What he said... aka thanks for that

While there is no magic formula, there are certain recurring themes in the 'How I Made It' stories of successful writers. They all had absolute faith. They all wrote with almost religious zeal and they all refused to take 'No' for an answer from life. Most drew upon their own personal experiences and few seem to have had a carefully controlled game plan. Many wrote several novels before getting their big break. Some hit paydirt on the first time out. Many have journalism as a training ground. All love words and felt compelled to tell their stories.

Use what you have. Get what you need. Tell your stories your way and learn your craft as a writer. That will make you more fulfilled, irrespective of whether it gets you published.

The problem with identifying paths and models of excellence is that we are also looking at the matter retrospectively - recognising someone who has achieved something and then asking how they did it. The assumption is not only that those positive behaviours and strategies can be replicated, but also that replicating them will, of itself, lead to some similarly quantifiable success.

Other problems arise in the process of quantification. If we look back at our own lives and achievements, the road to our goal is both hard to chart as a linear journey and excludes the elements of chance, timing and connections.

Add to that the lack of objectivity - for example, how do we even know when something can be considered a success at all - and it becomes apparent that definition of terms, factors and common perceptions is key. Perhaps all we can safely say is that some behaviour - discipline, goal setting, and an attitude of positive expectation about one's inner resources - is that these all make our success (chance, timing and connections - or the lack of them - notwithstanding) more likely. But a two-in-a-million chance is still more likely than a one-in-a-million chance, even though it is - to all intents and purposes - infinitesimally small.

Sinclair Macleod's bit o' banter

Of all the Tweets I'd read, Sinclair Macleod's were the only ones to reference Irn Bru, Haggis and Glasgow. I was intrigued, having a fondness for the Dear Green Place myself, after working for a boss based there. In fact, so proudly Glaswegian was she that she referred to Edinburgh simply as 'the other place'. Needless to say, we never had team meetings there.

Somewhere in the annals of this blog, I think I've mentioned Sauciehall Street, and possibly the Clockwork Orange and Kelvingrove. Perhaps too that Glasgow has always reminded me of New York. So I'm delighted to share a virtual conversation with Sinclair Macleod, who talks about his writing and how what makes him tick. It'll take your breath away.

1. What motivates you as a writer?

Since my days at secondary school I have always had a passion for writing. I wrote sketches for school shows and concerts. As an adult I started several novels but never got any further than nine chapters of a space adventure.

When my son, Calum died after contracting bacterial meningitis, I realised that life was too short to put my dreams on hold.

Now I write because I want people to enjoy the stories I have to tell and every word is inspired by and dedicated to Calum.

2. When you started writing your debut novel, had you planned it out first or did the book develop organically?

I started with a plan but at times there seemed to be someone else in control. I created a character in the first book that was to be a regular in the series. One day I finished a chapter and discovered that the character was dead, as if someone had killed it off without my input. It was not what I had planned when I sat down but the story took over and it turned out to be a crucial part of the plot.

3. Does the Glasgow in your books differ in any ways from the Glasgow that people know and love?

Glasgow is a crucial character in the book. It is a city of extreme contrasts in terms of architecture with everything from the mediaeval cathedral to the cutting edge contemporary designs of the modern riverside.

I use many real locations that are very distinctly Glaswegian, such as the former Templeton Carpet Factory that houses Craig’s office and Victorian opulence of the City Chambers, the home of the city council.

Other locations are amalgamations of real places with a little bit of my imagination. The pub that Craig and his friends go to is a combination of three of my favourite bars in the city.

I hope that my descriptions of the city help to give the story a sense of place and character.

4. How do you balance your time spent on writing, editing and promoting your work?

At the moment I am in an intense phase of writing as I try to finish the third book in the series. My wife tends to be my sounding board for creative editing decisions and she helps me to structure the books. My editor, who happens to be my cousin, does the technical editing and I will do a little once the book is getting close to publication.

Promotion is the area that I found the most difficult and the area that does not come naturally. I have promoted the books through local libraries and social media and my blog. I have also had some coverage in the local press recently; which I hope will help to spread the word. Promoting the third book will occupy the majority of my time for a couple of months after its release before I start on the next adventure.

5. Do you find that writing is a cathartic process and what real life influences do you draw upon?

I do find writing a cathartic process, it is a great way to still my thoughts and allow me to escape into my imagination.

I love to watch people and what I learn often finds its way into my characters. For example, I was out with some friends in a pub when a young man approached and offered us some cheap cigarettes. His bag still had the luggage tag from an airline attached to it. It was a perfect little cameo for the book to show one of the many aspects of the city that makes it an interesting place to live.

6. When did you know you had a series and where would you like to take it?

I must confess I wrote the first with the intention of creating a series of books. I think as a writer, a series gives you more scope to develop and evolve your characters. The fact that the first story had been in my head for around eleven years before I made a concerted effort to finish it meant I had plenty of other ideas backed up behind it.

I am hoping to be able to produce audiobooks with the help of an actor friend.

7. What’s your favourite part of Glasgow?

That’s a tough one. The West End is a cosmopolitan and lively part of the city and is home to my protagonist.

If I had to choose a building it would be the House for an Art Lover. It was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and showcases some of his finest interior design features.

8. Which books have you written and where can we find them?

The first book is called ‘The Reluctant Detective’ and the second is ‘The Good Girl’. They both feature the insurance investigator turned private detective, Craig Campbell.

