Archive for the ‘Being A Writer’ Category

How Many Wrongs Make A Mr Right? Debut novelist Stella Hervey Birrell on rejection, writing, and men jumping up and down in nightclubs…

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Hello friends! Remember me? I am indeed still alive, though my blog hardly shows it. Thankfully, I am lucky enough to know the brilliant Stella Hervey Birrell, and even luckier enough to be able to host one of the stops of her blog tour… so I am, rustily, back to blogging! (Thanks, Stella.) Stella’s debut novel is described as “chick lit with grit,” a slogan so great I wish I came up with it — and it’s called How Many Wrong Make A Mr Right? I managed to corner Stella for a small interview… you’re going to enjoy what she has to say, so grab a cuppa and get settled!

1.  I’m always interested to hear about how people started out writing.  I know that you’re also a singer-songwriter, and wonder — did that come first, then story-writing, or the other way around?  Or do you see them as being wholly unconnected?

Not wholly unconnected, no. I had to think really hard about this question: which did come first? It was terribly earnest poetry, really, as a child and then an angsty teenager. Songs have been part of the deal as an adult for a long time, and my husband normally writes the tunes, so it’s something we do together.
But when I gave up work, it wasn’t to write songs, it was so that I could write a commercial, full length novel. Songs are mostly written as gifts, or for my band, The Domestics, which isn’t a full time job.
I’d love to think that writing lyrics informs my prose, but actually I think they’re pretty different. Although it’s probably best that I don’t write in rhyming couplets!

Sam Burns Yard Domestics Pic
‘And now I will read you my full-length novel…’ Stella with her band, The Domestics. Picture by Caroline Pearson.

2.  Kind of related to that first question: what do you think, say, your sixteen-year-old self would make of the fact that you’ve published a novel? 

Oh my goodness she’d be delighted! She was so pretentious though, she’d have been super snooty about the fact that I don’t have a traditional, paper based publishing deal, or an agent.
She’d probably be more surprised that I’m a generally happy, settled person though, neither of us thought that would ever happen…

Correct cover!
Available on UK Amazon, US Amazon, Kobo, Nook and iBooks. (sorry, 16 year old Stella)

3.  What do you see as the major themes of your work?  What questions are you interested in exploring?  Not necessarily just in your novel, but in your writing in general, I mean.  I’m always nosy about the things folk want to drive at with their writing.

At root, I write for women. In my first book, the strongest theme is probably ‘loving yourself first.’
I’m also interested in writing about the female orgasm, in an educational way though – I don’t write erotica.
In other work, women’s empowerment, women’s support networks (good, bad and non-existent), and the whole parenting lark: things I’m experiencing now. For example, my youngest son started school last year, and the piece that came out of the devastation I felt was accepted by the Ropes Journal. Nothing is wasted, as they say.

Strident Feminist cropped
Melissa, How Many Wrongs Make a Mr Right?

4.  I know (*eyebrow-wiggle*) that you’re a member of at least one writer’s group.  Can you talk about the ways in which being part of writing community helps or influences your writing?  

When I started writing ‘seriously,’ my cousin advised me to join a writers group. I’m so glad she did. Being part of Tyne & Esk Writers means I have a place to read works in progress, the impetus to improve as a writer, a community of writers that I now consider friends, access to a ‘proper’ published author and mentoring from her, a beta-reader who surpasses all other beta-readers, the opportunity to read and comment on other people’s work, and somewhere I go every second Wednesday where I know I’ll have a laugh.

5.  If time, money, and lifestyle circumstances were not a factor, what would your writing career look like in 10 years’ time?

In ten years’ time I’d like a readership, not made up of my close family and friends, and a good few novels under my belt. Like about a million other people!

6.  I have to do it: what advice can you give to other writers?  What have you learned that you wished you knew before you started?

Oooh, advice. Er, no idea. Actually, there have been a few things I didn’t do, because I didn’t think to use Google. For example, I didn’t write a one-line pitch for my debut novel, and at first I didn’t write a good cover email either.
Having short works placed in journals really helps, as you have something to write about in said cover letter. All this advice is online, I wish I’d done my research before going out to agents and publishers! Or read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. Especially as one agent emailed me the other day saying she doesn’t accept a second pass, once you’ve been rejected, she’s not interested in looking at future works.

Rejection email table
This is part of the deal folks. I love the smell of rejection on a Monday morning…

7.  I guess we should devote at least one question to your novel…!  What’s your favourite moment in the novel?  And was that moment the most fun part to write?

I really like the scene where the ‘gang’ all go dancing. I’m too old for clubbing now, but I used to go out a lot. It was fun, trying to get across the whole club atmosphere: how you lose all your friends but you don’t care, how obvious it is when a guy wants to snog you on the dancefloor, how, when a particular type of song comes on, all the men jump up and down a lot…

8.  Finally… what’s next for your writing?  Do you have a new novel in progress, or is there something else on the cards for you?

