Sunday, 30 August 2015


Ah yes, displacement activity. Writers know it well; doing something else - anything - rather than get on with the manuscript they should be working on. When my husband sees me with the feather duster, and dusting under things on the mantelpiece instead of around them he always asks, 'Shouldn't you be getting on with your writing?' How well he knows me!
We're all guilty of displacement activity at times, although I think it's rather like greatness - you know, one is either born great, achieves greatness, or has greatness thrust upon one. This summer I have had displacement activity thrust upon me - displacement through so many people wanting to come and stay which is one of the mixed blessings of living by the seaside. And who can blame them if they live in a city or spend most of their working hours cooped up in an office? And, of course, when visitors come to stay I like to go out and about with them.
I am full of good intention - I will get up early and write, I will write when everyone has gone to bed, I will carry a notebook at all times and jot down ideas as they come to me (which they often do but which somehow never seem to get written down). So, I go sightseeing with them, and I see the beautiful area in which I live through fresh eyes.
I have a writer friend who writes 2000 words before she allows herself breakfast every single day of the year, no matter where she is, be it on holiday, or travelling, or has a house full of visitors. Nothing seems to keep her from her daily total and I often think even fire and flood wouldn't stop her either. I am in awe. She is, of course, very successful and multi-published. When I have visitors I am always up first, setting the table like a bistro restaurant and driving down to Sainsbury's for fresh croissants. My poor guests would die of hunger if they had to wait for me to write 2000 words! And then, breakfast over, I am planning lunch - and this year I have served up scores of breakfasts and prepared a zillion lunches and suppers.
It has all been most enjoyable, if tiring, and .... expensive! Time, then, to get on with writing something that will earn me money, ready for the 2016 wave of summer visitors!

Sunday, 23 August 2015


I am a writer. Sometimes I love being a writer, it’s wonderful. And sometimes … it’s not so great. There’s a lot of struggle involved, masses of self-doubt and the most awful sense of failure when you receive that rejection or bad review. So I started thinking, why do I do it? The answer is because I love it (yes, I know, already said that) and because the good things outweigh the bad.
With friends before the RNA Gala Dinner - on of the perks of being a writer

Just to remind all you writers out there of this, I thought I’d list them here:

  • The best, the very best, is the losing yourself in words. It doesn’t happen every time you sit down to write but when it does it’s an amazing feeling. You are in the story. Your fingers can’t type fast enough. Those characters and that place are REAL.
  • It gives you the excuse to be nosy, sorry, curious about other people
  •  It gives you the excuse to research all sorts of weird topics
  • It gives you the excuse – or even the impetus – to visit some amazing places
  • You make friends. Good friends. People you would never have met otherwise. Most of these will be other writers, but they may also be bloggers, reviewers, readers. The internet is an especial help here as you can make those connections so much more easily these days.
  • You discover there are so many groups out there who want to help writers. They’re fun to belong to as well as being extremely useful. Currently I’m a member of Dumfries Writers (although I’ll be leaving them, sob, when we move north), the Romantic Novelists’ Association, Writers Scotland, Scottish Association of Writers, Society of Authors, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and Friends and Writers. Some are informal groups, some professional bodies. All very helpful (I’d encourage any writer out there who thinks they’re not a ‘joining person’ to start joining – I did and have never regretted it!)
  • And if all that wasn’t enough, there are all those brilliant books that get recommended, and discussions about books, that you will never be able to have with non-writing friends in quite the same way. You know, all that technical stuff about pov swops and pace and narrative arcs. Yes, that can be fun too.

The obvious final plus for this list is being published. And that is great, no doubt about it. But possibly even better is when you get a positive comment or good review from a reader. Now that really does make writing the best career to have.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

A Week Without Words

Many distractions...
I was going to write about words and how we hide behind them; but something got in the way. It’s called a holiday — and I suspect many of my fellow writers know that holidays are something we hide behind as well. I came away with my laptop; with a plan for a first draft (first few chapters complete); and a hard copy of a first draft, pending review. I had my editor’s red pen with me, together with a pile of notebooks (in the unlikely event that the laptop died and I ran out of paper) and I bagged the tiny room with a view of the garden as my study.

