Radio silence

My blogging has been exceptionally poor since returning from Thailand. And I’d apologise for such awful radio silence, were it not for the fact that I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do, which is to get my head down in The Hollows and write my ass off. Five months later, I have no ass left. It’s completely gone. That’s how much writing I’ve done. No ass.

Last night, I finished a very first, very rough draft of The Hollows. It comes in at just over 101,000 words. I started in February, and couldn’t work in May (because of this). If I add up my two days a week of writing time, and the myriad mornings of sentences and paragraphs, I estimate the draft has taken me a total of approximately 35 days. That’s a ludicrously short space of time, and I’m still not sure how it happened. The Visitors took me near enough six months, I think, while my first (and thankfully forever unpublished) novel demanded a year of full-time work. I don’t think I’m getting any faster, though the muscle memory will be there – this chair, this keyboard, this notebook, this pen – but perhaps I’m believing a little more in what I want to do, where I want to go.

After spending all of 2014 torturously writing the wrong book, I’ve reached the conclusion that the key to writing is writing the right damn book. And The Hollows is right – right for me. I know it to my fibres. Even though there are weeks or months of editing still to come before I’ll feel ready to share it with my wife, I’m pleased with it. My first instinct for this story revolved around memories and mud, and while it has taken a roundabout route to get here, morphing through a dozen incarnations, it has finally come around, finally delivered what I wanted. My heart broke when I realised I was writing someone else’s story. The subsequent weeks spent with a notebook and a pen were some of the most productive of my life, but none of it could have happened without setting off along the wrong path. Sometimes it takes the wrong path to find the right one. Right? Write.

So there it is. We write to the universe. Sometimes it writes back.

I have a full week of college work to come, then ten days camping on Tiree and Coll with my wife and daughter. I’m going to print my rough draft and take a bag of pens, and read through the manuscript while the sea hushes in the simmer dim. Then comes the edit. See you on the other side.

Edinburgh International Book Festival

I haven’t really had a chance to share this yet, but I’m thrilled to report that I’ll be at Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, appearing alongside the intimidatingly talented Chigozie Obioma to discuss his debut novel, The Fishermen, and mine, The Visitors. This is really exciting, and very humbling. I’m delighted to be contributing to such an amazing event.

I have also just discovered that all debut novelists are entered into the First Book Award. I’m up against some outstanding competition, so if you’ve read and enjoyed The Visitors, I’d be hugely grateful for your vote: mosey over here for the full longlist.

Crumbs chief!

Notebook

On the rare occasions I’ve been asked for writing advice, one of the things I always suggest is to carry a notebook and a pen. I’ve lost count of the thoughts, ideas, plots, characters and dialogue I’ve let slip through the gaps in my atrocious memory. It’s heartbreaking. I took to carrying a pocket notebook years ago. Sometimes I fill one in a month, and sometimes in six months, until it disintegrates to dust and fibres and I need to tape the spine. I keep them all on a shelf above my desk. Once, while backpacking in Australia, I spilled a hipflask of Maker’s Mark all over my notebook, and the whiskey erased the ink. I lost my bourbon, and I lost weeks of passing thoughts. As my friend Ali said, it was the very definition of two wrongs not making a right.

Notebooks aren’t just for the utility of capturing ideas. It’s important to remember how to write the hard way. I’m a thug of a typist, but I’m pretty fast, and I spend a huge amount of time glued to my computer, whether that’s writing or editing. My default setting is electric, and when I have an idea, I tend to go to the computer first.

This is all relevant because I’m finally dipping my toes back into The Hollows. I started on Christmas Eve 2013, wrote sporadically through the new year, and hit 25,000 words around June. I haven’t worked on it at all since then, but last week I finally had the space to look at it again. On reading it through, I was a little unhappy with some of my work. Parts of it read well, but simply weren’t right for the story any more. No matter how much I shuffled chapters or copied and pasted paragraphs to try and make it fit, the story wouldn’t gel. Instead, I put on some music and sat back with a fountain pen and an old office diary I nabbed years ago to use as a notebook.

The diary was a red hardback day-to-a-page thing, brand new and unused from 2006, a ribbon bookmark folded flat between the crisp blank pages. It was perfect. I started scribbling down my worries and woes. I made lists of characters I liked and characters I didn’t need. I wrote down what worked, and what never could. I drew lots of dots and stars and arrows connecting things that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. I wrote questions and answers. I wrote until my hand hurt and I had a dent in my forefinger. A few hours later, the mist was beginning to clear, and some new ideas were beginning to show themselves.

