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:

2013 and all that

Obviously, the end of every year gives pause for reflection. For me, this used to manifest itself in a range of Top Tens – films, albums, books, gigs – but these days I don’t really do enough of any of those things to justify it. So here’s my combined Top Ten of 2013 instead. They’re not in order.

1. Getting a book deal with Quercus

Securing a publishing deal with the wonderful Quercus Books has been one of the most amazing things to ever happen to me. I’m still waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under my feet, but until they do, I’ll keep enjoying every moment of this exhilarating, terrifying, extraordinary rollercoaster. I feel bowled over by the support for my writing, even as I feel a massive weight of pressure to deliver. I started the year with a manuscript called Riptide Heart; I finished with a rigorous redraft, now called The Visitors. Working with Quercus editor Jane Wood has made my writing tighter and my story much stronger. It has also given me a real hunger to push on with my work – I now have half-a-dozen novel ideas clamouring for my time.

This wouldn’t have happened without the hard work of my awesome agent, Sue Armstrong at Conville & Walsh, and the support of my amazing partner Monica. That brings me to the second thing on the list:

2. New work from Monica Metsers

While she was pregnant, and in the first year of Dora’s life, Mon took time away from her painting. 2013 was the year she really started again, and the results have been amazing. She has a solo show in London next year, and as well as a few smaller paintings and a range of drawings, she’s made these two stunning large-scale paintings, which I think are amongst the best work she’s ever done:

BATALLA DE LOS GIGANTES                                                          BALLENA Y GEISHA

BATALLA DE LOS GIGANTES   ballena y geisha

2013 also marked our five-year anniversary – it’s been a blast.

3. Performing live

I’ve never been good at public reading, and this year I set myself the challenge of improving. I went on to read my work twice at Spotlight in Lancaster, once at Kendal’s Spoken Word, once (performing from memory) at Dreamfired in Brigsteer, and once at the Flashtag 2013 writing competition in Manchester, where I won second place. My confidence grew with each reading, though I still feel I’ve a way to go.

I also attended a spoken word workshop run by the excellent Brindley Hallam Dennis. One of the activities he set has changed everything: he had other members of the workshop read our stories. The lady who read my flash piece ‘Marrow’ performed it at a third of the pace I do. She relished every word, and it was three times better as a result. I haven’t performed since then, but I’m going to practice reading with that sort of gusto at the next opportunity. I’m booked in for a 20-minute slot at Spoken Word in February, and I’d like another couple of events under my belt by then. My goal has evolved a little, too: what I’m aiming for now is something closer to outright performance than simply reading. That will come with confidence, and confidence will come from practice.

4. Seven Seals – Plan of Salvation

After a whopping 18 months, I finally finished making this music video for amazing psychedelic synth punks Seven Seals. They’re an extraordinary band, and it was an honour to be involved. They’re working on new material, which will hopefully be available in 2014 for their ten-year anniversary gigs.


5. Amy Hempel – The Dog of the Marriage

Quite simply, the finest collection of short stories I’ve ever read. Hempel’s writing is so sensitive, so honest, that it infuses her stories with devastating grace. Unmissable.

6. Les Revenants

This French drama is the best thing I’ve seen on television in years, remarkable for its intrigue, restraint and power. It delivers on every level, exploring an extraordinary narrative without needless exposition to unravel the mysteries of the Returned, all of whom are troubled in different but connected ways. The locations and cinematography are stunning, while the soundtrack by Mogwai is my album of the year. There’s a startlingly surreal lucidity to the conclusion, and I think they could have left it there; but I’m delighted to see a second series in the works. Here’s the trailer for season one:

In TV terms, an honorable mention also goes to Game Of Thrones. Tyrion Lannister might be the finest character ever committed to screen, and the Red Wedding haunts me even now.

7. Success for friends

It’s been a good year for many of my friends and peers, too. Iain Maloney landed an agent and a book deal with Freight, Kirstin Innes found an agent, Anneliese Mackintosh got a book deal, Kirsty Logan landed a book deal and won everything in the world. Friends Andy and Gemma had a baby boy called Miles, and Ali and Iona had a little girl called Inka. There have been a lot of richly deserved congratulations this year. Good work, team.

