Cellar steps

Last night, more or less six months since I started, I gave the first draft of The Hollows to Mon to read, and I sent it to my amazing agent Sue. Mon and I took Dora out to tea, then she started reading. Sixty pages in and she hasn’t ditched it in a flurry of disgust, so there’s hope for me yet.

I thought it would easier to let go of the second book, but I was wrong. I thought I’d feel more confident, more certain. I don’t. If anything, the stakes feel higher. What if I’ve moved backwards? What if no one likes the story, the characters, the writing? I’m happier with this story than anything I’ve done before, but what if I’m wrong? What if I’ve got worse?

I didn’t entirely understand the proverb about not seeing the wood for the trees until I started writing novels. When I’m so immersed in my work, in my worlds, it’s easy to lose perspective on whether it’s actually any good. My own, personal instinct for story is stronger than ever, and getting stronger still; but there’s nothing on Earth to say it’s actually right. There’s no way to triangulate what happens in my heart with the world around me. In that sense, every novel – and I’ve written three of them now – is a first novel, feeling in the dark for cellar steps. Maybe it gets better in time. Maybe it gets easier. But I can’t imagine what that feels like, how that would be. It’s strange to be so terrified of the only thing I want to do. As Mon was reading, I glanced across at her every thirty seconds, every minute: which page is she on? What happens there? Oh lord, is that all right? Does that dialogue work? Do I believe it? Will she believe it?

Dora woke at 4.30am this morning, claiming it was too dark to sleep. I put her back to bed, where she fell asleep in moments, but then I couldn’t because, ahahaha, it was too light. So I’ve been up for hours, listening to songs I love, making a Mogwai mixtape for a friend, catching up on email, gazing out the window and thinking, thinking. There’s no light quite like the glow of dawn. The world is luminous, and then it turns to gold, and it sleeps on into the rising sun. No one knows but foxes, cats and milkmen. I imagined what it must look like on the river Kent between Burneside and Staveley right now, right now, with no one there at all, only the swallows and the martins flitting on the river, vapours coiling on the water, sun sliding sideways through the trees, a hidden valley with half the world in shadow and half the world on fire.

I know what my next four or five novels look like, and I have fourteen flash stories to write. Today, though, I’m taking my daughter swimming. She’ll be Peso the penguin and I’ll be Kwazi the cat, and we’ll look for treasure and help sick sea creatures along the way. Dora loves swimming, but she’s scared of having water on her head – she won’t jump in, and hates being splashed. But today, for the first time, we’re going to see how things go with goggles. Maybe – with some support, some courage, and some curiosity, today will be the day she looks underwater, the day she discovers there are other worlds, other places, other ways to see. Letting go is hard. Feeling for that cellar step is hard. Maybe all of us need to be brave.

Melville House

I’ve been keeping this schtumm for a wee while, but I am now absolutely thrilled to share the news that The Visitors has packed a suitcase to go travelling, and will be published in America this December by the good folks at Melville House Books. I’m delighted the U.S. edition is in the hands of such an exciting publisher. You know you’re in a good place when you see a thing like this:

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!

Mirror mirror

Earlier today, my heart broke. I’ve been working on my second novel, The Hollows, for almost exactly a year – I started it on Christmas Eve 2013, though I couldn’t write for half the year. I’m now 30,000 words into my first draft. It’s excruciatingly hard to write this, but I’m about to change it all. The reason is the best-selling author Kate Mosse, who appears to have written my book already. I haven’t read it, but her latest novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter, explores the same themes of memory – suppressed, regressed and rediscovered – as The Hollows. Her novel revolves around a father-daughter dynamic, like The Hollows. Her novel is set in a huge marsh, like The Hollows. I could handle all of that. I’d guess that was true of lots of novels. But today, I also discovered that the lead character of The Taxidermist’s Daughter has no early memories after a traumatic childhood experience; that a modern crime begins to unlock those hidden memories; and that the unlocking of those memories reopens the wounds of an old injustice. That was basically the plot of The Hollows. I’m heartbroken, because I was finally beginning to gain some traction. It was finally starting to move, but I can’t stomach those similarities. It’s too close. It’s no good.

