I spent last weekend at the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW) annual conference. As with last year’s conference which I wrote about here, it was well worth the long journey to the lovely Westerwood Hotel near Glasgow where the event was held.
Not only did I meet up with fellow members of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club who I see far too rarely, (yes, I stretch the ‘country’ member definition rather far) but I also met and chatted with writers from all over Scotland.
The hotel provided a conducive setting for the weekend. Food, service and accommodation were all first class. The gala dinner on the Saturday night was superb. Not just the delicious food, but also the attention to decorative detail––huge silver candelabras on every table made for a real glamorous feel––and the outstanding young waiters and waitresses for whom nothing was too much trouble.
There were a lot of competitions run in conjunction with the weekend and most of the adjudicators went above and beyond with the quality of their adjudications and the level of written feedback given. And it was nice to win a prize for The Silver Locket.
The range of workshops was comprehensive with the only problem being not being able to be in two places at once. I particularly enjoyed the two-parter delivered by crime writer Caro Ramsay on Pen to Publication and Beyond. I certainly came away from her sessions with lots to think about. Agent, Jenny Brown, also gave a realistic and, for me, thought-provoking, talk on the place of the Literary Agent in today’s publishing world.
Caro Ramsay was also the keynote speaker at the gala dinner and her speech was highly entertaining. She certainly lives an interesting life!
What particularly struck me though, was, as with last year’s event, the level of hard work that goes into organising the weekend. The members of the SAW council are all volunteers and put a lot of time and effort into getting the competitions organised, the adjudicators on board and the workshops planned and timetabled.
This conference is always, above all, a friendly event. While the workshops, competition adjudications and the keynote speaker were interesting, inspiring and entertaining, the chance to talk with fellow writers about writing and publishing was just as enjoyable and informative. The chance presented by the conference to share experiences, tips and advice is invaluable.
All in all the SAW conference was pure magic. Thanks to everyone involved in its success.
The Scottish Association of Writers, through the work of its council members, provides year round support to affiliated writing groups from all parts of Scotland. It operates an outreach programme and two annual events in the north and south of Scotland. And this year there is also the Solstice writing competition with several categories of entry invited and it is open to all––you don’t need to be a SAW member to enter. If you’re a member of a writing group in Scotland that’s not yet affiliated to the SAW, it’s definitely something worth considering. Find out more about all of this at the SAW website .
Yes, it really is a year since I last wittered on about Burns’ Night. Said night is nothing to do with standing too close to a bonfire and ending up in Accident and Emergency. Rather, it’s the night when Scots and Scotophiles, both in Scotland and around the world, commemorate the life and work of Scottish poet Robert Burns.
A Burns’ supper is held annually on the 25th January to commemorate his birth. Haggis is eaten and whisky, along with some of the guests by the end of the evening, is drunk. Speeches are made, Burns’ songs are sung, and his poetry recited.
I’ve blogged about the traditions involved in the supper and given examples of some of the best known of Rabbie’s songs and poems in previous posts. If you’re attending a supper and you aren’t sure what to expect, or have to a speech to make, you might find it helpful to read those earlier posts.
Let’s hear it for women
In my 2014 post there is my own version of a Toast to the Lassies. This is a speech usually made by a man in honour of women. Burns had a romantic view of the world and of women, but he was also an unfaithful husband and womaniser. Of course times have changed since Burns’ day. Women have made progress in terms of equality with men, but even now in 2016 women have a way to go to attain full equality of earnings, opportunity and respect. So if I was proposing a toast to the lassies today it would involve asking for a concerted effort on the part of everyone to improve the lot of women worldwide. Here endeth the politics.
Burns’ poetry and what’s involved in a supper
In 2015’s post I described the format that’s usually followed at a Burns’ supper and I also wrote about the man and his work. He wrote romantic, philosophical and political poems and songs.
He also wrote an epic thriller of a poem, Tam O’Shanter, which is one of favourite pieces of his work. My other favourites are the romantic song Ae Fond Kissand the political and, satirical poem A Parcel of Roguesabout the pre-United Kingdom, Scottish parliament.
So, in honour of Scotland’s – so far unsurpassed – national bard, I raise a wee dram of whisky to all of you who drop in here to read my scribblings. Here’s tae ye all Lassies and Laddies. Slainte Mhath, Your Good Health! and Thank You.
Do let me know in the comments if you’re going to a Burns’ Supper this year. Will you be proposing one of the toasts? And do you have any favourites among his poems and songs?
The Anne you know from this blog had a previous life. Oh yes, I’ve not always been Anne Stormont, old bat and writer. I had an earlier incarnation, pre-wifehood, as Anne McAlpine.