8. Cats

Yup. Two of them. I wasn’t sure, at first, but then we met these two cats in the Wainwright Animal Rescue Centre, and it was an easy decision. They came to us with the names Remus and Teddy, which we’ve kept. They’re brothers, about three years old, and half-Persian. They’ve been an amazing addition to our house. They are incredibly relaxed and friendly, and they actively seek our company. That’s especially welcome when I’m having a writing day alone at home.


9. Holiday in France

We were overdue a break, and this fortnight in France was exactly what we needed. We camped in half-a-dozen places, the best of which was Green Venice, a vast network of canals, ditches and overgrown waterways, crawling with vines and willows, alive with dragonflies and katydids. It was an extraordinary landscape. I read more in that fortnight than I’d managed in four months. Best of all, the holiday gave me enough mental space to plan my next novel, which will be called Grisleymires. That’s now blocked out on Scrivener, waiting for my next writing day.

10. Another year with Dora.

In their first year, babies are basically little puddings. Awesome little puddings, but puddings nonetheless. In their second year, they gather the basic tools to discover the world. And in year three, that toolkit expands exponentially; physically, vocally, intellectually and emotionally. Going through that with Dora has been nothing short of a joy. Seeing the world through her eyes has made me reevaluate so many things for myself. Her conversations leave me in stitches, and everything about her makes me smile. And she hasn’t been to A&E this year, which I consider something of a triumph. Though there’s still a week of 2013 left.


So that’s my Top Ten. It’s been a good year, and 2014 is alive with possibilities. I might even pop some resolutions up in a few days.


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.

A century of…

I realised, after posting this video about a ballerina dancing on butcher knives, that I’d hit a hundred posts on the blog. A century is still pretty arbitrary, really, but it’s as good a place as any to stop and think about why I keep a blog.

I started writing the blog six months ago to track the progress of my novel. The book was called Riptide Heart, back then. It’s now called The Visitors, and it will be published by Quercus Books in 2014. All that has happened in the lifetime of this blog. I’ve tracked my highs and lows and uncertainties throughout the publication process, from finding an agent (a year ago) to signing the contract (last week).

As well as the novel, I’ve written a lot about reading my work live, and the struggles I’ve had with my nerves. Each of my various readings has been painfully revisited, but that return has helped me filter and understand the experience. I’ve also explored my decision to gather my flash fiction into a collection, which is called Marrow, and will almost certainly be self-published, and teaching myself InDesign to lay it out professionally. (More on this soon! As I approach the end of my redraft and clear my backlog of film jobs, I should have the time and space to push ahead and get this wrapped up and printed.) I’ve posted published and unpublished flash fictions, and talked about my writing processes. I’ve written about my film work, and catalogued some of the things that I find inspiring or magical. I’ve posted galleries of the threshold spaces I’m so obsessed with.

All in all, then, my blog has ranged far wider than I ever thought it would. More than anything else, I’ve been surprised at how personally I’ve addressed some of these subjects. When I started, I expected the blog to be fairly analytical, for want of a better word; dry, professional. But in struggling with my live performance readings, and in wrangling my novel redraft, I’ve found myself at times alarmingly open about how I feel about my work. I like that the process of writing has taken me in that direction quite organically.

One of the joys of using WordPress is browsing through the stats, which tell me what brings people to the blog, what they look at, and often where they come from. I’ve had visitors from as far afield as Mozambique and Mongolia, searching for everything from devil dogs to gay porn. (Hopefully not everyone will be as disappointed as those two internauts.) I’ve had a week without any views, then hundreds of visitors the day Neil Gaiman retweeted this post about libraries. Have a look at this screen grab and see if you can guess which day that was:


The two things that bring people to the blog most often are on the periphery of my interests; this post about a nursery rhyme and this post about a WW2 fighter pilot preserved in a peatbog. People have searched for Bancree, which is the fictional Scottish island I created for The Visitors, and for novelist friends like Iain Maloney and Ali Shaw. Lots of people come to the blog looking for information about my agent, Sue Armstrong at Conville & Walsh, and my publisher, Jane Wood at Quercus.

More than anything else, though, the blog is for me. It’s how I filter my ideas and monitor what I’m doing. Writing about my life is what I need to live my life.

