Mary Christmas (…sorry)

It’s been a busy little period recently, book-wise!

Saturday November 26th saw the cover of ‘Mary’s the Name’ revealed online.

mtn-ebook-cover-final

Putting a single image out there to define your entire book, which you’ve worked on for years, is quite a scary thing. We might not like to admit it, but we DO judge books by their covers, don’t we? Fortunately for me, Anne at Cranachan has absolutely knocked it out of the park. And I’m not the only one who thinks so; that Saturday, myself and Cranachan received many compliments and excited messages about the book. I may not feel like a ‘real’ writer yet, but something as simple as this excellent cover makes me feel like I’m getting there.

 

Three days later, the advanced review copies arrived at Cranachan.

15259739_1143628955672308_7511036113392996521_o

Although I had to wait a little longer to get my hands on one, this was still such an exciting moment for me. My wee story about a girl named Mary has come a long way since early 2015 when I randomly chose Skye as a good place to run away to. It’s a real, really real, physical, actual, can hold it in your hands, real book.

 

Saturday December 3rd was a big day.

15355743_10210501948160697_6219049545496458677_n

Helen from Cranachan met me in Falkirk to present me with my copy of ‘Mary’s the Name’. Y’know, it’s even better in the flesh. Did I mention it’s a REAL BOOK THAT YOU CAN FLICK THROUGH AND IT’S GOT PAGE NUMBERS AND COPYRIGHT BLAH BLAH AND ALL THE PROPER THINGS BOOKS HAVE. Put simply, this was a dream come true. Thank you, Cranachan.

Half an hour later, I was reading from the book at ‘Wooer with Words’, a monthly spoken word event held in Coffee on Wooer, Falkirk.

15317919_1151539221547948_3693682119846561721_n.jpg

(photo: What Eddie Sees)

It’s fair to say there’s a difference between reading from sheets of A4 and reading from a real (REAL) book. I was able to perform more confidently than previous airings of ‘MTN’. I was chuffed with how the reading went, and the response of those attending, but I’m already looking at ways of improving my performance of these passages and look forward to bringing Mary to more people!

Now begins a lot of behind-the-scenes bits and pieces to get everything ready for the publication date. Now also begins advanced copies of the book being sent out to bloggers and reviewers. I’m not nervous. YOU’RE NERVOUS.

If you’re already getting sick of seeing posts about ‘Mary’s the Name’…strap in.

Advertisements

Wait, you’re still editing?

Since signing my contract to publish ‘Mary’s the Name’, the question I’m most often asked is:

‘What’s the latest with the book?’

And no matter how much time seems to pass, my answer comes back the same:

‘Still just editing to get it perfect.’

Which, let’s face it, is the most boring thing you can tell people. And it’s fair to say I’ve been ‘just editing’ for quite some time. To clear it up a bit, here’s a timeline of ‘Mary’s the Name’, and what’s been happening at each stage of editing…

January 2015 – I begin work on a story told from the point of view of a little girl named Mary. I know the beginning of the story, and I know exactly what the final image of the story will be. There’s just the rest to come up with.

Spring 2015 – Over the course of a few weeks, I present a couple of chapters of this story to my Creative Writing M.Litt course. One chapter is about 8-year-old Mary, and one is about 16-year-old Mary. I’m considering splitting the story into two different times of Mary’s life. Feedback is very positive about wee Mary, but no so much about teenager Mary. I accept that I don’t have a good grasp on the 16-year-old Mary and focus on the younger storyline.

May 2015 – I settle on my Mary story for my M.Litt dissertation. In May, I visit Portree on the Isle of Skye to get a feel for the village and get all the information I need.

Summer 2015 – Over the course of the summer, I write the entire novel, around 75,000 words, the first five chapters of which are handed in as my dissertation. The working title at this point is ‘The Portree Kid’.

Autumn 2015 to Spring 2016 – I submit the novel, in batches, to lots of literary agents. It takes a long time to hear back. Many are very nice and say kind things about my writing and Mary, but no one wants to take me on. I then begin submitting directly to publishers. Again, kind responses but no real leads.

