New York, City of Dreams

img_1997

In November, sitting at the breakfast bar on the 12th floor of a New York hotel, I started writing fiction again.

It’s the first time in more than five years I’ve written anything new – the fact that I can’t remember exactly when I stopped is somewhat shocking, considering I spent the previous twenty years writing almost every day.  I knew it would take something unusual to get me started again, and no advice or encouragement from others would make a difference.  The internet is awash with smug articles on how to overcome writer’s block, generate writing ideas, and craft them into shape, but frankly I think any attempt to explain this mysterious process is nonsense – writing-by-numbers just produces copies of copies, a hall of mirrors where every reflection is dimmer than the last.

Over the last few years I’ve nurtured four ideas for novels, a bit like those dragons’ eggs in Game of Thrones, dormant ideas lugged around, part-burden part-treasure, just waiting to be plunged into fire.

So why did I start writing again?  What started the inferno?

The spark was New York itself.  Last November, my wife started a 5-week work secondment in the city and I joined her for two and a half weeks.  The timing of the trip couldn’t have been better, as I had just finished my MBA studies –four years of weekends spent with my nose in textbooks, and writing assignments – and suddenly I had the free time and headspace to go back to my second love (the first one of course being my wife – an insurance in case Anna is reading this).

New York swept me up into its crazy energy almost immediately.  Anna had a couple of free days before starting work, and that first long weekend we mapped out the city’s matrix of streets on foot, dislocated by jetlag, surprised at every turn by the familiar and the alien.  The Empire State, the Chrysler, Broadway’s brash trashy canyon.  Central Park surprised us with its smalltown calmness.  Ripped open blue skies framed the skyscrapers, gentle autumn sunshine illuminated the streets. We walked over Brooklyn Bridge at sunset, Manhattan blazing with light, the Hudson metallic and oozing sludgily below.   Our hotel in a quiet section of Midtown East was a refuge from the crowds and honking sirens, and the days began with eggs and pancakes at the nearby diner, and were bookended with a quiet table at the local Thai restaurant or at Blackwells Irish pub.  Those early days were a palate-cleanser – a brain-cleanser – wiping my mind clean of the grey Europe I’d left behind.

Once Anna started work, so did I.

It has happened before that a new place frees me up to write properly about another place, gives me the perspective to understand an object in the distance.  And so it was with New York – the Big Idea was suddenly liberated, unleashed.  I wrote two thousand words that first morning in the aparthotel, the peak of the Chrysler building visible from where I was sitting.

It helped that the city had a feeling of being under siege by the forces of history.  The Trump v Clinton election build-up dominated every overheard conversation, every TV screen.  And after the election itself, there was a sense that New York wasn’t just new to us, but to every single person in the city – everyone’s world turned upside down by the result, everyone suddenly an alien in a new America.  The novel I’m now writing features a main character whose world has been capsized by the death of a loved one, so some of the chaos and disorder and grief I saw on the streets of Manhattan bled into the writing.

The Big Idea took shape in the grid of streets, in museums and Irish pubs.  I alternated between writing and taking notes, mapping out the architecture of the new novel.  One afternoon I sat in PJ Moran’s under a portrait of Brendan Behan, frantically keying the plan into my iPhone. The next day I was in the research room at the New York Public Library, typing away in the reverent silence.  That must be my most beautiful post-writing walk ever, going down those grand stairs and out onto 5th Avenue just as dusk was settling.

img_2110

And so a pattern was established: write something every day, or at least scribble notes, and always walk the streets and work it through in my head. Sometimes New York got too deep into my headspace, and it helped that I had a soundtrack for the new novel – the music of King Creosote helped take my imagination back to the east of Scotland, to the gentle thunder of the North Sea and the wet streets of Edinburgh.

And so I wrote, then walked, then walked some more.  I had forgotten that feeling of embarking on a novel, where the direct – writing it – is complimented by the indirect – thinking about it, and having experiences that contribute to it in some unknown way.

I carried my Kindle with me on those long walks, and in the moments when I needed to rest my aching feet (most often in an Irish pub with a decent IPA selection) I read Tyler Anbinder’s City Of Dreams: The 400 Year Epic History of Immigration into New York.  It’s a brilliant book, and encouraged me to make the trip to Ellis Island, which was an absolute wonder.  I was there for four hours and could have easily have stayed for twelve.  Set against the backdrop of Trump’s election days before, visiting the tiny island that welcomed eleven million immigrants was nothing short of astonishing.  Equally unsettling was the fact that a quick search of their database threw up five Cockers from Aberdeenshire – knowing how unusual my surname is (thankfully for humankind) the fact that five from my ancestors’ county, no doubt all related to me in some distant way, had been through the island hit home the massive scale of emigration to the US around the turn of the twentieth century.  Something of this also leaked into my writing in the days that followed, into the main character’s displacement and relocation to a new city.

img_2313

I now have fourteen thousand words of the new novel – generally I’m a slow writer – but the world of the novel exists, and the characters that inhabit it are now alive.  I don’t like to talk about projects when they are in progress but I don’t mind allowing you a glimpse.  The Big Idea is about a young grief-stricken archivist who starts work in the mid-90s at a forgotten Edinburgh basement archive.  One day he stumbles across a document that seems to suggest an old folk tale is in fact true – and by pursuing his interest, he uncovers an even bigger secret.

