Main content

Matthew Fitt: Writing in Scots

The man brave enough to write sci-fi in what some people call 'Lallans', novelist Matthew Fitt, offers advice on writing in Scots.

Writing in Scots is like writing in any other language. You need to develop your vocabulary and your own unique style.

To get started, write about ordinary things. Put together a short profile of yourself in Scots. Dae ye hae lang broon hair? Are ye muckle? Are ye wee? Where dae ye bide? Wha bides wi ye? Whit maks you crabbit? Whit scunners ye? Whit maks ye feel braw?

Next, have a go at describing a landscape. Whit are ye lookin at? A brae? A loch? A glen? Whit's in the glen? Are there birks or sauchs, yowes or cuddies? Whit's the weather like? Dreich? Drumlie? Bonnie? Is the sky greetin or sonsie? Mibbe ye're lookin at a toun or city? Are the kirk steeples lang spears jaggin through the skyline or are the lichts fae the caurs flittin past on the motorways like the een o angry men?

Look through the newspapers. Do any stories catch your eye? Find one that has nothing to do with Scotland and try to translate it from English into Scots.

Read as many Scots stories and poems as you can to build up your knowledge and skill with the language. Avoid stereotypes when you write. Don't write about a granny that lives in a bothy and keeps chickens and a goat on its last legs. Don't set your writing in a grim Scottish town where everyone is out of control from drugs and tonic wine. Try to find your own original voice and express your vision of life through the rich, varied and always surprising language of Scots.

Where both fiction and non-fiction books are concerned, it's important to choose the right publisher. A glance along a bookshop or library shelves will indicate which publishers could be a good starting point. For example, if you've written a thriller it's unlikely an academic or romantic publisher would be interested, though many others would.

Most publishers cover a range of genres. A look at the The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook (A & C Black) will confirm your initial choice and suggest others who may be interested. Before submitting, it's important to remember that while publishers like originality, and parallel publishing flourishes where originality often fails, if you've written a Harry Potter rip off, or something that resembles the Potter books, Bloomsbury are unlikely to be interested because they publish the originals; though checking with the publisher's Yearbook entry will tell you how and often what to submit. For example, if they say, No Unsolicited Material, then it would be pointless to send a manuscript.

Publishers often don't want to read the whole work. If in doubt, it's best to ask. A phone call could clear the matter. Many, if not most, publishers prefer a synopsis and sample chapters, which should be sent with a preliminary letter and return postage.

Once you've chosen your publisher, inquired and sent the material, it's best to leave well alone. There's neither a set time nor even an indication as to how long you should wait for a response. Publishers, especially popular publishers, get a lot of submissions. But if you've heard nothing after two or three months, it would be tactful to send a letter asking how things are proceeding. If that elicits no response and you've heard nothing after another couple of months, you'd be perfectly justified in asking for your material back. And when it returns send it somewhere else, since there's no shortage of publishers and persistence is often the key. No matter how well you do your homework or want to be accepted by your favourite publisher, don't submit unless you're prepared to be rejected. And if that happens try somewhere else. Immediately. While belief in your work is important and obviously everyone who writes wants to be published, it's important not to build your hopes on a single submission. And take a look at what's come back. If, as is likely, it's dog-eared with ash and coffee stains, print up a fresh copy.

Publishers rarely do more than tell you they're not going to publish your work. Covering letters are unusual, not to say rare. Nor is it fruitful to inquire. No matter how helpful you think it would be to be told, it's best to keep plugging away till you're ready with the next. Letting a novel sit for a while and going back to it, even after a few rejections, can tell you more than you imagine. And doing that stuff for yourself, rather than having it pointed out, will teach you more about your work than any number of courses, classes and the like.

When your novel is finished, you've gone over it a few times and are ready to submit it to a publisher, it's important to get to work on another book immediately. In fact, there's a good case for not sending a manuscript off in the first flush of completion. That feeling is not to be trusted. What you're experiencing is elation at having gone the distance and little else. So it's good to let the novel rest for a while, then go back to it with a fresh eye. This is when you can start another; in fact, when you're coming to the end of one novel, you should be thinking about the next, making notes and maybe even mapping out the opening chapters, so that when your book's finished you can move seamlessly on.

There's a plethora of books and magazines available to aspiring writers. And most, if not all, are specifically aimed at those who hope to be published. Bizarrely, many publications omit standard information such as make sure your manuscript is typed with double spacing, enclose return postage with a covering letter and keep a copy of what you send.

And never assume an editor's response. Writers often forget that in sending their manuscripts they are asking for them to be considered for publication rather than presupposing a foregone conclusion. Which is not surprising, since for many people publication is an end in itself. I recently sat on a bursary panel. The vast majority of applicants said they wanted to be published; some said they wanted publication more than anything. Few said they wanted to write a novel that engaged the reader, an entertaining story or a good poem. So, once more, the obvious needs to be said: one is more likely to be published if one puts these things first.

Other publications offer information similar to that in The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. The Writer's Handbook of FAQs (Authorlink Press) goes into business protocol and etiquette and covers topics such as Preparing The Manuscript, Approaching Agents, Copyright, Shelf Life, Earnings and Possible Earnings. The annual Guide to Book Publishers (Forward press), which lists more than 800 publishers in the UK & Ireland also offers guidelines about submission.

Most publications give the same basic information and at best can be little more than a guide, though there are publications targeted at writers who are aiming at a specific market, romance, magazines and the like. 

Finally, it's important to remember that many if not most of the publications are specifically aimed at the American market. Their advice, especially on legalities, may not be applicable here.

Related Links