The Way We Say Yes

That’s the provisional title of the novel I’m working on. It refers to Occitan, the language spoken in the Languedoc region of France, where the story is set. While in the rest of the place which later became France, ‘yes’ was pronounced “oïl” which became “oui”, in this area they used “oc”, which gave rise to the modern name of the region – ‘the tongue of oc’.

I’m pleased to see that Occitan is becoming increasingly popular for folk songs set in the area. It’s good to hear it, and it lends itself to song.

The main character in my novel is a Scotsman who sets up a pottery in the region, in one of those lovely little villages strung along the Canal du Midi. I’ve given it a made up name, because I didn’t want to be too specific about the actual village which inspired it (and I won’t say what that village is).

I’m pleased with progress on the novel, which is the first I’ve tackled seriously. I’m just over the halfway mark, and I know where it’s headed. Unlike my short stories, where I don’t know the ending until I’ve written it, with the novel I felt I had to write it early on, so I’d know the trajectory of the story. That doesn’t mean the whole thing is fixed and set in stone. I’ve managed to surprise myself several times already along the way.

Why am I writing it? Fundamentally, just to see if I can. If I can manage to write 100,000 words, and trim it back to 80 or so I’ll be satisfied. In other words, I’m not writing it with the aim of publication – although it would be nice if it turns out to be publishable. It’s because a novel feels like some kind of literary Everest to me, and I have to knock it off “because it’s there”, in the immortal words of Mallory.

I’d hoped to get a Fellowship to work on it France for a month, but I was unsuccessful. However, our eldest son has bought a house near Uzes, not far from the area of the novel, and we’re going there later in the year, so I’ll pick up the ambience if nothing else. We did tour round the area in the 1990s, and we’ve been to many other parts of France. Plus I learned pottery in the 1970s, and I’m making use of that background too. I’m aiming to finish in September.

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Postbox; the magazine

Postbox cover

Launched on 4th May 2019, this is the first issue of Postbox; Scotland’s international short story magazine, published by Red Squirrel Press/Postbox Press.

We announced it late last year, and requested submissions with an end January deadline. I received over 100 submissions, and the overall standard was very high indeed. I narrowed it down, and sent my initial suggestions to Red Squirrel’s publisher, Sheila Wakefield. Looking at the total word count of the fifteen selected stories suggested they could all be published in an attractive format, and we agreed on those stories. After that I came up with a sequence which made sense to me, and then I got down to copy editing. To be honest, there wasn’t much to do there – no obvious errors or typos, and most of them very clean.

I’m a ‘light touch’ editor. I try not to change things unless I know I have to. Some of the stories had passages or sentences which I wouldn’t have written that way, if it had been me writing them. But I hadn’t written them, so I left them. I think too many editors/mentors, call them them what you will, are too interventionist; they take away the author’s intentions, their writing character. And stories which are overworked lose their freshness.

The only thing I did do was to impose consistency on text and paragraph formatting for all fifteen stories, so I could pass on a clean document to Gerry Cambridge for design and typesetting. I have my own preferences for line spacing and the like, and I know Gerry can modify these to suit the typeface he chooses.

He also chose the cover, and designed it to fit. Sheila and Gerry want to alternate the postboxes on the covers of new issues – Scottish, then international – and this first one comes from an Italian postbox.

This from my ‘Editorial’:

There’s a neatness in the [short story] form, a satisfying compactness, and a real skill in balancing brevity with telling a full story. I like originality in ideas and in the writing; I love believable dialogue, and I’m thrilled by endings I didn’t see coming, as long as they make sense in context.

The stories in this first collection fulfil these criteria and more. … What I wanted to achieve in this first issue [was] a showcase for good writing, of course, but also to reflect the wide variety of themes, subjects, treatments and styles which makes the short story such a joy to read.

