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.

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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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image via shutterstock

 

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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image via shutterstock

 

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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image via shutterstock

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Social Media for Writers-building an online platform

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Daunting? Yes, a bit. What I expected? No. Worth it? Definitely.

This is not meant to be a definitive guide. It’s a look at what’s worked for me with regard to promoting my writing. If it helps you become better informed for doing the same, then that’s great. But I present it in the hope it’s interesting for its own sake.

Five years ago I published my first novel, Change of Life. But of course that wasn’t the end of the process of being a published author. It was merely the end of the beginning. The next stage was marketing.

I’d written it to be read. I wanted readers. The book was available as a paperback and as an e-book. It was available to buy online and in the few bookshops I’d managed to persuade to stock it.

But if nobody except me and my nearest and dearest knew the book existed, let alone anything about it, then it wasn’t going to be bought or read.

So how to get it noticed?

The advice on writers’ street was to get onto the social networks. Authors, it was said, needed a strong online presence. They needed a social media/online platform. Now, up until 2010, a platform to me was where you boarded and exited a train. So, I found myself at the foot of a learning slope of at least Ben Nevis proportions, if not quite Everest. And the slope would lead me to this virtual platform.

It was a bit daunting at first, but I did my research, assembled the necessary kit and set off.

EXPLORATION PHASE:

image © Rawpixel via shutterstock.com
image © Rawpixel via shutterstock.com

Although I was relatively tech savvy, I knew nothing of Facebook and its siblings. I’d heard of them of course, but being of a certain age, i.e. over fifty, they weren’t my natural habitats and the landscapes were totally unfamiliar.

WEBSITE: With my husband’s help, I got myself a domain name, a web hosting package and I set up a website. I furnished the site with home page and an about page. I included information about my writing and my novel and where to buy it.

image © 360b via shutterstock.com
image © 360b via shutterstock.com

BLOG: My first solo expedition was blogging. I chose WordPress as the host. I was impressed by both the clarity and ease of use, and the level of support it offered. I still am. So I claimed a spot and set up my online base camp there.

image © Gustavo Frazao via shutterstock.com
image © Gustavo Frazao via shutterstock.com

TWITTER: From there I visited Twitter. Nobody from my real life was on there and the land of 140 characters was completely alien. But gradually I got the hang of it. I followed people and people followed me. I got to know the etiquette, found some good Twitter mentors and some lovely Twitter friends amongst the other writers who are on there. I set up a link from my blog to Twitter, and from Twitter to my blog and moved easily between the two.

image © Twinsterphoto via shutterstock.com
image © Twinsterphoto via shutterstock.com

FACEBOOK: Encouraged by all of this, I then ventured out into the wilds of Facebook. I befriended the members of my friends and family who were already there and some of the writers who I ‘knew’ from my pre-publication days when I hung out at the writing peer review website You Write On. I also joined some Facebook writers’ groups and set up an author page. And, as I’d done with Twitter I linked my Facebook presence to my blog.

GOODREADS: It wasn’t until 2014 that I ‘decided’ to join Goodreads. I was sort of gently coerced there by another writer whose book I’d reviewed on my blog. This writer has a bit of a presence on Goodreads and was very keen that I post my review of her book there.

PINTEREST:  I enlisted on Pinterest around three years ago. This was following a suggestion by my daughter that I could make up storyboards of characters, settings, and plots solely for my own use.

LINKEDIN and GOOGLEPLUS: I have never visited either but both keep sending me emails to tell me I’ve friends there who want to hook up.

image © mama_mia via shutterstock.com
image © mama_mia via shutterstock.com

 

SETTLING DOWN – MY SOCIAL MEDIA HOMES:

So where did I eventually settle? Where did I chose to lay foundations and build my platform? Well,  it’s been a slow but steady journey of exploration. But I would say that five years on, and with another novel published along the way, I now have my own, well-established platform access points. There are two of them and they are here on the blog and my Twitter feed.

WHY MY BLOG?

As my own knowledge about blogging has increased, so too, I hope, has the quality of the blog. And you know what? I love it. I love WordPress, its friendly knowledgeable and helpful staff and its real community feel. I love posting. I love tinkering with the look and the feel of my blog. I love interacting with visitors and fellow bloggers, ­­most of whom I’ve never met, but who I count as friends.

I just love the whole blogging thing. It may have started out as a way of shouting into the darkness about my marvellous novel, but it very quickly became about so much more. It became my own personal magazine where I could express my news, views and current preoccupations. Although I have links to my novels in the sidebar, I only wrote posts about them at the time of their publication. The blog is not about selling, but it is about visibility and connecting.

And even if I never publish another book (which I hope isn’t the case) I will continue to blog for its own sake.

