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.

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.

 

The Library of Life and Death

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”   William Faulkner

At the age of seventeen I developed an obsession.

It started, like most obsessions, with questions nobody could answer.  One November morning I got on the train to Edinburgh, nervous about going to the city, unsure what secrets I would uncover.

New Register House was easy enough to find – hidden in plain sight just behind a burger joint on Princes Street, a proud Victorian building caged in by spiked railings.  Once through the main door and past security, into that sanctum of quiet punctuated by the sound of rolling trolleys, the building had a feeling of mystery and magic that was instantly addictive.  I still remember taking my allocated desk and looking up past the row upon row of stacked records towards the skylight dome high above.  Knowing that on those shelves, where porters shuffled around retrieving records, the secrets of my family history were carefully stored – the scrawled signatures of my ancestors inked onto birth and marriage records, the only evidence that they had once lived.

On that first day I sketched out the bare branches of my family tree and uncovered enough sketchy information to say with some confidence – I know who I am.  I know where I’m from.  There were no aristocrats, no famous people, just a family story common to the vast majority of Scots – some lives lived in rural poverty scratching a living from the land; but many, many more lives lived in the suffocating grip of heavy industry, in the shadow of pit bings and smoking chimneys; immigration, migration and emigration; typhoid and tuberculosis.  The Cockers came from Aberdeenshire, farm labourers who moved to Motherwell to work on the railways.  My paternal grandmother’s side all went back to Northern Ireland.  My mother’s side were entrenched in the industrial communities of the Falkirk area for two hundred years, the ironworks and mines, but also with an offshoot that reached back to an unknown part of Ireland.

Despite several further trips to that library of life and death, there were two mysteries I never solved.

The first: my great-grandfather Jimmy Burns.  The black sheep of the family, a violent alcoholic who had served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War.  There were family whispers of military prison – the suggestion that he had in fact spent most of the war in prison – to go along with the known tales of his drunken terror campaigns once he returned from France.  The records yielded no information.

The second: my great-great-grandfather William McAldin, an Ulsterman who disappeared from all Scottish records after 1905.  No further records of him appearing at subsequent family weddings (he had five daughters) and no record of his death.  Where did he vanish to?  The library racks remained silent.

I drew up the family tree and gave copies to relatives.  It felt like I’d got as far as I could go, and those blind alleys would remain dark forever.  I left school and went to university and soon enough developed another obsession: writing fiction.

Fiction writers, just like genealogists, are usually obsessed with the past.  I started writing, like most fictioneers, with a slightly glorified diary of my own recent past.  First up were scribbled fragments about my experience of working in an Aberdeen dairy factory in the summer of 1992.  The factory still haunts my dreams to this day: a dark and cavernous Edwardian building with clanking machinery, blasts of refrigerated air, and swirling milky puddles underfoot.

Next was the summer of 1993, working on a summer camp in Maine.  I wrote a sort of travelogue when I returned, which strived mainly to capture feeling and sensation – the oppressive darkness of the Maine forests, offset by the orchestra of crickets and the brilliant dark blue star-filled skies; a train journey through West Virginia in heavy fog, houses appearing suddenly through the mist; the ragged angles of the Rockies, the scorched panorama of the Nevada desert.  I wrote a bad short story about my trip to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house in Saint Paul, but again it was mostly fragments and fleeting impressions.

Next came Lithuania, which I blogged about previously, and then Amsterdam (multiple blogs).  As I ponder what to write about next, I feel myself drawn again and again to these fleeting glimpses of place and atmosphere rather than sitting down with a concrete story in mind.  One of my favourite pieces of writing of all time is a sequence in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, in which the main character, living in a warehouse apartment in the depths of the New England winter, catches hypothermia.  It’s a stunningly beautiful piece of writing that adds little to the story.  But it makes for beautiful wallpaper.

A few years ago I read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and in it he discusses what he calls the Narrative Fallacy.  In simple terms, this is about how we tend to construct stories around unconnected facts – a good example being the causes of the First World War, where historians have tended to line up a chronological succession of events and have built a narrative around what Taleb argues was just a collection of things that happened.  Similarly we do this in our own lives, the kind of “how I met your mother” stories which tend to be embellished and expanded as the years go by.  Both of my novels had their roots in this kind of reflection – the first being “Young Scottish guy goes to Lithuania to teach English”, the second being “Thirty-something Scottish guy moves to Amsterdam to work in whisky business.”  I started with those basic facts of my existence, the fleeting glimpses of experience, and then eroded anything factual through the process of writing and re-writing, like the slop and hush of the sea gradually erasing a coastline.

