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Month: November 2018

Where does a writer get their stories?

Where does a writer get their stories? I know one thing: it is different for different writers. What follows is a brief musing about my own story generators.

Perhaps you saw the documentary a few years back about Ian Rankin’s year writing, editing and looking for his next story? Regarding the latter, he showed viewers a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings. One of them, he hoped, would spark the story. Of course, he already knew what a story had to do – putting it crudely, to be a great narrative which is a vehicle for all his central themes. His main central theme, of course, is to dig deep past cosy surfaces to expose corruption and evil, usually in high places.

I do something similar in bookmarking internet sites and news stories. I’ve quite full folders titled murder, bent police, serial killers, forensics, political corruption, and so on. A problem is that my bookmarks multiply by the day: there are hundreds of separate folders or categories reflecting my interests – interests that often have very short lives such as ‘epistemic cognition’. Believe me, sorting out my bookmarks would take a much greater weary effort than sorting out my hundreds of books. In truth, the bookmarking/ scrapbook method works for research after I have the story but not to generate the story.

The novel I have published has as a central theme something urged upon me by someobody, something I knew nothing about – the damage being done to people by electronic gambling machines. Now, I already had a main character from an exercise in a writing workshop the previous year where I’d developed a character with a gambling addiction.

When I sat down to write the story I had no plot and no idea how it would end (and I was intrigued to hear Karen Campbell approaches writing the same way). I had much of what was important already in my head: strong sense of place, a ‘scrapbook’ of characters waiting to audition and be cast, characters from real life and reading, a wicked dark humour and sense of irony, a long-held desire to challenge surface ‘touristy’ images of Scotland, and – a central theme of mine – to complicate the divisions between good and evil.

It was the first novel I have written and it really did feel like it was ‘writing itself’. The characters and situations took on a life of their own. I was surprised (and somewhat pleased) that unbidden surreal elements crept in.


Intuition is the Key


Currently, I am putting together a collection of short stories on the theme of ‘addiction’. I have already rejected several – because they are very badly written and probably not worth salvaging. The theme gives the energy of finding stories, the short story form constrains so that the story has to be sharp, precise and to the point. I’m looking beyond the stereotypical images of addiction (as well as things like substance and behavioural addictions) to suggest, to hint at, the idea that in basic ways we are all addicts. So, for instance, I’m working on one called The Big Wheel inspired last week by the erection in Glasgow’s George Square of a magnificent big wheel, roundabouts and other fairground attractions. I’m exploring the consumer cycle over a year as a big wheel that folk are caught upon. That’s the central image, and the story will be full of other wheels, cycles, hamster wheels that one of us, some of us, all of us are attached (or addicted?) to.

Now, the reason I’m writing this post at this time is because something happened in my head this morning to spark a new novel (although I’m already working on one).

Firstly you need to know that I love the Orkney Islands, not only being there but the history, culture, literature, music. I’m currently reading that great Orkney Bard, George Mackay Brown.

I have read a few decent modern novels set on Orkney – crime stories. When I first went to the main island, as the ferry closed in on Stromness Pier, I saw, on a dilapidated wooden shed the crudely painted words, ‘Welcome to Orkney, Dave.’ Somewhere in a forgotten place will be my notes on developing a story here. Who was Dave? What was he running from? Who wanted to let him know that they knew he was coming to Orkney? I intuitively wanted to write a story set in Orkney and this seemed like a way in. But I have many such ideas for stories and the newest or latest blocks the rest, itself discarded when another comes along.


Genesis of a novel


So to this morning’s idea. Three elements. The first is described above. I want to spend imaginative time on Orkney.

The second element is from last week when I heard Karen Campbell talk. Her novel Rise is set in and around a fictionalised village, Kilmacarra. This is based on the Argyll village of Kilmartin in Kilmartin Glen, a place with hundreds of prehistoric stone icons. It was the Glen which astounded her when she saw it for the first time in real life. Kilmacarra becomes a stage for a story involving a Glasgow runaway, a fiendish chaser, a claustrophobic marriage and the interplay between different levels of history, from personal to epochal. I remember thinking as she talked, ‘Hmmm. That makes me think of Orkney.’ But it was just a passing thought.

