On second thoughts…

I wrote something a wee while ago about full time writers vs. writers who have other jobs. There was, however, one aspect of it that I didn’t really give much thought. Now, whenever you read a blog or a book or whatever on this subject, the vast majority of the advice will be about finding time to write, usually vague anodyne rubbish about making time or daft suggestions about cutting back on the other things that you do, such as sleeping. I all this daft because I do, as it happens, think that time can be found to write if it’s important to you, no matter how busy you are. I say this advisedly because obviously some people have much less time than others, but even on only half an hour a day you can get something done. Well, you can get some writing done, anyway. And that’s the thing.

Previously I was coming from a point of view whereby being a writer merely meant being someone who writes. What actually happens to that writing once it’s done, whether it goes straight on the shelves at Waterstones or straight in the drawer never to be seen, didn’t really cross my mind. Some folk have fairly specific ideas about what they want to happen as a result of their writing, though, often involving money and fame and so forth. No harm there, but that’s where the lack of time really does start to kill.

I have time to write, no problem. I don’t have eight hours a day, or anything like that, and there aren’t many days where I produce much more than a thousand words, but the time is there. What I don’t really have time for is all the other stuff, events and festivals and Twitter and (if you look at the timeline on the right) blogging. If all my hopes for the future were pinned on making millions from my writing, I’d be up against it.

I don’t really have any advice or tips or anything like that. I’m not trying to be constructive, just backbiting a little. Because it’s not just the hours of time devoted to self-publicity I’m talking about, it’s the hours of time devoted to learning how to be good at self-publicity. I hardly have enough time to get good at writing, never mind anything else, and if I did, you can be sure marketing is about the last thing I’d be trying to pick up. I’ve always wanted to learn Czech (don’t know why), can’t play chess endgames, and have a left foot that’s only good for standing on. My entire personality is a leaky ship sinking slowly to the bottom of the ocean; I’ve enough on my plate trying to plug the gaps, never mind taking on fresh passengers.

Stories of Home.

Had a great time at the launch of “Stories of Home” last week, the Scottish Book Trust’s anthology for Book Week Scotland. As well as my story “All Addresses Are Approximate”, there’s some really superb pieces by the likes of Des Dillon and Alan Warner. Definitely worth looking out for!

The Hawick News and the Border Telegraph have both done nice write-ups about my inclusion, links below.



Zen in the Art of Writing.

So, things have been quiet recently. Quieter, anyway. I have a couple of stories coming up in the next issue of The Eildon Tree, but that’s it. Mainly I’ve been working on redrafts for the plethora of deadlines coming up at the end of the month. It’s reminded me of Ray Bradbury in ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’, and his insistence on zest and gusto in the writing process.

On one hand, it seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it, that if you’re not enjoying writing it, no-one else is going to enjoy reading it. If you don’t actually like what you’re working on, why are you doing it? That much is straightforward.

But as against that, there’s the whole Wordsworthy thing about poetry being emotion recollected in tranquillity. Most of the early blunders of writing come from excessive enthusiasm/optimism about a project blinding you to its faults. What you’re initially aiming for (or I was, anyway) was a certain level of detachment from the act of writing, to not feel as if the whole process was life or death. Once I got to the stage where I could just write without self-romanticising, I was able to just scribble away for hours on end and not worry about it. Life, it seemed, was good.

I suppose what I’m saying is that no matter how you go about it, some writing is just dead on the page. It’d be easy to say that it’s because of too much zeal or too little gusto, but it’s simply a fact of business. I can work away for several drafts on what seems like a nice little story with some nice little characters and some nice little ideas, then read it and realise straight away that it’s boring. Not bad, not silly, not self-indulgent, just boring.

It happened to me just the other day while I was redrafting. After working my way through to the terrifically unsatisfying stopgap ending, I realised that I couldn’t think of a better ending because I simply didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them. All the endings I could come up with were perfectly acceptable, but I couldn’t write them because they didn’t matter to me. None of it did.

You’ve got to write through the bad stories to get to the good ones, I already knew that. I guess I never thought there’d be a stage where I was writing through the mediocre stories too.


Well, as Ring Lardner once said, if I guessed for a living, I’d starve.

Obviously, I didn’t have the swell time last Friday that I’d previously prophesied. I was about to say that none of the 45% of us did, but that’s not the whole story, is it. The 55% of folk who voted No didn’t seem to be having much fun either. Yes voters have a lot to be unhappy about, but at least we didn’t just get completely punked by our own political leaders. Anyway, let’s be honest; all the energy, drive, vision and commitment was generated by the Yes campaign, and when their heads went down (as they temporarily did) the life was sucked out of everything. For a while.

