I used to have a smartphone. My brother gave it to me — in fact he gives me lots of things. At least half of my clothes are Tim’s cast-offs, and I think he despairs of me a little sometimes. When I was getting ready for my wedding, he was extremely irritated to learn that I didn’t own a tie. He then loaned me a tie to get married in, and actually he had to tie the knot as well. Sorry Tim.
But this post is about phones, or rather — technology. See, this smartphone that Tim gave me, all those years ago — it was great. I could check email on the go. I wrote my Twitter stories on it sometimes, and took lots of photos. When I was bored, on trains or at bus stops, I played Catan or chess.
Now, bear with me. This post will go sideways a couple of times, because it is also about notebooks. For almost as long as I’ve been writing fiction — about eight or nine years, now — I’ve kept a notebook in my back pocket. Into those notebooks have gone countless ideas, most of them nonsense, and lots of lines of dialogue, or overheard snatches of conversations, even single words I wanted to think about later. The act of writing them down was perhaps more important than reading them later — I liked the moment of formalising and clarifying the thought, no matter how fleeting it would prove.
It used to take me somewhere between two weeks and two months to get through a notebook. I gradually found myself taking longer to fill them — and then so long that they disintegrated in my pockets. It probably took me a year or so before I connected the smartphone to the notebooks, but once I’d joined the dots, I couldn’t unjoin them — the simple truth was that I was writing less since I’d got the smartphone. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I wasn’t simply writing less — I was thinking less. I was feeling less. Before I owned a smartphone, I’d spent my train trips and bus stops eavesdropping on people, real people in real places with real lives, imagining who they were and where they’d come from. I used to write down the cadences and accents of their speech, and bring those patterns in my writing. I wrote about their clothes, their shoes, the way they walked. With a smartphone, all that stopped — because I was playing Catan instead, and that was easier.
When Tim’s old phone died, I didn’t replace it — instead, I spent £9 at the supermarket and bought a dumbphone — a brick. We call smartphones smart, but in truth they dull our senses. They lock us into ourselves, shut us down. On the rare occasions I’ve been asked for writing advice, I’ve suggested getting rid of your smartphone, should you have one. They are vampires for your time and your wits.
This isn’t only me being a Luddite (although there is also some of that involved). I’ve been worried for a while about social media, about online interaction, about the casual saturation of technology into every bit of our lives. In my younger days, when I had a little more piss and vinegar, I got into some humdinging arguments online. I once lost out on a dream job because I couldn’t bite my tongue in an email exchange — I simply couldn’t abide for someone else to have the last word — and this is interesting, because in real life I consider myself to be exceedingly diplomatic — I’ve worked for monstrously unreasonable people and more than once sustained a wage by biting my tongue. So what is it that happens to us, below the line? Why does a red mist descend, once we’ve plunged into the comments?
Part of me thinks it’s the lack of body language, the lack of nuance in our communication — but then surely that would be true of letters, too, and it’s not. Perhaps the difference is in the immediacy and the spontaneity of our response. There’s no delay anymore, no moment of measure. Communication has become a mirror. We look into the screens, and they look back, and if we miss the moment, it’s gone — and the compulsion to curate our own image leads to meltdowns, polarisation, echo chambers, horseshit and dead ends. The need to share, share, share — it’s left us so lonely.
I’m talking about this because Jonathan Safran Foer has just written a compelling piece about how technology diminishes us. His article is far more coherent than this one, and he’s right. How often do we see cafes or carriages full of people staring at their screens? I take a train to work at the same time as scores of secondary school kids. Almost all of them are almost always on phones. And again, I teach in a college — last term, the network server died (there was an incident involving paint) and we went two days without internet access. Most of my students were climbing up the walls. So that’s the Western world, that’s modern life — right? Evolve or die. And that’s okay. I think I’m happier as a dinosaur.
A few years ago, the college gave me an iPad to improve the use of technology in my teaching. It was a nice idea, but it didn’t actually happen. The single biggest impact on my life was the sudden impossibility of escaping work. My colleagues and I regularly sent work messages at 10 or 11 or midnight. My cat Remus is a gigantic soaring arsehole, but I was delighted when he knocked my iPad off the sofa a month or so ago, because now the screen is broken. I genuinely miss 80 Days, but in return I’ve recovered hours of my life. I’ve come to relish the moments without wifi, without a phone signal, those moments when we are offline, like it or not — it’s one of the reasons I love the Hebrides. I use Freedom when I’m writing, and I get most of my real work done while it’s in action.
