On THE RIDE again: (2) Who’s in charge here?

I clicked save for the last time and sighed deeply. Instead of almost 44000 words, my manuscript now weighs an athletic 40500 words. Ready to take on the world. All right, all right, I hoped to lose a little bit more, but here’s the thing: I’m not sure that I am entirely in charge here.

Oh, that’s funny, is it?

After all, I’m the writer; I get it. And I can make the characters do whatever they want, you’re right about that, too. But sometimes, a plot strand does just emerge and take over. Take a look at the draft blurb for Punch

blurb 2

‘You had me at ‘dancing bear’, my clever illustrator friend said.

‘I was just really intrigued by the dancing bear’ said my pal.

‘More about the dancing bear!’ requested my editor. 

All right then!

But as soon as I started to dig, the waters became muddied. Far from being a majestic spectacle, many dancing bears were being mistreated: a nose ring cruelly inserted through their nose, the most sensitive body part. This was attached to a heavy metal chain. In addition, the bear was often also prodded with a long stick to force it one way or the other. More research showed that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was just founded decades before my story, and Queen Victoria herself was patron. Wow – there was an interesting story-line here, slap bang in the no-man’s land of changing attitudes. I was hooked.

I exercised that particular muscle of the novel quite a bit over this rewrite, set as it is twenty years or so before bear-leading is actually made illegal. I didn’t want to write a story about animal cruelty; that had been done before.

Image result for dancing bear
Michael Morpurgo tackles the subject in his children’s book.

But many questions about our relationship with animals are now raised through the plot. Were all bear-tamers monsters who didn’t care about the suffering of their creatures? Was it possible to own a performing bear, and care deeply about its welfare at the same time? How did Victorians perceive such entertainment? 

One thing is certain: This version of Punch is quite a different book that the one I submitted first time round. In essence, there is still a lot that is upbeat and good in it. But at the same time, if it’s gained a bit of depth, provokes a bit of thought I’m not upset. Let the dancing bear be in charge for a while!

In other news:

  • Work has got underway on the cover and I am so excited! I’m lucky enough to be consulted by my publishers, and it’s such a buzz!
  • I look forward to appearing on an XPO North panel on writing and publishing in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland on 8th June.
  • Punch will be launched at Waterstones Inverness on 26th October, so save the date!



On THE RIDE again (1) The Panic Diet

It’s springtime. Birds sing, trees sway, rivers tinkle gently by, and every magazine cover in every newsagent bears its own version of this:

⇒⇒⇒⇒Mag cover

I make derisory remarks to anyone who will listen: my friends and family are well aware of my perpetual outrage with the magazine industry and its obsession with external beauty.

But when it comes to being on the Ride to publication again, it seems that I have no option but to concern myself with these weighty matters. Punch is due to be published in October, and I am near the end of the first round of consultation and edits.

By this I don’t mean reading over my own, rough manuscript – no. I mean the process when you have made your manuscript as good as you can make it, then show it to the publishers. They like it. They take it on and commit to it and spend time reading it properly, taking notes, engaging with the text.

And in the resulting discussion it turns out: apart from some passages which need a little work, my manuscript in general is a little flabby. It would be healthier and leaner and fitter for purpose if it shifted all the bits that aren’t strictly necessary. In my case, this amounts to around 4000-5000 words which I must try to shave off the length of this book.shock

It’s HARD, this; and just like any diet worth its salt, it hurts!

But wait, there is an additional complication – not only am I asked to reduce the length. There is a particular aspect of the story which, according to the editor, is interesting enough to elaborate on: ‘More about the dancing bear, please. Kids will love the dancing bear!’

What??? More???

And so it came to pass that, while ruthlessly slicing away my favourite passages, I now began gathering new material again: replacing the junkfood of cliches and lazy phrases with the carrot sticks of additional research, to build up the muscle my story needed.

I have good days and bad days. But like the holiday panic diet, there is a deadline. That plane will leave.

So, is it working?

Too early to tell for certain.

I guess it’ll be up to the readers to judge whether Punch is in great shape when he finally gets out there.




#Bookface – the publicity campaign that ran itself! Plus, three ways to help the writer friend in your life!

I just wanted to say a monumental thanks to all who had a go at a #FirforLuck #Bookface ! Think of all the fun I can have with these images – and there are a handful more, too. It’s given me lots of fab pictures to share, plus all the print-outs will definitely go up on the wall in my writing room.

You have helped me out enormously!

So, just as it seems timely, I’ll give you three ways to help the writer friend in your life:

  1. Take a happy pic with their book – it communicates more than a thousand words and they can use it again and again to stir up interest in their book. Hey, wait: you’ve already done that!
  2. Write a review on Amazon/Goodreads/Waterstones etc – I can’t stress enough what a difference a good review makes. Your writer friend will be eternally grateful and love you forever.
  3. Share. Take every opportunity to cleverly, subtly and manipulatively weave references to your writer friend’s book into conversations. That way, your writer friend will not feel so alone in doing this. Your friendship will reach a new level of depth and mutual appreciation as you embarrass yourselves together – and enthusiasm is infectious.