Today it has moved centre stage, this passing thought. For one, part of the cast in Rise is a team of archaeologists. What bigger diggers of dirt and detectives of the past could there be! Anyway, a new twitter friend today – a Norse scholar – mentioned Orkney to me. The two moments cohered with the first element.

So here’s the script. Orkney 2018, Mainland, small settlement near Birsay, so near Skara Brae. Middle aged couple, arty, decayed hippies, incomers. Other relationships, characters (I know these will just come to me; there’s no need to fit anyone into a plot). Archaeological dig. Stromness nights. Tourists. Midsummer. Murder.

That’s it. You may say that’s not a story, or even the basis of one. But I promise you it is. I know it is! You’ll have to buy the book!

What’s going on?

Yes, What’s Going On is a classic Marvin Gaye song. It raises interesting questions too for writers.

In the Liverpool where I grew up, the question became What’s the script? or What’s the dance? or What’s the score? Frequent questions because of our insatiable love of gossip. The latter is part of our need to feel we understand the world. On an everyday basis, we like simple answers to complex questions. We like to assign goodies and baddies to the right category or box. We enjoy the certainty our ‘understanding’ gives us. It keeps us safe.

Many writers work with this in mind and produce best selling books containing two-dimensional cut-out characters living in a two-dimensional world. And nothing wrong with that! I devour crime fiction for that good feeling, the pleasure of narrative which keeps things simple. True, after a crime there must be the questions of what went on or who dunnit. Journalists claim to explain what’s going on in the world. But we do like it easy and simple.

The philosopher Walter Kaufmann (in his introduction to Martin Buber’s I and Thou) has this to say:

Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived. The truth is too complex and frightening; the taste for the truth is an acquired taste that few acquire….

….The world winks at dishonesty. the world does not call it dishonesty.

Man’s world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold. What is manifold is often frightening because it is not neat and simple. Men prefer to forget how many possibilities are open to them.

One way of reframing this would be to say we don’t really want to know what’s going on, don’t want to think, don’t want to see truth as complex.

Yet, it’s claimed, there is much truth in literature. The more ‘literary’ writers deal with philosophical and psychological issues that recognise the difficulties. What’s going on in an individual’s life, a family’s, a nation’s, a world’s is the raw material and writerly perception is the tool for extracting part of it, craft the tool for shaping it. For some writers, life is an immensely complex puzzle, always fascinating, never empty.

Adam Laws Shows the Value of Indie-Published Poetry

Adam Laws shows the value of indie-published poetry in Morgue, a wonderful collection of beautifully crafted poems.

A slight shyness on the book’s ‘blurb’ seems to downplay the ‘morbid representation of life’ in the poems. Well, any representation of life that isn’t morbid is going to be pale and thin. Life is morbid. The pale and thin narratives we use individually and as cultures to provide delusional comforts, security and ‘meaning’ are evaporated when we explore the depths (even when our depth exploration is, as one poem reminds us, itself pretty thin).
This collection shows us what self-publishing does best. Poetry never did gain a wide readership, especially contemporary poetry. For Adam, like almost all poets, it will be the very narrow sector of reviews that may inspire someone else to read. Twenty serious readers of poetry who claim that a poet is worth reading may circulate and increase exposure. So this reviewer says, Adam Laws is a serious poet with the required combination of feeling and craft.
I’ve ‘read’ all of the poems several times. I say ‘read’ because I like to read (without inverted commas) one poem at a time, maybe half an hour of reading ‘poetically’. The anthology here has to join my (many) poets to whom I return time and again.


The poems are short, often involving a momentarily glimpsed ‘real’ image such as a high-rise, the interior of a living room, a balloon deflating. They blur what the ‘real’ world takes a fixed, sharp-contoured relationships and forms. I/You/We/They; surface and depth; simplicity and complexity; coherence and fragmentation; darkness and light; shadow (-play) and bodies; livng bodies and corpses; desire and mind. And verb and noun: one formal trope Laws uses to dissolve the ‘thinginess’ of things is to use a noun as a verb: ‘An ill observe’.
The poet’s ‘darkness’ is interlaced with stock situations (including affairs of the heart) and stock, quotidian phrases. A fine sense of bathos deflates the portentous digging in the depths. Laws is confident and accomplished with regard to his craft. Cadence resonates with imagery. A few examples of the latter: ‘desire becoming derelict’; ‘buried blunders’; ‘hoarse and haggard boaters’ (on the) ‘brain canal’…’greet in grim salute’; ‘some/empty department of death’.

