Flow

On a good writing day, I write 2,000 words. When I’m working well, that’s fairly consistent. Whether it’s 1,800 or 2,500, I always seem to end up in the ballpark of 2,000. In terms of quantity alone, a month of 2,000 word days is a 60,000 word manuscript (which is the philosophy of NaNoWriMo, of course).

Obviously there’s an awful lot more to it than that – 2,000 a day doesn’t include all the back-peddling, redrafting, tea, editing, notes, research, cursing, blogging (!), procrastination and rewriting – and it doesn’t include the bad days, when it’s a struggle to carve out 400 words. I have plenty of bad days as well, especially at the start of a new project, when I’m still feeling out my way, finding the right path. For context, I don’t believe that the key to good writing is simply writing and writing and writing until something mystic clicks and the good stuff comes pouring out – check out J. Robert Lennon’s ‘ass-in-the-chair canard’.

When I started writing The Visitors, it was completely plotted out. There were about thirty chapters, and each chapter had a paragraph, or maybe just a line, detailing what would happen. That plan became redundant within weeks, if not days. By the time I was even a quarter of the way through, my chief antagonist had switched to someone completely new, and the plot expanded hugely – the final draft has around sixty chapters. But the biggest changes lay in how the characters escaped me. As I wrote them – as I spent more time with them, and came to know them better – I realised they were evolving. They were doing things I hadn’t expected, but those things became inevitable and essential as their personalities developed. Their autonomy dictated their story. Once that happened, and they were set upon a path of their own making, the manuscript generated a momentum that I could not control. In the final two or three months, I’d regularly write 4,000 or 5,000 words in a session. On the last day of writing, I wrote 11,000 words in 14 hours. That surge, that flow, was intoxicating. I drowned in my characters, drowned in the island I’d created. The story became a gyre, and I was tumbled in the centre.

I’m now about 16,000 words into The Hollows. On each of my last four writing sessions, I’ve cut around 1,000 words, and written around new 1,000 words. The overall count isn’t changing much, but I think I’m making progress. I’ve learned a number of things along the way, about writing, and about myself. Because I had to go through such an excruciating redraft with The Visitors, I originally tried to plot out The Hollows as tightly as I could. Each chapter had multiple paragraphs and notes, with detailed ideas about the how the story would unfold. It was comprehensive. I was decided: this time round, the novel was going to write itself.

I should have known better. I raced off to a strong start, writing the first 10,000 words in three days. Then I applied to the Northern Writers’ Awards for funding towards a research trip. As part of the application, I had to include a synopsis of The Hollows. Seeing the plot condensed into a single page, I realised at once that the story was too tight. It had no room to breathe – I’d strangled it with structure. It was far too dense. I ditched all my planning and rewrote the synopsis for the purest story I wanted to tell – about a man who loses his memories, and the woman who goes to find them – and sent it off. I haven’t heard back yet, but regardless of how my application turns out, the process of writing a new synopsis was revelatory, and for that alone I’m grateful.

I want to start The Hollows right. Unravelling some of my first draft has been heavy going, but it’s important to me to know I’m on a better path. I’m getting there. I’m starting to meet my characters. I’d forgotten that I didn’t always know Flora, and Izzy, and Ailsa, and John – it took time to find out who they were. I’d forgotten, in the dizzying exhilaration of finishing The Visitors, that it wasn’t always so easy to write. The flow comes only after all the hard graft has been done.

On Friday, I finished my novella The Year of the Whale. That’s been five years in the making, including sessions when I’d struggle to chip away at 200 rotten words. But on Thursday, the day before my deadline, I soared through 5,000 words with joy in my heart. That was the flow, and I’d forgotten how it felt. I’d forgotten that I could feel so engrossed in my stories – that I could drown. That’s where I want to get to with The Hollows. That’s how I want to finish, whether it’s in six months or one year or two years’ time. But I know, now, that all the graft comes first.

My friend Ali Shaw believes you can’t know if a novel will go all the way until you hit 20,000 words. Author Matt Haig feels the same, but his mark is 40,000. Word counts only matter for the person counting. Like climbing grades, they measure nothing but an individual’s own sense of progress. They are a poor measure, perhaps, but they are all I have to mark my way: yan, tan, tethera.

