Hemingway famously said: “First drafts are shit.” I’m prone to agree. In June I finished the first draft of my new novel, provisionally titled ‘’The Devil’s Chamber’’. I started writing it in New York in November 2016 and since then I’ve been chipping away, writing only at the weekends, a stolen couple of hours on Saturday mornings or Sunday evenings until finally I crossed the finishing line.
After clicking save I left my raw novel to distill for a few weeks in my hard drive, a little worried about it, then when on holiday in July I uncorked it and downed it in one.
I was surprised. While it needs still more work, it actually holds together pretty well. I scrolled through it sitting on the veranda of an AirBnB bungalow in the South of France, some weird unseen creature screeching from the tree above, everything around me – cheering French football fans, chirrup of crickets, stifling humidity – out of sync with the setting of the novel – dark, rainy, booze-soaked Edinburgh in the 90s. But as I read, I was there on those wet streets and in those basement pubs with my main character, wandering this newly created world.
Having the headspace to reflect on a draft is new to me. In the past I wrote and edited and re-read on the go, which on reflection created many problems. You can’t strategise on the battlefield when you’re crouched in a foxhole counting bullets with trembling hands. There are still things I need to fix with this novel – a couple of holes in the roof – but the overall structure is there. It’s the first time I’ve written a first draft with a clear beginning, middle, and end. This might sound crazy, to embark on an epic writing project with no concept of what’s going to happen at the end other than a vague hunch, but in my experience that’s how most writers build a novel. You can have a strong mental picture of what the finished book will look and feel like, but the process of piecing it together is as hard to plan as falling in love. In fact, just like looking for love, when you stop planning it, that’s usually when the magic happens.
So I have a decent chunk of novel, what now?
The second draft excites me, because it’s about returning to characters and picking them up again, feeling around their barnacled shells for tiny apertures and prising them open to reveal hidden pearls. It’s about finding the plot holes, the howlers, the continuity errors. Pinpointing a small detail that adds richness, maybe opens up new avenues entirely. Slowly stitching it all together, getting the language right, turning words into music, making the dialogue spark, transmuting throwaway scenes into rough gold.
I’m hoping that the second draft will be ready in a few months, by which stage I will be able to kick off the publication process. To get ready, I’ve been re-reading my first blogs from almost five years ago and reflecting on everything that happened since.
In my first ever blog in October 2013, I wrote about entering Phase 4 of my writing life: self-publishing. I was still a bit bloodied and beaten up from the traditional publishing industry, nervous about leaping into the dark. Going through those blogs again I’m glad to look back and say that it was undoubtedly the right decision for me.
When I set out on the epublishing journey I mainly just wanted to prove the industry wrong after so many rejections. My main goal was to sell one thousand ebooks in the first year, but also to get the fun back, which had been missing for a long time. I blogged about it quite a lot, so I won’t rattle on about it, but I cracked the first thousand sales only after about ten months and then experienced all sorts of unexpected stuff.
I’ve now sold more than 5,000 ebooks of Amsterdam Rampant. I covered my costs (mainly the cover artwork) after about ten months. I’ve got 198 reviews on my main platform Amazon UK, averaging 4.4 stars. For Goodreads it’s 273 ratings, averaging 3.79 stars.
After around eighteen months, Amsterdam Rampant got picked up by fans of Scottish writers Irvine Welsh (mainly after the publication of his novel A Decent Ride) and John Niven, and started to appear in the ‘also bought’ sliders on their Amazon pages. This had a far more powerful impact on my sales than any paid-for advertising. Much like those ‘also bought’ sliders, a solid body of verified reviews really helped boost sales. And then it started to tip – readers see your book linked to other books they’ve read and enjoyed, they see you have dozens of genuine reviews, and they see a modest price (it’s been £2.99 for the last three years or so). They bought, reviewed, recommended.
When this critical mass builds up, weird things happen. In the pre-digital age, you published your novel in print, maybe sold a few hundred copies, then waited for any sort of engagement from readers. Did you get letters? Who knows. Since epublishing, I’ve had maybe 80-100 direct personal messages from readers. Sometimes it’s old friends or former colleagues, but most often just random punters who felt some connection with Amsterdam Rampant. This was one of the experiences that meant the most to me, getting back from work and finding a message from someone who’s taken time out of their busy day to say they loved your novel. They didn’t have to do it, but they tracked me down, and wrote a little personal note with words to say they’d laughed a lot or had been entertained or it had reminded them of their friends when they were younger. It gets you a bit emotional. The industry experts told me things like “I can’t see who would buy it”, “the topic isn’t appealing enough to the market”, “men don’t read books”, “there’s nothing in it for women.” Perhaps it’s all true statistically, but what’s also true is that there are people – men and women – who are buying it, and most importantly reading it.
I even got a very surprising message unrelated to the novel from a distant relative. I wrote a blog about my obsession with my family history and a couple of stories in particular, one of which was the death of my great-great-grandfather William McAldin in a mining accident in Nova Scotia and all of the unknowns. A distant cousin called Tam got in touch after my blog popped up on his search engine. After twenty-five years of trying to fully understand the mystery of William’s disappearance from the family tree, it was all there in one email, and it was a heartbreaker.
But the most amazing thing that happened was this. In June 2017, completely out of the blue, the award-winning screenwriter Jeremy Saul Taylor contacted me to say that he loved Amsterdam Rampant – “Trainspotting meets In Bruges” – and would like to adapt it into a screenplay. It’s been a great experience, in part because I wrote the book with a movie playing in my head. Over Skype calls and WhatsApp messages we bounced ideas around, then Jeremy stripped the novel back to its bones and rebuilt the story block-by-block. One plotline has disappeared completely, new scenes take the story in new directions, and the ending is different. Jeremy did a great job. In many ways I prefer the remix (now called Amoeba) to the original. Three versions later, the screenplay is out there, doing the rounds.
So it’s been quite a ride, this self-publishing lark. And I’m going to do it all again with The Devil’s Chamber.
Tune in for more news soon…