BLOG vs WEBSITE

My website, however is no more. It proved, for me and my lack of expertise at the time at least, to be too difficult to use. Adding and updating material seemed ridiculously complicated and, besides, nobody ever visited it – or if they did, there didn’t appear to be any way for them to contact me via the site. BUT time has moved on, so has website design, and so has my knowledge, so never say never. I may yet set up a website separate to the blog and make that the place that is exclusively about my books.

WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT TWITTER?

Being on Twitter is similar in effect to doing the blog. What began as a way of marketing my books, quickly became so much more. I now have a supportive network of other writers who all tweet and retweet for each other. Besides writers I also have tweet contact with all sorts of people, some of whom are readers of my books, but most of whom are not. Being on Twitter has gone way beyond shouting out ‘buy my book’ – a mistake lots of authors new to Twitter make – and is about networking in general. It’s about engaging with other people and giving and receiving all sorts of support, advice and encouragement. By using Twitter lists I’m able to keep the whole thing manageable and productive.

My blog is linked to Twitter so that when I put up a new post an alerting tweet also goes out.

As with the blog, I count several twitter friends as real friends even although we haven’t met.

FACEBOOK IS NOT FOR ME:

As far as promoting my writing, Facebook is not for me. I’ve tried it and it was just frustrating. I was bombarded by other writers wanting me to shout about their books, but who rarely reciprocated. My author page was full of other authors – again they just wanted publicity for themselves in the main – but no readers. So I’ve taken down the author page and keep Facebook strictly for real world friends and family. I visit less and less and would probably leave if it wasn’t that it’s a good way for me to keep in touch with my nieces and nephews who are scattered across the globe.

OTHER ONLINE PLACES:

I couldn’t get along with GOODREADS at all. It seems unnecessarily complicated and not worth the effort. I like PINTEREST but so far have just done it for fun although I’m coming round to exploring its possibilities for book marketing and publicity.

TO SUM UP:

So, what advice would I offer to authors setting up their online platform?

Take your time exploring.

Choose the networks that work for you and concentrate on them.

Be patient. Relationships worth having take time and effort to develop.

Share stuff about yourself and your wider life. Don’t just shout ‘buy my book’.

Return favours and support that others give to you.

 

And, ironically having said all that, I think I’ve found most of my small but loyal readership by word of mouth and by being in the ‘also bought’ bit on Amazon when readers are buying books that are in a similar vein to mine. That’s not to say social media makes no difference to your popularity as an author, but I think it’s more about visibility and relationships with readers rather than it having a direct bearing on sales.

 

And Finally:

There is a massive amount of advice out there on how authors, both traditionally and self-published, can, and indeed should, use social media to promote their work. A lot of it is good advice, but there’s a lot that’s really more about the person offering the advice raising their own profile, or trying to get money out of the unwary and less knowledgeable. There are many self-appointed experts. So do your own research, make informed choices and do what feels right for you.

Good advice and information can be found at:

  • The Alliance for Independent Authors website.
  • The B.R.A.G. website here. They have just done an analysis of how readers and authors find each other online.
  • Pewinternet here have also carried out research on the use of different social media in general, including by gender and age group in the USA.I found this particularly interesting as I suspect my target readership are not big social media users.

So there you have it? I’d be interested to hear your experiences of using social media to promote your books. Please do leave your comments.

 

 

A subversive old bat looks at the thistle…

 

©Martin Fowler/Shutterstock.com
©Martin Fowler/Shutterstock.com

 

(with apologies to poet Hugh MacDiarmid for the misquote above)

I prefer emblems to flags and patriotism to nationalism…

Thistles grow in the wild and in gardens. And like her emblem, Scotland is strong and adaptable. Life persists in the economic wastelands as well as the richer business districts. Last week Scotland’s people, rich and poor, young and old, voted. Regardless of how they voted, theirs was a vote for change.

It has now been a week since the declaration of the result of the referendum on Scottish independence. It has been a week of celebration for some, but of grief for others. The question asked was ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ Those who voted no, 55% of those who voted, were the ones reaching for the champagne, delighted that Scotland would be remaining part of the United Kingdom. Those who voted yes, who wanted Scotland to be independent of the UK and to have complete self-determination were gutted.

But is it now business as usual for Scotland? Will the status quo of the pre-referendum campaign era return?

I would answer no to both questions. It must be no, has to be no, regardless of the outcome of the vote. Why? Because the very act of having the referendum, of the unprecedented level of engagement with the questions raised, of the inclusion of 16 and 17 year olds in the voting process, of having a record 85% turnout of people placing their cross on the ballot paper–– has changed us, has changed Scotland. And I believe it has changed Scotland for the better. I even dare to hope it will change the whole of the UK for the better too. I hope people power, the grassroots, bottom-up approach to policy making and to politics that was reignited by the referendum, catches on throughout the UK . I hope all of us get a fairer, less centralised deal.