I have a work in progress (The Perfects) which is with my aforementioned beta-reader that surpasses all beta-readers. I am really excited about this second novel, and can’t wait to share it with other people. And I’ve got a sketchy plan for a third too (Having it All). My sisters are slightly nervous about it, because my main characters are two sisters. I’m still submitting short works as and when I can, and blogging twice-weekly.
For me, it’s about keeping going. Helen Fielding said ‘there’s always someone trying to tell you you’re not really a writer,’ and for a long time that person was myself. But with the support of my writing community and the validation of a publishing deal, I’m very nearly convinced.

17.11.2015. Stella Hervey Birrell.
Trying to act normal while getting your photograph taken, there’s another lifeskill I could do with learning… (Photo: Gordon Bell)

Stella says: “please come and say ‘hi’ in one or more of these places!
My blog space is
https://atinylife140.wordpress.com/
Twitter is @atinylife140
I have a page on Facebook here.
Email me at atinylife140@gmail.com.
I can also be found wandering the streets of various East Lothian villages.”

Thanks, Stella!

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I wrote a book of poems! It’s called This changes things, and you can order it here!

You can now get more content from me — and help me pay the bills! — by supporting my Patreon. Get a monthly writing support pack for just $5 a month! It’s like buying me a pint.
You can also support me by checking out the many sweet and sparkly things at Edinburgh Vintage, my Etsy-based store for jewellery and small antiques.
If you just want to say hi, you can find me on Twitter, or email me via claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. You’ll get a fairly good sense of the kind of person I am by checking out my Tumblr.

Making a manuscript: seasonal affective poetics

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

This post is the fifth (and maybe last?) of a series I’m writing about the creation of my second poetry collection (the second post is here, the third is here, and the fourth is here). I am grateful to Creative Scotland for financial assistance from their Open Project Fund, which is allowing me to create this manuscript.

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A photo from my summer holiday to Cornwall earlier this year… feels like a long time ago, now!

I love autumn… but every year when it gets to this time of year, I feel myself starting to hunker down for winter. An Edinburgh winter is hard to thole (I know — Shetlanders are rolling their eyes at me right now!), and although every year I try to start out with optimism, by February I’m desperate for an end to the darkness and sideways precipitation. Writing this poetry collection, I’ve realised how much I am — and by extension, my poetry is — influenced by the seasons. In fact, I think this might be something I’ve learned from poetry — to try and pay more attention to the details of what’s happening in the natural world around me.

During my PhD, which I completed at the end of 2013, I read a lot of Kerry Hardie’s poetry. I mean a lot: I read and re-read and re-read and re-read. I wrote a chapter on Hardie’s work that was eventually cut from my thesis — but I think Hardie ended up being my favourite of all the poets whose writing I analysed and wrote about.

Hardie’s poems are intimately connected to the changing of the seasons. She seems to write most in the autumn and winter — or perhaps she just prefers the poems she writes during those seasons, because there are more of them in her collections. She also writes a lot about being ill, or being ill-at-ease — and in many poems, the seasonal weather is foregrounded and the illness or unease is the subtext underneath it.

I’m realising with this new collection that I’ve pinched that idea — or tapped into it, or emulated it, if you want a kinder version. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but as I come towards the end of this collection-making process, I’m realising: I’ve written a book full of weather. Lots of ominous clouds. But underneath the weather is the unease the weather makes — specifically, the feeling that something’s coming. The way I feel about winter in Scotland, as we get into November. It’s coming. Brace yourself.

It was always my intention to write eco poems in this collection. In fact, I hoped I might write a whole collection of eco poems, and it’s actually turned out to be more of a mixed bag than that. But what I definitely have written is a bunch of poems in which, lurking underneath the (often freak) weather, is the sense that this is just the start. The something that’s coming in these poems is climate change, and coming it is.

Here, have some poems. They won’t help, but have them anyway.

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Making a manuscript: changing the record

Monday, August 31st, 2015

This post is the fourth of a series I’m writing about the creation of my second poetry collection (the second post is here and the third is here). I am grateful to Creative Scotland for financial assistance from their Open Project Fund, which is allowing me to create this manuscript.

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So, I mentioned two posts ago that I was, for a while, struggling to write about anything other than my grandfather’s death earlier this year. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: clearly the poems I wrote in the spring just needed to be written, and written right then. But after a while, I got the feeling that I was essentially just writing the same poem-story over and over again in different ways. I realised that a lot of what I was doing was poetry-as-therapy… which has its place, but not when you’re facing the challenge of writing a whole poetry collection manuscript in a year.

