Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Narrative Know How for Safe Space

One snowy December night in Dunfermline I ran a workshop for the charity Safe Space. As part of a fun raising initiative Safe Space are holding a Write-athon.  Novice writers have signed up to write their chosen distance between September 2012 and March 2013.  The races range from 5K (five thousand words) up to Ultra Marathons (fifty two thousand and six hundred words).

Many of the runners had never written for pleasure before.  My challenge was to come up with a workshop that would give helpful information and a sprinkling of inspiration.  I thought back to when I first started creative writing - the thing I had most trouble grasping was narrative point of view.

After our welcome cup of tea and Tunnock's biscuits we settled down to work.

I wanted to keep it simple so I used two paragraph examples from various pieces of fiction to illustrate different types of narrative and encouraged the participants to seek out the full texts.

First Person. I reintroduced the group of one of the most famous 1st person narratives, the wonderful unreliable narrator Holden Caulfield in that old school text The Catcher in the Rye. One of the drawbacks of using first person is the tendency for the reader to believe the piece is autobiographical. This can be avoided by creating a unique narrative voice.

Second Person. Many of the group had never read the second person.  Although it is widely used in song writing it is less common in fiction.  I used Ali Smith's short story Second Person as the example and everyone in the group agreed that they immediately felt complicit in the story.

Third Person Limited.  For this I used my own novel The Incomers where the reader sits on the shoulder of Ellie, the main character, throughout.  I explained it is possible to use alternating Third Person to allow more freedom.  Many of the group felt this was the point of view they were using

Third Person Omniscient.  This was perhaps the best illustration because I could highlight where the point of view shifted within the paragraphs and how the down side of this point of view could be lack of character depth.   The example I used was from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

Exercise  I asked the group to choose one of the examples or a paragraph from their own writing and change the point of view.  Many chose the second person, all found that the change was significant.

We still had some time left before the end of the session and the keen bunch demanded another exercise so I handed out a few paragraphs of Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna and explained the Epistolary nature of the narration. Not only that, although it is written in first person the point of view is hard to detect.

Exercise  I asked the group to write a paragraph describing how they made their way to the workshop WITHOUT using the words I or me.    They rose to the challenge and even in the cases where it didn't quite work, everyone picked up on what went wrong.

I hope the workshop helped. If nothing else the participants left the session with a few book recommendations and an appreciation of why wide reading is important to a writer.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Next Big Thing

 I've been tagged in The Next Big Thing by fellow writer David Ebsworth (website: www.davidebsworth.com and main blog on Goodreads  whose first novel, The Jacobites’ Apprentice, was nominated UK Indie Editor’s Choice for the Historical Novel Society Indie Review.

When I was tagged I didn’t know what NBT was about. Is it like a chain letter - if I don’t participate, a curse will come knocking on my door? Or is it a pyramid scheme where only the first tranche find the pot of gold? David described it as a way to reach another audience through blogging.  That is always a plus so I decided I would give it a crack.

I'm instructed by David to tell you all about my next book by answering these questions and then I tag some other authors to talk about their Next Big Thing. So here goes.

What is the working title of your next book?

The working title is The Mongrel.  I don’t know if that will stick. I will need to see how the later drafts develop.  The Mongrel will be the first of a trilogy.  I have a name for the trilogy too but I’m keeping that to myself just yet.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The story came to me in a feature length, high definition dream. I originally wrote it in short story form but it didn’t work because the theme was too vast. It is set in Scotland, in the future and I had to create a whole new society. The dream became a story, which grew into a novel and is now a trilogy. It wasn’t the type of book I planned to write, but now I am immersed in my new world I am relishing the freedom it has given me.

What genre does your book fall under?

