Peppermint-Green Shellsuit

It was a weekly ritual.

I would leave work around six o’clock and drive – usually through rain and darkness – to a supermarket on the outskirts of Stirling, where I would buy a chicken caesar sandwich and a raspberry smoothie (always the same, it was part of the ritual) and sit in my car eating, rain pattering on the roof. Sometimes, I was nervous; other times buzzing, too excited to think straight.

After the sandwich I would drive along cobbled streets in the direction of Stirling castle, getting closer. Park the car and step out (usually into rain and darkness) and walk the final short distance to the Tolbooth.

Part of the excitement was never knowing what awaited me in that room at the top of the stairs – sure, there were the regulars who dispensed wisdom, and occasionally fire – but there were also the wildcards, the wanderers, in off the street to reveal their dreams and secrets.

One evening I walked into the room and there was one such wildcard. He was wearing a peppermint-green shellsuit and sunglasses and rocked in his chair as if thinking about swinging on it. On his feet – crisp white trainers, no socks.

The tutor asked what brought him to Stirling Writers Group.

“I’m looking for someone to write my life story,” he said.

Silence.

“I was a DJ back in the 90s. Had a number one record. Was a drug addict. Lost it all.”

More silence.

“Elton John’s hairdresser wanted to have a homosexual affair with me!”

He delivered this line with a note of impatience, as if to say – “I’m not going to reveal all my secrets, but this is a taster of the delights in store when you spend two years ghost-writing my memoir.”

After the tutor gently explained that the writers in the room wrote fiction and poetry, and worked on their own projects, she suggested that perhaps he could consider recording his story on tape, and get someone to type it up?

His face brightened. During the break he disappeared back out into the night, never to be seen again.

The wildcards maybe lasted two or three meetings at most. But the regulars, the trusty worthies, set my life off on a different course.

If you are afflicted with an urge to write, typically it manifests itself in the early stages as an entirely solitary pursuit – something that takes place on your own, behind closed doors, a secretive activity that causes mild embarrassment (overall much like masturbation, according to Stephen King). For the rookies, there can be a delicious thrill in those first forays into writing, heart beating and head spinning as we scrawl or type stories that no-one will ever read or hear.

Some people never leave that first, solitary stage, happy that their only audience is themselves. It stays as a type of therapy; a creative release. But at some point, the solitary writer will at least contemplate moving to Stage Two – sharing their stuff with others.

Typically this involves giving those pages to someone that loves them, usually the worst possible idea. The beloved either gives meaningless feedback – “that’s nice, dear” – or much much worse, attempts a critique, which usually ends in an argument or a sulk. And so the writer retreats back into his or her garret, ego wounded; or maybe decides to venture forth into the unexplored territory of a writers’ group to find out if their beloved was right.

Writers’ groups are not for the faint-hearted. The first time you share your work can be a terrifying experience – watching as the others unfold their print-outs of your novel extract; then your voice trembles as you read your piece aloud; and then the excruciating silence shortly before the feedback begins.

In my ten years of attending writers’ groups I met all kinds of colourful people, and had many unforgettable conversations and debates. In total I attended five different groups – one in Scotland and four in Amsterdam – and certain common themes developed.

For example, I found out that women are generally better writers than men. Even women starting out tend to have that instinctive notion of writing for an audience, of writing for others. Men often come into the group with the expectation that others will discover their genius. In several groups a certain type of male writer showed up – a guy who would confidently critique the work of others for a few weeks, often insightful but sometimes a bit too harsh, until eventually he would bring in some of his own writing. And usually it would be a shock, because after weeks of confidently spouting off, we expected him to be, well… good. And instead he’s reading boomingly from his reheated thriller, with his vision of himself as the hero. And of course, when the other writers stick the boot in to his purple prose, he storms off never to be seen again.

Men also tend to be the worst at listening to feedback. One very nice fellow – who we’d given feedback to before on numerous occasions – read the first chapter of his new novel, which introduced twenty-four characters (we counted). Several of these characters also died in that same first chapter.

Another common type was the promising writer with no confidence, who came to the group, fragile and needing to be delicately handled. Maybe three times I saw it happen – a writer who wrote some quite brilliant stuff, and needed nudged in one direction or another, coached and cuddled, but who would be scared off by an insensitive comment (perhaps by Reheated Thriller Man – see above). The disappointment when they never came back always cut me a little – but soon I would reflect that it was maybe for the best, because every writer needs skin thick as rhino hide.