I’ve many more thoughts about ‘Morgue’ (including some possible minor criticisms) but overall, this is by far the most nourishing contribution to the quality of life you could hope to come across for the price of a cup of coffee

Great Advice for Writers

We had great advice for writers during an hour with Scottish author Karen Campbell.

I’d read Campbell’s ‘cop books’ three years ago, one after the other. These had a basis is in her five years as a police officer, a job that she felt she was always in danger of being found out as inadequate. She doesn’t read much crime fiction, and says these books are more about people, especially those who live parallel lives, usually invisible, to the majority of city dwellers. The police background is more a vehicle for exploring ‘what lies beneath’. Necverthelesss, Karen showed how one’s own life story can provide sources of fictional output. One of her earliest stories came from her time as a young PC, policing an Orange Lodge march while trying not to walk in step with the band!

She became involved with the Glasgow refugee situation; her husband works with refugees. Research and involvement with refugees led Karen to meet many of them and formed the basis of her novel This is Where I Am in which a widow, Deborah, develops a close relationship with a refugee, Abdi.

In Rise, her most recent novel, Campbell took an area of Scotland that fascinated her with its plethora of prehistoric standing stones and other icons, and against such a time scale and landscape interwove the histories of characters and their driven passions in the fictional village of Kilmacarra. I read the novel last week and am certain it’s in my category of very good ‘literary fiction’ – which shouldn’t mislead you into not understanding it’s a page-turning story with that essential element of being written by a storyteller.

Karen Campbell studied English at university but says the close analysis involved put her off books. Since both parents were in the police, and having no other career in mind, she joined by default. Afterwards, as a young Mum, she did the part time Creative Masters at Glasgow University, led then by the three professors Alisdair Gray, Tom Leonard and James Kelman.  She reckons only four out of the forty students went on to become published. Her own efforts to find a publisher then and agent introduced her to coping with rejection. By a twist of circumstance, a new-to-the-scene agent landed her a deal with Hodder, the first publisher she had submitted to a year earlier and been rejected.

The Business of Writing

Campbell said she was unprepared for the business side of writing (like so many of us). The Masters course helped because literary agents and publishers were brought in to impart their eperience and knowledge. She also observed, rightly I think, that most authors are shy, certainly shy of submitting work to an agent. We need to get over that – and learn to cope with rejection.

As to her own method of writing, it seems that all her content has a strong basis in personal life. For instance, a statue of a black soldier in Italy led to much research into the role of an all-black batallion in divided Italy during the second world war, a novel she’s working on. She spoke of a writer’s ‘antennae’ being sensitive to a nascent idea which grows thicker and more compelling over time.

Karen doesn’t plot her work beforehand. It’s always a surprise how a book ends. She spoke of the storytelling process as involving myriad forks. The choice to take one direction or another is never right or wrong.

On top of Dennistoun Library, where the talk was given is a statue of an angel with an opened book. Karen has used this image in a forthcoming novel (part of which she read to us) – but until last night she had never been to the library or seen the statue. Strange is the relationship between fiction and ‘reality’!



Jim Carruth: rural poet of Renfrewshire

I have recently been gifted an anthology of poems by Jim Carruth: rural poet of Renfrewshire

Completely new to me despite his apparent fame and high regard. It is a lovely gift which introduces a new poet. In this case, I immediately loved Black Cart This is an unsentimental homage to to farming life of Renfrewshire: families, tragedies, bleakness, brutality, harshness, beauty and love.

The body, mind and earth are melded in vibrant images and metaphors which blend sinews, worn bodily creases, age and physical suffering, earth’s canvas of furrow and stone. A hard humour too.

To connect with a poet immediately is to have a gift for life.

The poems stirred me to retrieve the writing of that other great creator of hymns to land and people, George Mackay Brown

And it is impossible not to think of R.S.Thomas.

Here’s a thought….