So it seemed fitting, when I was looking for an author name to go by when writing for children, that I resurrect my younger self. And guess what? She’s only gone and written her first novel for children.
Cue fanfare and skirl of bagpipes-
‘Bagpipes? Why Bagpipes?’ you say. Well that’s because I guess you could describe the novel as a sort of modern day Alice in Outlander Land – only it’s Caitlin not Alice and it’s suitable for children and––oh, anyway you get my drift––or you will if you read on.
Yes, The Silver Locket is published and available for sale in paperback and as an e-Book.
I wrote it mainly for nine to twelve-year-olds, however, I hope anyone who likes a story with a bit of history, danger and time-travel in it will enjoy it.
It’s set in Scotland and tells the story of three twelve-year-old friends from the 21st century who travel back in time to 1746 and the Battle of Culloden.
Blurb alert – try reading it in the voice of that bloke who voices the film trailers––it’ll get you in the mood and you’ll not be able to resist the urge to read the book––
The Battle of Culloden, 1746, and Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite cause are defeated. Can three young friends from the 21st century ensure he escapes and that history stays on track?
It’s the last week of the school holidays and twelve year old Caitlin Cameron is bored. But when her new childminder turns out to be the eccentric Bella Blawearie, otherwise known as Scary Lady, everything changes.
Scary Lady lives up to her name. She seems able to read Caitlin’s mind. She sees visions in a snow globe and tells the time from a patchwork clock.
And things get even weirder when Caitlin and her two best friends, Lynette and Edward, accidentally open a time portal in an old tree and are hurled back through time to the eighteenth century.
They find themselves caught up in the blood-soaked aftermath of the Jacobite defeat at the battle of Culloden, and discover they’re there for a reason. A reason Scary Lady knows all about.
But all the friends have is questions. What is the significance of the silver locket passed to Caitlin by her grandmother? Can the locket help them ensure Bonnie Prince Charlie makes the right decision about his future?
And if they fail, will Scotland’s history books rewrite themselves, meaning Caitlin and her friends will not even be born?
Join them in their 18th century adventure as they make new friends, encounter great danger and strive to carry out their mission.
Now before you dash off to your local bookshop to buy it, or fire up your tablet to get it online, just wait a minute and I’ll give you a bit of the background to how I came to write it.
First of all of course, as for many of my fellow Scots, the chapter of Scottish history headed The Jacobites, sub-heading Bonnie Prince Charlie, is one of my favourites. What’s not to like? A stirring cause, a handsome prince, gruesome and bloody battles, a stunning and dramatic backdrop… Need I go on?
Then a couple of years ago, when I was still a teacher, I went with a class of Primary 6 children to the amazing Culloden Visitor Centre in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a wonderful museum built at the site of the battle – do visit it if you get the chance. It also has an excellent education unit. There, me and the children got to dress up as Jacobites and Redcoats, and we re-enacted parts of this important battle on the actual battlefield. And inspiration struck. I had one of those ‘what if’ moments and I thought, ‘what if we were all suddenly transported back to the time of the real battle?’ And that was it.
Yes, the rest truly is history.
The Silver Locket by Anne McAlpine is available from your local bookshop – just ask them to order it if it’s not in stock. It’s also available online from Amazon (click on image of book above to be taken to it in the Amazon UK store), both as a paperback and as an e-book. It is published by Rowan Russell Books.
It’s fine to be indie and judging a book by its cover…
Seizing the Day and Getting Our Work Out There seemed to me to be the main themes of the above conference held on 27th to 29th March 2015. It was also the year that conference finally and fully embraced going indie as a legitimate and positive choice as a route to publication.
As writers, most of us can also be expert procrastinators. We allow self doubt, the rejection and criticism of others, the difficulties of getting published traditionally, the effort required to self-publish, the muse being away on leave, the dust on the shelves, the ironing in the pile, the worms in the dog – anything – to get in the way of just getting on with the job. We get distracted. We get discouraged. We get lonely. But writers groups, clubs and conferences – online and in the real world – can be a great antidote to the writing blues. There we find we’re not alone and, hey, we’re not weird after all, no, it’s just that we’re writers.
Although I live on the Isle of Skye, I am a member of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club (EWC). Yes, this is probably taking the club’s definition of ‘country’ member to its limits, but it’s such a good, friendly club with access to annual competitions, informative and inspirational speakers, and general writing support, that I was reluctant to give up my membership when I left the city many years ago. One of the advantages of belonging to such a club is that it’s affiliated to the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW) and therefore my membership of the EWC entitles me to attend the annual SAW conference weekend.
