Musings on Moniack Mhor

 

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A brooding Moniack Mhor

Last week I was lucky enough to visit Moniack Mhor for a residential course. For those who don’t know, Moniack Mhor is Scotland’s Creative Writing centre located a half hour drive from Inverness. Its remote location, 3 miles from the famous Loch Ness, and jaw dropping landscape makes it an ideal place to switch off from the outside world. Wi Fi was recently introduced this year but, like most other rural locations, the signal can be a little intermittent. I had enough signal strength to stream my Spotify playlists so I was content!

Most courses have workshops in the mornings, with afternoons free to have 1-2-1 sessions with the tutors, work on your own writing or enjoy the scenery. There’s even a resident dog to accompany you on one of the many walking routes close to the centre. The course I was on was a tutored retreat which had a slightly different format. There were no workshops, just 1-2-1 sessions with the tutors, and your time was yours to do what you wished with. For me having time to write, free from distractions, was the big incentive as well as being surrounded by other writers.

IMG_20160526_180413Cashew, the centre’s resident dog. Will do anything for a stick and a belly rub.

The two tutors were Michel Faber and Emily Mackie. I was already aware of Michel Faber’s work thanks to a Creative Writer tutor who introduced me to The Crimson Petal and the White. After that introduction, I made my way through Michel’s back catalogue which I urge everyone to do. Emily Mackie’s work was new to me and I read her second novel In Search of Solace in preparation for the course and was an absolute treat to read. A copy of her first novel found its way into my suitcase to take home, thanks to another writer on the course. It was intimidating yet exhilarating having both Emily and Michel give me feedback on my work.  The 1-2-1s I had with both of them were so beneficial and has helped me to think more critically about my writing and *whispers* future writing career.

Evenings were spent at a group meal that everyone took turns at cooking and cleaning up afterwards. Then it was down to the Hobbit House to listen to everyone read out their work and talk about the practice of writing whilst the sun set. There was so much laughter and fun too. It’s been a while since I was laughing so much that I needed to lie down on the floor!

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The Hobbit House

I came away with a lengthy reading list, new friends, a rough outline for a potential second novel and confidence in my writing. Thank you so much, Moniack Mhor, and I hope to visit you again soon.

Reading review of 2015

It’s come round to that time of year when I go over the books I’ve read and try to pull together reading goals for the next 365 days. Except, of course, this year I have been rubbish at keeping track of what I’ve read. There have been a lot of books I’ve picked up and abandoned as well as finding comfort in numerous re-reads (Marian Keyes and Emily Barr’s respective back catalogues have been amazing comfort blankets). So I’ve cobbled together some of the highlights that I can remember:

Blossom by Lesley Riddoch was one of my reading highlights of last year. I came late to this book, finally picking it up over five months after the Referendum had taken place. At times it can be a heart breaking read which examines the lost potential of a Scotland strangled by centralised politics whilst ignoring local community power, lack of clarity surrounding land ownership and it’s own stubborn attitude of a wee country. How can Scottish folk even address the possibility of independence without picking apart the constraints that hold us there? A worthy read for anyone wishing to explore how Scotland really can be a better country to live in.

Honourable Friends? Parliament and the Fight for Change by Caroline Lucas compliments Blossom in many ways. Caroline Lucas made history in 2010 when she became the first Green MP elected to the British Parliament. This fascinating ‘insiders’ account reveals hilarious, baffling and sometimes quite shocking activities that go on in this little community. The title Honourable Friend comes from the tradition that MPs in the Debating Chamber cannot address each other directly by name. It is as Honourable Friend or Honourable Lady – nothing less. This is a bubble that needs to be burst.

Fishnet by Kirstin Innes was a delightful read whilst I was on holiday on the Isle of Skye during the Spring. I was able to read the book almost entirely in one sitting. The politics of sex work is bound up in a family’s story of a missing daughter. Innes has taken a tough subject that sparks debate amongst feminists, politicians and everyone in between and crafted a novel that is very distinctively Scottish in its characters, outlook and wry humour. It’s also the winner of the Guardian’s Not The Book Prize in 2015 and deservedly so.

What does 2016 hold? I’ve decided to take the plunge and not purchase any new books until I’ve read my backlog of books currently resting on my shelves. I’ve also decided to practise what I preach and borrow more books from my local libraries. Like most public services, they’re facing cuts even in the leafy suburb that I live in. I’ll be keeping better track of where my books come from and trying to wean myself off my Amazon habit.

I’ll be spending the final hours of 2015 trying to finish one of my Christmas book bargains, bought in a moment of weakness at The Works after a particularly stressful day at work. Happy New Year everyone – lang may yer lum reek!

Exciting News!

Hello my dear, poor neglected blog. I do have plans to revamp this little outpost I have on the Internet and expand its contents to reflect more of my interests. The lull between Christmas and New Year seems a good time to work on this so, fingers crossed, I should be able to share this with you in January.

