Editing: The Productive Way To Procrastinate

I have the climactic chapters of a book to write, and I’m not doing it. Yes, I’m procrastinating again, but I’m also working hard.* How? I’m editing, hooray!

image taken from keypersonofinfluence.com

I’ll admit it: I love editing. I recently saw a quote by the author Shannon Hale that summed up my feelings on the process perfectly:

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

That’s exactly why I love editing: the hard work of digging sand is over, so now it’s time to have fun and let my imagination run riot. Yet, for some reason, I get the impression most writers hate editing their own work. Maybe it’s because you have to start looking at the technical structure of your writing: is this grammatically correct, is that the right word to use, is this telling and not showing, OH GOD I’VE USED SO MANY ADVERBS and so on; maybe it’s because it’s time to start looking at your MS with a dispassionate eye and kill off your pet characters, bin your favourite extraneous scenes and cut those oh so pretty paragraphs of description you’ve lovingly splattered across multiple pages. I understand all that, yet I still love editing.

For me, first drafts are like tooth extractions: painful, time-consuming and best achieved whilst slightly numbed. The first lesson of writing is don’t try to make things perfect first time, but it’s one I’ll never truly learn. Stop trying to come up with elegant turns of phrase and get those words down, boy! I’m forever reminding myself that first drafts are dreck and they’re supposed to be dreck. Get the castle foundations dug now and worry about the spires, crenelations, stain-glass windows and plush interiors later.

taken from giphy.com

This is not me, thankfully

I also don’t like planning ahead. Stephen King once said something along the lines of I create characters, create a situation and see how they react, and I’m the same. Apart from a vague ending and one or two major “checkpoints” (sorry, I’ve been playing too much Carmageddon on my phone) along the way, I don’t really know the route my stories are going to take. New ideas, locations and characters make themselves known at random times; later scenes contradict earlier ones, background drones join the main cast and incidental events become world-changing. To be perfectly honest, I only stumble upon the true point of a story once it’s either almost finished, sitting complete in a folder (whispering I’m pish and you know it whenever a mouse pointer drifts by) or after feedback from brave beta readers. I thank those brave souls past and future, and applaud time for providing the objectivity to reread, grimace and start killing one’s darlings.

So, yes: editing turns my incoherent ramblings and half-baked ideas into something resembling sense, and it’s so much fun. I once had to design and construct a model of my ideal bedroom for a Standard Grade art project, and once the basics were done I spent ages obsessing over the tiny details that made it truly mine: stars on ceilings, a cardboard telescope, a ramshackle balsa recreation of Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chairminuscule titles on books and CDs, a perfectly framed magazine cut-out of a Sensible Soccer scene stuck to the telly screen, that kind of thing. Editing feels the same way: I adore paring down sentences to their pithy minimum, perfecting descriptions, trimming dialogue, getting to the point.** Opinions on the finished product will vary, but I can guarantee you it’s a thousand times better than that muddy, misshapen, whiffy lump of dirt I called a ‘first draft’.

Some numbers, if you like that kind of thing: the first draft of my first novel (which remains quarantined for the greater good) was longer than Harry Potter and the Order Of The Phoenix, yet the final draft was barely longer than Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. My second novel took 26-ish drafts to get “right” and will probably be entirely rewritten if current plans work out. I’ve already cut 50,000 extraneous words from the now 100,000-ish count of my fourth and current MS, and will no doubt cull more when I’m finally done. My brain and mouth rarely produces something coherent first time round, in conversation or in writing, but at least I can review, revise, restate (and if necessary) recant the latter!

One of my writing folders. Excessive? Possibly.

Ultimately, editing feels like skiving yet achieves so much, and for me that’s the best of all worlds. I’d love to know how other people edit, favourite methods, hints and tips etc — feel free to comment below and share your thoughts 😀

*Yes, I know I’m procrastinating by writing this post. GO AWAY

**I don’t edit blog posts to the same exacting standard, as you can probably tell…

Coming Up For Air

In retrospect, there’s no surprise it’s been more than a year since I last posted here: I’m capable of quite astonishing bouts of laziness and could procrastinate for Great Britain at the Olympics. Still, life has comprehensively gotten in the way these last fifteen months, and I’m only recently starting to find some kind of equilibrium again.

