Monday, 16 July 2012

Three little words

Middle-aged, sensible, a bit turquoise?
Last weekend fellow writer Barbara Henderson and I attended an event in Hawick (rhymes with ‘oik’) here in the Scottish Borders. Nicola Morgan and Sara Sheridan braved the floods to speak about marketing, social media and e‑publishing. It was marvellous to have writers of their calibre visit, and I brought home pages of notes. Nicola also kindly published on her blog some of the resources she had referred to.

One of Sara’s suggestions was that we should all go away and think of three words to describe ourselves. Not ourselves as people though, but (and this is where it gets tricky) as our writing ‘brand’. So, middle-aged, sensible and turquoise-wearing won’t do for mine, although those are the three words which immediately sprang to mind.

Surely you can’t communicate much with just three words? Read the examples below, some of which you’ll recognise, and think again.
TLC for backs (Zerostress chairs)

Spellbinding crime fantasy (my mate Dave Sivers)

Never knowingly undersold (John Lewis Partnership)

Vorsprung durch Technik (Audi, proving the words don’t even have to be in one’s own language to be memorable)
I’m not going to tell you what my three words are. I can’t, because I still haven’t decided on them. When I do, rest assured I’ll share them with you.

In the meantime, how would you describe yourself or your ‘brand’ in three words?

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


Some things are impossible to explain. Like why I find the Scots accent irresistible, how I can be middle-aged when I still feel 22, and why it’s so important to me to gain something many of you had by the time you really were 22: a degree.

In my early 40s I studied English and Scottish Literature at Edinburgh University. It was a lovely time, unfortunately cut short by a lack of funds (grants had already gone, fees were just coming in, an idiotic bureaucrat ‘forgot’ to process my application for a bursary). I took a job which I hated, and to console myself I started to write seriously in my spare time. Yet that dream of achieving a degree never went away.

Several years later we were a lot better off but I could no longer face regularly driving 50 miles each way to Edinburgh. So I applied to study with the Open University. My time at Edinburgh gave me credits which meant I ‘only’ had to do four courses to gain a BA (Hons) in Humanities with Literature (though sadly without a specifically Scottish element). I was self-employed by then, and could work half the week, study the other half.

I did three courses in as many years, my favourite being History of Cinema and Television. My husband enjoyed all that mandatory film-watching; I hated having to take exams again. My marks were pretty good, once I stopped being pulled up for writing lines and paragraphs which were ‘too short’ (they probably lacked sufficient adverbs and adjectives as well). So I’m well on the way to achieving dream number 2: getting a degree.

However, dream number 1 – being a published novelist – still rules. I took 2011/12 off to complete my first novel, start my quest for an agent and begin writing book two. This week, as June became July, I faced a big decision. Is this the right time to embark on my final year of study, the most important course of them all, the one which decides how good a degree I get?

The answer had to be ‘yes’, even though it means I must be more organised. I’ll have to go back to designating set days for specific tasks, abandon the luxury of fiction-writing every day. And you know what? I think this will concentrate my mind, make me more productive, not less.

Another choice: which course? I swithered between A300: 20th century literature – texts and debates and AA316: The 19th-century novel. Heaney, Woolf, Ginsberg, Du Maurier, Eliot and Brecht versus Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Eliot, Flaubert and Conrad. Conrad? Memories of A-level English all those years ago flooded back, of wading through Nostromo and hating every line of it.

The reading list for A300 also includes a Scottish classic, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, as well as sci-fi in the shape of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Finally, the clincher: while both courses require six Tutor Marked Assignments (essays), only AA316 has an exam at the end of it. A300 has an End-of-module assessment which is done at home at one’s own pace.

Decision made. A300: 20th century literature – texts and debates, here I come! Eventually, I hope, earning the right to hire one of the fetching gowns seen here for my graduation ceremony.

Nineteenth or twentieth century literature: which would you choose?