On my final day, sitting in the lounge at JFK, I really didn’t want to leave.  Not only was it the best break I’d had in years, New York had unscrewed my head, rebooted my writing brain, and screwed my head back on again. New York pushed me in an unexpected direction and gave me a map of the way forward, a way to lead the idea into the light, and now every time I click save and shut down my laptop, I nod a quiet thanks to the city of dreams.

 

All Humbling Darkness

Back in the days when people got letters, it was the most exciting letter I’d ever had.

February 1993, I’m guessing.  The letter announced that the University of Aberdeen’s Department of English had appointed the writer William McIlvanney as a creative writing tutor, and  a course would be starting soon with limited availability, and if students wished to attend they should register as soon as possible, in person, at the Department of English (which in fact did everything it could to deconstruct the word ‘English’ – Scottish, Irish, and American literature held pride of place on the syllabus alongside the tolerated classics).

That morning, overcome with nerves that I might miss the opportunity, I power-walked up to King’s College and after a few minutes of excruciating lingering outside the administrative office, got my name down.  I was dizzy with excitement for the rest of the day.  It was an act that would change the course of my life.

Three years previously, at the age of seventeen, I had discovered McIlvanney. His novel Docherty  distilled the early Scottish 20th-century through the experience of one family – mass Irish immigration, slum life, the First World War and its terrible toll, the grim tyranny of the mining industry, the scramble for a shred of dignity.  It was a story that belonged to all of us and I was smitten.

At the first class I was so nervous I could barely speak. This was nothing new, however – it was a common problem for most of the Scottish state school students.  At our exemplary government schools we had been taught how to read, how to learn, how to write, how to recite poetry – but not how to compete with confident others (especially those who had been privately schooled).  But this class was different.  McIlvanney talked to us like equals, gave us photocopies of brief snippets of literature, challenged us to decipher the code.  He connected with us lost kids, the children of Scotland’s first ever socially mobile generation, and encouraged us to express our opinions and make our voices heard.

As I recall the course lasted for 8 weeks – 16 hours of my life – yet he taught me lasting lessons not only about literature but about communication and connecting with other people.  I still distinctly remember several of those classes.  There was one writing exercise where we started with an answering machine message – from a pompous Professor Clifford – and each of us scripted a message which by small increments destroyed the Professor’s life (mine was a scratchy recording from a pub phone of a mob of students drunkenly singing “Professor Clifford, Professor Clifford, you’re a horse’s arse.” Not exactly creative but my new favourite teacher laughed like a drain).

There was a stunning lesson which introduced me to the poetry of Dylan Thomas.  McIlvanney read us ‘The Refusal to Mourn, The Death By Fire, of a Child in London.’  It was astonishing stuff – perplexing yet beautiful fragments like “all humbling darkness”, “Zion of the Water Bead”, “Secret by the unmourning water.” Willie led us on  a deconstruction and interrogation line by line, but not in the rote manner I’d experienced so far during my degree – this was the work of a master craftsman, taking the engine apart piece by gleaming piece, gently polishing each component and then reassembling the poem to reveal the incredible precision of the inexplicable whole.

And there was the moment that inspired me to dedicate years of my life to writing.  A week after we submitted our first assignments, he asked me to stay back after the class.  We spent half an hour together, just me and my hero.  He took me through my short story, pointing out the strengths and the weaknesses, nudging me in new directions.  I still have those faded sheets of lined A4 with his scribbled notes.

Last night, after driving back to Luxembourg from Frankfurt, I opened the Guardian homepage and saw the news that Willie had died.

Over the last twenty years the magnitude and impact of his writing had finally found worldwide recognition.  He had been acknowledged in recent years for creating an entire genre – Tartan Noir, or Scottish Crime Writing for the uninitiated – but this is an inaccurate legacy (despite the undisputed excellence of his Laidlaw novels) because his ‘other’ writing was even better.  For me, McIlvanney tells the story of our parents and grandparents in a way that no other writer of his generation did.  In his writing, heavy industry always melded with the glamour of cinema – the local and the global smelted together in a messy and unresolvable compound.  In much the same way, he welded high literature to the everyday – he once described the Scots language as ‘English in its underpants.’  Even after thirteen years away from Scotland I still use words like ‘dreich’ (grim, rainy, drippy weather), ‘whersht’ (a sourness that makes you pucker your face) and ‘glaikit’ (a stupidity that is visible on the vacant face of the owner).  McIlvanney celebrated the richness of our abandoned language and integrated it seamlessly with the grand dialect of Shakespeare.

