Making Friends With Ducks (Taking Writing Retreats)

IMG_0988At home, there are always things to do. Even if those things are reorganising the drawers or picking hair up from the carpet (don’t ask). Escaping those things is tricky, unless you have the chance to run away for a little while.

I used to think writing retreats were pretty self indulgent and maybe useless. I now know that even if they are a little indulgent it is in a wonderful, enriching kind of way and they are nearly always very useful. Even if you spend quite a lot of the time making friends with ducks or worrying about how close that cow is about to get.

First of all, the guilt of being away from home and your normal life for a week tends to work wonders. Then there’s a distinct lack of distractions. You’re not as likely to pick up the hair from the carpet when it’s not your carpet – or your hair.

And then there’s a glimmer of that great feeling you get when you’re on a proper holiday. That ‘everything is out of my hands because no one can contact me’ feeling. It’s a good one when you’re trying to work.

IMG_0991So far, I’ve tried hiring a little flat to myself, booking a hotel room (both off season) and renting a place with other writing friends. I was also lucky enough to go to Cove Park through the Scottish Book Trust. The four experiences were really different (in the first flat I felt lonely, in the hotel I ate a lot of sneaky olives and oatcakes in my room and at Cove Park I stared at the sky a lot), but ultimately, it was the getting away that was the important thing.

Finding the time and money to escape isn’t easy, especially when it’s to do something that ultimately only benefits you, but it’s really valuable when it comes to getting work done. Sure, it means that instead of holidays where I relax and stuff I tend to spend any break working, but it’s super satisfying when the work is done.

There’s also a bunch of retreats you can apply to, including Cove Park and the current James Hogg residency, but if you don’t mind skimping on comfort, teeny hotels can be pretty cheap. And if it means you’ll spend some time really understanding a project or getting some words down, it’s totally worth it.

The Dreaded ‘Between Projects’ Dip

a manuscriptYou people who always have three different book ideas on the go – the ones who have notebooks filled with plots that are straining at the leash and who never seem to be without something to work on – I envy you. I know you sometimes probably have more things to work on than you can cope with, but I bet you never have to suffer the between projects moment.

I mean, that moment when you realise the thing you’ve been working on for years is at a point where you’ve either finished it or you need to let it rest. The moment when you find yourself casting around for something to fill all the time you’ve been sinking into the same imaginary world for ages, when you look for the next big thing to keep yourself busy – and find there’s nothing there.

Not nothing. There are plenty of things there. It’s just you haven’t got a hold of any of them yet. You’re warily walking round the side of them, kicking the edges and wondering whether there’s enough in this idea to sustain you through a whole book. And it’s hard to know which one looks great on the outside but doesn’t have the guts you need or which crappy exterior is actually going to open up some amazing characters for you.

So you’re wandering around in a funk, trying to work out what you’re doing and remember who you were before you started the last big project. Reminding yourself that you felt pretty crappy then too, the last time this happened, and that somehow, you got over it then and you’ll definitely get over this between projects moment too.

Sometimes, perseverance pays off

Routine desk style

Ah, home working

Just over a year ago, I got over my fear of instability and insecurity enough to give up my full time job and embark on a career as a freelancer. For me, it’s definitely been the right choice, partly because it’s reinforced my determination to keep telling stories. It’s not easy to justify not writing when you’ve put a lot at stake to do it!

I’ve also been working very, very hard on not giving up when it comes to putting pen to paper. That’s not just in the last year, that one’s been taking a lot longer, but it’s finally been starting to pay off. I submitted no less than eight stories to the great Gutter, one after another, before I handed in one they liked enough to print this summer. Obviously, it would have felt good to have an immediate acceptance, but I think it was even better to have to try and try again. It certainly felt pretty sweet when I got the email.

SBTThe same feeling is hitting me this month, when I found out I’d been successful in securing a New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust. This is not the first year I’ve applied, it’s not even the second, and yes, I was a little bit crushed every time I didn’t make it, but if I hadn’t been willing to keep trying, well, I wouldn’t have got it this year.

Perseverance definitely pays off, but I do also think you have to be gentle with yourself. This year, I’ve mainly been working on a novel and I decided that while I was, I’d cut back on the number of short story submissions I was sending out. Why? Because I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle the inevitable flood of rejections while I was trying to work on something bigger. I was worried they’d make me lose faith when I needed to work in a bubble. It’s been good for me but it’s temporary. I always knew you had to keep slamming those keys no matter what, but now I’m completely convinced that if you keep trying hard enough, things will work out one way or another when it comes to words.

The Next Big Thing: Draigton’s Miracles

There’s a nice little bloggy round robin whatsit doing the rounds on the literary scene at the moment. The Next Big Thing is basically a chance for local writers to connect and share their current projects and the idea is that each writer answers some questions about their next big thing and nominates five new folks to do the same.