After spending much of summer 2017 in hospital (and latterly, Edinburgh’s Marie Curie hospice), my beloved wife Caz passed away last October. Cancer is an awful disease, and she bore her burden for more than four years with little fuss or complaint. There’s no denying her last few months brought her significant pain and distress, and I thank the staff of the Marie Curie hospice from the bottom of my heart for making Caz’s last few weeks as comfortable and bearable as they could.

Despite everything, Caz remained cheerful, stoic and optimistic in the hospice, and was still knitting cuddly animals and tackling her formidable Listener Crosswords until the end. One evening, after narrowly losing our daily Times word-wheel competition (we adapted said newspaper’s puzzle by writing down the nine random letters on two separate pieces of paper, setting a ten-minute timer and competing to make as many words as we could), Caz suggested she had the strength to manage a few more weeks. Next morning her illness worsened at a frightening pace; twelve hours later she passed away with me and her mother by her side. As devastating as it was, I couldn’t help but feel relieved her suffering was finally over. After Caz’s death her family and friends raised just shy of £10,000 for Marie Curie and almost £1,500 for Beating Bowel Cancer, two utterly amazing amounts that still leave me stunned. Caz definitely would have approved.

The aftermath of Caz’s passing obviously floored me, and it quickly became clear that I couldn’t stay in our house without her. So, in 2018 I’ve bought a house, sold a house, left the Edinburgh suburbs behind and moved back to my childhood home, the Isle of Arran. It’s been almost twenty years since I last lived here full-time, and it’s simultaneously strange and wonderful being back. I’m still getting used to the slower pace of life, and after moving to a rather remote part of the island, the twenty-mile round trip to the shops! I couldn’t ask for a better view (on the clearest days I can see the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland, more than 93 miles away), although at more than 150m above sea-level on an exposed south-facing hillside, the winters are going to be rough and wild!

The night skies on my doorstep are truly spectacular: the nearest major source of light pollution is Belfast (!), and at a Bortle Rating of 3, you can’t get much darker in the UK. I’ve never seen the Milky Way shine so brightly, and I witnessed the Zodiacal Light for the first time in my life mere weeks after moving in. The only downside is the steep hillside to the north, blocking views of all but the most spectacular of Northern Lights displays. Can’t have everything, I suppose…


After a nervous start, Katie-cat utterly adores her new home. She has acres of farmland and hillside to explore, and has become a hunter of considerable guile, finesse and ambition. Voles, shrews, mice and songbirds are commonplace gifts; I occasionally find a dead rat under my bed, and her biggest trophy has been a fully grown rabbit. I found the poor creature by the bathroom door, still warm with bite wounds in its neck and belly; despite the wabbit being about 30% of Katie’s weight, she somehow managed to drag it through the cat-flap!

My new house is lovely, and it’s nice living closer to family and friends old and new. Much DIY has been done since arriving (mostly by my eager and willing Dad, to be fair); moving to a bigger house and living alone means extra rooms to play with, so I now have a proper library to call my own 😀44898625_10156507814786285_7735735862490562560_oIt’s been a simultaneously busy yet torpid year so far; after the stress of moving and selling the old place, a “normal” life eludes me yet. I still need to find a job (after spending so long caring for Caz full-time, the thought is rather daunting) and at times it’s hard to summon the motivation to do much at all. I’ve been reasonably good at going hillwalking, cycling, swimming and indulging in other outdoor activities, but late summer brought a period of extreme laziness I’ve yet to conquer. Thing is, I’m not very good at doing more than one thing at once, and it coincided with finally managing to get some kind of writing momentum back again. My NY resolution only took seven months to kick in…