And besides that there’s the matter of the last minute promises made by the Better Together campaign. The major devolutionary measures (or Devo Max) promised to Scotland, including full tax-raising and spending powers have to be delivered if the three UK political parties who made the promises are to maintain any credibility. And I suspect it’s not just in Scotland that their credibility will be questioned if they fail to deliver. Who could ever trust them again?

Lots has been written and spoken about the above by wiser more qualified people than me. I’ve been particularly impressed by two of Scotland’s newspapers in their coverage pre and post referendum. The no-supporting Scotsman and the yes-supporting Herald offered fair, insightful and informative journalism throughout.

All I can offer is a personal reflection on the process. Like her emblem the thistle, Scotland now stands straight and tall. The well- documented Scottish cringe is nowhere in sight. My overwhelming emotion when I consider the referendum is pride. But it’s pride mixed with humility and gratitude.

I’m proud that the debate prior to the vote was largely carried out in a civilised and respectful manner. I’m proud and grateful that not only such a large proportion of voters turned up to vote, but that we live in a country where it’s possible to do so. And that’s the most humbling thing. Scotland (and the rest of the UK) gave a great show of democracy in action just by having the referendum. Not only were the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democratic politicians of the UK given a sharp, panic-inducing reminder of what people power means and what it can do, but other countries such as China could only watch open-mouthed at our demonstration of what it is to be free.

©Volina/Shutterstock.com
©Volina/Shutterstock.com

Yes, it’s all relative and Scotland seeks even more freedom from within the UK setting. Yes, there seems to be a feeling throughout the UK that federalisation and decentralisation of power from Westminster to the regions is the way forward. And yes, UK politics needs to be less about the vested, maybe even sinister and hidden interests of those who fund the main parties, and more about the interests of the people. Bottom up has to be the way to go.

But looking out at the rest of the world, how can we not be proud, grateful and humble.

Looking out at the Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, Iraq or South Sudan–– to name only a few–– is to gaze on a chilling prospect.

©spline_x/Shutterstock.com
©spline_x/Shutterstock.com

That’s why I believe the Scottish and the British have a lot to be grateful for and have something very precious that we must never take for granted. I think the main legacy of the referendum for all Scottish voters is the reminder it has given us about those very things. So let’s hold onto that, let’s keep working to make things better whatever side we were on, better for us and better for the rest of the world. Let’s not allow our politicians off the hook. Let’s not be cowed and return to the status quo. We have ability, power and freedom. Let’s cherish them, extend them and use them for the good of all.

 

 

 

 

Hope versus Optimism – the start of a year of mindful living.

2014 – MY YEAR OF LIVING MINDFULLY

New Year Ahead

January – HOPE versus OPTIMISM

Welcome!

Happy 2014 to all of you who take the time to drop in here. I do appreciate your time, feedback and loyalty. I now have two hundred posts under my belt and the blog has grown and evolved since I began it at the beginning of January 2010. 2013 saw me trying put this new monthly magazine format. I’m still not entirely sure if it works better monthly rather than weekly, but I’m going to let it run like this for a wee while yet.

This is a packed issue of Put it in Writing. So what can you expect?

Well, it’s January, the two-faced month that looks both backwards and forwards, and so I’ll be doing a bit of that.

For me, 2014 is going to be a Year of Living Mindfully. By that I mean I want to slow down and pay attention. I want to be much more aware of life as I live it and not to be forever anticipating, planning and, more often than not, stressing. Over the coming months I’ll be reporting on how I get on with mindful meditations, mindful walks and simple mindful moments. To get me started I’ve just read a book lent to me by my friend and fellow blogger, Catherine. Do check out Catherine’s engaging and informative blog . The book Catherine lent me is called ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ and it’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s a great introduction to mindfulness. And, also by way of getting in the zone, I’m taking part in Satya Robin’s, January Mindful Writing Challenge, which you can find out more about at her Writing Our Way Home website . I’ve  posted my first six little ‘stones’ of mindful writing below  and I’ll be posting subsequent stones, in sets of six, as interim posts for the rest of the month.

 Also at Satya’s prompting I’ve chosen a ‘motto’ word for the year.

The word is PRESENT.

  • Present in the sense of the here and now – trying to live a bit more mindfully and in the moment

  • Present in the sense of a gift –  of kindness to myself and others

  • Present in the sense of show – show the world the real me

I hope the word will keep me focused on my goals and plans. I prefer the terms goals and plans to resolutions. I suspect resolutions are all about ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’. And I’ve lived more than enough of my life being a slave to that evil threesome. From now on, I’ll strive for ‘wants,’ ‘hopes’ and ‘desires’. I want to slow down and pay attention. I want to try new things including different types of reading material, new foods, a new way of living. I want to stop giving myself a hard time and to be more tolerant and forgiving of others. I want to be more fully myself.

 

Another  extra this month is a piece I’ve written in response to an invitation to take part in the My Writing Process blog tour.

There will be a bit more, too, on politics as I continue to look at what is going to be a significant year for Scotland’s political future.

