Donkey Boy and Other Stories

I’m delighted to announce the publication of my short story collection, Donkey Boy and Other Stories.
donkey boy book-cover-k v1Over the last few years I’ve been focussing more on non-fiction titles so I’m particularly pleased to be returning to fiction with this slim collection of eclectic stories. Readers will meet a diverse range of characters in wide-ranging locations from Pakistan to Scotland.

It was with some trepidation I asked author Margaret Elphinstone to read the collection and, if she liked them, to write a couple of lines to use on the back of the book. When she emailed to say she’d decided to read the first couple of stories then found herself reading them all straight through I was very happy. I was even happier when she sent me this:

‘Whether we’re in urban Pakistan, an old-fashioned travelling circus in Scotland, or repressed suburban Britain, Mary Smith’s stories take the reader right to the heart of a situation. They focus on characters who are disinherited by mainstream cultures. Whether it’s the boy from Peshawar whose father can’t let him stay at school, the adopted child who is marginalised by an identity she can’t recognise, or a woman escaping from lethal oppression, these people have been forced to abandon a part of themselves. The take on this theme varies from first person narrative ironically revealing its own complacency, to an impersonal voice which takes us right to the heart of suffering. The final story is perhaps the most chilling: is the character suffering from all-too-acute perception of cruelty and brutality, or is she simply crazy? In these stories the reader’s position is always ambiguous: are we colluding with dispossession, or are we honestly able to listen?’ – Margaret Elphinstone, author of The Gathering Night

My thanks to Melissa Priddy of Creative Station for the fabulous cover design.

The ebook is available now on Amazon.

A paperback edition will be published soon – so watch this space if you prefer to read a real book.

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Writers – are they born or made?

I have a confession – I’ve never taken a writing course. I didn’t go to university, was only too happy to leave the boring old classroom behind, and actually, thanks to a snide remark from a teacher (which I later realized was intended as a joke), I didn’t even take English my last two years of high school. As for Pam, she only wanted to be a farmer or work with horses.

So, although we were avid bookworms and lived most of our time in our imaginations, the idea of becoming novelists was as far-fetched as joining the space program. On the plus side, we had a mother who was a born storyteller and we constantly played creative games in which we acted out different characters and adventures. From the age of 5, I obsessively read every book in the library, plus cereal boxes, newspapers, billboards, soup can labels. By the time I moved to London, I was regularly writing ten page journal-type letters to the friends I’d left behind. Ah, remember the days of snail mail? Still I might never have dared to publish anything professionally if I hadn’t lucked into a job in a literary agency. Such is fate.

But then again, working in publishing, I met so many editors and agents for whom the reverse was true.  It was their life-long ambition to be a published author. They’d taken all the right steps – English Literature and Language ‘A’ levels, graduated with honors in English at Oxford or Cambridge, studied all the great masters and what was the result? Total inhibition. After years dissecting the works of Tolstoy, D H Lawrence, Dickens, Shakespeare, they were far too scared to pen an original piece of writing, too burdened by all that knowledge of sentence structure, plot devices, subtexts and character analysis to risk producing anything less worthy than the geniuses they admired. Instead their lives were dedicated to nurturing and guiding raw talent, helping literary novices and unabashed dreamers get their manuscripts on to the bestseller lists.

Which makes me wonder – are writers born or made? These days creative writing courses abound, something that barely existed when I was young. There are brilliant books on writing for those wanting advice.  I read those obsessively for a while: Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, Stein On Writing… I could go on and on.  Mostly what they did was provide glorious encouragement while allowing me to pretend that I wasn’t just a hopeless procrastinator who’d rather do almost anything than take the disciplined, daunting action of putting words to paper.

Do I wish sometimes that I’d had more formal education? Often. Do I think it would have led me to penning incredible Pulitzer Prize-winners instead of commercial fiction?  I doubt it. I’d probably be like those editors I met, comparing myself to the greats and stultifying my own creativity for fear of producing second-rate work. The one-day local writers group I attended had me so terrified of reading aloud and being found lacking, I couldn’t scribble a single word. Which is probably why I’ve avoided writers workshops and novelist gatherings like the plague, while envying the brave souls like Sue Moorcroft who find in them inspiration, community and even lead retreats!

