I have a routine. It helps me manage my condition.
Mouth, a short story about a woman with an unusual growth on her side, is one of the stories appearing in the first issue of Edinburgh’s newest literary magazine, FREAK Circus. I’m thrilled to be part of a new literary venture, and hope FREAK Circus readers will like Mouth, a story that I’m very fond of.
I read one of my own stories the other day. I was editing the Read Me page and saw a link to a Christmas story I didn’t remember writing. So I read it.
At first, there was cringing. I know it was a fast, unedited write, but there were problems that made me want to smack myself. At the end, however, I giggled. Not because of awfulness, but because I liked the twist.
It feels self-obsessed to enjoy your own writing, but that giggle gave me more pleasure than I can say. The reason I write is that I love reading: I want to create stories for others like the ones that transport and fascinate me. For a split second, I transported (or at least entertained) myself. That’s very reassuring. If I can’t stand my output, why would anyone else? Next year, I hope the writer in me write more messages to the reader in me, reminding her of what it’s all about.
Merry Christmas! I hope there are lots of books beneath your tree.
Imagine Scotland. Hills covered in heather, gorse and bracken are polkadotted with sheep and cattle. Between them nestle fertile valleys. Outside of the bustling cities, people live tranquil lives in the countryside, making their living along the coast and on islands in the sea. The coast is rich with crabs and mussels, the forests team with deer and the fields are full of pheasant. The biggest natural predator is the fox which thrives in city and country alike. The most famous predator is probably the Scottish wildcat, a cute and feisty tabby with impressive hunting skills. Humans rule supreme and they husband a sometimes harsh but always rich environment.
But what if this wasn’t quite true? What is sheep were protection, not just a source of food and clothing? What if the wildcat was more than it seemed?
Emma grew up on Skye but moved to Glasgow when she was a child. She knows how to stay safe on the island: she knows the rules. All islanders do but they keep their business to themselves. People on the mainland don’t know anything of the dangers the islanders deal with. Then Emma’s best friend moves to Skye to paint for six months. How can she keep her safe?
Blank Fiction Magazine‘s first horror edition is out now. I’m delighted that Looming Hills and Radiant Water is one of the four stories in this issue. Blank Fiction Magazine is available from the Apple Newsstand and their own website. It’s only $1 per issue.
As an aspiring writer, you hear it a lot. The logic is sound. If you don’t finish a project, you can’t send it anywhere. Taking the logic to its extreme, you should never give up in the middle of something but always soldier on though and make sure you get to the end.
I showed my writer’s group a short story that I’d been working on. I knew it wasn’t entirely coherent and I knew why. It started as a short idea, something that could be covered in 1,500 words, say. But the story grew and veered off in a different, winding direction. I needed advice: should I cut it right back (at the time, it was 7,500 words long) or should I keep going?
Writer’s group said keep going. That was what I wanted to do, so did it was easy advice to follow.
As a result, I’ve left my other projects unfinished. At first, I felt bad about doing that, but then a friend of mine pointed out that no one is waiting for them to be finished. There is no deadline, no agent or publisher anxious to see my work, so I might as well focus on what I am most interested in at the moment. Wise words.
It will be interesting to see if I get sidetracked on to something else before this one’s finished too. I hope not – that would be too much like a pattern and would force me to conclude that I’m rubbish at finishing.
At 19,360 words I’m about 1/3 through the project. I’m still enthusiastic about it and I’m pressing on.
Last week, I wrote about generous editors and clichéd plot lines. I mentioned a story that I’d written and then promptly retired after I saw a description of the story in a list of unwanted plotlines. I can’t find that exact list – I think it was one of the several shape changer or werewolf markets I’ve looked at. I’m not going to send it anywhere, so I decided to post it here instead. (This is not the story that was rejected last week – there’s still hope for that one.)
I enjoyed writing Julia’s Dream because it uses two voices and let me playing with senses. I don’t think I did that last part particularly well but I learned something in the process. The thing I enjoyed most, however, is that I could use a dream I had as a teenager. I’m not going to tell you which scene is from my sleeping head but you can probably guess. The scene stands out. It has detail. It was one of those really odd dreams where I woke up happy but aware that the dream I just woke up from should have been a nightmare, not a joyous romp. But that’s what it was. Joyous. Fun. Happy-making.
So, here goes. Written about two years ago, and officially retired since last year because it’s been written again and again and again. I also saw it in an online comic, Sherbet Lock, and really enjoyed the story. There’s still mileage in the idea, but I’m not going to pursue it further.
