Over the last twelve years I’ve had short stories and poetry published in literary journals, anthologies and newspapers and the stories have recently been resurrected in a collection called Ordinary Domestic: collected short stories, e-published by indie publisher Pothole Press.
One of these stories was a finalist in a major Scottish competition called the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short Story Competition, way back in 2002. It won me £500 so it’s definitely one of my favourites. It’s a tale written in an urban Scots dialect and it’s called Unrestricted. I wrote it in a fit of angst when I felt I was getting nowhere with my writing. I noticed my husband was gripped by films which featured three things – a car chase, sex and violence. So I challenged myself to write a literary short story which included all three and Unrestricted is the result.
The first story in Ordinary Domestic deals with mental health issues. This is a topic I come back to again and again in my writing, along with the whole idea of misfits and outcasts – people who don’t quite fit in society. There’s a misfit in us all, I think. Frozen Waste is a story about a young man whose mental and physical health problems have led to his self-imposed exclusion. He is squatting in a hut in the town recycling centre when the story opens and finds a little human warmth when he meets a bubbly and upbeat girl. His problems start – intensify? – when she goes missing. Frozen Waste was published in the first issue of Gutter magazine in 2009.
As a child and young adult I wanted to be a writer but gave up my ambitions when I started work. There were so many books published already; there didn’t seem to be any need for me to add to that pile. I’d nothing new to say. So I spent fifteen years as a librarian, promoting other people’s books.
In my mid thirties, I had the opportunity to live in the south of France for a year with my husband and two children, so I put my working life on hold. What a time I had! Too much sea, sun and … suddenly I found myself pregnant with twins. There was no financial help towards childcare costs twenty years ago so it didn’t make sense for me to go back to work when I’d four children. So I took a course in freelance journalism and earned my first pay packet as a writer with an anniversary piece about Citroen cars in Autocar and Motor magazine. And I hate cars! I’m more interested in family and social history so was happy to have pieces published on a regular basis in Family History Magazine and a monthly column about the history of Cumbrian surnames in Cumbria and Lake District Magazine. I also started taking an interest in writing fiction again and never went back to work in libraries.
I started working with the Open University in 2004, teaching their short module ‘A174 Start Writing Fiction’. It was a great course. Apparently almost 19,000 people across the UK and abroad studied it between 2004 and spring this year when it reached the end of its life. I also teach on the module ‘A215 Creative Writing’. I love coaching people and helping them to develop their talents. This coach gets a lot out of it, too. I often think I learned more from teaching these two modules than I did when I studied my MLitt in Creative Writing.
In 2008, Mainstream Publishing in Edinburgh (part of the Random House Group) published a biography I co-wrote. As I lay me down to sleep by Eileen Munro with Carol McKay is now also available as an e-book:
In 2010, I had a bit of a dream come true in that I won the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship. This meant I was entitled to spend a full month during the summer living in the Hotel Chevillon south of Paris in a modern writers’ and artists’ retreat. RLS spent two long summers there in the 1870s and he met his future wife there, too. His brother and other artists, including several of those who went on to be known as The Glasgow Boys, also spent time there, finding it and their bohemian lifestyle inspirational. You can see photos from my time there if you go to my blog posts for July 2010
Quite often, I argue with myself about e-books versus ‘proper’ publishing. I see the odds stacked against me for traditional publishing: I’m too old; I’m female; I’m lazy; I’m unfashionable; I’m too urban Scottish; I’m none of the things that publishing companies seek out to pay their staff wages and turn a profit.
And though some of that’s right, much of it is wrong. I know, because I’ve been published by big companies before. As I Lay Me Down To Sleep (which I co-wrote and directed) sold 50,000 copies. Mainstream Publishing snatched it up. The reason? Mainstream could see it fitted perfectly into a pre-established market; it was bound to earn them money. I wrote about my experience of working with Eileen for Publishing Scotland. You can read the article here
My fiction is less easy to place and that’s the nub of it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a fair few short stories published in magazines and anthologised by publishing houses like Birlinn and Luath. I’ve had fiction appear in newspapers, too – both The Herald and The Daily Telegraph have published pieces.
Creative Scotland’s antecedent, the Scottish Arts Council, saw fit to grant me a bursary and a travel bursary on the strength of my fiction. They subsequently awarded me that Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, too.
Can I get past those sturdy synopsis-reading guardians of the publishing houses with my novels, though? Can I wheechy. Part of the problem is that my fiction doesn’t fit neatly into a pre-existing category. In a world of cubes and cuboids, my fiction is a sphere with spikes on it. It’s literary but not literary enough; it’s fast-paced and well plotted but isn’t crime, or thriller, or … It’s got a speculative fiction element, but only as one ingredient in a larger social realism storyline.
From where I stand, there are three doors facing me, and three options. I can keep pushing on the first door. It’s got a lot of brasso on the doorknob and knocker but my type of person is more likely to be nipping out from inside wearing a pinny and carrying a duster to buff up that knocker than actually being invited inside. The second door leads to a place where I can sulk and give up. That door’s best slammed shut. The third leads to a place where I decide to do it myself and get the work out there as best as I can. And that’s the door I’ve chosen recently. Last year, I had a couple of short stories published online in Spilling Ink Review and From Glasgow to Saturn. Once you’ve had a short story accepted for an online magazine, the step towards publishing a full length work electronically is a small one. A readership is still a readership whether the work is read on paper or screen.
I’m still polishing and revising my work and sending it out to ‘proper’ publishers and agents in the hope that one of them will pick my hard work out of the landslide of the slush-pile, but at the same time, I can take positive action and do it myself care of the e-publishing revolution.
When I say I’m doing it myself, I’m not being entirely truthful. I’m doing it with my partner, Keith, who set up the Pothole Press to help me get my writing out there. To date, he’s published Ordinary Domestic – my collected short stories – and a little e-book called Creative Writing Prompts and Ideas to Feed the Imagination, based on my years of teaching and coaching writing groups and individuals.
Forthcoming in October is Second Chances: true stories of living with Addison’s Disease – a life-writing project which is close to my heart. Addison’s Disease is an auto-immune condition I was diagnosed with in 2010. It’s a life-threatening condition and it’s supposed to be what killed Jane Austen. JF Kennedy had it, too – it’s what gave him his tan! Nowadays, Addison’s is fairly easily managed with drugs but it was scary being diagnosed with it in an emergency. The Second Chances e-book will feature life writing by people around the world who’ve faced the condition: who’ve faced fast-approaching death. And lived to tell the tale. It’s sure to be a stunner.
I’m also jotting down some thoughts towards a memoir of my own. That’s for a future project. Who knows what the e-book / traditional publishing market balance will be by next year’s Edinburgh E-book Festival!