Bloody Scotland

I’m very pleased to share the news that I’ll be appearing at the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival in Stirling this September. Hot on the heels of discussing outsiders and myths with Chigozie Obioma and Fiammetta Rocco at Edinburgh International Book Festival, I’ll be joining Mark Douglas-Home and Kirstin Innes to chat through the wonders of water in crime novels. The sea is a perfect companion to mystery, crime and puzzles, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where we go with it. You should come too. Tickets here!

And, if you haven’t already, please vote for The Visitors in the EIBF First Book Award – any and all support very much appreciated.

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!

2014 and all that

This year has been both breathtakingly excellent and occasionally extraordinarily hard. I’m focusing on the good stuff though, because we’re all spinning through the mind-boggling vastness of space on a giant oxygen machine and really, when you think about it, where’s the sense in dwelling on the rough?

So here we go; in no particular order:

1. The Visitors being published

The culmination of two years’ work and the start of an awful lot more to come; in June, the wonderful folks at Quercus Books were kind enough to publish The Visitors. I wrote about the publication here, and it kept on running. Somehow, people keep enjoying it. I’ve summed up the reviews here, and there are reviews from actual real life readers on Goodreads and You-Know-Where. Writing was hard, editing was very hard, and now it’s out there in the wild – it doesn’t need me any more, if it ever did. I haven’t really come to terms with the book being published, other than it makes me scared, humble and really, really happy. Writing is all I want to do, but sometimes every step feels like the first step.

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2. The Hollows

In the twelve months – to the day, madly – since I started, I’ve probably written about half The Hollows. Unfortunately, for reasons like this and especially this, I’ve had to cut gigantic chunks of it; so much, in fact, that I’ll basically have to start again next year, and crib the pieces I can still use from the manuscript. This would be a very bad thing, were it not for how excited I am about those pieces that are left. It’s been bruising, definitely, but the process is now beginning to tip me in positive directions I probably wouldn’t have gone by myself, and that’s terrific.

3. Flashtag short short story slam

Over the last two years, I’ve been trying to read more of my work aloud; I pushed myself further this year by entering a story slam in Manchester. I memorised my three stories so I could concentrate on performing them, rather than reading them, and I was lucky enough to win. That was great, and I was delighted, but what really blew my mind was the culture of live literature I witnessed in Manchester. It’s raw, it’s funny, it’s friendly, it’s immediate. It’s everything short stories and poetry and flash fiction should be about, and it completely affirmed the value of storytelling as an act of community. Stories are a thousand things, and one of those things is churches.

4. Clowning

Way back in February, I attended a clowning workshop run by Belgian storytelling maestro Fred Versonnen. This is the best £25 I’ve ever spent, and it’s true to say that my life hasn’t been quite the same ever since. I see things differently now – I write differently now.

fred

5. The Year Of The Whale

I started this novella more than five years ago. Getting it finished was a thrill – I surged through the final chapters, and I’m pleased with it. It still needs redrafting, but I’m not quite ready to get back into it. It’s waited five years – it can wait a little longer.

6. Marrow/Cerys Matthews reading Circle Stone

Finishing Marrow was another big deal in my writing year. I haven’t written as much flash fiction this year, because I’ve been mentally wasted from work, and that kinda gets in the way, but I did, finally, finish and self-publish a flash fiction collection called Marrow. Of the hundred I printed, I have about twenty copies left, and people seem to like it, which is a source of constant wonder. I wrote about my decision to self publish here. I sent a copy to the excellent Cerys Matthews, and because she’s absolutely awesome, she read out one of the stories on her BBC6 Music show. This is, and will always be, the coolest thing that ever happened to me.

7. Gruff Rhys at Kendal Library

Gig of the year, hands-down. I wrote about it here, but in summary, Gruff was majestic, wise and funny.

8. Greece

One of my favourite ever holidays. A week of sunshine, warm evenings, seashores, swimming and the boundless comedy available on tap from my daughter Dora. We had a fantastic time: ruins, eagles, Mythos and pizza. I love holidays because I’m with my favourite people, I get to read a lot, and I get to think a lot. It went like this.

