Friday, 28 August 2009


Yesterday, I had my first request to write a guest blog. Very flattering (and yet another chance to procrastinate). The site in question is Who Said Pixies Are Rational Creatures? ( It’s aimed at writers and readers of fantasy and historical fiction. OK, I’ve written a historical novel, a historical short story, some kids’ stories about a fairy called Stanley who lives under the dripping tap in my bedroom and recently, to my surprise, I had a short story accepted for a fantasy/sci-fi anthology. In other words, while not totally ignorant of the fantasy genre, I know far less about it than the other people who write for and read that particular blog. Sha’el, who extended the invitation to me, gave me carte blanche, even floating the literary and philosophical potential of postings on a picnic or maybe belly button lint, but it’s a fantasy site, so the challenge was to be relevant. And this is the result.

A warning, I have difficulty in taking things seriously. Not those which involve compassion, sympathy, tragedy and all the other personal things, but all those portentous outpourings which fill the news bulletins and wise newspaper columns. My intention is not to judge, undermine, satirise or otherwise criticise the fantasy genre. I have many friends who write romantic novels and, just like crime novelists, they’re constantly having to put up with seemingly innocent observations which suggest that they’re somehow involved in an inferior form of literature. No doubt fantasy writers experience the same thing. I don’t intend to add to it.

All I want to do is try to imagine myself as someone exploring the genre and give myself a brief fantasy experience. I should confess that I did once write a rather nasty erotic fantasy at the request of the editor of an online magazine. It was based on a conversation I had with a friend who, to my surprise, revealed that, for her, pain was an essential part of sexual pleasure. It seems that it makes the gentler bits even more gentle. In other words, it’s the equivalent of banging your head against a wall in order to feel good when you stop doing it.

So, without any real experience of writing fantasy, and with an unfortunate absence of belief in anything supernatural, what can I think of as a potential fantastical subject in my immediate surroundings (which is where all my other writing ideas are conceived)? How would I set about finding a story and the characters who drive it?
I imagine that, first of all, I’d have to suspend my normal beliefs and perceptions and that they’d be replaced by others which I’d have to invent. Fantasy no doubt frees you but it simultaneously creates other restraints arising from its settings and conventions.

My feet are up on the desk and I have the keyboard on my lap. So what if, instead of being aware of ‘me’ in my head, ‘me’ was over there in my feet? How would that alter my perception of the world? Well, for a start, I’d see less of it – no, not because I’d be inside a shoe most of the time, but because my viewpoint would be so low down. On the other hand, I’d be nearer the earth and could hear and feel its rhythms more intensely.

Wait a minute though. I said ‘see’ and ‘hear’. So do my eyes and ears have to be down there too? If so, it means relocating all my main features around my ankles, which leaves me (and everyone else in this brave new world) with a head which now is basically a bone globe with skin and hair stretched over it. Well, at least that would overcome the problem of not being able to put names to faces.

But no, of course, the sense organs would all be left where they are and the brain could still process their information if it was tucked between some metatarsals. And, since the feet are the things which support my physical self and the brain is the basis of my abstract self, I have a convenient parallel which I can exploit to pretend that I’m saying something significant. So this particular distortion of reality begins to open some interesting possibilities. The cutting of toenails could be seen as a lobotomy, bunions could be the outward manifestations of existential angst, and an entire race of creatures thus constituted might be wiped out by a plague of athlete’s foot.

By now you’ll have either stopped reading or realised that I know even less about the subject than I claimed at the start. The truth is that I’m trying too hard. I know really that all I have to do is free the various objects about me and let them be what they want. The paper knife on the desk will shine and glow when I leave this evening and, as the darkness creeps in, it’ll be picked up by the small creature which left it there early this morning. He, she or it will look from the desk’s plateau across the void to the model boats sitting on the little table, bucking and rocking under the cliffs of books. The carved wooden eagle perched among the flowers outside the window will stretch its wings and carry the creature and its sword to the bottom of the garden, where the granite wall will open and show the fires flickering up from its depths onto the undersides of the clouds. And then there’ll be the songs and voices, the cries of prisoners, the gropings of blind, lost sisters, the unearthly growling of the ebony dogs.