This attraction to the atmosphere and experiences of my own past is probably one of my flaws as a writer.  It doesn’t exactly make sense to decide “I want to write a novel which somehow captures the feeling of walking down an Amsterdam canal-side in late October with lights reflected in the water” but in the end that was pretty much what I did, and the multiple drafts were a kind of punishment for my initial lack of focus.  So the next time, will I do things differently?

Well, my worry is, probably not.  Instead of thinking about stories with a beginning, middle and end, perhaps moored in a standard genre, the ideas creeping into my head are again those fragments of atmosphere and experience – a weekend I spent in subzero Berlin five years ago; my summer in Maine; Edinburgh immersed in sea-fog.  And also, my family history keeps resurfacing when I think about the next project, and in particular two stories.  Because, thanks to the internet, in the last couple of years I solved those two family mysteries.

The first?  Jimmy Burns, the black sheep.  I found 16 pages of his military records online, water-damaged scans and barely legible.  Slowly I pieced together the story of his First World War.  Signing up for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the 2nd of December 1915 at the age of nineteen.  The block capitals ‘RC’ stencilled at the top of the form, revealing the recruiting officer’s – and Scotland’s – oldest prejudice (as a Roman Catholic, obviously the Dublin Fusiliers would be his regiment).  The other blotted, torn pages tell the story of his next three years.

Wounded twice; hospitalised due to pneumonia, flu or diarrhoea three times; his regiment disbanded and reformed twice due to the scale of losses; deprived of pay twice for absence from parade.  And then, one month after the war ended, court-martialled for “offering violence to his senior officer” and sentenced to 18 months in the military prison at Boulogne, of which he served six.  All of this by the time he was twenty-two.

The second mystery – William McAldin, who vanished after 1905.  I found him on a ship’s manifest in 1906, travelling from Glasgow to Montreal.  The two words under destination already hinted at his fate: ‘Sydney Mines.’  A few minutes of Googling and I found his name listed in the Nova Scotia 1910 death records.  It would cost me ten pounds to find out how William died.  I keyed in my credit card number and the PDF downloaded onto my desktop.

The 1-page certificate showed three deaths stencilled into narrow columns, the first of which was William’s.  His occupation was listed as “shot-firer” – the specialist who rigged up explosives to expand mine workings – and his cause of death: “Compression of brain caused by fall of stone in mine.”

So there it was.  The vanished William McAldin, lost in a mining accident and buried at the Brookside cemetery in Sydney, a grave which has never been visited by any of his kin.  And I wondered – why didn’t anyone in the family know this story, or pass it down?  Had he run away?  Or did people just keep this tragedy quiet?  I imagine that Nova Scotia landscape, the boiling Atlantic ocean nearby, those thousands of immigrant lives that passed through the mine’s black mouth – the Scots formed the largest immigrant group, followed by English, Russians and Italians, but there were also French, Poles, Lithuanians, Caribbeans and others.

And when I think of that cemetery on the coast, and that faded, unvisited gravestone – or Jimmy in that recruiting office 99 years ago – I think to myself, there is the next novel; there, in that fleeting glimpse of a boy soldier, or in that tumble of stone in the Canadian underground blackness.

 

Halfway House

In the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town there is a famous alley called Fleshmarket Close.  From the top end of Cockburn Street you enter through a granite gateway to be immediately confronted with a dark and shadowy staircase plummeting down in the direction of the train station.  For a first-timer it looks dingy and uninhabited, potentially dangerous, but after a few steps down into the gloom you will see a greasy spoon takeaway, a barber shop, and further down the alley’s glacial slope, first one pub, then another.  The second pub is called The Halfway House.

Back when I lived in Edinburgh, I used to drink in the Halfway with my brother Ian.  It’s one of those hidden gems in the city – a beacon of hospitality in the unlikeliest of places.    My abiding memory of the pub (possibly fabricated by my nostalgic subconscious) is on one of those damp, foggy Edinburgh nights, when the haar (a sea-mist unique to Scotland’s east coast) was hanging thick over the city, its tendrils slithering around the buildings.  On those haar nights you feel like the city has been untethered from Scotland and is drifting off into the clouds like a cumbersome granite Zeppelin.

On this particular evening Ian and myself were on one of our habitual tours of the traditional pubs, swapping stories and banter in a succession of silent howffs.  Drowning in haar, we tumbled into the close and made our way down steps slippery with greasy drizzle, ahead of us the golden glow of the pubs burning through the fog.  And through the door into the Halfway, into a gentle hubbub of light and chatter and music, taking seats at the bar from where we could look out the window and watch the haar solidify, tightening its grip on the city.