This morning I sit in front of my laptop and think about what he bequeathed to us. There are the novels, the short stories, the poems, the essays, the TV appearances, his teaching. But McIlvanney’s legacy is much bigger than this. He was one of a kind but at the same time an everyman of his generation. He told the story of his ancestors in a way that resonated with all of us – of how community spirit could overcome sectarianism, poverty, and war. His writing mapped the previous Scottish century and predicted the direction of the current one.

In the final class twenty-two years ago we read some of our work and drank wine.  McIlvanney’s son Liam (now an acclaimed writer himself) was there. Afterwards we went to The Machar, the campus pub, and I remember reluctantly leaving the throng, rushing out into the spring twilight to go to my dishwashing job, my feet pounding the pavement in the hope that the walk would diminish my drunkenness. It didn’t.  I clanged around in the kitchen, intoxicated not just on wine and beer but on the thrill of learning and changing and understanding the universe a bit better.

When a favourite teacher dies, a chunk of you dies too.  RIP Willie – thanks for teaching us, inspiring us, entertaining us.  You taught us how to look into the all humbling darkness and see a spark of light.

Just like Cold Sores and Coldplay

It’s been a long time.  A health problem knocked me out of action for a couple of months, but now I’m back on track to making a full recovery.  Just like cold sores and Coldplay, I’m difficult to get rid of…

Despite doing absolutely zip to promote Amsterdam Rampant, sales have grown considerably since February:

RAMPANT SALES MAY 15

I’ve now sold more than 2.2k.  It took me 11 months to sell one thousand and then 3 months to sell the next thousand.  What happened?  Well, luckily I seem to be attracting Irvine Welsh fans, and the release of his new novel A Decent Ride led to a definite bounce in sales.  If you check out A Decent Ride on Amazon you will see Amsterdam Rampant snugly parked at second place in the “also bought” listing.  But hey, I hear you say, maybe Amsterdam Rampant fans are buying Irvine Welsh’s work?  Too right, dudes and dudettes.  I’m still waiting for the thank you telegram from Irv.

I’ve also seen a big spike in reviews on Amazon UK.  Over the first year I accumulated around 45 reviews, and now three months into the second I’ve got more than 90.  This is probably a combination of the increased sales and the addition of a ‘Dear Reader’ note at the end of the novel asking (pleading!) for reviews.  People have been very generous with their feedback – common themes are the book’s high pace, the familiar characters, the Amsterdam setting, the humour and the dialogue.

The whole review thing got me thinking about opinion, with a capital O.  I’m so grateful for the recent 4 and 5 star reviews that I could almost cry (for a Scottish male this mainly involves a Spock-like grimace).  I get up in the morning and check first thing, and there I am, sitting in rural Luxembourg eating my blackcurrant jam on toast, getting all Spock-like because some random punter has given me the Full Five with a gushing commentary.  Oddly, the rare one or two star reviews don’t really bother me, because it’s clear the subject matter isn’t for them (although you have to ask the question – what were you expecting from the title, cover, and synopsis – the novelisation of the Vicar of Dibley?)

The 3-star reviews are the most unpredictable.  They include one of my favourites:

“I enjoyed this novel but felt parts of it were under-developed: the relationship between Fin and Gilly had more to be said about it and the plot development with Eva’s betrayal didn’t quite ring true. Yet there were sections which we brilliantly written and which reminded me of early Iain Banks. Don’t imagine the Amsterdam Tourist Board will endorse this but it was a good read from a writer whose work I’d read again.”

… and also a confusing and puzzling one, from someone who probably knows me (part of my younger life was spent in Fife) and is vaguely unsettling as a result…

“This is an amusing little Scottish modern diaspora tale. School bullies, sexual experiences of both the willing and less so make up the backbone, set against a rather poorly illustrated Amsterdam. Not sure what a previous reviewer meant by ‘phonetic Scots’ as rendering the language subtlety maybe incomprehensible. The book reads to me as if written by a Fifer. No in Welsh’s league – ye ken whit I mean ya bam?”

It’s interesting to compare the opinion of the punters with that of the publishers my agent pitched the novel to back in 2010-11.  Bear in mind that the comments below date from previous versions of Amsterdam Rampant (when it was called Distillery Boys) and when it still needed a good edit, but I think it demonstrates the wide range of opinion that one novel can generate, and also what is foremost in the mind of the average editor/publisher:

SIMON & SCHUSTER:  Thank you so much for sending DISTILLERY BOYS, who as you know shared it with me.  We both enjoyed it – Neil Cocker has a vivid and entertaining style and a wicked sense of humour too.  Looking at our publishing schedule, though, we weren’t entirely sure how best to position it on our list and couldn’t help feel that it might not have a wide enough appeal to female readers.  So we have decided to pass, but we’re very grateful to have read and hope you find the perfect home for it elsewhere.