And suddenly, I get a sort of intimation of the strength of fantasy. When I draw back from my imaginings, what am I left with? Predictability. Everything around me has a function, a specific, defined purpose. Even me. And it makes no concessions to the magic that makes the grasses and flowers outside appear each spring. The clouds aren’t billowing sails of aerial galleons but mere water vapour. The faint tick of the clock is simply an inevitable, mechanical fact, whereas I now know that, at night, it will separate itself from the clock, become the pulse of something, supply the rhythm of a creature’s advance.

I said I have no beliefs in the supernatural. This isn’t that, it’s natural. We carry all these race memories, dreams, imaginings; we can release people and things from their restricted functions. Maybe fantasy is simply a means of relaxing our grip on experience, a way to deny chronology and inevitability. Maybe it’s just a less uptight reality.

I’ve gone on too long. With any luck, I’ve managed to state the obvious. On the other hand, Sha’el may be making a resolution to be more careful with her invitations. But whether I’ve been talking utter crap or touching on things that might be true, I’ve enjoyed doing it and it’s been a relaxing piece of self-indulgence.

Thanks for reading this far.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Can you 'train' a writer?

After adding a comment to my friend Gary Corby’s excellent blog ‘A dead man fell from the sky’ ( he asked whether I had an opinion about a question in one of the other comments. Since it’s central to writing, I thought it would be worth replaying it and my response here.

The question came from someone whose friend had suggested that he needed some form of training (in connection with his writing). This friend said to him ‘why don’t you attend a writing course?’ and he was wondering whether it would be worth doing so. My response was as follows:

The question would need an extended debate really but my quick(ish) response is: first, who is this ‘friend’ and what are his/her qualifications as a literary critic? What exactly does he/she mean by suggesting you’re not ‘trained’? Is it even possible to ‘train’ someone to write? I think if the impulse to write is there, that’s the main qualification to do so. We all learn as we write, we refine and adapt our style and vocabulary to each subject.

If I’m asked for one piece of advice to offer would-be writers, I usually say ‘Trust your own voice’. By that I mean don’t get fooled into thinking there’s a ‘right’ way to write. It’s better if you can spell and if your grammar’s not so feeble that your sentences are incomprehensible but outside those ‘restrictions’, any mode of expression is legitimate. If it’s way out of line with ‘normal’ speaking and writing, you may find it hard to get an audience but the important thing is not to think you need big words, flowery phrases or ‘writing’. Read Elmore Leonard’s 10 ‘rules’ for writing – they’re amusing and to the point (and valuable).

I’m wary of creative writing courses. I’m sure there are some brilliant ones, but there are also plenty which indoctrinate their graduates into parroting stuff about shifting points of view, not starting paragraphs with ‘And…’ and all sorts of other things that have little to do with creativity.

I should also have added something to forestall/disarm/whatever those who always gallop into such debates to champion the sanctity of rules. I'm not suggesting that there are no rules and I agree that, if one knows and respects them, one is capable of producing copy which has greater potential for impact and effectiveness. But there's a difference between 'you must know and understand the rules before you break them' and 'rules must never be broken'.

(And, as a postscript, let me ask how many of you noticed the grammatical mistake I made in the opening sentence. I only spotted it myself on rereading and decided to leave it there as a stimulus for those of you inclined to fulminations.)

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Kreativ Blogger Award

The day started with a nice surprise. Despite my continued insistence that I’m rubbish at this blogging business, I found that I’d been awarded the Kreativ Blogger stamp of approval, thanks to Linda M Faulkner’s recommendation. Linda’s on my own list of blogs with her On Writing. You’ll find it at So thank you Linda for a positive start to my Wednesday.

Now, just in case the award comes with not only prestige but a gold statuette and a huge cheque, acceptance of it involves certain rules, which are as follows:
1. Thank the person who nominated you and link to him/her.
2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting – or that they don't know.
5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.
And that’s it.