This year’s conference took place last weekend in Glasgow, and I made the long trek south to be a part of it.
It was definitely worth the effort. I caught up with old friends and made some new ones, I was inspired, encouraged, and I learned such a lot.
The keynote speaker was Alexandra Sokoloff, an award-winning thriller author and Hollywood screenwriter. Her talk was both inspirational and motivational. She has no truck with doubt, fear or procrastination when it comes to pursuing a career as a writer. Her determination and self-belief have been hard won, as has her success, and she urged all of us to believe in ourselves as writers and to ‘just do it’. She ended her speech with the following Goethe quote – Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now. This is a quote I’ve had above my own writing desk for years.
During the weekend, Alexandra also delivered two very informative workshops on story structure and pace. She talked about the three-act-drama format and about how the hooking process used in films and in television drama can and should be used when writing stories. She’s written a book on the subject if you’re interested to know more.
There were workshops on several topics including writing non-fiction, writing for children, writing drama, writing dialogue and writing for women’s magazines. All of them included advice and information sharing on getting our work published. All of them embraced both traditional and self-publishing and in the case of non-fiction all of the workshop participants were encouraged to find their markets, no matter how niche and were also advised on where to look.
One of the workshops I attended dealt specifically with getting published. It was delivered by Allan Guthrie. Allan is a literary agent at Jenny Brown Associates in Edinburgh, the biggest literary agency in the UK outside of London. He is also an editor and an award-winning author of crime fiction. And as well as all that he’s a co-founder of publishing company, Blasted Heath. He began by acknowledging how publishing has changed in the last decade and he also pointed out how self-publishing has evolved and how the quality of books produced in this way has improved.
He then went on, in an excellent workshop, to point out why having an agent is a good thing if you’re going to be traditionally published. He offered advice on how to get an agent and gave us copies of both good and bad query letters. He also gave us a ‘skeleton hook’ – that is a brief (less than 75 words) agent-slanted blurb containing all the essential information about your book.
It was refreshing and reassuring to hear that he, and in his opinion, other agents are open to taking on previously self-published authors. Although he did say that the first thing a prospective agent will do will be to do an online search of the author’s profile with a particular interest in level of sales.
Of course not all self-published authors want an agent or to be traditionally published. But for those who do, and for those who are hybrid, it was good to see how the conference in general, and the guest professionals in particular, now accept the indie route as legitimate and of an acceptable standard.
Also on that note, this was the first year that there was a competition for self-published novelists included along with the other dozen or so annual conference competitions. I entered my own novel, Displacement and I’m proud to say I was runner-up. Yeah! First prize went to Dundee International Award winner, Chris Longmuir. The adjudicator of this competition was Michael Malone.
Michael is both an author of several crime thrillers and a sales rep for a major publisher. His job as a book rep involves him going round bookshops and getting the store buyers to give shelf space to the books produced by his employer. In his adjudication speech he emphasised the importance of the book cover for getting a book into bookshops. He advised a matte finish, saying that for booksellers gloss equals amateur, and the same goes for not using cheap, white paper. He said how bookshop buyers will often neither look at the blurb nor the inside of the book, but will make a judgement based purely on the cover. Food for thought there.
I’ve only provided a snapshot view of the SAW conference here. It was an amazing and worthwhile experience – even more amazing when you realise what a lot of work the SAW council must have put in to organise it and make it all go so smoothly. The council members are all volunteers fitting in SAW work around day jobs and otherwise busy lives. It’s obvious when they speak that it’s a labour of love, but labour it is and the results were awesome.
Thanks to President, Marc Sherland, and all the council members, to the workshop deliverers and speakers, to the lovely staff of the Westerwood Hotel in Cumbernauld – and of course to my fellow delegates – for making the 2015 SAW conference such a worthwhile experience.
Oh, and a PS – I was also highly commended in the conference Book Review Competition for my review of crime thriller Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh. I’ll post the review here on the blog very soon.
As I said in the post previous to this one, the Open Book was quiet yesterday and the weather was good so we closed the shop early yesterday and went for a walk.
We headed for the pretty town of Gatehouse of Fleet and walked in the Cally forest there.
On our way to Gatehouse we stopped off at Mossyard beach. It is one of the smallest but prettiest beaches I’ve ever been on. And it had the most amazing assortment of rocks. Geologists look away now as I’m about to describe said rocks and I know nothing of geology. There were what I think was large piles of basalt, chunks of marbly granite and pieces of sandstone. There were rocks with layers, with marbling, with folds; some were smooth, some were jagged; there were grey ones, black ones, pink ones and creamy ones.