The Hollows has been stuck on 16,000 words for weeks, despite long, hard days of work. I haven’t enjoyed that. I crave that sense of flow, when everything makes perfect sense. When I had that moment in The Visitors, I described it as a ‘glittering open highway’. I suspect I’m still a long way off reaching that highway in The Hollows, but it has truly settled me, on completing The Year of the Whale, to remember that the flow comes from the writing – not from the writer. From the story, and not the storyteller. For all the times I beat myself up about not working hard enough, not writing fast enough, not doing more – finishing that novella has been a gift. It has helped me remember why I write. I write to drown. To drown, I need the gyre. To make the gyre, first I have to fill an ocean.

 

A sealskin coat

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Painting by Jessica Shirley http://jessicashirley.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/selkie-girl.html

The Visitors is a little bit about selkies. Selkies are seals, and they are also people. They have a fur coat that allows them to take the form of a seal. When they step out of the coat, they become human. Selkies can be men or women, but they are always extraordinarily beautiful.

There are a multitude of selkie stories, but the most common starts with a selkie woman removing her coat and dancing on the shore. A young man – usually a fisherman or crofter – spies her dancing, and steals the coat. With her fur held hostage, the selkie has no choice but to marry the man. They live together for a while, but then the selkie finds her skin and escapes back into the sea. The man is left to nurse a broken heart. Often, the couple have children. In some stories, it is a child that finds the coat, and returns it to the mother. Sometimes the selkie takes her children back into the ocean, and sometimes they are left behind. In that version of the story, the mother and children meet in the surf to play.

In the other typical selkie story, an island woman cries seven tears into the sea to attract a selkie mate. Selkie men give children to barren women.

db44_SelkieI love the idea of selkies, but I struggle with some aspects of these traditional stories. They crush female independence. In the first, the selkie is kidnapped and loses years of her life to captivity. The man takes what he wants, and is punished only by the accident of her escape. In the second story, the male selkie is a god, and the woman summons him on bended knee. Either human men dominate supernatural women, or supernatural men dominate human women. Both men and women mean more to me than that. When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted something different from selkie stories. I wanted equality. That’s been my guiding light for the novel, from start to finish. John and Izzy share traditional tales, but Ailsa and Flora question the validity of that tradition, and take a closer look at what it means to be a selkie.

Selkies are special. I watched the seals hunting in the bay at Grogport, and saw them bask and splash in Portnahaven harbour. There is life and knowledge in their eyes. When you look at them, they look back. On Kintyre, we walked the coast around Skipness on a grey, steely day, and we were followed by a seal. For half a mile or more, as we skirted the coast, the seal stayed twenty or thirty yards away from us. It seemed to move without locomotion, so that dark snub head simply kept pace with us, looking towards the shore. We sat on old stones to eat our lunch, and the seal bobbed and ducked at one end of the headland. It didn’t move away until we struck back inland, and then it vanished in a wink. I looked back to seek it out, but the seal had gone.

I asked my friends about seals and selkies, and they swamped me with stories. Chris gave his first pocket money to Save The Seals. Tom talked to the seals in a sealife centre, and the seals talked back. Dan’s friend confused swallows for seals in a dream, so he drew her a picture of a swallow with a seal’s head. Kirstin’s father whistled to the seals in Shetland, and they popped to the surface to see what all the fuss was about. Jon was kissed by a sealion. Sakina can’t shake the tale of the seal maiden. Ross works in Copenhagen, and daydreams that commuters with sealskin coats are modern-day selkies. Amy holidayed on Mull when she was seven, and spent the summer playing with a selkie called Della.

Why do we give seals such humanity? They are manifestly foreign to us, but the connection is overwhelming.

When I was 25 or 26, I spent a year working and backpacking in Australia. I remember snorkelling on Ningaloo Reef, diving as far down as I could go. I looked up exactly as the sun dropped behind a cloud. The water turned suddenly cold and pressed against me, and I felt very afraid, scared of the deep and the dark and the cold and the blue. When I think of selkies, they are underwater, floating with perfect neutral buoyancy, and shafts of sunlight sway woozy on the surface above. The darkness drops away behind them, and the selkie exists in two places: as a seal, utterly unafraid, and as a human, drawn against the current, compelled to the surface. Selkies live in thresholds. The selkie woman, when she escapes, returns to embrace her children in the surf. The shoreline, changing always with the tide, is where seals and people meet as selkies. It is a nowhere place, and yet it is all they have.

