Earlier this week I sent another revised draft of the Physic Garden to my agent. There is more to be done to it, and more to be researched. There are all kinds of facts and settings and other books to be checked - another month's work or more, including trips to Glasgow, Edinburgh, and elsewhere. All the same, the novelty of it - that sense of investigating a new world with new people in it - is gone. Well maybe. Except that it's a long, long process and I suspect there may be several more drafts to go. Or do I hope so?
As a writer, the world you create can seem much more real than the world in which you are attempting to live and function. Consequently, switching between the two is very hard and although you look forward enormously to the relief of clicking the 'send' button - once that manuscript it on its way you also feel quite bereft. The only answer is a new project. And I most certainly have one or two in mind.

The Devil's Footprints

I'm currently reading a novel called The Devil's Footprints by Scottish poet, novelist and general all round good guy John Burnside and am enjoying it more than I can say, although perhaps enjoy isn't quite the right word. It's a story with a peculiarly Scottish quality - I was trying to describe it to somebody this morning and found myself searching for the right word. There's a sense of darkness about it that is hard to define but is certainly encapsulated by the title itself. This is a literary novel, for sure, and yet not one that is in any way hard to read. The prose, elegant, beautiful, slides down like honey. Things take you by surprise. And then you find yourself stopping and thinking, what was that? What did he just say? Hell's teeth, what did he just say? In short I love it. But it got me thinking because in order to read it, I had abandoned a much bigger, and much more commercial novel which I had better not name here. Besides, there are so many like it that it would be unfair to victimise any one writer. It was a good enough story, and for a while I was enjoying it, particularly for that late night reading when you want to forge on through a chapter or two before going to sleep. But then I found myself slowly but surely getting bored. Why were the characters so two dimensional? Why was the plot so unnecessarily convoluted? Why was something that was meant to be commercial becoming so much hard work? So I found myself doing something that is a sure sign of losing it with a novel - I skimmed the upcoming pages, not as sometimes happens because I couldn't bear not to know what happened next - but really because I couldn't bear to waste any more time ploughing through the plot to get to the story.
And then I turned to The Devil's Footprints, and was captivated. Which should, I suppose, teach me something about perceptions of the difference between literary and commercial fiction. We sometimes assume that because the former will be reasonably demanding and the latter reasonably easy to access, our levels of engagement will reflect that difference. This isn't always, or even often the case. And just because the whole publishing industry seems to engage in the 'fiction' that there is a great divide between literary and commercial writing, I don't think we as readers - or even as writers - should subscribe to it.

The Scottish Review

You can now subscribe online to The Scottish Review, a Scottish current affairs magazine where you will find some of the best journalism about Scotland being written to day - and that includes a number of newspapers with supposedly broadsheet credentials. Kenneth Roy is a journalist and writer of many years' experience, with a prose style that is so concise, so elegant and so easy to read that he almost makes you forget the wonderfully incisive mind behind it, until you find yourself agreeing with just about everything he writes.
'It is no longer enough that the BBC's journalists and presenters report the news' he tells us, in the most recent issue 'they must also manufacture it.' It's the kind of piece that seems deceptively simple, but it highlights, analyses and enlarges on an issue that most of us - if we take the trouble to think about what we are seeing and hearing - notice every single day. Why in God's name have they spent a large chunk of a bulletin on some 'issue' which isn't news at all, but which seems to be solely the invention of a presenter with a sound bite to fill?
Why not sign up for the Scottish Review and see for yourself?