Here’s a thought. Where? Can’t see it, hear it, feel it, smell it or taste it. Where is it? What is it?

Please take a minute or less to do the following: stop thinking.

Impossible, right? Now do the same thing and try to count how many thoughts come and go unbidden. Thousands maybe, all swirling together, some or maybe most lasting less than a millisecond. Some bring colours. Some bring words.

Now try this: 30 seconds of observed thinking but so not allow any words in your thoughts.

Again, impossible. Like being told not to think of an elephant.

You may be thousands of miles away but I’ve just put an elephant ‘in your head’.

I’ll leave it to you to work out whether it’s worth thinking about all of this. If you’re so inclined, add a bonus question. How are we able ever to keep a ‘straight line’ of thought, how can we ‘see a thought through’ the infinite universe of thought? How on earth do we finish or even start a novel, either reading or writing it?

Finally, here is an article I’d like you to skim through quickly. Skim because it’s specialist and technical. It reports on the ‘life’ of a single thought. Each thought, it shows, involves increasingly larger parts of the mind from infinitessimal cells, involving every part of the brain and body (i.e. not localised) and entangled in culture and the world. Much food for thought. Here’s its summary in a nutshell:

The life of the each thought in the brain includes a huge number of orders of magnitude at the same time. There are so many levels there is no way other than lists to describe all of the mechanisms acting at once—12 orders of magnitude are involved—all of them representing the very same event.

  • Quantum effects
  • Molecules, small and large
  • Cellular motors
  • Scaffolding structures
  • Organelles
  • Neurons and Glial Cells
  • Leadership with educationNetworks of Neurons and glial cells
  • Brain Hubs
  • Brain Regions
  • Total Brain
  • Interactions with Others
  • Science, Society and Culture


Great Writing and Reading Quotations

True, the internet is awash with great writing and reading quotations. Funny, harsh, witty, practical, ironic, thought-provoking, inspiring… the same list that could apply to good writing and good reading themselves.

Good reading? Oh yes, we all appreciate the great Goodreads community, itself full of quotations submitted by readers. Remember, though, that for words to be ‘good’, the reader has to be ‘good’, skilled, creative and imaginative:

“After all, reading is arguably a far more creative and imaginative process than writing; when the reader creates emotion in their head, or the colors of the sky during the setting sun, or the smell of a warm summer’s breeze on their face, they should reserve as much praise for themselves as they do for the writer – perhaps more.”
― Jasper Fforde, The Well of Lost Plots

Just as we’re always improving our writing, so too we are learning how better to read. The two are inseparable. Quotations from readers and writers are one aid here. A single quote can startle us into awareness. It can inspire us, encourage us when we are down, provide practical advice such as Stephen King’s reminder that the road to Hell is paved with adverbs.

I love books of quotations. My latest one is Kimberly Coleman’s great collection, a companion for life. Beautifully produced and a treasure to hold, it’s nourishment for the soul.

The earliest anthology – more of longer extracts – is one my mother had. Victor Gollancz’ From Darkness to Light. This is primarily a ‘confession of Christian faith’ which is not why I value it. It’s extremely eclectic, and Gollancz’ commitment to socialism and humanism shine through. In my journey from teenage to decrepitude it has led me to writers I would never have otherwise found. You may be lucky enough to find it secondhand.

While it is lovely to have physical books close by, books that become dog-eared and worn with intimate handling, it is an inspiration too to witness the energy and enthusiasm of those writers and readers who work hard to share their joy of reading and writing. Not for recognition or any other reward, but for what can only be called Love.

Reasons to Self-Publish

My previous post gave some gloomy reasons why you should not self-publish so I am delighted to give some reasons to self-publish with a good understanding of the possible negatives.