In the Cally forest the ground was carpeted in snowdrops, the river was running high and the trees were just beginning to bud.
It’s day one for the husband and me in our fortnight as booksellers-in-residence at the Open Book in Wigtown. I blogged about the background to our involvement in this project here. The shop is well-stocked and has an eclectic selection of second-hand books. Outside, it’s been a bitterly cold day with snow flurries, but the shop is cosy. We had four visitors to the shop this morning and then while I nipped up to the flat for a bit of lunch, the husband had six more people come in and he made a sale.
As I write this just after 4p.m. we’ve had a total of thirteen people in for a browse. One lady – an artist – was looking for hardbacks with no pictures or photos and with page edges in good condition. The subject matter wasn’t important. This was an intriguing brief! It turned out she does paper-folding using old books. She didn’t have much time to browse, so I said I’d pick some out for her and to come back when she has more time. There’s now a small bundle awaiting her inspection.
Husband has done a tidy up of the science-fiction section and I’ve made a start on the children’s section, but it’s going to take a few days I reckon to get it a bit more child-friendly.
Yes, it’s that time of year again. Sunday the 25th of January will be Burns’ night. This is the occasion when many Scots, at home and abroad, plus a fair number of non-Scots, celebrate the life and work of the Scottish bard and poet, Robert Burns, by hosting or attending a Burns Supper.
I blogged about Burns previously in 2013 and 2014, where amongst other things I wrote my own toast to some of the lassies in my life. But this year, I thought I’d do a post for those of you who don’t know about Burns and give you a flavour of his work and also give you the lowdown on what on happens at a Burns Supper.
The man and his poetry:
Robert Burns was born in Ayrshire in Scotland on the 25th of January 1759. He worked firstly as a farmer and then later as an excise man, collecting government taxes. But of, course it is as a poet that he is known and remembered. He was well known in his own life time and had he lived now I reckon he’d have enjoyed the celebrity life, appeared on the chat show circuit and been part of the line-up on satirical, comedy panel shows. He certainly had what we think of now as rock-star qualities. He was both a hard drinker and a womaniser. And it’s thought that drink played a part in his early death aged only thirty-seven.
His large collection of wonderful and memorable poems and songs whose subjects include the romantic, political, satirical and fanciful ensured his place in Scottish literature as the Bard. He wrote both in Lowland Scots and in English. Some of his poems were based on older Scottish folk songs and others were later set to music. So his work is both recited and sung.
As I said above his poems and songs cover a wide range of subjects.
He also produced harder and sharper verses that were critical of the hypocrisy, inequality and pretentiousness he saw in church and politics and amongst the wealthy. Holy Willie’s Prayeris one example where the sanctimonious Willie confesses all sorts of sins that he’s sure will be forgiven, and begs for all sorts of punishment on his neighbours. There’s To a Lousewhere the poet pays tribute to the lowly wee bug that has crept out of the bonnet of a well-to-do lady seated in front of Burns in church and in the poem he also asks that some higher power would grant people the power ‘to see oursels as others see us’ thereby making everyone a lot more humble.
He himself displays some humility in the poem To a Mousewhere he apologises to a little mouse that he has startled while ploughing. He laments the destruction of the mouse’s carefully constructed home and its imminent exposure to the harsh weather. He laments too that Man interferes with and spoils Nature. But then he seems to turn more to his own situation and, in a very famous quote, rues the fact that ‘the best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men gang aft agley’ (meaning the most careful plans often go wrong). And he finishes by suggesting it’s actually all right for the mouse because, being a mouse, the creature only lives in the present, whereas Burns must look back on a sad and dreary past and look forward in fear to an uncertain future.
Burns’ more bleak side is also on display in his patriotic poetry. In Scots Wha Hae, where the poet takes on the persona of Scots king, Robert the Bruce, rallying his troops as they prepare to fight the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Burns presents the gruesome reality of battle as a price worth paying. As a song it’s certainly stirring stuff.
And then, in the angry Such a Parcel of Rogues, he makes a scathing attack on the Scots politicians who in his view sold Scotland’s independence and future to England in the 1707 Act of Union which saw the end of Scotland’s parliament.
In a further display of versatility Burns also wrote the fantastical thriller of an epic poem entitled Tam O’Shanter. The eponymous hero is riding home rather drunk on his trusty horse, Maggie when he comes upon a ghastly scene unfolding in a graveyard. The graves have been disturbed and the coffins stand open with the bodies on display. There are warlocks and witches dancing, and even the devil himself is in attendance. Laid out on a table are all sorts of murder weapons. Tam horribly fascinated conceals himself and watches the ghastly but wonderfully described scenes. Then he gives himself away. Having been rather taken by an unusually young and pretty witch, he shouts out to her and is then pursued by the whole gruesome and terrifying horde. He only escapes when he rides Maggie over the river and the witches cannot follow. Though poor Maggie pays the price with her tail, which is torn off as she and Tam approach the bridge and their final escape.