I’m not going to start again, because I’ve written some good stuff. But I am going to change it radically. That means significant cuts – again – and it means the whole enterprise will take longer than I’d hoped, and that’s devastating. I was almost halfway through, and now I’m back to the beginning. I can’t just get hold of The Taxidermist’s Daughter, read it, and rewrite around it; no story is built from omission, and the thought of it makes me sick. But it does mean revisiting the crossroads I discussed last week, and taking another path. It hurts, and I’ll set out with heavy heart, but I know, with every fibre of my being, that I’m nourishing the kernel of a good story, and I’m not going to let it go.

Whales, mandolins and singing bottles… and once again, I find myself staggered at how my stories hurt me.

The Visitors – a soundtrack

Over time, music becomes integrated entirely with memory. I can’t hear Woodface by Crowded House or Crossroads by Bon Jovi without becoming eight or nine or ten years old, and playing Heroquest with my brother. The songs from those records flood my head with the stink of enamel paint and the sound of rain on windows.

My friend Iain has long believed that just as movies have soundtracks, so novels should have soundtracks. It’s an intriguing idea; for writers like Iain and I, who work best with very particular music playing in the background, the soundscape becomes an integral part of our experience of the book. I wrote The Visitors with the same few artists playing over and over again. That monotony helped me establish and maintain consistency. It helped to balance me in the same emotional place, session after session. The records took me out of myself.

It’s interesting to note that with my new novel, The Hollows, I’ve needed completely different tunes – if I listen to anything from my Visitors ‘soundtrack’, I’m taken back to Bancree. I’m almost sure that will change with time.

I’ve put together a wee soundtrack for The Visitors on Spotify. There’s some Mogwai, Arab Strap, Sparklehorse, James Yorkston, Arcade Fire, British Sea Power, Bat For Lashes, Meursault and a few others. I’ve jumbled them as seems best, but I guess my aim is to give a sense of the overall soundscape I worked with. It sounds like this:


For some reason, the Spotify player here won’t play all the songs in the playlist – if you’d like to see the rest, mosey over here. And if anyone has recommendations based on these songs, please do pop them in the comments. I’m always looking for new music to fit my very selective criteria for working!


For the last eight weeks, this has what my life has looked like:


In case you hadn’t noticed from my incessant moaning, I’ve been redrafting my novel. Again. It’s been a vast job, because – following discussions with Jane Wood, my amazing editor at Quercus – we decided to change the ending quite substantially. This isn’t as simple as knocking off the last few chapters and rewriting, alas; to make the climax and conclusion fit, organically and emotionally, the threads of the plot need to extend a long way back into the story. Because The Visitors is already woven rather tight, unravelling the narrative to make the new ending fit has been tough. Around college and film jobs, I’ve been working on it in evenings and spare days since mid-October. After the first fortnight, I took to saving the manuscript as a new document at the end of each session. This is what the folder looks like:

redraft of death

That’s right. It’s called the REDRAFT OF DEATH.

But check it out, humans; I have actually finished. I sent the new draft off to editor Jane and agent Sue late last night, along with a summary of everything I’ve changed. On reflection, it’s been a massive rewrite. As well as the new ending, I’ve changed names, moved locations, cut chapters, written new chapters, tightened dialogue, tightened prose, and – perhaps biggest of all – introduced an important character at the start of the story, rather than halfway through. Maintaining his presence from this early beginning meant a light rewrite of the entire first third. I’ve also made a big change in the death of another character, which brought a new angle to the idea of ‘killing your darlings’.

