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Guest Authors, Writing

Guest Author – Helen MacKinven: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

HMK's picToday it’s a huge pleasure to welcome Scottish author Helen MacKinven back to the Literary Sofa on publication of her second novel Buy Buy Baby.  It’s only eight months since her previous visit with Talk of the Toun, but I’ll leave Helen to tell you that story, which mirrors my own in various uncanny ways. Helen and I live hundreds of miles apart and have still never met in person but I like to think that we’re proof of how positive and valuable an online literary alliance can be! See end of post for my review:

When I worked for an environmental charity, I heard the mantra, ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ on a daily basis. It’s a way of life for me and it doesn’t just apply to composting my toilet roll tubes, putting my empty cans of Irn-Bru in the blue recycling bin and feeding my left-over pasta to my chickens. It also relates to my writing. Over the years, I’ve reduced, reused and recycled many ideas from flash fiction pieces and short stories, uni assignments and workshops, as well as anecdotes shared by family and friends. I believe it would be a crying shame and such a waste to think that once an initial idea had been aired that it had reached its ‘use by’ date.

That’s why my new novel isn’t really new at all. Like Isabel’s book, Paris Mon Amour, my debut novel, Talk of the Toun was the first to be published, but it wasn’t the first book I had written.

Talk of the Toun, isn’t a best-seller, I didn’t sign a deal for another book and apart from a few friends and family asking me, no one has put me under any pressure to publish another book.  But here’s the thing… I had already written two books before Talk of the Toun was published.

You might well ask, if they were any good, then surely they would’ve been published years ago?

The second book I wrote (let’s not dwell on my first attempt – it was only for practice!) nearly did get published; the strength of the writing and concept of the novel secured me a London literary agent (again my experience mirrors Isabel’s). My agent sent it to the ‘big five’ who gave us feedback along the lines of, “we liked it but didn’t love it enough”. I sent it to the Hookline Novel Competition where book groups read and then vote on the winning novel to be published. My novel made it to the final four in the UK – a bawhair (official unit of measurement for any non-Scottish readers) away from being published!

I sucked up the near misses, went off to do my MLitt course and eventually wrote Talk of the Toun. But in the process of developing my writing ‘voice’, I realised that I still felt passionately about my second novel and I couldn’t let it gather digital dust. After investing so much time and effort on the manuscript I didn’t want it to rest in peace as I felt it was too strong a story to be left to die unread.

After more than five years’ of a break from the story and characters, I decided it was time for me and the novel to take ourselves to writing boot camp and knock the manuscript into shape. There was no doubt in my mind that the original plot worked, the difference was I feel that I’m a better writer now, so it was well worth giving the manuscript a proper workout to see if I could take it to the next level.

After months of editing, I felt confident that Buy Buy Baby was fit enough (this metaphor only applies to the book – not me!) to get out there and jog alongside Talk of the Toun. It’s a very different book – one that will show that I don’t just “write what I know” although I do know many women who’re affected by the issues explored in Buy Buy Baby.  This time, I’ve chosen to write about what I wanted to know, that is, how would it feel not to be able to be a mother? And how far would someone go for fulfil their yearning?

Author of Viral, Helen Fitzgerald, has provided the cover quote and sums up the key themes, “Buy Buy Baby is energised by the biological clocks of its main characters, and deals with complex issues of grief, betrayal, abuse, ageing, donor anonymity and single parenthood.  A cracker of a read.” Who doesn’t know someone that hasn’t lived through these life experiences? Although the story isn’t all dark and gritty and I hope the Scottish banter will provide light relief for readers.

I’ve given Buy Buy Baby years to develop and mature which although the timescale was forced upon me; I feel it’s worked out better for ‘mother’ and ‘baby’.  Sometimes, patience and perseverance pays off. I’ve had the privilege of reading Isabel’s previous novel and I can vouch for it being a book worth fighting for and hope that once again our publication paths will follow a similar direction.

Thank you, Helen, I hope so too!  And I’m certain that many reading this inspiring post will take heart in Helen’s story of perseverance paying off, whilst taking note of the fact that she had to up her game to make it happen. 

BBB COVERIN BRIEF: My View of Buy Buy Baby

Buy Buy Baby confirms Helen MacKinven as one of the freshest and most distinctive regional voices in contemporary fiction.  She writes with tremendous energy, wit and personality.  Poignant, unsettling and sometimes unabashedly crude, her work has a disarming frankness in theme and treatment; political correctness doesn’t get a look-in and no subject is approached with temerity.  In Carol and Julia, she has created two intriguing and very different protagonists whose lives reflect issues of relevance to women everywhere.  If anything, given the unorthodox journey they take in pursuit of motherhood, I would have liked to spend longer getting to know and understand them.  A provocative and entertaining read that leaves a lot to think about.


Next week I’ll be hosting Kit de Waal, author of acclaimed debut novel My Name is Leon, on writing without judgement.  The book’s one of my Summer Reads 2016.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


11 thoughts on “Guest Author – Helen MacKinven: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

  1. Great post ladies… Absolutely agree Helen is ‘one of the freshest and most distinctive regional voices in contemporary fiction’ I loved Talk of the Toun and pleased to report Buy Buy Baby is another great read, bravely frank with an intuitive raw edge that explores an issue many might have shyed away from.

    Posted by Poppy Peacock | June 30, 2016, 11:23
  2. Gosh, well done Helen, for turning the other novel around so quickly. I’m in awe.
    I too, have a previous novel that won’t leave me alone (current tome is out on submission at present). I love the current enormously, but I also love the first one. I still believe it has a lot going for it, but It’s written a lot more naively – exuberantly – and I can’t recreate it. i.e. I’ve learnt a lot, I’ve grown older, less innocent, and I just don’t write *like that* any more.
    I’ve tried at various times to re-work the first one, but it’s not just a line-edit it needs, and my re-writes come out a lot darker than I want them to be and change the whole tone to something I don’t like. I feel as if I’m sucking out the joy of it.
    Did you struggle to get back into the writing style of your younger self? Or perhaps you didn’t leave as long a gap as I have. There’s a moral there, isn’t there?

    Posted by Whisks | June 30, 2016, 11:48
    • It’s not easy to let go of a story you’re passionate about is it? I found it a bit weird rereading the first ms as I couldn’t remember chunks of it. I found there was a distance between me as the writer and as the reader. I went back and rewrote each character’s chapters in first rather than third person and that seemed to make a huge difference in reconnecting with the story. Maybe a change of narrator might help with rewriting your novel? All the best with finding its ‘new’ voice.

      Posted by helenmackinven | June 30, 2016, 15:53
      • Thanks Helen. A total re-write? You’re a braver woman than me!

        Posted by Whisks | July 1, 2016, 10:55
  3. Congratulations, Helen, and good luck. It would have been a shame not to publish this novel when you’d got so far with it, although eight months between babies means a lot of hard work!

    Posted by Annecdotist | June 30, 2016, 11:55
  4. Reblogged this on Helen MacKinven and commented:
    Very pleased to be plumping up the cushions on The Literary Sofa again.

    Posted by helenmackinven | June 30, 2016, 23:16
  5. Looking forward to reading this one-it has just reached top of my summer reading list.

    Posted by Veronica Cully | July 1, 2016, 00:41


  1. Pingback: Guest Author – Helen MacKinven: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — The Literary Sofa | Nathalie M.L. Römer - Independent Multi-Genre Author - July 3, 2016

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