On my epublishing journey I have reached The Halfway House – 6 months in to my 1-year project.  So while I’m safely entrenched at the bar, pint of hoppy IPA in front of me, what are my thoughts before stepping out into the fog again to complete the rest of my journey?

Well, as the brave and lonely few who follow my blog know, I set out to sell 1,000 ebooks of Amsterdam Rampant.  With slightly more than 6 months gone, I’ve sold 226.  So, while I’m some way off the 500 target for the half-year, there are many reasons to be optimistic.

A couple of months back I added a new indicator to my statistics page – ‘Readers Reached.’  The reason I did this was that I thought again about what I really wanted to achieve and decided that finding readers who liked the book was more important than simply shifting units.  While selling my ebook is a great feeling, I’m also delighted if someone out there in cyberspace decides to download Amsterdam Rampant during a freebie promo, or also borrow it via Amazon Prime.  So my ‘Readers Reached’ figure basically adds up sales, freebie downloads and borrowed ebooks to come up with a number of how many people have downloaded the ebook.  So far 1,235 readers have been reached, and considering that I will run another free promo at some point I will hopefully break the 2,000 figure by the magic 12-month mark.

From a business point of view, I’m so far making a loss of -291 GBP.  However, given that my expenses at the outset were 643 GBP, I am making progress in clawing that outlay back, and should be back in the black by the end of the year.  Also, I bought two covers with a view to doing a regular switcheroo to see which cover shifted most units.

Amsterdam Rampant Final black red FA (5)      amsterdam_DEF_1 (1)

After publishing with the black and red dangling man cover, it really felt right for the book, and now I’m not sure if I’ll use the blue floating townhouse cover.  I love both but I had underestimated that feeling of ‘fit’ that I would get once the project was underway.  If I had only bought the first cover, my current loss would be -88.34 GBP.  Anyway, while I may incur other expenses (eg. at some point I will try out some marketing services) overall it looks like I will break even for the year, and hopefully even make a small profit.

Away from the financials, I’ve had a total of 19 reviews on Amazon (12 on UK and 7 on dot-com) and 6 reviews/ratings on Goodreads.  The engagement with readers has been really encouraging.  I benchmark myself against other Scottish novels published in the last year and it seems I am a little ahead of the average in terms of review numbers.  It’s another sign for me that self-publishing is an eminently viable option.  The supposed advantage of traditional publishing is that you get some kind of marketing machine chugging away in the background, but my impression is that these days most publishers kick a novel out into the wilds to fend for itself.  In these austere times most authors are expected to invest a chunk of their time marketing the novel they wrote but that someone else published – why not publish it yourself and own the entire end-to-end process?

Another thing I’ve mentioned before is that liberating feeling of release.  Prior to self-publishing I’d been tinkering with Amsterdam Rampant for more than three years, going through multiple versions in the hope of finding the magic formula that would appeal to a publisher.  Instead, self-publishing forced me to confront a far more important audience – the faceless mob of unknown readers – and edit it into something that I believed would please readers rather than publishers.  It feels like I have finally let go of the novel, unloaded it, and by telling the story I am finally released (much like the ancient mariner in Coleridge’s poem, which takes me clumsily back to the whole fog metaphor).

So now, I gaze out into the haar from my comfortable position at the bar, bracing myself for the next stage of the journey.  Six months ago it all seemed quite daunting.  Now I know there is nothing to be afraid of.  I tip back the dregs of my pint, say a cheery farewell and head back out into the unknown.

 

7 things I’ve learned from epublishing

 

It’s three months since I began my epublishing adventure (click on Epub Stats above to see the sales figures and other numbers).  But what have I learned so far?

1. TIME IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN MONEY – Success seems to come from a steady online presence: tweeting every day, blogging regularly, contacting readers and other writers, joining community forums, and so on.  I underestimated how much time I would need to do it all properly.  The fact that I’ve not blogged for 4 weeks reflects the same old story of 60-hour working weeks and weekends spent studying for exams – and I’ve actually found it quite difficult to spend money promoting Amsterdam Rampant.  BookBub rejected me, I think because they tend to go for books with more than 100 positive reviews (basically I would pay around 200 dollars to get put on their mailing list, which they estimate would generate around 500 sales).  There are numerous tweeting services, where for 20-30 dollars they will tweet about your book to their hundred thousand or so followers.  But in general the marketing of ebooks is not really an established business model yet, and the best way to do it is on your own, hacking through the jungle, putting in the grind on a daily basis.  I’ve not had the time and this has hurt my project.