This month’s book review is of a guide to memoir writing, Old Friend from Far Away, by that wonderful teacher of writing, Natalie Goldberg.

So, get yourself a cup or glass of your preferred tipple and  let’s get started.

hot cup of coffee

THE PERSONAL

idea plan vision

As with any year, 2013 had its ups and downs.

My first writing highlight was back in January, when my entry in the National Library of Scotland’s/Scottish Ballet’s Hansel and Gretel competition was shortlisted. Other writing highlights included completing my second novel which is scheduled to be published in the next couple of months; and finishing the writing, re-writing and re-writing of my first novel for children. This latter book will soon be going off for professional editing and then on to publication later this year. I also continued writing my contributions to the bi-monthly writing magazine Words with Jam. Taking part in Writing Our Way Home’s  31 days of Joy writing challenges back in May proved enlightening, inspirational and was also very enjoyable.

In my teaching life, I took up the challenge of piloting a new way of delivering support to children presenting with very difficult behaviour and whose learning was severely compromised by that behaviour. This has involved working intensively with three children, aged nine and ten, every morning, (leaving afternoons free for me to work with other pupils with special needs). It is proving very successful. Everyone seems to agree that these pupils have really turned things around and, for me, this is turning out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my thirty-five year teaching career.

However, as to the future for my life in teaching, 2014 will be the year I retire. I’ve made what I see as a very big decision but one that is full of hope and faith in the future. I’m taking early retirement in August. It will be good to end my career on such a high note. I won’t miss all the form-filling, box ticking and endless ‘initiatives’. But I will miss all my pupils and the daily engagement with children.

live your dream

Retirement from teaching will not mean retirement from working. The decision is not a negative one but is one fuelled by a desire to change. I want to be able to devote much more time and energy to writing. I want to be truly professional about it. I’m very much looking forward to my new job.

In my family life, 2013 included my thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, something me and the old fella have still to celebrate, once his two-year long battle with ill-health is finally over. And we’re very hopeful that his return to full fitness will be accomplished by the Spring of this year after two more operations.

My own battle with anxiety, stress and mild depression continues, but it’s one I  feel I’m winning. In fact the title of this issue of the blog, Hope versus Optimism, arises out of that battle. Optimism is a concept I’ve long had a problem with. Well-meaning people will often say ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘everything will be fine’ or ‘you’re worrying unnecessarily’ or ‘things will get better’. They are trying to offer a distressed person comfort but, it seems to me, what they’re actually doing is not really listening and suggesting a passive response to real difficulty. Hope is a much more constructive attitude, both for someone who is troubled and for someone trying to help. Hope offers positive possibility and can prompt positive action to attain a positive outcome. For someone who is fearful, anxious or upset, a supporter offering hope, rather than bland platitudes, is much more helpful. It shows that the problem has been listened to and its significance has not been dismissed.

What I’ve come to see is that finding hope in all situations is key to survival and peace of mind. It doesn’t mean glossing over challenges and putting a sort of quasi-trust in a benign fate. What it does mean is looking for the possibilities for change, for growth, for progress and taking small steps towards these possibilities. Hope gives me control. Optimism leaves too much to chance. Hence, for example, the decision to quit my stressful teaching job and to become my own boss doing something creative and something I love.

 I also continue to delight in every moment I spend with my wee darling of a granddaughter and I love being her ‘Manma’. And I’m looking forward to the arrival, in February, of my daughter’s second baby. Yet more delight in the life of our family came with was our son’s engagement, at long last, to his lovely girl. We all look forward to their wedding in 2015.

So lots of good stuff to anticipate and hope for in 2014.

MY WRITING

 

My Writing Process Blog Tour

I was invited to take part in this tour by Kate Blackadder who is a fellow member of the Edinburgh Writers Club. I’m a member at a distance, but Kate is a very active committee member of the club. Click on her name above to visit her blog. Do visit it if you can.

So, to the My Writing Process interview questions and my responses:

What am I working on?

I’m putting the finishing touches to Displacement, which is my second novel. 

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I’m not entirely sure what genre my books fit into. Broadly speaking, it’s commercial women’s fiction and there’s a strong element of romance in my writing. But it’s unusual in that the main characters are people in their late forties and fifties, so it’s not chick lit. There are also other themes, apart from romance, running through both my novels. For example, I’ve included the themes of bereavement, politics, nationalism and serious illness in my work. I like to think it’s multi-layered and that it will appeal to intelligent, mature women.

Why do I write what I do?

I definitely fit into the category of writing the type of books that I would want to read as a fifty-something. Middle-aged women can sometimes feel a bit invisible. It certainly seems to be the case in fiction. So I want to write about menopausal and post-menopausal women who are still vibrant, passionate and have lots to contribute. There is life, and dare I say it, sex, post-fifty and I think our literature should reflect that.