I realised I needed a change of scene.

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I don’t have loads of cash, but I wanted to find somewhere I could go that would definitely give me plenty of inspiration to write poems, and which might also, just maybe, be sunny and warm.

Cornwall, it turned out, was the place.

There were plenty of inspiring landscapes…

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…but perhaps more importantly, there were lots of weird little quirks and oddments, the kind of things I generally like to insert into poems. I mean, what sorts of stories lurk behind these places and things?

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Perhaps best of all: Cornwall is witch country. I have begun to get very interested in folktales about witches — since my visit to see Long Meg, I think — and even more interested in the real-life (miserably terrible) stories of women who were accused of witchcraft. Boscastle, which is just a few miles away from where we were staying, is home to the UK’s only witchcraft museum… AND it has a bookshop. Needless to say, I was in my element.

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Happily, it seems my change of scene worked. While I was away, I wrote a good few poems, some of which I’m happy with. They’re about things like the surfers I witnessed, joyfully running towards the beach as a storm came in, while everyone else ran for cover; about things like that weird feeling you get when you’re staying in someone else’s house — freedom and isolation and out-of-place-ness all at once. I’m also planning a fair few poems about interesting women who were once accused of being witches. Watch this space.

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

UPDATED! Where is Claire? Readings and events for Spring 2015!

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

I’m going to be reading words at people from stages across Edinburgh and Glasgow this Spring! Come and find me…

Inky Fingers Open Mic Night: April
Tuesday 7th April, 8pm, Forest Cafe (Edinburgh)
Inky Fingers say:

We want to hear from YOU. We want your poems, your rants, your ballads, your short stories, your diaries, your experimental texts, your heart, your mind, your body. We want the essay on your summer holidays you wrote when you were four, your adolescent haiku, and extracts from your eventually-to-be-completed epic fantasy quadrilogy. We want to hear your best new work as well. And we want people to care about the way words are performed.

Aaaaand you’ll get to read with me, ’cause I’m the booked headliner person for the night!

Best Scottish Poems launch, Aye Write! 2015
Sunday 19th April, 7pm, Mitchell Library (Glasgow)
So as you’ll know if you follow my Twitter, I was PRETTY DARNED HAPPY to have my poem Bad Moon selected for the SPL’s Best Scottish Poems anthology (this is the third time I’ve been picked! 2008 and 2009 too, baby!). I’ll be reading that poem at this event, alongside some brilliant other folks including JL Williams and Richie McCaffery.

Shore Poets: APRIL (the open mic night!)
Sunday 26th April, 7.15pm, Henderson’s at St John’s (Edinburgh)
Every year Shore Poets hosts an open mic night in April — this one is already full, I’m afraid, as we had people signing up as early as September last year! However, I’ve seen the list of performers and can tell you, you’re in for a treat. I’ll be the Shore Poet on the night, which means I’ll also be reading a set!

Illicit Ink: The SEX Show!
Sunday 3rd May, 8pm, The Bongo Club (Edinburgh)
OMG CN LESTER IS PART OF THIS! Is that not all you need to know? In case you need more (wtf), there’ll also be readings from the holy trinity of hip young everywhere-at-the-moment Glasgow writers Alan Bissett, Kirsten Innes and Kirsty Logan. I’ll be reading ranty feminist poems about things like witchcraft, burying bodies and setting things on fire. Yay? Here’s Illicit Ink’s website, and here’s the Facebook event in which I am billed last because I am OBVIOUSLY the least interesting performer.

Hot Tub Astronaut: Launch!
Thursday 7th May, 7pm, Sneaky Pete’s (Edinburgh)
Hot Tub Astronaut say: “Please come to help us launch the beginnings of Hot Tub Astronaut and its project to foster a creative community and to facilitate all kinds of innovative making. Hot Tub Astronaut publishes contemporary words, images, sounds.” They do indeed! In December, they published one of my poems as their first ever creative output (woo!) and they’ve since published many a fine writer on their e-zine. Now, they want to spread the word to more folks and a launch is the way they’re doing it! Not all the acts are announced yet, but I know you’ll be able to come and hear me and the Great Colin McGuire for sure. Entry is a bargainous £2 and you can buy your ticket on the door, or here at Eventbrite.

My appearances at these events were in part made possible by Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund, who have allocated a small grant to allow me to develop my work during the period January 2015 to February 2016. Thank you, Creative Scotland!

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Making a manuscript: writing through loss

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

My gampy <3
Gampy, with my gran, a few years before I was born.

This post is the second of a series I’m writing about the creation of my second poetry collection. I am grateful to Creative Scotland for financial assistance from their Open Project Fund, which is allowing me to create this manuscript.

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Two months ago, my grandfather died.