I hate slotting my work into genre, but the publishing world and booksellers demand it.  My last book The Incomers didn’t fit anywhere and was eventually classed as Scottish Literary Fiction.  That would also fit The Mongrel but because it is set in the future I have no doubt it will be labeled Sci-Fi or Futuristic.  I think this is misleading because it is a very political book and imagines a Scottish/European society that could develop if things go unchecked.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

It’s funny this question is asked.  Early on in the project, to help with the characterizations, I printed off some internet images to fit the characters and pinned them on my study wall.  Only three are famous actors and they are a very youthful, fresh faced Nicole Kidman, Robert Carlyle and Sheila Hancock.  The main character Sorlie’s face is that of a young Scottish actor whose face fits perfectly, but I don’t know his name.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In a world divided into three enemy super-powers and two class systems, a young orphan boy fights to save an underclass from dilution and in doing so discovers his own horrific heritage.  1984 has been and happened – let’s now worry about 2089.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My last book The Incomers was published by Fledgling, a small Scottish independent publisher without the aid of an agent. The Incomers was well received and is shortlisted for The Saltire Society First Book Award.  I feel the time might be right to seek an agent to widen the options for The Mongrel, but I may also submit to publishers.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I used the discipline of National Novel Writing Month to brainstorm the original dream story. By the end of the month I had forty five thousand words written in long hand in two notebooks.  I stuck them in a drawer until I was ready to start another novel. When they resurfaced the first full draft took a year – I am a very slow writer!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

There are many themes going on in the book so it is hard to pin down similarities with any other books.  I suppose it is a combination of Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), Generation A (Douglas Coupland), Kidnapped (Robert Louis Stevenson) and a terrific non-fiction book about clandestine Naval operation in Shetland during WWII called The Shetland Bus (David Howarth).  Different genres for different reasons.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

I studied Sociology at University and have always been enraged by inequalities in all societies. After the financial crisis there was lots of talk in this country of "all being in it together and yet the gulf between rich and poor is growing daily.  And despite government spin on environmental targets being met we are continuing to destroy the planet. If things go unchecked we will be in a mess.  For The Mongrel I took the state of the world today and extrapolated (my favorite word) the conditions and created a Scotland in 2089. It is very frightening.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Although the book sounds grim and all the scenarios I have created are plausible, it is still a hopeful read. I feel the adventure story mixed up with the gritty message will attract readers of all ages. And as in all Shakespearean tragedies, there is a joker in the pack. My joker is called Scud.

Here are some lovely authors I've tagged to tell you about their Next Big Thing …..

Nikki Magennis (http://nikkimagennis.com) is currently working on many projects, novels, short stories and poems.  Her short stories have appeared in over two dozen print anthologies and her first two novels are published by Virgin Black Lace.  She edits FeatherLit, a journal of literary erotica.

Carol Mckay (http://www.carolmckay.co.uk) writes fiction, life writing and some poetry and teaches creative writing.  Her publications include As I lay me down to sleep, a biography co-written with Eileen Munro; Ordinary Domestic: Collected Short Stories and Creative Writing Prompts to Feed the Imagination.  

Uuganaa Purevdori Ramsay 
(http://www.guuye.com http://billybuuz.blogspot.co.uk) was born and grew up in Mongolia. She now lives in Scotland with her husband and children. After she lost her son Billy she started writing a non-fiction book on her childhood in Mongolia and life in Britain. The title of the book is Mongol.

Sue Reid Sexton 
http://suereidsexton.wix.com/sueweb-2#!) is the author of Mavis's Shoe, a novel about the Clydebank Blitz. She does other stuff too, writes plays, poetry, short stories, more novels, runs workshops and edits other people's work.

Many thanks to David Ebsworth for tagging me. This has been an enriching experience.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Writing in 14e Arrondissement

I am now well into my third trip to Paris since August and my second whilst living in an apartment in the 14e Arrondissemont.

 When I was here in October I set myself small targets. I had only just started writing again after the death of my mum in June and I didn't want to overload myself too soon. In between I have spent time at home in Scotland, but trying to cram two months worth of diary appointments into two weeks proved to be intense. It was a relief to board the Easy Jet flight on Monday and arrive in the rain and to the darkness of the apartment.

 My targets this trip are more ambitious writing wise. I also want to spend one hour a day working on my French. Friends imagine I will be spending my days wandering along the Seine or sitting in cafes sipping absinthe. It's not like that. I spend most of my time here, in the 14e, in the apartment. But I am not short of inspiration.