That night, I talked it through with Mon. She’s so good at giving me space to shape my ideas. Often the act of explaining a story to Mon explains the story to me, too. Vocalising something gives it clarity. After chatting it through, I spent another hour or two jotting down new ideas, new people, new places to explore.

This is all the planning I do when I’m writing. Rough notes and loose association. It works better with ink than on a screen. It makes the process tangible. I couldn’t do what Ali did with his last novel, and write the whole thing longhand – that wouldn’t work for me – but I’d forgotten how healthy it is to make a mark, to scribe into the fibres of the page. The act of writing with a pen has conjured new ideas, too – things that couldn’t have occurred in pixels.

The hardest part is making the decision. I went back to the manuscript, and cut 11,000 words. It hurt, but it was important. There were good scenes in there – good chapters – but they’d sent me off course, and they had to go. Now they’re gone. My draft is 11,000 words lighter, but I’m more confident in what is left. The shape of the story has changed. The characters are starting to stir, beginning to show themselves.

It’s insane to think I’ve achieved so little since starting it almost a year ago. I feel like I should have a finished draft by now. I know, looking back, that we’ve been extraordinarily busy this year, and that I’ve completed a multitude of other things, but The Hollows is back in my life and shouting louder than ever. I’ve spent some time on the wrong path, but now I think I’ve found my way. A pen, a compass.

Coffin Routes

A couple of months ago, I posted about the Drowned Villages Poetry Competition. There are flooded villages in Cumbria, Gwynned and Lanarkshire; the competition was open to poets within those library regions, working with that theme. The top prize was having your poem soundtracked by Mogwai. I’m very guarded about my poetry, but Mogwai are one of my favourite ever bands and creators of my all-time favourite album, and so I entered the contest.

Rounding up what’s been an astonishing month for me, I’m both delighted and devastated to reveal that I won the regional contest for Cumbria. I’m absolutely elated that the judges enjoyed my work. I’m still brewing, awestruck, on the momentous thought that Liz Lochhead, Ian McMillan and Nicky Wire have read my poem. But I’m also utterly gutted that having come so close, top prize went to the contestant from North Lanarkshire.

I feel bad even writing that. The first place piece, Never Come Home, is a really striking poem, and I’m sincerely happy for winning writer Catherine Baird. I didn’t expect to feature in the competition at all, so taking a place as runner-up is excruciatingly bittersweet. Having Mogwai do something with my work would have been astonishing – I can’t even frame the shape of it in my mind. I can’t articulate the joy I would have felt. Coming so close has turned me upside-down. I’m genuinely thrilled for Catherine Baird, and delighted with my own poem doing so well, but this one hurts. So near, and yet so far.

I know this sounds churlish. I don’t mean it to. But I discovered Come On Die Young in 1999, and Mogwai have soundtracked the last fifteen years of my life. Without exaggeration, Mogwai’s music has accompanied at least half of my entire writing output. I feel ecstatic to have come so close, and I feel heartbroken to have come so close.

For Facebook users, here’s the winning poem by Catherine Baird. My heartfelt congratulations to Catherine, and I can’t wait to hear the finished song. Like all of Mogwai’s work, it will be extraordinary.

When I was writing the poem, I played Hungry Face from Les Revenants on repeat in the background, hour after hour. I’m listening to Come On Die Young as I write this blog post. May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door is playing. It’s the pivotal point in the album. Next comes the calm before the storm of Oh! How The Dogs Stack Up, and then the astonishing, burning, towering trio of Ex-Cowboy, Chocky and Christmas Steps. I will never stop listening to this album – or the others – the otherworldly Rock Action, the ferocious Happy Songs For Happy People, the dreamworld EP+6, the snarling Young Team, the smouldering Les Revenants, the muscular Hardcore Will Never Die, the reflective Hawk Is Howling, the utter majesty of Government Commissions, the blistering uppercut of Rave Tapes.

I will never stop listening to Mogwai, and I will never, ever stop wondering what if…

What if.

Here’s my poem.

Drowned Village screenshot

 

Not right not writing

I’m a bit behind on my blogging, so here’s a quick round-up while I have the time to do some rounding.

I’ve barely written a word for two months. A combination of college, gardening and film jobs has demanded every scrap of time, and my writing has taken a unfortunate but unavoidable back seat. That makes me ache. I’m not right when I’m not writing. I’ve only recently become aware of how writing relaxes me; and that not writing is one of the things that stresses me out. I’ve also noticed that ideas are more of a struggle when I’m not writing with any regularity. When I’m working often, I’m flooded with plots and characters and lines of dialogue. Not having that internal chatter makes me anxious, and I haven’t been feeling quite myself; this has been exacerbated by pushing myself to come up with new work for the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam, which is only a fortnight away. I think I have the three pieces now, but they’ve been hard work, and I’m not yet convinced they are the right stories.

