, of course, but perhaps literary (or liter-arily, is that a word?). I lost myself, and my ability to see ideas seems to have scattered and got lost amongst the trees. It was as if they (ideas) were now hiding under the water, tantalisingly almost visible, but nothing more than a reflection when I got up close.

When people say where do you get your ideas? I usually answer that it is never a problem - and normally ideas are flowing fast and furious, scattering like sparkles on the surface of water. At times almost as difficult to pin down, but the ideas were always there for the taking. 

Of course ideas are just the beginning, the first stones on the path but without them there is no path to wander along, no direction to head in. This was unfamiliar territory.

I found myself picking bits and pieces up and discarding them - 'You're not an idea, neither are you, You are a poor excuse for an idea.... and you are no better!'

Writing takes energy, creative energy and without it nothing seems to work.  I realised that the problem wasn't that there weren't any sparkles, no ideas to jump on and ride across the water into the delights of a new story.  The problem was that the energy wasn't there. It had been leeched away by other things in my life, and without it I couldn't see the sparkles. 

Even writing a blog was something to shy away from. This perhaps explains why this blog has been silent for a while.

But I think I am on my way again, on the path through the trees and between them I can just about see a sparkle on the water...

Monday, 10 May 2010

Looking back 1# A life more interesting??

Cheating a little, I know, but I thought would be fun now and then to look back at some of the posts I've written for ABBA awfully big blog adventure  
This is the very first post I ever wrote for a blog - written in July 2008 a could of months before SPIDER came out. 


I SO wish I had spent my youth doing daring deeds like skydiving, bungee jumping or even had a gap year deep sea diving in the Philippines.I wish I’d had a quirky job, been a grape peeler for an emperor or excavated tombs in Egypt for a famous archaeologist - I would love to have been a blacksmith and been able to make elegant but deadly swords, but with my luck I would probably have been offered the job of sticking feathers onto arrows!

Why, you may ask, am I so consumed with having had a fascinating life? It’s not that I want to do anything other than write, I love it, but I am trying to write a short biography for my upcoming, first teenage novel, Spider, and I am suddenly overcome with a sense of my own boringness!
My previous attempts to make my past life sound interesting might have been fun and jolly for the young cuddly readers of my Hamish McHaggis stories, but I really want something with a little more street cred for this book and most of my previous life seems just too ordinary.

Now if I’d had a few exciting or weird jobs it would be so much easier to write a pithy and amusing little biography- like the ones I read in other writer’s books! They all seem to have done such interesting things
A friend said - 'you’re a writer, make it up!'

So I sit and scribble and score out and try again, but for some reason I can think of all sorts of exciting things for my characters to do but none of them seem right for me. I keep worrying that someone will ask me technical details about how to catch a fire-eating dragon, or extract a marble from an angry camel’s nose.

So, if you see me doing something really bizarre it may not be because I am tremendously brave or quirky… just looking to do something that I can put in my bio!

Monday, 19 April 2010

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Bookwitch - on Hamish McHaggis

Why not drop in on Bookwitch  to see how she is getting to grips with Hamish McHaggis and a few Scots words and phrases.

Here are Hamish and the rest of the McHaggis clan from all over the world as they set off on their tour of Scotland in the double-decker Whirry Bang bus!

From Hamish McHaggis and the Clan Gathering

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Does size matter? ABBA post....

What length is the right length for a book?  

Surely a book should be as long or as short as the story demands?

I know we as writers have to work in the commercial world of publishing if we want to see our work in print. But does this mean writing longer and longer books because there is a perception that a book needs to the thick enough to sell?

This line of thought was prompted by  an article in the Guardian yesterday .

There are some amazing books that are short, sharp and work because of their length, and others that are a delight because they are long and involved.  As a reader I know there are times I want to get lost in a long book, or even a series of lengthy novels, to live with the characters for a longer time  but there are also times when I want to dip into something that will charm and delight me because of the pared down prose.