  • Firstly, you can ignore all the negatives, take no heed of advice, do no research, and just write your book, use an Amazon cover creator and publish in less than half an hour. You could become a best seller and household name. It won’t cost you a penny. Just be aware that the chances of this happening are tiny to non-existent.
  • Publish for the joy of holding your own book in your hand. You can buy ‘author copies’ which are printed on demand for the cost of printing (plus postage). Maybe you just want 20 books for 20 relatives, friends and acquaintenances. That’s your Christmas presents sorted.
  • Why not write and publish an autobiography for your grandchildren? Collect photographs, newspaper cuttings and so on to illustrate the story.
  • Hobbyist, enthusiast or any ‘niche’, there may be a number of people who’ll be interested in your book. A great publication about goat harnesses may not get you into the best sellers but it could bring a modest return. If exposure and income are your aim, remember you’ll have to find ways to bring the book in front of potential readers.
  • As an example of small niche publishing, I was looking for a book about the history of gambling in England. Not many to choose from. I found an Amazon-printed, no-frills paperback for £5-49 by John Ashton, The History of Gambling in England. It doesn’t seem to have involved much in the way of formatting and design, or attention to cover (the back is just plain black) but it does what it says, the content is excellent and the price makes it amazing value.
  • Publish for a cause or campaign that has a lot of interest. You already have a good potential readership. Offer a well-researched and focused book.
  • Community publishing has great historical roots. Local History is a particularly popular topic for smallscale publishing like this. It’s also an opportunity for community members to get involved in the process of publishing. Remember too that ‘community’ doesn’t have to be geographically defined. A community may be globally dispersed, for instance made up of beekeepers.
  • Writers’ groups often publish their members’ work.

Hard Work

All very well I hear you say, but what if you have a great book like a genre romance or crime novel? What if you want it to be read by thousands of readers and make you some money? Great. Go for it. You’re sensible, you know the odds are against you with so many books, just as good, already out there. You come across, through research, many authors who’ve cracked it and are doing well, and you want to be like them.

  • If you have researched the field properly you will know that even authors who are ‘mainstream published’ (by respected publishing houses) by and large don’t earn much, and often don’t sell anywhere near as many books as they’d like. (Some only become successful after they’ve died). There’s a fair amount of luck involved but:
  • Successful independent authors, in almost every case, treat their writing and publishing as a business and generally follow business pocedures which include the need to:
  • Make the best possible product. A finished manuscript has to be excellent writing. It should be proofread, preferably by an expert. It should be copy- edited by an expert who will make minor and major amendments to the story, check for consistency of character and fact, pacing, length, etc. Your manuscript needs formatting for print and you can hire someone for this, use online software or attempt it yourself. The cover is a major thing people judge a book by before they even consider picking it up. Expect to pay maybe £300 to get this done professionally. All these things you can do yourself, or hire a ‘gig’ from sites like Fiverr, but remember that the less expertise and cost in book production, the less quality.
  • You spend time to the point of exhaustion in writing your book. But as a publisher you have to market, promote and price your book correctly. There are many businesses out there who promise to do this brilliant for a hefty fee: beware, many of them achieve very little. What you need to do is learn as much as possible about these vital areas. This is where the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and related organisations are so important. ALLi covers every area of independent publishing in depth, produced by highly experienced and successful writers. For £55 as an associate member you will save an absolute fortune in time and money. You get, among many other things, complete books on various publishing aspects, individual mentorship, details of the best and worst support businesses, a weekly podcast, a lively members’ forum, very worthwhile discount coupons (for example to waive the IngramSpark $49 set-up fee). Any question that an individual may have will be answered very quickly.
  • All the smart advice is to begin things like promotion and marketing, starting a website, building a following months before you publish. All in all, this entails starting to learn the ropes towards being business-savvy at the same time as you’re writing. I’d suggest curbing impatience to publish that first novel until you have understood and put into practice business strategies – even if that takes three months.
  • This may all seem daunting, may even seem unnecessary. Actually, if you are a famous footballer, politician or pop star it probably is unnecessary because your agent would hire a ghost writer if necessary and you could be pretty sure a mainstream publisher would be keen on the book. For the rest of us, publishing is, like anything in life that’s worthwhile, hard.

Reasons to Self-Publish (or not)

What are some reasons to self-publish (or not)? Well, let me begin with the negatives. None of these necessarily mean that you shouldn’t self-publish, but bearing them in mind should inform your decision.