Here is a list of the contents:

Kirsti Wishart: The Secret History of the Shoe Tree
Laura T Fyfe: Bell Ringing
Charlie Gracie: Hyde Bridge, Sligo
Tom Kelly: John’s Dance
Maggie Graham: Bounce and Rhyme
Colette Coen: Last Words
Tom Murray: Man in the moon
Tim Love: Oh I do like to be
Andrew McCallum Crawford: Scotch Pies
Bethany W Pope: The Hunter
Steve Urwin: The Sugar-Coated Nihilist
Reaghan Reilly: Our Little Secret
Alan Macfarlane: B-road Incident
Jennifer Gray: Shadowlands
C E Ayr: The Whale Driver

From the launch: L to R Reaghan Reilly, Tom Murray, Tom Kelly, Laura T Fyfe, Colette Coen, Maggie Graham.
Postbox authorsIt was an absolute joy to hear the authors read their words. As Tom Kelly said to me afterwards, ‘Everybody had something different to say.’

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March 2019

1st March

Headed off with grandson Morten for our little break in Argyll at Appin Holiday Homes. It was cloudy and damp when we set off, with low cloud and poor visibility. We stopped at the Green Wellie place at Tyndrum for coffee, and headed out, past Beinn Dorain and Ben an Dothaidh and up to Rannoch Moor, with the clouds lifting as we went. By the time we reached Buchaille Etive Mor we could see the top, with snow in the gullies. Glencoe was spectacular.

Past Ballahulish and on into Appin, with a sight of Castle Stalker. By Loch Creran we found our holiday lodge – Badger Sett, unpacked and settled in. We bagged the room with the twin beds, leaving Morten in the bigger bedroom with the double bed. We walked down to the Creagan Inn for a drink, and came back for our evening meal. Slept well.

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2nd March

Drove to Benderloch first thing, to get the paper in the Benderloch Supermarket, AKA The Pink Shop, which it unquestionably is. To Oban today. Weather dry to start with, but not promising. We stopped in the long stay car park and walked back into town, popping in to the odd shop. By lunchtime it had started to rain heavily, so we ran for a fish restaurant by the pier – Ee-cus. Delicious meal, then we tramped back to the car in the pouring rain. Stayed in the lodge. Morten found the games room with wi-fi and a snooker table. He’s really good company.

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3rd March

It had snowed on the hilltops overnight, so the views were really spectacular. We had decided that today would be for Glencoe. It was raining, but it didn’t dampen our spirits. We parked in the Visitor Centre and walked up the hill, taking in the first snowdrops I’d seen this year. Streams were flowing rapidly, due to the rain. Spectacular view of Clachaig Gully.

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Most of the Visitor Centre was closed for renovation and rebuilding, so we drove on to the Three Sisters car park, and walked down the hill as far as the river, but we didn’t cross. It brought back memories of walks in to the Lost Valley when Jane and I were younger. I’m sure it was in Glencoe, on the way back from our climbing course in 1963, when we decided to get married, so it’s always been a special place for us.

4th March

Fort William and Ben Nevis today. We parked in the long stay in Fort William, and walked through the town, mostly window shopping, before driving on to the Ben Nevis Range car park. We baulked at the cost of the gondola up to the ski station, and in any case we didn’t fancy tramping through snow. Instead, we went to the North Face car park along the Forestry Commission track, and headed up the track from there.

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It was rather good, but we stopped short of the tree line, which was where the snow started. We parked in a lay-by on the way back to get a look at the North Face. It’s on the right, under the clouds.

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By the time we got back to the Stalker tea room it had closed for the day, so we didn’t get our coffees and tray-bakes.

5th March

Last day in Appin. We packed up and were on our way before 10am. We had a good run back up through Glencoe and decided to head down Glen Etive. The road – single-track with passing places – seemed longer than it had on our previous visits, but they were a long time ago. It was beautiful though. We stopped at the loch and walked along the shore, picking up some of the coarse-grained granite pebbles. On the walk back, we were startled to see two semi-tame stags by the roadside, and then, shortly after, a herd of hinds.

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deer herd _Glen Etive

A great end to our trip, and Morten’s first sight of the Scottish Highlands.

 

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February 2019

Saturday 9th February

Struck down by what I think is norovirus. Very debilitating. Could not stop vomiting and/or the other thing.