Dealing with the sheer volume of information is what causes brainmelt. Trying to keep everything in perspective – emotion, story, plot, character, description, geography, chronology – is exhausting. To help manage the changes, I riddled the manuscript with notes to myself, so I wouldn’t lose track of the things that needed work. It was quite telling to come across these messages, later on, and reflect on my thought processes. Here’s an example:

“Move the distillery to the island where it should have been from the beginning, you dick.”

So yeah, it’s been tough. I’m expecting another round of line edits, at the least, but hopefully the bigger structural stuff is now finished. I would have worked quicker but for the day jobs. Trying to switch into a more creative mode and recover a spark is tough. There have been times I’ve sought out any distraction to keep me from inflicting more destruction on my work. That’s where Freedom has really helped. I can’t recommend it to writers (and other procrastinators – YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) highly enough.

For all the effort, I still wouldn’t be doing anything else. I saw a great quote the other day. Though I can’t remember who said it, it was something like, “For all that writing is incredibly tough, it’s worth remembering that it’s still making up stuff for fun.”

True dat. More than anything else, I’m increasingly looking forward towards my next novel. It’s called The Hollows. It’s mostly planned, and I’m champing at the bit to start work. Now term is almost finished, I’m going to give myself a few days off to clear my backlog of video jobs, then try and take a day or two over Christmas to get writing.

After dealing so exhaustively with a manuscript of 94,500 words, it’s very strange to be faced again with all the promise and terror of a blank, white page.


I’ve just been paid for a big film job I completed earlier in the year, and I decided to treat myself. It’s not exactly special, but I’ve invested in a new keyboard. Here’s why:

I work on a Mac, which is the only sensible choice for my video editing. The Mac came with a wireless keyboard and magic mouse. Now, the mouse is superb. No complaints. It’s a dream to use, and I don’t begrudge it batteries. And in isolation, the feel of the keyboard is ideal – the keys are low and responsive, and for a clumsy typist like me (for the most part, I’m a four-finger thug) there’s nothing to trip over. As a result, it helps me type quickly and efficiently.

BUT… it’s too damn short. Look at it against the new one. It’s smaller than my last laptop keyboard. Where are the number keys?


I fact, I don’t care about the number keys. But why are the cursor keys packed together like urchins in a bus stop? My hands are big and I type too fast, so I constantly hit Shift when I’m pitching at Up. And where are the Home/End travel keys? And where’s the Delete key? I miss all of that, and I want it back. Pus I resent dripfeeding batteries into it every two months. Plus it gives me RSI in my right hand little finger, which hangs useless and suspended while my middle and forefingers hammer out der stories. I don’t know why, but the pain goes away with a bigger keyboard. A wired mouse is a pain in the ass, but when I work glued to a screen, a wired keyboard makes no difference whatsoever to my workflow, either for editing or writing.

So there you have it: time for a new, full-size, slimline, wired keyboard. Happy days. If you write a lot, then it’s important to be comfortable in the tools of your trade; over the last few years, I’ve used keyboards that I cursed every time I touched them. Or thought about them. Keyboards with stuck or missing letters. A keyboard where the space bar only worked if it was smashed on the left. A keyboard with a dodgy USB cable, leading to entire lost paragraphs when the thing came loose; though maybe this is my fault for staring at the keyboard, rather than the screen. I wore through the keyboard on my old laptop to the point that my most frequent letters ceased to function. I’ve written on typewriters before, too. I love the clunk-thwack-bang of a solid metal typewriter, but all romance aside, those things are completely unsuited to the way I work: constantly revising, deleting, reshuffling, backtracking, jumping ahead, cutting and pasting and stitching it together. I use Cmd+S, X, C and V more often than full stops. And I often work out of sequence, too; a necessarily chronological workflow would drive me distracted.

Speaking of which – I’m currently giving the free trial of Scrivener a run, on the advice of novelist pals Ali Shaw and Iain Maloney. For the most part, I’m extremely impressed at how it helps me organise my work – but I’ll write more on this another time.

For now – a pox on miniaturisation!


Postscript: my friend Tom has just alerted me to this. Oh, my.