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Musings on Moniack Mhor.

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At the beginning of the year I stumbled over a link for week long writing retreats at a place called Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands — I had never heard of the centre before and hadn’t ever really considered doing a writing retreat. However, after poking around their website for a few minutes I was in love with their space, their location, and the idea of spending a week in their company. When our sabbatical trip became a reality and I knew we’d be located in Scotland for nine months, it didn’t take me long to log back into Moniack Mhor to book a place as an early 40th birthday treat to myself.

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Room with a view…

I was thrilled with the idea of a week of doing nothing except thinking/working on what I hope will one day be a novel. I was giddy at the idea of not having to decide what anyone else was going to eat at every meal, and that I wasn’t going to have to do phonics homework or handle tears over not getting to watch cartoons, or dish out time-outs. All I had to do was eat, sleep, and write. I got the train up from Tweedbank to Inverness last Monday and thought I had a pretty clear idea what the week would be about. I thought I would breeze through 5000+ new words on the book and that I would have to contend with imposed solitude. However, the week played out in a totally different way.

IMG_0644I opted to attend a tutored writing retreat partly cause the timing of the course was good, but mainly cause I liked the idea of getting time to talk with published authors about their work, the industry and my own work. But, I was also invested in doing a retreat versus a workshop as I was interested to see if I could spend a whole week with just me & my imagined world, and come out the other side wanting to make writing a career. So why was it different to what I was picturing? In part because I hadn’t really read the course info and so didn’t realize there was such a great social aspect worked into the week, with communal cooking, group dinners, and readings each night — but mainly because of the wonderful group of people that the course brought together. I thought I would have so much solitude that I would go a bit bonkers, but instead I found a kind, fun, considerate, and welcoming community.

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The last nights refreshments!

Each one of the people that turned up at the course, though at different points in our writing experience and individual projects, was serious about writing but not serious about life or about ourselves. Each dinner time we had easy and fun conversation along the long communal table. Each evening we had wine and whisky beside the log fire while listening to readings, chatting about the trials and tribulations of writing, or laughing together and sharing stories about life. Since I’m a “coffee shop” writer and like background noise when I work, I opted to sit at the dinning table during the day and got a lovely balance of interaction with people, and peace to think.

The tutors selected for our course were Paul Murray and Amanda Smyth. I hadn’t read either of their work before arriving at Moniack Mhor, but now find myself with them both firmly on my TBR pile. Although my one-on-one conversations with both of them were very different, they were both generous, thoughtful, and resourceful in their suggestions and advice. Of course, I would have loved to pitch up to my tutor sessions and for them to declare that my work is the best writing they’ve ever read (honestly who doesn’t dream of such ego validation!?!), but instead they both beelined for weaknesses in my novel, and writing, and expertly probed those weaknesses. Which just highlighted to me how good they both are at what they do.

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Note to self: don’t step in a bog while wearing Converse!

Of course, having my raw points exposed did smart a little, but I got over myself fast and found my head full as I tried to absorb their thoughts and find answers to the questions they posed. It actually got rather noisy in my head and that is why my word count for the week was rather pitiful, but I’m okay with that. A week ago, before I got the train to the Highlands, I thought I had a path toward the end of my novel, but now that path has vanished. But all is okay because I have faith that when I find my path again the novel is going to be all the better for it (and I’ll be a better writer).

So, I guess the ultimate question after doing something for the first time to know if it was a success or not, is “would I do it again?” In the case of Moniack Mhor, the answer is a resounding, yes! I would absolutely go on a tutored retreat again, but I am also itching to try a straight writing retreat to test out if the peace of the Scottish Highlands gels well with my writing. Fingers crossed I don’t have to wait another seven years until our next sabbatical to return to the beautiful, wonderful Moniack Mhor.

Paul Murray’s books can be found here, and Amanda Smyth’s here. They are both lovely and I await future books from them with glee.