I have friends on both sides, like most people, so I won’t do any finger-pointing. All I’ll say is that two weeks ago we were living in the most politically engaged country in the western world, and today we’re once again a reluctant adjunct to benefit cuts and phony wars. I doubt that anyone, anywhere, is celebrating that.

A Busy Week

Well, there’s a lot going on across the country this week, and here’s what I’m up to:

On Wednesday 10th, I was part of a group of Hawick playwrights, performers, poets and musicians who performed at Teri Yes, a local celebration of independence. I performed my one man play “Oor Ain Two Feet”, which you can see here:


On the same channel you can also see some of the other wonderful stuff that went on at a very special event I feel hugely privileged to have been part of.

On Sunday 14th, I’ll be performing at The Eildon Tree’s 15th anniversary bash, starting at Damascus Drum Cafe at 2pm. Then, on the 15th, there’ll be a reading of my play “Mozart an Salieri” at the Heart of Hawick at 7:30pm. After that, I’ll be tramping up and down stairs posting Yes leaflets and obsessively refreshing Facebook in search of another hitherto undigested titbit of pro-indy news. Until Friday. I don’t know what I’ll be doing then. But I know that it’ll be great.

Knowing When To Quit

So. You’ve written that first draft and decided that there’s something to it. How long do you have to keep at it before you can decide that it’s either a) finished, or b) unfinishable?

On first starting out as a writer, the temptation is to decide that a text is final and irrevocable the moment you set it out on a page. Your writing is precious, sacred even, dictation taken direct from the mouth of God; bad writers may compromise, make edits, but you? You hit it out of the park first time, every time.

A good stage to leave behind, but the incessant tinkering you then take up isn’t much better. Every text is a free-for-all, with everything up for grabs. Like Joyce, you can spend all morning switching around two words, then all evening switching them back again. Time spent editing is never a waste, not really; but if you could have written two or three new stories in the time it’s taken to bring a substandard one up to scratch, it’s not really an efficient use of your time. Most of us have a limited amount of time to write, and we can’t really afford to squander it in this way; yet we do. Why do we do it? Well, here are my own personal faulty rationales for sticking with something long after you should have stopped.

You’re on a roll. You’ve written two, maybe three good stories in a row, and you definitely feel like you’ve turned a corner. Therefore, you are clearly incapable of writing bad prose ever again. Whatever the vital spark is that’s going to bring this story to Pulitzer-winning life, YOU ARE GOING TO FIND IT.

Darling-harvesting. Killing your darlings doesn’t just mean getting rid of a good metaphor, or binning a nice turn of phrase. It can sometimes mean jettisoning an entire story altogether. If the ship is sinking, the passengers are going down with it. You can’t save an entire story for the sake of a couple of lines.

But I need it for… There’s a specific reason you need this story to work. Maybe there’s a competition on the theme of “returns” or something, and it’s the only one you’ve got that fits. In that case, you’ve already lost. Forget the competition. Move on.

It won’t be GREAT, but… Of course, one of the most exciting things about writing is that you never know if what you’re working on is going to be great. Pre-emptively deciding that whatever you’re working on is going to be brilliant or significant is one of best reasons in the world for putting it aside. But if you’re labouring over something that has clearly gone badly wrong just in order to make it borderline readable, you’re wasting your time. (Kind of – it’s a good exercise, and it might stop you from making the same mistakes again in the future. But it’s also depressing, and winds up making you feel like a bad writer or, at the very least, the long suffering Jekyll to the madcap Hyde who wrote this crap.)

The truth is, the easiest way of judging whether you’re spending too much time on something is thinking back over your best stories, and how long it took you to write them. Relatively to the length, odds are it probably wasn’t that much time. The myth of instant inspiration is pernicious, but overwriting can be just as damaging and certainly more time-consuming. The other day I started editing a story which has already been published. Why? Know when to quit.

The Old Toad Work

I was reading an interview with George Orwell the other day in which he was asked whether it was desirable that a writer should have a second job, and if so, what sort of job should he have. Orwell (surprisingly to me) was hugely pessimistic about the prospects of any writer trying to earn an honest living from his work, even back in the Forties – and as he was very much against what he referred to as “the burden of an unearned income”, Orwell thought it was imperative that a writer should earn his or her keep in other ways. Orwell’s preference (again, to me surprising) was that writers should not have as their day jobs occupations of a literary or creative bent, since this would leave them too depleted at the end of the working day to write. Instead, he recommended work of a sort neither intellectually nor physically demanding – clerking at a bank or insurance firm, for instance.

