Monthly Archives: March 2015

Mapping the city

From James Hogg to Ian Rankin, Robert Louis Stevenson to Alexander McCall Smith, Edinburgh is incredibly rich in literature – perhaps uniquely so for a city of its size. Walking the city it often feels as if you’re in the company of scores of writers, and last night saw the launch of a project that aims to make that feeling a reality.

LitLong is a database and app that weaves thousands of literary texts into the geography of the city. Download the app, and as you wander through streets, parks and closes it will guide you to key locations and show you how authors have written about them. You can also search the city from the comfort of your laptop – and there will even be a ‘sentiment visualiser’ that will analyse whether a location is associated with positive or negative emotion. The app was demonstrated at last night’s launch, and it looks like an amazing way to bring literature into an everyday context and give a sense of how extensive and deeply layered Edinburgh’s literary history is.

It’s not just about the history, though. LitLong includes work by several contemporary authors, and as part of the project the organisers ran a competition for writers to contribute a story to the database. I’m delighted that my story Candlemaker Row was chosen from a shortlist of five: Keith Dumble, Ricky Brown, Sandy Thomson and D.R.D. Bruton were all highly praised by Doug Johnstone, who judged the contest.

Because Edinburgh is so written about, it was difficult to find a fresh perspective for my story. My solution was quite radical… You can read Candlemaker Row here, in its entirety – and if you happen to be wandering past Haymarket, through the Grassmarket and up Candlemaker Row, you’ll be accompanied by snippets of my text along with quotes from Sir Walter Scott, Muriel Spark, Irvine Welsh and hundreds more.

Lit Long: Edinburgh is the visual, interactive output of the Palimpsest project, a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures; the School of Informatics; the University of St Andrews’ SACHI research group; and EDINA. Download the app here.

The Last Treasure Hunt trailer still

Pitching the story

One of the trickiest things about writing a novel, I’ve found, comes after you think  all the hard work is finished. The ‘elevator pitch’ is a short summary or hook that has to convey the essence of your story, and make people want to read it. Many writers weep at the thought of writing a synopsis – and yes, synopses are far from my favourite things – but for me, having to come up with a few sentences that condense and sell the book (whether that’s to an agent, a publisher or a reader) is unfeasibly hard.

In conversation, I hear myself telling people that the novel is kind of about this, and sort of like that … which of course sounds very vague and unformed, and doesn’t exactly promise a rewarding read. But kind of and sort of is my natural territory as a writer. I’m interested in exploring ambiguities, and in opening up questions rather than making statements. In life, I can generally see both sides of an argument or a position, and similarly in fiction it’s the grey areas I’m drawn to – whereas an effective sales pitch is far more black and white. Still, given my marketing experience, I ought to be better than I am at this pitching business: much of the work of branding and copywriting is about drilling down to the essence of things.

Partly, the difficulty is with how close you are to your own work – so just as you need an editor to look at your novel with an outside eye, asking someone else to draft your elevator pitch could at least give you a good starting point.

And it might give you something much better than that. The very clever Jenny Hamrick has created a trailer for The Last Treasure Hunt, and it’s a stronger hook than any I’ve come up with. From now on, whenever someone asks me what the book is about, I think I’ll just pull out my phone and show them this…

I'm Scared Too But We'll Make It by Christopher Cotrell

Introducing ‘This Is How We Make It’

For years I’ve had a geeky fascination with how creative people work: how they organise their days, how they make a living, how they’ve managed to carve out a career of sorts – so it’s partly to indulge my own nosiness that I’m publishing a series of interviews with writers, artists, musicians, actors and creative people of all kinds.

For people who choose this kind of work there are no set career paths, no annual appraisals or HR  support; instead, we need to learn from each other – about making opportunities, coping with difficulties and how to keep going. So in addition to giving me the chance to talk to all sorts of interesting people, the hope is that This Is How We Make It will grow into a useful resource for anyone who’s pursuing a creative passion, or dreaming of doing so.

Read the first interview now, with painter Jayne Stokes – and look out for the next interview with writer Viccy Adams, coming soon.