And now Stage 3 looms – sharing my writing with faceless, anonymous others, with no right to reply. As I inch closer to self-publication (hopefully next weekend) it occurs to me that a different quality of thick skin will be needed. Difficult as it can be to listen to some tough feedback in a writers’ group, at least it is in a controlled environment. The rules of engagement are clear, and policed by the others in the room. If you get tough feedback and everyone within those walls agrees, then it’s a fairly straightforward way of finding out that something needs to change.

Launching an ebook on the world opens it up to all sorts of uncontrollable feedback. Arguably the worst kind of feedback is none at all – you publish a book, tell everyone you know about it, then never hear another peep. And then there are reviews – which, I imagine I will be desperate to get, but terrified of at the same time. Just like the younger version of me sitting in my car all those years ago, rain drumming on the roof, I await this next stage of my writer’s life with a heady mix of exhilaration and trepidation.

Neon & Shadows

So I finished the final edit. I hadn’t read Amsterdam Rampant for more than a year, and came to it with relatively fresh eyes. I found about six or seven small corrections (typos and the like) and will knuckle down this week to format the Word document and get it ready to be converted into an ebook. The formatting in Word can sometimes convert poorly into an ebook – for example, italicised text or page breaks – so there’s a bit of donkey work to be done checking all of this. As usual my main constraint is time. I work 50-55 hours per week in my day job, and study for around 10 hours each week for my part-time MBA, which pretty much wipes out most of my waking hours.

But it was a good feeling though to realise that very little needs to be done to the book. I’ve been lucky enough to have around 5 or 6 people edit the manuscript in detail over the years, and have had maybe 25 readers in total. So the re-read reminded me that it’s time to stop procrastinating and get it out there.

I plan to publish the novel through two channels. Firstly, as you would expect, Amazon. This is pretty straightforward (as they boast, “self-publish in minutes”) and Amazon accounts for about 60-80% of total ebook sales (depending which source you read). So Amazon is a no-brainer.

To reach every other ebook market I decided to opt for Smashwords. These guys will publish your ebook for free on the other main stores (Apple, Barnes & Noble, and other US outlets) and take a 15% cut of every sale. It’s not a particularly attractive website but is more flexible than BookBaby, the other service I considered. BookBaby looks much more professional overall but they charge $25 for every amendment and I prefer the flexibility of SmashWords.

Regarding pricing, I will probably aim for somewhere in the range of two to three pounds. I’m not trying to make money but this price range is probably the minimum for me to pay the cut to Amazon/Smashwords and cover some of my other costs. And a book for the price of a posh coffee seems pretty good to me. I buy a lot of ebooks and reckon anything under a fiver is decent value.

There are also some other small things to be done – writing acknowledgements for the end of the book (and making sure to thank everyone who helped me over the years, Gwyneth-Paltrow-at-Oscars style) and also write what Amazon romantically calls the ‘product description’ (ie. the short blurb you normally see on the dustjacket of a print book).

I always find these blurbs really difficult to write. Here is my first attempt – let me know what you think…

There’s no place quite like Amsterdam for losing yourself, and Fin McPhail is one of the lost.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the early days Amsterdam promised a fresh start away from all his problems back in Scotland – a well-paid job, a luxury apartment in the city’s canal district, sobriety and celibacy. But everything changed when he went on a blind date with a sexologist, and now the city’s dark side is closing in around him…

To complicate matters, not only is Fin’s new life coming off the hinges, but his old life is hurtling back towards him in the shape of a stag party – four reprobates from his hometown in Scotland, including his future brother-in-law and the former school bully – will arrive in the city this evening. Over the course of one chaotic weekend, Fin will come face-to-face with all his demons.

Vividly cinematic in its execution, Amsterdam Rampant draws on a potent blend of influences (Pulp Fiction, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and the work of Donna Tartt and Iain Banks) to create a riotously entertaining novel that intelligently explores the neon and shadows of Europe’s sin city. Cleverly plotted and populated by a cast of memorable characters, it a 21st Century morality tale about sex, friendship, and coming to terms with the past.