The lovely and talented Marianne Paget blogged about it beautifully last week and asked me to do the same this week, so here goes!

1. What’s the title of your latest story?
Here’s me, off to a typically tricky start. At the moment, it’s called Draigton’s Summer of Miracles, An Article of Faith, or ‘That Bloody Thing’, depending on the time of day and what mood I’m in.

2. Where did the idea for the story come from?
I found myself thinking about the changes that have befallen Scotland’s coastal villages within the last hundred years. At the same time, I became a little bit obsessed with stories of martyrs and people’s capacity to believe and somehow the two stands became nicely intertwined.

3. What genre does your story fall under?
Probably literary fiction I suppose. Or a subsection of that, anyway. Although, if there’s a genre that better describes a story about a small town unable to decide if it’s at the centre of a series of miracles or not, then that’s it.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?
This is a toughie. Also, unless it’s actually going to be a film, I’d like for people to picture the characters however they want to, rather than putting a specific face to a name.

5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your story?
After eight years in foster care, a teenager returns to her recession-gripped home town on the east coast of Scotland and starts wreaking havoc by seemingly performing a succession of small miracles.

6. Will your story be self-published or represented by an agency?
I think I’d prefer the help of an agency, to be honest. Although some people are doing very well going it alone, I’d love some support and advice along the way.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?
I’d say I spent about a year on the first draft. Although, I’ve been working on it for about a year and a half now and some sections are on their third or fourth draft while others are brand spanking new!

8. What other stories would you compare it to within your genre?

I can’t say compare, because that would be awfully presumptuous of me, but the books I adore that I think have inspired me to tackle a novel with such a broad collection of points of view have to be; White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson and We the Drowned by Carl Jensen.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this story?
The wonderful and terrifying power of the human mind to bend reality (what reality?) is the driving force behind this particular story, I think.

10. What else about your story might pique a reader’s interest?

There’s death, there’s sex, there’s plenty of scathing put downs and, hopefully, enough laughs to keep readers smiling despite some of the tough times it describes.

Next week, we’ll have the chance to read about some of the big things some of my favourite local(ish) writers have on their books. Kirsti Wishart, Karen Thirkell, Caroline von Schmalensee and two more who’ve still to confirm will let us know a little about the wondrous tales they’re currently weaving.

Rolling with the punches freelance style

By nature, I’m a routine driven kind of girl. I’m not saying I can’t deviate from the plans every now and then, but overall I find it easier when I have some idea of what’s coming ahead. I don’t know about you, but if it’s a workday, I want time to get into the mindset, and if it’s a day off, I want to be able to savour the thought of it beforehand. I do not hate a little forward planning now and then (although the big stuff, the life planning stuff, that can take a running jump).

Routine desk style

So the thing about the kind of life I’m leading at the moment, is that it’s not a very forward planning kind of life. Predicting when I’ll need to work and when I won’t is tough, because it’s not controlled by a pay check but is instead at the behest of clients, and we all know the fits of whimsy they are susceptible to.

Then there’s the real reason I gave up a full time job, because I wanted to be available to take chances on and enjoy things I wouldn’t when I was tied to someone else’s hours. While this freedom is wonderful, it goes against my natural inclinations pretty strongly. Sometimes I find myself tussling over how great and experience will be and how much it’s going to disturb my made up routine.

When the sense of adventure wins, it’s more than worth it. The other week, Fin and I went to see two shows on relatively short notice – The Bone Yard and 2401 Narratives which were both grand in very different ways. Then there was an already planned visit to Literary Death Match, a last minute decision to travel through for the always excellent Words Per Minute – all shows well worth re-jigging plans for.

But the thing that got me musing on his topic is really the way my plans have shifted in the last 24 hours – in which I agreed to help set up a short story event, fill in a last minute slot reading at Nights at the Circus tomorrow and attend a fabulous looking scientific creative writing workshop run by the delightful Tania Hershman on Friday morning. All of which I wouldn’t have been able to do this time last year, what a lucky SOB I feel at the moment.

Rolling with the punches might not always be the easiest, but damn does it help you get the best out of freelance life. If you see my whinging about my plans being upset, please do feel free to kick me in the shins.

The art of procrastination

Have taken my levels of procrastination to a whole new level by drawing and (badly) colouring in a map of the fictional towns, complete with important buildings, that I’m writing about.

May need someone to save me from myself. Tell me I’m not the only one?