 In Scotland my house is in the country. The only activities I encounter there day to day are the birds at the feeder and the rabbits scratching around for the last of my vegetable crop. Here in Paris I am surrounded by people and noise and light.

 As I sit writing this blog I can hear the garbage men and women collecting the bottle banks every tenement has. Earlier the street washer truck sloshed down the Rue. The lady in the apartment opposite and one flight down looks like Cathy Bates and sits all night, every night in a large leather chair beneath a map of the world staring at what I guess is the TV. The little girl who lives with her family upstairs has a nightly tantrum and I wonder if it is her dinner or her bath she is objecting to.

 I go for a run round the 14e streets every day and encounter mostly old people, mothers with pushchairs, postmen and homeless. Today a tramp clapped me on up the street. 'ça va, ça va,' he shouted with a grin. He had about a dozen black and orange balloons tied to his shopping cart.

 No, I don't need the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Montmartre and all the rest to be inspired. I have it all here, in 14e Arrondissement.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Panic Over

In July I Facebooked this article about Paris - the ultimate cure for writers’ block, not knowing I would find myself in Paris in August. No excuses then, I had to put the cure to the test. My first trip was to the Shakespeare and Co Bookshop mentioned in the article. It was a hot and steamy Saturday afternoon; I had been sightseeing all morning and knew the location, on the banks of The Seine, would be busy. I just went for a look-see, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

The cramped bookshop downstairs was packed with browsers and tourists. I felt uncomfortable in the jostling crowd and made my way upstairs. Here I found a scattering of earnest young things in different poses of curled ownership, either reading, writing (Macs on laps) or gazing at some far off spot, no doubt waiting for some inspiration. I found the whole scene hilarious and couldn't wait to get out. This was a shame because it felt like the type of bookshop I could love and had also been given five stars by some friends.

On Monday I had the day to myself. The weather was cooler in the morning but the air told me heat was on its way. I spent the morning in Montparnasse Cemetery in the company of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, and Odette. I also enjoyed the presence of some ordinary (live) people who were tending loved ones’ graves. I noticed the grave of a couple who died in Air France flight 447 had fresh flowers. The hum of a leaf blower buzzed in the distance and the slight breeze shook the trees overhead enough to dislodge more autumn foliage. I sat on a bench and wrote a long letter to my friend.

From there I walked towards the river, crunching through the leave filled gutters. The Jardin du Luxembourg is where philosophy students Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would rendezvous, but I did not discover this until after my visit. This, to me, was a green space where I could sit on one of the park’s many metal chairs and watch. I watched Parisians eating packed lunches, joggers, women with pushchairs and the parkies, in tractors, scoop up loads of leaves and deposit them in a large metal cage. These leaves would eventually turn to mulch to feed the plants. And it was here, at that moment, I took my notebook from my bag and I wrote my first piece of fiction in three months. I was inspired by a pile of leaves. I felt relieved and happy, I could still write – this was the beginning of the end of my block.

From here I wove through the streets, still aiming for the river, and noting the location of all the bookshops on the way. This time Shakespeare and Co was quiet. I made my way upstairs where a solitary girl sat, legs crossed (Mac on lap) and typing furiously while she gazed wistfully through the window at Notre Dame. I found as comfortable a seat as I could in a place where all the seats are ill sprung. Upstairs is exclusively a library of old books so I chose a tattered copy of Voltaire in Love by Nancy Mitford and read two chapters, undisturbed. It was tranquil and special and I could see how some writers find inspiration in these conditions. For me, it wasn't the physical space that allowed me to write although being away from home helped, it was giving myself the space to be alone in a foreign land and to relax for the first time in a long while.

Monday, 23 July 2012

When the wall goes up

I used to be one of those writers who believed writers' block was a myth. How was it possible to not have the urge to write. I walk out in the morning and even though it is raining there is still a bird on the wire willing to sing for me. There might be a plane flying overhead for me to wonder about. There are always face book posts to make me smile, rage or sigh. Inspiration is everywhere. But I am in a period of being unable to write or at least unable to write what I should be writing - my new novel, that article I should have finished, the letter to send out with another article.

