Welcome to the first edition of Put it in Writing, my new magazine-style blog . Older posts from when the blog was called Write Enough are all still here, just scroll down in the usual way.
I hope readers like the new look and enjoy the content. There are six sections, so you can pick and choose which bits to read, although, of course, I hope you read them all.
Mindfulness and Joy
Joy is not the same as happiness and to notice joy we have to be sure to pay attention, to be mindful. Happiness is mostly dependent on external circumstances and on things over which we have no control. Joy, on the other hand, comes from and resides within us. That knowledge alone is helpful in times of trial.
It’s taken me far too long to realise the true nature of joy and I still forget it at times. I’ve experienced a few bouts of depression over the years and, recently, although I’ve avoided outright depression, I’ve had a couple of prolonged doses of anxiety. The practice of mindfulness goes a long way to helping with symptoms and it opens the door to small but joyful moments.
Satya Robyn, over at the Writing our Way home website, offers several online courses on mindfulness. Last June I took the one she does on finding joy. If mindfulness is something you want to explore, it would certainly be worthwhile having a look at what Satya offers. One thing she asks you to do if you are taking part is to write down moments of joy on a daily basis for a month. I found this very useful. It was way of stopping, taking a few moments out of a busy day and focussing on the present. There was always joy to be found. For example I spotted three starling fledglings in the birdbath one morning and it was magical to observe their exuberance as they bathed.
As well as continuing to take these mini-meditation moments whenever I can, I also find it useful when anxiety levels rise to be mindful for a few moments; to bring myself fully into the present, to accept that panicking about possible future events is pointless, as is picking at things already done.
I’m not advocating relentless optimism. Nor am I suggesting it’s never appropriate to be sad. Sad things do happen and then it’s absolutely appropriate to experience the present sadness. Mindfulness and recognition of joy are about maintaining perspective, about choosing a point of view that allows a less catastrophic way of looking at things. It’s about low-key, everyday moments – a meal cooked and shared, a good book finished, a pile of freshly done ironing, a work project completed, a smile from a neighbour, a walk to the shops in the rain, a cat curled up in a lap, snuggling up to a loved one on the sofa, time alone, time with friends…
In some ways joy is like bubbly champagne. It fizzes and pops, but, unlike champagne, it’s available ‘on tap’. It’s always there, sometimes even in the sad moments. You just have to look for it.
One of my most treasured books is my 1970s copy of ‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran. I’ve re-read it many times over the years and always find something meaningful in it. And when I was thinking about this post it was Gibran’s section on Joy that came to me right away. For Gibran joy and sorrow are inseparable. Below is a short extract from it:
‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the self-same well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper the sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain’.
I wish you all moments of mindfulness and joy.
Scotland Yes or No
2014 will be a significant year for Scotland and the Scots. For history buffs there’s the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. For sports fans there’s the Commonwealth Games being held in Glasgow. For engineering aficionados and road trip enthusiasts there’s the 50th anniversary of the Forth Road Bridge.
And, as if that’s not enough, there will also be the climax of the debate about Scotland’s future. In September next year, the citizens of Scottish voters will take part in a referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country; that is to say whether it should no longer be part of the United Kingdom.
The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), who are the party of government in Scotland, want independence. It’s their raison d’être. The other parties that make up the Scottish parliament want the country to remain part of the union.
And before I go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I have no party political allegiance. However, politics concern me. I always vote in elections and I cast my vote according to conscience – at best inspired by optimism for effective approaches that will benefit the majority, and at worst settling for the least of several evils.
I’m of the baby-boomer generation, born in the 1950s, grew up in the ‘never had it so good’ 1960s. My parents’ and grandparents’ generation had fought in two world wars to keep Britain free and democratic. They’d built a strong country and a hopeful future for those who came after them. And, although my family was relatively poor, I had an excellent, publicly funded school education, followed by a free place at St Andrews university supported by a maximum grant. I was the first in my family to go to university. I became a teacher , bought a flat and got married in 1978. I was blessed indeed.
Then came the 1980s and the beginning of a thirty year decline to the mess we’re in now. One in four children in Scotland live in relative poverty, higher education is increasingly the preserve of the wealthy and young people find it very difficult to get on either the career or property ladders.
And now Scotland and the rest of the UK are at a crossroads
Scotland has been in the United Kingdom since 1707. For most of that time all political decision-making that affects Scotland has been taken in the British parliament in London. However, Scotland has always maintained a separate legal and church system and has always dealt with its own education, health and farming matters. Since the setting up of the Scottish parliament in 1999, Scotland has had even more powers devolved to its control.
But for many people in Scotland the present level of devolution is no longer enough. Some, such as the SNP and its supporters, want complete independence. Others want devo-max, a form of devolution that would give independence in lots of matters such as tax-raising, but would stop short of breaking away from the United Kingdom.
So interesting times to be living north of the border.
Where do I stand?