I travelled to London last week to meet my agent Sue, editor Jane and publicist Margot. The amazing Quercus building feels like something from a James Bond film; everything is glass and aluminium, with automated barriers and security cards. It’s a far cry from my little house, where starlings and sparrows have started nesting in the slate walls. We popped down from the Quercus office to a quiet bar called Hardy’s, and we drank wine and talked about publicity for The Visitors. There’s an idea to offer short stories or flashes as bonus material with the book – and I might make a couple of short films about how it came to life, too. We also talked about some of my future ideas, including current work-in-progress The Hollows. It was a great meeting, and I left it feeling really enthused. With all the chaos of my day jobs, it’s easy to lose sight of the novel. It’s everything I’ve dreamed of for five years, and it’s actually happening. Sometimes I forget.

What else? I’ve written a post for Thievery, Kirsty Logan’s fascinating series of story inspirations. I decided to confess about a novel I started in 2009, but abandoned at 50,000 words (though I recovered the central strand for my novella Year Of The Whale – I really, really need to finish that). My Thievery post will be up in May – I’ll post links when it’s live.

Although I’ve not been writing as much as I’d like, I have been thinking a lot. The Hollows is never far from me, and though I haven’t even opened the document for three weeks, in my head, I’m streamlining it all the time. I’ve learned so much from writing and especially redrafting The Visitors, and I’m determined to make The Hollows a better first draft. In the background to my day jobs, characters have been changing everything from hair colour to their reasons to be alive. The plot is essentially unchanged, but how the characters arrive there is evolving all the time. I found this with The Visitors, too; even as I developed the threads of the manuscript, I returned constantly to the early chapters, forming and reforming them. This is like the twist of a rope; the threads need to be right at the start, or the rope tangles and disintegrates. I’m filming throughout this coming weekend, but next week I should be able to sit down and start making the changes.

Two nights ago, after a long and stressful day at work, I turned out the lights and tried to sleep. From nowhere, my head was thronged with ideas. I had to get up and write them down; first of all, three flash fiction ideas at once, about taxidermy, trains and cheating, and then, a few minutes later, the setting, start and main character of another novel – which looks like being number five in my current queue of books to write, after The Hollows, We Are Always Reaching Out For Heaven, Vanishings and Black Horse. I’m already really excited about it. Which is just as well, really; if I wasn’t excited about the story, I couldn’t expect anyone else to be. You need to be excited about a story to spend so long with it – both the hundreds of hours staring at a computer screen, writing and writing and thinking that I should get up and make a tea, just another minute, one more minute until I make a cup of tea, as soon as I finish the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter – and the time in the world of the book, observing and conversing with the characters, exploring the map of their world, listening to the crunch of dry grass beneath their feet – and back to the computer to sculpt it all together, working until you realise it’s cold and you forgot to find that other jumper two hours ago, and is there any wine left?

The other piece of big news is that in May, Iain Maloney and I will be co-headliners for legendary Manchester spoken word night Bad Language. I’ve known Iain since 1998. We’ve been bouncing work off each other for the last five or six years, and his excellent debut novel First Time Solo is out through Freight at the same time as The Visitors. Iain lives in Japan, but he’s in the UK for a whistle-stop book tour. I’m delighted to be sharing a stage with him for the first time.

Finally, another writer friend, the outrageously imaginative Ali Shaw, has sent me a draft of his next novel. I devoured the first chapter. It’s going to be really, really, really good. I’m currently taking a sabbatical from A Song Of Ice And Fire, and almost at the end of Third Reich by Roberto Bolano (which is also extremely good), and I can’t wait to read the rest of Ali’s book.

Here’s a picture of a scarecrow stick man:

scare crow

A year in the life

I’ve just realised that my blog is one year old. I had no idea when I wrote my first post, about Quitting Writing, that I’d be blogging so often. It’s become the space in which I organise my thoughts, and rationalise this topsy-turvy journey to publication. A year ago, I had an agent and the first draft of a manuscript called Riptide Heart. A year later, the novel is called The Visitors. I’ve completed multiple marathon redrafts, worked myself into exhaustion on insane strings of 11pm finishes, and spent hundreds of hours thinking about the book. Looking back, finishing the first draft feels like one of the smallest steps on a road that doesn’t truly finish – once the book is out there, it will continue the journey without me.

