Should fiction be honest?

Door lock.Write about what you know, they cry. What you know is boring, write about something else, another voice shouts. Bleed onto the page. Hone your craft. Make sure there’s a truth at the heart of every story. Be sure not to stick rigidly to the facts, because it’s harder to make real life sound believable than fiction anyway.

The advice is endless. And what are we meant to make of it? Tell a little truth? Enough to be authentic and not enough to offend? Make sure that when you do tell it, you tell it with style? Reading recent articles and posts about poets derided for putting honesty ahead of form (imagine heavy quotation marks here, I’m not sold on this), has left one question going round and round in my head: what is authenticity?

And the answer I keep coming back to is that it’s something you can aspire to, not something that can be pinned down. Attempting to tell the truth doesn’t mean you will or can. Even memoirs can’t be completely authentic. Maybe especially memoirs, because who can resist the self editor that either makes you a slightly better person or, at least, a slightly more interesting one? And telling the truth isn’t always all that interesting.

Better must be deciding that you will be honest in your intentions, that you will unlock whatever it is you need to say – whether you say it in plain, realistic words and settings or in complicated flights of fantasy. Writing is about sharing, if people are willing to dive in and feel a connection, what does it matter whether it’s about small themes or big ones? Whether you reveal your secrets or not. Honesty is more than relating facts or telling the truth.

Lucia Joyce: Daughter, Dancer

As research for the novel I’ve been working on, I read a tons of books about dance last year (such a hardship, ha!). One was the fascinating Lucia Joyce: To Dance in her Wake by Carol Loeb Schloss.

It inspired me to try and write an essay but I realised Schloss had done a much better job of saying the things that needed said about the talented daughter of James Joyce so I picked up some charcoal and draw a few pictures with just a short few paragraphs instead. I totally recommend To Dance in her Wake, it’s well work a read.

Impassioned dancer, inspired costume designer, reluctant illustrator, post-modern thinker – Lucia Joyce was many things. She was also the daughter of one of the great names of literature.

To Joyce, Lucia remained a treasure. Even when he demanded she leave the stage and a combination of thwarted ambitions, suppressed talents and unfortunate events strained her nerves.

Career stalled, emotions scrutinised, potential avenues blocked, Lucia’s potential was squandered for another form of art. To some of his fans, Lucia became a danger. Not to herself or to others but to her father’s work. She spent 50 years of her life in a variety of institutions and while her father’s WIP finally came to fruition, her ambitions did not.

She’s since been remembered and reclaimed by some but dance, unlike literature, is only ever truly experience in the moment. One passion cannot be exchanged for another. Sadly, one artist could easily be sacrificed for another.


Writer: a not so secret identity

A decade or so ago, I was indulging in the idea that I might want to be some sort of writer. The ambition was old but the thought it was something I could pursue was brand new. Someone close to me asked whether it felt as though I had a secret identity. He was thinking of that ambition, that goal, as a sort of superhero-esque mission – one that could be turned to when crappy jobs and endless chores made days seem long and fruitless.

penAt the time, writing was a fairly private thing for me and an ambition not many of my friends knew about. It meant I was free to try and fail, and fail again, in private. People didn’t know what I was up to so they didn’t ask how my writing was going/if I’d had anything published recently/whether I had any spoken word gigs coming up. I could lick my wounds and learn my lessons quietly.

But as time went on and I put myself up for more and more opportunities, as I submitted to magazines and journals and shared links when work was published, as I started to stand up in front of a mic and read to my pals, as I (ahem) started a blog, writing was no longer any sort of secret – it’d become part of my public identity.

I took a partial pen name – May is my middle name – to keep creative writing separate from copywriting. Despite that, the lines quickly blurred. A pen name might take the pressure off your personal life, it doesn’t protect you from reviews, questions, online comments etcetera.

Exposure was inevitable and it was necessary. As much as I can’t help thinking it’d be nicer and easier to have writing as something I could retreat to, a pastime with no expectations attached and which would only be revealed in the moment of glory, I know that’s not how it works.