HEADLINE:  In any case, I have read DISTILLERY BOYS and enjoyed it very much – Neil is an instantly engaging writer, and the journey he takes us on is very readable (I did feel a little nervous, reading this one on the tube, but had to keep going, nonetheless), though I did feel there was perhaps something a touch strained in all the playfulness – as though he was perhaps trying a little too hard to underscore his point about the nature of our consumer society.  I also wasn’t really sure that the whisky theme was an appealing enough hook. So I’m afraid it’s a no from me, this time, though I do think he is a writer with potential.  Thanks again for letting me have the chance to read this.

PICADOR:  I enjoyed this but didn’t quite feel it was quite right for Picador. I would love to find a new young male voice for Picador but I think this was just on the lad side of lit for me.

HARPER COLLINS:  I am so sorry not to have come back to you sooner on Distillery Boys. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it — there is a real strength in the central narrative voice, and an originality in the way Neil uses language, particularly dialogue. He also writes very engagingly when describing dramatic scenes. My concern is that the story is a bit limiting in terms of its commercial appeal, as I didn’t find the branding work that interesting (certainly less interesting than all the sexual encounters!). So I’m going to pass this time, but thank you for thinking of me. I hope you get a massive offer from this other editor!

HODDER: Thank you very much for sending me DISTILLERY BOYS.  I’m afraid I’m going to pass, though it’s hard to say exactly why since it’s such a good debut novel.  It had me laughing out loud one moment and cringing the next!  However, while it’s very well done, I must admit that I have a few doubts about the commercial appeal of DISTILLERY BOYS to a wide audience (it’s quite male in appeal for a start, which can be limiting).  As you know, we have to be wholeheartedly behind every book that we take on, and I’m afraid that I just didn’t quite feel that measure of enthusiasm about DISTILLERY BOYS to warrant making it a priority above some of my other commitments.  But many thanks again for sending it to me, I’m very glad I had a chance to read it, and I hope you find a home for it very soon.

ATLANTIC:  Many thanks for sending me DISTILLERY BOYS by Neil Cocker and for being so patient! I thought the opening was brilliant and I love the quick-paced, edge-of-the-seat style and dark humour. However, as the novel progressed I found myself feeling less, rather than more, involved with the characters and so I think I’m going to have to pass. I’m sorry as I really thought I might be able to take this further and hope that someone else feels differently to me.

HEINEMANN: Many thanks for giving me the opportunity to consider Neil Cocker’s DISTILLERY BOYS. I read it with much interest, but in the end I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced that it would was suitable for the William Heinemann list. I thought the premise was very good, and it’s engaging and exuberantly told, but I’m sorry to say I didn’t like it quite enough. Sorry.

WEIDENFELD:  I hope it’s not rude to reply so quickly but I dived into DISTILLERY BOYS (the Hornby/Nicholls pitch got me!) and I’m afraid I just can’t see us making it work. There were some wonderful moments in the writing, and I think the author has real comic talent – I can’t stress that enough. But the novel as a whole didn’t gel as much as I had hoped – it was as though the caper elements were fighting with the more tender aspects instead of going hand-in-hand. And it would be difficult for us to find a place for this book – it’s too charming to work as enfant terrible fiction but, to my mind at least, the emotional pull of the central characters wasn’t quite strong enough for it to captivate the Nicholls/Hornby audience. But thank you for such an entertaining read, and I’d love to have a book with you soon!

CAPE:  This is not for me, alas. Fun, but with not quite enough substance…

POLYGON/BIRLINN: OK, it’s not the one. I’m sorry but my misogyny detector went into overdrive only a few paragraphs in. I really don’t like the style of this one, I’m afraid, or Vodka Angels [my previous novel] which I remember. A colleague who also read it is itching to send a copy of the Scum Manifesto to Luxembourg!  So, not for us.

Publishers seem to me to always be gambling on what the zeitgeist is, waiting for other publishers to make the first move before committing to anything.  In the 4-5 years since I received these comments, thrillers such as ‘Gone Girl’ have made mainstream publishers more open to darker and explicit material, so ironically Amsterdam Rampant might be more interesting to them nowadays.  But you can see from the above that the quality or entertainment factor came secondary in their thought processes to the commercial possibilities (which anyway is mainly guesswork judging by the perilous financial state of many publishing houses nowadays).

Reflecting on all this feedback just reminds me once again that self-publishing was the right option for me, because it answered the question of who I am writing for.  I imagine the person I am writing for completely differently nowadays – not an editor looking out onto a London skyline, but rather someone who downloads the ebook of Amsterdam Rampant on impulse one night, and then reads it on the train to work, transported away from the grind of the commute to the backstreets of Amsterdam and the rain-washed hills of rural Scotland.  I imagine that person reaching the final page and smiling to themselves, their life made a fraction better by my book.  The train squeaks to a halt; they realise it’s their stop, slap their Kindle shut and dash off the train; I see them from the window moving along the platform with a bounce in their step and a glimmer of mischief in their eye, before they merge into the crowds and disappear from view.