How does my writing process work?

As I’m still working full time as a teacher, I write in the evenings, at weekends and in the holidays. I ‘diary-in’ my writing slots even if I can only manage half an hour and I keep these appointments with my word-processor. I also plan my writing long-term over a year or more, so I know when I need to be finished a first draft, the redrafts, the professional editing process and when I plan to launch.

So there you have it.

And next on the tour:

On January 13th it will be the turn of Jill Marsh to answer the Writing Process questions. Jill grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After graduating in English Literature and Theatre Studies, she worked as an actor, teacher, writer, director, editor, journalist and cultural trainer all over Europe.

Now based in Switzerland, Jill is a founder member of the Triskele Book collective, forms part of the Nuance Words project, curates litmag The Woolf and is a regular columnist for words with JAM magazine. She lives with her husband and three dogs, and in an attic overlooking a cemetery, she writes.

Find out more about her European crime series by clicking on Jill’s name above. I can highly recommend her books. All of them are great reads. And don’t forget to look in at her website next week to see her answers to the above questions.

 

January Mindful Writing

As I said above I’m taking part in the January Mindful Writing Challenge set up by Satya at Writing Our Way Home.

Here are my first six ‘stones’:

January 1st – Small body. Curved, a perfect blend with mine. Grandchild seeks comfort. Me overwhelmed by love.

January 2nd – Bridge-crossing. A place to a place. A time to a time. Wheels turning. Engine droning. Transporting me home and back to life.

January 3rd – Mopping the floor. There’s comfort in the rhythm and swish, pleasure in the shining, satisfaction in a job done.

January 4th – Breakfast. Sweet, blackcurrant jam on warm, buttery wholemeal toast, mug of hot Earl Grey, me solitary, eating, sipping, thinking, robin singing outside.

January 5th – Laundry. Floral scents, cool cotton, warm wool, crack of shaken linen, a nod towards the pleasing, folded pile.

January 6th – Back-to-work, back-to-work. My steps reconnect me to the world and beat out my inner chant. Air damp, streets slick with rain, sharp wind and a grey, grudging light. Ready-to-go, ready-to-go. The heels of my boots click on the playground gravel. Anticipation rises. School door slams behind me. Let the new term begin.

THE POLITICAL

It starts with you

At the start of this new year, things look hopeful for Scotland. There’s the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, Homecoming Scotland, the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and, of course, the independence referendum. None of these events have been left to blind optimism. They all involve a lot of planning, a lot of faith and a lot of a hope. They include hopes and plans for action, for economic benefit, for challenge and achievement, for national pride and for change.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum in September, Scotland has a chance at last. A chance to show we have ideas for a better way of life, a fairer, more caring way of life, and Scotland also has a chance to show off and be seen at her very best. That is my hope.

However, the official, political script on all sides offers only one dimensional optimism. The smallest signs of improvements are exaggerated. Promises are made – and believed –  that everything will be bigger and better in the future. We’ve come to expect material growth as if it’s a law of the universe. Our politicians wilfully ignore past disasters such as the 2008 economic crash. They keep us ignorant of all obstacles and we go along blindly, telling ourselves things will get better because they have to.

It’s time we, the electorate, were more proactive. To have real hope we must engage. We must educate ourselves on the realities and familiarise ourselves with what’s going on beyond our own near horizon.

As the journalist, Gerry Hassan, wrote in the Scotsman newspaper on the fourth of January 2014, ‘Many of the great campaigns of humanity have been defined by hope. Think of the campaigns against slavery, for the welfare state and against the hardships and degradations of Dickensian Britain, of Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement, the anti-war movements on Vietnam and Iraq, and the anti-apartheid movement.’

For these campaigners there was no scaremongering, no talk of ‘strivers and shirkers’. Rather they sought cohesion and fairness, they asked awkward questions, made difficult demands and they worked to realise their dream.

So here’s to involvement, change, and hope for a better society for all.

 

THE REVIEW

This month I’m reviewing ‘Old Friend From Far Away’ by Natalie Goldberg. It is a guide to memoir writing. Memoir writing is something I’d like to do in the future, but I realise it’s a form of writing like no other. I recently re-read this excellent book.

Old friend 2

 Find your voice and tell your own story.

Memory isn’t always reliable or objective, but, when writing memoir, reliability and objectiveness are not prerequisites. Indeed they are not even desirable. A memoir should be a meditation, a deep consideration of what mattered and why.

About twenty years ago, one of the first books I read on how to write on was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I loved it. I found the short, sharp writing exercises prescribed by the author to be both enjoyable and useful. Writing was presented as a muscle that requires frequent exercising. The approach was very much a ‘just do it’ one. Working through the book, I felt for the first time that I might be able to write stuff that others might actually want to read.

Natalie Goldberg is a poet, writer and teacher of writing. Old Friend From Far Away is about how to write memoir – and oh, so much more. The author has written three volumes of her own memoirs, so she is well placed to offer advice on that basis alone.

