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Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale

13 Jul

As it’s about halfway through July already, I should probably mention that throughout July my books are available for free at Smashwords, the e-book publisher-cum-shop. That doesn’t include all of the books I’ve written, but there are five available on Smashwords, including the perennial favourites Leda (shortlisted for the Scripture Union New Fiction Prize) and Office Life (and Death), a short story collection that includes the prize-winning story “A Recipe for Summer”.

The front page of Smashwords is dominated by raunchy ‘romance’ novels with half-naked muscly men on the covers (Who buys all that stuff? It’s really not my jam.) so you might want to go straight to my profile page instead. Or check out all the books in the sale (gazillions) and pick your way through the forest of shiny flesh.

(By the way, Smashwords is not confused about what time of year it is, it’s just that they have customers all over the world, so the summer sale to Brits is the winter sale to Australians.)

Pop-Up Submission Success

31 May

Ages ago I submitted my novel The Gates of Janus to Litopia’s Pop-Up Submissions, and yesterday it was finally included in their live YouTube show. The useful but terrifying idea is that you get to hear what literary agents and the like think about your submission, rather than just guessing when they send you a generic “not quite right for us” response. I have had many of those responses for The Gates of Janus so I thought this might be helpful – but I didn’t tell anyone ahead of time because I was afraid they would tear it to pieces!

Anyway, they didn’t tear it to pieces. In fact, it did rather well, so now I am telling you about it. You can see the whole episode here, and this link should take you to where my bit starts (my entry was last).

In a sense it’s unhelpful that GoJ did so well, because it doesn’t uncover the mystery of why it has been rejected so many times. However, it does give me the encouragement to go out and get it a few more rejections rather than giving up! Encouragement is something writers badly need, after all.

If you have your own project that you would like to hear literary types discuss then you can apply for Pop-Up Submissions yourself, although there is a significant wait. But what else are you going to do during the pandemic? Alternatively, if you have no idea how this whole submission thing works, then you can read my wee book How to Get Published, which is available free if you sign up to my extremely infrequent newsletter.

My year in review – 2020

31 Dec

It seems redundant to say that this year has not been what I expected. Unless you’ve been living in an isolated Amazon tribe (in which case I’d love to know how you’re reading this) you already know that 2020 was the year that said ‘no’. If you want to read about my experiences of the first lockdown, click the link. This winter lockdown feels much less new and exciting and much more of a dull, dark slog. However, life goes on regardless, so I will give you a quick review of my year as a whole.

Travel

Let’s get the obvious one of out the way: I went nowhere. Well, virtually nowhere. I was meant to go to Leiden in the Netherlands in February, but that was scuppered by Storm Ciara. I could have rescheduled it for April but there was talk of this novel coronavirus thing so I hedged my bets and went to St Andrews for a day trip instead.

However, once things opened up again in the summer, I did get to – Haddington! I have a good friend, Susan, who hails from this East-Coast town and who is almost always overseas, so I risked my life at Hermiston Gait and took the opportunity to visit while she was temporarily stuck in the UK between exotic postings.

Haddington was kind of charming in a small-town way, with a nice river walk and some identical metal bars they laughably call an outside gym. It reminded me of Dunbar, and I said so, and thereby found out that the way to annoy a Haddingtonian is to compare their town to the very similar town half an hour or so down the coast. I think this insight will provide endless fun in my relationship with Susan 🤭

I also managed to get down to Derbyshire for my mother’s birthday, which miraculously fell between periods of restrictions, and as the celebration was held in a hotel, we were even able to get three households together.

The only other travel I have been doing this year is in my mind, planning an epic Interrailling trip for when the world is back to normal.

Learning

This category has been much, much more active than my globe trotting.

Sourdough

At the start of the pandemic, when yeast was scarce, I saw someone on Twitter saying “yeast is never scarce” and so my journey into sourdough making began. Sourdough uses wild yeast, which is found in random places like the air and the bloom on grapes. I raised a sourdough starter from scratch, which my nieces named Olaf. He is a little less pampered now than he was, but he’s still going strong and makes us a dense, crusty loaf about once a week.

I used the same wild yeast to make elderflower ‘champagne’ a little while later. It was – alright. Not much like champagne, but kind of like very sweet, slightly alcoholic elderflower Schloer. I also tried making elderflower cordial, not realising (because my foraging book did not tell me!) that the stalks are poisonous and must be removed before you make the cordial. No harm done, but not a pleasant experience.