So yes, what’s been happening on the writing front? I’ve been plugging away at a new book, provisionally titled The City On The Edge Of Forever, and what was originally meant to be a short fairy tale-esque story for youngish children has ballooned into a giant YA epic fantasy that could take five parts to fully tell. It’s been hugely difficult to write, given everything else that’s been going on these last couple of years, and I’ve struggled with the story in a way I’ve never struggled before. Still, I’ve almost reached the end, and I’ve partly written this blog post as a motivational exercise. After all, today is October 31st, which as most aspiring writers know, means NaNoWriMo begins tomorrow. Writing an entire book in a month is not my style (nor within my capabilities), but hopefully finishing the last 10,000 words and finally completing a first draft is. We shall see!

Elsewhere, I’m very pleased with the reception The Girl With The Sealskin Dress has gotten so far, especially since I haven’t had a single spare moment to publicise it in any shape or form. It’s not available just now (boo!), but that’s because a Highlands-based publisher is considering it for publication (hurrah!) More news on that soon, hopefully.

In retrospect, my NY writing resolutions were ridiculously optimistic (finish novel, redraft novel, successfully pitch novel and sign with a new agent), but given the difficult days that have passed, and the unforeseen complications that have lurked round every corner, hopefully I’ll at least achieve the first two. Maybe, with luck, I can sort out the rest of my life too…

A Trip to Stroma

In The Girl With The Sealskin Dress Mairi moves from Largs to Stromsay, a small island in the Pentland Firth. Stromsay is by no means my own creation; as I mention in the Author’s Note, Mairi’s new home is in fact a thinly veiled reimagining of Stroma, itself a small island a couple of miles northwest of John o’ Groats in the real-life Pentland Firth.

Stroma is a fascinating place. I think I first read about the island in Bella Bathurst’s The Wreckers, which told the history of wreck salvage and smuggling around the Pentland Firth (amongst other places). The islanders were mostly crofters and fishermen, and in the mid-twentieth century a once thriving community dwindled away to almost nothing. The island’s last permanent inhabitants left in 1962, although lighthouse keepers and their families apparently still lived on the island until the nineties. Alas, in 1997 the lighthouse was automated and goodness knows how many continuous centuries of habitation on Stroma came to an end. Bella Bathurst tells the story of how James Simpson, a former Stroma resident, came to purchase the island after it was abandoned, and he has now transferred ownership of the island to his son William, who uses the island for grazing and farming.

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Map of Stroma, courtesy of the Ordnance Survey

I don’t recall precisely when I decided to take Stroma’s intriguing past and turn it into a full-blown tale of wrecking in Northern Scotland, nor when I realised it would combine well with a story based on selkie myths I’d been brewing for a while. Anyway, I started writing the story in early 2013, abandoned it to work on other projects, then resumed writing towards the end of 2014. By summer 2015 I had almost finished the first draft, and although I was pleased with the setting, something was missing: I hadn’t actually seen Stroma, let alone set foot on its shores. Sure, I’d read everything I could about the island in the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection section of Edinburgh’s Central Library, and scoured the internet for as much information as I could find, but text and photographs are no substitute for the real thing.

I had to go there, and soon.

Luckily, my wife and I had already been talking about going north somewhere for a wee break. It didn’t take too much persuading before we’d settled on Thurso as our destination — neither of us had travelled that far north in Scotland before — and so the plan was set. After some internet digging, I found out that Catherine Byrne, former resident of Stroma (and last child to be born on the island!) and author of the wonderful Follow The Dove, was willing to put people in touch with Stroma’s owner. I emailed her, and barely ten minutes later she replied with William Simpson’s phone number and a message saying she’d love to read my book once it’s done — Catherine, the book is on its way!