He’d been in twenty-four-seven nursing care for over twelve years, following a devastating stroke that left him paralysed down one side. Gampy, as we grandkids called him, was bed-bound for most of those twelve years. He couldn’t do most basic things. Perhaps most crucially, the stroke rendered him unable to talk.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been figuring out how I feel about what happened to Gampy (not just his death, but those twelve-plus years, too) by writing poems. Normally, I need time — sometimes a long time, like six months to a year — for ideas to percolate before I can write about a real-life happening. This is different. The death of this most beloved person has taken everything away with it, and this is all I can write about for now.

This was obviously not something I planned.

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How to navigate through the terrain of grief? It appears, as the poems emerge, that I am doing it in much the same way as I navigate the other landscapes of my poems. I’m picking up objects and having a good look at them. I’m pointing out the weird little details that seem to litter this place. I’m trying to figure out what they mean — or what I can try to make them mean.

Like: arriving at the crematorium, we were encountered with a massive skip. Not even a skip, bigger than that — like a shipping container with no roof. It was right in the middle of the crem car park, and it was filled to the top with flowers. Some of them were barely wilted. We were early, so we had to stand outside, and at some point I realised that the flowers in the skip were the flowers people had agonised over just a day or two before. Our flowers had also been picked out under the weight of grief and strain. Our flowers felt important and symbolic. Yet in a day or two they’d be on top of that skip.

Other things from the crem: there were dogwalkers in the grounds. I’d never thought of the crematorium gardens as being the sort of place where people might walk dogs. I liked that they were there, though — my Gampy loved dogs.

The altar in the crem had a plastic cross. We’re not talking subtle, here, either. It looked like it came from a joke shop.

The tiles in the ladies loo in the crem lobby were a vivid pink, like the colour of a headache. Lined up on the windowsill were about thirty miniature cacti, all different shapes. This bathroom looked like something off the set of A Clockwork Orange.

For a while afterwards I was haunted by how small the coffin looked.

My Gampy worked as a Spitfire mechanic during his National Service. He rescued and did up beat-up old Aston Martins, and raced them in hill-climbs. He once raced his Aston against a young Jackie Stewart on a track day he went to. He built things. He made things go. He could make a good fire. He was a competitive swimmer. He loved cars. He loved all creatures. I never heard him raise his voice.

I can’t imagine twelve years of silence. Or twelve years of almost total physical stillness.

A lot of the poems are about that.

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Making a manuscript: what do I want to do differently?

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

What I Did On My [Christmas] Holidays

OK, so big news: Creative Scotland have generously offered me a small grant from their Open Project Fund to allow me to work on a second poetry collection.

I know what you’re thinking. Second poetry collection? Where’s the first poetry collection?! The answer is, it’s coming — not for another year, at least, but it is coming. It’ll be published by Bloodaxe Books in early 2016, and its title is This changes things.

This changes things took the best part of ten years to write. The oldest poem in it dates from around 2006. A few of the poems in it were written during my MSc in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Edinburgh, from which I graduated in 2009. A good chunk of them were written during my PhD, which I started in 2009 and completed in late 2013. Then there are a few that were written after then… and I’m still tinkering. In short, it’s been a long, slow road, and for a lot of it, I didn’t even realise I was writing a collection of poems at all. I thought I was just writing a poem, and then another poem, and so on.

So what would I like to do differently, with the making of this second manuscript?

Well, firstly: I’ve pitched this as a year-long project to Creative Scotland, so the manuscript needs to be completed in a year. Given how long the last one took, that’s going to be a big challenge, and I am a little scared of it. But I don’t think it’s unrealistic. I think it can be done. And I am relishing the chance — I definitely do not want my second book to take another ten years. My plan is to write as many poems as I can between now and May-ish. I want to just bang them out and not worry too much about quality. Once I have a good batch of them, I am start editing them and shaping them into something that might actually be decent. This is so not the way I usually work (I am terrible for editing as I go along, making draft after draft after draft longhand in my notebook before anything gets typed), and I am looking forward to getting out of my comfort zone and forcing myself to be OK with rough drafts.

Secondly, I want this second book to be more of a coherent thing. Because many of the poems in This changes things were written with no thought in my head that they might ever be in a book, I did very little to tie them together with unifying themes, or to get them to “speak to each other” in any way. I’ve been lucky, in that as I underwent the extremely painful process of putting together the MS that eventually became This changes things, themes did begin to emerge. (I am forever grateful to the brilliant Sarah Ream — who was my mentor for a year after I won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2012 — for sitting me down and pointing out that all of my poems are, in some way, about place and space. I’d literally never noticed.) But this time I’d like to be able to think about the themes first, and write poems that speak to them… rather than writing the poems and then trying to decode possible themes from them afterwards.