Monday 11th February

Feeling much better, but very weak – I have lost half a stone over the weekend – but I am going ahead with my Newcastle reading at the Lit & Phil, one of my favourite venues. I decided to read Last Fall, from Word Play. Charlie Gracie, Brian Whittingham and Tom Kelly were also on the bill. When it came to my turn I decided to sit to read, and it felt very comfortable and cosy, as if I was drawing the audience in around me. This made it a very relaxed reading, despite never having read this one in public before, and the feedback afterwards was excellent.

I think some friends were heading for a pub afterwards, but I went straight back to my Quayside hotel and slept like a log.

Tuesday 12th February

Caught the train home and arrived around lunchtime.

In the evening to The Station Yard micropub for the first of our CoastWord Haverings events, an open mic session with featured guests. The featured musicians this time were Karen Dietz and Richard Klein, and the featured poet Nadine Aisha Jassat. The open-mic-ers were from the CoastWord committee, musicians John Hardman and Carey Lunan, writers Hannah Lavery, Carey Douglas-Carnegie and myself.

It was a great night, with the pub filled to capacity (and too warm because of that), the audience receptive and responsive. and the readings and music went very well. We kept to time too!

Friday 15th February

To Belhaven Bikes to have a new prop-stand fitted. Getting the old one off was really difficult, but my friend Colin managed it eventually.

Wednesday 20th February

An ‘approval’ meeting with the commissioning team for the Hospital Arts projects, so I was a bit nervous. Met up with Zuzana Gibb, my artist partner before the meeting, and then we did our presentations. I liked the designs Zuzana had come up with, based on my ward name suggestions. I think she captured the ideas very cleverly.

Wednesday 27th February

Our grandson Morten arrived from Germany. Jane was at her art class in the morning, so I drove to the airport to pick him up. He’s spending a couple of days with us in Dunbar before we all head off to our holiday lodge in Appin, Argyll, on 1st March.

 

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End January to early February

2019 February 7th

A meeting with the contact group for the Ward Identities project for the new East Lothian Community Hospital. In the afternoon a tour of Herdmanflat Hospital, which was fascinating.

Then to Edinburgh for the launch of Catherine Simpson’s memoir – When I had a little sister. She’s an exceptional writer. Lots of friends at the gig, and it was standing room only.

2019 February 5th

By now I had finished reading all 103 stories submitted for the Postbox magazine, and I had made my choice of stories. Sheila Wakefield had given me a word limit for the publication, and this gave me the limit for the number of stories in the inaugural issue. It’s fifteen.

Went to Inky Fingers gig at The Lighthouse bookshop. It’s a monthly open mic mic night, and the headliner was Hannah Lavery, CoastWord’s Director. She’s a brilliant poet, and I enjoyed her performance. Also, in the Pear Tree afterwards for an alcohol-free lager, I met Charlie Roy, our new PR and Media person.

In a previous incarnation, the Pear Tree was where our eldest son had his wedding reception, 25 years ago.

2019 February 2nd

To Edinburgh, for the launch of new publications by Anne Connolly, Jon Plunkett and Edwin Stockdale.

Edwin’s poetry is biographical, usually about historical figures, and almost always women. His language is evocative and beautiful, and he reads really well. I thoroughly enjoyed his set.

I hadn’t heard Jon’s poetry before. It’s energetic, direct, forceful, and he performs it from memory. He was very impressive.

Anne’s been one of my friends since, I think, the late 1990s. She and I were regular attenders at meetings of the School of Poets in the Scottish Poetry Library. I published her first pamphlet, Downside Up, which showed off her considerable talents. She’s had collections published by Stewed Rhubarb and by Red Squirrel, and Sheila Wakefield had asked me to edit this collection for her, given that we’d been friends for so long, plus the MS contained some science-inspired poems. It was lovely to hear the poems read in that musical Irish voice.

All three collections are available from the Red Squirrel Press website.

2019 January 31st

Closing date for submissions for the Postbox Press short story magazine. As usual, a last-minute flurry of entries. I started reading them, and putting them into three categories – Yes, No and Maybe. The Yesses are relatively small in number, the Noes slightly more, but I have a lot of Maybes. Further sifting will have to be done.