2. THE POWER OF FREE – perhaps the most amazing experience I’ve had so far was when I ran a 2-day free promotion through the Amazon KDP Select programme.  You have to firstly commit to sell exclusively through Amazon, so I ‘unpublished’ Amsterdam Rampant from the other sales platform I was using, Smashwords (I’d not sold one ebook through it anyway, so it wasn’t a big loss).  Once signed up to KDP Select, I could select one of two promos – discounted or free.  I couldn’t use the discounted option as I’d tinkered with pricing constantly up to that point and didn’t have the required stable period of 30 days at the same price.  So I opted to go for free.  Wow.  Within the first hour there were around 65 downloads and complete strangers were tweeting that Amsterdam Rampant was free.  The STV website in Dundee kindly published the link and mentioned that the Dundee Book Prize readers “couldn’t put it down” during the judging process.  At the end of the first day more than 500 e-copies of Amsterdam Rampant had been downloaded all over the world.  I spent the weekend studying for my MBA but checking online intermittently, while also tweeting every hour or so.  I excitedly watched the download graph jump every half hour, eventually hitting 781 free downloads over the 2-day spell.  Even more exciting though was my progress up Amazon’s charts.  At one point I reached number 12 in Amazon UK’s free literary fiction chart, and was the only living author in the top 12.  One minute I was studying MBA stuff, the next minute I was checking my chart position – “BOOOOOM!!!  Jack London boy, you down!  Dickens ya gadge, I’m coming fur ye!”  There are few sights more ridiculous in this world than a middle-aged Scotsman kung fu dancing around his living-room in Luxembourg while jabbering in an ill-advised fusion of African-American slang and Scots dialect.

3. AMAZON TEACHES YOU GENRE – it’s been really interesting to monitor the Amazon function “Customers who bought this item also bought…”  Based on the sales and free downloads it seems Amsterdam Rampant is mostly bundled in with crime, violent adventure stories, and comic novels. I was always confused about what genre the book belonged to, which is no bad thing.  But it’s made me reflect on what I will write in future, and rethink my priorities, for example…

4. I’VE GIVEN UP ON THE SCOTTISH SCENE – perhaps the main goal I had when I first started writing was to pen something that would be considered as ‘Scottish Literature’ and would enter this hallowed canon.  I spent too long knocking on this door.  I left Scotland almost 12 years ago and the scene there is dominated by the old guard, while newer upcoming writers all seem to know each other through creative writing postgraduate degrees (just take a look at the biography section of any Scottish magazine or anthology and probably 60-70% of the writers have one of these degrees).  It’s taken me this long to realise that being around a thousand miles away from a ‘scene’ is a major handicap to breaking into that scene.  So I’ve finally decided – my scene is now epublishing, and the world.  I am letting go of Scotland.

5. THE INTERNET IS A GLASGOW POST-PUB PARTY – the internet is a noisy, chaotic place, full of yammering loonies, kind strangers, utter bawbags, funny people, and the occasional psycho.  Exactly like a random post-pub party in an unfamiliar Glasgow tenement.  At the outset of the epublishing project I was apprehensive of trolls and nutjobs.  But in fact all of the people I’ve interacted with so far have been kind, generous, interested, and helpful.  Epublishing has reinforced my optimism about humankind.  Sure, at some point I will get stuck in the corner of this chaotic shindig with a yammering loony, maybe even bump into the nutter in the kitchen, but so far this has been one hell of a party.

6. FUN BEATS FEAR – Before epublishing I was feeling beaten up, worn out after years of trying and failing to sell the novel through the traditional channels, always on edge and waiting to be judged by editors, readers, interns… putting the book out there has liberated me completely.  The fear has disappeared, and the fun of it all has brought my confidence back as a writer.

7. THE WELL IS FILLING BACK UP – at the Dundee Book Prize dinner in 2012 I chatted to Scottish writer Alan Bissett (one of the judges) about his next project.  He used a metaphor I like, saying that he was “waiting for the well to fill back up again.”  Thanks to epublishing, I feel that happening now – ideas for my next novel are starting to trickle, glistening, into the well.  Three years ago I bashed out around 30k words of a novel that was unlike anything I’d written before – part science-fiction, part allegory of Soviet Russia / Industrial Victorian Britain.  In my head it’s now growing into a trilogy, a hybrid of Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and Joseph Stalin’s life story.  All a bit messy, but it’s thrilling to be having ideas again.

Nine months to go – bring it on!