Thirdly, I want to be a bit more overtly political in this new book than I was in This changes things. I mean, This changes things is not an unpolitical book — its first half is made up of confessional pieces that very much “make the personal political,” for example. But I think, now I look back at them, that the poems are written in a way that means you have to want to see that in them. It’s perfectly possible that someone could read the whole book and not identify it as feminist at all, if they weren’t clued up to intersectional stuff (which, fair enough, a lot of folk aren’t!). So I want to write something that’s more obviously sending a message. I’m starting to get really interested in eco poems and ecopoetics — I wrote a whole chapter on Kerry Hardie’s ecopoetics for my thesis that I didn’t end up using, and I’ve been reading about the brilliant Norman Nicholson, who began writing eco poems back in the 1940s, way before Silent Spring. So I think you can expect some poems about climate change, about my fear that there’s basically a climate apocalypse coming (cheery!), and perhaps one or two about animal cruelty. Am I selling it to you?!

Finally, I’m just looking forward to being thrown into the process. This is, after all, the Difficult Second Album. The task is not undaunting, but it’s also exciting-looking, from here. Let’s see how I do…

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

What I’m Doing Now. (In case you’re interested!)

Monday, September 1st, 2014

Ginsberg & typewriters

I’m not blogging all that much lately and this is a good excuse. I nicked it from Dorkymum, whose blog is excellent.

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Currently I am: sniffling. I’ve been off work sick twice in the past ten days, which is most embarrassing — firstly with what I thought was a migraine. Turned out it was sinus pain, and now I have full-blown snotball face into the bargain. I’m wrapped up in a cardi drinking tea and avoiding doing anything too taxing.

Reading: I just re-read White Oleander in a single Sunday. I think it was my fifth time reading it. I have never met another book so compelling, even when every word is familiar! Before that I read Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi… a novel that got a lot of hype and lists Andrew Wylie and Toni Morrison in the acknowledgements. I started it with a cynical eyebrow raised, I can tell you, but it really is very good. Takes a while to warm up, but you should read it.
(Of course, I always have some poetry on the go, too. Right now it’s Radial Symmetry by Katherine Larson — which is kinda bland, but with a few sparkly lines here and there.)

Listening to: Magpies. My street seems to be full of them at the moment, their monkey-like rattling. Supposedly if a magpie sings outside your window it means death.

Laughing at: Black Books. My bff Martyna — who was my undergrad housemate a shocking ten whole years ago — has just moved back to the UK from Poland and is crashing with us til she finds a flat. I have been introducing her to all my favourite TV shows (she loved House of Cards but shockingly does not share my undying love of The West Wing) and Black Books is her favourite so far. So funny, even if you’ve seen every episode a million times.

Swooning over: this flat, which Martyna, Lovely Boyfriend and I will be staying in when we head to Barcelona in six weeks’ time! I am very, very excited.

Planning: how I am going to use my extremely generous prize money from the Edwin Morgan Award. Right now I work three jobs — if you count Edinburgh Vintage, which I do — and I’m trying to think of a way I can give one of them up in order to use my time to write more. Not a bad dilemma to have, really!

Eating lots of: takeaway. Having Martyna around is making me feel 19 again, which is a good thing in all ways except I seem to have reverted to my undergrad diet of pasta, or takeaway if I can’t be bothered. Which may explain why I’ve recently got sick. Dear self, please return to adulthood now!

Feeling: conflicted, my usual autumn feeling. Autumn is my favourite season, I absolutely love it — but it is also a time that I use to steel myself for the long Scottish winter, which more often than not depresses the hell out of me.

Discovering: new places in my writing. I’m working on this brand new writing project that I have told only five people about (my parents, my sister, Lovely Boyfriend and Martyna), and I just can’t quite allow myself to tell anyone else what it is just yet. But it is proving to be hard and surprising and very fun. Watch this space.

Looking at: the trees. One of the things that really makes me depressed about winter is how bald the trees are, and for how long. They seem to be in full leaf for such a short period of time! So I am trying to look up as much as I can right now, and enjoy the last of the foliage.

Wearing: a cardigan I knitted myself! My first attempt! I made it way too big, because I didn’t follow a pattern (I’ve inherited my gran’s contrary knitter gene) and apparently I genuinely don’t know what size I am (I always just assume: huge). But it’s very cosy, actually quite neat and a great colour (this is the wool, in Blueberry). Mainly though, I am just proud I managed to make something that isn’t a hoop scarf for once!

Cooking: very little — see my “takeaway” answer earlier!

Wondering: how my garden will look next Spring. I am already excited to see things start growing again, as the growing season seems to be winding down. Eventually I want my front garden (an all-edible herb garden, except for two clematis which I’m training over my ugly porch and my uglier fence) to be really wild and fragrant and tasty.