2019 January 30th

To Edinburgh with my Linlithgow friends, for a visit to Gladstone’s Land, which I had never previously visited. Very interesting, and a really professional tour guide. Afterwards to lunch – overpriced and not as special as it made itself out to be.

2019 January 29th

To Eyemouth for a meeting of the Eyemouth Writers group.

 

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The Writing Blog

When I revamped my website (www.colinwill.co.uk) recently, I included a new page for a writing blog. I started it with the best of intentions (honestly), but it’s proved difficult to keep it up to date. So now I’m going to make it a sort of monthly update, and post it here, as a sort of writing diary. Here are the January highlights.

2019 January 26

I’ve been very busy with entries for the new Postbox short story magazine. As of today, I’ve got 54 entries for it. I wasn’t going to start reading them until after the deadline, but I realised that, because of the volume, it would be better if I made a start earlier. The obvious Yesses and Nos are straightforward, but it’s the much larger pile of Maybes that will give me the most difficulties.

Tonight I’m ‘In Conversation’ with my friend Bruce Jamieson as part of the Further From Festival in Linlithgow. I don’t know what questions he’s going to ask me, but I hope I’m ready for anything. I know I’m going to finish with three sea poems, with brief improvised introductions on alto sax.

2019 January 14

I set a large part of my novel in a small village next to the Canal du Midi, the Eastern end to be precise. It’s a real village. I visited it in 1996 and was struck by its beauty. I liked the small centre, perched on top of a rocky outcrop overlooking the Canal. I wondered as I was writing the story whether I should use its real name, or make a name up.

I’ve come to realise I have to change it. I don’t like the idea of a future reader, if it’s ever published, being able to say ‘That’s not the village I know. It’s not like that.’ And in truth, it’s not like that now – I checked it on Google Earth, and it’s changed out of all recognition. Whether my memory is flawed – it probably is – or if I’ve been seeing it through the eyes of my imagination, I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s done. I made a name up. It sounds plausible, in my view, and there isn’t a real French village of that name in my gazetteer. There’s even a bit of low cunning, in that the name conceals the symbol for a chemical element that reveals itself only in the final chapter.

2019 January 07

When I constructed the first timeline for my novel, I wasn’t happy with it. It was too long, and it had the main character born in the same year I was, which made him too old by the last chapter, plus there were too many gaps in it, years when nothing significant happened.

Then I opened my notes and discovered a date for the first episode which was much later
than the one in my timeline. So that gave me an entry point to go back in and fix the episodes in the right chronological sequence.

The result is that he is nearly twenty years younger than he was, and the gaps have mostly closed up, making it a more compact narrative, and all the richer for it. It should also help with the pacing.

2019 January 04

Every writer’s life is different. It’s whatever we make out of the opportunities we can access, our particular likes and dislikes, and the time we have available.

I write, obviously, but I’m also Editor for Postbox Press, the literary fiction arm of Red Squirrel Press. In 2018 I edited two novels, three short story collections, two poetry collections, and I co-edited a mixed anthology with my friend Elizabeth Rimmer.

I travel near and far to do readings of poetry and prose, sometimes accompanied with music, and I lead workshops on creative writing, short story writing, poetry, how to get published, and other subjects. I’m on the Scottish Book Trust’s database of authors for the Live Literature programme, whereby organisations can be helped to bring authors to them at a reasonable cost, while authors are paid a decent sum for their contributions. Recent events have been in Falkirk, Dunbar, Stirling, and Barlinnie Prison, to name but three.

My current projects are challenging and interesting. One is that I’ve been recruited into the Ward Identities team for the East Lothian Community Hospital currently being built in Haddington. My personal role is to help staff choose the names for their new wards, in a hospital which will integrate several presently scattered health care services in one location. My aim is to ensure that the chosen names reflect the hospital’s physical and care settings.

Another major project for 2019 is to write a novel-length story, constructed from a number of novellas and short stories. That’s the plan anyway, and we’ll see how I get on. I’ll report progress.