Bad morning habits of a freelance writer

    1. Check emails before getting out of bed or even opening eyes properly.

    2. Close eyes again in a huff when emails are all spam related/have a little cry when they contain rejections.

    3. Tell self you will work on your novel/short stories/sonnets before anything else, instantly check work emails.

    4. Spend four hours writing about insurance/pets/holidays to earn a small amount of money.

    5. Take frequent coffee breaks but forget to eat proper breakfast.

    6. Get around to opening your creative files.

    7. Stare at them in despair.

    8. Realise you missed breakfast and eat whatever unsuitable handful of biscuits you can scrounge.

    9. Return to computer and find yourself writing about insurance/pets/holidays again.

    10. Decide you need a change of scenery. Comfort yourself for your lack of creative work with a large cake in your favourite café. Tell self it’s too late in the day to start writing your opus anyway, better to get a fresh start the next morning.

You mean I can’t check my emails on holiday?

In recent years, Fin and I have noticed how difficult it is to have an actual holiday. You know, the kind where you just kick back and relax. We’re always thinking about, well, stuff. Emails to answer, stories to plot, articles to write, people to worry about: all those things, all the time. I’m especially guilty, I check messages on my phone compulsively, as though I could find an email there that will end the world if I don’t answer it immediately. Ridiculous.

So with this habit in mind, I wondered how well I would get on during our short holiday on the coast, staying in a fabulous cottage from The Creative Retreat folks that not only had no net connection, but also no mobile reception or even a landline. Surprisingly well, it turned out.

The cottage was lovely, the village beautiful, the weather rough but forgiving and the peace very welcome. Putting myself on call constantly doesn’t normally feel as though it’s bothering me, but I have this feeling that, maybe if I didn’t, I might just be a little bit happier and get a hell of a lot more writing done.

I can’t wait for our next holiday.

What was I meant to be doing again?

Oh yeah, I was meant to be, like, you know, writing stuff. Except I haven’t been, even though I did my desk up all nice and everything.

Well, that’s not true, I have, it’s just been of the copy variety. That’s the thing about freelance isn’t it, you always want to say yes to every job, just in case it’s the last one that’s ever offered. Never fear though, I have lovely friend who already tuts and tells me off when I accept too many briefs and, get this, the other week I turned down a job for what was, I think, the first time ever.

So I’ve not been getting as much done as I wanted, but I did do some successful Christmas shopping today. Spying a million things I never realised I wanted along the way, of course – the dangers of going to the shops, something I don’t normally do.

And last week was grand, because we had the launch of the latest issue of the Edinburgh Review, with its lovely cover image from Fin, and the fabulous Gwendoline Riley and Ewan Morrison treated us to some top quality readings. Happy times. I also enjoyed the wine, maybe a little too much.

Overall, I’m pretty good and people even keep telling me I look refreshed. I think working from home (and sleeping for more than six hours a night) totally suits me.

I’m a freelance writing ninja now, right?

Source: Ian Dawson

It’s that time of year again, when all of my online information streams start creaking under the weight of Nano-related updates. Somehow, despite (or maybe because of) never taking part, the whole thing tends to make me feel a little blue.

Probably because when it comes to fiction, I am a very slow writer, and if I tried to complete 50,000 words in a month, I suspect I’d fail so badly I’d drive myself away from the notebook for a while. Still, when I see so many people hitting their wordcounts and creating something new in such a short space of time, I end up feeling a little jealous and I guess a little guilty too.

And it’s been very much in my mind this month, as it’s my first official month of being freelance – a.k.a that magical time when I will become some for of writing ninja. Needless to say, I have not been writing very much. It’s not that I haven’t been busy though, on the contrary my days have been pretty packed.

Putting together a new site for the Edinburgh Review has taken up lots of time, but I’m really happy we’ve got it up now, and that we’re planning on posting more extracts and excerpts from some of our contributors soon.

I also had the good fortune to take part in two readings this month, the first was for 4’33”, a wonderful audio magazine with lots of short stories for your listening pleasure, it was an excellent night and I was really impressed by the quality of the readers. A big thank you to Mike Wendling who runs the whole site solo and put on the cracking event for no monetary recompense.

Lynsey May reading at Words Per Minute, Photo Neil Douglas Thomas

Photo credit Neil Thomas Douglas (

The second reading was at Words Per Minute, where I was again blown away to be included in such a sterling line up, and did very much enjoy getting to be part of their Sex Special. These lovely ladies – Kirsty Logan, Helen Sedgwick and Kirsten Innes, all fab writers themselves – do a grand job of choosing complementary acts and mixing readings with music and film in a way that ensures you’re always engaged.

So, I haven’t exactly been setting my wourdcount on fire, but I;m hoping there’s still time for that. Still almost a third of November left after all. I just have to remember that ninjas tend to get out of bed and get down to business more often than I’d necessarily like.