So, 7 ‘interesting’ things about me. Hmmm, can’t think of any. So 7 things you might not know.
1. I’ve had 5 major job changes through my life and each one involved a drop in salary.
2. I’m tall so, for the moment, the only people who know how bald I am are the ones on the top decks of buses.
3. I’m in slight awe of my son (who’s now a father himself) because when he was very little, his favourite colour was black and his favourite animals were pigs. In both cases it was ‘because nobody else liked them’.
4. I’m depressed by any form of bigotry except my own.
5. I frequently seek cheap laughs through inappropriate references to Mother Theresa and places with silly names.
6. I don’t like reading books ‘which are good for me’.
7. (This is a risky one) I don’t like brandings such as Krazy Kuts. (Sorry Kreativ.)

Next, some of my favourite blogs.
A dead man fell from the sky – varied and always interesting offerings from Gary Corby

An awfully big blog adventure – which calls itself the ramblings of a few scattered authors and never fails to amuse and provoke.

May contain nuts – Michael Malone’s hilarious accounts of his doings and writings and, especially, his amazing conversations with his wee son.

Murderous musings – Jean Henry Mead’s postings about all aspects of Mystery writing …

… her interviews with and articles from other writers of the genre, Mysterious people …

… and also the blog which does what it says in the title Writing advice and good books

And finally, one which never pulls any punches and yet still entertains and celebrates writing and writers – Anne Rooney’s Stroppy author’s guide to publishing

Monday, 24 August 2009

The Mayor of London and I

I didn’t really need a reason to dislike Boris Johnson even more but I got one in the post last week. I drove home to Aberdeen from Clapham at the end of my extended birthday party and was well pleased with myself for taking all the correct turns, following the signs and weaving my way through Battersea and such places to get to the M4 and relative safety. I have a friend as well as a daughter who drive about London with panache, creativity and a bewildering lack of concern. They even manage to talk calmly as they twist their way past buses, kamikaze cyclists, taxis driven by people who obviously own the streets they’re in and buses which do their bit for the environment by making it clear that it’s far safer to be inside than outside them. For me, driving there is a nightmare.

Anyway, it was a bright, sunny day and I was soon clear of the mayhem and on my way north listening to an R J Ellory novel. When I eventually got home, I’d driven a total of 1500 miles on the trip and only had to answer a few million emails before I could get back to normal. Then came the letter. It seems that some of those 1500 miles had been inside the congestion zone. The letter included two grainy pictures of my car to prove it and demanded sixty quid, adding that, if ‘they’ didn’t get it within a couple of weeks, it would be upped to one hundred and eighty. Now, before you say ‘Serve you right. Cars are a blot on civilization and shouldn’t have free access wherever they like’, I agree with you. The experience of being a pedestrian in central London has been immeasurably enhanced by thinning out the herds of vehicles (yes, I meant ‘herds’ – it used to be like the Serengeti in the migration season) in areas such as Trafalgar Square and making the air close to breathable. But I had no idea I’d strayed into the forbidden zone so giving the mayoral buffoon sixty quid hurt.

No, there’s no moral to the story – just the usual vengeful simmering and a mental note to make sure one of the corpses in my next novel is fat and has untidy blonde hair.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The cake and I

I’m crap at blogging. OK, I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and not doing anything much online, but that should have provided me with plenty to write about. In fact, it did, but my habitual feeling of ‘who the hell’s interested in that’ makes it easier to check my Facebook page, look for chocolate, read the offerings of proper bloggers and invent more and more displacement activities.

So, to ease my conscience, I’ll give you just one insight into how I’ve spent my holiday time. It was my birthday – the first with a zero on the end that has seemed significant, because, according to the Bible, I should now be dead. (And probably will be when God takes time off helping American golfers to win matches in order to come and punish me.) Yes, I’ve been here for three score years and ten. So I went to Plymouth to celebrate it with my 3 sisters, 2 brothers (all younger than me) and our spouses. And we had a wonderful time. So much so that I was forced to replace my (again habitual) mantra of ‘Hell is other people’ with (gulp) ‘Heaven is other people’. I am Darwinned (my version of ‘blessed’) with a great family – they laugh, take the piss out of each other, and should take out a patent on the mechanics of having a good time.