A Monster Calls


Okay. So I’m late to the Patrick Ness party, but delighted to be here at last. Agent Sue recommended the Chaos Walking trilogy to me earlier this year, which I read and loved; then my excellent wife Monica gave me A Monster Calls for my birthday. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever owned, and I’ve been saving it for a time I’m marginally less stressed. I planned to read a chapter or two each night, and really savour it. In the end, I devoured it in a single sitting. It’s one of the most striking, compelling, heartbreaking books I’ve read in a very long time. Jim Kay‘s illustrations – bringing almost every page to life – are sumptuously perfect, and Patrick Ness writes with power, precision and grace. The intertwining of artist and writer blurs the boundaries between novels and graphic novels. I think this is also the first book I’ve read that utterly defies ebooks. The story would be the same on a Kindle or Nook, of course, but there’s no way of electronically mapping this sort of paper book; the weight, the feel of the paper, the shape of the book, the stark integration of a full-page illustration with a page of a text. It’s an experience, and it’s simply beautiful. Read it.

Little paranoias

Jane Wood, my editor at Quercus Books, sent her notes on my novel this week. It’s a moment I’ve been dreading and craving in equal measure, and I wanted to take a moment to think about what it means now it’s actually here.

I’ve already done four drafts of The Visitors. Some of the drafts were very heavy, and some were extremely light. Redrafting is essential to all writing – I still, even now, return to stories published years ago to tweak and rework them. I have little paranoias about all my work, and can’t help but return to it. Sometimes I make changes of single words, and other times I excise entire scenes. Sometimes I catch myself totally rewriting published work, and I have to make myself leave it behind – I have to take stock and force myself to walk away.

On the second draft of The Visitors, I pussyfooted around Sue’s notes, making tiny changes, scared of diving in. When I came to a third draft, I made myself stamp on it, brutalising the manuscript with broad changes and moving onto the next alteration, no matter how ugly the massacre I left behind. Then, when it looked like a crime scene, I started rebuilding again. That’s what I’ll do this time, too, no matter how hard I find it. And I’m going to find it hard.

Whenever I come to editing and redrafting, I think there are two broad categories of change:


These are the easy ones, often little more involved than line edits. Cosmetic changes this time include switching a character’s name, cutting some internal monologue and reconsidering some of the vocabulary used by my main character. I could blitz through that in a day, tops. Unfortunately, the other editing category is:


…and this is the big stuff. Making structural alterations means redrawing the map of the story while trying to maintain the same emotional trajectory, and that can be difficult to keep in balance. In this case, I have two substantial changes to make. Firstly, a minor character needs to become a major character, and he needs to appear much sooner in the story. I already know this is going to be awkward, because I attempted something similar in the third draft, and I struggled to bump him up the narrative even to his current position. It’s going to be tough to find or create somewhere to introduce him sooner.

The second change initially felt even more challenging, but on reflection perhaps isn’t quite so bad. Jane has suggested a different direction for the ending that I’m really excited about. At first I was really worried about it, but I’m starting to see it as a case of unravelling the current conclusion and retying the strands of story into a different shape of knot. This will involve more writing, but actually it’s less of a challenge – with the current ending gone, I’ll be writing into blank space. That’s a thrilling proposition at this late stage of the manuscript.

While it’s still a skeleton, a novel plot is essentially arbitrary. Things can be changed extremely quickly and easily. New characters come and go, and the story shifts like a dune, blown into organic and occasionally bizarre shapes by the wind of imagination. But the more developed a story becomes, the less arbitrarily it can change. There comes a point where making big alterations means breaking the momentum you’ve fought to generate, then patching up the holes and hoping no-one can tell the difference. That’s where a writer needs to have paranoid convictions about the emotional tone of their work, and strive to make it as cohesive as possible in plot, character, voice and soul, then work it again and again and again, hammering and thrashing and beating and combing through the manuscript until it’s carved against your optic nerve.

Editing is frantic. It’s really hard. Throughout the process, a storm cloud hangs over you, an implicit sense that you didn’t do it well enough the first time. Then there’s the crashing changes you wreak on something you loved. And then there’s the dread that whatever you make to take its place won’t come close to what you had before. It’s an exciting time, too, but the whole process is riven with a crawling, monstrous, excruciating anxiety.

