Category Archives: Today I wrote

Short stories

I’m having a good day. I found a quid on the way to the supermarket, and nearly everything on my shopping list was on sale. I helped a friend, I’ve been complimented on my writing and my appearance, I listened to a favourite album for the first time in ages and I set a new personal best on my regular run around the park.

My tutorial with Kirsty, yesterday, went pretty well too. She said she liked my work, picked at a few nits, asked what else I was doing. I said I’ve been writing short stories, and this is partly true. I’ve been writing short stories for years, and just because what she had read was the best thing I’d written in months, didn’t mean I hadn’t written others. Short stories have been on my mind a lot. They came up in conversation with Ever Dundas, whom I was interviewing on saturday, and I spent a little while talking to Nathan about the subject, then and since. And Kirsty was entirely positive; encouraging even, in my storywriting, however short.

The thing is, I’ve never been one to second-guess good fortune. I’m running with it, it’s got me in the mood to gamble. I’m taking steps, I’m submitting work for publication, I’m shaking with nervousness, I’m making lists in my head with what I can spent the money on if it gets published, I’m trying to hold onto this wave and channel it into creative fever, I’m wishing I hadn’t made my coffee so strong, I’m…

 

yeah. A few months ago I did a little digging around for magazines that would buy and publish science fiction stories. I settled on one named Clarkesworld. I read their submission guidelines, a few things they’d already put out. I bookmarked their page and fretted about it for a bit, until today’s furore.

I know it’s not that big a deal. I know we’re all writers who deserve to be confident with our work – many of us have been and continue to be published. Regardless, this is the first time I’ve submitted a piece of fiction with a mind to it being published, anywhere, and it feels exciting. Plus, I could really do with the ~$200 they’d pay me for the story I sent in…

Let’s hope the good luck’s not quite out yet!

sharing: review from elsewhere

In the name of self-promotion, I wanted to share a review from another blog I contribute to- this isn’t quite a ‘today I wrote,’ but an insight into my nonfiction work. It’s with a new blog called The Perfect Pack, which has grown out of an online community obsessing over backpacks. I know that’s quite a niche appeal, I have a few pieces in the pipeline with these folks, but probably won’t share them all in the same way. Have a look, or don’t.

More Here

Vanishing Moments of Brilliance

This morning I wrote in my Writing Journal. Kirsty has recommended we keep one of these and I’m rather fond of mine. Narrower than A5, it’s a lovely ‘poster paint’ blue with wrap-around elastic. I chose it from a million others on account of the quality of the paper, which is reassuringly thick and allows me to fill both sides without yesterday’s words leaking though the fresh page. I say ‘yesterday’s words’. In truth, it’s a daily routine which is prone to slipping as other priorities elbow their way to the front, so there’s usually a two- or three-day gap between entries. Plenty of time for the ink to dry, in fact.

Little Blue book

So what I wrote in my writing journal this morning was a lament; a lament concerning the HUGE gap between ‘mental’ writing and ‘real’ writing. I’m sure it’s a familiar scenario to many of you. It goes something like this. You wake up, usually in the dark, and you start thinking about your work in progress. In this case, I was ‘unpacking’ and ‘expanding’ a creative piece we submitted last week (the A9 Incident). What waltzed through my synapses was such a dazzling parade of sharply observed, finely nuanced and exquisite phraseology that I held my breath, not daring to even move. I have a notebook and pen on the bedside table for moments exactly like this, but in the middle of the night, with a partner sleeping peacefully at your side, who dares to break the spell with the harsh snap of a light. Instead, I convince myself that brilliance like this will still be glittering in the morning and I will remember… Yeah right!

This morning, I decide that meditation will help. I close my eyes and invite blank space into my head. What actually happens is that my brain is immediately flooded with every stupid, random or ingenious thought I’ve ever had alongside a jumble of niggling domestic preoccupations like remembering to fit a new light bulb into the dead socket in the hall, or remembering to buy milk. I have to sort through these rails of junk – a bit like shopping in T K Maxx – to finally extract a few hopeful ideas. Dowdy kernels which, with a bit more thinking and probably several cups of strong coffee, I might be able to polish up to a lacklustre version of their nocturnal selves. Mental note: keep a torch on the bedside table!

Something new and wonderful

I’m beginning to feel like a writer now.  It’s 23.50pm and I’m sitting at my kitchen table eating a macaroni pie and thinking wtf – I still have two blogs to do and poor Nic, my ever empathetic and totally talented writing buddy has just received a desperate plea from me to look at my attempt at the response to the A9 letter, even though it was due for the 8th but I got a bit of a reprieve cos I was going away for a few days and really felt that a piece of writing involving some kind of misdemenor on the A9 may well invite a jinx or two as I was heading somewhere away from Dundee which may well have involved the A9 but I am not sure as I leave all that technical work to my satnav. (Stop sniggering Marie; you are not off the hook – you’ll get your copy to review later; after the macaroni has kicked in and I’ve edited it at least another twelve times).