Navigating Groups

I first tried my hand at fiction writing when I knew my astronomy career was coming to an end (or at the very least a pause) about six years ago. I look back at words written then and I’ve discovered I would write a line of dialogue, and then write three or four lines of narrative explaining the dialogue. Something along the lines of:

“Hello, my name is Petal.” She said with trepidation and a wobble of unsureness that made the words come out with more syllables than they should. She was wary that her ‘out there’ name would offend the people at this private school that all looked so conventional in their purple and gold uniforms. How could they ever like her with her odd name. She’d picked ‘hello’ rather than her typical ‘dude’ cause she needed to fit in. At least she needed to try.
“Hello.” Came the cold and clipped response from the tallest girl in the pack.
“Hello.” Petal said back, this time she tried to make it more solid greeting.
“Petal is a stupid name. Were your parents hippies or something?” The girl said with a snarl that made the corners of her mouth dip down towards her chin.

You get the idea. And although this type of writing can be done well, I certain was not doing it well. Also, the more I write the more I want the to narration to get out of the way  and to just let the voices have plenty of clear space to speak. This desire was stoked further when I took a class in playwriting and wrote a couple of short plays. I love writing plays. Everything has to be conveyed through the words the characters say – or the actions the do on stage. It is like writing in 3rd person objective (which I also love to do). You have no access to thoughts, or intentions, of the characters. All you can do is record is the words that come out their mouths and the actions that they do. The words the characters say have to be good enough to express what the characters are thinking/feeling or how they are relating to others around them. This has led to me completely stripping the passages in my story that concentrate on dialogue right back — I rarely now even use dialogue tags. For example:

“What? I can’t hear you. Come back, would you?”
Kathryn turned back and returned to the end of the pier and Davy. “What else did your Mum tell you about Bruno Downey?”
“I’ll tell you everything I know if you sit down and have a beer.”
“Okay.”
“And no more yelling at me, or hitting me? Agreed?”
“I didn’t hit you!”
“Agreed?”
“Fine. Agreed.”

This is my much preferred way of handling dialogue now — though I will admit that often I have to go back after I’ve finished a conversation to slot in some action/internal thoughts of the main character, etc. Elmore Leonard says in his “10 Rules of Writing” to never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. And I like his rationale, namely: The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. Indeed, this is why I’ve gone the route of dialogue-tag-less writing. However, how does one do this when there is more than two people speaking? Minimized or removing dialogue tags are easy to do when there are two people having a conversation, but the thing I’m about to tackle in earnest for the first time is to portray a group conversation. And frankly, I’m a bit intimidated.iStock_000031430998_Medium.jpg

Mr. Leonard also includes in his ten rules to never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” as it interrupts the rhythm of the exchange. Again, I agree with him, but how does one do this for a large conversation and it not turn into a bit of a said overload? I mean, does something like the following even feel right?

“Pass the butter,” said Peter.
“I don’t want to pass the butter,” said Sarah.
“Don’t be rude to your brother,” said Judith.
“Yeah, don’t be rude to your brother!” said Peter.
“Both of you stop acting like children,” said Andrew.

To me it feels clunky and annoying. But, then how does one switch between speakers and help the reader keep up with who is speaking? Who has managed to do this successfully?  Any hints and tips for a somewhat-baffled newbie writer?

 

The long and the short of it…

I haven’t been inspired to blog for quiet sometime, perhaps because most of last year I wrote very little fiction. I was writing, just not fiction. In the first half of the year I took a class in Creative Non-fiction, or the “Art of the Personal Essay”. Good grief it is hard to dredge up twenty-year-old memories of a school trip to Russia, then try to write an engaging, fun essay about it! (It was as engaging, fun trip that involved a lot of sauerkraut for us non-meat eaters, but it was also eye opening and remarkable and — looking back with adult eyes — a huge privilege to travel to Russia so soon after the fall of Communism!) But, I actually felt for the the younger students in my class who were not even twenty-years-old … at least I have twenty(and thirty, and almost forty)-year-old memories to go digging about in, no matter how spotty the details are! The second half of last year was spending working on an length literary essay on the novel Trumpet by Jackie Kay. I loved doing the work, but I can safely say it put paid to any thoughts of going off to do my masters in literature. At this point in my life, I don’t want to eat into family time to study other people’s novels, I want to spend that time away from the hubs and the girl writing my own novel! IMG_9112

Which brings me to my 2017 challenge. I have set myself the goal of having a complete 250ish page first draft of a novel written by the end of the year. Things have just fallen into place for this to be the “right” year to concentrate on doing this challenge. Firstly, I’m getting to take a class on novel writing from a professor that I throughly respect. Deadlines are my friend — and although I can at times fake myself out with personal deadlines, deadlines set by other people are, without doubt, the best motivator for my productivity. So it is thanks to that class that I have written 80 pages so far this year.

