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

10 things I learned about writing in 2016

I’ve just spent my first full year as an agented writer after years of learning how to write children’s fiction. In no particular order, here are my lightbulb moments of the last 12 months: things I’ve realized that have helped me most in my development as a writer this year.

  1. Beautiful writing abhors repetition, unless deliberate. There’s a fabulous, funny example of intentional repetition in BECAUSE YOU’LL NEVER MEET ME, one of my top reads of last year.
  2. Transcendent writing says something about the human condition. Frances Hardinge writes exquisite sentences I could happily live inside for a month, but it’s the insights that pepper her work that make feel wiser, and changed, after finishing one of her books.
  3. Revision always hurts and is always worth it. Wonderful pieces of writing may get cut during this process. Lin Manuel Miranda said this better than I can recently: “You don’t cut because it’s not good, you cut because it’s about serving the story and momentum. Editing would be EASY if just bad bits fell away.” Remove whatever’s needed and work hard to go deeper, closer, realer.
  4. Making up words is okay (viz. RIVERKEEP).
  5. Length doesn’t buy us depth as writers. LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET has 757 words and yet it’s heartbreakingly profound. I also learned that one of my favourite books of 2016 was given a last-minute edit just before press by its author, who pared back 3000 words at the 11th hour.
  6. To write something worth reading, the story must be in me and I in the story. The manuscript I’ve just given to my agent was ostensibly for my daughter when I first drafted it two years ago. But I realized during early edits that this wasn’t enough. I located the place inside myself that the story really sprang from, and that’s what brought it to another, stronger place. James Scott Bell talks about this in PLOT AND STRUCTURE: the need for a personal resonance in the stories we choose to write.
  7. Experimentation is good: challenging myself with new forms is worth the risk. I discovered that a story told from two points of view could work, but I had to let go of the metronome-like regularity (even back-and-forth between both characters, interspersed by an outside insert) of the first structure I tried; loosening up a bit helped the narrative function better.
  8. Beginnings matter. This fantastic blog from Jennie Nash talks about the need for confidence from the very first line. Some of my writing friends said they felt the need for hooky openers is overstated these days, but I disagree. If we can write, why not write something memorable, right from the starting gun? Maybe this is an impulse from my copywriting day job, where every syllable counts. A captivating first line is large part of my satisfaction as a reader, and I’ll do all I can to deliver the same experience for my readers. I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and Dickens knew what he was on about in this regard. “Marley was dead: to begin with.”
  9. I need to read my drafts cold and be honest with myself. In my most recent story, character motivation wasn’t strong enough, stakes were too low and the goal unclear. I prioritized the changes I had to make, took my agent’s advice on which areas were dragging, and got to work. The new draft made us both a lot happier.
  10. If editing feels hardest as I near the end of the story, that’s because it is. And that’s okay. Writer Vikki King said (I’m paraphrasing) the work of writing a story is in three parts – the first 75%, the next 20% and the final 5% – and the secret of success is putting the same amount of effort into all three parts. Think on that.

What were your lightbulb moments as a writer this year? I am actively seeking tips – please let me know your insights below. 

 

Image from Sheng-Fa Lin on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/CeuUD

I pledged allegiance

The Pledge of Allegiance

I pledged allegiance to the flag

after the scuff of chairs and desks,

facing front, hand pressed to my heart;

The sagging stripes and folded stars

didn’t stand for the Republic,

but Happy Days and Hostess cakes,

sprinkler summers and autumn leaves,

tobogganing and snowball fights;

They’re throwing more than snowballs now,

and there’s no ducking it: it’s blame,

for their dead American dream.

My hand still presses to my heart.

O America, this rebirth

of indecency must not stand;

Remember justice?

It was supposed to be for all.

 

 

 

 

Words: Sheila M. Averbuch

Photo: Paul Sableman on Flickr