Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Luxury of Language

View from (well, near) the corpse road at Mardale
I have a new addiction, one I recommend for any writer. It’s Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter feed.

You may not have heard of Robert Macfarlane, and I’m not quite sure how to describe him — and when you’ve finished this blog, you’ll understand how important choosing the right words is. Put most simply, he’s a writer and an academic whose subject is related to the landscape. (I’m sure there’s a word for that, and one far more specific than the obvious ‘geography’). I’m halfway through his book The Old Ways and am enjoying it, though i have to confess I’ve ground to a halt. There’s only so much word-richness a girl can digest at once.

On holiday in the Lakes recently, I popped into Wordsworth’s birthplace, where the National Trust had an excellent exhibition curated by Dr Macfarlane. It was on the theme of what he (I presume) calls ‘word-hoarding’ — gathering descriptive words for the landscape and for the weather and so on. Each word was accompanied by some sumptuous photos. It’s right up my street — words and the landscape, two things I love.

A 'moon road'
I’d have loved to have a book about the exhibition, but there wasn’t one, so I headed for Twitter. And here we go. Each day Dr Macfarlane posts a word or phrase and a picture to go with it. 

Some of the words I know and use — fluting, for example, or corpse road or Helm wind. Others I know but don’t use — the simmer dim (for the midsummer dusk/dawn in the Northern Isles) or siege for the place from which a heron launches itself on unsuspecting fish. Others are completely new to me — summer geese, which he describes as “steam that shimmers up from the land when hot sun follows brief rain”, or today’s offering, stubble-stag — a folk name for a hare.

Best of all, his many followers join in, with their own experiences, their local or remembered dialect words, their photographs. Long threads of word-magic spring onto my computer screen, punctuated by pictures of woods, or summer evenings, of silver lakes and cloud-shadowed mountains. 

Twitter can be a grim place, pitted with elephant traps for the unwary, but the daily threads I find here are as wholesome as home-made apple pie. Go and follow @RobGMacfarlane. I promise you won’t regret it. 

Jennifer Young

Saturday, 17 June 2017


As a debut novelist, I’ve quickly learned that one of the key skills required, as well as writing a darned good read, is the ability to pitch a novel, both in writing and, perhaps more dauntingly, in person.

I’ve read self-help books, blog posts, writing magazine articles, all designed to teach writers how best to develop a pitch. But although there’s loads of help out there, it still feels tricky to do!


So imagine my apprehension when my writing friends from the Aberdeen Writers’ Studio, suggested that I pitch to a panel of publishers and agents at XPO North.

I already had experience of pitching work on a one-to-one basis (at a Romantic Novelists’ Association conference – but that’s another blog post!), which was, to say the least, butterfly inducing. But would I have the confidence required to pitch to a panel of industry experts?

I’d never know, it I didn’t try. So I followed the guidelines, forwarding a synopsis and first five chapters of my debut novel, Food Bank Baby, and anxiously waited for a reply.

Emily Utter (front left) and me (front right) with our
Aberdeen Writers' Studio friends on the bus to Inverness
Within days I’d been invited to pitch at XPO North!


XPO North, held on Wednesday 7th and Thursday 8th June this year, is billed as Scotland’s leading creative industries festival; a two-day event in the picturesque highland city of Inverness, in northern Scotland, on the banks of the River Ness, where it’s fun to keep a look out for the famous Loch Ness Monster.

Held at the Eden Court Theatre and Arts' centre, entry to the event is free – always attractive to Scots!

As well as the opportunity to pitch to publishers and agents, XPO North also offered such varied workshops as:
The BBC Writers Room: Starting Your Television Writing Career 
The Birth of a Book: Dream, Plan, Do - How To Crowdfund Your Novel with Patricia van den Akker 
Discover How To Make The Most of Instagram... and more…

But my attention at XPO North was firmly focused on the literary pitching sessions.


Chaired by world-renowned literary agent Jenny Brownof Jenny Brown Associates - one of the leading literary agencies in the UK - the panel was extremely supportive and encouraging of all the writers pitching. Jenny explained that after receiving a whooping 120 submissions, the shortlist was then narrowed to 18, in the panel’s hunt for best new fiction and non-fiction.

The highly experienced publishing panel members included:

Francine Toon - literary fiction editor at Sceptre Books, also representing Hodder & Stoughton

Vikki Reilly – literary fiction editor at independent publisher, Birlinn Books, also representing Polygon Books.

Andrea Johnstone – literary fiction editor at independent publisher, Canongate Books

Moira Forsyth  - author of The Treacle Well and editorial Director of Sandstone Press


Pitching was broken up into three sessions – non-fiction, literary fiction and commercial fiction (including crime).

I write commercial women’s fiction but attended all three pitching sessions, which were both hugely interesting (remember I LOVE books!) but also extremely helpful, in terms of learning from the suggestions offered and advice given by panel members.


Not only was I thrilled to have bagged a much-sought after place on the pitching short-list, but was
Moral support from Aberdeen Writers' Studio friends
equally delighted that my good friends Rachelle Atalla and Emily Utter from the Aberdeen Writers’ Studio each received highly encouraging praise for their wonderful literary fiction writing.

Rachelle’s debut novel, Shedding Skin, offers ‘an unsettling glimpse into a father-daughter bond as they embark on a curious trip across the Southern Hemisphere’.

Whilst, Emily’s debut, Wedgewood, explores the question ‘is the biggest lie a family can tell itself is that it is perfect?’

And so it came to my turn.