There was wonderful food, excellent wine, amazingly creative presents, a specially written and performed song and, most of all, a cake. I say ‘most of all’ because my youngest sister, who made it, managed to crowd onto it objects and images which featured most of my main interests. It would be tedious to list them but, from the obvious ones, such as the shields of my school, university and the city where I’ve lived most of my life and my interest in horse racing and sailing, they ranged to a bicycle and a wee duck (because I ride a bike and confit de canard is probably my favourite meal).

Around the feet of the little, kilted, icing figure who sat carving wood (another hobby of mine) lay tiny wood shavings of icing. A golfer prepared to putt to a flag (in the 70th hole) beside which curly green icing formed the rough which he’d managed to avoid (for a change). The edge of the cake carried the titles of all my plays and books. But the pièce de résistance lay underneath the cake itself. It was propped up on five wee glasses acting as pillars and forming a sort of basement. I peered at it, saw tiny figures beside the pillars and was baffled. My sister said ‘Well, where is it?’ ‘Under the cake,’ I said. Then she patiently teased out of me the realisation that they were in a cellar. It was a scene she’d recreated of the main theme of my most recent book – 5 guys chained to pillars in a cellar.

When someone not only knows you so well that they can sum you up in a series of cake decorations but also takes that much trouble on your behalf, it almost suggests (if only briefly) that there may be some truths in life after all – no purpose, no structure, but enough to confirm that life is definitely worth living.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Spikkin right

Another aside on the question of language. ‘Hell is other people’. Of course it is. And that’s not me being existential (although I subscribe totally to that view of the world and especially that interpretation of identity and social interaction), it’s just me stating the obvious. We’re judged by how we look and what we wear. And I’m not just bemoaning the fact that, as a decrepit male, I can’t be photographed standing naked behind a pile of my books and hope it’ll create a sudden boost in sales. Anyway, perhaps most of all, we're judged by how we speak.

(As an aside to this aside, I should add that writers are also judged by their books. After reading a passage from my first book where my detective sits at traffic lights watching schoolgirls cross the road and reflecting on how they look, my wife said ‘Oh. So you fancy schoolgirls then, do you?’)

No, as a writer of both novels and plays, it’s the speaking bit of the equation that interests me. Without wishing to offend anyone, I’d suggest that if you have a character saying ‘The proliferation of epistolary exegesis prohibits the development of arcane terminology to a devastating extent’, he won’t be carrying a hod on a building site. Nor will he be sharing a pint with someone who says ‘Oi, wanker! Shift your arse.’ But, again, that’s self-evident.

No, the real problems arise when you want to convey accents. If someone has a strong regional accent of any sort, that’s part of who they are. Take the accent away from them and they cease to be the same person. The trouble for the writer is that he/she needs to convey the accent in such a way that the reader doesn’t have to stop to ask ‘WTF’s that all about?’

I encountered this with that same first book. It’s set where I live, in Aberdeen. I come originally from Plymouth, which is at the opposite corner of the UK, so you can imagine the disparity between the accents I heard when I was growing up and those I hear nowadays. In a pub in Plymouth (and I know because I lived in one) you’ll hear ‘Wobbe gwain ev?’ The same question in an Aberdeen pub might be ‘Fitchy for?’ Both are asking you what you want to drink. In ‘correct’ English, the first is ‘What are you going to have?’ and the second is ‘What are you for?’

So when, naturally enough, I made some of my fictional local coppers speak with an Aberdeen accent, my editor in London put me straight right away. ‘Fa ye spikkin till?’ (To whom are you speaking?) and ‘Fa’s 'e loon?’ (Who is that boy?) would mean nothing at all to anyone south of Stonehaven and her suggestion was that I should restrict myself to letting the characters say ‘Aye’ to indicate that they were Scots. In the end, there had to be a compromise, so they weren’t incomprehensible, but they did retain some of their accents.

The annoying thing then was that, in an otherwise very enthusiastic review of my second book, the local paper wrote ‘Some of the Scots dialogue is a little suspect and inconsistent’.

See what I mean? Hell really is other people.