In the meantime, I’m delighted to share that one of my stories has won a writing competition! Each month, Hodder and Staughton run a Monthly Masterpiece competition on their Just Write website. The theme is different each month and December’s theme was short stories. So I sent off one of my favourite pieces of work, Waterlines. You can read it on the website here.

Writing has been on the back burner for me recently. There will be a piece on that coming on the ‘re-vamped’ blog next year. Winning this competition has given me the motivation to get back to the page and get the pen moving. So thanks Just Write for that boost!

Breaking Bad Habits

How long does it take to break a bad habit? Three days? Two weeks? A month?

Today on Facebook my friend Hannah shared the following meme:

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“A page a day?” I thought. “That doesn’t seem like too much.” Thanks to Google, I discovered how many words comprise a page:

#Word document: 250 double spaced or 500 single spaced (font dependent. Apparently a lot of this depends on the font.)

#A4 pad: roughly 200 words

Those numbers felt achievable. Every day I receive an email from 750words cheerily telling me it’s time to do some writing. I smile sweetly as I hit ‘Delete’ on each daily notification. 750 words feels like a lot. It feels like time away from other essential tasks like washing dishes, going through the pile of leaflets shoved through my letterbox that day or catching up on highlights from this year’s Glastonbury Festival (you should give them a wee watch – when you’re not doing any of the above activities of course!).

I could write 250 words on my lunch break. I could squeeze in 50 words shoogling along on the Subway. I could craft 20 words whilst cleaning that weird scum that sometimes appears at the bottom of the food compost bin.

I’ve asked my friends on Facebook to join in so I’m also asking anyone else out there to join us too. 500 words a day is 15500. That’s a book chapter, a collection of short stories, an entire anthology of poetry – whatever you like!

On 1st August, I will share the highlights and, perhaps, the lowlights from my notepad this month. If you’re feeling brave, I hope you will too*.

Would you like to join me in this writing challenge? Leave a comment and let me know!

*For the stats geeks, this post is 298 words long and took me around 15 minutes to write the first draft.

 

Reading Report Card 2014

As 2014 draws to a close, I find myself looking back upon my reading habits for the year. This has been my best year of keeping track of which books I’m reading and my thoughts on them. Many thanks to Evernote and their nifty app which has been a key player in making this happen.

You can find a list of which books I read in 2014 at the end of this blog post. However I thought it would be more fun to have a look at the stats thrown up by my reading habits, good and bad.

This year I managed to plough my way through 35 books. Not bad but certainly not the glory years when I was a student and could easily make my way through 50 books a year, thanks to the long summer breaks. April was a good month for reading as I made my way through seven books. I suspect this was due to going back to part time hours at work which left me with more time on my hands. I also re-read Denise Mina’s magnificent Garnethill trilogy for an article which featured on For Books’ Sake during Mental Health Awareness Week.

Every year I make two vows to myself: that I will read more books by women and that I will read more non-fiction books. Let’s take a look at the first vow. After looking at my list, 28 of the books I read this year were written by women. This was the year I re-discovered Curtis Sittenfield, by returning to her debut novel, Prep. Lying on a Cretan beach, I devoured Sittenfield’s tale of Lee, a highflying student that gains entry to a prestigious boarding school but then discovers it was not what she expected. Prep is one of those books I wish I had read at that tricky age of 19 – one foot in my late teens, the other poised and about to enter my second decade.

Alas I did not do as well with non-fiction books. Only 3 books I read this year were non-fiction, with two of these firmly landing under the category of ‘Self-development’. 2014 has also been the year that I have got over my aversion to books normally filed under the self-help sections in book stores. Having spent most of my 20s not having a clue about myself, I have resolved to enter my 30s with a bit more self-development under my belt. Perhaps this is something that comes with a bit of age and some experience thrown in for good measure.

One surprising quirk on my reading list is that I have been favouring books about female time travellers. This year began with Blackout by Connie Willis, and I quickly moved onto the sequel, All Clear. A tale of historians from the future being able to travel back in time to ‘observe’ events appeals to my inner History student. Diana Gabaldon ’s Outlander books, about an English woman from the 1940s travelling back to the Highlands of Scotland in 1744, are a good historical romp although I do wonder about the enlightened, and rather contemporary, attitude of Jacobite Jamie McKenzie, the leading man in this series.

After some feedback from the Twitter hive (thanks folks), I came to the realisation that I have a preference for writers that are white women, middle class and aged 25-early 40s. There was a good start to the year with Zadie Smith’s NW but it all went downhill after that. Whilst I have been patting myself on the back for reading more women writers, I have been neglecting to check up on their backgrounds. It appears I have been a wasp reading about other wasps.

What should 2015 hold then? I definitely need to expand my reading horizons, with more women of colour on my list. The death of Maya Angelou earlier this year made me regret not reading more of her work. Toni Morrison’s Jazz has sat in the back of mind, since reading a short extract on a writing course quite some time ago.

Fiction is obviously my comfort zone, especially as this category accounts for over 90% of my reading output this year. I also noticed that I had no note of any poetry reads this year earlier which is strange as I’ve turned to poetry during my writing slots.