Trying out: procrastination. This sounds ridiculous, but I am always doing something productive, even if it isn’t the thing I’m supposed to be doing. I procrastinate from writing by cleaning my house or listing new items on Edinburgh Vintage, or I procrastinate from preparing writing sessions for the Inside/Out Project by scribbling poems. Right now I am trying out real, not-getting-anything-done procrastination… drinking tea without my computer next to me, reading a book I’ve read a million times before, even (whisper it) watching TV. It’s actually rather good.

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Seven pieces of writing advice from the speakers of The Business

Monday, May 26th, 2014

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (1)

Last week, I was extremely flattered to be invited to speak at The Business, an event run by the University of Edinburgh and hosted by their Writer in Residence Jenni Fagan. The event was designed for budding writers who were keen to know more about the ‘business’ side of being a writer. I was asked to speak alongside publishing megastars like Francis Bickmore and Jenny Brown (!!!), and my topic was, essentially “is a Creative Writing PhD right for you?”

I think my talk went OK: the best part about it was definitely making my supervisor, Alan — who was hiding at the back of the room — blush quite a lot as I talked about what a brilliant mentor he’d been. But much better than my barely coherent ramblings were the talks of the other speakers. I hand-picked some useful advice from each of them for your reading pleasure…

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (4)

1. Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown Associates, literary agent:

“Don’t write to trends.”

I’ve seen Jenny Brown speak on many occasions, and she always manages to make her advice to writers fresh and relevant to what’s going on in the book world at that very moment. However, this piece of advice is always in there and I think it’s something a lot of young novelists (in particular) need to hear. “You can never get on top of a trend,” she says, “because by the time you get your novel out there, you’ll have just missed it.” Instead, she advises, you should concentrate on writing a great novel that you love, and that your agent will love. “I don’t pick books based on genre, or based on whether or not I think they will be commercially successful,” Jenny said. “I mean, those things are factors, but at the end of the day if I love your book, that’s the main thing. All the books I’ve picked to represent, I have loved.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (6)

2. Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt, publisher:

“We need more narrative non-fiction.”

Did you know that the market for non-fiction is far larger than the market for fiction? “Fiction is declining,” Chris revealed, and he picked up on a point that Jenny had made about her love of nature writing. “Jenny said she was disappointed not to see more nature books. I agree. I wish more young writers would break into non-fiction earlier.” He said that for every fifty novels that landed on his desk, he’d see only one non-fiction work. (He also mentioned poetry’s market share: less than 1% of the entire book market. But then, we knew that, right?)

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (8)

3. Francis Bickmore of Canongate, publisher:

“The hair shines with brushing.”

Francis gave his own seven rules for writers, all of which were great, but this was by far my favourite. He said it came from a friend of his, another publisher, who’d been listening to one of their writers moaning about how many edits they were needing to do on their novel. “The guy’s response was, ah yes, but the hair shines with brushing. The hair shines with brushing. I think it’s Flaubert or something, and it’s so true.” In other words, edit, edit, polish, edit, polish and then edit some more. Make your writing shine.

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (9)

4. Stuart Kelly of The Guardian and many other places, critic:

“If you’re not interested in writing a novel that changes what the novel is capable of, get out of the business.”

This was probably my favourite piece of advice from the entire event. It’s something I might nick, except I’d replace the word ‘novel’ with ‘poem.’ What Stuart was saying is that the best novels are the ones that really push the boundaries of the form: one of the audience members gave the example of Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad, which happens to be my favourite novel ever, and really does do what Stuart’s talking about. “It’s not enough to just mention Twitter here and there,” Stuart said. “I’m talking about really experimenting with what this form can do.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (10)

5. Peggy Hughes, of Dundee Book Festival, promoter:

“Perform your work in public.”

Peggy, aka the most-loved person in Scottish arts administration (no joke, she’s awesome) was in attendance to talk about the role of literary festivals in the writing business. She revealed that she routinely attends poetry readings, open mics and other literary events in order to scout for potential talent to book for her festival. “Go and read at these things,” she said. “You never know when someone like me might be sitting in the audience thinking, I should book this person.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (11)

6. Kevin Williamson of Neu! Reekie!, promoter:

“Embrace the improbable.”

Kevin’s talk was mostly about his whirlwind experience at the helm of the Creative Scotland-funded cabaret sensation that is Neu! Reekie! He talked about having his face put on a new whisky brand’s label, meeting Richard Hell and somehow managing to get Primal Scream to play at one of his gigs. But it wasn’t just half an hour of how cool Kevin Williamson’s life is: he also talked about how rewarding community work can be for writers, talking a bit about his experiences teaching the poetry of Robert Burns in Scottish prisons. “All the things that have happened to me have been pretty improbable,” he said. “When Neu! Reekie! started we had no idea where it was going to go. So just embrace it, just go with whatever comes to you.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (12)

7. Jenni Fagan of the University of Edinburgh, writer:

“Pace yourself… and get off Facebook.”