The Lake House and Sources of Inspiration

Stayed up to watch the Lake House with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves last night and consequently went to bed in a (pink) fog of romance. Quite apart from his sheer physical beauty there is something lovable about Keanu that defies any criticism of his acting abilities. He's constantly slated for being 'wooden' but actually in the Lake House he looks rather relaxed. I always think he's only 'wooden' in the way that big, beautiful sportsmen have that strangely massive quality - he was once an ice hockey goalie and it shows.
This week I discovered that Andrew Collins, the Radio Times film critic - somewhat unexpectedly - shares my views . He's written a piece about 'why it's impossible not to like Keanu Reeves' which you can read here.
From the 'excellent' Bill and Ted onwards, through brilliant successes (Speed, Point Break) and the occasional dubious undertaking (the last Matrix film, what the hell was all that about?) I've followed Keanu's career and have to admit that from time to time he has provided me with inspiration for a character. Many writers do sometimes use actors as sources of inspiration. Occasionally it's as though they've envisaged a whole film, cast and all. The Bridges of Madison County is a good example - who can read that and not see it as a film with Clint Eastwood in the part?
It can help to have pictures to pin up around the desk, help to watch an actor working and to imagine them as your characters - even if you don't actually describe those characters in too much detail because you're leaving room for your reader's imagination.
I've found myself doing it in The Physic Garden with - oddly enough - one main character, but not the others. The 'I' of the story is an old man reflecting on events of his youth, and I found myself from time to time 'seeing' him as a particular Scottish actor. I doubt very much if anyone reading it could guess who, because the character doesn't really describe himself and the actor in question is just that - an actor rather than a 'star' who is different in every single role. All the same, it helped me to envisage this particular actor creating the part. But then I've spent a lot of my working life watching the miraculous way in which good actors can gradually bring characters to life.
The other main characters in the novel were wholly invented. Or were they? Don't we always take bits of this or that person, this or that event and weave them into something new? Which I suppose is what the actors themselves do. What a fascinating business this is!


I usually find myself watching Saturday Kitchen (BBC's cookery programme) often while cooking myself. It's quite soothing, chopping things and half heartedly watching somebody else doing the same thing only much more efficiently. Occasionally though - it happened this morning - the linguistic quirks peculiar to chefs really get to me. It's the phrasal verbs - boil off, reduce down, why use one perfectly good word when two will do? - that irritate - as well as all those peculiar usages such as 'pan fry' (what other way is there to fry something? Well, I suppose you might count frying eggs on shovels or bacon on the boiler plates of engines.) and then there's the use of spurious words like 'jus' when there's a perfectly good English word available in 'gravy'.
And while I'm at it, there are other conventions. Meat is always described as 'rare' when any normal diner might label it 'raw' with the blood oozing onto the plate. Sprouts (of which I'm quite fond) are so undercooked that you just know it will be like chewing a mouthful of marbles. I've only seen one chef over all my years of watching cookery programmes admitting that he actually liked slightly overcooked sprouts - not, of course, boiled to within an inch of their lives but buttery rather than crunchy. Brave man. And while I'm in complaining mode, why does Masterchef have to show us the appalling sight of those two middle aged guys stuffing food into their mouths and chewing, in deeply nasty close-up. Yeuch. But I'm straying well away from literary territory here and into visual horrors.
Gary Rhodes. He's the best. He could make anything, even raw meat, seem madly appetising.

Playing About

Because I have a part time fellowship at a Scottish University, I work with a number of students who are doing creative writing courses of one kind or another - in this case it's mostly people who are writing plays or film scripts. I know there's a great deal of discussion about the validity or otherwise of so called 'creative practice' degrees and it's a debate I don't really want to get into here. Or should that be a can of worms I'm not too anxious to open? On the one hand I have reservations. On the other hand, if such a course had been available when I was starting out, I would probably have done it and enjoyed it and found it useful. But there is one element in all this that both intrigues and worries me and a conversation with an artist friend last week only confirmed my reservations. We both realised that we had found ourselves saying exactly the same thing to students - about scripts and about artworks. 'Play about. Enjoy it. Play with the ideas in it and see what happens!'
That word 'play' is so important to the creative process. You come up with an idea, you work on it and then you play about with it, question it, experiment with it, see where it takes you. Above all, you enjoy the process. You never just see it as a means to an end. The process of getting there is at least as important as the end product; the absolute absorption in the moment that is one of the joys of all creative activities.
But all of that seems to be in conflict with the aims of modern university courses which are mostly to do with getting somewhere, getting something, and ultimately getting a job, rather than learning for its own sake.
Which is all very well, I suppose, for vocational courses: accountancy, dentistry, medicine.
But creative writing? Art?
So when confronted with an anxious student who is agonising over a script I find myself wondering how to reconcile this idea of creative play with the demands of modules and courses.
I suspect there is no real resolution. More of this later.