Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Writers talk about writing - Nigel Bird

(Once you've finished reading what Nigel's got to say, check out the whole series of interviews here.)

Nigel Bird is a teacher in Scotland. That’s how he makes enough money to support his family, including his three lovely little darlings. He is also the author of two collections ‘Beat On The Brat’ (Amazon UK | US) and ‘Dirty Old Town’ (Amazon UK | US) and is the co-editor of the recently released PULP INK (Amazon UK |US). He was fortunate to be the winner of the WGI competition in 2010 and was a nominee for Spinetingler’s Best Story Online award category.

We're in a lift, I'm someone important (come on, pretend), you've got thirty seconds (tall building, slow lift) to tell me about your latest book.

You claustrophobic? Good. So, I’ve just put out this collection. It’s dark. It deals with some of the taboo subjects of the writing world and that means it’s a challenge. Not that it’s bad. The work is written to tell tales that will get you thinking. Whatever happens, you’ll be moved in some way or another and they’ll stay with you for days. There’s a huge variation of subject material- the ripple-effect of a film crew making a movie in a mountain community; an imaginary scenario set in Queens about the inspiration behind the Ramones song Beat On The Brat (with a clown and a baseball bat); a long poem and a haiku triptych about serial killing; a modern take on the Robert The Bruce legend; Milgram’s most famous experiment; a paedophile returning home for his mother’s funeral and a comedy piece about a bounty hunter and his bounty. The title story was the winner of the Watery Grave Invitational in 2010 and was also nominated for the Spinetingler Award category ‘Best Story Online’. The remainder have mostly been published in other respected places, though the 5th place story from this year’s WGI is making its debut. It’s good. And remember the catch line for the previous collection, ‘Dirty Old Town, that ‘even the white bits are black’? This is like that, but charred.

Uh-oh. Not sure lifts are meant to stop suddenly between floors like this. Guess we've got a bit more time. Ignore the flickering lights and creaking sounds above us. Would you like to tell me about other books or stories that you have available?

I’ve just released an amazing collection of shorts along with Chris Rhatigan (co-editor and the man behind Death By Killing) in collaboration with Needle Publishing.

The stimulus for each writer was a song title or a line from the movie Pulp Fiction. It’s likely to the strongest pulp/noir/crime collection of the year as far as I’m concerned and the stories in there connect like the pieces of one bizarre and ground-breaking jigsaw.

It’s called PULP INK (UK | US) and it’s super cool. It will be the book that defines you in 2011/12 – did you read it or did you not?

Please stop repeatedly pressing the emergency button. The comment about building a ladder of bones to reach the ceiling hatch and get out of here was just blue-skies thinking. So, what are you working on now?

Other than trying to get people to hear of those fantastic creations, I’m coming to the end of a novel. Teacher noir is what it is. The first draft’s been tough. The edit will be a whole heap of effort.

As well as writing, you're an editor too - Pulp Ink is an anthology packed full of stories from a really good line-up of writers. How do you find being on the other side of the fence? Any more similar projects planned?

At first being an editor felt more like being a collector of stories. In part that was due to the talent we were working with.

It soon became clear that the job involved was much more than that.

It took Chris and I a while, but as soon as we came across things that weren’t working for us we’d have a quick discussion and pass on our suggestions and comments. That was really interesting.

When working with writers of this calibre it wasn’t easy pressing the send button on messages about possible alterations. As it turned out, everyone responded with grace and appreciation for the thoughts, which just goes to show how dedicated they are to the craft.

We were also in the position of advising on stories where the writer had got a little lost – easily done when there are no maps – and that was really interesting, too.

After that, the issues around covers, pricing, release dates, publicity, collecting blurbs etc have all been fascinating and rather time-consuming. Thankfully, we had the expert support of the multi-talented Chris Weddle to help us through our sticky patches and, needless to say, we’re extremely grateful to him for his support.

Chris and I worked through the whole process by email contact alone. It was only when the book was available that we spoke. He was exactly the wonderful guy I’d imagined him to be. As a partner for such a project, he was perfect and I believe we thrived on each other’s ideas and energies.

It’s been such a good experience that I’d love to do it again next year. We’ve pencilled it in, though not in any shape. It may be that part or all of it works through open submissions and we’re also unsure of theme/no theme.

Above all, it’s the final product that matters. Anyone reading the collection will know just how well everything fell into place in the end. As I said before, there won’t be many better collections out this year.

The best way to reflect upon it is to imagine a couple of enthusiastic guys punching way above their weight. They managed to get in a couple of quick, hard and lucky blows and have since put on a pound or two.

For anyone thinking of going into such a project, I’d point out that once it’s begun there’s no turning back. It’s a great ride, but it’s long hours and graft so don’t start if you don’t have stamina and reserves of energy hidden somewhere.

What really does it for you when it comes to crime fiction?