And then I didn’t do anything. Or not much, unless you count a rough thousand words that I daren’t read back, and a bizarre few hours spent flicking back through my published works and agonising about everything that I now realise is wrong with them.

You may think this is entirely reasonable, but for me it’s odd. Writing is a hobby. On a normal Sunday afternoon when there’s nothing else going on, I’ll rush for my laptop and scribble a few pages when everyone else is busy. I relax of an evening by doodling maps of fictional locations or drawing spiderweb diagrams of every character’s relationship with every other. 

And yet, on holiday, I don’t do it. I have tons of ideas, but I never write them up (or down). I wander around in a series of tiny dreams; and then I get back to wherever we’re staying and… reach for a Sudoku puzzle. Or flick through the nearest book. Or stare out of the window at the view (the English Lakes, this time, should you be interested, and a fine view it was, too).

It isn’t because there are distractions. There are distractions in everyday life as well, and I write around those — often, through them, or instead of dealing with them, because writing is a therapy as much as a relaxation. But maybe it’s the knowledge that there’s nothing I have to do that makes me do nothing — even when I want to.

I know I could be so much more productive while everyone else is snoozing in the garden or in front of the telly. But actually I wonder if my brain somehow understands that even a mind geared to writing needs a little break from time to time. 

If I’m honest I feel better for a week without words (of my own, at least). I’m refreshed and raring to go. Watch out, world!

Jennifer Young

Sunday, 9 August 2015

My new book by Mary Smith

I’m blogging about my new book, which comes out later this month. Dumfries Through Time, is a very different sort of book than anything I’ve done before. I’ve published fiction, memoir and poetry but this is a picture-led local history book about the town of Dumfries in south west Scotland. It comprises 90 pairs of images showing a historic location in Dumfries and a photograph of the same place today with a paragraph of text accompanying the pictures.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to take the pictures as the book has been done in collaboration with a fabulous photographer friend, Allan Devlin who does amazing landscape images. You can see some of his work on his website here.

Allan and I both freelance for award-winning magazine Dumfries & Galloway Life. In fact, we have both worked on the magazine since the very first issue in September 2006 and Allan always did the photos to accompany my features. Strangely, we did not actually meet until we’d been working ‘together’ for almost two years. 

Our first task was to source the 90 old images we needed. We spent hours – days – pouring over old postcards and photographs in the library, the museum and private collections. It was going to be fairly straightforward, we thought.
Statue of Robert Burns

Dumfries is strongly associated with Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns who lived for a time in the town, writing a huge number of poems and songs in the few years before he died there. There’s a fine statue of him, there’s his burial place, the church he attended, two homes he inhabited and, of course, hundreds of images of all those places. We would choose a postcard of the statue then a few minutes later we’d find another, perhaps a better one?  Or what about this one, from a different angle, or that one which was taken after the statue was moved? 

The River Nith winds through the town and along the Whitesands with its bridges, one of which, Devorgilla Bridge is one of the oldest standing bridges in Scotland. Again, many old images exist and we were faced with the daunting task of choosing the ones which we felt were best. We also had to be careful not to choose places which were no longer photogenic: there was no point in having a wonderful 19th century photo of a historic building only to realise there was actually no longer anything there. 
The weather was not kind to Allan who had the job of taking 90 photos on the days the sun came out – and this spring/early summer there were very few such days.
Statue of Robert Burns Today

My biggest problem was writing the captions, which initially I thought would be fairly easy to do. I’m a journalist, writing captions is part of my job. However, Amberley Publishing has an eighty-word limit on the captions. How could I reduce the history of the Whitesands – site of witch burnings, horse fairs and cattle market for centuries to 80 words? Allan must have been very fed up with my moaning about it.

I’ve collaborated with artists on projects which included writing poems but this was the first time I’ve done it on a book. I think (Allan might say different) we worked very well together. We have a slightly different attitude to deadlines. We both feel honour bound to meet them but each of us has our own approach and whenever Allan said: “Well, we’ll do what we can to get it done on time.” I wanted to scream. He probably felt the same way when I insisted we HAD to get it completed on time.