9. Friends

It’s been another good year for my friends. Iain Maloney published First Time Solo, his excellent debut novel, with Freight Books; also with Freight, Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut novel/story collection/autobiography Any Other Mouth was released to stupendous acclaim, going on to win the Green Carnation Prize; Salt published one of my books of the year, The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan; Kirstin Innes landed an agent and then a publishing deal for her debut novel Fishnet; and I was lucky enough to read a draft of Ali Shaw’s new novel, The Trees, which is simply scintillating. I’m delighted that Bloomsbury are going to publish it, because Ali is a wonderful human being, an outstanding writer and a great friend.

10. Getting married

Just amazing. We did damn near all of it ourselves, and when I say ‘us’, I mean that I did 10% after I’d finished work, and my tireless, hilarious, wonderful, perfect new wife Mon did the rest. It was a lot of work to pull it all together, but we basically hosted a mini-festival in a back garden with a marquee, a stage, a band, a PA, scores of hay bales, lighting and decoration. We then partied till the following morning with our wonderful friends. My brother gave what was widely considered to be the best best man’s speech anyone had heard, and local legends Seven Seals played their very finest. It was phenomenal. What a day – a thousand thanks to everyone who brought it all together.

Mon is my everything, and I’m beyond proud to call her my wife.

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So there we go. It’s been a good one, despite the harder stuff. Some of the things that have knocked me hard – like the Hollows, like the Scottish independence referendum – will come around again, and next time we will get them right. And other things – like working too hard – will change, because they have to.

Dora’s gone to bed. This is the first year she’s been old enough to really understand what’s going on. We helped her write a letter to Santa, which she signed herself, then made sure to leave a whiskey for Santa. (Jura, in case you’re asking. Santa’s quite particular about that.) I read her Where The Wild Things Are, and we roared our terrible roars, and gnashed our terrible teeth, and she asked me what the words mean: “…and …it …was …still …hot.”

These are the moments we’re working for.

Happy Christmas, folks.

dora

A tangled ball of things

I’m absolutely delighted to say that The Visitors has taken first place in the Not The Booker prize 2014. Run by The Guardian, the competition is presented as a slightly tongue-in-cheek parallel with the Man Booker Prize. The actual prize, for example, is a mug:

The Guardian cup prize for website.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 18/8/2011.

It’s taken an astoundingly long time to get this far – the first nominations were something like three months ago – and the way it accelerated into the final week was unnerving. The prize is awarded through a combination of public votes and a judging panel. After an agonising week of voting, The Visitors was neck and neck with Tony Black and his novel The Last Tiger (which sounds amazing). With the vote tied, we were awarded a point apiece, which left the three judges to reach a decision during a live video discussion about the shortlist.

I left work early and cycled home to watch the online stream of the discussion. By the time chairman Sam Jordison asked the judges for their final votes, I found myself pacing the room, wanting to know, not wanting to know. The anticipation was driving my heart out through my chest.

This is how it went:

*

So there we have it. It’s still sinking in, even four days later. After the decision was announced, Mon came home and took me out for lunch. That was the right thing to do. There’s no way I would have managed any work that afternoon.

It’s a truly humbling thing to happen, and I feel both proud and grateful that my book has had so much support. Please consider this a massive thank you to anyone and everyone who has bought, read, enjoyed, voted or commented on The Visitors. You’re amazing!

Releasing a book into the wild is a terrifying thing to do. I spent so long wrapped up in Bancree by myself that it still feels raw to share the island with other people. Knowing that folk might like my story conjures a huge, tangled ball of things: relief and disbelief, elation, a lurch of adrenaline.