I started out as a No. I didn’t want to break away from the union. I have an instinctive dislike for nationalism of any sort. It has too many nasty connotations. But that doesn’t mean I’m not proud to be Scottish.
I was also proud to be British until fairly recently. Yes, like many of my fellow Scots, I get annoyed when the English media equates English with British and ignores the Scottish, Irish and Welsh parts of Great Britain. I also get fed up with the English media labelling Scottish sportsmen and women Scottish when they’re losing and British when they’re winning. But these are trivial irritations, certainly not enough to make me want to cut the ties.
But lately I’ve moved from being a No to being an undecided. This has grown out of a growing uneasiness about keeping the status quo.
I’m increasingly unhappy about the kind of society Britain has become. I despair about the rise and rise of the small number of super wealthy, vested interests who hold all the power. What was a market economy has become a market society.
Back in May this year, I read an article entitled ‘A new blueprint for an independent Scotland’ by Tom Gordon in the Sunday Herald newspaper ( 5th May 2013). Gordon is the newspaper’s political editor. Reading the article was a bit of a turning point for me, the beginning of my shift from ‘no’ to ‘maybe’. Gordon’s introduction to the piece stated that:
‘A group of economists and academics has stepped into the independence debate with their own vision of how Holyrood (the home of the Scottish parliament) could transform Scottish society after a Yes vote in the referendum.’
The group included Mike Danson professor of enterprise policy, at Heriot-Watt University, Ailsa Mackay, professor of economics at Glasgow Caledonian University and Andy Cumbers, professor of political economy at Glasgow University and they produced a paper, or blueprint, for the possible future of Scotland. The blueprint suggests, in Tom Gordon’s words, that:
‘Instead of continuing the UK’s decline into a low-wage, low-skill economy in which markets rule, public services dwindle and the gulf between rich and poor widens, they (the blueprint’s authors) say Scotland can choose a new direction of travel.’
The suggested model is one that runs along both Nordic lines and follows the principles of a concept called the ‘Commonweal.’ The suggestion is that, a post-independent Scotland adopts the best bits from Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Germany and combines these with the collective approach favoured by Commonweal or common good. This is a vision of a higher waged and yes, higher taxed but fairer society, improved public services, more diverse ownership of industry, reform of the financial sector, a bigger variety in types of business and greater democracy at work and in communities.
It’s as another Sunday Herald journalist, Iain Macwhirter, said in a piece in the 29th September 2013 edition of the paper, when he wrote that ‘countries like Germany and Norway have stuck essentially to 1970s consensus policies with great success’. He acknowledges that industrial confrontation was out of control, but he also says that ‘Britain was at its most equal in terms of income and wealth in 1977. It was an era of genuine social security, when houses were cheap, jobs were relatively abundant, Britain was an industrial nation, and there was genuine social mobility thanks to free higher education. Unemployment was thought to be excessive when it surpassed one million.’
The Commonweal/Nordic model is something both the SNP and Labour are taking seriously and want to know more about. This fact alone is refreshing.
Might it be that no matter who wins the referendum, or the next Scottish government election, that Scotland will be done with the ghastly ‘strivers’ versus ‘shirkers’ mantra, done with protecting the rich and persecuting the poorest, down with the warped and cruel mentality of the present UK government?
The Commonweal blueprint is not a plan for utopia. There would be hard choices to be made. There would have to be sacrifices. But I believe the rewards for going for it would be worth it.
However, I suspect it’s not only the Scots who want changes. I don’t believe that feelings of disenfranchisement and despair are restricted to Scotland. I’m sure there are many in England, Wales and in Northern Ireland who’d like to live in a more egalitarian, more compassionate, more hopeful society. And I’ll bet there are British citizens all over these islands who would like to see Royal Mail and the power companies taken back into public ownership, who’d like to see a mansion tax replace the bedroom tax, who’d like to see more house building.
I reckon Scotland is fortunate to have this chance, this time to consider her future, to ponder and to reflect on what kind of nation she wants to be. Scotland is also fortunate to have Salmond’s dogged leadership and a strong opposition. There’s no room for complacency and that is never a bad thing.
Whatever the results of the referendum, we Scots should not squander this opportunity, whatever road we take, it’s time to grasp the thistle, time for a change whether that’s in or out of the UK.
As for me I remain undecided, but fully engaged in the process. Interesting times indeed…
Tristan and Iseult by JD Smith
click here to order from Amazon
This is a beautiful book. By that I mean the book itself is a pleasing artefact. The cover looks and feels good. The fonts, the images, the slightly raised appearance of the lettering of the title, even the quality of the paper, all combine to make this novel a pleasure just to hold. And in this age of the rise of the e-book that’s no bad thing.
Personal note: Don’t get me wrong I like my e-reader, but there are times when only the real thing will do. I hope both paper and e-books will co-exist for a long time to come.