The night is warm and dark. The forest is dense with life, not just the pack running with me, but other life too. There are birds in the trees, mice hiding in hollows as we run past. There’s a foxes den with a bitch and four, no five, cubs under that tree. But we’re after bigger game than foxes. Killing them is not worth our while.
Ahead we can hear the crashing of our prey as it flees. It’s a buck, a big strong animal. I look forward to taking it down. We’re getting so much closer. I can almost taste the blood in my mouth and I growl, low, in expectation. All other life is still, holding its breath, as we chase our quarry.
I love the hunt.
Julia has always had problems sleeping. After years of lying awake at night she has found a kind of peace in routine. Her going to bed routine starts two hours before she wants to be asleep and is the same every night. The sameness helps her calm down, go into sleep mode. After a warm bath she has cup of extra-strong chamomile tea on a seat in the living room, or, if Kevin is watching television, in the bed room. She’s learnt that she can’t read or watch television, do cross words or sudoko. She has to avoid all of the things that people seem to think are relaxing but that sets her synapses firing. She needs to close down her brain, bit by bit, until she can get into bed, put on her mask and count her bones until she slips under.
Everything has to be just so. The bedroom must be completely dark and silent. The duvet has to be warm but not hot, the room should be on the cool side but not so cold she can’t let her feet hang over the side of the bed. She can’t abide having her feet tangled in bed clothes. She doesn’t take sleeping pills. Herbal ones don’t work and pharmaceutical ones take her dream away.
Most nights Kevin slips into bed after her, pulls her tight and kisses her shoulder. It makes Julia feel safe and loved. And then he falls asleep with a contented little grunt and a twitch and she’s wide awake again. Wide awake and trapped under the protection of his warm, heavy arm.
Sometimes Kevin opening the bedroom door is enough to wake her but she always pretends she’s still asleep. That’s part of the routine too. If she acknowledges that she’s awake she will be. All night.
Timing is important. It works best if Julia is asleep properly when Kevin comes to bed, or when they go to bed at the same time. Then she sinks, slowly, into dreamland. When she wakes up before she’s started dreaming, when her brain is still looking for a reason to go over the day, she cannot fall asleep again.
Some nights she gives up. There’s no point in worrying about not sleeping, it just makes it worse. After listening to Kevin’s breathing in the dark for a few hours, she gets up. There’s always something to do. Marking is good, it makes her fall asleep with her head on her desk, but if she doesn’t have marking there’s always ironing or a long, long walk. The park is pretty at night. She feels at home in the dark and the fog.
Julia sometimes wonders why she bothers with her elaborate routine, why she doesn’t just give up and let sleep come or go as it wants, but then she remembers. Julia wants to sleep because she wants to dream.
We’re still running, still following the heady scent. There are two animals running ahead of us now. I am so close that I can feel the air move where they have been. The scent of their fear is delicious and it makes me feel so alive. But the forest is changing. The trees are growing sparse, square, tall. The leaves and moss that cover the ground morphs into black asphalt. We still run. The scents change too, as the forest turns into a city. The smells of mould and mushrooms are replaced by stone and fossil fuels. The prey separate and the pack splits in two.
The sound of the man’s feet slapping the pavement and his panicked breathing is easy to hear despite the noise of the city. The lights above us hum and there’s traffic but too far away to matter. As we run past closed doors I hear snatches of music and arguments from open windows. The man ahead of me is too winded to call for help. My feet beat the pavement with a lighter sound than those of the man running ahead of me. My breathing is less ragged than his. I sound excited, hungry, keen, where he sounds close to accept that I will catch him. Another female is running next to me. I can smell her excitement and it matches mine. We laugh and lengthen our strides just a little. I can almost touch him.
The first time Julia dreamt that she was a wolf she was five years old. It was just a glimpse of a dream, really, a panting, running sensation of joy and power. It was such a strong feeling, that she has never forgotten it. Instead she has dedicated her nights to having that dream again, and again, for longer and with more detail.
The dream changes. The wolf she is in the dream has grown up, just as she has, and learnt where she fits in. She has a mate, in the dream too, and he runs with her. Sometimes they change from wolves to humans. That does not affect the hunt: they continue running, following the scent and getting closer and closer to their prey.
Julia and her pack never catch their prey.
They’ve caught small things, mice, rabbits and foxes, but they don’t count. Things you can bring down on your own are for cubs, for children. Only the large animals she hunts with the pack count.
She wakes up, a jaw’s length from felling a deer, two steps from grabbing a woman they’re chasing. While the hunt goes on she is perfectly happy. Everything is just as it should be. Her joy would reach a crescendo in the kill. Then, just before her moment of glory, she wakes up.