So, after a night’s stop-over in Inverness we headed north and reached Wick by early afternoon. This was a deliberate detour to visit Old Pulteney, distillers of a wonderfully fresh, sea-salty single malt whisky that wins too many awards to count. Since my wife hates whisky, I got her complimentary drams as well, and after purchasing my compulsory souvenir glass we were on the way to Thurso (I wasn’t driving, obviously…) Oh, we also saw the shortest street in the world:

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Ebenezer Place, Wick – the world’s shortest street

We’d booked three nights at Camfield House, an impossibly luxurious Thurso bed & breakfast with a mini-golf course, full-sized snooker table, complimentary evening drinks, gorgeous food and more general wonderfulness than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, folks: stay here if you ever get the chance, it’s amazingAlas, despite (or possibly because of) it being the end of June, the weather report for our stay wasn’t promising; not always raining, but worryingly windy. One of the myriad reasons Stroma’s population fell was due to a lack of decent shelter for boats, and the islanders were used to being cut off for weeks at a time in bad winters. This meant that our hopeful trip to Stroma was in jeopardy, and sure enough, when I phoned William Simpson he was happy to take us over, but wasn’t sure when or if it would be possible in the two full days we had in Caithness.

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A long way from home…

Our first full day was too windy for a trip across the Pentland Firth, so we visited The Castle of Mey (former residence of the Queen Mother) and John o’ Groats before getting utterly drenched en route to Duncansby Head. We reached the lighthouse shivering and soaked through, and then the weather decided to turn really mean. Further progress was impossible, so we abandoned our walk to Duncansby Stacks and returned to Thurso; we’d seen Stroma from afar, if nothing else. Fortified by baths, snooker, beer, wine and a lovely meal, we readied ourselves for a potential trip to the island the next day.

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Thurso Bay and the Simmer Dim

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Caz at Thurso Harbour

Next morning I phoned William Simpson again, and hurrah! the forecast was rain but less wind, and he was planning to do some work on Stroma that afternoon. We met him and his friend at a harbour in Gills around 10 a.m., and were soon carving our way across the unusually calm Pentland Firth, Stroma growing closer with every passing second. He dropped us off at The Haven, Stroma’s main harbour on the southern coast. It was built in the nineteen-fifties (I think) in an attempt to improve access to the island and halt the already precipitous population decline; one book I’ve read suggested this merely made it easier for families to leave.

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Approaching Stroma

Anyway, William and his friend puttered off in his boat to work somewhere else on the island, leaving my wife and I with four precious hours to explore Stroma as we pleased. I’d already asked if anywhere was off-limits; William replied with a pleasing shrug and a simple you’ll know what’s sensible. So we followed the harbour road inland then cut across the grasslands to the former village of Uppertown, then followed the overgrown road north past the church and into Nethertown.

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The first croft we encountered

The crofts of Stroma lie pretty much as they were when abandoned all those years ago. Bedframes rust in draughty rooms; chairs and mangles now occupy box-beds built into the wall; doors lie skew-whiff against walls, long since fallen or removed from their hinges. Sheep roam the island freely, and obviously take shelter in the ruins during bad weather. Most of the crofts — already low-ceilinged by modern standards — were so full of impacted mud and sheep shit the floor was two feet higher than normal; we had to walk bent double between rooms and some of the fireplaces were barely visible behind the muck. Some crofts had tiny ladder-like flights of stairs leading to dusty, pigeony lofts littered with leftover timber, luggage and all manner of intriguing detritus. We couldn’t see much evidence of the island’s farming past — everything had turned grassy and choked with weeds — but we barely moved a few steps without encountering yet more sheep, presumably shocked and put out by the presence of actual human beings invading their home.

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Inside a croft

After passing the island’s church, schoolhouse and war memorial, then Stroma Mains on our right (the island’s only large farm, and a source of contention and resentment according to James Simpson, as quoted by Bella Bathurst) we cut across the marshy western half of the island to visit the Gloup. Simply put, The Gloup is a gigantic hole in the ground with the sea at the bottom, the legacy of a roof collapse in a sea tunnel that bored a considerable way inland. It’s terrifyingly deep and steep-sided, and although it was low tide when we visited, waves still lapped at the rocks far beneath us. Ominously, a long-dead sheep, gassy and inflated through decay, bobbed gently in the waters below. The tunnel to the sea looked wonderfully grand and begged to be explored.

