Into the Wilds


So, I released my new novel The Devil’s Chamber into the wilds last weekend.

In my younger days I mainly used writers’ groups as a source of feedback on novels-in-progress.  It was really useful for a number of reasons.  First, you get used to taking tough feedback and developing the scar tissue that goes with it.  Second, you understand the difference between constructive feedback and crap feedback (I once sat in an Amsterdam group arguing with an American guy for 5 minutes about my use of the word ‘pitch’ to describe a football field, which he maintained would cause American readers to throw the book out of the window in exasperation; I got my revenge the following week when he used the phrase “the unmistakable stink of elephant dung” and I pointed out that most readers had, unlike him, no deep knowledge of the different aromas of animal faeces).

I stepped away from writers’ groups once I grew weary of the storm of voices, and also decided to trust my own instincts more.

So for the latest novel I sent the draft off to my three beta readers.  The Wikipedia definition of beta reader is somewhat unflattering, suggesting that the individual is “a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software) who gives feedback from the point of view of an average reader to the author.”

My beta readers are far from average.  I think of them more as a league of superheroes.

First up is my fellow Scot Sean, who I’ve never actually spoken to other than on Skype, but I feel like I know him like an old mate.  We first “met” on the comments string of a Scottish Literature article on the Guardian way back in 2006 and have since exchanged thousands of words of feedback on each other’s novels, along the way exploring and debating the big themes of Scottish literature, the epic storytelling universe of The Wire, the calamitous impact of misplaced commas, and the likely end of the world. Sean’s superpower is his line editing, an uncanny ability to remove words and strip flabby writing down to its fighting weight.

Second up is Mat, a Londoner I met at a writers’ group in Amsterdam way back in 2002.  We immediately bonded over the awfulness of the group, and rebelled by setting up our own regular writing head-to-head over curry and beers which ran for the duration of my seven years in the Netherlands.  He became a great friend as well as a writing buddy.  His superpower is his eye for a story, his feel for character, and his humour.

Last but not least is Jeremy, an award-winning screenwriter who lives near London and adapted Amsterdam Rampant into a screenplay.  I’ve learned loads from this Leeds lad in the year or so we’ve known each other.  He described Amsterdam Rampant as ‘Trainspotting meets In Bruges’ which was the coolest thing anyone could ever say about it, as this was pretty much my objective all along.  From Jeremy I learned the art of boiling a story down to its essence, the gun-to-the-head sacrifice of non-essential plotlines, and the relentless demand for entertainment from TV and cinema.

It’s an interesting exercise to canvas independent views on the same body of work, because when you get the same feedback more than once you know you have to act on it.  You also get quite different views based on everybody’s inbuilt preferences for the types of books they like to read and the TV shows they like to watch.  This is one of the reasons I started with Jeremy, Mat, and Sean – although I have several more writer friends whose views I trust and value, I decided to kick it off with these three because I know we have very similar tastes.  I have a hunch they will give me advice on the type of story it should be, which is what I’m looking for at this stage.  For the next wave of beta readers I will look for people with more diverse tastes who are likely to call out unexpected glitches and flaws, and also make suggestions that make me think more closely about what should and shouldn’t be included.

So my beta readers will be already wandering the new world of my novel, exploring its landscape, observing the characters like invisible ghosts.  Scribbling notes.  Hopefully smiling and nodding rather than tutting and shaking their heads.

Am I apprehensive about the beta readers’ feedback?  Actually, unlike previous novels, it all feels quite liberating.  It’s maybe a bit like kids leaving home – the first one leaves you with empty nest syndrome and niggling fears, but by the third one you’re relaxed and want them to go out into the world and find their own path.  Over the many years I wrote The Vodka Angels (which I never published) I wasted countless hours trying to write something that would be Capital-L Literature.  I re-wrote multiple versions of Amsterdam Rampant to get the setting and pace just right. This time with The Devil’s Chamber, I decided I want to keep the story simple and punchy, and get the novel out there quickly (not compromising on my own standards but not re-reading and re-writing each line obsessively for years either).

So here I am, sitting in a train station waiting-room with my main characters.  There’s a large clock on the wall, its thudding tick resounding in the dusty stillness, and some of the people I have conjured into life shift nervously around me.  One or two of them may have to leave; others may have a second chance, or a new destiny.  A whistle blows in the distance and we sit in silence, waiting on news from the gods.


Photo: Jan Cocker




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.

No pressure.

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…


New York, City of Dreams


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.


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.


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:


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:


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:


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.


Peppermint-Green Shellsuit

It was a weekly ritual.

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

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

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

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

The tutor asked what brought him to Stirling Writers Group.

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


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

More silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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