Faroese_stamp_580_the_seal_womanA hunter doesn’t know his wife is a selkie. While hunting, he sees her as a seal, and harpoons her. She becomes human, and dies in his arms.

The crofter is left heartbroken on the shore, and his selkie wife returns by stealth to see her children.

This selkie is allowed only one night of the year to be human.

Two lovers share a single skin, so that they can never be together in the same form; always one as a seal, and one as a human.

Selkies are born from the souls of drowned sailors.

Selkies are cousins to the muc-sheilche, the kelpie, the nokken, the finfolk. Those creatures are killers and enemies to men. So what makes the seal a victim? A romance? A tragedy?

When we visited Islay, we drove out to Portnhaven. We clambered across the rocks to the weedy edge of the harbour, and we watched the seals. Half a stone’s throw across the water, they gathered to sunbathe by the dozen. They winked as though the Atlantic was a hot tub. They flickered in the water, phantoms bound in straps of kelp. They came so close that I found myself laughing aloud – laughing in wonder, joy and disbelief.

When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted to explore that connection with the seals, that projection of knowledge, and emotion, and empathy. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I’ve fallen more in love with seals and selkies.

My wife found this picture of a seal. It was taken in California, rather than Coll, but it’s the way I see a selkie. Curious and cautious, incredibly close, and impossibly distant.

seal

A love letter to an island

P1050513The idea for The Visitors fell into my head almost fully formed while on holiday in Grogport, a tiny hamlet on the east coast of the Kintyre peninsula. It’s connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, and it feels like an island. The beaches are sandy and studded with pebbles. Hills rise steeply from the shore and narrow roads wind around the coast, ducking inland to skirt the inlets. To the east, Arran lurks like a beached whale, and Gigha is smudge in the haze on the horizon to the west. Abandoned crofts explode with rowans, and in places the ferns fall into the road, wet and green.

P1050459My daughter was three months old, and the long drive from Cumbria had unsettled her. She started waking early – around five in the morning – and wouldn’t go back to sleep. My wife and I made coffee and watched the sun rise over Arran, casting blue light on the millpond Kilbrannan Sound. From the kitchen window, we saw herons stalk the surf, lashing down on crabs or minnows. Seals hunted in the bay every evening, and an otter dismembered fish on the shoreline. The garden thronged with little birds, and at one point I saw a kestrel sitting on the washing line, no more than five yards from the house. When we walked around the island, there were butterflies in the gorse, spiders on the sand, bees in the grass, gulls wheeling on the updrafts. I was shaken, at times, by how much life was around me, living as it always had, as though the land itself was alive and conscious. In so many places, it looked as though people, civilisation, had simply given up and moved elsewhere. It felt as though the land was waking after centuries of slumber, and just beginning to stretch.

On the third or fourth morning, watching a seal swim like quicksilver in the bay, the spark of a story flared brightly inside me. It caught fast, and began to smoulder. That story became The Visitors. Selkies, living in Grogport. A murder mystery. A young girl, desperate to leave an island. And it would be an island, I decided; the Kintyre peninsula was beautiful, but didn’t do everything I wanted for the story. I started drafting a sense of what the island looked like. I called it Bancree. As I began to write the story, the island evolved too, morphing into something real enough to touch.

P1050458Bancree is a scrapbook of my Scotland. I grew up in Inverness, where I could see Ben Wyvis from my bedroom window. We walked our dogs on the shingle beach at Ardersier and through the sodden plantations of Culloden. I’ve been canoeing and camping on Loch Maree in torrential rain, and climbed the boulder fields of Torridon and Glen Nevis. I’ve been to the top of Schiehallion, and walked on the clifftops of Dumfries, and fallen out of bars on Tobermory, and seen friends crash cars by the shore of Loch Ness. I’ve taken the train from Edinburgh to Inverness so many times that the journey is engrained in my memory. From the top of Glen Affric, with June snowmelt still feeding the burns, I’ve seen both coasts glitter in the sun. Scotland has a hundred landscapes that sing to me, and I collected something from each of them to build Bancree.