Me - mid pitch!
Although nervous, I was also buoyed by the excellent quality of pitches delivered by Emily and Rachelle, and felt determined not to let them down.

‘Two hungry little girls. One violent father.
How far would you go to save a stranger’s family from danger?’

And so began my pitch for Food Bank Baby
I gave it my best shot and was overjoyed with the feedback received from both the publishers and Jenny Brown.

Will my pitch to lead to anything further? – Only time will tell.

Was I glad I quashed my fears and accepted the opportunity to pitch? – you bet!


Pitching at XPO North was a fantastic experience and one I’d strongly recommend, particularly for debut writers. So, if you’ve yet to pitch to a panel and would like feedback on your work, then why not enter next year?

And if you already have experience of pitching to a panel, or simply have a fab pitching tale to share, then I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.


P.S. - and I promise to let you know if my pitching to a panel story has a happy ending!

Saturday, 10 June 2017


This photo is not what it seems. Yes, it is Shaun the Sheep, but what may not be so clear is that it is made of vegetables. The bricks of his house are potatoes, his wool is cauliflower and the path to his front door is made from rows of onions. To give an idea of the scale, Shaun is the same height as a man. The display was at the entrance of the Royal Cornwall Show's flower tent and provided a bright and joyful way to greet visitors as they came in out of the rain. 

The display gathered a lot of attention, which was just as good at the back as it was in the front.

As a writer, it is easy to get stuck in the creative bubble of fiction, so I was glad to slip away from my edits, put on my welllies and make my annual pilgrimage to the Royal Cornwall Show this week. I have attended the show since the day I could walk (minus the odd year here and there). Although the format rarely changes, there is always something new and interesting to see and experience. This was their 223rd year and if you have never experienced an agricultural show before then I recommend you give it a try as they are a hive of creative talent which is wide ranging, entertaining and, at times, pretty amazing.

The Royal Cornwall Show is the largest annual event in Cornwall, but it originated from humble beginnings. The first event, staged in September 1793 (yes, the Poldark era), consisted of a ploughing match near the Red Lion Inn in Truro. The following year prizes for livestock were added to the awards on offer.

Over the years the show has grown. Local radio and television stations broadcast live from the event every year, while musical entertainment, dancing and the sounds of a thriving fair fill the air. Members of the royal family are regular attenders and can usually be found sampling the local produce in the Food and Farming Pavilion. From show jumping and dog and falcon displays, to parachute jumps and army displays, there is something for everyone. At its heart is the creative talents of the human race, so I took my camera along with me to take some photos, because despite the difficult times we live in, there is still beauty and wondrous things in this world to find pleasure in.

There was a vast array of flower displays and competitions.

Local artists demonstrated their skills and displayed their products. Wood carving and whittling changed natural wood into beautiful designs.

Local traders displayed their handmade crafts.

Individuals and groups worked hard to create eye-catching displays and decorations.

Besides the competitions, demonstrations and trade stalls, there were also a lot of fun displays, music and dancing. 

There are similar events all over the country, so if you have never been to one, why not give it a try? Here are just a few events:-

So until next year, thank you organisers, volunteers, traders and  everyone else who took part in the Royal Cornwall Show this year. I had a great time - despite the rain.

Saturday, 3 June 2017


Some people write a book, submit it, and get published. That is very, very rare! Other people write a book, submit it a few times, get rejected – and give up. The real writers (in my opinion!) are the ones who are in it for the long haul.

They are the ones who write, submit, write, submit, get a small publishing contract, write, submit, indie-publish … and keep going because they have enough reinforcement from critique partners, agents, readers, etc, to believe it’s worth carrying on. And that is really all you can do as a writer – carry on. You are as good as your latest book, so you need to keep writing and make sure your work is as good as it can be.

A colleague recently said: what do you do when your book is out on submission and has been rejected three times? Another colleague replied: go and write the sequel so that when it is accepted you have more to offer. Note the when, not if! I know it takes guts to do that. Sometimes our self-belief is a little low and we wonder if it’s worthwhile. My advice is to plough on through those self-doubts and keep going. If you are a true writer you need to be in this for the long haul. There will be small triumphs, major set-backs, larger triumphs, and then more setbacks. It’s no use pretending that writing is an easy business. It’s not. Writing a good book is hard. Getting it published is harder still. And getting lots of sales is the most difficult of all. But the only failure is when you give up.

My own publishing history stretches back to 2009, although I have been writing for far longer than that. It’s hard to believe I’ve now been published for 8 years; I still feel like a newbie. My first success was to have a romantic novella, Rachel’s Coming Home, accepted by D C Thomson. How exciting that was! Since then I have had 3 further novellas published, and they have all gone on to be republished in Large Print and then e-published. In 2015, I had 2 full-length women’s contemporary fiction novels published by the lovely Accent Press. And I have self-published 3 Young Adult novels, the complete George-and-Finn trilogy having come out in 2017.

And along the way there have still been times of thinking, am I a real writer? We all have our doubts, but there are also the occasional lovely things that happen to give that little bit of reassurance and send us back to the keyboard reinvigorated. My latest bit of good news was that a German publisher has taken my novel Sunshine Through The Rain and it will be coming out in German later this year!
Sunshine Through The Rain - the British cover
Writing isn’t easy, but I love it. I would encourage anyone else who loves writing – or creating in any sphere – to gird their loins and keep going. If you don’t write the book, it won’t exist. If you don’t send it out on submission, it won’t get accepted. The only way to get your books out there is to write the damn books. I know it sounds obvious but sometimes it needs saying!