My first novel: Five Scottish writers on what inspired their debuts

Falkirk author Alan Bissett drew his inspiration from his own adolescence and the need to document it. Picture: Michael GillenFalkirk author Alan Bissett drew his inspiration from his own adolescence and the need to document it. Picture: Michael Gillen
Falkirk author Alan Bissett drew his inspiration from his own adolescence and the need to document it. Picture: Michael Gillen
FIVE Scottish writers write about their inspirations for their first novel. Compiled by Matthew Dunne-Miles.

Alan Bissett on Boyracers

It was roughly a fictionalised version of the sort of life I was leading when I was maybe fifteen or sixteen. I was still at school studying for my exams and I was hanging out with these older guys who lived on the same scheme as me and one of them had a car, which we used to spend the nights driving around in.

That time in your life is crucial. You’re starting to wonder what you’re going to be doing with your life and what your future path will be and you’ve got a lot of big decisions to make. You’re becoming an adult.

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Author Val McDermid was inspired by a love of the crime writing genre. Picture: Neil HannaAuthor Val McDermid was inspired by a love of the crime writing genre. Picture: Neil Hanna
Author Val McDermid was inspired by a love of the crime writing genre. Picture: Neil Hanna

So I wanted to write about those feelings while I could still remember them. Some of those experiences. It’s fictionalised and obviously there’s a lot of stuff in their absolutely nothing to do with my back-story personally. But it was about committing the feeling of being young Scottish and working class to memory. While I could still hold onto it.

I had started writing when I was quite young, it was something I enjoyed and I had been told I was quite good at so naturally you pursue these things. As you get older and go through your teenage years, it’s actually a good way to deal with the confusing emotions and experiences you’re having. It’s quite a healthy thing. I think in my early twenties I started taking it really seriously. I was aware that time was moving on and I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I would need to make this thing actually happen if I wanted to do it.

I ended up at a Stirling writer’s group, I was a student at Stirling University at the time. They had a really good tutor there called Maggie Gibson, a poet. She had assembled a good wee group of writers there as well. I learnt really quickly there.

I had a wee breakthrough. Up to that point I had wanted to write horror, because I used to read a lot of horror and fantasy. For some reason, I couldn’t make this work in my writing.

Cathy MacPhail turned her daughter's tough time at high school into a powerful children's book. Picture: John DevlinCathy MacPhail turned her daughter's tough time at high school into a powerful children's book. Picture: John Devlin
Cathy MacPhail turned her daughter's tough time at high school into a powerful children's book. Picture: John Devlin

I started reading contemporary Scottish literature, James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, Liz Lochhead, that kind of stuff was on my radar because of the success of Trainspotting. It was the same for a lot of people my age.

That gave me a bit of confidence to write about reality. The reality I had experienced growing up. I got a short story shortlisted for thing a called the Macallan, which was the biggest short story competition in the UK. I didn’t win it as it happens but even being shortlisted at 23 was something.

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I met a woman called Allie Boulden, we get chatting and she said was a publisher. I sent her the first third of Boyracers, which is all I had written at the time. She came back with a thumbs up and said ‘I really like this, but I can’t do anything with it until it’s finished’.

That was my incentive. Boom. I was away. I just powered through that thing. I had the wind in my sails. Every artist when they’re young experiences a moment where it’s like ‘this is moving now, this is happening’ and that was that.

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The best advice I received along the way? I think you have to be true to the sort of writer that you are. You can tie yourself up in knots second-guessing yourself about your status. Or “are enough people paying attention?” Actually, you just have to write what needs to be written. If there’s one thing I’ll take away from that. Write what wants to be written. You cannae go wrong.

Val McDermid on Report For Murder

I wanted to be a writer from the point where I realised people got paid money to write books, that it was a job.

I’d always read a lot of crime fiction and I thought I understood what made a crime novel work. But I wasn’t quite sure how to escape the conventions that were rooted in a very different world from the one I inhabited. William Mcilvanney’s Laidlaw was the first clue to how that might be possible and Sara Paretsky’s debut, Indemnity Only, completed the answer.

I knew I needed another pair of eyes on it to help me fix the things I thought were still not right. I knew there was still a distance to go before it could be published but it was as good as I could get it without input from an expert. And I didn’t know anybody in the book business so I decided just to send it out and see what happened.

Barbara Wilson told me to start on the second book as soon as I’d sent out the first one, so that when it was accepted I’d feel less pressure about producing number two.

Cathy Mcphail on Run, Zan, Run

The inspiration for my first children’s novel was actually my daughter Katie.