***Can I just take a little aside to say, good lord writing a novel is hard! I can bash out a 1500-2000 story without too much sweat these days. But writing 80 pages — making those characters move from scene to scene, getting those characters to be where they need to be — it is hard! I now have a new appreciation for anyone that can put enough words down on pages to get a novel length story. That isn’t to say I have a new appreciation of every novel that gets published, I don’t, but that is a whole other rant blog post.***

Secondly, I have treated myself to an early birthday and booked myself on a writers retreat at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Center. The idea of being in the wilds of Scotland for five days with, literally, nothing to do but write and learn from accomplished authors is pretty much bliss wrapped up in chocolate. And further, this workshop is specifically for people who have substantial works in progress. Deadline #2. I’ll need to get my derrière in gear to get the page count up – I’m thinking 200ish is a good target.

Thirdly, my baby girl is growing up and will be starting full time school come August. This frees up my days a lot, and as I won’t be in a position to start looking for work outside the home until summer of 2018 — I owe it to myself to grab this time and make it count. Why can’t I start work for at least another year, I hear you ask? Well, that is the forth reason this is the “right” year to tackle a novel. My professor husband has been granted sabbatical for the academic year of 2017-2018 and we are taking this chance to go live in Scotland as a family for an extended period. I’m excited on so many levels — I haven’t lived at home in over a decade, I haven’t lived close to family in as long, I miss the hills, and the sea, and the cities — so many reasons. I’m also excited (and a bit terrified) cause this is the only time I will have this sort of time on my hands, with family nearby for sharing in the parental duties, to dedicate to writing my first novel. It is this year that I will discover if being an author is what I am, or if it is a daydream that will forever live in a montage in my head.  Eck!

 

 

First Anniversary

I was duly informed by my computer (isn’t that the way with everything these days?!) that I registered this website with wordpress one year ago and wrote my very first blog post on Nov 11, 2014. Although I didn’t actually let the “world” know about my new endeavor until January of this year it is this time last year that I decided to unveil myself as a writer and become more serious about my new found creative outlet. And so, in the time old tradition of ‘taking stock’ on anniversaries I thought I’d take a look back at what I’ve done in the last 12 months.

  • published fifteen blog post (and started three more that are still languishing in the drafts folder). I’ve neglected the blog in the last couple of months, but never fear there will be a blog post discussing why soon!
  • written a 10 min play: Thwarted
  • written an one act play which I’m hoping to extend into a full length play
  • written a short story that placed on the short list of finalists for The Write Practice Writing Contest: Second Chance Daughter
  • had an essay published in The Mill: Great Literature for the Everyman
  • won the Shapiro Writing Contest (Prose) with Thwarted
  • won the Shapiro Writing Contest (Writing) with an extract from as yet to be titled novel
  • submitted Second Chance Daughter to The Mill for consideration
  • started a new writing group that meets once a month (called the 3Rs – Reading, wRiting & dRinking!!)
  • submitted my 10 min play to a couple of contests for short play festivals
  • written (twice) an essay on what inspires me to write – both of which were blah!
  • started a new blog called Love Letters to Toledo (more of that in the aforementioned ‘coming soon’ blog post!)
  • read sixteen books (but still completely failing on my reading challenge for this year!)
  • 12 days into a micro-version of NaNoWriMo for which I’ve written over 2300 new words for the aforementioned untiled novel
  • workshopped many friends and fellow-students work
  • been to see Sandra Cisneros and Christopher Brookmyre speak

Think that is it, phew. Compared to many, many other writers it isn’t a particularly impressive list but I’ve also managed to keep my daughter alive for another year and that is certainly something that takes up most of my time! But, honestly, this isn’t purely an exercise of ‘patting myself on the back’ – I had been beating myself up lately for ignoring this site and blog but I’ve been trying to remind myself that I started this mainly as a way to push writing to a more prominent place in my life and this list shows me that it certainly has done that.

I’ve also been thinking about where to take my writing next and what might be my longer term goals. Short term it is easy – keep writing! I have a number of essays to do for class before the end of term plus I want to keep pushing with my ‘novel’ plus I want to write a short story to enter a local contest. That will keep me busy for a while. Long term is harder to think about as decisions need to factor in a lot more than just my desire to write – but whatever comes my/our way I love that I discovered a joy in creative writing and I will always be able to take that with me.