Anyone contemplating doing memoir writing would do well to read this guide. It’s crammed full of exercises and suggestions. It’s also got lots of examples of how others have tackled the form. And it’s reassuring too. Memoir is a subjective form of writing. It’s not a scientific or forensic examination of a life. It is rather a reflective response to that life by the one who has lived it.

Indeed, Natalie Goldberg makes it clear at the start that memoir is not a ‘chronological pronouncement of the facts of your life’. A memoir presents subjective accounts of selected episodes. These accounts are not necessarily organised linearly and are not necessarily wholly accurate. But they are an attempt to make some sense of a life lived and to speculate on its meaning.

The book’s chapters vary in length – just like those in life. Some are only three lines long. The longest are three pages. They are all memoir writing prompts and Goldberg encourages anyone writing memoir to approach it sideways. She advises ‘using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers: you want reflection to discover what the real connections are. A bit of brooding, pondering, contemplating but not in a lost manner. I am asking you to make all this dynamic. Pen to paper gives muscle to your deliberations.’

Exercises include: ‘Tell me what your biggest mistake has been; Tell me about someone’s hands; What do you no longer have; What have you waited a long time for.’ All are accompanied by the command ‘Go. Ten minutes.’ All get you thinking sideways about events in your past. There are other types, such as one on weather. The suggestion here is that, for example, while writing about your brother, include how it was raining the day you realised he was always going to be better in school than you; or in writing about your grandfather, describe the big flakes of snow that were falling the last time you saw him.

The book ends with a very useful list of guidelines and suggestions which summarises all that’s gone before. And there is a list of recommended memoirs to read.

All in all, whatever your preferred genre, this is one of the best writing guides around. Even if memoir writing isn’t your thing, I can just about guarantee it will get you writing something, – and that can’t be bad, can it?

 

Old Friend From Far Away is published by Simon and Schuster.

 

NATURE

In January 2011, we had a heavy snowfall here on Skye. This winter is a much damper and dreicher affair and not nearly so pretty. So I’ve decided to post a couple of photos taken in our garden three years ago.

A Jan day of snow 2011 008

A Jan day of snow 2011 044

 

AND FINALLY

Robert Frost said: ‘Freedom lies in being bold’

Be brave, dare to hope.

 

 

Put it in Writing – December 2013

Hello and welcome to the second edition of the new look blog. Thanks for visiting.

Winter Solstice
Winter Solstice (Photo credit: Grizdave)

This month, as we approach the shortest day and keep ourselves cheerful with festivals of joy and light, I’m keeping the blog as bright and positive as possible.

And, whether you’ll be celebrating a winter festival or not this month, I wish you warmth, light and good things to come.

THE PERSONAL

THE BRIGHT SIDE

Is the glass half empty or half full? The pess...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I write this on a gloomy November day, having just listened to the news which was full of yet more gloom, negativity and discord, it’s not easy to maintain a positive attitude.

But I do try. I try to look on the bright side. In spite of being a worrier and being on medication for anxiety and mild depression, I do manage to be optimistic most of the time. Yes, I’m a contradictory critter.

I don’t mind the dark days too much. I quite like drawing the curtains and cosying in. I like crisp, cold days and I don’t mind the snow as long as I don’t have to drive anywhere. I try to look for the best in other people and I try to make the best of difficult situations. But, like most people, I do have moments when the glass appears half-empty.

The media saturate us with bad news – it’s what sells. We engage with it. We don’t seem able to help ourselves. And we’re programmed by evolution to react to all the possible dangers and impending disasters that are presented to us. We react. We strive to protect ourselves and our loved ones. But the threats and risks are vague, of disputed significance and sensationalised. They’re often hypothetical, but are presented as facts. It’s not surprising we sometimes feel helpless, especially if we’re already vulnerable. We may already be stressed by job uncertainty, workplace demands, lack of money, poor health, relationship problems.  In such cases it’s easy to see how we can end up seeing only the worst case scenario. We can become overwhelmed and feel powerless. We then expect the worse.

On the other hand, if we’re feeling robust, in good physical and mental health and are generally resilient in the face of life’s stresses, then we can maintain a sense of control. Not only that, we can actively protect ourselves and others. We can do this by keeping ourselves fit, by having the energy to care for others, the will to share what we have, and the motivation to educate ourselves about the issues and to do something about changing or eliminating the threats to everyone’s wellbeing. By doing so, we reinforce those positive and hopeful feelings – a virtuous circle.

So, are optimism and pessimism self-fulfilling prophecies? If we’re in a good place, we’ll act for the best outcome; but if we’re in a bad place we’ll be paralysed by our expectation of catastrophe, do nothing and wait for the worst to happen.

In her book, ‘The Optimism Bias’, Tali Sharot considers this very notion. She reports that her research confirms the self-fulfilling nature of positive and negative expectations.