There was a study, a few years ago, that showed how people modified their real-life behaviour in order to gain better online approval (can’t find the link, sorry). Another study suggested that taking a photo actually reduced the photographer’s memory and perception of the moment. It’s nothing new to say that these technologies are becoming filters that we can’t escape.
Another sidestep — on Wednesday, Mon and I went to watch Frightened Rabbit in Manchester Cathedral. It was our first night out since Indy was born. The band were magnificent, but the audience were not so good, and I lost count of the glow of smartphone screens. They made a constellation of the crowd. I don’t go to many gigs these days, so maybe this is how things are, but it seemed to me that a lot of people were at the gig to tell people they were at the gig, rather than to see the actual band.
I know I sound like a scared old man. And I’m not blind to the irony of posting this online. The internet and these technologies have brought us wonders. Email gives me an online book group with friends I’d otherwise meet once or twice a year at best, and that book group got me reading again. Thanks to Facebook, my brother gets to see more of Dora and Indy than he would in real life. I can follow the antics of my cousin Ali in Antarctica. I’ve applied for jobs online, and solved technical crises while editing my films — won competitions, promoted my books, discovered scores of extraordinary things. I first met Mon in 2000, when the internet was new and odd and easy to turn off — but without the internet, we wouldn’t have discovered each other again in 2008, and we wouldn’t have started going out.
So yes, of course, the internet saturates my life too, and I’m not trying to take a moral high ground. There are still times, lost in strange cities — and all cities are strange — that I want the safety of Maps. There are many occasions when I’m aching for a camera, walking to work, when the sun casts fire through the fog, and all the world is aflame — or when I need a number, or directions. But look — even now, as I write, I’m curating my own image in how I shape this article, how I pick my words. I very seldom go to cities. Most of the photos I’d take would not be of foxfire. I prefer real maps to the pulse of a tracker, talking to itself.
I know this is confused and contradictory. I’ve spent 1,500 words discussing my quiet worries about technology. I’ve used technology to write it and technology to share it. I am painfully aware of this, and I have no solution, other than an instinct that we needn’t even stop and think — so much as stop, for a while, for a while.
Last night, BigCharlie Poet and I headlined Verbalise at the Brewery. We’ve known each other for years, and we’ve been working on these photo challenges for almost as long, so to perform together for the first time was a real buzz. Thanks to all the glories of PowerPoint, we also projected the images onto the screen behind us, and hopefully the audience enjoyed seeing how and why we interpreted each picture.
It was a particularly good open mic, with stand-out performances from Harriet Fraser, John Scott, LD Brown, and three poets I hadn’t seen before — Clare Proctor, Louise Barklam and Roland Crowland (sorry if I’ve spelled your names wrong). I had an excellent time, and sold some more copies of Dare. They’re starting to run out, now, so get amongst it if you want one.
BigCharlie and I have now done the photo challenge for Cathedrals, Graffiti, Libraries, Foxes, Scarecrows, Suitcases, New York, Europe and Keys. These last four were the new pieces, and they seemed to go down okay. My stories were called Drums, Murmurations, The Slips And The Cracks, and The Four Things That Happen After You Die. These were the photos — can you guess which image goes with which title?
I’m not going to include the stories here, because they’re bound for another flash collection, probably late next year — that will be called Soup Stone. More on this another time. I might submit them for publication, too, when I work out who’s printing flash fiction these days. That scene changes so fast, and when I’ve been away from it, I struggle to catch up. Suggestions very welcome. (Please…)
The photo challenge always freshens me up as a writer. It breaks me out of whatever ruts I’ve worked myself into, and helps me to look at something new, to consider a story with fresh eyes. As ever, I’ve enjoyed working on these pieces, but I’m also glad they’re done. My head has been stuck in the novel for months, and dislodging myself for this has been a great wee holiday — now I’m ready to get back and get it finished. As if on cue, I woke early this morning, after a fortnight of sleeping in.
I’ve now written over 100,000 words on the book, which is psychologically well past that tipping point where the inevitability of finishing outweighs any possibility of abandoning it. This is the third (and bloody final) time I’ve tried to tell this story, and writing it has become like working with blueprints on top of blueprints on top of blueprints — the ghosts of the last drafts keep drifting through, whimpering for love. That said, with only another 20,000 or 30,000 words to go, the chance of the story evolving reduces with every new word I write, and there comes a point when it’s simply — done.
But I’m not there yet. I have some big scenes still to write, and it’ll need a lot of streamlining when I’m done. I’m trying to keep my head, but in the time I’ve been working on this novel, I’ve seen friends and peers publish one, two, three books, and it’s hard not to get disheartened sometimes about how S L O W my progress has been. But that’s also when I need to remember that I’m writing the story for the story — for myself — and that thinking of anything else will drive me demented.