  • Absolutely anybody can self-publish for free. The most used services are KDP (Amazon) and IngramSpark. If you take the quickest and easiest route, you can transfer a Word manuscript in minutes and be published.  What this means, of course, is that there are millions of self-published books out there and it’s very difficult to get yours to stand out.
  • To improve the possibility of getting your book noticed you need to go on a steep learning curve before publication. You need to understand how to best use social media, start a website, be capable of achieving maximal search engine optimisation, understand marketing principles and practices, establish networks of potential readers. And more.
  • You need to be able to write very well.
  • Some find the non-writing side of things too scary and difficult. They innocently sign up with a business that promises to do everything for them. This can cost many thousands of pounds and very often not succeed in getting a book noticed, no matter how good it is.
  • Aware of the need of producing the best possible book, as well as the quality of writing, you will need to buy expert services to do things like formatting and cover design. This can be very expensive.
  • One of the fastest growing segments of the publishing market is in audiobooks. To hire a narrator can be enormously expensive. I had a quote of £36,000! You will find cheaper, you can even do it yourself but the quality will suffer the more you compromise.
  • Most self-published books sell on average between 100 and 250 copies, some much less. Writing is, or should be, very hard work. If you are doing it to make money or achieve recognition, be aware that your chances are slim.
  • The traditional and best way to be published is to find an agent who specialises in your genre. As agents don’t charge a base fee but work on commission of selling the book to a publisher, agents are only going to take on writers who they think will bring them commission fees (between 10% and 15%). If you’re rejected, as you likely will be, by an agent take that as a pointer to the fact that your work is unlikely to be saleable. Agents can be wrong, of course, just a spublishers can be. But both agents and publishers are experts at trying to make money from writing. Trying to bypass this by self-publishing may be naive. remember that if you have a contract with a publisher they will do most of the crucial work for you (but written into your contract will be a requirement that you take part in things that promote the book).

Having fully depressed you, in the next post I’ll look at why you should seriously consider self-publishing.

Writers Who Were Only Recognised after Death

There are many famous writers who were only recognised after death. They may have sold a few books while alive but never knew that they would become globally famous. See here for some examples. Every writer on that list is now seen as an icon in the history of literature. What can be safely said is that each of them wrote their best work because they had to. The works were the outcomes of who they were, their deepest motivations.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I think too of Gerard Manley Hopkins, unpublished in his lifetime, whose brilliant poetry became our gift, and whose writing can be said to have revolutionised poetry.

Having myself recently self-published a novel, I don’t expect or want it or me to become famous. Or rich. In fact, any paltry sales proceeds will go to charity. It was rewarding to write and will be reward enough if one reader finds pleasure in it.

In that way, I am freed from the ‘author as business’ industries. All the smart advice here, on how to make money from big sales, is based on underlying business practices. Give the customers what they want, what they know. Do thorough market research. Package the product well (e.g. book cover). Promote, promote promote. Advertise. Buy in expert work from formatters, designers, editors, marketers. Expect to ‘loss lead’ and pay a great deal to ensure the product is the best.

Since I have begun exploring the self-publishing world, I have come across much goodwill, sharing, pro bono advice and support, and encouragement. I have, sadly very frequently, encountered third rate ‘online courses’, ridiculous promises that such-and-such a method will bring in sales of 10,000 a day all for the bargain price of $49 reduced from $98 (but hurry! This offer is only for today).

For fun, my fun, soon I am going to write a cop book, a straight down the line genre book using every formula and trick that’s possible. With ‘a twist’, of course. It will have to be the first in a series which follows the deeply flawed cop and his or her sidekick  through a dark social underbelly full of sickening violence, or serial killing, and corruption in high places and so on and so on.

If you want readers and money, follow the market genres, especially crime, romance, sci-fi and fantasy. If you write something outside these safe areas, there’s a chance that it may become another Harry Potter. But there are degrees of chance from zero to 100, and while you’re working on your book you’d best be doing it for its own sake, because you believe in it, because you love what you’re doing. Love is a great motivator and will get you through poverty, doubt, despair, exhaustion, isolation and maybe a journey to hell. In fact it’s often those conditions which have produced great literature.

Myself, I write because I have to, always have had to. The novel project was at someone else’s request – to explore the effects of addiction on an individual and his family.

So, I’ll have fun writing a cop book. If it makes any money, which I doubt, it will go to charity. Meanwhile, I live, I breathe, I write.