THE BLOG

How Scotland Nurtures Its Writing Talent

08/08/2013 23:16 BST | Updated 06/10/2013 10:12 BST

I'm a novelist and I live in Edinburgh though the 1950s murder mysteries I write are set in Brighton and London. Some people find this confusing. But you're Scottish they say, as if I ought to restrict my writing to locations within a certain radius of my house. For me, writing stories set, well, wherever they're best set, is a form of cultural curiosity that is uniquely Scottish - we're famous for travelling in search of adventure.

That said, I've spent a lot of time down south this year not only talking to readers but also to writers. I've been a full time writer for almost twenty years and if there's one thing I've learnt it's that writers need each other. This month I am coming to the end of a three year term on the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland - a voluntary post taken up in that belief. Writing is a profession that has no real career structure and your best advice when you hit a difficulty is probably going to come from another writer one or two rungs on the career ladder ahead of you.

Something I notice speaking to writers from south of Hadrian's Wall is that the culture is different. At base I think Scotland values its creative industries differently from England. In 2010, the Scottish government ring-fenced arts spending, for example. That made a real difference to public funding for all kinds of Scottish creatives. In a time of seemingly endless cutbacks and austerity it shows how much Scotland values its contemporary culture.

In doing so, Creative Scotland (our Arts Council) instituted a red tape revolution that I wrote about two years ago in the Guardian. This revolution wasn't entirely successful and recently there's been a huge upheaval at Creative Scotland because the changes didn't work. We're waiting to see how the new chief executive, Janet Archer, will retrieve the situation. What's been interesting is just how hard Scottish creative practitioners fought against what was going wrong and their astonishing ability to band together. Writers among them, they form a dedicated and supportive community that is a good place to protest problematic political changes but also a great place to grow talent.

Focusing on writing, there are lots of reasons why Scotland consistently produces world-class writers. Partly, it stems from our different use of language. The lively oral storytelling scene in Scots and Gaelic spills over into the majority English-speaking culture, imbuing it with a strong sense of narrative drive that is essential to the modern novel, screenplay and even non-fiction. Scotland is multi-lingual and that means that the English spoken here is different from the English spoken over the border.

Another reason is the commitment of Scottish readers. There are something approaching 150 book festivals in the UK and Scotland is host to almost a third of them - including the Edinburgh International Book Festival - the world's largest. Creative Scotland recognizes this commitment by funding the Scottish Book Trust - an organization that supports both readers and writers. Its mentoring scheme for fledgling writers which pairs new voices with experienced industry professionals for a 9 month stretch, is the envy of early career writers south of the border. The Trust also presents annual prizes to promising young writers and new faces and funds a host of library and school events that ensure writers are paid fairly when they appear in public venues. The £150 fee plus expenses per event has kept many early-stage writers going through the low-advances and slowly building sales that characterize most first, second and third novels. I've written before about how little money most writers make. Paying writers for events is a tactic that definitely helps.

The commercial side of the business is also surprisingly supportive. I've never seen an 'English' books section in well, an English bookshop but in Scotland most bookshops have a set of shelves dedicated to Scottish authors.

These considerations seem small but the reality is that many existing top 20 Scottish writers have flourished in part because of good turns done by institutions, arts community, libraries and bookshops.

So if the picture's so rosy, where are we failing? How might we improve? Interestingly, if there is a weak link it is a case of not aiming enough at the wider world. Perhaps our Scottish writing nurseries are too cosy. For most writers successful in the UK mass market, the single biggest geographical area of sales is London. Used to a supportive, integrated system that nurtures new talent, when fledgling Scottish writers hit the Big Smoke, it's a shock. Lots of writers I know have never done an event south of the border - they're not breaking into that market.

Similarly, there are no specific Scottish networks to promote Scottish writers abroad. The British Council does this more generally but they veer towards well established literary talent with a smattering of tried and tested commercial writers. Nurturing new genre writers isn't part of their brief. The world outside the UK is important. With writers' incomes squeezed translation rights can make a real difference, allowing a writer to dedicate at least some of their week solely to writing instead of having to hold down a full-time job at the same time as developing their career.

I'm proud of the culture I come from - we're a small country and a close-knit community. I'd never be where I am if more successful writers hadn't taken an interest in me and done me a good turn - be it chiming in with constructive criticism or giving me sound advice about my career plan. I'm grateful that I've enjoyed the support of libraries, bookshops and institutional funders. This weekend sees the start of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I'll be speaking four times - twice to children (I wrote a kids' book a couple of years ago) and twice to adults. I wonder if this time anyone's going to ask me about writing a very British kind of novel and being Scottish. My answer, when they do is I'm allowed.