Anyway, isn’t that what authors are supposed to do?  Sit up through the night, eating crap and drinking beer, wine or spirits (the wine is nicely chilled by my side), gathering their thoughts and creating their masterpieces?  (Well, Ian; c’mon, create that masterpiece now!!)

I am convincing my cat that this is the case and this is why she is having to put up with me sharing her late-night kitchen cosy spot.

Of course, to all the young people on the course, I guess this might be early evening.  Being a right old git, I have no idea of the norms of study anymore.  My university days ran something like, from three in the afternoon to three in the morning but times may well have changed.  Mine have, for sure.

However, I have returned home from an evening’s entertainment, totally committed to getting something down on this blog.  And really, what I have been thinking this afternoon, is, ‘What’s all the panic about?’  All I have to do is write a poem, which I truly have not done since the days of writing into the ‘Bunty’ letters page, hoping to earn a fiver for pocket money (I was still in primary), write a review on  a Booker long-leeted novel and prepare to interview Chris Arthur!  Chris Arthur, no less.

That’s when the magic of this course hit me – and believe me, it will be magic if I get the time to read a sufficient amount of his work to make any sense at the interview.  However, I have started to do my research on this Irish bloke who has decided to settle in  our native Fife coast, and since doing so, I have been just a teeny wee bit overawed by the opportunities that are afforded to us on this course.  To tap into such amazing minds is a real privilege.  From the (very brief, so far) research that I have undertaken on Chris and his works, I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to interview such a profoundly philosophical person, who looks at life and objects with a pursuit of understanding that leaves me breathless.  How privileged are we to be able to tap into such talented minds and learn from such people?  In my moments of doubt, and there are very, very many of these, I have to remind myself that the prime purpose of me undertaking this course is to learn.  I have been teaching for the bulk of my working career.  What a privilege it is now, to turn that around, and learn from such a variety of people and such depths of talent and to open up an entirely different world.  I include you all in this, for every day, when I read your comments or listen to your work,  I learn something new and wonderful and feel my world expand.

Learning never stops.  That’s the excitement of life.

The Voices In My Head.

Today I wrote that apology letter homework task thingy for Kirsty, yes people I was late handing it in!

I was having trouble controlling the voices in my head; I wanted to write a highly sophisticated well worded piece of writing but all that would come out onto paper was a rather sarcastic self-righteous voice about school uniform.

What I’m learning about my writing is no matter how hard I try to stay on task with what Kirsty wants, the voices in my head take over; I can’t plan it, I just have to write it which inevitably results in it being far from what Kirsty has requested and far from being reconstructed into anything that vaguely resembles what Kirsty wanted.

Am I actually capable of following or understanding rules, guidelines and instructions?

What is wrong with me?

I haven’t successfully completed a homework task yet!

Stress! Stressing! Stressed!

Though secretly really enjoying myself but not going to let my face or anyone else know 😉

Writing, grinding, working away.

The main thing I was looking forward to with this course was having time to write. Not struggling to fit it in between dinner and bed, or misusing my work computer during quiet periods. Time where I am meant to be writing, without distraction or other priorities.

Not pictured: stacks of paper and other junk on another table in my spare room.

The problem is, of course, that distraction doesn’t go away. Writing ceases to be the distraction, and becomes work. And we have so much of it! Homework, from week to week. Poetry. Reviews and interviews. Essays to reflect or challenge. I want to prioritise my own work, my novel and short fiction and the review work I like doing, but there’s only so much time in the day. I came to Dundee 136 pages into a manuscript, and now I have 139.

I sometimes equate writing fiction to pulling a thread – the right amount of pressure and things will unravel smoothly, until you hit a knot, and then I have to stop and untangle it all. With this many threads to pull on, I can usually find something that writes freely, but my attention is all over the place. By evening my head has become a cat’s cradle. The days when I wrote to escape my daily stresses are halcyon, already.

Today, I’m working on the creative assignment for our core module. That’s a 6000 word target – I decided I wanted to write three short stories, which have evolved into three chapters of the same story. I’ve cheated slightly, lifting characters and setting from the above manuscript, particulars I know well, have had time to round out and think through. My first knot has just reared, which brings me here, writing elsewhere while I chew through events in my head. I’m past point A, and point B is within touching distance, but I can’t make the words join up. Coffee hasn’t helped. Lunch might; exercise usually does. If not, I’ve got plenty more that needs to be written.