When Spider came out it got some great reviews but the occasionally someone would mention that it was a short novel for teenagers, as if that might be a problem.  It is short, but as far as I am concerned it is the right length for the story and for the way it is told.  I could have added padding to make it a longer book, but  would that have made it a better read?  I don't think so.

My new book Dead Boy Talking will be a similar length.  Some readers have said they like that length because it was less daunting and they felt confident they would finish it.  Others just enjoyed the fast pace that might be difficult to sustain in a much longer novel.

Personally I feel that if publishers are pushing for longer books because it seems like they might sell better I think that is a dangerous road to go down, a similar avenue to the thinking behind publishing celebrity authors whether they can write or not.

The writing, the plot, characters and the story have to be what dictates length, or am I being naive in this commercial world?

Do you think length matters?

Read my blog  - Bookwords -
Visit my website - to find out about
my new book Dead Boy Talking - published June 2010- Strident Publishing

See my posts over on

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Delgatie castle - great place for a creative writing day!

Last week I ventured into deepest Aberdeenshire.
One of the things that I enjoy about being asked on author visits is that I get the chance to see new places, meet lots of new people and generally the experience is a good one - although there have been times... less said about them the better!

Thankfully this was a great experience.  I was asked to visit               Delgatie Castle which is near Turriff in Aberdeenshire.
The wonderfully enthusiastic local librarians had organised a writing day.  I was working with fellow tutor, author and poet Kenneth Stevens.

The snow, evident here, had cleared a bit before we got there but at least one of the small ponds in the garden was still frozen over when we arrived.  The sun shone and as I was running the workshops in one of the beautiful stone-clad castle rooms,  sunlight was streaming in the windows most of the day.

The ladies who run the kitchen in the castle had provided beautiful homemade scones to accompany the morning coffee and tea, and a delightful lunch, too, which were served in the Laird's Kitchen in the castle. This provided a chance to chat before and after the workshops.

The writers were all keen, some experienced and some beginners, but it was a great day and I hope they enjoyed it all as much as I did.

Sometimes staying away can be a bit of a hit or miss but again this was proving to be a good one.  I was staying in the area for a few days and stayed in the small but very comfortable
Redgarth Hotel which is situated on the hill above Oldmeldrum.  My room looked over to the snow-covered hills, the view skimming the rooftops of Oldmeldrm. It was delightful and the continental breakfast served in my room in the mornings was just perfect.
I had a visit to Meldrum Academy the following day to speak to some S5/6 students who had volunteered to come along for a creative writing workshop. They worked hard but we had some laughs and I am sure there will be some very good writing produced from these young writers in the future, they were a credit to the school and their teachers.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Out of Print- feels sad- like I've lost a friend

A strange thing happened to me today.  I discovered one of my books had gone out of print -  it has gone....possibly forever,  and the strange thing is how sad it made me feel.  I wasn't expecting that.

I was busy putting things together in preparation for trips away over the next few weeks -it being March that exciting time when World Book Day celebrations seem to extend to much of the month. I was in cheerful mood I had a great event yesterday with a class in the local library, they had been very responsive and they seemed to have enjoyed it as much as I did. I was speaking about myths and legends something I'd not done for a while and  I based the talk around one of my books  The Trojan Horse and other Greek Myths. 

Yes, I know it's not exactly a catchy title but it does what it says on the cover, 6 Greek myths retold as fairly short stories. They are a good length for using during a talk ( or in class, which they were designed for).

I wrote this book a while ago for an educational publisher and  it had strict guidelines but the most challenging part had been to find 6 Greek myths that could be easily told and were appropriate for primary school children. 

One of the other interesting facets of the book was that the stories were designed to be read by different abilities within a class, but not obviously so.    The first two were easier to read,  the middle two were for the average reader and those struggling could read them with assistance and the last two were more challenging. 

When I checked my bookshelf I realised I had only a couple of copies of the book and thought I would like to have a few more so I emailed the publisher and asked about buying some.  Today I got an email to tell me that the book was not only out of print but there were no copies of it left.