The block came during the period of high activity around my debut novel publication. I was appearing in festivals, in book stores, in libraries. The publicity was going well, articles and reviews were being published. I was at last a published author and was enjoying all that went with that.

I admit, I was already struggling to write my new novel while trying to work on the debut's publicity. Every event I went to people would ask what I was working on. Most days I would sit at my the desk and pluck each word out with a tweezer. But I have always said one word in front of another eventually leads to a chapter so I kept at it.

Then two major change events happened in my life and it all stopped - the publicity and the writing. It was the first time it had happened to me and I was worried.

I wrote my list of things I should work on each day. A list always works, except this time it didn't.

I laid out piles of work on the table as a reminder of where my focus should be. That normally works. Nope. I walked away from it and tried to ignore the fact that the pile needed dusting.

 I read inspirational writing works like Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write. Very interesting but it made me feel worse.

Then I went to Weegie Wednesday, the monthly networking event held in Glasgow on the third Wednesday of the month and I asked the advice of other writers. They all said the same; 'Leave it, it will come back.' 'Don't force it, it will come back.' 'Do you have a deadline, no? Then what are you worried about?' 'Put it aside and do something else, it will come back.'

So I have scrubbed out my list and I am taking their advice. I will read well and concentrate on other things that matter in my life. I have to trust my friends and fellow writers and wait for the day when 'it will come back'. I just hope it doesn't take too long.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Almost The Most Northerly Bookshop

Loch Croispol Bookshop and Cafe (photo C Baird)

A few miles from Cape Wrath, in the north western tip of mainland Britain, is the small settlement of Durness. It is famous for many things; spectacular beaches, Smoo Cave and a John Lennon Memorial. It is also home to one of most welcoming bookshops I have ever visited.

North West Highlands Panorama (Photo C Baird)

I first came to Durness in 2006 while on a tour of the Highlands. Then The Loch Croispol Bookshop and Cafe was nestled in the centre of the Balnakeil Craft Village. Even in summer cold winds bite hard up that end of the country and on that occasion, after a beach walk, sampling the cafe's soup and hot chocolate was an essential before the serious business of browsing books began. I always planned to go back.

Caravans and Cliffs (Photo C Baird)

(Photo C Baird)
When I realized I would be holidaying in Ullapool (a mere seventy miles drive from Durness) I found my excuse. I phoned Kevin Crowe, the owner, and he was delighted to offer me an afternoon book signing slot. The store has now moved to a more prominent position by the craft village entrance. It is more spacious but has retained its cosy welcome. The extra space means more stock particularly in second hand books.

Stunning (Photo C Baird)

I spent a wonderful relaxed afternoon there, signing books, drinking delicious coffee served by Emily and Simon. And while the shop was quiet I delighted in my favorite pastime - browsing. I couldn't resist buying a second hand Ladybird Book, a children's picture book for my granddaughter and Carmina Gadelica, a book that has been on my wish list for a couple of years.

 More signings like this please!

 NB.  If you have never visited this part of Scotland you are missing a true wilderness experience. Go soon before it too is covered in wind turbines

Monday, 14 May 2012

Wise Children

Wise ChildrenWise Children by Angela Carter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Angela Carter novel I have read but it wont be the last. The story of the Chance twins, Dora and Nora was a refreshing read. Very British in style, witty, clever and at times old fashioned. It was a delight to read.
The narrative voice of Dora was intimate and quirky. It was a great holiday read.

View all my reviews

Friday, 27 April 2012

My new five-a-day

Just after The Incomers contract was signed I was given the advice that I should try to sell as many books as I could in the first two months after publication.   I abandoned my fiction writing at the beginning of the year, three months before publication, to become my own publicist.  I made phone calls,  my publisher sent out review copies of the book, I wrote articles.  It was almost a full time job.  