I’m absolutely thrilled, but I’m also looking ahead. I have more books to write. Not The Booker coming to an end coincides with my backlog of film jobs beginning to ease. In a week or so, I think I can get back to writing regularly. It’s been months since I had concerted time to work, and I can barely remember big chunks of The Hollows. My first few sessions will be stripping things away, I’m sure, and clearing the ground to start again. I can’t wait, and I’m glad to be returning on the right side of Not The Booker.

Thank you, people. You are a galaxy of stars.

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Team Sneck

I’m delighted to share this article in the Inverness Courier about Not The Booker. It’s very weird to have read the Courier twice a week throughout my teenage years, and now to read this.

I took this picture in 2005, from the back garden of our house in Inverness, some time around midsummer, slightly after midnight.
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The final countdown

So, Not The Booker. The end is in sight, hobbitses. After my review in the Guardian Books Blog, it’s now time for the final vote. I didn’t get the mauling I was expecting, which was a relief, and most of the comments were very positive. There are now only five days of this long, strange, exposing process to go through. For the most part, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been fantastic to have such a platform, and it’s been curiously cathartic to witness people discussing my wee story and laying it bare. For the most part, everyone has been constructive, and I certainly haven’t been the distressed mess I’d have predicted a year ago. I’m very glad to have made it this far.

Voting closes on Sunday at midnight, so there are only five days left. If you’d like to vote for The Visitors – or for The Last Tiger, First Time Solo, The Goldfinch, Cairo or Smoke Is Rising – then go here, and write the name of your favourite in the comments. You need to include the word ‘vote’ at the top, and you need to write a couple of sentences about your choice. And that’s that. There’s a live video conference between the judges on Monday morning, which I’m really looking forward to, and then the winner is announced. The whole thing has taken months – it’s strange to think of it accelerating to such a sudden finish.

Best of luck to all the other contestants!

Not The Booker

I’m cautiously delighted to say that The Visitors has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker prize. It’s been a rather bruising process to get this far. The longlist was very long, featuring a hundred novels. Not The Booker is infamously decided by public vote, which leads to all kinds of hijinks from authors, publishers and agents drumming up support. That’s a hundred clusters of psychic tension detonating online simultaneously. No wonder things get heated.

I was in Greece for the first two days of the week-long voting window, by which point there were already clear leaders. With five days to go, I started doing what most of the others had done, and announced my part in the longlist as loud and far as I could. I was fortunate that a lot of people who’d read and liked The Visitors voted for me, and I managed to reach the shortlist. I’m extremely thankful and humbled by the support for my book.

The shortlist holds some intimidating competition – genuine literary titan Donna Tartt, no less, as well as Louis Armand, Mahesh Rao, Tony Black and Iain Maloney. I’m a little concerned that The Visitors seems to be the only work of genre fiction on the list; I’m worried it won’t be deemed worthy enough. And now I’m actually up for review, there’s the prospect of this sort of evisceration at the hands of Sam Jordison, too. Ouch. All in all, I’m expecting dark things from the Guardian readers – which begs the question: why bother entering?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. The first time my agent and I went to meet my editor at Quercus, we discussed the importance of promotion and self-promotion. It’s simply a mandatory part of an author’s life, now – especially a debut author. Publishers are spread thin. They can’t afford to spend time plugging new writers, and that means new writers have to plug themselves.

It’s unfortunate, then, that I’m not great at selling myself or my work. I feel embarrassed at intruding on other people’s time, and I despise arrogance so much in other people that I cringe at anything that could make me seem arrogant. It took months of goading by my wife before I summoned courage to introduce myself to my local library and local Waterstones. On both occasions, I fumbled through a minute of apologies before finding a way to explain who I was, that I had a book out, and that I wanted to say hello. They were perfectly nice, and keen to discuss running some future events, but the process leaves me feeling weird, and even a little cheap.

If I’m ever going to find a way to write full-time – or, being more realistic, to better balance my life and jobs around writing – then this is the sort of thing I need to do. As my Dad says – you’ve created a product, and now you need to sell it.