So there you have it! I am very lucky to have you all. Thank you! x

Forget New Year Resolutions…(?)

After all, they might not work. You won’t be able to stick with them anyway. Waste of time, right? You can’t guarantee that they’ll change anything, and besides, you couldn’t face the disappointment if it all came to nothing. Like taking medicine when you’re ill – why would you take medicine when it may make no difference. No point even trying, regardless what the doctor says, surely.

Fine! I’m being devil’s advocate, because New Year resolutions have served me incredibly well in the past.Image result for clipart new year's resolution writing

Don’t get me wrong, there has been no shortage of failure over the years: mainly the lose weight and exercise more type of failure. But in writing terms, it’s been the kick-start I needed more than once. Of course you are going to take the medicine if the doctor says it may help. You’re no worse off, and it might just make a difference. My very first novel was completed on the back of a New Year resolution. I began blogging a couple of years after, again as a direct result of a New Year. A year ago in January, I signed up to Twitter so that I could participate in Twitter Pitch opportunities, a step that has inadvertently led to the publication of Fir for Luck in September 2016.

This time round, I have realised: I hardly submitted or entered competitions this past year and I’d like to challenge myself with shorter fiction, picture book texts, articles… as well as persisting with children’s novels. I have finished or near-finished manuscripts on file that I need to send out with much more conviction. I need to actively seek opportunities to promote Fir for Luck, now that it’s been out there for a few months. Plenty fodder for resolutions. My friend Aoife made the excellent suggestion to aim for 100 rejections a year. Ambitious, but – regrettably – realistic and utterly achievable!

Which brings me to my five TOP TIPS for New Year resolutions:

  1. Aim for things YOU can deliver. If you state ‘this year I am going to pen a No1 bestseller‘ or ‘this year I will get published’, you are promising what only others can do. Tricky, that!
  2. Make resolutions that go with the type of person you are, not against it. I find that I can stick to my writing resolutions because I already love it. I fail in my exercise resolutions because I’m going against type.
  3. Make more than one, and keep at least some of them small and achievable. Last year, signing up to Twitter took me mere minutes, and I could already tick off one of my aims for the year.
  4. Go for something that will enrich your life in some way, or the lives of others. One of my resolutions  this year is to write to people more. Although I write for many hours a week, I only got to the letter B in my address book for Christmas cards. I know, failure indeed! I have resolved to write a postcard to somebody every day in January. I will buy and address all the postcards and put stamps on them (that way I’ll have to write them, right?). Postcards don’t take long to write, and it’ll be a small gesture, keeping in touch with people I care about.
  5. Be brave and don’t overthink it all. But DO tell someone about your resolutions and give them the right to ask how you’re getting on.

We may all need to trick ourselves into taking the next step. That is all. And it may just work.


2016. A Year of Firsts

So it’s December, and the usual row rages: who is included on the list of finalists for BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Why him? Why not her?Image result for sports personality of the year

I suppose it’s a natural time to look back a little; to reflect and evaluate.

It’s no secret that 2016 was a very exciting year for me: Image result for clipart FirstMy first publication contract. My first book out there. My first book signing, my first book launch, my first editing process with actual publishers. My first #SCBWI conference, my first #BookWeekScotland. My first Book Festival as committee chair (for NessBookFest). My first venture into Twitter. My first paid gig as a writer. My first book trailer. My first radio interview. 

When I look back, New Year’s resolutions have always played quite an important part at moving me on to the next stage. I’m the sort of person who needs the proverbial kick. I can even administer it myself – I can be pretty self-motivated if I need to be, but it has to be a kick nonetheless. Last year’s resolution was to stop fighting it and join Twitter. The hovering deadline then was the XPO North Pitching contest. I signed up, pitched my work and in a roundabout way, it did yield a publication contract. It certainly has been worth the effort multiple times over!

Many years ago I made another new year’s resolution: to finish a novel manuscript by the end of that year. I did it. It’s not my best work, but Rain on the Roof was the start of something for sure. If it wasn’t for that book, none of the rest of them might exist at all. Entering competitions, submitting to agents and publishers – all of these were resolutions of one kind or another, and all of those have served me well. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge success story – I have failed in all attempts to curb eating/exercise more! But as a writer, I like fresh starts. New Year is really a deadline like any other. By then I will have an idea of my next goal, the next step, the next proverbial kick.Image result for clipart: kick

And as I ponder that, maybe you will too – and gear up for the next thing, be it big or small. 🙂

The Beast on the Broch – on the Pictish Trail

Image result for Beast on the Broch
The stunning cover for The Beast on the Broch, illustrated by Dawn Treacher

Out Tomorrow!

First off, a quick review:

The Beast on the Broch appealed to me as soon as I heard it would form part of the Cranachan Yesteryear list. What’s not to like: Pictish times (good!), a mythical beast (good!). Monks and Vikings and battles and chases, a bit of intrigue (goooood!). Yes – please, I’d like to review it, I said.

My son is now eleven. It seemed a good opportunity to take a break from Alex Rider and to read something together again instead of leaving him to his own devices with the Evil Emperor Penguin or whatever.