It’s a conundrum, anyway. The romantic notion of the starving artist in a garret (itself debunked by Orwell in “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”) is dominant, and there’s even a certain sniffiness about the moonlight crew who work ordinary jobs from 9 till 5. Ideally, of course, writing would be a job sufficiently remunerative as to allow a reasonable amount of financial security. In Scandinavia, for example, state support for writers is miles ahead, although Orwell himself would probably have noted this with some disapproval, since a writer (in his opinion) should be first and foremost divorced from even the subconscious prompting to please his patron. In any event, it’s not even an option for a writer to sell out to the state in the UK, since the state is by and large uninterested.

What I would say about the idea of throwing caution to the wind and writing full-time is that, in my experience, it’s an option almost exclusively open to the middle/upper-classes. I know several working-class folk in other fields of the arts who have taken the plunge and are earning a crust through their art alone, but it’s usually in those arts where there is a certain amount of regular, well-remunerated work and/or “hackwork” available, such as music or photography. But nobody ever hires a poet to declaim at their wedding reception. Novelists don’t get far on “Britain’s Got Talent”. The lack of paid derivative work for writers means that, with very few exceptions, the only way to survive on a writer’s income is to supplement it with another; a job, a pension, a spouse’s work or a parent’s generosity. Financially, the average writer would do better on the dole.

Philip Larkin, who invented and was dominated by the idea of “the old toad, Work” was a librarian. So am I. The greatest poet of the 20th Century (Larkin, not me – that ship has sailed) told his inquirers that society valued his work as a librarian more than his work as a writer. It was broadly true, although Larkin was also the sort who couldn’t see green cheese go past him, nor an honest pound go unpocketed. But he, at least, like me, had a job which allowed him some latitude for writing in his spare time. How is a fast-food worker, or a cleaner, or a postman, or a bricklayer, expected to come home from work and sit down to write? It’s impossible – but we, as a society, need them to. If writing is to flourish again, we need readers and writers of every stripe, books about everything there can be books about. No, we can’t do much about the lack of money in writing, or about the exhausting drudge of minimum wage – but what we can do that would help is dispense with the discouraging fiction that “full-time writing” is a evidence of one’s genuine dedication to one’s art, rather than just an indication of a private income.

Scatter My Ashes At Claggan Park.

Much cheer. My story “Scatter My Ashes At Claggan Park” finished second in the Derby QUAD’s Offside Stories competition. There were some very good writers on the shortlist, too. Here’s the link: http://www.derbyquad.co.uk/news/offside-stories-results

Claggan Park, by the way, is where Fort William F.C. play. The team themselves have finished bottom of the Highland League virtually every year since their inception (which means that’s who I’d have played for, if I’d been from the Highlands), but have a very striking ground, which can be seen here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claggan_Park

Most non-league grounds are picturesque in a similar way, especially in rural areas like the Highlands and the Scottish Borders. Picturesque perhaps isn’t quite the word: touching, maybe. Hans van der Meer has a photography book called “European Fields” (stupidly expensive now) which consists entirely of amateur and lower-league football games across Europe. It captures footballers often so tiny that their struggles are almost completely lost against the sprawling landscape; just to be seen becomes a titanic endeavour. Also very funny too; a photo of a Dutch goalkeeper staring longingly into a canal where a misplaced ball bobs enticingly out of reach. Even if you can’t get hold of the book, some of those marvellous photos can be seen here: http://www.hansvandermeer.nl/projects/europeanfields

Home again, home again.

It’s been about ten years since last time I had my own website. It was a lot easier back then, since it was actually a cadged corner of someone else’s and I didn’t have to do anything. Nowadays it’s amazing the amount of stuff you have to know just to be able to ASK for help with websites. Looking for solutions to even “beginner” problems on the Internet is like that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David is trying to get people who help him change a car tyre. Hopeless.

Apparently there is now a lucrative cottage industry in the construction of websites and social media for creative types, but as none of the creative folks I know have any money, and none of the folks I know with money are creative, I’m not sure quite how this has come about. Needless to say, I don’t have two thousand pounds to spend on this (or anything), so for the foreseeable future please enjoy this shoddy approximation of what I’d like you to think is actually happening.