So, just holding this novel sets the reader up for a quality reading experience. Proof of the value of a good cover? And it might surprise the reader to know that the cover is actually designed by the author. A surprise, that is, unless you know that JD Smith is also a graphic designer and has designed countless stunning book covers for other writers.
But was I be right to judge this book by its lovely cover? I wasn’t disappointed. Expectations of a good read were wholly justified.
The story is based on a medieval legend which is itself based on an even older tale dating back to Pictish times. As you’d expect several versions of the story exist as well as at least one opera and a film version. JD Smith has, however, made it her own in this book.
Set at the time when Briton was defending itself from Saxon attack, Tristan is a knight and nephew to Mark, King of Briton. Iseult is a woman of royal Irish blood. These three become part of a love triangle with very high personal and political stakes. The story has romance, poignancy, suspense, action and intrigue. It ticks several genre boxes so is never formulaic. It is beautifully set up by the author. Her feeling for the period landscape means the integrity of the setting never falters. The telling is perfectly paced. The characters are completely believable. The tone, phrasing and rhythm of the prose are excellently judged to provide appropriate atmosphere and authenticity to the telling. Not only that the prose has a wonderfully light touch. It manages that rare thing – to be both sparse and multi-layered simultaneously. The telling may be economical but the story has the feel of a richly detailed medieval tapestry.
This is a first novel from JD Smith and it will appeal to, and deserves, a wide readership. I look forward to more novels from this author.
The book is published by Quinn publications, part of Triskele Books
Wips, Tips and Quips
So, my work in progress, or ‘wip’ as we say in the trade.
It’s taken four years but at last it’s done. Novel two is written, edited and polished. I’m pleased with it and of course I hope readers will be too. Next step is investigate several routes to publication. There will be lots of decisions to be made, cover design, layout, whether to do it as an e-book first then paperback, whether to approach agents and traditional publishers, or to take the increasingly popular rote and be an author-publisher.
I have around me a strong network of other writers, some traditionally published, some who have set up their own small publishing houses, and some who are individual author-publishers. I’m also a member of the wonderful Alliance of Independent Authors who provide excellent advice to prospective go-it-aloners. They offer support through the minefield of both paperback and e-publishing, they help with promotion and marketing and they campaign on authors’ behalf.
At this point, I should also mention my fabulous editor, John Hudspith, who you can read about in ‘Tips’ below and the person who designed the cover of my first novel, Jane Dixon-Smith, ( yes, this is the same Jane whose book I reviewed above) who I intend to ask to do the cover for the new one. There will be more about Jane in a future blog.
So, one way or another, the new book will be out in the not too distant future. Watch this space for more information.
Whilst writing the above book, I’ve also completed a children’s novel and I intend for John, the alchemist editor, to begin taking it apart in January.
The single most important piece of advice I would give to any writer is get your work edited and get it edited even if you intend to approach a traditional publisher. You may think your work is a masterpiece, your family and friends may tell you so, you may have redrafted it hundreds of times, BUT, it still won’t be good enough. It needs and it deserves a pair of astute and dispassionate eyes. Here’s more about my own authorial minder:
John Hudspith, book editor and alchemist.
John describes himself as a book editor. I don’t agree with his description. He’s so much more than that.
First of all he’s no mean novelist in his own right. As such he brings his own writing skills to the editing table.
This fact alone is worth paying for. Why? Because as a client you’ll benefit from more than his editor’s red pen. He’ll also be your writing tutor and mentor.
He’ll criticise, he’ll be brutal, he’ll make you mad, but by god he’ll make you a better writer. You’ll be forced to slaughter some of your darlings – or ‘shave those babies’ as he calls it. He’ll stand over you telling you to rip out all extraneous wording, or ‘microfluff’.
And, oh yes, he’ll line edit and proofread too, he’ll spot every stray comma, space and missing piece of punctuation – all as part of the package and all for the price you’d normally expect to pay just for a copy edit.
At the end of the process you’ll love him. You’ll love him because what he gives you is a writing course, a constructive appraisal and a determination to make your writing the best it can be. And when you do receive praise from him, you’ll know he means it and your heart will sing.
John has now edited two novels for me and I cannot really adequately express how much me and my writing owe him. He’s turned the base elements of several drafts and redrafts into something much more valuable, something that’s ready for publication.
Hire John. You and your writing are worth it.
This month’s writing tips come from author Matt Haig’s How to write a novel: 25 rules
- A first draft is the beginning of the end. But the end lasts forever.
- It isn’t the words you choose to use. It’s the words you choose to leave out.
- Adverbs dilute.
This year has been an outstanding one for seeing the aurora borealis or northern lights. Local photographers here in the Hebrides have been able to take some amazing photos of this natural light show. One in particular, Andy Stables, has posted beautiful pictures of nature’s light show on the Glendale Skye Auroras page on facebook throughout the year. Here are a couple:
They speak for themselves.
WISE WORDS TO THINK ON…
The pen that writes your life must be held in your own hand. –Irene C Kassorla