Books are products, for sure. I think stories are far more than that. Books are the vessels that carry stories, though, so maybe I’m splitting hairs. I know that I want to write stories, but also that I don’t really want to sell my own books, because it makes me feel so uncomfortable; I know that I want as many people as possible to read my work, and that selling my own books, and selling myself, is one of the only ways I can find to keep writing my stories. For most writers, that’s the binary pair of modern publishing.

When I try to reconcile these two distinct strands of my industry, I have to accept that all I want to do – what I wish for every day – is to write full-time and get these stories onto paper, into people’s heads, into people’s hearts. Whether I like it or not, that means playing the game.

I don’t know how it’s going to go, but my money’s on Tartt or Black.

Weird days. Remember Remember have been helping:

 

The destination

The Visitors was officially published on Thursday, and I was away all day on a college trip – for the second year in a row, four of my students had made it to the semi-finals of the World Skills competition. We’d driven down to Hinckley on Wednesday, stayed up till 1am practicing their pitch, then risen at 6am to practice and get to the venue. They had a 5-minute presentation to deliver, and we stayed all day, waiting for feedback. Throughout that time, I was quietly flooded with emails, texts and messages – so many that I felt helpless – I could barely respond. Friends sent me photos of the delivered book – out of my hands, now, and into theirs – and all the while I sat with my students, and talked with other tutors, and wandered round Hinckley College. It felt incredibly weird to be so far removed from the book on its publication day. The students succeeded with their presentation, and won a place at the finals in November. We left at 4pm. It was supposed to be a three-hour drive back to Kendal, but took more than five. The motorway was a purgatory of second gear. It flattened me. I sat in traffic jams and wished I could walk along the central reservation, alone in a sea of stationary cars, the hubcaps and ring pulls and single shoes scattered all around.

Back in Cumbria at last, I dropped off the college car and walked an hour through the gloom to get home to my amazing wife. By the time I turned the computer back on, I’d had scores of congratulations from friends and family. I felt humbled and very lucky. Then, in a mark of the rollercoaster this trip has become, I received an email saying I hadn’t been awarded a Northern Writers’ Award. That’s disappointing, though I’m still very glad I applied.

Thursday was a topsyturvy day, but then I woke on Friday to the news that my short story What I’ll Do To Be In Love With You had been accepted by the National Flash Fiction Day anthology – and then, a few hours later, the amazing Tania Hershman alerted me to the presence of my story Art Is Long, Life Is Short on the BBC Opening Lines longlist. I’d long-since written that off as a rejection. Talk about frazzled. On Friday night, Mon and I drank a bottle of posh fizz and sat and talked it over. That felt good.

I don’t entirely know what to say about The Visitors being published. I’m proud of what I’ve made, and I’m delighted to share it with other people, but my good friend Ali Shaw warned me that it might feel something of an anticlimax, and he was right. I don’t feel any different in myself. I’m still planning lessons, ploughing through my mountain of marking, and stressing about whether my four-month hay meadow time lapse is going to work out. Publication hasn’t changed any of that. But it is an affirmation of all I want to do – to coax the stories in my head out into the light. It has also reminded me how blessed I am in my friends – I feel almost ashamed to have had such support from such incredible people. These few days have made my heart beat bigger, and I’m thankful.

All this has whetted my hunger to push on with the next novel. In that respect, I guess The Visitors is the culmination of the first stage of a long road. More than anything else, I know, with every cord of my being, that this is the right path for me. Writing is a journey, but publication is not a destination. I don’t want it to ever end. I want to walk till my heart gives out.

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

 

Slamming

After a wild and wonderful night in Manchester, I’m bowled over to report that I somehow managed to win the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam. It’s still sinking in, but I’m delighted.

It was something of a journey – we left Dora with her grandparents, and drove down from Cumbria in the afternoon. Mon and I met friends Steve and Clare in the Northern Quarter, ate in the revelation that is V Revolution, then headed across the road to Gullivers to scope the venue: a brilliant space of worn floorboards and ornate plaster ceilings. The stage was bathed in blue and red light, creating corners from which the writers would prowl to read their stories. For the first round, competitors were paired off at random, with names plucked from a bowl and a coin toss to decide who read first. Once each writer had performed their story, the audience voted blue or red to decide a victor, and that writer continued to the next round.