So what do you think? Is creativity something that can be taught? Can a brilliant teacher improve your craft? Or lead you from mediocrity to masterpiece? Or is writing a passion that will find a way to emerge despite the odds? And what about people like Jeffrey Archer who, with no previous literary ambitions, decide to sit down one day and pen a bestseller – indeed a long string of bestsellers – as a means to avoid bankruptcy? A born storyteller? Or just the type of bold lucky bastard we can all agree to hate?

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Have laptop, will travel

Mary Smith’s great post last week made me think a little more about where I write and when.

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Study

 

 

Over the past few months, I’ve spent quite a bit of time writing in places other than my favourite place – my study at home. I headed up a great writing retreat in Italy for Arte Umbria where I had the huge pleasure of writing a book set in Italy while I was actually there. (And if you’re thinking of joining one of my writing retreats there in 2018, here’s what you might like to know, along with the booking link.)

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Arte Umbria – 2017 retreat

 

In August I was a little more local, heading off to Derbyshire and the fabulous Swanwick, The Writer’s Summer School to teach the Popular Fiction course, which ran over four morning sessions and was so well attended I was allocated the Main Conference Hall as my venue. It’s a lovely hall, light and airy, and I was happy to have such a great facility for one of my last teaching gigs in the foreseeable future, my publishing schedule being  tight at least until the end of 2108.

 

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Workin in my room at Swanwick

Each day, after my session, I returned to my room and I wrote. This is despite the fact that Swanwick runs a varied and imaginative programme, of which I could have taken advantage, and there were a lot of friends in attendance, old and new. I really needed to finish the first draft of next summer’s book, currently entitled The Summer of Finding Out, so I simply treated my non-teaching time as a writing retreat. Although a room in a conference centre doesn’t have the charm (or sunshine) of an Italian terrace, I was very comfortable and with no domestic duties or visits to the gym to factor into my working week, I just sat down every day with a plentiful supply of tea … and wrote. I’d go over to the main buildings for lunch and a glass of wine then return to my room and write again until dinner.

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The main building at Swanwick

 

And I finished my first draft! Awesome.

There’s a small sting in this tale. When I returned home I worked first on my German edits for The Little Village Christmas and then wrote a two-part story for My Weekly. When I returned to my first draft of The Summer of Finding Out the final chunk was missing! I nearly had a heart attack. I had saved a version to Dropbox but could hardly bear to look at it in case it, too, was incomplete ….

PHEW! The whole manuscript was there. It took me a further day to realise that I’d written the last chunk of the book on my laptop, which was why the full version wasn’t on my desktop! A real brain fade moment for me but it gave my heart a thorough workout.

Just before I go I’d like to share with you the lovely cover for The Little Village Christmas, which was revealed a week ago. Isn’t it gorgeous? Can’t wait to see the paperback with all its festive bling.

The Little Village Christmas

For those who have been asking me for another book set in Middledip Village – this is it! It features a few old friends such as Gabe Piercy and his contrary pony, Snobby, and head of the village hall committee, Carola, plays a pivotal role. But things have been happening. The village hall is closed! How can this be? It was the heart of the village. Good job that Alexia Kennedy heads up a rescue package for an old pub, The Angel, abandoned decades ago, to make it into The Angel Community Café. (I always thought the village lacked a coffee shop.) But when someone runs away with all the money, everything changes not just for The Angel but for Alexia herself. The Little Village Christmas also brings to the village Gabe’s nephew, Benedict Hardaker, who has suffered a couple of hard knocks and is hiding out in the woods to recover. Until he gets roped into rescuing The Angel …

 

Masterclass with Jed Mercurio (or not?)

I’m about to confess something: I live in Edinburgh and this year, I put my head down the whole time the Festivals were on and pretended they weren’t happening. I was in the Outer Hebrides for half the time, and when my husband headed off to France for ten days, I decided that the opportunity to get my head down and write was too good to miss.