This is mostly my load to carry, but I’m glad I’m not taking the journey alone. I’m now far too close to The Visitors to critically appreciate it, and working with other people helps triangulate my own perspective about the story. I’ve often stated my belief that writing is as much about the community as the individual – not least as it counts for little without a reader. When I write short stories, I read them to Mon, and I send them to writer friends. And I pay attention to what they say, even if I disagree. Working with other people – and working with Jane and Sue, now – has repeatedly shown me the importance of opening myself and my ideas to an audience. I have people I can talk to, and that makes me lucky.

Of course, I say this before actually beginning the edits. Try me in a week.


Photo lifted from ‘Minuscule Series’ by Maité Guerrero

What’s in a name…

This post is about names for stories. Sometimes I come up with a title first – I have a story called You Don’t Talk To The Driver, The Driver Talks To You, which developed entirely from the title. And sometimes the title is really obvious – The Lion Tamer’s Daughter couldn’t be anything else. Sometimes it’s lifted from a phrase in the story, like The First Time I Died. Sometimes it evolves after a struggle, like my novella The Year Of The Whale (which I will finish one day). And sometimes, I just can’t think of anything at all. And all this is relevant because we’ve just changed the name of my novel.

I’ve been calling it Riptide for the last six months, but my novel has had dozens of different names. I went through bucketfuls of working titles – occasionally to the point that I was changing it two or three times in a single writing session. Nothing stuck. I’d reached a point where the novel was finished, and I wanted to send it away, but it didn’t have a name. After another few days dedicated only to looking for titles, I called it Riptide Heart because it had to be called something, then sent it to some friends.

“Love the book, mate,” came one of my first responses, “but the title’s balls.”

In the end, a lot of people said pretty much the same thing. But no-one had any better ideas, so I sent it off to Sue as Riptide Heart. I used Dora’s grubby paw to click the send button. A week later, Sue got back to me, and here we are – a year has passed, and once more I’ve been driving myself up the fucking wall looking for a name for the book.

We moved on from Riptide Heart fairly quickly, and I was fine with that. Everyone involved has been calling it Riptide, because that’s better than ‘the book’ or the ‘the novel’. But the closer we’ve moved towards publication, the more important the title has become. Sue and Jane and I have been searching for a month. Churning through endless combinations of possibilities has turned my brain to mush. I’ve ransacked the manuscript half a dozen times and tried literally hundreds of potential titles. Last week it reached a point where not only could I not think of anything better, but I was no longer capable of judging other suggestions. That’s one of the reasons I’m fortunate to be working with such professional people at Quercus and Conville & Walsh. Linking wonderfully to the stunning cover art commissioned by Jane, I’m delighted that we’ve finally settled on a name which I’m happy with – my first novel is now and forevermore called The Visitors.

So, what’s in a name? A rose would smell as sweet, and so on… but a novel is like a child, and you spend so much time with it as it grows, learning what it wants to be, getting to grips with its tantrums and moods, guiding its ambitions, and being constantly surprised and amazed by what it becomes… I can’t imagine Dora by any other name. Knowing that Riptide was a temporary title hasn’t lessened the jolt of losing it; after so many months, it had become Riptide.

The Visitors grows on me by the day. It has the human element I wanted so badly, and it has a ghostly feel which I love. As my friend Iain pointed out, I spent so long looking for The Best Name Of Any Book In The World Ever Ever Ever – which doesn’t exist, of course – that I stopped being able to consider what was right in front of me. I’ve often used the idiom of not seeing the wood for trees when discussing writing – and writing novels in particular – and it’s proved true for this title search as well.

I can barely express my relief of being out of those woods…

Jane’s editorial notes have arrived, and I’m really excited about some of her ideas. Next stop: the final draft.


Sue Armstrong: spy


I’m delighted to share the news that my bodacious agent Sue Armstrong has been promoted to Senior Agent at Conville & Walsh. Now, first of all, this makes her sound more like a spy, which is obviously very cool. But it is also testament to her talent, character and drive. She has been unremittingly excellent to work with, helping me develop my ideas and secure the deal with Quercus. I’m so pleased for her: well done Sue!