Some mornings the disappointments makes her cry. It is not a good start to the day. She hates coming in to school with swollen eyes. Despite the dream’s hangover she wants to dream it again. Every night, she takes her bath, drinks her tea, counts her bones, in the hope that she’ll be running with the pack and that this night, they will bring down their prey.
I’m in a changing room, covered in blood and feeling great. The other female is covered in blood too. We’re trying to wipe some of the gore off, giggling like school girls whenever our eyes met. I know that in the sports hall, on the other side of the wall, is a mess of blood and body parts. We caught him and tore him to pieces. I can’t quite remember what shape I was in when we finally got him but I remember enjoying the kill more than anything I’ve ever done. I’m still enjoying it. At the end of the greatest hunt of my life, I feel so strong, so full of light. The man’s screams were flirtatious, the tearing and splattering was joyous. Blood smells so sweet compared to the other muck in a human’s body. The man’s flesh was even better than his blood. He tasted so good and I smell of him now. I’m covered in him and I love the feeling. I want to do it all again. I smile at my friend and we burst out laughing. Then we’re running again. Someone is coming and we’re laughing fit to burst at what they will find.
Julia doesn’t wake up in her usual panic but slowly, comfortably. She feels rested and happy. The bed is just warm enough and the sheets feel soft against her skin. What little light she can see around the edges of her mask suggests that it is early morning but not too early. She stretches slowly, enjoying the feeling. She wants to wake Kevin, to maybe cuddle for a while before starting the day. She stretches out her hand to touch him but finds something cold and wet. She takes her mask off to see what is wrong.
Kevin isn’t there. Instead there is mess. A bloody, gristly mess. Kevin’s side of the bed is covered in oxidising blood and lumps of meat. The mess spills over onto the floor, towards the window, covering the rug and sticking to the walls and curtains. There is so much blood. Julia’s side of the bed is clean except for where her bloody hand has rested on the white linen. For a second she just sits there, staring at the mess that was her boyfriend. Then she puts her hand out and touches the blood again. She brings her wet fingers to her lips.
She recognises the taste of him. He tastes of joy.
If you’re here because you searched for me after reading In Woodsmore Village in Scotsman Magazine this weekend: thank you! Thank you for reading and thank you for taking the time to find out more about me. This is my blog. Here, I write about writing, and track the progress of my first novel.
Edinburgh’s a great place to write: it’s got an active and supportive writing community. It also has the Book Festival and it was at the Festival, year before last, that I decided to take writing seriously. That meant writing and sharing what I’d written. Hansel & Gretel, and Me is the first competition I’ve entered and I am over the moon to have won. I didn’t expect to. I didn’t really expect to be on the shortlist.
In my day job, I’m a technical writer and copywriter. (Basically, I write manuals and websites for software companies.) That’s a very different thing from writing fiction. Interesting in its way but necessarily more restrictive. The very freedom of fiction, the fact that you can go anywhere you want, is daunting. It is also what makes it such fun to write – and to read.
If you want to read more of my writing, have a look at the Read me page. It’s got links to the few pieces I’ve got on this site, as well as details of my published pieces.
Happy new year! Mine got off to a great start when Bryan Christie called me from the National Library of Scotland to tell me that I won the Hansel and Gretel creative writing competition they ran with the Scottish Ballet. I’m pleased as Punch.
The brief was to come up with a story of no more than 2,000 words that ends when the children go in to the forest. What happens next – the gingerbread house, the witch and the oven – we know only too well. But the bit before is more of a mystery. The brief moved the woodcutter’s house out of the forest and in to a village where children had been disappearing. There are now only two left and they’re not safe because there’s something evil out there. What is it and what’s happening?
Re-thinking a text that you know well is difficult but also great fun. My first stumbling block was the village – what village? What other children? Suddenly, the story grew an entire community that hadn’t existed before. I tried to think of scenes that would work in a ballet, scenes that are expressive and have emotional resonance, and weave them into the plot. 2,000 words doesn’t stretch to both detailed description and plot so there’s only one crowd scene, I tried to use mood and sketches to fill in the rest. I don’t know if the judges saw what I intended them to see but the story clearly worked.
The 12 of us who were on the short-list have been invited to a writing masterclass with Louise Welsh, who was one of the judges, and I believe we’ll get to see behind the scenes of the ballet too. According to the brief “some of the ideas explored will be used to develop the ballet production“. Some of my ideas, or moods, might inspire Christopher Hampson, the choreographer. The thought that I’m part of a greater creative process is really exciting.
As an extra bonus, my story – In Woodsmore Village – will be published in Scotsman Magazine. The planned date is Saturday, January 26, but that could change. I’ll keep you posted.