If someone can recommend some kick ass women of colour autobiographical poets, then I would greatly appreciate it.

How was 2014 for you in reading terms? Have you got any books you’re looking forward to reading in 2015?

Reading List of 2014

  1. NW by Zadie Smith
  2. The Little Coffeeshop of Kabul – Deborah Rodriguez
  3. Blackout – Connie Willis
  4. The Strain – G. Del Toloro and Chuck Hogan
  5. All Clear by Connie Willis
  6. The Liberation of Celia Kahn – J. David Simmons
  7. My Madder Fatter Diary – Rae Earl
  8. Big Brother – Lionel Shriver (re-read)
  9. Filth – Irvine Welsh (re-read)
  10. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  11. The Highly Sensistive Person – Elaine N. Aron
  12. The Storyteller – Jodi Picoult
  13. Garnethill – Denise Mina (re-read)
  14. Exile – Denise Mina (re-read)
  15. Resolution – Denise Mina (read)
  16. Sing You Home – Jodi Picoult
  17. The Red House – Mark Haddon
  18. Labor Day – Joyce Maynard
  19. Another Cup of Coffee – Jenny Kane
  20. The Jukebox Queen of Malta – Nicholas Rinaldi
  21. Prep – Curtis Sittenfield
  22. Prime Time – Jane Wenham-Jones
  23. Barracuda – Christos Tolkais
  24. Any Other Mouth – Annelise Mackintosh
  25. Frog Music – Emma Donaghue
  26. Bicycle Diaries – David Byrne
  27. Outlander: Cross Stitch by Dianna Gabaldon
  28. The Man of My Dreams – Curtis Sittenfield
  29. Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
  30. The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber
  31. The Immortal Case of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
  32. The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
  33. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying – Mari Kono
  34. How to Build A Girl – Caitlin Moran
  35. Outlander: Dragonfly in Amber – Diana Gabaldon

Writing Practise

Coffee, a laptop and an existing story arc to play with.

Coffee, a laptop and an existing story arc to play with.

(Reproduced under Creative Commons, with thanks to Kalexanderson)

Writing has always felt easy to me. Give me five minutes, an open notebook and a decent pen and I will dream up characters or stories from nowhere. My writing class tutor was fond of giving us such exercises. Most of my classmates groaned and moaned but I loved these exercises. The only problem is that once the time limit was over I closed my notebook and rarely returned to those pages.

Last year I took (another) evening writing class which focused on the discipline of writing. One important lesson I took away from this was that writing is a skill that needs worked on. The magic muse fairy doesn’t just land on your desk and give you a brilliant idea. It might take weeks, months, years to hit that mark that makes your writing good. Lionel Shriver has often shrewdly remarked that it took her over twenty years to become an overnight success with We Need To Talk About Kevin. What did she spent that twenty years doing? Why, practising writing.

So I’m going to shuffle a little uncomfortably here and tell you how I practise writing. Sometimes it’s at six o’clock in the morning, grumpy and sleepy with a little timer ticking away. Sometimes it’s sitting in a busy place with lots of people traffic (trains and coffee shops remain some of my favourite places to write).

And sometimes it’s spent lurking in fan fictiondom.

My first steps into the writing world took place in the form of fan fiction. When I fall for a TV show, I fall hard. When the final episode ends and the credits roll up, I sometimes want more. ‘What happened to that minor character shot at the end of episode three?’ I cry. ‘Whose hand was dialling that number?’ (Points to whoever can identify that pop culture reference). Then the cogs start ticking away in my brain and stories start appearing. I can almost hear my writing tutor saying ‘You have five minutes – go!’

Working with existing characters and storylines can be useful if I’m stuck for words (a rare occurrence but it happens). It can also help with finding your steps in the writing world: what works and what does not. When researching this topic, @lunaquarterly remarked on how writing fan fiction left you free to work on crafting a story, without worrying about fiddly bits such as characters, plotline and all the other stuff that can sometimes get in the way of just writing.

Personally I am amazed at how quickly some writers of fan fiction get their work up on websites. Some sprawling tales with thousands of words chalked up are only weeks old. Many of my writing friends are familiar with procrastination and tinkering with a story, over and over. One of the perks of having never ending deadlines. Yet many fan fiction writers update their stories on a weekly basis which means they’ve been getting the job done.

So, dear reader, I have been writing and lurking and writing and posting up my work. This week I have written almost 5, 000 words borrowing characters (but then, aren’t all writers borrowers? Something to muse on in another blog post) from an existing story. I’ve enjoyed playing with these characters, working on my writing weaknesses and trying to improve on them.

After all, practise makes perfect. Doesn’t it?

With Apologies

A lot has happened since my last post on this little blog. I gained a job, and lost one. I went back to writing classes and gained some confidence. Then lost it again. Then got it back again. I have been reading up on HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) traits and celebrating how many are part of my personality. I have been thinking a lot about turning thirty next year. I have started taking driving lessons for the first time in over ten years and have lived to tell the tale.

I have dusted off this little old blog and feel ready to dip my toe back into the waters of WordPress.