Highland cattle and other miracles of writing at Moniack Mhor

In February I had the chance to attend a week-long retreat at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s creative writing centre near Inverness, and I’ve rarely been so nervous before anything. The Monday-to-Saturday retreat is a big part of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awards that I won in January, but I wasn’t at all sure how I’d fare, or whether I could cope with so much untrammeled writing time.

I’d heard of other writers who froze, for instance, when they suddenly had ample mind space to write — and that was just one preoccupation that my anxious brain offered up as I boarded the train at Edinburgh, bound for the Highlands.

I shouldn’t have worried. If you are a writer who has considered going to Moniack Mhor in the past, can I just urge you to run, do not walk, to book some time there? The people, staff and venue of Moniack Mhor are a genuine inspiration. If you’re curious, you can read the full story here about my close encounter with cattle, writerly bonhomie and (most importantly of all) my own manuscript, which experienced some drastic cuts during the week.

You can find more information here on the Moniack Mhor retreats, both tutored and untutored, or go here if you’re curious about the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awards, supported by Creative Scotland.

On winning a New Writers Award from Scottish Book Trust

If you’ve ever felt there’s no point in applying for yet another writing competition or grant opportunity, because you simply never win, that was me last summer. Yet for Christmas 2018, I received an earth-shattering phone call that I’d been chosen for a £2,000 Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, supported by Creative Scotland. I did feel that the ground had opened beneath my feet, because after trying for this award and failing five years running, I had been this close to not applying.

My 2018 wasn’t a pretty one. Was yours? A series of personal challenges, like body blows in a prize fight, left me in the unusual position of being unable to write. Outwardly I probably looked fine. But I felt as if the brain flesh that selected words and built sentences had gone numb. Starting a new piece of fiction was unimaginable: this wasn’t writer’s block, it was writer’s end.

A deadline to focus the (numb) mind

Yet the annual deadline rolled around for the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, and I figured, why not? By that stage I thought of myself as being out of the game, but my nonfunctioning brain had very, very recently kicked in again and I was just pages into a new piece of contemporary fiction that I saw as therapy: if I could write one sentence, and then another, maybe my brain would regain its sensation.

Those sentences had built up, and I now had something resembling chapters. The New Writers Award demands a synopsis, which was a laughable impossibility at that stage, but having written so many (rejected) manuscripts and read a library full of books, I thought about how a story like this would pan out and cobbled together a brief synopsis.

Anyway. The good news came last month and I’m reeling. I recognise how lucky we writers in Scotland are to have the Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland supporting us, and I intend to relish every instant of the year, which will include a mentorship, a week-long writing retreat at Moniack Mhor, and a showcase event of live readings in January 2020. Evidently 2020 will arrive, at some point, although it seems hard to grasp now.

What if writing just stops?

If your writing ever grinds to a halt that feels like a total end, that’s okay. I think I needed to give myself permission to fall apart. The one smart thing I did was protect my morning writing time and use it for other things – sketching, learning Japanese, practicing old monologues from my time as an actor. When I felt able to look at a keyboard again, at least my protected time was still there, ready to welcome me back.

Find out more about the New Writers Awards here. Information on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a supportive tribe if there ever was one, is here from SCBWI British Isles. My writing sample that won the New Writers Award is here.

Sheila M. Averbuch is a former journalist who’s interviewed billionaires, hackers, and the guy trying to send humans to Mars. She writes fiction for middle grade and is represented by Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

Photo: Rob McDougall for the Scottish Book Trust

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I found a knife in my pocket yesterday morning. My first thought was relief: I use it for gardening, but I’d lost track of it, and I had a Sunday of planting-out and tying-up planned. My second thought was, what if I weren’t a privileged white lady? If somehow I were stopped by a nervous police officer who was predisposed to see me as trouble, I wouldn’t be carrying my gardening knife, I’d be armed. Continue reading “Police brutality in children’s fiction”