So Verbalise with BigCharlie will be my last gig for a while. I’m treating it as a watershed between then and next. I’m so desperate to focus on the novel and get it finished that I’ve been turning events down, lately — and while I’m reluctant to step away from the readings and the communities that I love, I absolutely need to have nothing else to do. No deadlines, no events, no short story submissions — nothing but novel until it’s done. My blogging has been sparse this year, and will probably become even sparser, but I’m so close to finishing, and finishing it properly — and then I’ll return to the world, and wonder at whatever comes next.
This is my first post since 1st October 2015; a window of more than three months, and the longest I’ve gone without an update since I started the blog. I signed off because my head was on fire and I needed some space. As a result, I haven’t shared some amazing things that happened to me last year—ten awesome days of rain and shine on the beaches of Coll and Tiree, an appearance at Bloody Scotland crime-writing festival, the US publication of The Visitors, and most especially my first time at Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I was reading with the ManBooker shortlisted genius Chigozie Obioma. Maybe he was as nervous as me about the festival, but something just clicked. I don’t know if I’ve ever warmed to someone quite as spontaneously as I did Chigozie. In the middle of our discussion a battered bookmark slipped from the pages of his book. It said, Literature tastes better with beer, and I thought, yeah, this is one of the good guys. (And his novel, The Fishermen, is a wonder.) Edinburgh is a city like no other, and the festival was an extraordinary experience. To cap it all, walking back to the hotel through the summer gloaming, I came up with a new novel idea. That was a good day.
My head was on fire because of The Hollows. I finished the second draft in June and took the print-out on holiday to Coll and Tiree, where I spent my downtime going through it with a red pen. I finished the last pages as the ferry trundled back into Oban, redrafted in a week, and asked some friends to read it. To be completely honest, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I’d written the whole thing in about thirty days, edited it in another five, and I thought it was good. I blogged about experiencing something of a slump, but that’s normal for me, and I expected to get out of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get out of it at all. It became worse.
The problem probably goes back to the Kate Mosse incident. I think that skewed my compass more than I realised at the time; in writing the second draft, trying to make some space between me and her, I moved too far into the fantastical, and away from the magic realism I’m pitching at; and my sheer joy of progress in writing the new draft so quickly—the drowning that I long for in my writing—that same joy blinded me to things I should have been more conscious of, things I should have been stronger about. My amazing beta readers enjoyed the book, but a couple of issues cropped up time and time again, and this consensus helped me gain some perspective on the book. Put more bluntly, it became clear that a particular strand of the story wasn’t working as well as it needed to. So go and change that one strand, right?
I sometimes think of writing a book like weaving a tapestry: the multiple threads of the characters, settings, atmospheres, emotions and plot woven against the weft of pace and rhythm, all of them bound together into a single piece. As a metaphor, it works. The problem comes in trying to unravel one or two of the threads: it can’t be done without wrecking the rest. Pull at one, and the whole thing falls apart. When I tried to redraft, I found I couldn’t do it; between the first failed version of the story, and then the flawed second, I was utterly discombobulated. It made me miserable for a very long time. One day, I’d start writing it again, completely from scratch, with the ghosts of my characters screaming outrage over my shoulder—the next day, I’d junk everything I’d done the day before, and go back to my second draft, pussyfooting around with single words and phrases—and the day after, I’d return to the very first version, and work out what I could salvage, looking for something, anything to show me the way.
At this point, I was overthinking it. I was tortured by possibilities, and wound up going backwards. The whole miserable process was compounded by the aching, awful thought of all the time I’d lost—by my reckoning, nearly a quarter of a million words of finished work over two years, and none of it anywhere near an actual book. At times I’ve been utterly inconsolable, and at other times I’ve probably been horrendous to live with. I’m extremely lucky to have in Monica a partner who understands these processes.
At the start of November, half-a-dozen small video jobs dropped into my lap in the space of a fortnight. That meant no writing for the rest of 2015, and I spent the rest of the year working flat-out to finish the films—they are now mostly wrapped, and so my writing days are back. In the end, some enforced time away has been helpful. My feet are back on the ground, and I’m not wallowing anymore. I can’t pretend I have a completely clear vision of the way ahead, but I’ve finally started getting some sense of the way. After days and days of effort and countless hours with my notebook and the myriad manuscripts, I’ve cut 70,000 words from the draft, tweaked those strands I needed to tweak, and I’m now writing into empty white pages for the first time in a year. I no longer know what will happen in some parts of the story, but actually that’s fine—that’s one of the fun parts. As daft as it sounds, I’m going to bed earlier, too, and waking with a little time to write. That helps.