But she goes further. She suggests that humans seem to be wired to mostly look on the bright side. She states that while positive thinkers expect positive outcomes, and negative thinkers adopt a defensive pessimism as insurance against disappointment, it has been found that the pessimists are just as disappointed as the optimists if things don’t work out well. It has also been find that pessimists die younger often in  accidental or violent ways. Sharot suggests this is because pessimists may well have a ‘nothing to lose’ mentality when assessing risk, whereas optimists will want to hang on for their foreseen good future and will be selective and protective when faced with risk.

However, Sharot also acknowledges that extreme optimism can have a dark side too. It can sometimes be the case that, for example, in considering the risks of smoking, an optimist will take the view that smoking only kills the other guy. Another example is the financier who takes extreme investment risks in the belief he is invincible and ends up facing disaster. Extreme optimism can give a person a false sense of security.

So as in all things, moderation would seem to be the key. And this is where those of us of a mildly depressive and anxious state of mind come out well. In another study quoted by Sharot, the mentally healthy came out as inaccurately optimistic, i.e. they didn’t foretell how things would be and also failed to change their beliefs in the face of actuality. The deeply depressed also made inaccurate predictions and also failed to adjust those predictions in the face of the real outcomes. But the mildly depressed were proved to be mostly realistic in their expectations.

So, moderate optimism it shall be.

But that’s not to say you should ever give up on hopes and dreams. No way. Rather you should set achievable realistic steps along the way. Good luck seems to follow hard work and preparation.

And, remember, as Sharot also says, ‘a penguin in a parachute can sort of fly’.

THE POLITICAL

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

Winter Solstice Fire Festival
Winter Solstice Fire Festival (Photo credit: lucasw)

Don’t despair, it’s all relative…

Here in the UK, and in the West in general, we probably shouldn’t dwell too much on the doom and gloom of political, economic and social matters. In comparison with many other parts of the world we have it easy.

Yes, many people in Britain live in relative poverty. But it’s not absolute in nature. It’s not the poverty experienced in a South African shanty town or a Vietnamese orphanage. It could be argued that poverty here is largely avoidable. We have the means to improve the lot of the poorest in our society, but no political will to do so. Instead the follies of the richest are overlooked and the plight of the poor blamed on immigrants, the unemployed and the uneducated young, the unproductive elderly.

Yes, our economy is broken and our government complacent. Yes, increasing numbers of people in the UK are dependent on food banks and struggling to pay bills as the cost of living outstrips wages. And, yes, our once enviable welfare state is a chaotic shadow of its former self.

But it is all relative. We are battling on. It’s not as hard as the 1930s – yet. We’re not facing a world war.

Many politicians are a joke –a bad one, it’s true – but most are decent and hardworking. And they are all democratically elected, albeit in an imperfect voting system, but it’s one that outstrips most in its administration and accountability. If they mess up they are accountable. If they’re corrupt they are dealt with. We also have a strong independent judiciary, free compulsory education and health care that’s free at the point of delivery.

We’re a more tolerant society than we were, although there’s still room for improvement.  Many of us volunteer within our own communities. Many of us donate to charity.

But WE COULD DO BETTER. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be paralysed by despair. Those of us who are healthy, in work and living in good accommodation should be mindful of the fact that we are doing all right, but we should also channel our positive energy into improving the lives of those less well off. We should exercise our intelligence, inform ourselves of the issues, hold our politicians and the very rich to account. We must demand a fairer society and lots more reasons to be cheerful.

THE REVIEW

THE BEATRICE STUBBS NOVELS BY JJ MARSH

a jill behind closed doors

a jill raw material

a jill tread softlyI’m a fan of crime fiction. I love the twists, the red herrings, the gruesome or clever crimes, but most of all I enjoy the detectives – police or private. I particularly enjoy the serial detectives, those main, crime-solving characters that I can get to know. PD James had the enigmatic Adam Dalgliesh, Lorna Hill has the captivating Simon Serailler, Ian Rankin has the irascible but likeable Rebus. And now, JJ Marsh gives us the troubled Beatrice Stubbs.

So far there are three Beatrice crime novels. They are, in order,  Behind Closed Doors, Raw Material and Tread Softly.

All three are very good reads.

We first meet Detective Inspector Beatrice Stubbs of the Met in Behind Closed Doors. She has been off work for over a year following a suicide attempt, but now it’s time to get back on the seesaw, as Beatrice might say. She loves mixing her similes, a delightful quirk that Beatrice has throughout the series.

She takes it as a good sign that her boss trusts her enough to give her this particular case. It is to investigate the apparent suicides of four financiers. And to do so she has to go to Switzerland. what follows is multi-layered crime thriller that builds to an exciting and, for Beatrice, perilous finale.