I thought after The Incomers was launched it could be left alone for a while to sail in the safe waters of my hard labours from the pre-publication months.  I imagined I could get back to fiction writing, to what I wanted to do.  But after one month on the market I realise I am deluding myself.  

The sales have been good in the first month but I now know that the pressure needs to continue until the bow wave of word of month begins.  I find that I am not satisfied unless I have done something to help nudge the sales along.  I have put too much work into the project to leave sales to the chance that the reviews and articles deliver.

Yet I still want to write fiction.  I have another project I am excited about. I don't want that enthusiasm to die. I am a writer not a publicist.

So in the same way as I sometimes set myself goals for writing I now set myself goals for publicity.  

Every day I must do five things to sell my book.  I could be something as simple as making five phone calls or sending five emails but I must do five somethings every day.  Once they are done I am free to write and research.

Yesterday I made a couple of phone calls, sent an email and made a couple of posts in Linkedin.  The results are that I now have two book signings in the diary, a firm yes for a magazine review and three kindle sales.

I may run out of ideas on the five a day but as long as I keep coming up with new ways to sell the book I will keep to my five a day regime.

And this blog post counts as one of today's 'fives'.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Work Life Balance - Fife

Tayport - The beginning of the Fife Coastal Walk

It seemed like madness to go on holiday a week after my book was launched.  The advice given to all debut novelists is to try to sell as many books as possible in the first two months after publication.  But Easter has always been a holiday for me and I have other things going on in my life.


Colin has supported me throughout the book launches; taking time off work to ferry me around and spending many hours videoing and editing youtube clips.  He deserved a break.
We booked a small cottage in Kingskettle, a little village in the centre of Fife. The cottage was no more than a converted garage nestled into the banking of the main Edinburgh to Aberdeen railway line. Some would have found the constant buzz of trains annoying but I found it comforting.
We drove there on Thursday night to give us a good start on Friday.

Coastal Walker 
Sea Defenses at Tentsmuir

The Fife Coastal path traces the coast of Fife from the Tay Bridge to the Kincardine Bridge.  We walked the first part from the Tay and around Tentsmuir. The sky was overcast but it was dry when we left the carpark.  Tentsmuir is an amazing forest of pines teetering on the edge of sand dunes. Remnants of sea defenses from WWII reminded me how vulnerable this island was. After about ten miles of walking we caught the bus back to the car and were soon rewarded with a G&T in our cottage outdoor hot tub. A hot tub we were assure by the owner was not visible from the train!  I have my doubts.

Book Signing - Waterstones St Andrews
 Easter Saturday was a work day for me.  St Andrews was jumping with tourists, students and locals and I am pleased to say many visited Waterstones and bought my book.  The store staff were delightful and I was happy to add sixteen more sales to their tally that day.  I clocked off at three and headed for Anstruther for a famous chip tea at the Wee Chippy, one of the best fish and chips shops in the world.


Help I'm being strangled

Easter Sunday was a family day and Cairnie Fruit Farm, just north of Cupar, is my family's favorite.  The Easter Bunny met us and we spent the day trampolining, Easter egg hunting and much merry making.
Saved by a toddler

Falkland and Fife fields in the rain

No holiday is complete without a hillwalk. A short, steep pull up East Lomond on the way home worked off the weekend excesses and reminded me that Fife is a fabulous county with much to offer.

It was blustery on the top but I could still make out the Forth to the south and the Tay to the north and the wonderful patchwork of agriculture that makes the view unique.
Job Done

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Incomers First Outing

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of appearing at the Glasgow Aye Write Book Festival.  I previewed my forthcoming novel The Incomers to a welcoming audience of about seventy.  The event was a combination of readings from the novel and a dramatization of 'The Pairty Line'.

The novel tells the story of Ellie, a young Black African who comes to live in a Scottish mining village in 1966. It draws deep parallels between the cultures of West Africa and Scotland. As well as dealing with racial prejudice, the novel also touches on colonial oppression, bigotry, bullying, class and depression.  The Pairty Line is a device I used to give the villagers a voice.

In this extract Ellie finds out about the Penny for the Black Baby - a form of charity used in Scottish schools for decades before it was abolished in the late 1960's.