April 17th 2016 – Cranachan Publishing, a new Scottish publisher, contacts me and asks to meet up to discuss the manuscript I submitted. Cue much excitement.

April 25th 2016 – I meet with Helen and Anne from Cranachan in Glasgow. They are very excited about my book and want to publish it. I am overwhelmed by their feedback on my novel and say yes please thank you very much. Cue much more excitement. (This was a very surreal meeting for me). Going forward, the book is titled ‘Mary’s the Name’.

Summer 2016 – I spend the summer redrafting the novel, in keeping with the suggestions and feedback from Cranachan. These are general points about areas of the novel which need strengthened, tightened and improved. I submit the revised draft and wait patiently.

October 30th 2016 – I receive the novel back from Cranachan, with the entire manuscript having been edited by Helen and Anne. This is the toughest part of the process. Every single line of the 80,000 novel has been scrutinised to make sure there are no mistakes or inconsistencies.

edits

Which is to say, there are over 200 pages, and many of them look like the picture above. There is a lot of work to be done. The tiniest details must be right before the book can be deemed ready to print.

Sadly, I can’t continue the timeline just yet, as I’m still in this BIG edit portion of the process. So, if you asked me during the summer, ‘how’s the book going?’ and I said ‘editing’, this was correct. And if you ask me now, ‘how’s the book going?’, and I still say ‘editing’, this is also correct. But hopefully it won’t be long before I can say ‘all done, bring on the launch’.

 

Still set for release in February 2017, though. ‘Mary’s the Name’. Tell your friends.

Book review: The Comet Seekers – Helen Sedgwick (Harvill Secker)

The set-up: (Tricky to give a brief summary for this one…) The story of how two very different people came to end up in a small tent in Antarctica together. We’re given glimpses into their lives’ when various comets are present in the sky, as they grow and deal with ghosts, both real(?) and imagined.

 

The review: I picked this up at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and from what I saw, it seemed every second person was taking a copy to the tills.

 

Sedgwick is an excellent writer. The prose of The Comet Seekers seems effortless, the kind of great writing which pulls you in and makes you forget you’re holding a book (which is very hard to do with ‘literary’ fiction). The framing device of the comets works well (who knew there were so many of these things!) and the split between the characters is well-judged. I never found myself having to flick back to remind myself where a character left off.

 

‘Emotionally draining’ is a phrase which springs to mind. For that reason, you may (like I did) take a while to read The Comet Seekers, as just a few pages felt like enough for one sitting.

 

The verdict: Buy the physical book, the cover is fantastic.

 

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B019CGXW16/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Book review: Dirt Road – James Kelman (Canongate)

The set-up: 16 year-old Murdo and his father travel to the American south to stay with relatives. The pair have struggled since the deaths of both Murdo’s mother and sister Eilidh from cancer. It isn’t long before Murdo’s skill on the accordion is noticed by the locals and he receives the offer of a lifetime.

 

The review: If you’ve read Kelman before, you know what you’re getting with ‘Dirt Road’:

  • exceptional character study
  • fluid changes between narration, character’s thoughts and dialogue
  • focus on character rather than plot

Murdo is such an interesting narrator and Kelman is excellent at choosing the brief moments of self-realisation where Murdo realises why he’s making certain choices. Yes, it’s a slow-burner, and you probably won’t speed through it. To be savoured, for sure. The most surprising thing, for me, was the ending, which seemed to favour optimism over realism. Not something I expected from Kelman!

 

The verdict: Highly recommended (for Kelman fans).

 

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01BC20GKI/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Book review: The Ship – Antonia Honeywell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

The set-up: The world’s resources have been used up. The Government is finding ways to wipe out the parts of the population they don’t see as valuable. While her dad is gone for long spells trying to keep them safe and fed, 16-year-old Lalage and her mother make dangerous trips to the London Museum to share what they have with the desperate people living there. After an unexpected event, Lalage’s dad Michael reveals what he’s been working on for years: a ship to take them, and the other special people he has chosen, away from this hell. They will sail somewhere new and create a new life.