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Influential books

 

       On Facebook recently, my friend Robert Hansen asked me to post the covers of seven books which have influenced me in some way. Initially I was posting these without comment, as requested, but I felt this was not really what I wanted to do. Some explanation of why the books were important to me might be useful to readers. So I started to add commentaries. I finished at fifteen book covers.

Then this week I was speaking to one of my friends, and he suggested I should put all the books together in one place. Here it is.

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Back in 1961 I was one of a small number of ‘Edinburgh Beats’, influenced by what I could glean of the Beat culture of 1950s America. I liked what I read of the American poetry of the time, and I bought this newly published anthology in Edinburgh’s The Paperback bookshop in Charles Street (now demolished). The shop was run by Jim Haynes, a friendly and knowledgeable American, who was also involved with the establishment of the Traverse Theatre, and the International Writers Conference, which I attended in 1962, the year of the infamous stramash between Hugh MacDiarmid and Alexander Trocchi. Anyway, reading and re-reading this book changed the direction of my life. It was the best 21 shillings I ever spent.

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An obvious one for me. Günter Grass first influenced me as a poet, and then as a novelist. The English version came out, I think, in 1962.

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I had long been interested in animal behaviour, and Schaller’s book is a classic of its kind.

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Finishing my Open University degree in maths and science, with a Distinction in Geology and Geochemistry, I wanted to change my career from one in public libraries to scientific librarianship. A job came up to take charge of the then Institute of Geological Sciences (now British Geological Survey) library in Edinburgh, and moving that library from an old building in Grange Terrace into a purpose-built new building on the King’s Building campus. I read the first edition of The Geology of Scotland, edited by Gordon Young Craig, spoke about it at my interview, and got the job. I started working there in 1973, and stayed until 1988. Subsequently, as a professional indexer, I indexed the third and fourth editions of the book for their publishers.

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Norman MacCaig was my primary school teacher at Craiglockhart Primary School for the final two years of my primary schooling. He taught me Scottish country dancing, sarcasm, and how to write stories – then called English composition.
    It wasn’t until much later that I discovered his poetry, for which I have a deep and abiding love. I regard him as the finest Scottish poet of the 20th century, bar none.
    I also discovered Assynt much later too, the land where MacCaig spent all his long summer holidays. There is something mysterious and magical about the region, the way the mountains suddenly rear up out of the ancient Lewisian basement rocks. This one’s Suilven, MacCaig’s mountain, and mine too. I climbed it on my 66th birthday on a perfect summer day in 2008.

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I like to know where people come from, where I come from, and how we ended up in the places where we are. It’s why I had my DNA analysed not long ago, to find that I have a specific marker on my Y-chromosome characteristic of those whose origins are in north-east Scotland, the land of the Picts. So I’m a Pict, which I find just hunky-dorey. I know who I am now But this book goes deeper and wider, using genetics, linguistics and archaeology to trace the routes our ancestors took.

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I’ve long been interested in and influenced by, the poetry of Japan, but this book was an eye-opener, introducing me to the shan-shui – mountains and rivers – poetry of China. 

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i love this anthology, and I’ve used it often in workshops, for the inspirational quality of many of poems it contains.

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I love Kathleen’s poetry, and in particular the exuberance of this collection. I met her on an Arvon course at Moniack Mhor, which was intense, liberating and inspirational. She continues to be a wonderful writer.

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I’m influenced by art of all kinds, and I have a soft spot for the wood-block prints of Hiroshige.

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Back when I was younger, and fitter, I did a lot of hillwalking in the Scottish mountains, including several Munros (mountains over 3,000ft high. I still love the hills.

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This is fun. I bought it back in 1961 too, and it’s well thumbed.

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I’m not a twitcher, but birds fascinate me, and I see lots around my Dunbar home.

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If I’m teaching fiction writing, this is the book I recommend. It’s practical, sensible, and should be on every beginning writer’s bookshelf, along with Stephen King’s On Writing.

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What can I say? My first book of poetry, published by Diehard Books in 1996. 

 

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