Even superheroes find their secret identities cause them no end of bother and anyway, to succeed you have to put yourself out there and accept how vulnerable it makes you. It’s much easier to make mistakes when no one is looking but if you want to improve, the only way to do it is to let other people in and to pay attention to what they’re saying. Chances are, most of them are trying to help and support you. just don’t tell them they’re now officially the sidekicks on your writing mission.

Do(n’t) give up the day job

It’s been nearly four years since I said goodbye to my safe, secure and somewhat soul crushing job in SEO marketing and while there have been plenty of near misses and minor panics since, it’s up there as one of my best ever decisions.


Living the dream

Leaving fulltime work has made it possible for me to appear at festivals, to support friends at their readings, to go on writing retreats and write a whole lot of words. More importantly, it forced me to take writing seriously. I gave up job security and a pretty A to B career path on a gamble, forcing me to carry on rolling the dice, no matter how many times only Snake Eyes glinted back.

Lucky for me, I’d picked up the skills and lovely people around me I needed to make freelance contacts and keep myself in coffee and toast without having to put all of my eggs in the creative-writing basket. Things would’ve been very different if I’d made the leap into the great unknown hoping to support myself from fiction alone. I’d be a lot skinnier and I might’ve beat my caffeine addiction for a start. It’s a difficult time even for hugely successful and published authors.

I’ve also had a great time taking on small roles at various literary organisations, ensuring I never had a chance to get too comfy in my jammies and offering some much needed perspective. I’m currently working on digital content for the Writer Development team at Scottish Book Trust and it’s a real joy to see so many wonderful blogs, stories and experiences come in from all sorts of writers. It’s also nice to have a space to rely on in the uncertain world of freelancing.

A bunch of people have asked whether I recommend the freelance life (particularly recently, particularly writers) and my answer is always yes but with some big caveats. Do it only if you think you’ll be able to take the rough with the smooth, remain stoic in the face of what might be a steep uphill struggle and motivate yourself to get yourself to your laptop even when no one is breathing down your neck.

If that sounds like a nightmare, why do you think you need to give up the day job anyway? Tons and tons of incredibly successful writers maintain a fulltime career in another field. In fact, it gives them a whole host of perspectives they might miss out on if they switched to writing alone. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years it’s that there’s no clear path to becoming a ‘proper’ writer – only ditch your day job if it’s a lifestyle you expect to suit you in more ways than one.

The freedom of freelancing and Cove Park adventures

The life of a freelancer is, by nature, a little on the precarious side. When I left the safety of my full time, management/digital content job, I worried I was going to find the whole process of finding and juggling work scared me witless.

Luckily, by and large, it hasn’t. Even when things have occasionally felt hairy, something has come up (often at the very last minute) to keep my bank account in the black and my nails from being chewed down to the quick.

A lot of the time I work from home, sometimes I pop into an office for a concentrated couple of weeks and occasionally I take on a longer contract and spend a few days a month working in-house. It can all feel a little haphazard and I’ve had to get a lot better at managing my calendar in recent years.

On the bright side, swapping projects, clients and even locations means that I rarely get that deep, ingrained boredom that dampens down my desire to be creative. Precariousness has its benefits!

exterior21-500x234Holding your nerve until the right bit of work comes up isn’t always fun, but occasionally a nice reward for your unpredictable existence comes your way – and I’m lucky enough to have just had one of those show up. This summer I’ll be spending a month at Cove Park, thanks to their 2016 Emerging Scottish Writer Residency.

And, thanks to the fact the only boss I’ve got to beg for time off is myself, tootling off to the countryside for some serious writing time should be a doddle.

Winter survival for the freelance writer

Frozen, demoralised and contemplating ‘leaving the house’? Try these instead.

coffee2Achieve hot drink harmony

Carefully weigh up the cosy-finger benefits of a cup of coffee or tea against the frigidity of your bathroom. Constant, cold pee breaks will quickly undermine the warming factor of frequent hot drinks. What coffee giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other.

