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Top 5 Things Not to Say to a Writer 

22 Feb

It’s another guest post link (although at some point I’ll probably write up my impressions of Bucharest, which I’ve just returned from). 

The Portobello Book Blog kindly invited me to write a post for them, so I’ve given my take on the things you shouldn’t say to writers, or specifically me. Don’t worry if you’ve already  said these things to me – it’s fairly tongue-in-cheek, and I love you really 😉 

The Invisible Superhero 

11 Nov

Today’s blog post is another guest post on somebody else’s site –  in this case, Dyslexia Scotland, as it is Dyslexia Awareness Week Scotland. placeholder_couple_superhero

Many of you will know that I have mild dyslexia, since I’ve blogged about it, but it’s not a particularly well understood condition, so do pop across to the site and find out more.

The opposite of writer’s block

5 Sep

As usual I have to apologise for not writing  a new blog post for ages, but unusually the excuse is not just that I’ve been insanely busy (which I have) but also that I don’t know what to write about – or more accurately, I don’t know which thing to write about.

I have jotted down a few ideas for posts (I do this – I have an extremely rubbish working memory, so scraps of paper and memos on my phone serve as an alternative) but don’t want to write about all of them (if I wrote three posts in a week you might worry that I’d been replaced by the body snatchers!) and if I try to space them out over the next several weeks I’ll forget, or they will be out of date, or something else will come up.

So it’s over to you, patient readers who have just slogged your way through two one-sentence paragraphs. Do you want to read about my summer in Greece and Albania, with reflections on different culture, the changing face of Albania, and possibly language learning? Or would you prefer to hear about my beautiful new budgie, Gatsby? (I may become a bit of budgie bore, I’m afraid. He’s so cute!) Or would you like to hear about lactase? No, I’ll not tell you any more; if you’re intrigued, vote for it.

The survey should be showing below. (If it’s not, click here.) I look forward to getting my writing orders!

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

17 Mar

I don’t usually observe St Patrick’s Day, not being Irish, but I feel that I should pay a bit more attention to it this year, since this is the first 17th March since my book Patrick: The Boy Who Forgave came out.

It’s actually tomorrow that I’m doing something for St Patrick’s Day / week – giving a talk about the historical St Patrick. It will be an invigorating jog through ancient history, if you like that sort of thing, and if you don’t like that sort of thing, at least it will be short and free. It’s at the Govanhill Neighbourhood Centre at 7pm, and I’ll be available for book sales and chat afterwards. There may even be a post-talk sojourn to a drinking establishment, if one can be found. And while Pat himself might not have approved of that, I am led to believe it is traditional at this time of year 😉

On the Nth Day of Christmas

4 Jan

Happy New Year!

WordPress very kindly made a review of my blogging year and invited me to share it with you. However, on the assumption that a list of statistics about my blog is probably more interesting to me than to you, I’ll instead share a wee bit of poetry taken from the start of my short story collection A New Year’s Trio (available on Smashwords Amazon etc.). This is extremely rare, since I write poetry only once or twice a decade. I hope you enjoy it, but if you don’t, at least I won’t be troubling you with any more poetry for a while. 😉

On the Nth Day of Christmas

That dayless week between Christmas and New Year

When it’s all over and it hasn’t started.

Finding space for new presents and new life,

Three leaving the stable that two had entered.

A pause, a plateau, an intake of breath,

Ready for the wheel to turn again.


What you think, you are.

19 Aug

If I hadn’t lived in Albania I would have been very confused by the way my Italian lodger empties the dishwasher. Glasses, pans and spoons pose no problem, but bowls are placed on a pile of plates, and plates on a pile of bowls, totally at random. Wooden spoons and spatulas find their place, but kitchen knives are nestled next to table knives.

Because I lived in Albania, where they obviously have a similar approach to cutlery and crockery, I know that he didn’t just get fed up half way through and stop caring where he put stuff. Instead, if his culture is like Albania’s, it makes no distinction between plates and (eating) bowls, or between kitchen knives and table knives. To fit out our kitchen in Tirana we got a pile of shallow bowls which served for everything from soup to bread and jam, and after searching in vain for proper table knives we got a packet of the awkward plastic knives that everyone else had – too sharp to be safe at the table, too small and blunt to be useful in the kitchen.