The proof copies should be going out any day, which is terrifying and exhilarating all at once. Because my day job remains so frantic, my experience of publishing tends to occur to milestones. I’ve been incredibly lucky, but I sometimes wish I had more space to enjoy it. It feels like I lurch from one deadline to the next, and seldom savour the completion of a job. The blog has therefore become essential to me personally: in sharing and formalising the milestones, I’ve created my own map of the voyage. Thanks to everyone who’s visited.

I’ve really enjoyed sharing some of the sights along the way. Of all the things I’ve posted to the blog, I think this is the one that’s stuck with me the most. Enjoy:

The Blog Tour – answers

I was delighted when Elizabeth Stott invited me to follow her on the blog tour. I’m a fan of Elizabeth’s writing – I bought her short story Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers from Nightjar Press last year, and was engrossed in the tense, almost existential body horror she conjured in a few short pages. A lot of Elizabeth’s work generates that sense of claustrophobia – another of her stories, Mrs Wetherby, delivers simmering sexual tension amongst uptight ex-pats in the setting of a baking Gulf. Have a read – highly recommended.

Many thanks to Elizabeth for the invitation – here are her answers to the blog tour questions – and here are mine:

What am I working on?

More than I can handle! Foremost is new novel Grisleymires. Whenever possible, I’m trying to guide my rare writing days towards this; it’s the story of a man who loses his memories, and the woman who goes to find them. It’s set in a huge swamp, which is great fun to write, and I’m really excited by the characters and how they’re evolving. The issue is finding time to write around my other projects. I’ve been working on a novella called The Year Of The Whale for about five years (though I haven’t touched it for the last two). That’s about a whale beached in Morecambe Bay. It’s about 20,000 words finished, with only another 5 or 10k to go, but novels are taking precedence. I’d love to finish it soon, though – my partner Monica wants to make a series of linocut prints to illustrate it, and I think that could look fantastic – something like Alex Garland’s novella The Coma.

I’m also putting the finishing touches to my first flash fiction collection, Marrow, and starting to draft the second, which might be called Real Life. Around all this, I’m periodically developing my future novels – I already have plans for another four or five after Grisleymires. I’d love to write more often, but I struggle for time around my teaching and film jobs.

The final thing I’m working on is the copy edit of my first novel, The Visitors. The editor’s notes are due back next week, and I’ll need to go through those slowly and carefully (and with flagons of cider, according to Ali Shaw).

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

This is a difficult question to answer, as I believe all writers differ from others – that’s part of the wonderful polyphony of writing. As soon as a writer begins to speak in the first words of their own voice, they’re different. Genres are useful for sifting and gathering – I use genre far more as a reader than a writer.

That said, I guess I’m moving increasingly towards low fantasy. That’s where I can best tell the stories I want to tell. If my stories are in any way unique, it’s because of the themes I work in and the juxtapositions I explore. When I walk through woodlands, I worry about velociraptors. When I visit London, I imagine minotaurs haunt the Underground, dodging Tube trains as they roam beneath the city. There are doppelgängers watching from rooftops, waiting to make the switch. There are secret societies of pigeon fanciers that keep the internet alive, and kelpies working for the local council. I try to infuse my work with the same sense of magic I find in the world. I think every writer tries to do that. I’m interested in memories, and walking, and the idea of threshold spaces. I’m interested in myths and especially in folk tales. I’m interested in the breakdown in gender and what it is to be alive. Ultimately, though, lots of writers are interested in those things. What makes my work different is that it’s mine.

Why do I write what I do?

Writing brings me comfort through escapism, I suppose. I’m an army brat – we didn’t settle in one place until I started secondary school in Inverness, and I’ve often struggled to feel at home. Books and stories have been havens for as long as I can remember, and it was probably only a matter of time before I tried to create my own. As for the actual topics I write about – that’s evolved wildly over the six or seven years that I’ve been writing fiction. I started with experimental, deliberately obscure literary pieces, aping the styles of challenging writers like Hubert Selby Jnr and William S. Burroughs. After finishing my first attempt at a novel, which took me to some personally unpleasant places, I started to rediscover my love of stories that took me on adventures, rather than stories that were flayed to the bone. I reread David Mitchell and Sarah Waters and Jasper Fforde and Neil Gaiman – and I realised that those were the worlds that sang loudest to me. And so I started again, near enough, finding new ways to tell my stories. The more I’ve worked in this vein, the more I’ve enjoyed my writing.

How does my writing process work?