Breaking the Thousand

I did it!

On 13 January I sold my 1,000th ebook of Amsterdam Rampant, breaking the target I set at the outset of my epublishing project.  On 8 February I will reach the one-year anniversary of publication by which time (at current run rate) I will hopefully have sold more than 1,100.  December sales were strong and momentum continues to build in January, averaging slightly more than 6 ebooks per day…

Rampant Sales DEC

I’m even appearing pretty high up on Irvine Welsh’s “also bought” Amazon profile for Trainspotting prequel Skagboys which is one of my highlights of the century so far:

SKAGBOYS RAMPANT

Over Christmas and New Year we had our usual epic trip around Europe to see family.  My wife Anna had gone on ahead, and I followed a week later.  These trips are intensely nostalgia-inducing for me, because I have the rare chance away from work and study to read books, look out of the window on long journeys, and generally think about things.  Dangerous, really.

The journey to Poland started with an early morning bus ride out of Luxembourg.  It was just getting light when I reached the German steel town of Saarbrucken, the sprawling rust-red plant – a tangle of pipes, towers, and gargantuan machinery – looming at the side of the autobahn like some nightmare from a surrealist painting.

I jumped the train to Mannheim, and connected for Berlin.  On those long hours coasting through Germany I ploughed through Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – occasionally looking out the window onto Germany, then returning to 19th century New Zealand on my Kindle.  It was around five o’clock by the time I reached Berlin, and I killed time before the next connection walking round the station and then sinking a cold glass of Berliner pilsner in a plastic and chrome wurst bar.  The final two hours of the journey were spent on a local train on the spooky fringes of eastern Germany, the train windows revealing little of the poorly lit train stations and shadowy villages.  Finally my 12-hour journey came to an end and I reached Anna’s home town of Szczecin.

Szczecin has always fascinated me.  Before World War II it was part of Germany and known as Stettin.  In the closing months of the war most of the German population fled westwards away from the advancing Red Army.  The ghost city was then resettled with Polish refugees, mainly from Vilnius in modern day Lithuania or Lviv in modern day Ukraine.

Anna’s grandparents were from Lviv and upon arrival in 1945, the city was still in chaos – much of it was rubble, and the corpses of German soldiers were piled in one of the city’s main squares, awaiting disposal.  The family were allocated an apartment in a grand tenement on one of the city’s grand Parisian-style boulevards.  A few weeks after moving in a German woman turned up on the doorstep with her daughter and explained she used to live there, and would like to collect a doll they had left behind.

Szczecin still carries the scars of the war – swathes of Soviet-era concrete map out the routes of the British bombers, and most of the older buildings are pock-marked with bullet-holes and shrapnel damage.  Yet the city carries its scars well – the economy is buzzing and there is a sense of energy and industry, reflected in the glittering ultra-modern malls and the SUVs backed-up at the traffic lights.  A bizarre urban myth is doing the rounds, popular among taxi drivers, that the city is riddled with underground tunnels which reach all the way to Berlin, and when the Germans inevitably return they will emerge from below the ground and re-take the city.  These taxi drivers watch too many zombie movies.  Ironically the invasion seems to be happening peacefully the other way round – local Poles are buying property across the border in Germany because it’s cheaper.

One evening my mother-in-law, Agnieszka, showed me what she’d dug up in her garden.  The family has had the same allotment since the early days of arriving in the city, a patchwork of gardens behind the train line which were initially allocated to Flemish railway workers in the late nineteenth century.  Last year, Agnieszka was digging in the garden and uncovered a toy soldier and a coin.  I examined the coin through a magnifying glass and could make out the word ‘Stettiner’ on its time-worn surface.  The toy soldier yielded more clues.  We googled German army uniforms and saw that his tunic, belt, and helmet matched the standard First World War uniform.  Agnieszka told me (through our usual mix of her few words of English, my few words of Polish, sign language and the ever-patient translation of Anna) that one time her father went to the allotment to find a large hole dug in the middle of the garden.  The story went that the German residents had been instructed to only take one suitcase with them when they left, and had buried valuables wherever they could, and then returned years later in the dead of night to reclaim their heirlooms.  The toy soldier and coin had perhaps been part of such a booty.

During my time in Szczecin I usually have a bit of time on my own when Anna catches up with her mum or with old friends.  One afternoon I tramped past the city’s old gate down to the harbour area, wandered by the monument to the victims of the unrest of 1981, and ended up in a steakhouse/bar called Colorado.  I sat by one of the windows looking out onto the port, candle flickering at my table, and sketched out some ideas for the next novel.  Away from the pressure of work and study, my writer’s brain thaws from hibernation, and ideas tumble in.

Next up was Scotland.