The Incomers from Colin Baird on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Sponsorship for Writers

Why have one book launch when you can have three?

Because I can't stay in one place for long I have friends and family all over Scotland.  When my book is launched at the end of this month I will have my first book launch in Glasgow. The city where I lived and worked for ten years, the city I have made my literary home.

The second will be in Dunfermline. Fife was my home for thirty five years, is the setting for The Incomers and is still home to my family.

The third will be in Stirling.  I now live in Stirlingshire and have many friends, old and new, living there.

Publishers like book launches.  They generate a good crowd and good sales, but three?
Was there a risk of over exposure and who was going to buy all that wine?

I am not too worried about the over exposure, the areas are quite separate, but I wanted an angle for the Dunfermline launch.  I wanted people in Fife to know about the book.  I wanted publicity. I wanted wine at the launch.   So I struck on the idea of sponsorship.

Many years ago I worked for CR Smith Glaziers, a well know Dunfermline employer.  Thomas Crielly, the artist who designed my book cover also worked there.  Two amateur actresses will act out part of the story at the launches and one of the actresses, Kay, worked there too.

Quite a nice connection I thought.  So I wrote to Gerard Eadie, the Chairman of CR Smith, reintroduced myself to him after fifteen years and proposed that he sponsor the event.   I was delighted when he agreed to pay for the drinks reception at the launch.  On the strength of that story I could and did confidently contact the local and regional press and am assured of some publicity.  All I did in return was to display their logo on my invites.  Win/Win.

Unfortunately due to a family commitment Mr Eadie is unable to attend the launch but a few of his management team will come along with many members of staff who knew the launch trio way back then.   

I would urge all writers to try asking for sponsorship.  Businesses normally have some money set aside for sponsorship and if you don't ask you won't get.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Writers who holiday

- never switch off.

I remember in one early creative writing class a full time writer told me he never wrote on holiday - said he needed a break.  I worked in corporate hell at the time and used my holidays to write crafted stories. Now I am a full time writer I look forward to buying a new holiday notebook and filling it with scribbles.

I spent last week on the sunny Island of Madeira. It was planned as a proper unwind from Christmas and a recharge before my book events in March and April.  I have no idea what this year will bring in terms of work and events but I am prepared for a busy time.

Since the beginning of the year I have been finishing edits, contacting book festivals, writing publicity articles as well as all the other administrative tasks that find themselves on my to do list in preparation for my book launch.

I needed that holiday.

Madeira has a reputation as a bit of a Saga type holiday destination. I can't deny the demographics were slanted more towards the grave than the cradle, but it is also a place of great mountains and scenery.

Ponta de São Lourenço
While I was there I walked among spectacular rock formations on the blustery Ponta de São Lourenço, trudged through UNESCO protected laurissilva forest on the Ribeiro Frio/Portella levada. The highlight of the trip was teetering along a man made path chipped out of a mountainside over precarious drops to reach the ice crusted summit of Pico Ruivo (1862 mtrs), the island's highest mountain. I could not fail to be inspired, only an idiot would tag this a busman's holiday and refuse to write.
Pico Ruivo

Santa in the Sun
Haunted House
Each morning I rose, showered and wrote my journal before starting the day. The writing was not the writing I do at home which is filled with worries about family and my book.  These journal pages filled with observations, tastes, sounds, light and wild ideas.

Painted Doors - Funchal

Levada Tunnel, look closely and you might spot a troll!

Even my holiday reading, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, provided inspiration for workshops I now need to prepare.

View from my writing chair
I have returned to my home study with a tan, a few extra pounds on the scales, many long sleeps and a notebook filled with ideas.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Aye Write!

The 2012 Aye Write Book Festival Programme is out today and I am on page 11.   My event will be on Sunday 11th of March 5.30pm - 6.30pm, Mitchell Library, Glasgow.

I will be reading from my new novel The Incomers and introducing a couple of Fifers who will act out part of the story.   It should be fun.

Is Glasgow ready for a Fife invasion?