Notebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tangled ball of things

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

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

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

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

This is how it went:

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

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

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

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

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

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Team Sneck

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

I took this picture in 2005, from the back garden of our house in Inverness, some time around midsummer, slightly after midnight.
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Self-publishing

Natalie Bowers, editor of the excellent picture/fiction mash up site 1000 Words, has written a wonderful review of Marrow. It’s always fantastic to have a reader completely get my stories, so I’m really pleased to share her thoughts on the collection.

After reading the book, Natalie asked me to write a little about why I decided to self-publish Marrow. If you’re interested in traditional vs. self-publishing, then lay on, Macduffs, and discover why I chose to take that path.

This is a picture of my daughter and I arguing on a path.

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The final countdown

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

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

Best of luck to all the other contestants!

Islands by Peter Conrad

I’m a fairly fast reader. I used to comfortably manage three or four books a week, but then I had a kid, and now I read one or two a month – ten pages here, a chapter there – in the few exhausted minutes before I fall asleep. Before Dora was born, I would have probably devoured Islands by Peter Conrad in a day or so. As it is, it’s taken me the best part of six months to finish. To be fair, that’s been mixed in with a host of other books, including the first vast volumes of China Mieville’s Bas-lag trilogy, which I devoured a hundred pages at a time, regardless of how tired I was.

I needed swathes of swaggering, pageturning steampunk as a counter to Conrad. Here’s the thing: Peter Conrad is clearly a writer of huge ability. His sentences are as perfectly formed and intricate as crystal. He writes with enormous grace and intelligence, drawing on a frankly astonishing range of culture, high and low, to construct his arguments. His book explores islands as psychological landscapes, a topic that fascinates me. It’s a weighty, worthy, fascinating work. But it also had a curious affect on me: Conrad’s writing sent me to sleep.

Now, I don’t mean to say that it’s boring, because it really isn’t. But somehow, Peter Conrad’s writing has a truly soporific affect on me. The flow of words is hypnotic, soothing – a lullaby of thought. I typically found my eyes closing after mere pages, or sometimes only paragraphs. It’s taken me months to finish the book, and towards the end, I realised that enough time had passed for me to forget big chunks of what had gone before.

I’m discussing this mostly because I haven’t experienced it before, and I’m slightly baffled by it as a phenomenon. If a book is boring, I stop reading it. But I was truly intrigued by the ideas Conrad was exploring, and never thought Islands was dull. I wanted to read it faster, but night after night, it sent me to sleep. Eventually, I found myself reading it because I wanted to sleep, rather than reading it despite sleep. I reached for it like a comfort blanket or a Valium. Now that it’s gone, I actually feel a little bereft.