It’s not something I can easily distil. I need an emotional connection. I like it when things lend themselves to the imagery of an old black and white B movie. Lean, well-muscled prose with poetry in there is what I love. Quips and dashes of humour help.

Conversely, what bugs you?

The more I read, the less patience I have for static scenes. Back-story that’s been crow-barred in when we didn’t need it in the first place or when it could have been introduced as an action or a phrase rather than a couple of pages that interfere with the flow. Hand in hand with that is exposition in dialogue, which I’ve had to improve on myself. Another thing is the repetition of plot and difficulties at every step where a writer seems to be determined that the reader is going to understand what’s happening.

You're working on your novel - how have you found the transition from (prolific) short story writer to working on a longer piece of fiction?

In all truth, I feel out of my depth with novel writing. It’s got something to do with my memory and the ability to hold such a widely-scoping thing in view at any one time.

I’m trying a new approach this time around, writing and continuing without any edits. I’m also going for first person/present tense and focussing on one period of time only.

The transition parts in a novel are parts I find awkward. When I’m reading, I love that cliff-hanger ending to chapters which means I simply have to carry on. Unfortunately my natural inclination is to round things off. When I try to signpost interesting events which are about to occur, it doesn’t seem to work for me.

You might suggest I look at the work of writers I admire and see how they do it. I’ve tried, believe me, but I might as well be watching someone perform close magic and hoping to see the invisible wires and up the sleeves.

The way I’m trying to do it is to keep a lot of simmering pots on the go at once and work at it so that any readers will be keen to know what’s happening in those pots when they lift the lids. Hopefully what’s in them will smell enticing.

Can you remember what made you sit down to write your first book or story?

If I don’t include keeping diaries or writing long letters to friends, I think the first pieces of writing were poetry. They were an outlet for depression and pain at a particularly difficult point in life some 20 years ago. Once I’d done the first, I never managed to stop.

Print publishing is a doomed but still predatory dinosaur rotting from the feet up. Ebook publishing is the vomiting out of the world's slushpiles onto the market. In the ongoing war of words and hyperbole, where's the happy medium to be found? Where do you think the publishing business is heading over the next few years, and what are you doing to be ready for it?

I believe that tree and e books can exist together, though I’m sure that the vast majority of books will be in the e-format in a few years. I’d suspect that there will be limited releases of books, as hard-backs and paper backs. In a number of specialist areas, tree books will continue – young children’s books, books for collectors, books requiring lots of photographs of fine quality etc.

For me, I’d like to think the bookshop and library experience that I hope survives. It’s not going to be easy for them. In terms of what I’m going to do to prepare for the e book revolution, I guess I’ve got a lot less to do than those guys.

I’d like to see bookshops working more like the independent booksellers of yester year. They’re making a comeback and I hope it continues. Community based events, individual advice, human contact, readings for children, readers’ groups and author events would be all well-housed in a great store.

Do you do much promotion for your books? What do you think is the most effective thing you've done?

I do far too much promotion, yet at the same time it can never be enough.

It’s too much because it sucks up writing and reading time. It’s too little because you can always do more.

There hasn’t been a major kick from anything I’ve done as far as I can tell. The sales I have seem to be more the drip effect than opening flood gates.

It’s amazing to look at sales figures on days when interviews or postings go live. Even an interview with a huge hit rate can have almost no difference. Other times it might be a simple Tweet that drives things for a small spike in sales. When I was away and offline in the summer, for the 3 weeks I did no promotion I sold copies of Dirty Old Town at the same 3 per day average that I achieve when I spend a couple of hours a night working on pushing it forward.

I’ll be interested in looking at other interviews here to steal ideas.

Gibbons or tigers? (NB this question is to help me in compiling my List of People Who Are Wrong).


What could you buy with your e-book sales thus far?

Well, having sold nearly 700 copies of Dirty Old Town and 30 of Beat On The Brat, I’m yet to see any money.

If I could average it out, I’d be able to purchase a cup of tea in a cheap cafĂ© most days.

If I could lump it together, it will have paid for my Kindle but not quite for the 3G (whatever that really is).

Fortunately, I’ve been paid for individual stories by some publishers and I’ve still got the teaching job to rely on. Regardless, my dream of becoming a full time writer remains firmly in place.

Meticulous research is both enjoyable and important / what's the point in writing fiction if you can't just make stuff up - discuss.

Research for me is the occasional enter-press on a Google search. My general approach is that if I need to know something, I make it up.

Thanks Nigel!


  1. Great stuff. Looking forward to that 'teacher noir'.

  2. It's been a long, strange ride, buddy.

    I too am looking forward to teacher noir. Creating a new genre, eh?

  3. Nice insight, Nigel, as always. 700 copies of Dirty Old Town and nothing to show for it yet? Do you need to hit a certain threshold before they cut you a check? Either way, 700 is nothing to sneeze at. Well done.