“Write a masterpiece, NOW!!!”

What? Me? How? Who’s in the audience? This command is enough to inhibit the newbie writer from sprinting off the block ; instead, ducking for cover with a few random words  of “help” and “whiji mean” rather than feeling compelled to go and “plant a glade” as famous Seamus was wont to say! Still, there must be method in the madness of writing with the mindset of a Usain Bolt(!), blunting one’s pencil on the paper in the process. Just, too soon, comes the moment of reflection and revelation (ouch!) when the rational mind scolds you with ‘WTF have you written!” and “you read that aloud and your DEAD mate!” So…I’ll stick with the quiet and laconic approach for now as echoed in the work  of the American poet, Lorine Niedecker, who spoke of her poems as being a “condensary” and of writing as learning “to sit at desk/and console/No Layoff/from this /condensary”! From “Poet’s WorK”

 

 

 

Lycanthropes, Vampires and Demons (Oh My)

What I’m currently writing, for the most part is…random pieces of info, on lots of post it notes. My desk sits on the wall behind a door, which means the door has become my honorary notice board. You can see slight patches of white beneath but for the most part, it’s very much an explosion of colour. Thankfully the only other living soul who sees the mess that I call a workstation is my Labrador, who likes to keep me company as I sit into the early hours of most nights.

The post-it notes on the door contain fragments of a bunch of ideas I’ve had, mostly since starting this course. As someone who only started to write about 3 months prior to being accepted onto the MLitt, I felt a bit unnerved at first by the wave of ideas. There’s a story I’ve had floating around in my head for quite some time, years in fact. It’s quite far in at around 70k words. I’ve changed a few characters far too many times since the MLitt began and I still find it alarming. Is it just myself who thinks this way?

In software development, if you find yourself making a lot of changes to a group of code, then you have a fundamental flaw in how your app, website, or even video game is being designed. We have architecture patterns we follow as guidelines when coding software, although not strictly as there are no ‘rules’, coding is a very creative and free discipline.

I had to re-write that part like four times. I kept including programmer terms and general geeky stuff, then I’d remember how confused all my non-computing mates look when I rant about code and decided it was best to cleanse the entire paragraph.

Point is, I’ve been looking for those architecture patterns in fiction writing. There aren’t any. Not really. When an author such as Stephen King basically says: ‘Find what works for you, and do it’, you know there’s no secret architecture. No secret set of fool-proof guidelines that you’ve tricked yourself into searching for as though you were a budget Indiana Jones.

I reallllllly need to stop rambling.

I was sat with my two daughters last week, messing around. You know, painting our nails, having tea parties, discussing who is the best Disney princess (Mulan always gets my vote, cause she’s a badass). Anyway, I made a game out of an exercise I came across in an online writing course. The game was:

  1. Get a piece of paper each
  2. Each person says one thing such as eye colour, name, hair colour and everyone should quickly write down the relevant descriptions of their character
  3. At the end, we tell each other the character we created

Huge success. Absolutely huge. So much so that my youngest daughter, Casey, has her own little notebook where she writes stories. It’s impressive, even if each page does only have about 3 sentences in it (the rest of it is some of the worst artwork I’ve ever seen). She has fun though, and that’s all I need.

I’ve ranted again. My bad. I actually like what I’ve written here. It’s chaotic, yet feels strangely in order. I can’t really go into too much detail now about the story that has taken over my life. Not even being dramatic. The reason I mentioned that exercise we done, is that a character came out of it for me. A character inspired by a blend of my own ideas, and the ideas of two young ladies with vastly differing personalities.

That character is at the centre of a post-apocalyptic story I have been working on for three days or so. A story which is currently sitting at around 6,000-ish words and is quite dark and supernatural in nature. Hence the title for my post, all those supernatural entities are present in the story. I suppose I’ll have to write about that in my next post, maybe.

I’m looking forward to hearing about whatever you guys are all working on. I was told by a lot of people that authors are quite personal about their work so I’m hoping that was an incorrect statement! He says, even though he barely revealed anything about his two main stories.

Breathe and Relax

Creating a blog was all so new and exciting that I had to leave the university that very moment and run away to board a ferry, catch my breath, breathe and relax.  I am rocking as I write.  It’s not the memory of the ferry; it’s the memory of the homework, the metre and the rhythm.  It’s seeing all my classmates’ blogs and remembering I have three of these to do over the next few days but I remember to breathe and relax until I read Rachel’s blog about the rest of the homework, so I’ll just have to have a bath instead.  I can read the ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ (Jean Rhys) there and do some homework as I breathe and relax.  Doing your homework in the bath is one of the best bits of this course, I have to say.