The only time we came close to an argument was over a last minute (and I mean last minute – one day from deadline) image of an amazing looking building, which Allan said was a bottling plant. I did some research and found the bottling plant – but it was not the picture he sent me. Emails flew back and forth in disagreement. I wanted to tell say: “Put your (fill in the blank) glasses on and look at it again.” Instead I emailed, in true architectural jargon telling him to note that the ‘squiggly, turrety things are different.’ Silence. He’d gone to bed. Next morning he emailed to say he thought I could be right.

The manuscript and images reached the publishers on time – thank goodness for email and dropbox – and Dumfries Through Time will be available from about the 15th of August. It can be pre-ordered through Amazon.

Allan and I will be celebrating with a launch event on Tuesday, September 01 in the Rutherford/McCowan Building at Crichton Campus, Dumfries. If you live anywhere nearby, do drop in - all welcome.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Does investing in writing really pay off? by Jenny Harper

On Wednesday I gave my first Library talk. I was apprehensive, but I knew the audience would not be large and I was determined to give it a go. Thankfully, everyone seemed to enjoy it – and I even sold a few books!

I didn't want to rabbit on for too long (I dislike listening to myself talking), and was uncertain about what people would most like to hear. An experienced author told me that people love to know about you as a writer, so I gave a little background (writing from childhood, through the teenage years, put off by doing a degree in literature, small success in the 1980s but not enough income, and a subsequent career writing about everything from corrosion in central heating systems for British Gas to articles on the applied arts for newspapers and magazines).

I mentioned that I'd had the idea that writing novels might be a nice little earner in my retirement, which elicited hollow laughter from my husband when I practised my speech on him. He was right to be cynical – so far, I would say expenditure has outweighed income by a factor of several thousand to one, when you take into account all the course fees, books on writing, conferences, agency fees, association fees etc I have shelled out in the past few years.

But it also led me to think about just what all that money I've spent has done – and I really surprised myself.

  1. What I have learnt.  On my very first course (in Castle of Park, Aberdeenshire) I thought I could write, and that all I had to do was learn a little more about structuring a novel. After all, I'd been writing all my life – professionally for much of it. Right? Joke. With every book I have written (around eight now, I think), I have learned more and more. Some of this has come via courses, but a lot of it is down to simply writing. The more you write, the better you get.
  2. Friendships.  Starting with that first course – where I met the tutor Anita Burgh, Jo Thomas (now a best-selling author) and Elizabeth Garrett (whose seaside cottage I have been privileged to visit on many occasions), I have made friends not only in Scotland but quite literally all over the world. Writing is no longer a lonely business, it leads via the virtual world to the unlikeliest and richest of friendships.
  3. Experience.  I've learnt not just about the craft of writing, but also about the world of publishing and how it operates (and how it is changing it the digital world); about how to publish a book yourself in ebook format and in paperback; about social media and how to harness its power; about how to promote your own book in a digital world; about the American Inland Revenue Service – yes, you do need to enrol in order to get UK taxpayer exemption from US taxes; and many other surprising things. I've built my own website, written countless blogs for other hosts and hosted many writers on my own blog, learnt how to Tweet and use Twitter management tools, how to use Facebook, and about LinkedIn and Pinterest and Goodreads and a myriad other web-based sites and tools that would otherwise have remained a mystery.
  4. Publication.  Because I self published and became more confident about the fact that readers actually like what I write, I was offered a publishing deal. And that has led to a whole host of further new experiences. Being featured in my publisher's catalogue. Seeing my book cover prominently displayed at London Book Fair. Selling foreign rights. Hearing that my latest title is to be promoted by WH Smith Travel.
The list goes on. Not bad, eh? I haven't made my money back – not yet anyway – so perhaps as an investment it hasn't really paid off. But I do have faith in myself and, more importantly, my publisher has faith in me, and perhaps one day my pounds will multiply.

If they don't, what have I lost?

Truthfully? Nothing. I believe my investment has already been repaid a millionfold. I write professionally crafted, very readable books that people enjoy, my skills across many areas have improved out of all recognition and, most importantly, I am now the proud member of a worldwide community of writers.

Not a bad investment, don't you agree?