I wrote a story for an end of the year flash competition but it was rejected very quickly. Instead of sitting on this until next year and trying to hawk it then, I’m sharing it here. As you read this, I’ll be warm and cosy in the house that inspired the story, talking to the families I borrowed for the characters and, occasionally, looking out the kitchen window to the lake below. It’s covered in snow because the below is a work of fiction, not a true story.
The talented Lynsey May kindly asked me last week if I wanted to pick up the baton and share my Next Big Thing. Over the last few weeks, writers have written about what they’re doing next and asking other writers to do the same. The resulting blog posts make for inspiring reading! I couldn’t turn down a chance to brag a little, so here goes.
1. What’s the title of your latest story?
Salanntùr. It’s one of seven stories in a collection called The Seven Wonders of Scotland.
2. Where did the idea for the story come from?
Birlinn put out a call forsubmission for an anthology of stories about imaginary Scottish wonders that said something about Scotland as she is today, or what she might be tomorrow. I’d been reading an article about an idea for slowing global warming: kilometer-high salination towers floating around the Faroes. It was in part based on research done at the University of Edinburgh. I though “what if that worked? What if we’d been working towards that solution for decades – how would that affect Scotland, and what could it mean for the world?”
3. What genre does your story fall under?
4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?
The main two characters are Janet, a journalist from Glasgow, and Arthur, a not so nutty professor. In my mind, Janet looks something like Fiona Bruce but she’s not an actress. Hm. Let’s pick Kelly Macdonald for that role, though she’s a little too young. Arthur is tall, tweed-clad, and ageing gracefully in the salty air of northern Scotland. I need someone distinguished who can make us believe him when he flips from warm to cold. John Hurt would be perfect.
See? Don’t they look great? Now imagine them wind-swept and covered in salt. (Images from Wikipedia.)
5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your story?
It’s Scotland’s greatest gift to the world – a kilometre high tower that will float around the world’s oceans to spray a thin mist of salt water into the air, reflecting sunlight out towards space, cooling the earth – but it is a controversial gift because of how the building of it affects the local environment.
6. Will your story be self-published or represented by an agency?
Neither. Salanntùr is part of an anthology, The Seven Wonders of Scotland, and launches at Blackwell’s Bookshop, in Edinburgh, 18:30 on November 27th. Come along! Kirsti Wishart, Gavin Inglis and I will read from our stories. Gerry Hassan, the editor, will be there too.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?
I should know that to the minute, but I don’t. I wrote the first draft in stages to get it in to review with my writer’s group. The first version they saw took maybe four hours to put together and was a magazine article and a long list of bullet points. (The one that said “Epiphany here” got a good laugh.) I think I spent another six or eight hours filling in the gaps before I had something that can be called a first draft. It was way too long so I spent some time whipping it into shape.
8. What other stories would you compare it to within your genre?
The format – split between the first-person article that the journalist writes after her visit to Sallantùr and a third-person account of her experiences there – feels well established but I can’t think of a particular story that I’ve read that uses it. Books often use that structure but then the introductions are proportionally shorter.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this story?
My friend Helen Jackson told me about Birlinn’s call – I wouldn’t have know anything about it if she hadn’t mentioned it. Then I played with different ideas. The salt spraying tower came to me quite quickly, but in its first incarnation, it was a bone-white, 150 meters tall, 2,000 year-old salt-spraying tower that rose from the middle of Loch Ness. Imagine that long valley, dusted in salt, sparkling dully in the sunshine: black water, white, white ground and a spire, straining towards the sky. It was a nice image, but rather too baroque for what I was trying to say.
10. What else about your story might pique a reader’s interest?
It has everything you might want in a story: strong characters, evocative environments and science. I’d like to visit Salanntùr, it’s an intersting place. It’s a pity it’s fictional.
Now, I’m passing the Next Big Thing baton on to Gavin Mcmenemy. Gavin’s was my first writer’s group (it was a small group) and writes great stories, often, but not always, with in the sci-fi genre. He has a story in the Diamond Light Source short story anthology Light Reading. The cover art is, in fact, an illustration for his story. So, what’s next? Take it away Gavin!
The table of content is rather attractive too. It’s got Lin Anderson, Alasdair Gray, Andrew Greig and Agnes Owens, as well as two of my writer’s group colleagues, R.A. Martens and Carol Farrelly. The stories I’ve read so far have been great. It’s an interesting mixture of poetry, short stories and even a comic.
The collection is available from Amazon now. (You can even read a bit of my story online: just click Look inside and then my name for a teaser page.)
The official launch is at Blackwells, from 18:00 on August 28th. Come along!