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She she had not long started in high school when she was grabbed and assaulted by a gang of boys and girls. They were a lot older than Katie.

It was awful. They put her up on a bridge, an old railway bridge, and threatened to throw her off. She managed to get away but they were threatening her as she was running away.

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It was after that the bullying started. They wouldn’t give her a minute. I was never away from the school. I was so angry about what was happening to Katie. I wanted to take her out of the school but she wanted to stay. It affected the whole family. I was just getting so angry. I thought “I’m gonna write a book about this” and I wrote was Run, Zan, Run.

I thought I was going to be a comedy script writer. I had two comedy series on BBC radio and I was having a comedy series developed for television. I had written lots and lots of short stories - so I had done a lot of writing before, but I had never even considered writing a children’s book. I didn’t even sit down and think I was going to write a children’s book. I just wanted to write about what was happening to Katy. I just wanted to wrap it in fiction and just make it a rattling good story.

I suppose I didn’t expect it to be a proper children’s book. I didn’t know what I was thinking really. I was telling a good friend about it and she said send that into a first novel award and it won.

That was really how it started. Even then, I thought “I’ll never be able to write another.”

There’s so many good pieces of advice that I’ve had. For me, the way I write, I remember being told “get it written and then get it right”. I’ve got to get it all down and then when I go back over it, that’s when I want to get it as right as I possibly can.

My first draft is always by hand and then I start to type into it into my laptop. That’s when you think “I need more” - I even know that when I’m writing it. I need more description there, or more suspense there, I could make that a better cliffhanger.

Ken MacLeod on The Star Fraction

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Like many young readers of science fiction I had ideas for stories, and later, partly because of Iain Banks’s example, I began to have ideas for novels.

I used to tell Iain about them until, at a party to celebrate the launch of his second or third novel, a mutual friend told me Iain would rather read the books than hear my ideas for them. So that was one reason I started writing The Star Fraction: to prove to Iain and to myself that I could write a novel.

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I had no idea where it was going, just some scenes and a lot of ideas that intrigued me about technology and politics. I wrote it over several years, and showed the result (then about 70,000 words) to Iain. He was very enthusiastic.

I wrote a second draft, and sent it to Iain’s agent, Mic Cheetham. She liked the writing, but couldn’t get a handle on the plot. She asked: ‘If it was a film what would you have on the poster?’ I said: ‘A man is killed but his gun goes on fighting.’

“Now go and write that!” she said. So that summer, I did, and sent it to Mic. She took it to an editor, who read it that evening and offered a two-book contract.

Best advice? Less is more. Andrew Greig showed me how to self-edit, taking a sharp pencil through a couple of MS pages of the second chapter of my second novel.

Zoe Strachan on Negative Space

I’d been writing stories since i could write – I was an only child, not at all sporty, and reading was (and is) my favourite thing to do. But I didn’t take it seriously until I was about 23, a graduate in Archaeology and Philosophy and really drifting in jobs I found quite miserable.

I joined a writing course at Glasgow and Strathclyde and my life changed almost overnight. I think there are lots of ways into writing and nothing is right or wrong, but for me, not knowing any writers or editors or anyone like that, it really helped me to be immersed in a small and supportive group where all is thought and talked about was reading and writing.

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My first novel wasn’t autobiographical but it did come from a very personal emotional place, I realise in retrospect. Using that emotion to drive the character in different ways helped me. I also had a great tutor, Adam Piette, who did know people who worked in publishing and found me the name of an agent.

I don’t think I had any expectations and I was really quite shy of talking about my work, but I did have a blind enthusiasm for sticking some pages in an envelope and posting them off. And i was lucky - they reached the right people straight away.

Publishing has changed since then, of course!

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When I advise people now about sending out their work and getting published I wouldn’t necessarily say that they should follow my example: I was sending out chapters of an unfinished novel, and that really isn’t advisable for debut authors now. Agents and publishers don’t or can’t take so many risks and they want to see a complete manuscript, in as polished a state as possible.

But more books than ever before are being published, and we see new debuts from graduates of the Glasgow creative writing programme every year. So the real advice is the dull stuff: keep on going. Hope for the best. Write what you want to write. Read a lot and compare your work to the work of your favourite author. Think about how you can improve what you’re doing. Believe in yourself.

I do find writing quite difficult at points. I love it, but it takes time and commitment to try and do justice to the story you’re trying to tell. I’ve been inspired by lots of things: personal grief, as I mentioned, walking past launderettes in Glasgow, those early studies in Philosophy and Archaeology, dreams, Scotland, class.

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