My ideas tend to arrive as acorns – I stumble upon them everywhere, buried in mud or blown into gutters. Some of those ideas never escape my notebook – and others explode, branching and sprouting into completely new directions. I can’t explain how an idea arrives already fully formed, but my best stories are already bristling with life. They evolve as I write. I know I’m working with strong characters when they start doing things I don’t expect; when it becomes inevitable, no matter what I’ve planned, that they’re going to do something else.

Landscape and place are important to the way I work – I like those strong characters to be in landscapes that I care about, so the air fills my lungs and I can feel the ground beneath my feet. In good locations, the story is a drop of water, taking the most organic route to ground. Place is as important to me as character, plot and emotion – when I write, I try to keep all those strands of story entwined together. Writing is a holistic process, following disparate elements all at once. That’s one of the things that makes extensive redrafting so hard. It’s easy for the fabric of the story to become tangled. When my stories are in a muddle, so am I.

Because I have so little time to work, I tend to write in fierce bursts. If I’m on a roll, I can manage more than 10,000 words a day, but that’s rare. A good writing day is 2,000-3,000 words I’m really pleased with. When I’m not writing, I think about my work constantly. I’m often awake at night, staring into darkness, tracing my way through story strands, trying to work out where they run to, where they meet. More often than not, I fall asleep without working it out – but sometimes I have to turn the light back on and write them down.

I’m also an helpless tinkerer. I can’t let go of my stories, and I return to them obsessively – even years after they’ve been published – to develop the story and tweak the prose. My flash fiction collection Marrow is typical of this – of the 28 pieces, around half have been published elsewhere – but in preparing the collected manuscript, I’ve spent months compulsively redrafting them. Some no longer bear any relation to the original. I can’t help myself. That tweaking and revising comes into first drafts, too. My stories are probably one third writing, two-thirds editing.

Another of the keys to my workflow is reading aloud – as I write, I constantly read, lips moving, shaping the phrases to find the most organic flow, and then reworking it on the page. On the rare occasions I’ve been asked for writing advice, that’s my first suggestion. Nothing has done as much for developing my work as reading aloud. My second suggestion is to carry a notebook. You never know when those acorns will tumble from the sky.

***

So there we have it. If anyone’s still reading, these are some of the things that go into my work. I’m now passing the baton on to David Hartley and Iain Maloney, who’ll publish their blog tour answers on Monday 3rd February. In their own words, they’re a bit like this:

David Hartley is a story botherer and blog tickler based in Manchester whose debut collection of flash fiction ‘Threshold’ was published by Gumbo Press precisely a year ago. He is one fifth of the writing collective Flashtag and can be regularly seen haunting the open mic stages of the North West. He blogs at http://davidhartleywriter.blogspot.co.uk/ and tweets at @DHartleyWriter

Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and now lives in Komaki, Japan. A widely published writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, his debut novel, First Time Solo, a story of World War 2 RAF pilots and jazz, will be published be Freight Books in June 2014. He blogs at http://iainmaloney.wordpress.com
Thanks for reading.

Blog tour

Just a quick post to say that I’ve been invited to join the blog tour by the excellent writer Elizabeth Stott. The idea is that writers post answers to the same four questions, then pass the baton to another writer. If you trace it back, there are dozens of fascinating responses around the idea of what it is to write. Here are Elizabeth’s answers, which are a tough act to follow.

I’m due to post my responses on Monday 27th January. These are the questions in question:

  1. What am I working on?
  2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
  3. Why do I write what I do?
  4. How does my writing process work?

There’s quite a bit to get through in there, but I’ll try extremely hard not to be boring.

I’d also like to introduce David Hartley and Iain Maloney, the writers who’ll follow me on the blog tour. David is an intimidatingly prolific writer of scintillating flash fiction and short stories, and he’s working on his first novel, which is pretty cool. Already looking forward to what he has to say about writing.

David Hartley is a story botherer and blog tickler based in Manchester whose debut collection of flash fiction ‘Threshold’ was published by Gumbo Press precisely a year ago. He is one fifth of the writing collective Flashtag and can be regularly seen haunting the open mic stages of the North West. He blogs at http://davidhartleywriter.blogspot.co.uk/ and tweets at @DHartleyWriter

Iain is an old friend of mine. We’ve been reading each other’s work for seven or eight years, and I’ve learned a lot about writing from him. He has broad interests, from haiku to historical fiction, and I’m especially eager to see his thoughts on genre.

Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and now lives in Komaki, Japan. A widely published writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, his debut novel, First Time Solo, a story of World War 2 RAF pilots and jazz, will be published be Freight Books in June 2014. He blogs at http://iainmaloney.wordpress.com