 

The review: While it starts as a page-turner (the opening chapter in particular is one of the better examples I’ve read), once aboard, The Ship is more of a thought-provoking novel about the choice between accepting what you’ve been given and wanting more from life than you’re offered. I found Lalage to be a successful narrator, however she does tend to get a bit wordy for a 16-year-old. Honeywell chooses a good cast of characters from the hundreds on the ship without overwhelming the reader with names. Characters such as Tom and Michael are brilliantly infuriating in their refusal to see things from anyone else’s point-of-view. While the ending was fitting, I was hoping to be surprised one last time.

 

The verdict: Recommended (though the opening 3 chapters were the highlight for me.)

 

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00M88VR2W/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

 

 

Book review: The Unforgotten – Laura Powell (Freight)

 

The set-up: Switching between the 1950’s and present day, Laura Powell’s debut tells the story of Betty Broadbent, a teenage girl helping her (unstable) mother run their seaside hotel. The novel opens with the hotel packed with reporters, there to cover ‘The Cornish Cleaver’, the town’s first serial killer. A relationship forms between Betty and one of the journalists, Mr Gallagher, but her feelings for him are complicated by his erratic behaviour. As the body count rises, Betty finds herself trusting fewer and fewer of those around her…

 

The review: An excellent debut, and a very well-told story. Generally, I find novels which switch between different time periods to lose momentum each time they switch. However, the later time period is intriguing enough and raises enough questions to warrant the split. The serial killer plot is important and provides lovely twists but, fortunately, takes a backseat to the family and relationship drama which is where the real emotion of the text lies. Powell ramps up the tension the longer the book goes on and the ending packs a real punch.

 

The verdict: Recommended.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01BZHYS0E/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Three Poems

Perhaps They’ll Listen Now

It is June, 1889, and Vincent Van Gogh
is painting ‘Starry Night’, the view from his
sanatorium room. When I think of him,
he is drinking mugs and mugs of coffee,
smoking copiously and muttering
that his art is nothing but swirly crap.

Fast forward to June, 1971, and Don McLean
records ‘Vincent’, an soft acoustic number
for a starry, starry man. Don finger-
picks his guitar and recites the words
to a empty studio, later an eager audience.

February, 2014, and Mrs Mitchell’s P3;
some on their chairs, some on the floor,
delicately sing McLean’s song,
their tiny heads cocked up at the screen.
These cannot be the same voices
who made that racket all morning.

Vincent van Gogh will never hear his song,
will never know how these children sung for
an artist they will soon forget.
Still he paints at his window,
smoking copious cigarettes.

Primary 3 Reading Book

Squinty eyes narrow and a little head
peers close to the page, before
a jolt! – The reasonably long word
spits from his lips, ‘pa-pa-pationic!’
I give him the ‘not quite’ eyes,
which encourages the other children
to guess their variations on the word –
‘pantomime! panorama! paratrooper!’
I don’t think I knew patriotism at that age, either.
I offer a brief definition, something including
Djokovic failing to return Andy Murray’s forehand.

A Hot Summer’s Day

I step into the long grass
of this shining field and wade
through green shallows,
my arms splashing against the tide.
I dislodge a halo of sweat. I take off my hat
and fan cool swoops of air into my face.
Crickets converse incessantly,
even as the sun tells me it’s okay to sleep
in the middle of the day.

A Late Murder at the Early Saloon

The Cockburn boys blew into the Early Saloon on a busy summer evening, causing all the happy folk to lose their appetite for smiling. The young girl who sold daisy chains to the drunks ran out the back door. The piano player took his hands off the keys and pretended he’d never been playing in the first place. The three Cockburn brothers, Cooper, Dixie and Matthew, whose wickedness and ill-temper were famous amongst men, and whose stench was famous amongst apes, approached the bar.

“Barkeep,” Cooper said, slamming his sweaty palm against the counter, “Three brandies’, sometime today.”