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The Gloup

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The tunnel to the sea and a deid sheep

We carried on north, and by the time we’d passed through Nethertown the rain had returned with a vengeance, so we took shelter in the foghorn building near Stroma Lighthouse on the island’s north coast. When the rain passed by we had a wonderful view of the Sheep Skerries at low tide (inspiration for the Sgeirskerry so crucial to Mairi’s story in Sealskin) and a colossal pod of seals on the skerries of Langaton Point. We were walking along the cliffs overlooking the skerries, at least twenty-five metres above and two hundred metres away from the seals, but one of them spotted us and over the next minute or so the entire pod (somewhere between one and two hundred seals, my photos suggest!) lumbered into the sea and swam off.

Some of them swam south and west (as though keeping an eye on us!) as we walked along the impressive cliffs overlooking Scope o’ Camm and the sheer-sided geo forming the entrance to the Gloup. Alas, by then we’d already run out of exploring time, so we cut straight across the marshy landscape south of the Gloup, making for the church on the skyline. This involved some convoluted navigation around bogs and temporary lakes, and the local seabirds were seriously hacked off at our presence. Much dive-boming ensued, but since it was past nesting time, no actual beak-and-claw assaults occurred. We met William and his friend back at The Haven at 3 p.m., and left Stroma with heavy hearts and and an itching desire to return.

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Looking south to Nethertown

So, after all that, what was Stroma actually like? Despite everything, it wasn’t a sad place; I didn’t feel loss or sorrow whilst exploring the former homes of people long gone and now most likely passed on. Perhaps it was because the inhabitants chose to leave the island, rather than being evicted through coercion or force; perhaps it was because the sheep and the birds and the seals gave the island life and vitality, making it a real place rather than a mere location on a map. Maybe it was the surprisingly good condition of the crofts we explored — open to the elements they might’ve been, but they were clearly built to last, and most would’ve provided decent, warm, dry shelter for any desperate soul passing by — or the traces of occupation left behind, making the island’s past tangible and real rather than an abstract history to be pondered. Yes, it was an impossibly bleak and windy place — Mairi’s initial imaginings aren’t far from the truth — but also quiet, fertile, beguiling and beautiful. It was so easy to picture people living, thriving and dying there, and as far as my little story was concerned, I could see every part of Mairi’s tale playing out across the landscape I’d previously constructed from textual accounts, photographs and my imagination.

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The Sheep Skerries, inspiration for the Sgeirskerry

Lastly, how does my Stromsay compare to Stroma, its real-life twin? The geography of Stromsay follows that of Stroma closely, although certain features are very much exaggerated to suit the plot – the semicircle of cliffs surrounding the Sgeirskerry, for example, does not exist in real life. My fictional Gloup is much bigger and more sheer-sided than Stroma’s; I made the tunnel to the sea unnavigable by boat and mostly underwater, whilst kayakers and the like can easily access the real Gloup in fair weather. I’ve no idea whether Stroma is riddled with caves and tunnels; probably not, because reality is rarely as exciting as fiction, and there is no equivalent of Castle Cammo on the island; Castle Mestag is marked as occupying an isolated stack in the southwest of the island, but virtually nothing remains.

Overall, I hope I’ve done Stroma justice in Sealskin. I loved writing about my reimagined version of the island, and my visit two summers ago was a rare privilege I’ll cherish forever. Many thanks to Catherine Byrne and William Simpson for making it possible.

Here’s a small gallery of pictures I took while I was there (click on the photos to enlarge):

More useful information about Stroma can be found here:

Stroma index at Caithness.org

Pending

I’m sure I’ll write about something soon. In the meantime, everybody knows the internet runs on cats, so here’s a picture of my adorable Katie-kitten:

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(I should probably dedicate this blog solely to Katie pictures and be done with it…)