Yesterday was day 100 from my 100 Days of Writing challenge, or #100DaysOfWriting if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. It’s an initiative from the excellent Jenn Ashworth, who challenged herself to write once a day for 100 days and document the experience — as well as inviting other writers to work alongside her. I got involved after spotting all round top bloke Dave Hartley going for it, and tagged along with him. That was more than 3 months ago, and yes, I’ve written every day. Sometimes it’s only been a sentence, hacked out before bed or in the winter pre-dawn, and sometimes it’s been entire chapters. I’ve only once struggled to get anything at all down — while I was drowning in my video edits — but even then managed to grab a scrap of paper and claw something out of my brain. I’ve added 28,000 words to the new manuscript, and what have I learned?
- Writing every day is not a chore. And if writing becomes a chore, perhaps don’t do it. That’s okay.
- Writing every day forms muscle memory — pen in hand, fingers on keyboard, bum on seat — that makes it easier to write every day.
- Writing every day, even on the shitty days, keeps you in touch with the draft. You can’t possibly come to it cold if you’re working on it every day.
- I don’t feel quite right if I’m not writing. I knew that already, but this has completely affirmed it.
And no.5, I guess, is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’ve enjoyed this so much I’ve decided to crack on and do another hundred days. If I can add another 28,000 words, then the book will be close to a finished first draft by Easter. That might be wishful thinking — but I guess I’ll find out a hundred days from now.
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.
I’ve been making good progress on the book in the last two weeks, so I’m allowing myself a wee break to write about collective nouns. I love collective nouns. There’s something about them, at once melancholy and sweet — an innocence — that I find utterly beguiling. We all know prides of lions and herds of cows, but the rare ones are better, because they’re strange and odd and upside-down. In his heartbreaking new album Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave sings about a charm of hummingbirds. A week or so ago, researching a story about birds, I wrote of murders and murmurations, wakes and gulps, springs and flings, scolds and pantheons.
A good collective noun needs to personify some characteristic of the collection, rather than simply iterate what the noun is or does. My favourite collective noun is a drift of swifts — the sheer simplicity of the rhyme, the soaring swing of the swifts as they zip around the house in the sheerest of circles.
In the new book, I wrote of a pocketful of jackdaws. I didn’t think a thing of it until reading the chapter back, later on, and wondering where it had come from. Then I decided to ask people to make up some collective nouns of their own. This was only a few days after Trump had been elected, and around a third of the responses were basically ‘a bastard of Trumps’ or similar. Here are some of mine, on the left, and my favourites from the folk who joined in on the right:
A pocketful of jackdaws
A compass of clouds
A misery of clowns
A duplicity of toads
An orchestra of bees
A clarity of cats
A spindle of witches
A philosophy of starlings
An orbit of angels
A kerfuffle of mice
A haunting of pike
A cathedral of jellyfish
A parley of pirates
A calamity of bats
A knot of weasels
A panic of pigeons
A snippet of crones
A juice of pumas
A punnet of fucks
A scuttle of rats
A tangle of sparrows
A sundial of shadows
A shower of seedlings
A murmur of dreams
A wheeze of bagpipers
A choir of carnations
An apprehension of streetlights
A bribe of winkles
There were many more — I couldn’t include them all. There’s something in a good collective noun that elevates the noun itself, or reveals another side of its nature. Some of these are so obvious they should fit into daily use — ‘Pigeons exploded in their panics, clattering about the station roof’ — and others are more abstract. There’s no particular reason, for instance, why ‘a juice of pumas’ should work, but somehow, it does — ‘One by one, a juice of pumas slipped from the gloom and gathered near the tracks.’
What are your favourite collective nouns? And what would you invent for a new one?
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.
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.
I should have written about this sooner, but the month since we returned from Thailand has been a blur of college, film and writing. In short, I’m honoured beyond measure that The Visitors has been February’s Book of the Month for Waterstones Scotland. It’s been incredible – my excellent friends in Scotland have been sending me pictures of the book for sale in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and beyond, and some of the window displays have been absolutely breathtaking. I’m a very lucky writer.
The good people at Quercus asked if I could pop up to Scotland to sign some books and do a reading – which fortunately fell over half term. Cue a manic two days on the road with my wife – first dropping off Dora with her grandparents, then staying with my aunt and uncle in Edinburgh, stopping off at Waterstones stores in Edinburgh Princes Street and George Street, then Falkirk, on to Glasgow Argyle Street and Sauchiehall Street, and finishing up at the Braehead shopping centre. It was a real whistle-stop thing, calling in long enough to sign a stack of books, chat to the staff, and push on again.
I’m delighted to report that it seems to have been doing well – aided in no small part, I’m sure, by Leo Nickolls‘ stunning cover. Some stores only had a couple of copies left, and it had made the charts in others. It’s also been cropping up in Blackwells, W.H.Smiths, and Waterstones south of the border.
While we were in Glasgow Sauchiehall Street, I read a few chapters from The Visitors. I’ve read from it before at spoken word nights, but this was the first time I’d done anything like a proper talk on the book. I read three chapters. Having been so immersed in The Hollows, it was even a little strange to be back on Bancree and inside Flora’s head, but I enjoyed it. The reading was followed by some excellent questions from the audience, then catching up with old friends. Within 48 hours, we were back on the road to Cumbria.
I’ve been lucky. I know I’ve been lucky. I’m incredibly grateful to Quercus, and to Sue at Conville & Walsh, and to Waterstones, for showing this much faith in my work. I hope I won’t ever take that for granted, because I want to write until the day I drop. I’m still rising early to chip away at The Hollows. I’m finding that it doesn’t really matter how much I write in these dawn sessions, as blackbirds squabble in the garden and the radiators creak into life; whether I write 100 words or 500 words, it’s much more about keeping in touch the story, tagging in every day. Last year, I had to spend months at a time without writing at all, and I fell away from the manuscript. There were times I returned to it and couldn’t remember a word of what I’d written previously. Even if, or when, I get that busy again, I’m going to try to keep going with these little sessions every day – they mean that when I have a full writing day, I can hit the ground running. I’ve written more good material this February alone than all of last year put together. That gives me courage.