The editor did apologise that this had happened as I should have been told beforehand and offered any copies they had left and I accept that mistakes happen and there is not much that can be done about it, but it is irritating because the exact same thing happened not that long ago with another book, again one about myths and legends...

Is there a connection, are the myths fading and disappearing all by themselves..... makes you wonder if there's not something weird going on here........  ?

But seriously, I was surprised at how sad I felt when I thought that the book was no longer in print.   I didn't expect that I hadn't realised the attachment I still had to this book which I wrote some years ago. 

Is it the fact that you put so much of yourself into every book, the creative energy, lavishing love and attention, time spent on research and crafting the words, that when they are suddenly not there...?

I feel a bit like that chap in the advert who goes looking for a copy of his book and then you see the delight on his face when he finds a copy!  At least I have a couple of copies left.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

DESCRIPTION How much - or how little.

This February Edinburgh Unesco City of Literature's One city- One book reading campaign was Carry a Poem 2010. See City of Literature. There were all kinds of poems and reading some of these made me think about how concise a poem can be yet how it often forces you to create the rest of the picture in your head.

It is easy to think, when you start writing that you should describe your characters in detail as they arrive in the story for the first time. But why would you want to stop the story for a large wad of description, however beautiful it might be. It isn't a film, where the visual of the character often hits you before they utter a single word.

Before I say another word I would like to make it clear that I am firmly in the camp that says there are no absolute rules when writing. There are 'guidelines' that help and 'suggestions' as to technique but as soon as someone declares something to be a 'rule' a dozen well-qualified voices will shout that they do it differently!

But in a book the person behind the visual is more often what the author is trying to portray and as such their appearance is not necessarily noteworthy except on the occasion that it furthers the plot or your understanding of the character and their situation.  So it follows that you can drip feed in this information as and when it is needed and in small slivers that enhance, rather than indigestible lumps.

As a reader, when you are engrossed in a book and get to know the characters well - unless their appearance is important to them or so strange that people in the story stop to stare - you may discover that you don't actually recall whether they have long or short, blonde or black hair, or if they are tall, short, thin or fat.  That is because you know what is in their heads, how they think, what they care about and what they will do in any situation.

 ? What did you actually see ?

Perhaps it is the same as a policeman taking witness statements after a bank robbery. Often the witness statements vary so much that it is almost impossible to to get a real picture of what the criminals looked like. But the witnesses will probably be able to tell if one of the bank robbers was violent or spoke aggressively.

Most of us have times when we meet people but cannot recall their names or put a name to a face but the temperament general disposition of that person is more likely to linger in our memory. How often have you failed to recall someone's name, or whether a person wears glasses or has a moustache.

How much description do you prefer? Do you agree that often, when it comes to describing a character's appearance, less is more?

Monday, 15 February 2010

NEWSFLASH It's fiction - we make it up!

During an interesting afternoon speaking to some young offenders (16-20yr olds) about books one asked if my novel Spider (about joyriding) was real. His expression and the way he asked made it clear that if it was real then that was fine, but he didn't seem to think it would be valid, or worth reading, if it was made up.

These young men were very careful not to lose face amongst their peers. When asked if they had read my book some said no, but later in the discussion one asked about a particular relationship in the story which showed that he had read it, despite his previous negative.

When I asked whether they thought the story was real or not the consensus was that it was real, it had happened (therefore had been worth reading). I tried to get them to see that if they couldn’t tell if it was real or not it must have been credible and wasn't that a good enough reason to read it? That fiction is worth the experience if it is credible and makes you believe in the story and the characters.

I doubt that these young men would admit to reading SF or fantasy although in their situation I know I would be looking for some way to disappear into a credible but fantastic place.

Recently I have been following a discussion about SF and fantasy and I was reminded of these young men and also how often I find myself defending SF and fantasy novels to people who consider them silly or those who say they can't read it because it's not REAL.