What interests me about this is not so much what plates different cultures eat off (although I’m sure there’s a PhD in there for someone), but the way our cultural assumptions affect the way we think,  behave and even see. My Italian lodger has perfectly good eyes and, if he stopped to think about it, could see that there is a pile of flat plates next to a pile of concave plates, but since he thinks of them all as plates, he doesn’t see it, so he slots them in at random. Similarly, in his mind knives are knives, so the fact that there is a cutlery drawer and a separate utensil drawer gives him no pause.

This sort of thing is often connected to language. In Albania, ‘pillow’ and ‘cushion’ are the same word, and people do seem more ready to use cushions as pillows than they would be here. A dislike of moths combined with a liking for butterflies strikes people as illogical, since they are both flutura.

It works the other way round, too. To me, there are different kinds of brushes but they are all still brushes. In Albanian there are two distinct words, so you have to think about what you’re using the brush for. Is it a sweeping motion (fshes) or a scrubbing / stroking motion (furce)? When you ‘change’ something, are you exchanging one thing for another (nderroj), or changing the form or substance of the thing itself (ndryshoj)?

All very boring if you’re not interested in comparative linguistics, I’m sure, but it has an application in our own language as well. There’s no male equivalent of ‘slut’, for instance, or any of its many synonyms. Also, ‘mistress’ might be the feminine equivalent of ‘master’, but it does not mean the same thing. There are well-known derogatory terms in British English for most ethnic groups, but not for white people. These things might seem tiny, but they do colour our thinking, because words are the tools we use to think about the world; they are the lens through which we see it. It is a good thing to be aware of the deficiencies of your lens.

George Orwell understood the power of words when he described “newspeak”. You can read about it in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a brilliant but disturbing book.  You can also hear newspeak in real life, if you keep your ears open, especially when listening to politicians. (‘Efficiencies’ for ‘cuts’ would be one example.)

As for the title of this post, it comes from an excellent quote attributed to Methodist minister Norman Vincent Peale:

“You are not what you think you are. But what you think, you are.”

Time-Money Exchange Rates

18 Jul

I should be working just now. I should be writing an essay that will take me about three days, for which I will receive about as much money as my husband can make in one day. (He’s a stonemason and builder, in case you were wondering. He’s very good, and he has his own website here: Tony Murdarasi, Builder.)

The thing is, though, when I say “about three days”, I mean three days in which I find the time to write this blog, do the housework, get out in the sunshine for a while, and maybe (if the work goes well) get to the cinema and / or finish a short story I’m working on. We’re not talking 18-hour days. This, and the fact that the work is interesting, make the job worth taking on, even though three solid days at a minimum wage job would actually earn me more.

The reason I’ve been thinking about the value of time is that I’ve spent quite a lot of it lately doing unpleasant things, and some of it doing pleasant things, and it has made me realise that if time is money, there must be a variety of exchange rates. Let me illustrate.


This is a wee blanket toy that I made for a friend’s baby. I estimate it took about five hours altogether, although it didn’t feel like a terribly long time because for some of it I was chatting with friends and for other bits I was sitting on the grass getting a tan. (What an amazing summer, by the way!) Items like this sell for between £10 and £25, so let’s say it’s worth £20, to keep the arithmetic simple. That would mean I “earned” about £4 per hour. Not much. But on the other hand, I enjoy crochet, I get a sense of satisfaction from creating something beautiful, and I know that my present is unique.

Now take car insurance. My husband has a van for his business, so he needs insurance, but things are complicated by the fact that for many years he had a non-EU licence, and most insurers won’t take those years into account. I spent a good hour and a half finding him insurance the night after he bought it, only to find when the documents came through that it wasn’t valid (a problem with the website wording), so I had to spend another hour and a half finding more insurance. That’s three hours, and by spending that time I managed to save at least £1,000 on what we would have spent if I hadn’t shopped around. That makes an hourly rate of £333, much better than the crochet, but far, far less satisfying. I know which hours I’d like to get back.