But my personal favourite, spoken or sung, is A Man’s a Man for A’ That. In this poem Burns appeals for equality. His assertion is that a person is a person is a person, regardless of creed, social class or whatever. The final plea ‘That man to man the world o’er shall brithers be for a’ that’ has rarely had more relevance than it does today.
The Burns Supper:
The Burns Supper takes place on the poet’s birthday on the 25th January. It is always a convivial occasion, but it will depend upon the age range of the guests just how raucous proceedings might become. It’s one of the nice things about Burns Suppers that they can include a whole range of ages from school child to adult. Indeed the Burns Supper is often a fixture of both Primary and High school calendars. Sometimes it’s just children and teaching staff who attend but often it’s pupils, teachers, parents and other members of the school’s local adult community. Other hosting bodies might be sports or social clubs and of course many people host a Burns supper in their home for family and friends to attend.
It involves a traditional Scottish meal, some drinking of toasts, lots of recitation and singing, some speeches and will often end with some good old traditional Scottish Country dancing. It’s a great Lowland version of the Highland ceilidh.
But it’s not just thrown together. A Burns Supper follows a set pattern although the atmosphere can be anywhere on the spectrum between convivial and riotous. The meal itself will usually be soup, such as Scotch broth, followed by **haggis, neeps (mashed swede) and tatties (mashed potatoes). Liberal amounts of whisky and ale will also be available. The format is usually as follows:
Order of Events
Everyone gathers and the Master of Ceremonies (MC) makes a welcoming speech and invites everyone to be seated at their tables.
The MC says the *Selkirk Grace.
Soup is served.
Parade of the haggis – chef brings in the haggis accompanied by bagpipe player playing ‘Brose and Butter or another traditional tune.
Pre-chosen speaker reads/recites the ‘Address to the Haggis’ and then splits open the haggis with a dirk or large knife. Offer of a whisky to the piper, chef and the ‘haggis reciter’.
Main course served and eaten.
Pre-designated speaker makes a speech dedicated to ‘The Immortal Memory’. Thi speech usually references Burns’ life and work and his continuing relevance to contemporary issues. Toast to Rabbie.
Pre-designated speaker gives toast ‘To the Lassies’. This is a light-hearted, sometimes teasing, but ultimately appreciative speech about women in general followed by a toast to the women present and to women in general.
Pre-designated speaker gives the reply to the Toast to the Lassies. Nowadays this will be most often done by a women and will include some humorous ripostes to the preceding toast.
Interval and clearing away of the tables before everyone regathers.
A recitation by pre-designated reciter of one of Burns’ classic poems e.g. Tam O’ Shanter
Invitations to ‘the floor’ to recite or sing a Burns poem or song – often done by children.
Scottish Country Dancing
Closing remarks by MC
All sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’
If you’re attending a Burns supper this year, do enjoy it. If you’re organising one – well done – and try to enjoy it.
* Words for the Selkirk Grace
Some hae meat and canna eat, and some wad eat that want it, but we hae meat and we can eat, and sae the Lord be thankit
**Haggis is the national dish of Scotland. It’s very tasty, but best not to dwell on what’s in it, just go with ‘King of Sausages’. It also comes in very tasty vegetarian form too.
(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.
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.
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.
Welcome to the first edition of Put it in Writing, my new magazine-style blog .Older posts from when the blog was called Write Enoughare 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 Heraldnewspaper ( 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…
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.
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.
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
This is a repeat posting as today is the official blogsplash day
Kaspa & Fiona have taken over my blog for today, because they need our help. You may remember that I took part in their ‘A River Of Stones’ (AROS) project back in January.
They are both on a mission to help the world connect through writing. They are also getting married on Saturday the 18th of June.
For their fantasy wedding present, they are asking people across the world to write them a ‘small stone’ and post it on their blogs or on Facebook or Twitter. Here’s a few words from them:
A small stone is a short piece of observational writing – simply pay attention to something properly and then write it down. Find out more about small stones here.
If you’re willing to help, we’d love you to do things:
1) Re-post this blog on your own blog any time before June the 18th and give your readers a chance to hear about what we’re doing. You can simply copy and paste the text, or you can find the html here.
2) Write us a small stone on our wedding day whilst we’re saying our vows and eating cake, post it on your blog, and send it to us.