We flew from Berlin to Edinburgh and spent a few days with my parents in North-East Fife.  It was my first time back for a year, and as I get older Scotland’s beauty astonishes me more and more, catches me off guard and leaves me breathless.  We walked the beach at St Andrews most days, the sun catching on the breakers, the hard-packed sand glistening with seawater and stretched shadows.

IMG_1417

The view from my parents’ house looks onto Tentsmuir forest, which by bizarre co-incidence is where Anna’s great uncle most likely spent several months on training exercises with the Polish Free Army before jumping into Arnhem in 1944.  Many of my schoolmates in Fife had Polish surnames, descendants of those exiled soldiers, the lucky survivors of Monte Cassino and the Netherlands campaigns.

Most evenings in Fife we went up to the village pub to drink and chat to the locals.  One night my dad told me a story I’d never heard before, about his time doing national service as a military policeman in Berlin in 1961-62.  One night he was called out to an incident on the wall, and arrived with his partner in the immediate aftermath of a shooting of an attempted escapee.  The young man’s body was crumpled in the space between the two zones; the East German guards were smoking, guns at ease, the deed done.  My dad and his partner watched as they collected the body.

We moved on to Edinburgh to catch up with my brother and some old friends.  One afternoon I had a spare hour and walked down the Royal Mile, past the old soldiers’ home where my great-grandfather, a London-Irishman by the name of Isaac Dunn, spent his final years.  The clouds cleared as I strode down the hill, the hard blue sky and glaring winter sun spilling light onto the granite buildings.  I walked down past the Scottish Parliament and felt a pang of regret that I had missed the referendum experience.  Europe is, as always, disintegrating and reforming like a half-frozen loch.  I walked back up Holyrood Road, past my old teacher training college, the nostalgia intensifying.

IMG_1771

Later that night I wound up on the same street with my brother Ian in an old favourite pub, once the Holyrood Tavern and now Holyrood 9A.  We sat at the bar and drank pale ale and reminisced about the late 90s when we’d been regulars.  Back then it was a wonderfully odd boozer – dark wood and beaten-up old sofas, an amazing jukebox and excellent beer, and a clientele of old men, teacher training students, and transvestites.  Somehow it worked.  The kilted landlord had wild long greying hair and a goatee beard and would noisily chuck anyone out who told him he looked like Billy Connolly (he did).  Our night ended at a takeaway, thick-cut chips drowned in salt and sauce, and the next morning I said farewell to Scotland.

Next was London.  Anna wasn’t feeling too well so I had some Neil-time in the afternoons (in the evenings we explored the Thai restaurants of Holborn).  Just like in Poland I put my Kindle in one jacket pocket and my Moleskine notebook in the other and headed off into the city to walk and observe.  On the first day I wandered the bookshops of Charing Cross Road and ended up in a pub near Trafalgar Square called The Chandos, which I frequented back in the early 00s on visits to see old friends.  Sitting in the corner of the pub, I read an ancient draft of my Lithuania novel (perhaps seventeen years old, then called Sea of Tranquillity) and sipped my pint of bitter; golden light dappled through the coloured glass windows, the raw and scrappy novel triggering all sorts of long-lost memories.

The next afternoon I headed in the other direction into Covent Garden, cut through the Seven Dials (where I spent a boozy day in 2002 with my Swedish pal Daniel, both of us at a crossroads in life and debating the meaning of it all) and wandered around the streets aimlessly, before settling in The Prince of Wales.  The barmaid heard my accent and wanted to talk about Edinburgh; still high from being back in that city of dreams, I was happy to.  I picked a corner table again and scribbled more notes on the next novel.  I decided to go to one more pub before returning to the hotel but it was already close to five o’clock on a Friday, and the pubs were bursting at the seams with post-work drinkers.  Eventually I found a quiet place near the hotel – The Dolphin Tavern, in a building which took a direct hit from a Zeppelin bomb in 1915.  At that moment, nearing the end of my break, it seemed that our triangular journey had, as always, been stitched together by a shared European history of war and renewal, destruction and rebirth.  At those moments, trying to make sense of a Scottish-British-Polish-Dutch-Luxembourgish-European experience, I tend to flounder, but marvel at the fact that we have had 70 years of peace in Europe.  And agonise that it may not last much longer.

The first couple of weeks back in the host country is always tough.  Luxembourg experiences hard grey winters, even more so than Scotland (at least the grey skies there blow over once in while).  Even if you’re not an expat, the January blues bite deep, but as an emigrant there is a sense of dislocation and confusion, of waking up in the mornings and for the first thirty seconds not remembering where you are.  Then gradually you remember the life you have built in the new country – work, friends, an altogether different view out the window.

And this year, I have something that makes me smile on those icy and dark January mornings – more than one thousand copies sold of Amsterdam Rampant, a book that prompted one publisher to tell me “I just can’t see who would buy it.”  Well, my friend, one thousand people have bought it, and it’s only the beginning of the journey.

