Before I began pretending to be a writer I used to pretend I was a musician. Writing (generally very bad) songs in my teens and twenties were my introduction to playing around with words on paper.
The transition to writing fiction wasn’t something I planned. I’m old enough to remember the days when people had PCs but no internet to play on. I remember wondering what I was supposed to do with that grey box in the corner of the living room, and eventually started filling up the screen with random thoughts and words when the telly was rubbish.
At around the same time I started reading the novels of Christopher Brookmyre. Although I had read and enjoyed many Scottish authors previous to this, it was Brookmyre’s books that showed it was okay to write in a ‘normal’ Scottish voice, about ‘normal’ Scottish characters. This was a revelation to me. Okay, his characters tended to go around shooting people and blowing things up, but beneath that he creates a collection of very real, recognisable people with familiar, everyday problems.
This was at the back of my mind when I had, pretty much out of the blue, a story idea. That was – What if an unsuccessful, depressed musician (not remotely connected to my own circumstances, of course) committed suicide, then got a record deal? That became the basis of my first novel, Will You Love Me Tomorrow. I played around with this idea for the next couple of years, until I eventually found myself typing the words ‘The End’.
When you write do you have a particular routine you follow, and what do you find the most difficult part of writing a book?
Unfortunately my writing routine tends to include far too many late nights, cigarettes and glasses of red wine. However, once I’m confident that whatever I’m working on is going somewhere I do try to become more disciplined, and generally set myself a minimum of 1000 words per day. I have a bad habit of editing as I go, and it can therefore take me a while to reach those 1000 words, but I try not to stop till they’re down. Of course I tend to end up deleting most of them the following day.
The most difficult part of writing for me is coming up with the story idea in the first place. I’m always jealous of other writers who say they have so many ideas that they can’t get them all on paper. They’re just showing off, I reckon. I’m constantly trying to come up with ‘story questions’ or ‘what ifs’ that I hope will lead me to another novel length story. So far I’ve had two that were strong enough to get to those final two words. I’m hoping another one will appear soon.
How would you describe your books and style?
When I started writing the first chapter of WYLMT I had no real idea what I was doing, and certainly had no ‘style’ in mind. Given that the chapter was basically a suicide scene, I was surprised to find it ended up being funny. That wasn’t my intention, it just happened that way. As the book progressed I did deliberately start looking for ways to get the reader laughing, or at least smiling – not always easy in a story about clinical depression and bereavement.
With Scratch, however, I went into it with the single intention of making the book as funny as possible. Something made easier by the lack of death etc in the story.
I’ve never felt the desire to write ‘literary’ fiction, and would hope that my future writing follows the same pattern as WYLMT and Scratch, i.e. stories about flawed, believable characters reacting to whatever circumstances may throw at them with humour, bafflement and occasional bouts of idiocy. One thing I do try to be careful of is ensuring that my characters react realistically and treat serious subjects seriously. I don’t want to write parodies or spoofs, just human stories. Most people I know socially are always trying to find the laugh in any situation, and that’s what I try to reflect in my writing.
Style-wise, I suppose I aim for ‘conversational’. If the reader feels like they’re in the pub sharing a pint and a giggle with my characters then that’s more than good enough for me.
Do you start a book knowing what the beginning, middle and end will be or does it take on a life of its own as you write?
A bit of both, really. WYLMT was roughly planned out from start to finish before I began writing it. However the final book reflected this plan only vaguely, as the situations and characters reacted to events in ways I hadn’t expected.
Scratch began life as a short story. When I decided to expand it into a novel I had only a rough idea of where it would end up going. The original ending I had in my head was, frankly, rubbish, and I was delighted when it went off in a different direction. I was aware throughout the writing of Scratch that I was, essentially, writing a rom-com. I therefore made sure I avoided as many of the clichés associated with the genre wherever possible.
One of the main joys of writing, for me, is when the plot or characters change in surprising ways as I write. In both books, entire subplots evolved out of random bits of dialogue that came out of nowhere.
Are you self-published or traditionally published, and what has been the best and worst thing about the route you have taken?
I’ve been both. WYLMT was traditionally published after winning a book deal in a competition back in 2007. Unfortunately, although it was gratifying to see the book in print, the publishers were small, independent and financially precarious. It hasn’t been a great experience, to be honest, and I’m in the process of terminating my contract with them and regaining the rights to the book. (If anyone wants to read about it, have a look at my blog post ‘The Perilously Painful Path to Publication’.)
Scratch is self-published through Amazon Kindle. The reason for this was simple. Unlike some authors, I don’t pretend it’s because the world of traditional publishing is too closed off for new writers (though it is), or that my work is too ‘unique’ or ‘experimental’ to attract a contract. I put Scratch on Kindle because it was sitting on my PC doing bugger all and I was (am) skint. The main aim is to generate a modest second income to top up my very modest first income. If that works out then I’ll do the same with WYLMT when I regain the rights.
In both cases, the hardest thing is the self-promotion. Unless you’re with one of the bigger publishing houses, authors have to do this no matter what route they take. Some are naturals - I’m not one of those. I find it uncomfortable to ‘tout my wares’ on forums etc, but it has to be done. I’m still in the early stages with Scratch. That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise to find that you’d read and reviewed the book without my specifically asking you to. In an ideal world this would happen more and often, thus eliminating my need to do anything. I’m essentially very lazy.
If this isn't too much like asking a dad which of his children he likes best, which of your characters is your favourite?
Although I’m very fond of both Claire Rivers from WYLMT and Jim Cooper from Scratch, it’s actually the supporting characters I usually end up liking best. In Scratch it would be a close run race between Simon/Joe, the Bruce Lee obsessed psychologist and father of Jim’s ex-girlfriend, and Abe the foul-mouthed, perma-stoned chef. They were both so much fun to write that they’ve stayed with me as firm favourites.
What do you like to read and do you have any other passions?
I have pretty varied tastes in reading. Christopher Brookmyre continues to be a big favourite and I always eagerly anticipate his new novels. But I am as happy to be reading the latest Mark Billingham thriller as I am Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. I’m not a huge fan of literary fiction, but I’ve been very impressed by David Mitchell’s books over the last couple of years.
Music continues to be a big passion, though my guitar has been looking a little unloved and under used recently.
Finally, what are you working on at the moment that you can tell us about?
I don’t have a current work in progress, still waiting for that elusive story question to hit me. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t push Scratch round the agent circuit, as I know the first question anyone interested would ask would be ‘what’s next?’ and ‘eh, dunno,’ probably isn’t the best answer to give them.
Most of my writing time these days is devoted to helping write for and edit Words With JAM, the free writing magazine. We’re about to have a big push for the upcoming June issue to coincide with managing to get an exclusive interview with JK Rowling and also introducing a print and Kindle edition of the magazine (it’s been purely online up till now).
Thank you so much Danny for taking the time to join me, I hope inspiration for a new story hits soon!
You can find Danny's blog here. Scratch is available for the kindle in the UK here and to the rest of the world here via Amazon, while his first book is available in paperback. You can also find Scratch on Facebook here.. If you want to know more about Words With Jam take a look at the website here.