Jenni is in the middle of developing her novel The Panopticon (which is good and you should read it, by the way) into a film script, so she fielded a lot of questions from the audience about that side of things. However, she warned that “98% of all films never get made,” and pushed the importance of focussing on the writing first and foremost. “I got off Facebook because I found that I was looking at things like the best way to peel a banana, and then from that I clicked on to a really cute photo of a koala bear… and then before I knew it I’d spent a whole hour and all I’d done was surf a bunch of crap.” She says writers ought to focus on removing anything from their lives “that takes you away from words,” but she also noted the value of pacing yourself, and knowing that everything does not happen at once. “I have this idea for another novel,” she said, “but I am pretty sure I won’t start writing it for maybe another five or ten years. You just have to let things take their course.”

Incidentally, if you have any questions about Creative Writing PhDs, keep an eye out for a post on the topic in the next little while!

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Dear poetry newbies: you need a mentor!

Monday, April 28th, 2014

from "Asphodel" by WIlliam Carlos WIlliams

My advice to new and aspiring writers has always been: read, read, and then read some more. Wanting to be a writer without first being a reader is like wanting to be a Formula 1 driver without ever having sat in a car. And yet, time and time again I’ve heard new writers – my students; the people who used to submit to Read This, the magazine I edited – say that they don’t read because they don’t want to be too heavily influenced. They don’t want to feel like they’re “copying.”

This is garbage, of course – you sit down and try to write like Allen Ginsberg, or Emily Dickinson, or Sapphire, or any other writer with a distinctive style that might creep into your writing. You’ll always end up with a pale facsimile. Whatever you write will always contain more of you and your voice (however much that voice still needs to develop) than anyone else’s. And believe me, it’s much better if your voice sounds authoritative and well-read than if it sounds green and uncertain – which it will, if you don’t study other people’s good writing.

However, I do know what it’s like to feel afraid of “being influenced.” Almost exactly two years ago, I was lucky enough to win a 2012 Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award – a prize that offers a full year of creative mentoring along with its nice wedge of cash. Obviously, I was hugely grateful that my work had been selected, and very glad of the money, which I used to fund a brilliant writing retreat on the island of Hydra, Greece (to this day, I have never been so productive). However, I’ll admit: I was uncertain about the mentoring. Having had creative writing tutors in the past whose style of critique I totally disagreed with (no one learns anything from soul-destroyingly negative notes), I was worried I might not get on with whoever was picked to mentor me. And just like those new writers whose refusal to read had exasperated me in the past, I started to realise I was also worried about influence. What if this mentor was also a poet? What if they had their own ideas about what poetry ought to be like? What if they were an amazing writer, and I found myself changing my own writing in order to impress them? Reader, I was worried.

However, that was nuts. It turns out? Creative mentoring is utterly amazing, and everyone – I mean literally every creative person – should do it, if they get the chance. I mean sure, you have to find a mentor you can get along with as a person, but I’d like to believe that most people who are willing to take on the role of mentor are probably pretty nice. (There are roughly a dozen SBT New Writers Awardees every year – I have now met many of them, and so far none of the various alumni have had a bad word to say about their mentor.) Otherwise, all you need to do is find someone who’s an expert in your field, and who – of course –wants to take on the job.

I hadn’t actually thought about it this way, but I’ve had a writing mentor of sorts for the past eight years. In 2006, I hit the third year of my degree in English Literature, and one of the Honours courses on offer was Creative Writing (Poetry), taught by Alan, contemporary poetry specialist, writer-editor of huge academic tomes, and established poet. Turns out my first Creative Writing seminar was the first class Alan taught in his new post at the University of Edinburgh, and from that class until I finished my PhD a few months ago, I was the one pesky student who just refused to go away. When I finished my MA (Hons) and went straight on to the Masters in Creative Writing (Poetry), Alan was my course tutor. When I leapt straight from the Masters into my PhD, he was my first and most obvious choice for a supervisor. Alan has seen more of my creative work than anyone else (more even than Lovely Boyfriend, who’s only been around a measly four years; more than my parents, who only see the poems that don’t have swears in them). If Alan isn’t a creative mentor, I don’t know who is – he has shaped the way I write more than any writer I’ve read or workshop I’ve attended. And I mean that in a really good way.

(NB: Do I write like him? Absolutely not. I mean obviously, he’s a billion times better than me – and in both form and content we’re kinda like chalk and cheese. Again, I tell you, folks: the whole “fear of influence” thing is total garbage.)