Clambering back on the zebra

My summer has been pretty great so far on every front except writing & reading. We’ve just returned to American shores after a month-long trip to the Motherland soaking up family time. It was full of many, many firsts for my little one (‘big girl’ bed, beach/ocean play, steam train rides, adventure playgrounds) and it was full of lots of down time for me (& even a full night get-away for me and the hubby). But what it wasn’t full of was writing, or even reading for that matter. For the first week I felt guilty about this and pushed myself to read – plowing through half a book on my sister’s Kindle – but then what is the point of traveling 3500 miles to see family to be sat with my nose in a ‘book’ all the time. Not a lot really.

When you have destinations as beautiful as Traquair House its hard to sit home and read. http://www.traquair.co.uk

When you have destinations as beautiful as Traquair House it’s hard to sit home and read. http://www.traquair.co.uk

And so I embraced my break. From time-to-time I entertained some thoughts about blog posts and novel scenes in my head and I picked at a few more pages of the aforementioned book but beyond that I did nothing, zilch, nada, other than enjoy seeing my toddler with the family that she gets to see way too infrequently. But now we are home and back to ‘normality’ – although little of that will be seen until the jet lag wears off and the smallest member of the household starts sleeping past 5.30am again. We also have a soggy basement to content with and a garden that has turned into a jungle in our absence – but after all that is dealt with it is back to normal. Except I want to find a slightly altered version of ‘normal’.

One piece of advise I hear over and over again from established authors is if you want to be the best writer you can be, then you have to make writing part of your daily routine. I’ve always thought that was a worthy desire but not one that I could realistically fit into my life at the moment. But why isn’t it? Am I just too bloody lazy to make it happen? In truth I don’t have a busy life. I have a great, relaxed life. I’m at home with my little one and we don’t have a demanding schedule. We get up in the morning and see what we feel like doing that day – it might involve spending all day playing in our pjs, or hanging out with many of our wonderful friends in the neighbourhood, or a trip to the zoo or art museum – but there are very few days we have to be anywhere at a specific time. So, why can’t I find time to be a Mum, do householdy-stuff, take classes and write at least once a day? Others manage to juggle far more grueling schedules and still come up with the goods so the very least I can do is try!

The 10K of creative writing?

I have an admission – deep down at my core I am a lazy cow. No really. I know it might not seem it looking at my CV but honestly if I have a choice between lounging on the sofa and watching something totally inane on TV versus doing almost anything else I will lean towards the sofa every single time. And the crazy thing is that I actually enjoy doing the ‘almost anything else’ a lot more than the channel-hoping once I get going, it’s the ‘get going’ that is my big problem. It works with everything in my life from things I hate (washing dishes!) to things I tolerate/somewhat-enjoy doing (exercise!) to things I love (writing/reading!). But on the other side of the coin I love a deadline – especially high pressure short term deadlines – you know the if-you-don’t-get-this-essay-in-on-friday-you-will-fail-your-degree sort of deadlines. I am my most productive and motivated when a deadline is staring me in the face – especially one where if I fail at meeting said deadline I’m going to be horribly embarrassed. I had hoped as I progressed further into adulthood I would have outgrown this immature need for a do-or-die deadline  – that the simple pleasure of achievement would take over, that being ‘house proud’ would mean I had a sparklingly clean kitchen at all times, that being a responsible mother would mean I would time manage my life the way we are ‘suppose’ to. But sadly, given that I am 40 in the not too distant future, I think it is safe to say my need for the deadline is firmly rooted in my personality.

When ever I’ve needed to lose weight I’ve gone to my trusty computer and signed on for a local 5K/10K run or some endurance biking event a good number of months away. It works a treat. The shear fear of being utterly embarrassed at not finishing the event, or worse being last, spurs me into an exercise routine that shifts the weight and gets me to race day ready to attack  the course. But don’t be mistaken, I am far, far from an athlete. My 10K personal best is right around one hour and I’m pretty sure I was very close to the back of the pack on my first mountain bike marathon (but that was totally the fault of all the trees that kept getting in my way!) But I always have fun doing the event and I succeed in my goal of overcoming the ‘get going’ hump.

