Waiting for the first review of my first novel for children brought another first; a turbulent mix of anxiety, glass-drained pessimism, glass-overflowing optimism and trying to get on with writing the next one while attempting to ignore the elephant sitting in the corner trumpeting “you’re rubbish and you know you are.”
Then one morning it arrived and another feeling crept over me; disbelief. This is really happening, I am really going to have a novel published (although there’s still a voice somewhere in my head going ‘hang on, there’s plenty that could go wrong between now and October’). But there it was and I couldn’t have asked for a better one from Scott Evans, the Reader Teacher (he blogs here).
There were two words in particular that strummed a chord: “storytelling magic.” I love story telling. I want to write stories that grab the reader and don’t let go until the final full-stop. I also adore listening to stories – one of the great pleasures is sitting in a warm kitchen surrounded by friends, clutching a pint and grinning as one of them lays out their latest tale of woe/derring-do/lost love/lost youth/one drink too many.
There is a strong oral tradition of storytelling in Scotland, in particular on the west coast among the Highlands and islands. The Seanachaidh was the storyteller, traditionally as much a part of the ceilidh as music and dancing.
In the Gaelic narrative tradition stories were, of course, taught by one generation to the next, told over and over. Brian Stewart, who died in 2011, was one of the last traditional Gaelic storytellers. He came from a family of travellers; in summer they journeyed around the Highlands in horse and cart finding work as tinsmiths and horse traders. Brian learnt his stories in part from his uncle Ailidh Dall, Blind Ali, and in the main from his granny, Susie Stewart.
As a boy after dinner he would go to his granny’s house in winter – the travellers returned to the same winter quarters – and ask her to tell him stories over and over until it was bedtime.
The image of a young Brian sitting in front of the peat fire as her singsong voice called down the tales and legends of hundreds of years while the winter wind whistled its worst outside is a setting for a story in itself. You can smell it and see it and hear it.
I started making up stories to tell my daughters on train journeys, taking the start of half-remembered Scottish fairy stories or legends, or one of the tall tales my mum or granny had once told me of life on the Isle of Mull, and twisting it and expanding it to suit my demanding audience.
Telling stories to my girls often made me think of a character in one of my favourite novels – my go-to book when I need cheering up. The Crow Road is Iain Banks at his finest, and at his finest he was a great storyteller.
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” From the best opening line ever (probably) to the very last word – “Ha!” – the Crow Road is a story that hypnotises you. The character I’ve come to be fascinated by as I’ve grown older and become a father is Kenneth McHoan (as you age and re-read books do you naturally begin to like the older characters more?).
Ken is a teacher and tells stories to his kids to keep them going on family walks – there’s a good one about how cairns came about. Eventually he starts writing them down – much as how the oral tradition of storytelling has gradually become a written one over the last couple of centuries – and gets himself a publishing deal.
I liked Kenneth because of the storytelling and wished I could be a dad like him. And in time I also wanted to be Kenneth because he had a publishing deal, something that for so long seemed to me a pipe dream.
I re-read The Crow Road while writing an adult novel of my own, Red Road, a piece of ‘what-if’ historical fiction imagining a revolution in Glasgow in 1919, and hoped one day I would get a deal and be Kenneth, living a happy life with his wife and young children on the west coast.
We ticked one Kenneth box by leaving London and moving to the west coast – my wife, Karen, deciding she would work full-time so I could chase my dream of writing (I am not worthy).
So I finished Red Road and sent it off. The rejections mounted and mounted and as they did Iona and Torrin, my daughters, nagged me about a promise they claimed I’d made them. ‘You said you’d write a story for us when you finished your book,’ they said. ‘You promised.’
What choice did I have. I didn’t think I’d be any good at it – writing for children is difficult. It felt even more daunting than writing for adults.
“As you go on the thing comes upon you,” said Donald Alasdair Johnson, a Gaelic storyteller from South Uist in an interview I read about the oral tradition in the western isles. “It comes little by little to me.”
So it did to me. Like Kenneth, I found I loved writing for children. And here I am, with plenty more rejections but most importantly the backing of Mikka at my publishers, Everything With Words, waiting for that first review and I get called a “storyteller.”
All I’ve got to do now is make sure I don’t follow in Kenneth’s steps any more closely because… if you don’t know what happens to him then please buy the book (from here ) and you will enjoy a masterpiece of storytelling.
PS For anyone embarking on or floundering in the writing process do take in crime writer Will Dean’s excellent YouTube series about becoming and being a writer (watch them here). It was one of his pieces of advice that inspired this first blog; when that first book comes out take a moment and pat yourself on the back. No writer – certainly not this one – is an overnight success so relish, for that one moment, the good time (because he knows, and so do I staring into my pessimism pint, there will be plenty of more difficult moments down the line).
PPS Strictly speaking The Reader Teacher wasn’t my first review. That came from my eldest Iona. “Huuummm,” she said. “You’ve done better.”
PPPS If any agent or publisher wants to take a look at Red Road do get in touch…