The other two cackled at their eldest brother’s wit. Cooper looked around and took in the nervous atmosphere of the bar. This same atmosphere seemed to follow him and his brothers everywhere they went.

“I thought this was meant to be a place of merriment?”

In keeping with their tradition, each of the brothers approached a man in the bar and humiliated him to assert their dominance, as if that had ever been in doubt.

Cooper took the hat from a man’s head and tossed it out the window.

“Would you look at that,” Cooper said, “Gotta watch out for these summer breezes.”

Dixie pulled a man’s handkerchief from his pocket, blew his nose on it, and replaced it in the pocket.

“My nose ain’t stopped running all day.” Dixie said.

Matthew, the youngest, not being so bold, took a sip from a young woman’s chardonnay.

“That’s, uh, very tasty. Thank you, ma’am.”

No one batted an eye or considered fighting back. The saloon’s owner, John Early, poured the brothers their brandy.

“These are on the house, fellas,” he said, “Don’t want no trouble tonight.”

“That’s mighty generous,” Cooper said, “Ain’t it boys?”

“Sure is.” Dixie said.

“Agreed.” Matthew said.

“Only problem is,” Cooper said, “Me and the boys were looking for some trouble tonight.”

Cooper’s smile turned to a snarl in a heartbeat. His hand drifted to his holster and even his brothers didn’t know if he was joking or not. He locked eyes with John.

A voice came from the doorway.

“Pop?” the voice said, “These guys bothering you?”

The Cockburn’s turned to find a six foot six wall of a man towering over them. It was Marty Early, John’s son, come for his nightly glass of root beer.

“Oh no, Marty,” John said, a bead of sweat snaking round the rim of his glasses, “Just a bit of fun, right guys?”

Cooper gave a nervous smile to the barkeep’s huge son.

“We’re just playing,” Cooper said, moving his hand back to his drink, “We’ll find trouble at the whorehouse down the road, won’t we boys?”

They roared in agreement and toasted to a night of debauchery.

Several complimentary brandies’ later, the brother’s conversation was loud and profane in ways that even old John hadn’t heard before. They teased Matthew mercilessly, as older brothers tend to. At one point, Matthew got so worked up he cracked a joke about Dixie’s mother, before recalling that they shared the same one.

The man who lost his hat to the breeze left the saloon shortly after the brothers arrived, so too did the man with the spoiled handkerchief. The lady with the chardonnay, however, found the courage to stay and order another.

“I’m going to make water.” Dixie announced, before stumbling outside in search of some bushes.

At the other end of the bar, the huge figure of Marty shook his father’s hand.

“See you in the morning, Pop,” he said, “You send word for me if there’s any trouble?”

“I can handle these fools.” his father replied.

Marty stooped under the frame of the doorway and headed home.

Cooper and Matthew placed their empty glasses on the bar.

“The whores are a’ calling, brother.” Cooper said.

“I ain’t heard nothing.” said Matthew.

“I meant- never mind, you idiot. Let’s go.”

Their dusty boots stomped a path to the saloon door. Just as the other patrons were breathing a long sigh of relief, a gunshot sounded from outside. Cooper and Matthew made drunken attempts at pulling their weapons from their sides as they dashed through the door and outside.

The first thing they saw: a horse flashing past them, down the main street and out of sight.

“Wasn’t that Maisie?” Matthew said.

He was correct. Cooper’s horse, Maisie, had just made her getaway before them. A deep, mucus-fueled growl came from somewhere deep within Cooper. He drew his pistol and made his way round the side of the saloon, where they had tied up their horses an hour previously.

By the light of a swaying lantern, they saw two horses and one loosened rope, dangling in the breeze. Below their feet, almost hidden in the long grass, was Dixie, flat on his back. They almost tripped over him. The brothers knelt by his side and swept away a few daisies which lay upon him. There was a large red patch over his gut and his chest was still. One bullet had done for him. His pistol lay in the grass with him, near his limp hand.

“Son of a bitch.” Cooper said, placing his hat over Dixie’s face.