And so now that semester is over and I no longer have class imposed deadlines I need to find ways to generate (and enforce) deadlines for my writing so it doesn’t ground to a halt over the summer. I need to find the ’10K fun run’ of fiction writing! The obvious answer to my deadline needs is submission to literary journals. However, to me, getting a piece ready to submit to any publishing forum is more equated to training to do a seriously good time at a race rather than a lets-just-finish-and-if-we-need-to-stop-and-walk-a-bit-that-is-ok sort of training. Not only does the piece need to be written it needs reviewing and editing and polishing and picking at each word choice rather like you pick at a scab on your knee before it is worthy of sending out to be considered for publication. And although, of course, that is the ultimate goal of any writer it isn’t what I’m looking to push my self to do this summer. I haven’t completely figured out what my ‘fun run’ is going to be yet – I’m keeping my eyes peeled for opportunities that push me forward but completely gel with my day job of full time mama – have any suggestions for me? Stick ‘um in the comments below.

Impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome … as described by the fount of all knowledge that is wikipedia … is

the psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

and it is extremely prevalent in the professional sciences. I rapidly run out of fingers when I try to count the number of friends and ex-colleagues from the astronomy world that have impostor syndrome to some degree. I, of course, never suffered from impostor syndrome when I was active in that world – I knew that I didn’t deserve to be awarded my PhD and I knew that I lucked out when I got my postdoctoral position and I knew that I had somehow fooled my bosses when they offered me a permeant job! I was a total impostor. The number of scientists that go through their careers believing they are undeserving and that they will be ‘found out’ as a fraud is startling. A few days ago I started to wonder if the phenomenon is as prolific in the artistic fields as it is in the scientific ones.

One of the many unexpected gems of living in Toledo is the ‘Authors! Authors!’ series run by the localauthors-authors-2015 public library and sponsored by a local newspaper. The quality of the writers that they attract is remarkable – in the last couple of years they have hosted (among others) Elizabeth Gilbert, Zadie Smith, Henry Winkler, Marjane Satrapi (who was phenomenal), and just last week, Sandra Cisneros. Furthermore, the tickets are only $10! Since Munchkin’s grandparents were in town for a visit I got the pleasure of dragging the hubby as my date to listen to Sandra Cisneros speak. Since I didn’t grow up in the US I wasn’t exposed to Cisneros in high school where her novel The House On Mango Street is often taught over here. In fact, I only read Mango Street last year and have yet to explore the rest of her catalogue but after finishing the treasure that is Mango Street I knew that I would enjoy seeing her speak. But I didn’t know just how much I would enjoy hearing her speak.

Copyright: Toledo-Lucas County Public Library

Copyright: Toledo-Lucas County Public Library

She read from her ‘picture book for grown ups’ Have You Seen Marie and she completely embodied the characters bringing a colour and vitality to the words that made them come alive. Indeed, during the Q&A section one audience member commented on her skill and she admitted to loving reading out loud and that she had recorded all the audio versions of her books. However, while hearing her speak about her deep connection to her work, and her spirituality, and the artistry that she brings to said work, it brought back a familiar feeling of ‘being a fraud’.

Since starting out on this adventure of becoming a writer I have questioned more than once whether I have the ‘artistry’ in me to be considered worthy. I am very much not religious, nor would I call myself spiritual. I am an atheist. I am often scathing and judgmental. I am methodical and logical often to a fault. I am a scientist, and even though I no longer work in that field – it is part of who I am. I don’t meditate. I don’t believe in a higher being. I don’t believe in soulmates. I see humans for the complex, evil, wonderful, only-around-for-a-single-lifetime collection of molecules that (I believe) we are. Does that mean I can’t be an artist? Do I want to be an artist?

I haven’t travelled far enough down this road to know what I want to be yet, nor do I know enough writers to know whether the insecurities I assume they experience are the same as the impostor syndrome that is rife in other fields. I suspect frustrations and doubts originate from rejection in the writing world more than achieving things you don’t feel you deserve. What I do know is that I love words, I love language, I love books, I love stories and I love creating stories. I do know that I am receiving local recognition within my university for my writing and I know I want to see if I can gain recognition on a bigger scale. I am in the incredibly lucky position to be able to explore this new path without the pressures of having to make an income (thanks hubby!) and I look forward to discovering if there is a real place for my cynical-old-self in this new world.