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It started ferociously, with the amazing Joy France reading an intimidatingly strong story about cleanliness (and willies). Her opponent was good, but that story would have annihilated all comers. I was very, very glad I hadn’t been drawn against her. She was duly voted through, and set the bar for the rest of the night. The stories were consistently excellent. Hand on heart, there wasn’t a bum note. Mark Mace Smith and Mark Powell, Joe Daly, Abi Hynes, Sarah Stuart, Geraint Thomas, Trisha Starbrook, Thomas Jennings and Ailish Breen all read absolute belters.

My name was drawn in the fourth bout. I read a piece called What I’ll Do To Be In Love With You, about a boy who turns into a harmonica. I was anxious, as always, but I’d been practicing, and I made myself take the time to enjoy it. My opponent was Thomas Jennings, who read a brilliant piece about the end of the world as experienced through last orders in a MacDonalds. It was a funny and affecting story, and I would have been happy to lose to it; but I scraped through into round two, where I was paired off with Mark Mace Smith. Mark is a vivacious slam poet who often performs under the name Citizen Mace – check out his stuff here – and he made for another tough competitor. I was up first, with a story called Charlie Loved The Circus. This is a 200-word nasty about why you shouldn’t be mean to clowns. Mark’s piece was a sweet wee story about a man falling – literally – for a girl. Another close vote, but I made it to the third round.

In the final, I read against Mark Powell and Joe Daly. Both are stalwarts of the Manchester literary scene – Mark runs Tales Of Whatever, and Joe is one half of Bad Language – and their stories were excellent. I was last to read, and went with a story called The Jubilee Best Bake Competition. I always planned to read this with an accent, but bottled it at Verbalise. So I bought a frumpy hat onstage. It’s made of green wicker, has a broad brim and is covered with flowers. Once I’d donned the hat, I couldn’t back down from the accent; and so I launched into my idea of what happens when the village baking competition takes a turn for the worse. The audience (joined, at this late point, by three exceedingly stocious men who thought they’d come to a boxing match) kindly gave me some laughs, and that helped me relax into the story. The hat helped, too.

The vote was tight again, but I sneaked it. I’m still thrilled, delighted and surprised – as well as humbled and happy to have shared my stories with such an amazing crowd. We stayed for a couple of hours after the slam, happily chatting away with the Flashtaggers, audience and contestants. It made me wish, once again, that I’d made more of the astoundingly vibrant Manchester literary scene when I actually lived there; then again, I’d barely started writing when we lived in Withington.

It was after 11 when we left Manchester, and we drove a deserted motorway in the dark. The journey gave me time to think. I’m over the moon to have won, but there are two things that burn brighter. Firstly, I won’t forget the sense of community I experienced at the slam; it’s a real thrill to share my love of stories with friends and strangers, and events like the slam are a howl of affirmation that stories are alive and people are hungry to share them.

Secondly, and quite honestly, I would have been proud to have been knocked out at any point, from round one onwards. This is because, for the first time, I read my stories the way I want them read. I used to gabble or murmur my way through a reading. A year or so ago, I set out to be better. I haven’t shaken the nerves, but I’m learning to manage them, and I’m coming to trust my stories. I’m not a confident person, but running a gauntlet of open mics has given me some confidence in my work.

Back at home in Cumbria, I tiptoed in to see my daughter. She snuffled in her sleep, and buried herself in the blanket. All journeys, no matter how big, are measured in stages and steps. For all the things I would change about myself – to write more often, to be more focused, to perform better – I wouldn’t change a step of the path I’ve taken to where I stand now.

Here’s a picture of me with a cheesy grin and my cheque for £1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. I’ll be cashing this tomorrow, Flashtag – if there’s any trouble at the Post Office, I’ll be back with my bat.

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