P1050526The island is my love letter to Islay, Jura, Gigha, Mull, Iona, Ullapool, the Highlands, the Black Isle, Moray and the Great Glen – to the landscapes I grew up in, the landscapes I love. I’ve never tried to sketch Bancree or make a map. I know what it looks like, and where to find Grogport, and Tighna, and Izzy’s hut, and the windfarm on the Ben. But more importantly, I can drive the road around Bancree simply by closing my eyes. I can feel the scrunch of shingle underfoot, and the batter and bluster of the Atlantic coast. There is dew sagging on spiderwebs, spun between the thorns of gorse, and rafts of flotsam hefted on the beaches. Dead, empty crabs still scuttle on the breeze. The twiggy scratch of heather, the rivulets of water in the bracken. Titanic clouds, dark and warm and scudding low enough to touch. The fluttering machair, alive with bees. Fog that swallows the tops of trees and telegraph poles. The water in the bog pools, dark with peat, staining all the world around, pouring brown from every tap. Sands that hiss and sing as the wind rolls across the beach in waves.

Bancree is as real as a dream to me. It is vivid and bursting with life. I can feel the rub of sand between my fingers, but there is no map to go there.

P1050540

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:

Scenes from a copy edit

I’ve just finished the first copy edit for The Visitors. Quercus sent the documents over a fortnight ago, but I didn’t have the time until last week to open the files and survey the damage. College has been relentless lately, and I haven’t had a chance to work on my writing in what feels like forever. At first glance, I was devastated at how much work seemed to be required. Every page of the manuscript was scarred with dozens of red marks, like this:

typos

At first glance, my heart shrivelled in my chest. The thought of that all work was painful – not least as my friend Ali Shaw had already warned me of the perils of copy edits. He explained that I’d need flagons of strong cider to get through it, and I was braced for some late nights.

Thankfully, it hasn’t been too bad. On closer inspection, virtually all the changes are simply a matter of house style – thousands and thousands of “double speech marks” have now become ‘single speech marks’. I had no idea they were allowed – I’ll try writing with single speech marks from now on, but it’s going to take quite some unlearning – hitting shift with the quote key has become hardwired into my typing. Similarly, hundreds of ‘alrights’ and ‘okays’ have become ‘all rights’ and ‘OKs’. Again, I didn’t know these were the preferred form. More startling, I hadn’t realised I used those words so often – especially in dialogue. I cut many of these where the copy edit drew my attention to repetition.

As well as those thousands of standardised changes, there were infrequent issues with capitalisation. I disagreed with some of these. I don’t consider ‘Internet’ to be a proper noun, for example – small things, but they all need looking at.

On top of all that, there were two typos where I’d accidentally omitted a word – which isn’t bad in a 93,000 word manuscript – and a few instances where the copy editor felt certain words (always adverbs – be warned!) didn’t gel. I agreed with all of these, and made the changes.

All in all, it’s been a fascinating process. It took me two days, in the end. I’ve huge respect for copy editors – to be so meticulous and so creative all at once is a massive challenge, but I felt the changes were fair and sensitive. That’s now gone back to Quercus.

This is my half-term from college. I have a few goals for this week. As well as some looking after Dora while Mon has her last week painting before an exhibition in London, I want to write some new work for National Flash Fiction Day, submit something to the Flashbang contest and finish my Drowned Villages poem. Most important, I’d like to spend some time with Grisleymires – I’ve had a month away from my novel, and I miss it.

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.

Visitors book cover

It is with tremendous pleasure that I share the cover to The Visitors. It looks like this:

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…and I’m utterly thrilled with it. The artist, an outstanding book designer called Leo Nickolls, has captured so many elements of the story in his design. I love the composition, the style, the palette – everything about it.

Most of the story of The Visitors fell into my head while on holiday in Grogport on Kintyre. It’s connected to the Scottish mainland by a narrow isthmus, but it feels like an island. From Tarbert, it’s a thirty or forty minute drive along weaving single track roads to the tiny village of Grogport, which is no more than ten houses and a beach. It was our first holiday as a new family, and we stayed there for a week. Dora was only five months old, and she was unsettled by the change in her surroundings. After sleeping late for most of the previous month, she started waking early – at four or five in the morning. On one of those bleary mornings, we sat in awed silence and watched the sun crest behind humpback Arran, the island pitched into shadow beneath titanic columns of light. I took some pictures. They looked like this:

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The first time I saw Leo’s cover, this image came to me as a jolt. Memories shivered at me; the cold tiles underfoot, the grit in the coffee and the grit in my eyes, the herons on the beach. Even now, I feel a little unnerved at the similarity in the mountains. I scribbled out the plot of The Visitors no more than a day either side of this picture. Unheimlich.