From the beginning, he was hooked. And so was I: outraged at the Dalriadans’ cheek, terrified and fascinated with Talorca’s discovery of the Beast, on the edge of my seat as events unfold, ever more dramatic, with the stakes climbing higher and higher with every chapter. Fulton does not shy away from the gruesomeness of life (and death) in Pictland, but neither does he stop there – modern readers will be able to sympathise with the wronged heroine when she confronts bullies, is at odds with her mother and defies authority to take things into her own hands, for good or for ill.

The strength of The Beast on the Broch, for me, lies in the simple way that it resurrects a world about which we know little, and yet renders it completely plausible. As a devotee of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, it’s what I long for in a book – to be taken to a world which fascinates me by being different, while also holding up a mirror to my reality. Enough difference to divert, enough plausibility to identify – and ultimately to care. It’s a fine line.

John Fulton doesn’t just find the balance on this tightrope.

He dances on it.

What we did next: The Pictish Trail

Inspired by our reading of Talorca’s tale, we decided to do a day trip up the coast and check out the Pictish Trail north of Inverness. Of course we wouldn’t be able to fit it all in, but both of us were intrigued by the mysterious depictions of the Beast.

WP_20160808_13_50_45_ProThe Tarbat peninsula was our natural starting place. Not only is the book set there, but it also is home to the excellent Tarbat Discovery Centre, an excellent introduction to the history of the area, housed in a converted church which was built on the ruins of the very monastery which features in The Beast on the Broch. There was no shortage of Pictish objects and artefacts which allowed us to picture Talorca’s life in more detail. The excavated areas, when combined with the tale that had already been placed in our imaginations through the book, made it easy to picture the village, and for those who may need a little help, the interactive programmes upstairs, including a computer 3D tour of a Pictish village, went a long way. It is to my shame that we spent as long in the gift shop as in the main display area. It isn’t huge but stocked such unusual jewellery and stationary, plus an incredibly tempting range of pictish-inspired pottery.

It began to rain and we still had a few chapters of the book to finish, so we sat in the car and read, while looking out over the same choppy sea that Talorca must have navigated to stake her nets.

WP_20160808_15_07_55_ProThe author’s note in The Beast on the Broch made it clear that John Fulton grew up in the lighthouse. It would have been a waste not to check it out, we decided, and drove a few minutes to Tarbat Head. What a dramatic location, causing a wave of genuine childhood envy in me.

It had stopped raining, but the wind made this mother of a nervous disposition reluctant to do any kind of clifftop walk. Instead, we headed down into a sheltered cove and unpacked out kindling and sausages. Let me tell you, there is absolutely nothing like the mixture of sea air, fresh cooked sausages on buttered rolls and sunshine battling its way through dark clouds. Close your eyes, and it’s what the Picts might have heard in this very place: rolling waves and crackling fire.

We drove on to the Shandwick Stone, our final stop of the day, if you don’t count a bit of seal-spotting at the Storehouse of Foulis on the way back.WP_20160808_15_42_20_Pro

Shandwick Stone is odd, like a wee bus shelter on the top of a small hillock overlooking the sea. Encased in a glass box to prevent further wear and tear, the Beast, carved into the huge upright stone jumped out at us as soon as we were able to decipher the faded chiselled lines.

And I understood. Fascinating as ordinary Pictish life may be, we humans are hardwired for mystery, aren’t we? Throw in something we can’t explain, and that’s what we’ll remember, ponder, agonise over, replay in our minds. Boars and people and cows don’t fire up the imagination like a Beast.

Like John Fulton says, it had to be about the Beast.

The Ride (20):The Wait

All my Advanced Review copies of Fir for Luck went out what feels like a lifetime ago. Scattered across England, Scotland, Ireland, even Canada, book bloggers and reviewers are hidden away in their reading closets. I had never given this a second’s thought, but it’s actually quite unsettling for the writer.

For the first time, my precious baby (henceforth referred to as Fir for Luck!) is out in the big bad world, all by itself!

It will need to make sense to readers, without me standing nearby, ready to jump in: ‘Oh, that bit. Yeah, what it means is …’ or ‘You see, what I was trying to do there was…’  Of course, that makes me worry even more. I’ve been choosing my readings for the book launch, and you begin to second-guess every single thing. You read it and read it and read it again, and by the end of it you wonder whether there is a single coherent sentence in this book that you’d be able to read out loud. Think I’m joking – just google writer self-doubt, and I’m sure you’d find plenty of examples of people who felt exactly like me.

Unhappily, this coincides with the very time that the final copy has gone to print and it is the writer’s job (alongside my super-supportive publishers) to whip up some sort of public interest in the book ahead of its launch. In other words, just when you’re feeling most vulnerable about your writing, that’s when you have to sell it with all your heart. Hmmmm.

Which is why I was so heartened by a couple of tweets I discovered the other night. I had not thought about this, but it seems natural, on reflection, that book bloggers talk to one another. Of course it makes sense.


So, despite the fact that no review has actually appeared yet (the official blog tour doesn’t start till later in the month – see last blog post!) I can breathe a little more easily. Thank you for the clues, bloggers! Maybe things are going to be ok…

PS The book trailer has had 269 views so far… really happy with that!