Below, an article I wrote for Pulse Online: 'How I became a GP novelist.' (link here)
I started writing while still at university: short stories, crap poetry, and a couple of (even crapper) novels. Medicine for me at that point was all about taking in vast amounts of knowledge, so it was good to be doing something that felt completely different.
I’ve never been on a writing course, so learnt through failure (lots of it). I reckon courses are a good way to speed things up – though I also reckon you have to learn the 10,000 ways of writing a bad novel as well as the 20 bullet-pointed ways to write a good one – and the only way to do that is through practice, failure, then more practice.
Several years ago I got a short story published in Granta’s New Writing; at the launch for that I met my agent. Two years ago when I completed my third novel, The Last of Us, she pitched it to several publishers, and Borough Press bought it. Sounds simple – but getting to that point involved one shelved novel and took ten years!
Being a GP it’s always been challenging finding time to write. Now I work six sessions, so there are two mornings and a lunchtime per week where I can get some words down. The rest is stolen half-hours, which forces me to be efficient.
Little details of the professional make their way into the stories. For example, The Last of Us has a young girl called Elizabeth who’s the daughter of rural GPs who job-share on a Scottish island (my wife and I job-shared on the Hebridean island of Barra). The novel I’m currently writing is based around a GP practice in Glasgow, set just after the financial crisis.
The writing and editing involved in creating a novel feels substantially different to anything I do as a GP, which helps me switch off and stay sane. Reading, I think, is the key: is there not some research which suggests that reading fiction can make a person more empathetic? (Although if you Google ‘reading fiction’ the first result you get is ‘waste of time’).
If any other GPs wanted to become novelists my advice would be start by writing short stories; they help you discover the voice and viewpoint you’re good at. Reading and writing poetry helps you appreciate the cleanest, simplest, sweetest language. And by all means go on a writing course, but also be prepared to learn by failure. As Samuel Beckett wrote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’
At the launch for The Last of Us I saved up thanks for my kids to the end, for helping to provided the voices of Rona, Elizabeth, Calum Ian and Duncan. In fact one of the lines running through the book - 'What's going to work? Teamwork!' was taken from something my eldest had a brief fad for saying a few years ago. In the book it became Elizabeth's catchword - where it was often met by silence, or grumbled at, or even finally used by the other kids as a sulky or sarcastic retort.
Which brings me on to something I've found useful in writing - making lists of things your characters might say. It's especially useful for first person narrators, but also helps I think with third - helps you 'get in role,' so to speak, and inhabit the character that wee bit better. You might only use about ten per cent of the list in the end, but that ten per cent will have gold in it somewhere - and if it's there ready to use, there's more chance you'll think about and use it - it may even help to suggest plot.
I've used lists to get the voice of a Victorian cut-purse and cut-throat (there's some brilliantly salty Victorian slang on the web); used it for the late 17th century diary of a Scottish colonist involved in the disastrous Darien scheme; used it when writing a short story set in Shetland, and then for another set in Yemen. And it doesn't just help with historical fiction, or child narrators - it's been useful in my next novel for creating the contemporary voices of a young IT graduate, and a detective.
And it can help with crafting realistic new lines, too - if I have the rough bounds of what a character might say, it feels easier to imagine new stuff.
I kept a notebook with things my kids said, mostly for fun, also to show them later; and some of these lines then made it into the book. But I had to be careful, though: too cute, too clever and it would sound like something an adult had made up.
Here are some things the kids said which I kept out (but still like) and which I mentioned at the launch:
‘He’s the kicky-scrumpler. He kicked me and scrumpled up my drawing.’
‘I managed to do it because I have very wise fingers.’ (cutting own hair.)
‘I am up to my head in it.’ (when neck, ears, or eyes are not high enough.)
‘This caravan has gypsy bedsheets.’
‘Why do they make the bathwater so dangerous?’
Me: ‘Use a fork. You’re not an animal.’ Reply: ‘I’m a dog in Chinese years.’
‘When I grow up I’m not getting married, so I can make as much noise as I want.’
‘Flies deserve to live. They’re like spiders, only innocenter.’ (Because some creatures are just born bad.)
‘This place is shark-infested with P1s and P2s.’
‘How do plants feel when bees get the honey from plants? Bees get nectar. I don’t think they mind.’ (concerned realisation.) ‘I don’t think they feel anything.’
‘I was in a blinking contest with a snake and I won. It was for 20 or 8 minutes.’
‘I had a sore throat. I can only scream when I turn to this side. Not the other side.’
‘Little things – like having an undone shoelace – turn into big things – like falling over and getting serious damage.’
‘If I kicked you in my dream you wouldn’t say OW.’
‘What do you do after you go to the toilet?' 'Erm… Wipe?' 'Yes. Then what?' 'Flush.' 'Then what?' 'Erm… put the lids back on the pens?’
‘Double-jointed is where you can stretch your body so it looks broken. My eyes are double-jointed.’
‘I want a day off school cos I got shingles, verrucas, two hurt knees and a hand that’s got skin off.’
Finally let me mention Cyril Connolly, and that infamous quote from his book Enemies of Promise:
“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.”
I'd have to say I disagree. And maybe Cyril was looking in the wrong place? Anyway - thanks kids.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.