They have no problem with other kinds of fiction including historical fiction. No one I know has as yet been able to travel back to the past before their own birth, therefore even well researched fiction (and the clue is in the word) is still made up.

We are just as likely to extrapolate realistically the feelings, problems and experiences of people living with technology that has not (yet) been invented as we are able to imagine what was said or thought in any period of early history.

Science Fiction and Fantasy is read by people of all walks of life, including many great minds - scientists and philosophers. It takes someone with an open mind to be unafraid to challenge what we know and to be prepared to explore the unknown. To start off with our world and extrapolate into the future until it doesn’t resemble anything we are familiar with yet still create a work of fiction that can touch us and make us consider the possibilities.

Often this is a genre that makes us look at  humanity and our planet, and often makes some very real comments on our society and where it is going.

Whether a novel is about present day life as we know it, the past or some distant future or fantasy planet, in the end fiction is, well, fiction!

For all those who are still unsure about this,  can I make it plain that   we, the writers...           

.............  make it up!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Violence - is it contagious? A smile is.

I went to see Avatar last week and was completely mesmerised.

I want go there; to run along the treetops and feel part of the forest, to become one of the Na'vi.

Even if the plot was predictable, for me the sheer pleasure of being in such a beautiful place stayed in my head  -  then of course the violence came along.

Emotions in a story often stay with us as a kind of inner stamp whether it is a film or a book.  We need to care about what happens to characters, they have to engage our emotions, otherwise we lose interest in the story.

In the case of Avatar the planet Pandora itself is a character we grow to appreciate and feel for.  

But if emotions stay with us how do we take them back to our own lives.  Does a happy film or do happy books leave us feeling joyful or at least in a positive frame of mind?   Does it make us smile more?

When we see someone smile the automatic reaction is often to return the smile. We learn this as a baby, being praised for doing so. A baby will often smile and chuckle in response to a smiling face, which makes us smile more in return, and laughter often makes us laugh, if we believe it is spontaneous and not forced.

So, if this is the case, does violence and brutality also affect us in a similar way?  At first it might shock but does it begin to blunt the sensitivities and us look for more violence to provoke the initial shock and adrenalin fuelled response. Does it in some instances create the need to repeat it in our own lives, feeling less shocked by the fictional account until the reality is no longer 'real' to us?

At different times of our lives we look for different kinds of story to either suit our mood or to take us away from the reality of our lives.  When we are tired we may look for something light and comic or an adventure, because sheer escapism can suit better than a challenging read.  When we are miserable in a relationship happy love stories might be an escape, or conversely they might be unbearable reminders of what might have been, or never was.   A tale of misery may make us cry while story of triumph over adversity may be uplifting.

What do you look for, and does it stay with you?

Saturday, 6 February 2010

From the casket of insecurity..... A writer.... or a fraud?

This morning I made my way across the grass to Tuscany (yes, I have been attempting to keep my New Year's Resolution). 

But in my head, I have been in a strange place today.

Recently, I have spent most of my working day writing, enjoying the start of a new book, fresh new characters.  Not entirely sure where it is going yet, but for me that is part of the experience and joy.  So, you may ask, what is the problem?

As I made my way across the grass ....
( OK, so this isn't actually me  it's Loki - my daughter's cat - on her way to visit Tuscany)

.......a thought occurred to me - well, to be honest a series of thoughts, none of them conducive to continuing with my WIP or in fact writing anything at all. 

'Was it any good? Why was I writing it? Would anyone in the entire world be interested in what I was writing?  What were the chances of anyone wanting to publish it and if not why was I bothering at all, should I be writing something else instead?

I'm not sure what exactly sparked off this miserable journey of thought but it continued with the inevitability of a train crash - one that you can see is about to happen and you can do nothing to stop.  So follow it I did, to its logical end....  

'Here I am about to spend the next few hours of my day pretending to the world that I am a WRITER - that I write things people want to read.  Perhaps that's not true and maybe I am a FRAUD!  Should I just stop kidding myself, pack up my things and go and look for a real job instead?'