Inbetween the two, there was a cleaning shift I did, to fill a gap in a rota. Eight hours of sweaty slog, up and down stairs, and pulling hair out of plugholes (eugh!) at minimum wage, making a few dozen quid. (You can work out exactly how much if you have a calculator, information on the current minimum wage and tax levels, and too much time on your hands.) To be honest, that one shift was fine, but I’ve done that job before on a more regular basis, and when you come in again, and do exactly the same things again, and go home with sore legs again, the value of your time seems to increase in your mind, compared with what you’re getting paid for it. It’s disheartening to earn less in a day than a lawyer can make (or rather, charge, which is actually a different thing) in fifteen or twenty minutes.

So what is an hour worth? How much have I therefore squandered in writing this short blog post? I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer. It depends on how much you’re enjoying, or suffering through, the activity. It depends on the individual, and how important liberty is to you, compared to financial stability. It depends on your state of mind, which can make hours stretch or fly, and can make an amount of money seem either tempting or insulting. Whatever my time is worth, though, there is only a limited amount of it between now and my deadline, so I will leave you to ponder the question, and I’ll get back to work.

Snowflakes, Real and Homemade

3 Dec

The first snow in Glasgow fell last night, so it seems the right time to write about something a bit Christmassy – crocheted snowflakes!

crocheted snowflakes

crocheted snowflakes

The ones you see here are my own creation, the pointy one from an online pattern and the chunkier one from a YouTube tutorial. These are made out of thread. You can make them out of wool, of course, but then they’re not so sweet and delicate.

I learnt to crochet in Albania, where all the women seem to crochet, because there’s not much else to do when the electricity goes off (as it did at that time) every evening. I’ve never been any good at knitting, so it was good to find an alternative handicraft.

I think everyone understands the thrill of creating something yourself, especially if it’s something good enough to show people or put to use. I have made a scarf that I still wear, a baby blanket, and a tablecloth, amongst my bigger projects. At times it feels like you will never finish but the good thing about crochet, unlike knitting, is that a lot of patterns are either made up of small pieces, so you have a sense of completion as you go along, or look good after the first 50 stitches or so. With knitting, at 50 stitches it would still look like a straight line.

The wee snowflakes here didn’t take anything like as long, although I did make the pointy one in a silky thread and cursed my decision several times through the hour it took to make it, as the slippery thread slipped away again. Anyway, they took less than an hour each and will now decorate my Christmas tree – whenever I can be bothered to get it down from the loft. I prefer to ease myself into Christmas, not jump right in on 1st December.

If you would like to have a go yourself you will need thread (or wool) and a hook (just the one – another advantage over knitting) which you can get for a quid or two from a department store or haberdashers. There are loads of sites that will teach you the basics, and then the world is your crocheted oyster.

Front Page Fame

4 Aug

TAB Fiction Feast Sep 2012This month’s Take a Break’s Fiction Feast contains my short story “In a Jam”. It’s a bit of a tear-jerker about a woman becoming reconciled to her estranged mother through her young son’s love of Granny’s jam. You’ll find it on page 35, and it’s also featured on the front cover.

TAB Fiction Feast is priced £1.80 and is available in larger newsagents.

If you like this, you’ll probably also like the free short story “Running for Cover” (and vice versa). Jayne S has been kind enough to provide a lovely, and very well-written review of “Running for Cover”.

Albanian Approbation

20 Apr

It is with some relief that I have received the first responses to Leda from Albania, one from an Albanian and one from an American living there. The American lady thought it captured life in Albania, while the Albanian lady mistakenly thought it was a true story, which certainly seems to confirm its realism. They also both liked the book.

It’s reassuring because, for one reason and another, I wasn’t able to have the manuscript read before it went to press by anyone who knew Albania intimately. This left me with the lingering dread that, even though I wrote most of Leda while living in Albania, there would be something in the novel so outrageously wrong that Albanians would find it ridiculous – which would rather undermine a novel that purports to inform the reader about Albania. That dread is now put to rest.

An aside: If you think “approbation” in the title is an inappropriate word for a post about people approving of my book, you probably need to look up the definition. It’s a word that’s more misused than used correctly, to the extent that I think it is doomed to change its definition and mean exactly the same as “opprobrium” (with which it is confused). In that case, this post may have historical value; it may be the final place on the internet where it is used to mean approval rather than disapproval. You read it here last!