Esperanto

My cancelled journey to Leiden gave me the opportunity to go to an Esperanto club in Glasgow, because I had cleared my diary for the trip. I started an Esperanto course on Duolingo (where I had been learning Dutch) because I had fond memories of learning it as a teenager after reading the Stainless Steel Rat books. I thought the club would be a one-off, but 2020 has given me the opportunity to attend pretty much every club meeting, as they are all online, and the woman who runs the anti-trafficking group I’m also a member of kindly changed those meetings so I could attend both. I have just about finished the Duolingo course, have read my first novela in Esperanto (see Books, below) and have even written an article for the magazine Esperanto in Scotland (Esperanto en Skotlando). I’m not fluent (yet) but it’s definitely become my third-most proficient language, after English and Albanian. I didn’t see that coming!

Paleography

I had almost forgotten about this one – I took a wee online course in paleography, in case I ever have cause to read old documents (not that unlikely, in my line of work). It was very interesting and I could definitely read more by the the end of it. It was one of those courses where the lessons are free but you have to pay if you want a certificate, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

First Aid

My new year’s resolution for 2020 was to learn first aid. I thought that would be easy – booked a course with the Red Cross, job done. Unfortunately the original date was cancelled due to lack of participants and the rescheduled date was cancelled due to Covid. Instead, I downloaded the British Red Cross apps, First Aid and Baby & Child First Aid (both free) and worked my way through them. In theory, I now know basic first aid, and if I forget, I still have the apps to refer to.

Calligraphy

Most recently, I have been busy getting half-decent at calligraphy. Again, this is a hobby from my childhood that I’ve picked up again. I’ve been doing mostly brush pen, but some pointed pen (nibs and ink) as well. My ambition when I started to get serious about it was to make gifts for my new friends from my friend Tanya’s Check In and Catch Up group, which she started in order to keep us all sane during the first lockdown. I managed that, and also make quite a few Christmas cards using calligraphy, so I feel the effort has not been wasted.

One amusing side effect of learning calligraphy is that you see it everywhere. My sister must be sick of me picking up a magazine, greetings card or menu and saying, “Oh look, modern calligraphy!”

As these last two categories suggest, I’ve made quite a few new friends and acquaintances this year – more than most years, I think. Zoom/Skype/Teams are annoying in comparison with real meet-ups, but after this year I can’t deny that you can form genuine friendships with people you have only met in the form of electronic pixels on a screen.

I have also learned to darn socks this year – a less social pursuit, but handy, and one that is very much in line with my attempts to be eco-friendly. The fact that I spilled red nail varnish on a perfectly good pair of jeans while writing this post is less eco-friendly of me, but according to the internet, hairspray will sort it out. We’ll see.

Books

I’m letting GoodReads do the heavy lifting for me again, even though I’ve almost certainly missed some out. There were a couple of re-reads this year, including Dracula, which is rather quaintly written from this distance in time, but still interesting. I read it again after coming across the nugget of information that Dracula was an alchemist. As you may know, I’m trying to write a non-fiction book on alchemy, a subject that fascinates me. Unfortunately, like many people, I have found that 2020 gave me plenty of spare time, but not that much mental energy or direction. Maybe next year…

Meanwhile, my novel Daughters of Fire creeps along. It’s the second in a series of three, the first of which is called The Sarcophagus Scroll. I was planning to do a fair bit of travel as research for book two, so that being cancelled hasn’t helped much, and I’m also suffering from the lethargy induced by yet another lockdown. However, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph it is getting there.

I did manage to write a couple of not-bad short stories this year, ‘The Untouchable Collection’ and ‘The Price of Exposure’. I’m fond of short stories, reading them and writing them, so it’s good to dip my toe back in while the novel is slightly in the doldrums. I also wrote a couple of articles for Christianity magazine and there should be another one coming out near the start of next year. And I won a limerick-writing competition about the pandemic, netting a modest cash prize.

Getting back to books I have read, the one that packed the greatest emotional punch, if you can believe it, is Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions series (which are all so short, you may as well consider them a single book). I only picked it up from the library for my niece, read the blurb on my way up the library stairs, and was instantly hooked by the humour. It’s a perfect little noir mystery, with dry wit and a wonderful femme fatale “with eyebrows like question marks and a smile that could mean anything.” And it leads unarguably up to an ending of inescapable, exquisite tragedy where there is simply no good option. It was heartbreaking.