The Final Edit

It’s getting dark as I sit at the table in my flat in Luxembourg, A4 manuscript of Amsterdam Rampant neatly piled in front of me, all the edges lined up straight. But instead of getting the biro out and re-reading the novel one last time, my mind wanders and I find myself thinking about how the novel has changed over the years.

Disraeli said: “When I want to read a novel, I write one.” For me, this sums up not only a basic truth of fiction writing – the simple fact that a writer believes in his/her project’s readability – but it also neatly captures the vanity of the novelist. There is a real danger that in writing the type of novel we want to read, we end up writing a novel that not many other people want to read.

When I finished writing Distillery Boys (as the novel was then called) back in early 2010, it was around 100k words long. This final draft of Amsterdam Rampant is just over 60k words long. So what happened to the other 40k words?

The truth is that I learnt to edit – the hard way. I had written a novel I wanted to read – a sprawling novel, with many subplots and blind alleys, a novel that was as much about atmosphere as it was about story. My agent was more or less in the same camp as me, but once we started to send the novel out to publishers, the feedback focused on the novel’s promise but also its need to be streamlined. At first I thought this was just a symptom of the age we live in – where entertainment should be delivered at lightning speed, neatly packaged with no rough edges – but then I came to reluctantly agree that it needed work. The early version was, in the words of one publisher, ‘flabby.’

A writer pal of mine called Sean McNulty has a good way of putting it. He describes the process of editing a novel as ‘getting it down to fighting weight.’ I like this boxing metaphor – that to truly compete in the rough and tumble world of publishing, a novel should be lean, toned, and quick on its feet.

So how did I get Amsterdam Rampant down to fighting weight?

Well, first came the easy part. Like many writers I was overly fond of metaphors and similes. One publisher told me “I’ll give you one metaphor or simile per chapter” before his patience ran out. So that was the first step – strip out all the unnecessary imagery. It did feel a bit like ripping the fittings out of a cathedral (couldn’t resist a simile there!) but once it’s done, there is a feeling of relief. No more will the reader’s eye snag on a metaphor that’s too laboured. Instead the cathedral is now a Presbyterian kirk – functional with clean lines, no distractions from the purpose of the structure.

Next I eliminated the other voices in the novel. This was painful to do. I had written various chapters told from the perspective of other characters – a brothel-owning gangster, two of his heavies, a teenage Russian girl – which I felt added texture to the story and also the feeling of place. It’s a technique I always enjoyed reading in fiction (Trainspotting, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and A Visit from the Goon Squad come to mind) but it is a risky approach. While I had managed to neatly dovetail the various storylines into a satisfying conclusion – and one that delivered justice to the novel’s villains – the words of one reader stayed with me. “A publisher will try to market this as crime,” he told me. “And it’s not a crime novel.” So, with much regret, I ripped out these chapters. It hurt, but after the pain faded, it did feel better. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about a novelist’s need to “ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows” and it was something I had to do.

The final round of surgery was the hardest. The main character, Fin, works as a marketer for Cloudburn single malt whisky (a fictional brand). I had written three chapters about the history of Cloudburn that bookended each section of the novel. These three chapters combined into a gothic novella which also fed into the twist at the end of the book, telling the story of the original distillery owners, two brothers, and their feud over twenty years at the beginning of the twentieth century. The storyline started with the construction of the distillery in a fairy glen (to the horror of the superstitious locals) and the ensuing sequence of sinister events which came to be seen as a fairies’ curse, encompassing the disappearance of the distillery owners’ sons, the first world war’s effects on the local community, and the rise and fall of the Cloudburn business.

Anyway, much as I loved it – and some other readers loved it too – publishers generally gave the feedback that this storyline didn’t belong in a novel about Amsterdam. So out it went.

Looking back, all of these changes were completely necessary. The pace of the novel before was meandering; now it rattles along at breakneck speed. Previously, the different voices were difficult to co-ordinate and didn’t always work together in harmony; now there is one compelling voice. The almost-final novel is a bantam-weight 60k words, lean and mean. I pick it up, holding this sheaf of A4 between fingers and thumbs, and feel the weight of several years’ work light in my hands.

One last edit, and by the end of January Amsterdam Rampant will be in the ring, ready to fight with the heavyweights.