Then last year, I was assigned my SBT Award mentor. Although it’s taken me until now to realise that I already had one in the form of Alan, I was a bit worried that the two might contradict one another. I was still under Alan’s supervision for the PhD, after all. However, I needn’t have worried. Apparently, the only thing better than one creative mentor is two creative mentors.

I was assigned to a lovely freelance editor named Sarah – a poetry specialist who’d mentored many a new poet before I came along. It became apparent pretty quickly that Sarah wasn’t interested in doing the same job as Alan was doing. I’d spent the last three years writing poems and having Alan help me to make them better. Sarah’s job was to take the huge pile of largely-finished material I had lying around as a result, and turn it from a random stack into that truly mystical and terrifying beast: a manuscript.

The best thing about working with Sarah? She totally got what I was trying to do. In fact, she “got it” far better than I did. She told me that in order to tie my manuscript together, I needed to think about the major themes that ran through my poems. I panicked, telling her I hadn’t really written the poems with any larger themes in mind – I just wrote what wanted to be written. “Oh, there are themes in there,” she assured me. “Print out all your poems, spread them on the floor, and start putting them into piles – put the ones that speak to each other together.”
Sarah said she’d do the same thing, and then we’d compare results. I found the exercise hard-going. I had a lot of poems about women and written in women’s voices (my PhD thesis is about contemporary female poets using the confessional mode, so this was a no-brainer), but it turns out, that’s not a theme. Seeing the poems Sarah had put into piles, however, was genuinely eye-opening. “Your main theme is place and space,” she told me, as my jaw hit the floor. “Look how many of your poems take place in domestic spaces. Look how many of them are liminal, travelling poems. This is a collection about trying to find your place in the world.”

It is. Loads of my poems are about ghosts – about the hours and days immediately after death, as they try to find out where they belong now. Loads of my poems are about travel, but never fun travel – they’re about being lost or getting robbed or generally being a clueless white middle-class person who doesn’t really know where they are. And so many of my poems are about women in houses – but scary houses, houses that are “wrong,” in some way. All my poems are about trying to find a place or space to belong, and I had never even noticed that. That’s the epic power of the mentor: when they’re really good, like Sarah is, they can make you see your own work objectively – a thing I always thought was impossible.

Other great things about working with Sarah? I wanted to make a book, I didn’t know how to do that, and she taught me. She taught me how to put my poems into an order that both showcased each one nicely on its own, but also created an arc across the manuscript for the reader to follow. Like Alan before her, she pulled no punches when it came to making me edit – she explained clearly why I needed to lose that line, switch those stanzas around, come up with a better title or even ditch that poem from the manuscript entirely. Perhaps most importantly, she made me write. She recognised early on that I’d come to the end of the creative section of my PhD, that I was focussing on slogging through the last part of a thesis I’d long since grown weary of, and that I was using this as an excuse (a good one, I’d thought!) not to write new poems. She set me a deadline, created a public Google Doc and then made me post in it every day to show her what I’d written. It turns out, she didn’t check it every day – but I didn’t know that. It sounds cruel, but it was so utterly what I needed. Like I say, she just really “got” my writing.

What I have to show for all this mentoring is a manuscript that I am happy to send out to publishers. It’s out there somewhere, right now – hopefully not in a bin or on a slush pile, but I really have no way of knowing. It may well be that it gets nowhere, that no one else thinks it’s all that good. But that doesn’t really matter. When the lovely folks at Scottish Book Trust (now my colleagues!) asked me what I’d like to have achieved at the end of my mentoring year, I said, “a manuscript that I feel proud of.” Thanks to Sarah – and to Alan – that’s exactly what I’ve got.

My first full length poetry collection manuscript is entitled “This changes things,” and is currently out on submission. If you would like to find out more about it, you can email me via claire [at] onenightstanzas.com

(Image credit)

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Writing advice from Mary Oliver.

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Swanpy

I want the poem to ask something and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered. I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader’s part in an implicit author-reader pact. Last but not least, I want the poem to have a pulse, a breathiness, some moment of earthly delight. (While one is luring the reader into the enclosure of serious subjects, pleasure is by no means an unimportant ingredient.)

[...] Take out some commas, for smoothness and because almost every poem in the universe moves too slowly. Then, once the “actual” is in place (the words), begin to address the reason for taking the reader’s good and valuable time — invite the reader to want to do something beyond merely receiving beauty… Make sure there is nothing in the poem that would prevent the reader from becoming the speaker of the poem.

[...] The poem in which the reader does not feel himself or herself a participant is a lecture, listened to from an uncomfortable chair, in a stuffy room… The point is not what the poet would make of the moment but what the reader would make of it.

Mary Oliver, from ‘The Swan.’

…and here’s a poem written using ^these rules. See what you think.

(Image credit)