Looking after your ego

Today, for the first time, I sent an email to an editor to ask if I’d lost his reply to a submission I’d made.

Editors are busy people so I don’t want to query, but it’s been 74 days, and the guidelines said to please query after 60. So I did. I expected to find out that a rejection had gone missing (I have searched through my spam folder, but you never know) but got more cheerful news.

No, I haven’t made a sale. But I might. The editor said the story is on his to read list because the second round comment was that he had to buy it. I’ll find out if he agrees sometime this week.

I might still get a rejection but I am over the moon. Not only did the story get through the first sift, but the second sift really liked it. Whatever happens, I know that someone other than me enjoyed it.

Someone told me recently that writers have huge egos but low self-esteem. I think that’s probably true for many artists – and many people – and it is certainly true for me. So I grab every kind word, every grain of positive feedback and clasp it to my chest as a kind of confidence-boosting floatation device. Of course, I get bad feedback too, but I try to let go of that after studying it closely. The trick  is to let the good buoy me up and try not to let the bad drag me down. Today, that was easy.

Thank you, kind editor, and  second-round reader with the positive comment, for giving me a boost.

Finding new markets and being irrational

I’m looking for markets – publications that my stories might fit, a home for my artistic endeavours. This means that I browse a lot of publication websites, trying to figure out what they want and if what I’ve got is good enough. There are a lot of good markets out there.

But then there are sites that I look at and I’m not sure that I want to submit to them, even if I think my story’s a great fit. Like readers all over the world, I judge the book from the cover. Or the market from the site, anyway. My main turn-offs are:

  • Bad writing.
  • A clunky and/or unattractive website.
  • Unnecessary or inconsistent capitalisation.

I want my literary gems to be set in a setting where they can shine. A setting that looks great and is easy to read, where the text stands out and isn’t cluttered with textures or images. One where the editors inspire confidence through their own fluent writing, clear focus and helpful instructions.

When I send my writer’s CV to a publisher or agent, I want them to recognise some of the publication’s I’ve appeared in and I want them to be impressed with – or at least not put off by – the ones they haven’t seen before.

What has this to do with being irrational? I have good, rational reasons for not submitting to a market, don’t I?

Except for the thing about capitalisation. Unmotivated capitalisation irritates me beyond reason.

Finding new markets: tools of the trade

Last year, I wanted to get four pieces of writing published. I only managed three. When I analysed possible reasons, the most obvious one was this: I didn’t send anything out for six months.

Not everything you send is accepted, far from it, but if you don’t send stuff, it can’t be accepted. I wish there were pixies that flitted about looking in drawers and scanning hard drives to find pieces whose authors were too shy to submit and moved them from obscurity into the sunny gaze of  a willing publisher. But it doesn’t work like that. You have to be your own pixie.


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.

Thank you again for stopping by.


Hansel and Gretel creative writing competition

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.

How many copies will I buy? Oh, quite a few.

The Next Big Thing: Salanntùr and The Seven Wonders of Scotland

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 for  submission 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?

Literary fiction.

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.

The Seven Wonders of Scotland6. 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!

Status update: successes and failures

I had targets and goals. A plan. It’s been four months since my last update so it’s time to have a hard look at where I am against it.

  • Send out one new story per month: it kind of depends on how you count it, but I think I’m still behind by one story. Editing. I need to finish editing the three stories that are sitting in my pile, waiting to be finished and submitted.
  • Send each story out at least five times before retiring: in progress. I have five stories doing the rounds at the moment.
  • Start plotting novel: I won’t claim that it’s entirely complete, but I’m far along enough that I can get started.
  • Start writing novel: started. I’ve got some 15,000 words which means I’m behind.
  • Apply to Story Shop: total fail. My story did not get selected. Better luck next year.
  • Do three spoken performances: three down, one to go.
    That was as far as I got the last time I took stock. Since then I’ve added goals…
  • Make £75 from writing: done. Once the cheques arrive.
  • Get four stories published: three down, one to go. (The Wolf at the Door was on Flashes in the Dark in May, Foundling will be in New Writing Scotland 30 in august, and Salanntúr will be in The Seven Wonders of Scotland in October.) I’ve got five months to sell one more story. Wish me luck!

Finding the peace to focus: eliminating distractions

Making the most of the evening, getting stuff written between dinner and bedtime, means cutting out the faffing. You know, all the getting ready, just going to check this or do that first…  Faffing gets between me and productivity so cutting it is important.

  1. I write on my laptop, not my desktop.
    My desktop’s in my office and the office is where I work. I need to avoid work-related distractions to get anything written.
  2. I write in my special chair, wrapped in my special blanket if it’s cold.
    The chair is comfortable and placed so that I can’t see the TV or look out the window.
  3. I plug my headphones in and listen to music.
    I need music that I like, but not love, so that I can, to a great extent, filter it out. It’s a careful balance: music’s that’s too good, or too engaging takes me out of the  story and into the music. Not productive.
  4. The last step is closing down any open web browsers.
    My special chair is not for research but only for writing. It’s a rule.

Despite the fact that I want to write, sometimes my mind skitters away from the task. If I remove as many distractions and barriers as I can, my mind is forced to focus and get down to business. That’s my theory, anyway. So far, it’s working.

I’ll be sitting on my special chair a lot over the coming weekend because I have a commission* for a story and want to write the first draft ASAP so that I have time to get it reviewed.

* Yes, a commission! I won a competition and the prize is a commission. I found this out almost exactly a month after having found out that I’d sold my first story. It’s been a a corker of a month! I’ve been published online and by the end of the year, two anothologies will feature my stories. Oh, and I signed up to read at the next Illicit Ink event. Corker. Of. A. Month. (I also collected three rejections. The universe hasn’t suddenly gone entirely out of whack: rejections continue.)

The Wolf at the Door is on Flashes in the Dark from today

If you’ve come to this post from Flashes in the Dark, welcome! Thank you for visiting and I hope you enjoyed the story. (For those of you who came from somewhere else: I have a story – The Wolf at the Door – on Flashes in the Dark, an online horror flash fiction site, today.)

There are a few more stories on this website, shorts that I wrote last year:

Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Later this year, you can also read me in New Writing Scotland 30 where I have a story, Foundling, about a woman who finds a lost little girl on her way to work on morning.

If you’re in Edinburgh, UK, or nearby, you can occasionally see me read at Illicit Ink and at other events. You can find out more about where I’ll be on the Events page. (Check out Edinburgh City of Literature if you’re interested in readings and other literary events. There are always things on.)

Acceptance #2

On Saturday, I had a second acceptance. This wasn’t for a paying market, but I’m still very pleased. Martin is, in his short form, finally getting published somewhere. On May 25th, The Wolf at the Door, the short version of Liz & Bob that I read at Illicit Ink last year, will appear on Flashes in the Dark. Flashes in the Dark is a flash fiction site that serves up a daily morsel of horror.

I’m pleased that someone liked my story enough to share it with their readers but I’m also pleased that I found out just in time to add it to my list of publications before submitting a story for Story Shop.

Story Shop is part of the plan. I’m hoping (fingers crossed, wood knocked on, superstitions engaged) that they’ll take my story so I get to read at Edinburgh International Book Festival. It would be the coolest thing ever.