Now I'm not usually inclined to moments of such blistering insecurity. Like lots of other writers I have times, in almost every book, when I feel like throwing it all away and giving up, but not usually at the beginning.  I had been looking forward to being able to spend time writing this story; it had been in my head for a while, so why -  now that I had time - was I being so negative about it?
I soldiered on and arrived (a few steps later- it's not a huge garden ) at the door and fumbling with the handle managed to avoid spilling my glass of water over my laptop as I went in.
In the winter I put the heater on for a while before I go in, so it was pleasantly comfortable inside, the chair and desk awaiting my presence.  
Once settled there the automaton-me opened the file ready to start.  

'Should I stick with it or give in to the whispers in my head?'

With a sudden determination to slam shut the casket of insecurity I scrolled down to where I had left the characters, in mid conversation (always easier to start up again that way), and found I was among friends.  I could hear their voices and they were telling me their story once more.  
I want to find out what happens next and although there are no guarantees, I am back on the road again.

So what did I learn today? 

1.       To ignore the whispers from the casket of insecurity, they are MEAN and deserve no audience. 
2.        I write - therefore I am a writer, not a fraud.. for now at least!

Monday, 1 February 2010

A very RED day!

Last Wednesday Falkirk town hall was filled with very excited young people, complete with red accessories of every imaginable variety, for the Red Book Awards. 
If you are thinking slick, corporate and stuffy - then think again.  This was the most fun I've had for ages.
Spider was one of 5 books on the shortlist, and being my first novel for teenagers I was quite delighted. I've never been on the short list for an award before so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
The short listed books were
  • The Ice Cream Con by Jimmy Docherty
  • Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray
  • Strangled Silence by Oisin McGann
  • Blood Ties by Sophie McKenzie
  • Spider by Linda Strachan
     So it was strong competition indeed!
    All 5 authors were taken away to be interviewed as soon as we arrived. We had two seperate interviews which were very professionally done, even if the recording equipment gave a bit of trouble for one chap. But he realised in time to have another shot at it.

    There were competitions for the best review of the shortlisted books, a  quiz on the authors and their books and a prize for the best RED accessory- so many to choose from! 
    Everything was accompanied by lots of cheering and excitement but I think my favourite part was watching the 10 drama and powerpoint presentations - two of each of the books.  It was great to see our books interpreted in this way by the very people we write for.

    I was very impressed by the schools who had taken on Spider.
    Bo'ness Academy had the first presentation of Spider with a scene from the hospital, with a very confident young man playing the part of the policeman taking statements from the other characters. It gave a really good feel for the story while not giving too much away for anyone who hadn't read it.

    St Mungo's High school did the second presentation on Spider with a very different take on it, using powerpoint images, props and actors to create a quite vivid and shocking sense of a car crash, followed by groups of kids wandering around as if in a school playground discussing the rumours that were going around about Spider and the crash.  
    In the afternoon before the winner was announced all of the authors were invited to speak for a few minutes each introduced by a student from one of the schools. As it was in alphabetical order, by our surnames I was the last to speak.
    Jimmy, Oisin and Keith, all very funny guys, did comedy which had the room roaring with laughter, so it was a bit of a challenge for Sophie and I to follow them.  But it was really fascinating to listen to the different way each of us approach our books and writing.
    Yvonne Manning the librarian who masterminds the Red Awards and acted as MC on the day  deserves a medal for her hard work and enthusiasm. 
    Falkirk's provost Pat Reid was there to award the prizes looking quite splendid in his official RED robes!

    Finally we got to the part where they announced the winner- Blood Ties by Spohie McKenzie - a great read.  Sophie was presented with an especially commissioned plate by local potter Barbara Davidson.  
    But I truly believe the real winners of the day were the amazing young people who took part, and their enthusiasm for books and reading.

    Oisin McGann, Jimmy Docherty
    Sophie McKenzie, Keith Gray and me!