Waste no available sources

Got an old laptop that struggles to stay cool under pressure? Watch a few videos and wait for the base to heat up. Be sure to lie down and place laptop on trunk for maximum efficiency. If printing large documents on an ink jet printer, hold the collated pages to chest for residual warmth.

Buy a cape/blanket/poncho

Normal clothes are not enough for workers as stationary and sedentary as you. Layers are your friend. Also useful for concealing pyjamas, three day old stains etc. Running around pretending that you are Dracula is optional, but useful for generating body heat which can then be trapped be aforementioned layers.

Have a shower

When core temperature drops significantly and the mouse-clicking fingers start to feel like bunch of frozen baby carrots taped to a stone, have a hot shower. Also useful for avoiding emails and providing a legitimate excuse for not writing. Should be used sparingly due to high electricity costs.

Burn your failures

Bills, rejected copy, that novel you’ve been writing for most of your adult life – all can be valuable resources when the winter chill hits. An open fireplace or wood burning stove is preferable. Not only can you enjoy sitting in front of a cracking flame, the burning of failures provides that all important inner glow.

Milk and Honey: Story and song

My younger brother Evan released an EP last week and among the tracks I found one called Milk and Honey – a title I happened to use for a flash a few years ago. Despite the fact they were written independent of each other, I think they’re quite complementary so (with his permission) here they are!


Milk and Honey

Marianne was in her early thirties when she forgot how to eat. It was a gradual process, almost imperceptible, but few things stay secret for long. Eventually her friends began to notice the way muffins crumbled between her fingers, soup cooled in its bowl and bread sat on its side-plate, unbitten. She complained about the taste, the sweetness. They laughed and told her it came to all women. It was normal. She didn’t have to worry about it.

An easy medium from her teens on, Marianne had never been a dieter. She’d dabbled with weight loss at highschool, when they all swapped diets plans as though they were stickers, but on leaving she’d laughed, shrugged them all off and made her friends jealous. She’d have extra chips, a dark beer and definitely a dessert. She used to enjoy them.

Marianne was a bystander to the pile-up, but only by two small steps.

If she hadn’t found a blackened banana in her bag and stepped back onto the curb, her hand reaching for the bin, she’d have been part of it.

A whole family killed instantly. The lorry driver held on for a few days in intensive care. A third driver, who was behind the concertina-ed family car, seemed to escape with only broken legs, but undetected internal bleeding took care of him.

Not Marianne though, not a scratch on her.

She spoke to the policeman then walked away to meet her date. He used the crash as an excuse to put his arm around her. Her stomach was empty, her banana in a bin behind a police cordon. Her date bought drinks and dinner. She tried but didn’t want them, and asked him not to call her again.

The next day, Marianne rang her mother and heard her doing the sign of the cross over the phone. There but for the grace of god. She told a few friends, but they hugged her and said she was lucky. Marianne decided not to tell anyone else.

She was the last person to notice she wasn’t eating. It’s not that she didn’t want to, it’s just that she’d forgotten how she was meant to do it. Everything she put in her mouth was sweet and cloying, and the thought she’d once known how to chew and swallow seemed impossible.

At night, she dreamed about her days – boxes of filing, queues at the shops – but during the day her thoughts meandered to the barely-glimpsed faces of the family in the car, the bliss she saw as they passed away.

Something had gone wrong. The family, the other drivers, the dead people, they were where they were meant to be. But not Marianne.

She daydreamed empty-mouthed through the day, waiting until the wrong was righted. Her friends started to worry, her mother called daily, but Marianne knew it didn’t matter that she’d forgotten how to eat; she’d been given a taste of the land of milk and honey.

When blogging becomes the day job…

…people like me get far lazier when it comes to updating their own blog!

Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed that more and more of my clients are looking for blogs and articles as opposed to webcopy, which is a-ok with me most of the time because it means I get to mix up topics and cover current events much more often.