 

Seasonality’s Greetings

 

November was another good month for sales.  Another skyscraper on the charts.  My upstart city is growing fast…

RAMPANT SALES NOV (1)

Sales are tracking well in December too, at about 6 per day (current total sales since 8 February is 828 units) which at the current run rate means that by February I should hit the 1,000 target with a little to spare.  Which is pretty amazing considering the lull in the spring.

Despite the promising sales so far in December, my Calvinist soul warns me of possible obstacles ahead.  What does seasonality look like in the ebook world?  Do people buy more or fewer ebooks over the Christmas season?  I have no idea what to expect.  Does anyone out there have any idea?

 

Chasing Ghosts

As I ponder ideas for my next book, it occurred to me that novelists rarely consider the topic of risk.  In other areas of life we pay constant heed to it – can I afford to take out a mortgage?  Should I look for a new job?  We weigh up the pros and cons, the trade-offs between taking a calculated gamble and playing it safe, and decide what’s best for us.

Do novelists ever sit down at the outset of a project and consider this trade-off?  Or do we just get seduced by the glimmer of an idea, and spend the next two or three years chasing that ghost?

As I wrestled with this question, I decided to adapt a classic risk matrix used in the business world to help me consider my next project.  Here’s what my Novelist Risk Matrix looks like:

NRM 1

The vertical axis considers originality and complexity, the horizontal the estimated time taken to write the novel and the physical size of it.  Once you assess your idea using these criteria, it lands in one of four boxes…

VANILLA: low on originality and complexity, and short to regular in size.  This is the lowest risk category – genre fiction following a fairly standard formula.  The easiest to write and read, the writer runs a lower risk of rejection or of not finding an audience.  Vanilla does not necessarily mean that the book is lower in quality (although of course many people are snobbish about genre fiction) but it does mean you are competing on a busy playing field.

PIONEER: a short to regular sized book which is original and complex enough to veer away from genre fiction.  Pioneer books can sometimes create new genres – think of Harry Potter, which took an old-fashioned genre, re-booted the storyline into something original, and created a sensation.  While anyone nowadays writing a book about boy wizards would be firmly in the Vanilla box, when Rowling wrote the first book it was something of a gamble.

EPIC: a hefty genre book – think of the fantasy or sci-fi section in any bookstore where a high percentage of those print books are over 400 pages long.  The size of the project makes it riskier than Vanilla books, but it should still be fairly easy to plot a course and follow a formula.

BEHEMOTH: an original and complex book that’s also huge in size.  This represents the biggest risk for a writer – undertaking a massive project which may take several years, has no real precursor and potentially has no clear audience at the finish line.

To make it a bit more concrete, here are four novels plotted onto the Novelist Risk Matrix:

NRM 2

I’ve not read ‘Personal’ by Lee Child but a glance at the Amazon best-seller chart made it an obvious candidate for an example of a Vanilla book.  The 17th book in his Jack Reacher series, Child is writing to an established formula in an established genre.  There is practically no risk for him in writing Jack Reacher books, unless you count the risk that readers may eventually get bored of the character.

Moving north, Simon Sylvester’s ‘The Visitors’ is a good example of a Pioneer.  Sylvester took elements of established genres (crime, Young Adult) and fused these familiar components with the ancient Scottish folk tale of the selkies (seal people) into something fresh, surprising and original.  Additionally, a strong sense of place and vivid characters make it stand out from the pack.  It was probably not an easy book to write, and an agent or editor might wonder how to pitch it, but Sylvester’s gamble paid off – the novel recently won The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize and is building a growing reputation as a cult book.

Bottom right, Game of Thrones writer George RR Martin took a risk when he sat down to write the first book in the series, which is over 800 pages long.  While the swords n’ sorcery themes has an established audience, his highly explicit content did make it riskier than other books in the genre.

Finally, top right, the riskiest of the lot.  Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ is a great example of a Behemoth.  A novel consisting of four books following two separate storylines, one set in Glasgow and the other in the surreal dystopian city of Unthank, it took Gray almost 30 years to write.  A blend of Scottish realist fiction, fantasy and science-fiction, it is a totally uncategorisable book.  Imagine the drive and passion it would take to work on the same novel for nearly thirty years.  Luckily for Gray, his genius was recognised, but any novelist setting out on such a project would be well-advised to take a step back for a moment and consider the impact of such a project on their life (and sanity, probably).

So did this process help me?  Well, I realised that I simply don’t have the heart for an Epic or a Behemoth.  Like most writers, I have a day job, and pint-sized Amsterdam Rampant took me around three years to write.  So by that logic my next book will either be Vanilla or a Pioneer.  But I know myself too well – I can never really stick to a formula when it comes to writing a novel, so that puts me in the Pioneer box.  The trick is for me not to go too far north, but keep within touching distance of Vanilla – a novel that has a recognisable target audience, that follows certain conventions, but is daring enough to surprise and challenge the reader.  In ice-cream speak… a small spoonful of vanilla with a fist-sized scoop of chocolate, whisky and chilli.