“Who done it, you think?” Matthew said, fighting back his tears lest his big brother should see, “The big fella?”

Cooper drew several long breaths before he responded.

“Get the old man.”

Cooper and Matthew stormed their way through the crowd which had assembled outside. There was nothing like a killing to bring people together in excitement and intrigue.

“Where’s the barkeep?” Cooper yelled.

John stepped forward.

“What’s happened?” he said.

“Your boy’s killed my brother.”

Saliva dripped from Cooper’s mouth like a rabid dog.

“My boy’s at home,” John said, “Caring for his new-born daughter. He ain’t a thug like you and your kind.”

Cooper lifted his pistol and took aim at John. The blast was loud enough to wake the whole street. Cooper dropped to his knees, and when the smoke cleared, it was revealed to be Marty Early who had shot him. The huge man had arrived with his 1847 Walker revolver, despite only being dressed in his long john’s. He hit Cooper with a clean shot through the neck. The crowd watched on as the dying man took his last, gargled breaths.

The last remaining Cockburn, Matthew, turned to face Marty with his hand poised to draw. He looked down at Cooper and remembered he had no brothers left to do the killing for him. He slowly backed up and disappeared into the alley where his horse was tied. He rode back round a few seconds later and raced straight out of town.

There were cheers and a small round of applause from the patrons of the bar, before they went back inside to celebrate seeing a good show with a happy ending. John and Marty each took an end of Cooper and carried him round to place him in the grass with his kin.

“I came as soon as I heard the gunshot,” Marty told his father, “What happened?”

“I was hoping you would tell me,” John said, “You saying it weren’t you who shot Dixie?”

“I was with Jane and the baby, pop. I swear.”

“Well, I guess it don’t much matter now. Looks like we’re rid of the Cockburn’s for good.”

Marty followed his father inside the saloon, where the big man didn’t pay for a drink the entire night. He returned to his wife, Jane, and their child many hours later, too inebriated to justify the good reason for his absence.

Earlier that night, when the Cockburn brothers first entered the Early Saloon, a seven year-old girl by the name of Penny, who had been selling daisy chains from a box, ran out the back door. She remembered the last time those men had come to town and the horrible way they had treated the ladies of Madame Eliza’s brothel. Penny’s mother and father having died shortly after her birth, the women of the brothel had raised Penny like their own daughter.

She sneaked into the room of Mistress Abigail, who was known to keep a pocket revolver at the back of her night-stand. Penny knew Abigail was booked to service the gentlemen of a poker game that evening and wouldn’t be back for hours. She took the weapon, left her floral wares on the front step, and rushed back to the saloon. It was her intention to set free the horses belonging to the Cockburn’s, creating a conflict amongst the rogues as to whose fault it was, or forcing them into the dark to search for their steeds. Anything to keep them from terrorising the women Penny considered sisters. The borrowing of the gun was just a precaution, as she knew she could sneak unseen down the trail which led behind the bar.

Penny had just about loosened the rope of the first horse when Dixie Cockburn, looking for a suitable place to relieve himself, came stumbling upon her. He was mumbling and lacking most of what wits he possessed, but Penny understood what he meant when he darted for his side-arm. She pulled out her revolver, held it forward with both arms locked and straight, and fired. Dixie was floored by the bullet and Penny from the recoil of the gun. She got up unsteadily, shaking her head in an attempt to remove the ringing from her ears. Her foot got caught in the long grass and she tumbled on top of the dead man. Some loose daisies from her pocket spilled out over him. When the world stopped spinning, Penny got up and ran, giving the untied horse a smack on the backside as she went.

Upon returning to the brothel, she replaced the still-warm weapon behind Abigail’s night-stand, then went to her room to hide in the safety of sleep and wait for her hearing to return.

Penny was woken in the early hours by commotion downstairs. It turned out another of the Cockburn’s had been killed that night and the ladies of the brothel were having a mighty party to honour their memory.

Years later, men in John’s bar were still heard to argue over how many of the Cockburn boys big Marty had killed.