That said, it does kind of kill the urge to post about my own bits and pieces. Combine that with my Twitter addiction and the way it satisfying the sharing urge and, well, this is what you get.

This place might’ve been a little on the quiet side but I have been blogging away loads recently and while most are ghostwritten, there’s a few booky ones I wanted to keep a note of.

ni_no_kuni_book_-_blog-edit(e)Reading the future

RPGs: Playing the reading game

Reimagining Classic Books as Comics

Why books make the best presents

So, I tip my hat at everyone able to keep their own blog fat and well fed while whipping up posts for paying customers. I should take a page from their recipe books, huh?


Detoxing: Book festivals, events and fun

IMG_2021The last time I posted, I was fresh back from a month in France with nothing to do but write. What a world apart from the last few months, where I’ve been scurrying around from one thing to the next, trying to squeeze in a few minutes of scribbling time here and there.

The weekend just past, I was wearing my organiser badge for Portobello Book Festival – a wonderful, warm local festival that attracts all sorts of writers, readers and interested folk. There was a lot of running around as usual, but all came together in the end and the committee was as hard working and passionate as always.

IMG_2018I was especially pleased that my mum’s book folding workshop went well and that the two events I was chairing (Peter Pan The Graphic Novel with Stref and Fin Cramb and Daring Debuts with Lucy Ribchester and Catherine Simpson – all of whom were a total pleasure to chair) were as great as I hoped.

IMG_2027Just as I was recovering from the fun of the festival, it was time for the launch of the Book Week Scotland programme – I’ve been helping out with the event listings over the last few months, in a freelance role for Scottish Book Trust – and there are just so many fantastic events taking place all over Scotland.

Living where I do, I’m totally spoilt for choice when it comes to readings, signings and bookish events but they obviously aren’t quite so thick on the ground in more remote areas, so it’s awesome to see libraries, councils and bookshops coming together to celebrate reading in all kinds of ways!

I’ve also been super happy this month to get my hands on contributor copies of two different books/journals – I Am Because You Are, an anthology of stories inspired by General Relatively edited by Tania Hershman and Pippa Goldschmidt and Banshee Lit, a fab new Irish Journal.

Today, my mind is reeling and still packed with information about other people’s books, ideas and words – it’s time to have a mini detox so I can catch up where I left off, and hope it’s easy to slip back into the imaginary world I left behind!

RLS Fellowship: A retreat is a better than rest

DSC01698As far as I can tell, writers are pretty bad at taking holidays. You’re either working or you’re writing and often those two things are one and the same, but it’s not the kind of work it’s easy to shut the office door on. Wherever you are, there’s a little voice in the back of your said squeaking ‘this is all very nice, but shouldn’t you be writing?’ And maybe you should. On the other hand, sometimes you have to have some actual real world experiences, if only to generate new things to write about.

For the last year and a half, all my self-organised trips were short writing breaks. I went for a day or two at a time and each was great but not the same as an actual rest, so when I found out I’d been awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship through Scottish Book Trust and was off to spend the whole of June in Grez-sur-Loing, France, I was both incredibly stoked and a little bit nervous. Would I produce enough work while I was there? Would I find that a long-dreamed-for month of writing time was better in my imagination than in reality? Would I go crazy?

DSC01960Happily, I stayed pretty sane (no thanks to the mosquitos who all thought I was the best thing since sliced bread – a loaf of Mother’s Pride, no doubt – and thanks in part to the other artists at the hotel) and managed to write a bunch, even though the first few days were largely taken up with feeling weird and wondering what I was mean to be doing. In the end, I decided I was meant to be eating lots of poire amades, exploring the area in a very low key way and just thinking about things.

It was very inspiring to stay in a hotel so beloved by generations of artists and writers and the building and its grounds are so charming I felt like I’d stepped into another life. One of the best parts was the fact that I was away for so long, which meant that even though I was researching and thinking and writing, it actually did feel a little bit like a holiday too. I’m getting the feeling I prefer the working kind anyway.