You can learn more about them at my website http://www.reluctantdetective.com. Both are available for Kindle, iPad and as paperbacks from Amazon.

I'd just like to thank...

Well, all of you really. (The ones who voted, anyway!)

I'm thrilled to announce that The Silent Hills won its general short story category in the recent Preditors & Editors Readers' Poll:

Needless to say - but I'll say it anyway - everyone at Musa Publishing is delighted with the result, especially as The Silent Hills was only published in the latter half of 2011.

If you're still without a copy, you can get it here http://tinyurl.com/6bro36q or on Amazon.

So, what's next for me and Musa?
I'm glad you asked. Later this year, Musa will be published a Tweens / YA ebook, The Superhero Club, about an outsider who learns self acceptance and the value of friendship.

Thanks again, peeps - it's a lovely way to start 2012.

Keeping a Promise

Somewhere back in the Cretaceous Period (i.e. in my late teens), I had an idea for a long story. In essence it was about two friends who followed very different paths in life and how those paths crossed in the future. It was set in a sci-fi / fantasy context and drew on my emerging interest in religion, philosophy and all things mystical.

The more I developed the story, the more it drew me in and eventually it became a novel, over a success of exercise books and poorly typed manuscripts. In the beginning, for reasons that wouldn't stack up to scrutiny (unless you enjoy paranormal concepts), the book was named The Promise of a Rainbow. I completed the first developed version (there were many undeveloped versions, believe me) in New York, way back when, and over the years I've picked at it and refined it and smoothed off the rough edges. Think of it as a perfect spot.

A running joke between my friends used to go like this:
Them - "When are you going to finish that book?"
Me - "I've finished it lots of times."
My, how we laughed.

Well, as eagle-eyed blog readers will recall, the book - long since renamed Covenant - has had its own share of misadventures, including: the editor who died, the replacement editor who then hated and rejected the book, the independent publisher who went bankrupt, and the publisher who refused to return the manuscript or answer any email, letter or phone call - and yes, I did try Recorded Delivery.

The thing is, I recently had a request for the full manuscript from a well-known esoteric publisher (Covenant includes such themes as reincarnation and mysticism), so I naturally took the opportunity to give the book one last going over. And therein lies my point. It is the last edit, barring any changes requested by the publisher, if they deign to take Covenant on. I've reached a point where the book is the book and that's all it needs to be.

'What if the publisher declines it?' I hear you thinking. Well, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it, but another edit isn't on the cards. It is finished.


Context is a wonderful thing. Take that image, for example. Just a random pile of coins that I snatched out of my pocket and slammed down. Now notice how many are upright on the edge. Is that typical? I don't know because I'd never done it before. It reminded me of the one, single time that I flipped a coin and it landed edge up.

In my experience, all forms of writing are a dance between content and context - between what is being presented (be it fiction or non-fiction) and the environment in which that information exists.

How the reader cheers when the zero becomes the hero, after seeing all their humiliations and failures. But only because the writer has created a context where that final, triumphant breakthrough is recognised as such a change from the norm. If the hero was always heric, we'd get bored very quickly.

In comedy writing, this is misdirection, sending the audience along one train of thought then derailing (pardon the pun) that to end up somewhere entirely different.

In conversation, what is being said will also be considered in the context of who is saying it. When I was in New York, my fellow housemate, Freddie Fresh, was an African American who loved the 'N' word. As far as he was concerned, he was the black variety, I was the white variety and everyone was some kind of variety. Pioneering stand-up, Richard Pryor, had an epiphany while visiting Africa and never used the word again. Whereas, outspoken libertarian stand-up, George Carlin, said that the context itself was the issue rather than the word.

In the context of this blog post, you'll have to make up your own minds.

Should some acquaintance be forgot?

Like the two-headed god, Janus, who looks to the past and the future, I like to use the new year to both review what has been and prepare for what will be.

Here are some ideas for things - and people - to set aside in the coming year

1. Email. By which I mean: If you're not expecting something important, do now or simply fantastic (and youtube links for dogs who ride skateboards don't count) then turn off your email. Write without distraction. Read without distraction. FOCUS without distraction.

2. Unsubscribe. Are you really reading all those email newsletters you signed up for? Really? Or do you find that you're simply making folders for them to read 'one day'. If the idea of setting aside a precious hour to go through them at your leisure seems like a terrible waste of time, the chances are that it's time to wave bye-bye. Unsubscribing is liberating.*

3. The absence of a clock. I know, you want to be free to write and express yourself and do the best work you can without the constraint of time. But boundaries and deadlines are good things. Honest. They focus the mind, help you develop discipline and enable you to plan ahead.

4. Timestealers. You know those people - they mean well, probably, but they think writing is 'just a hobby', or worse, that it's 'not a proper job'. Keep set hours for your writing, draw a line in the sand and respect your craft.

Things to look forward to this year

1. The Preditors & Editors Readers' poll, where my thriller short story ebook, The Silent Hills, is up for nomination: http://www.critters.org/predpoll/shortstory.shtml

Here's the publisher page: http://tinyurl.com/6bro36q

2. I'm starting a new novel.

3. Did I mention that I'm starting a new novel? Well, I am.

Things I never knew until very recently

1. Out at Boskenna, lots of daffodils are already out.

2. The Wolf was right - there is an alternative opening scene to Lethal Weapon 1.

3. It's time to start writing a new novel.

* The jury is still out on the magazine that I've emailed FOUR times to ask them to unsubscribe me from their list. You know who you are...