 

Avocado Economics

Another month and another skyscraper on the sales chart…

OCT SALES

What’s really pleasing about the October sales is that they were achieved without any promotions.  Promo sales accounted for around 70 of September’s units, so to shift 147 ebooks without any Amazon-driven marketing activity is quite a leap forward.  In the spring it looked highly unlikely I would hit my target of selling 1,000 ebooks in one year – but now if I flog 145 per month in the time remaining then I will break the barrier.

Cutting the price has probably been one factor, with more readers willing to take a chance on Amsterdam Rampant now that it’s the price of an avocado (94p).  It’s an emotive subject – how much is my book worth? – but something I’ve become less precious about as the months go by.

It’s also a topic that causes a fair bit of bluster in the broadsheets.  Recently, there was lots of coverage on the fight between Amazon and Hachette on ebook pricing, with some media sources heralding Hachette as heroically battling on behalf of writers to get a fair price.  The top literary agent Andrew Wylie went one step further, describing Amazon as having an “Isis-like distribution channel.”  An obvious comparison, given that many of us are currently gearing up to do our Christmas shopping with Isis.

It always surprises me when people rail against Amazon’s cut-throat capitalism eating into the cuddly niceness of the book trade in pre-digital times.  Ah, those good old days!  When we would go shopping in quirky independent bookstores, sipping Colombian coffee while sitting in fireside armchairs and leafing through the latest sensibly-priced hardback.  Hugh Grant worked behind the till of every one of these stores and amused us so with his foppish good humour, while his zany assistant John Hannah hummed Monty Python tunes and occasionally rode through the shop on a unicycle to storms of applause.  It was nice capitalism, not like this nasty Amazon version.

What rubbish.  The dissolution of the price-fixing Net Book Agreement in 1994 had already removed the protectionism which had enabled the UK publishing industry to insulate itself against the market forces unleashed in the 1980s.  Following the repeal of the NBA, big bookstores and supermarkets aggressively took over the scene, bulk-discounting books, offering 3 for the price of 2, and effectively biting into the author’s share of the pie.  Anti-Amazon crusaders such as Hachette were actively responsible in the shift to pay authors a smaller cut.  In the same speech, Wylie of the Isis comparison praised Hachette for fighting for a world where authors could take a 40-50% royalty from book sales.  He clearly hadn’t done his homework, because Amazon offers a 70% author royalty for ebooks over the price of $2.99 (30% under this price).

The truth is there are no moral crusaders or do-gooders at the top end of this industry, much like in any business.  And another truth is that authors always got a raw deal, because there were always so many middlemen taking their cut.  Personally I have no problem with selling my book for the price of an avocado and finding an audience in a slow but steady manner.  Consider the reality of a traditional print deal with one of the big houses – if your novel doesn’t make an impact in the first few weeks on sale, it’s not uncommon for the book to be withdrawn from the publicity machine, remaindered into bargain bins, or even pulped.  And that would be it – your novel dead and buried.

The big publishing houses stand to lose the most from the ebook revolution because of the unwieldy ecosystem they have built up over the decades – editors, marketing departments, accountants, long liquid London lunches – all paid for by the creators of books, ie. the authors.  Small presses have been far more nimble in adapting to the 21st century publishing model.  New print-on-demand technologies – printing presses which can print a book in small runs, compared to a traditional printer demanding a minimum run of 2,000 or so – mean that indie presses can bash out a small run of 500 print books, launch an ebook simultaneously, and engage the author as chief marketer.

This is a model that’s currently thriving in my native Scotland, where creative writing graduates run the small presses and recruit authors from a pool of fellow creative writing graduates in their circle, then build up a scene around spoken word events and the like.  Depending on your view, this is either a literary ponzi scheme or a nurturing literary community which has sprung up to combat the giant London-based publishing houses and their dumbed down production line.  Scottish indie presses such as Freight, Cargo and Sandstone have all achieved remarkable things in their short lifetimes to date.  Interestingly, in each case their founders have published their own work (or at one time aspired to) on their own label, meaning that these presses partly grew out of a determination to self-publish.  This background means that the owners are distinctly sympathetic to the challenges facing authors – I came close to getting a deal with one of them for Amsterdam Rampant, and the dialogue and engagement was terrific.  Compare that to the dialogue with the big houses – long delays, then a few muttered platitudes via your agent.

Ironically, these days the big houses scout for talent in the Amazon ebook bestseller lists, looking for indie books which have built up a readership through word of mouth.  Selling our books for the price of an avocado is one of the few weapons indie authors have in the face of the goliaths, because we already have day jobs that pay the bills, and after years of rejection we have all the patience in the world.  The simple truth is that we have nothing left to lose, and this must scare anyone who works in publishing.