But then so is the mindfulness.  All of our lecturers have made us aware of attention to detail; listening to what people are saying, observing their movements, noticing mannerisms, interactions, hesitations and panic.  I noticed some necks around me gathering red patches as we talked about our impending interviews with authors and inwardly steadied my own heartbeat.  Breathe and relax.  Breathe and relax.

We are also being encouraged to look in detail at the world around us.  To take time to notice where we are and to reflect on detail.  It’s not enough to say the ‘champagne flowed and bourbon poured’ or that ‘people were dressed in all their finery’; we have to look at that champagne, describe that bourbon and how it was poured; allow our readers to see those sparkling dresses before their very eyes.  We have to look.

I thought about this as I crossed the Clyde and watched the wake as the lights from the mainland faded and the salty spray freshened my complexion and the wind slapped into my frowns.  A physical departure really can freshen your thoughts.  Calm the mind.  Help you to breathe and relax.

In my bag I had packed the ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ and John Lennard’s ‘ThePoetry Handbook’. The former I had begun and couldn’t wait to get on with.  The latter I had begun and couldn’t wait to understand.  Stressed and unstressed syllables.  Why can’t I hear them?  Just practise, said Dawn.  Thank you Dawn.  At least you broke down the mathematical equations for me and that’s a start.  Breathe and relax.

I did.  West coast islands have that effect on me.  Something about that physical crossing that frees the mind.   Didn’t manage to finish my novel or open my poetry handbook.  I have continued my homework though.  My latest reads are ‘Mount Stuart:  Isle of Bute’ and ‘The House at Ettrick Bay’, by Myra Duffy.  The first is not only an informative guide to the majestic ancestral home of the Crichton-Stuarts but also an explanation as to why we see so many magnificent ‘Bute’ Buildings throughout Scotland and beyond, and an insight into what a remarkable human being the 3rd Marquess of Bute (and reputedly the third richest man in Britain) was.  The second is my first reading from The Isle of Bute Mystery Series.  This is a venture into a new genre for me, which had been initiated by the publicity surrounding the Bute Noir Festival and by inspiration from our highly enthusiastic ‘Crime Fiction’ colleagues.  Neither books are very intellectual but both are highly educational to me and, being mindful, there will always be something to learn from everything we read and do.

My writing is this.  I breathe and relax.

Sod it, the floors can stay filthy.

The current writing set-up.

What have I been writing?  Lists, mainly.  Reams and reams of lists in an effort to keep myself on track and to keep the breakdowns at bay (sort of).  I’ve now got so many different notepads that even finding my lists is becoming stressful.  I’ve had to commandeer the entire kitchen table for my notepads, hundreds of books and laptop.  Thankfully, as a thoroughly modern couple, Paul and I have only actually used the kitchen table to eat from once, generally preferring the food-on-lap, sat on sofa, watching TV in pyjamas approach to meal times.

The lists include:

  • Homework to do
  • Shopping list
  • To-do today list
  • Previous X Factor winners (a drunken contest with Paul to see who could remember the most- I won, not sure that’s anything to be proud of)
  • Dinners for the week (if we don’t do this, it descends into fish fingers every night pretty quickly)

On the homework to do list we have:

  • Write a poem of 11 Stanzas of two lines each, repeat the phrase “I put on my cloak”.  Not yet started.
  • Write a poem about the creation of the world, in the style of John Milton.  Where do I even start?
  • “Choose an aspect of the argument and take a position against it”.  I honestly don’t know what this refers to, but I’ve written it down, it must have meant something at the time.
  • 6 bullet points on Paradise lost.  I’ve got 3, that’s good progress.
  • Re-write something thinking about metre.  Also not started.

This is not even including the assignments due.  I’d quite like sit here and sob for while.  Instead, I review my “To-do today list”.

  • E-mail homework.  Done!  It’s dreadful, but it’s done, so that counts as a victory.
  • Make dinner.  Tomato sauce simmering behind me, meatballs in fridge.  Boom.
  • Mop.  Sod it, the floors can stay filthy.
  • Read book.  Later, with a glass of wine I think.
  • E-mail author.  This is for an interview assignment that I can’t think about because if I do, I stop breathing and wonder why I am doing this to myself.
  • Run.  Not likely, I’ll just get fat instead.
  • Ride horse.  Sod it, she can get fat too.
  • Cuddle cat.  Already achieved, look at me go!

It’s becoming increasingly tempting to curl up in a ball and be defeated, I must admit.  But instead, I put on “I’m the man” by the Killers, grab my notepad, and go about attempting to write a poem about the beginnings of the world.  Wish me luck.