I should add, for the sake of balance, that my nine-year-old niece said, “it’s not sad at all”.

The best book I read this year was David Copperfield, but that feels like cheating because it is such a classic. The best new book was probably The Golem and the Jinni, which really surprised me. The worst was The Serpent Grail, which was utter tosh.

Hacks

From David Copperfield I learnt that you can use beeswax on thread to get it to go through a needle, rather than licking it. This is useful to know in times of pandemic, and it is also more effective and longer-lasting.

I also found out while writing this post that hairspray does remove nail varnish from jeans – at least from black jeans. Phew!

Miscellaneous

I was a guest on a podcast about dyslexia; did a reading at an online ‘bar’ and subsequently had a story published in the bar’s best-selling anthology (that was nice, as you can imagine); appeared in a ceilidh video by Jiggered; hosted a YouTube/WhatsApp Eurovision party (which was probably the highlight of my whole year); and made a gingerbread zoo as my Christmas gingerbread project. There’s a wee ‘flyover’ of it embedded here.

Pets

My budgie Roland moved cage this year to bigger digs, and on Christmas morning, two adorable guinea pigs, Squiggles and Socks, arrived to join the family!

Crochet

I made a few wee things this year, including snowflakes, socks with decent ribbing (using knowledge acquired last year), a couple of baby blankets, a random wee shawl, a gingerbread man square for my patchwork blanket and a couple of dinosaurs. (I also made a fair number of face masks for obvious reasons, but not in crochet, for equally obvious reasons.)

And of course…

🥁🥁🥁

…the temperature blanket! Here it is, in all its multi-coloured glory! (Click on the photo for a larger image.)

Naturally, I have another ambitious crochet project planned, but it can wait for next year. Meanwhile, there’s hogmanay to enjoy, with champagne for the bells to bid a firm farewell to 2020. Never have the words of Tennyson’s ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’ been more appropriate than this year, so here it is to finish. Have a wonderful 2021, and I hope it brings you everything you are dreaming of.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Being topical, accidentally or otherwise

19 Nov

One of the worries when you are writing for magazines is that your article will already be outdated by the time it’s published. It takes longer than you might think to put an edition of a magazine together, and articles are usually commissioned weeks or even months in advance. When I wrote my latest article for Christianity magazine about the effects of Covid-19 and associated lockdowns on vulnerable children throughout the world, we were in lockdown. By the time it was published, we were in that beautiful period of semi-normality between the first and second waves of the virus.

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Somewhere behind the rainbow

7 Jul

My latest piece in Premier’s Christianity magazine is about the effects on children of coronavirus and associated lockdowns around the world. If you think things are a bit pants here, what happens when you add in war, famine, pestilence and other assorted horsemen of the apocalypse? (And isn’t 2020 the most apocalyptic year you’ve ever experienced?? It certainly is for me.)

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There was a young woman from Glasgow…

15 Jun

Very quick post to say that I have a limerick about lockdown published in On the Premises, a fiction e-zine I subscribe to. And they paid actual money, which is always helpful in these straitened times. If you want to read it, and the other winning entries, click below. If not, move on with your life.

Reducing your misery footprint

9 Jun

It seems quite appropriate that, just after the statue of a man who profited from the slave trade is pulled down, my article on modern-day slavery comes out. I started writing it way before the incident that kicked off the recent protests, of course, and even before lockdown (although it’s been edited to reflect the new situation) but the problem has not gone away.

There are more slaves now than there have ever been.

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Noir from the Bar

5 Jun

Some of you may have virtually come along to session five of Virtual Noir at the Bar when I was doing a reading from my unpublished novel The Sarcophagus Scroll. Virtual Noir at the Bar has been running all through lockdown, and 100 authors have taken part to date.

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Video

Back to the Bar

30 Apr

If you didn’t make it to Virtual Noir at the Bar last night, you can attend on demand using the video below. You couldn’t do that in the old days. See, lockdown has some advantages! Continue reading

Join me at the (virtual) bar

27 Apr

This Wednesday, 29th April 2020, I’ll be reading from my unpublished novel The Sarcophagus Scroll at Virtual Noir in the Bar.

vnatb

Noir at the Bar is a crime fiction event that used to take place in pubs in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Newcastle, but has now moved to Zoom, like everything else in the world. Continue reading