I shared too much about the last draft. I’m never confident about my work, but I think I became a little complacent after discussing it in such detail. Having experienced heartbreak once, with the Kate Mosse incident, I simply didn’t believe it could happen again. I think I felt I’d paid my dues with The Hollows—that I was owed a bit of a pass. I was therefore unprepared, and it hurt much, much worse. It has taken months for me to want to write again—rather than feel I have to. And I do want to write, now. The drive is creeping back. I feel far more cautious, and I’m approaching every writing day with care—care for my story, and care for my heart—but I want to be writing, which is the big thing. I’m miserable when I don’t write.
The Hollows has sung to me for three years, and I’m going to get it right. The characters evolve and change, much like the fens they live in, the fens I’m writing about, landscapes in flux, stories in flux. I would say watch this space—but don’t watch too hard. I’ll be a wee while. Third time lucky.
In the nine years since I started writing fiction, I have completed three novels and a novella. All of them have been written in the first person, and needed me to immerse myself entirely in another character, another world; and so I’ve been a veteran of WW2, flitting between London and Burma; a 17-year-old girl, desperate to escape her Scottish island; an arthritic fisherman walking across Morecambe Bay; and a fortune-teller seeking herself in a world of swamps. My stories are becoming steadily more fantastical. They’re taking me further from myself. That’s fine in terms of what I want to write about, but it also makes it harder to come back. My friend Ali Shaw once compared writing to being underwater, and I think that’s right; the deeper you go, the further you get from the surface.
After finishing each of these four stories, I’ve experienced a few weeks of manic creativity, cartwheeling through handfuls of shorter pieces. Most recently, on wrapping up a first draft of The Hollows, I redrafted and typeset Dare in a week. But then, after these bursts, I’ve always fallen into something of a slump, and that’s where I am now, casting about for what to do, suddenly convinced that all those months of work are worthless.
I’ve talked before about how I write to drown. Over time, that immersion—especially in something as big as a novel—becomes total, until it’s the real world that becomes disorientating. I’m so fortunate to have in Mon someone who understands that stories leave me stoned; she helps me find my way. But returning to the real world feels odd. I’m struggling to get excited about things I should be excited about. I’m distracted and quick to gloom. I suspect that almost all creative work is built on a measure of doubt, and right now that’s all I have, needling and nagging all the time: what if it’s garbage? All of it? Everything I’ve done? The last year was wasted work. What if this year is too? How would I start again?
I would start again, because I have to. But the further I get from The Hollows—and it’s vital, I know, to get some perspective, to put distance between me and it before I go back to redraft—the more that doubt creeps in. Almost everyone I know, and certainly all the writers and artists, struggle with doubt. Carving out and sharing these inside parts of your head is an excruciation. I couldn’t write without that doubt; it keeps me lean, questioning, pushing myself to do better, to be better. Doubt is the compass of when I’m not good enough; and so to cut, rewrite, cut, rewrite, cut. But here’s the crux: when I’m not writing, not working on a story, that doubt—the same doubt I need to write in the first place—has nothing to gnaw on but me. It bites harder than ever after spending so long in another world, and then leaving it behind. That’s the Slump.
So quit wallowing and start something new, right? It’s not so simple. I have several ideas lined up for what I’ll do next, and I’m 2,000 words into my first proper short story in over a year. But from a pragmatic point of view, it’s senseless to start another big project before I’ve polished off the last, and every redraft is distinct and demanding. The Slump goes beyond that anyway. It’s a spiritual anticlimax. It’s hitting a wall after running a marathon. It’s a burn out, an exhaustion of ideas. I don’t really know how to get myself out of the Slump, other than to take heart from the knowledge that I always have before. This morning I played hide and seek with Dora. That helped. This afternoon I’m going back to my short story. That may help too.
Half-a-dozen people have now read The Hollows. They’ve all enjoyed it, I think, and they have all suggested a few things that don’t quite work; thankfully, these things have pretty much been the same for all of them, and they also tie into my own sense of the story, now I’m getting some distance from it. Redrafting would be impossible without that sense of triangulation, which is, in turn, why writing needs community. I’m gearing myself up for potential edits, but I’m not there yet. I think I’ll be ready by the time this slump comes to an end; or perhaps the slump comes to an end because I’m ready. It’s coming closer, but it’s not here yet.