Of course, it didn’t work like that. I cleared the box room and sorted everything in it; ditto the cupboard under the stairs; and once more the utility room. It all felt good, and the house definitely looked more organised … but work? What’s that?

lod boxI was about to settle down with the wip (honest!), when I decided I’d read the Sunday papers first – and there, impossible to ignore, was a full page article about Jed Mercurio, scriptwriter for the gripping TV drama, Line of Duty. He was in Edinburgh … and he was giving a Masterclass at the Television Festival (which runs concurrently with the International Festival, Fringe Festival, Comedy Festival and Book Festival, as if we didn’t have enough festivals in the city already). It would be sold out, surely? I checked: it wasn’t. I booked two tickets, one for myself and one for a friend who writes thrillers. We’d both benefit from this!

The first thing to say is that the Television Festival feels very different from any of the others. It’s primarily for delegates, though a few sessions (such as this one) are open to the paying public. It’s in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, which is a large, specially built facility  – and telly people are clearly used to a better lifestyle than writers, because compared with any writers’ conferences I’ve been to (quite a few), this was luxury itself. There was a champagne bar, for starters, plus cool spaces for downing smoothies or moccachinos, and huge TV screens everywhere. Sky Arts had a dedicated area where a harpist was plucking away, and where you could play with virtual reality headsets (I did), or have a go at drawing Rory Bremner from a large image. This was a promotion for the excellent Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year competition (I didn’t stop to try this – there are limits).

There were trendy people everywhere – young guys with Gareth Bale ponytails atop their heads, women with killer heels and … drum roll … I even bumped into Russell Brand on the stairs. Literally. (Sorry Russell).

Jed and VickyThis was going to be good. The seats in the auditorium were so comfortable I could have fallen asleep – and to be honest, I might have done, for this was certainly not a Masterclass in any sense I had imagined. I suppose I was fooled into thinking I’d learn something about writing because the session was being delivered by a scriptwriter, but perhaps the words Television Festival should have sounded a warning, and also the fact that he was to be chummed by actress Vicky McClure (who plays Fleming). Lots of the audience questions were about where the money comes from and how to pitch to access funding, what’s it like doing 30-page interrogation sessions in a single take, and do the women in the cast get equal pay with the men. Obviously I would have liked something much more practical (mastering timing, the reveal, the twist, characterisation, maintaining a meta narrative etc etc), but that’s not to say I didn’t glean some gems. Here are a few:

  • There are some basics – the police officer under investigation has to be introduced, the characters in AC12 have to be re-established and (I loved this), Jed has to work out the elements of their stories at the time the series starts and what elements of these we can collide with
  • Jed likes to keep the construction as organic as possible. The twists and turns occur as he writes, and can sometimes change as the episode is being shot – for example, if he feels a scene can be made more dramatic
  • No character is safe [shivers]
  • The characters are multi-layered
  • There are narrow margins between success and failure. Jed tells us he’s always surprised when something works, but then, you should always find failure surprising too.

There was clearly a lot of respect and affection from everyone in the audience for the drama and there was applause when we learned that the BBC has commissioned two more series. Having to assume that each series might be the last does set up constraints in the writing and planning – so look forward to a roller-coaster ride in the next couple of years!

JedWith six episodes in a series, Jed likes to write the whole of it himself, although he acknowledged that more episodes would certainly require a bigger team. For novel writers unused to the constraints of television, I should point out that casting, schedule, locations and much more have to be sorted well in advance of shooting, so Jed delivers three episodes, then starts to think about the last three. He (and Vicky) were proud of the fact that Line of Duty has a strong female cast (and yes, she does have pay parity with the male AC12 characters).

I could have listened for a lot longer, I would have loved to have asked a load of questions of my own. Above all, I’d have loved to do a proper writing Masterclass with Jed Mercurio over a day or weekend because boy, he’s got an extraordinary gift for drama and tension. And if I left feeling just very slightly cheated, at least I was covered in stardust…

Oh, and finally, Jed revealed that he has a company of his own within Hat Trick Productions where he works with new writers. Perhaps I should take up scriptwriting?