Seeing the cover has been amongst the most surreal parts of this crazy journey. The closer I come to publication, the further I feel from reality. Being so immersed in redrafts and work, this often feels as though it’s happening to someone else.

Resolve

I’ve always been a little dismissive of New Year’s Resolutions, because if I want to make a change in my life, that can happen any time I choose. That remains true, but there are things I want to do differently going into 2014. Post-Christmas binging is a natural place to draw a line and make a start, and I quite like the idea of formalising the changes I want to make. So here’s what’s going to happen this year:

Exercise

Because I don’t really do any, other than the odd Lakes walk and the exhaustive mania of teaching. I’ve already started walking the 2 miles to work – which I enjoy for the headspace as much as the activity – but I miss my bike and I miss my climbing. So I’m going to start cycling the long way to work and back. That’s only about 6 miles a day, so it’s not a great deal really, but it’s more than I’m doing at the moment. I’m also really keen to get back to my climbing. When I lived in London, I climbed four or five times a week. Now it’s four or five times a year. I’m going to start going for a few hours at least once a week. That, supplemented by some pull-ups at home and the cycling, should be steps in the right direction. I might even join Mon for the odd yoga, too.

Writing

The best I can hope for here is more of the same, I think. I crave more time to write, but the day jobs don’t allow it. In a good week, I get two days and two nights on my stories every week. Within that, I have specific aims for 2014. First and most important, I want Grisleymires finished in a year. This is a big ask, but it’s well planned, I’m excited by the story, and I can do it if I work hard. Research trip to the Fens in January!

Second, I want to have my flash fiction collection Marrow typeset and printed by the end of February. I’m reading at Spoken Word at the Brewery on Saturday 22nd, and I want it in my hands by then. This isn’t as big a deal as it seems; the stories are written and redrafted ten times over, and having typeset it once already as practice, I know glimmers of InDesign. With some guidance from knowledgeable friends and a few late nights, I think I can send the manuscript off to Inky Little Fingers in a few weeks. I’ve already saved most of the £225 it’ll cost to print 100 copies, so that’s not going to hurt my wallet too much.

Third, I want to keep on performing. 2013 was a turning point for me in reading my work aloud, and I want to push that as far as I can. Reading live brings an entirely new aspect to the way I write, and this is something I want to keep developing – pushing towards more theatrical performance where my confidence allows it.

Fourth, I want to submit my work to more competitions. I’ve never entered any of the big short story competitions before now, and I’m going to try and start this year. And I want to write new pieces, too, if the ideas keep coming to me. I’m not going to rehash old stories. I’ve pretty much drawn a line under my older work, but for two particular pieces: the excellent people at Comma Press have been considering my short story Every State In America for their delayed Reveal anthology for a couple of years. They’ll have first refusal on it for as long as it takes; being published by Comma would be an incredible honour. The other piece is called Art Is Long, Life Is Short, which is perhaps three years old and freshly redrafted for the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines strand. That’s ready to go when the submission window opens in January.

Fifth, I want to finish Year Of The Whale, my long-running novella about a whale beached in Morecambe Bay. It’s been work in progress for three or four years, and it’s overdue. But writing resolutions one through four come first.

That’s lots of resolutions wrapped up in two strands, really. Writing and exercise. I’m only going to buy the time for everything else if I start saying no to low-paid film jobs, so I’m not doing any freebies/cheapies this year unless they have a clear benefit further down the line. I’m also going to try and rein in my irrational compulsion to reply to emails RIGHT THIS SECOND. I just don’t have the time. Most of the email I receive can probably wait until I’m ready. The point of all of this is to spend more quality time with Mon and Dora. Unless deadlines get in the way for either of us, we’re generally good at keeping weekends as family time, and I want that set in stone. There are a host of other things I can do towards this – less time online, for a start – and turning off the computer on free evenings. I want to read more, too.

I guess I’ve picked out goals, rather than resolutions, but it’s all the same in the end. I haven’t kept a blog to monitor resolutions before; I’m curious to see to whether writing about my success or lack thereof will impact on my success or lack thereof. Gazing into the void and so on.

2013 was a great year in many ways. Here’s to 2014, people. Be safe, be happy. Here’s a 1921 picture of a cat and a goblin in a tree:

goblin

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.

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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.

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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.