The second book, Raw Material, is set in a very different landscape. This time it’s the streets of London, the Irish countryside and the beaches of Pembrokeshire. Beatrice becomes unwittingly caught up in a particularly nasty type of crime while spending a Bank Holiday in Wales with her partner, Matthew. This time it’s a friend of Beatrice’s who ends up in peril as the final twists and turns play out.

And in Tread Softly we’re in yet another setting. We’re in Spain, in the wine country of the North. As in the previous book, Beatrice isn’t actively looking for crime, but when it finds her, she pursues it. She’s supposed to be on a gourmet tour as part of a sabbatical from her job. But the sabbatical bit doesn’t last long. Before she knows it, she’s compelled to investigate some very dangerous dealings in one of the wineries.

I like that JJ Marsh’s main detective character is a woman. Although we’ve had DCI Jane Tennison and, more recently, Sarah Lund on the television, there’s been a bit of a dearth, of late, of literary detectives of the female persuasion. It’s been a very long time since George in the Famous Five, or Nancy Drew and her Hardy boys. Miss Marple and Precious Ramotswe have also been doing it for the girls but they’re not exactly up-to-the-minute or real-world-gritty.

It’s also refreshing that Beatrice isn’t a ball-breaking Jane Tennison derivative. Here we have a woman who does a tough job, but who is also living with mental health problems, is in a  loving, but long-distance relationship, is sensitive and  not always confident. She’s credible and realistically drawn. The reader cares as much about her as about the solving of the crime.

I also like how Beatrice develops over the course of the three books. I admire the author’s handling of Beatrice’s mental health issues and of her relationships. But it’s not just Beatrice whose strongly characterised. The supporting cast of her partner Matthew, her friend Adrian, the other police officers and professionals with whom she works, and the victims and perpetrators of the crimes are all believable, three-dimensional characters.

The plotting is tight and cohesive. The level of suspense just right – subtle enough to be credible, tight enough to make the books real page-turners.

And the settings are glorious – European and UK cityscapes, beaches, mountains, seas, cliffs and  farmland all are rendered in just enough detail to make the reader believe she is there, with the characters, seeing the sights, smelling the smells, drinking the wine.

JJ Marsh’s writing is clever stuff. She’s a craftswoman and an artist. For lovers of crime fiction, her books will be ideally placed on your shelves alongside Hill, Rankin, James and Larsson. The books would also make excellent TV crime dramas. You heard it here first…

 

The novels are published by Prewett Publishing, an affiliate of Triskele Books and are available on Amazon.

JJ Marsh is on Twitter at @JJMarsh1 and you can find out more about her and her writing at http://www.beatrice-stubbs.com

Triskele can be found at their website http://www.triskelebooks.co.uk and on Twitter at  @triskelebooks

ON WRITING

W.I.P.s

I’ve sent some ideas for the cover of the new novel off to  cover designer Jane at JD Smith design and she’s going to work her magic and come up with some ideas. I’m also looking for ‘Beta’ readers who would be willing to read the manuscript and give comments/suggestions etc. It has been edited but more pairs of eyes is always a good idea. If you would be willing, get in touch through the comments section. I would send you a synopsis first so you could decide if it tickled your fancy. Basically it’s a romance. It’s one for the baby-boomer generation i.e. the main characters are in their fifties. It’s set in Skye and Israel and is about love, loss and homecoming. Next I need to decide about the route to publication. I would like to be an author-publisher, something that’s becoming more and more common. That way I retain control over the book, the schedule and the finances. But I’m a bit apprehensive about striking out alone. That’s where the organisations I mention in the next, TIPS, section come in…

TIPS

Alli book

I’m a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors. For an annual membership fee, Members receive excellent advice about going it alone when publishing their books. They showcase member authors’ work, offer online Q&A sessions with publishing experts and warn about the pitfalls as well as making recommendations. They’ve produced a book called Choosing a Self-Publishing Service which I’m currently reading.

You can find the Alliance of Independent authors here http://selfpublishingadvice.org/

triskele trail

Then there is Triskele. I mentioned them above as they’re the author collective which is behind the publication of JJ Marsh’s books. In their book The Triskele Trail, the founder members of Triskele share their experiences of being author-publishers. This book, available as an e-book only at the moment, is another treasure trove for nervous and inexperienced authors keen to go independent.

You can find Triskele here http://www.triskelebooks.co.uk

Joanna Penn market book

And finally, there’s the wonderful Joanna Penn for when I need to market the book. Joanna’s ‘How to Market a Book’ is another invaluable publication for authors – traditionally or independently published.

You can find Joanna Penn here http://www.thecreativepenn.com

QUIPS

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning. Maya Angelou

NATURAL WORLD

IN THE GARDEN

flowers and birds Jul 11 2013 024

A goldfinch, a siskin and a lesser redpoll enjoying the nyjer seed.

 And finally…

Chin up and keep smiling

Smiley face 2
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)