Writing is doubt. Writing is perspective. Passion. Immersion. Empathy—books are empathy machines. Writing is the witch in your kitchen in the corner of your eye. If you spin to look at her directly, she’s gone. Writing is a sideways mirror. Writing is accidents of words, like wind chimes are accidents of music. I don’t know what else to do but play on through it.
With a first draft of The Hollows finished and sent away, I’ve emerged, blinking, into the light, with pasty skin and mild RSI. I’m still hungry to keep working while I have these little windows, though, so I’ve tweaked and typeset all the stories in Dare, and sent it to the printers; I’ve started thinking about some new flash stories for my guest spot at Verbalise in October; and I’m catching up on some long overdue blog posts, including this one.
When I wrote The Visitors, I had a tight-knit soundtrack to shape my work. This consisted mostly of:
Come On Die Young by Mogwai
Mar of Aran by British Sea Power
Raise Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven by Godspeed You Black Emperor
Just Beyond The River by James Yorkston
…and everything by Bat For Lashes.
In combination, they did what I needed them to do; for me, music for writing needs to hit several things at once. It must be engaging, immersive, transporting; but also neutral enough to let me tune out and play it in the background, and not get too involved. For this reason, I tend to go for records with minimal vocals; or, at least, records (like the James Yorkston and the Bat For Lashes) where the vocal is tonally consistent, drifting, utterly woven into the fabric of the music.
On starting The Hollows, I developed a new soundtrack. Some of the same culprits are there, but with different albums; listening to my Visitors soundtrack takes me back into The Visitors, and I needed to be somewhere very new for The Hollows, which is a more fantastical, more magical place. And I say ‘evolved’ quite deliberately; albums have dropped in and dropped out as the manuscript developed. Ys by Joanna Newsom was a big part of last year’s stumbles, but she gradually shifted down the running order as the story unfolded. Instead, Jonathan Eng’s wonderful soundtrack from the computer game Sailor’s Dream moved in to take her place (thanks in no small part to the wonderful vocals by Stephanie Hladowski). Another video game soundtrack has proven to be extremely good music for writing: Thomas Was Alone is an utterly beautiful game in and of itself, but the score by David Housden stands alone.
The most recent addition is I Want To See Pulaski At Night by violinist Andrew Bird. My friend and colleague Dom introduced me to this record while we were in the depths of a marking slump, and it parachuted into my writing soundtrack next day. Mostly instrumental, Pulaski takes its title from this glorious centrepiece:
The running order is important (to me, anyway – it’s totally cool if you don’t care). Andrew Bird is first on the list, as I Want To See Pulaski At Night is both sleepy and sparky, making for exactly the right way to start the day. Then comes Thomas Was Alone, which takes me somewhere deeper, calmer, more concentrated:
From Thomas Was Alone, British Sea Power take it up a notch with the drive, shift and transporting tumble of their film soundtrack From The Sea To The Land Beyond. Thanks to pal Kirstin Innes, Mon and I were lucky enough to witness them play this live at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year. Their performance was magisterial. I’ve now seen the film half-a-dozen times, and it’s a masterpiece: a social history of Britain told through our relationship with the sea, drawing together a century of archive footage from the British Film Institute. Watch it. Watch it again. Tell everyone.
Next up is Sailor’s Dream. By this time I’m ready for something less immersive, and the vocal interludes of the days of the week (this makes sense if you’ve played the game) saturate my head with little magics, thresholds, otherworlds.
Next comes Balmorhea. I discovered this post-rock band last year when friend Jon kindly gave me his old iPod, and I became addicted in days to their sweeping arrangements. There’s a timelessness to Balmorhea’s music that I find completely immersive. They sustain this over several records with different measures of minimalism, but it all works for me. After Sailor’s Dream I go into their album Constellations, but from this point they recur every other album, working up to Live At Sint-Elisabethkirk, which is perhaps the best £5 you’ll spend today, because this:
After Constellations, Mogwai strike back with Rock Action, the follow up to Come On Die Young. Here’s why it’s one of my favourites of their many awesome albums:
Then comes phase two of the mighty British Sea Power, with their short and astonishingly sweet soundtrack Happiness, then Balmorhea again, then Rachels and Remember Remember. I seldom make it all the way to the end, though. After Happiness, I tend to start the playlist over. It’s almost nine hours long, which is most of a working day for me.
Every time I think I won’t find any more music that’s right for me, something always comes along. Dom introduced me to Andrew Bird, and Jon to Balmorhea. I do wonder, looking ahead to next novels, how the soundtrack will change.
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.
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.