Writing On Spec, and the Greatest Song Tom Petty Never Wrote

There are few things less appealing than a writer whining on about not being published – especially one that manages to stay in decent reserves of Rioja and Chilean Cab Sauv thanks to the day job – so I’ll keep this brief.

Readers of this blog – all two of you (1) – will have seen quite a few navel-gazing entries about how I might never write a story again, blah blah blah. There are a few personal reasons for that which can be shorthanded to bereavement, health scare, and  Big Birthday, but I’m pleased to say my navel has now had enough examination, and really, it’s fine (2).

Here’s the thing. I’ve been calling myself a writer, and seriously trying to get stuff published, for 25 years or so now. I keep a Word document called ‘Works’ which shows me I’ve had 76 poems and stories published in various magazines and anthologies in that time. About three a year, in other words. Not bad, I suppose, especially when most of it has been done on spec.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines ‘on spec’ as:

1: without having a definite buyer or customer but with the hope or expectation of finding one when work is completed;

2 chiefly Brit: without being sure of success but with the hope of success.

It’s a term that’s used a lot in relation to, for example, consultants in the construction industry, but yup, that sounds like what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years with my poetry and fiction!

There’s an interesting comparison to be had with my non-fiction ‘career,’ if I can call it that. The co-written book on the Templars and all that jazz, Legacy of the Sacred Chalice, was mostly written on spec, but with a reasonable prospect of publication given that my friend and fellow writer Bruce Hunter (now sadly no longer with us) knew the editor at Macoy and was able to work him around to taking it.

My law book on common good was written following an elevator pitch, several cups of coffee with my editor and publisher at Avizandum, the marvellous Margaret Cherry, and some rainmaking on my part to get core funding for what was always going to be a very niche product.

My next legal book, this time co-written, involved me taking Margaret out to lunch, pitching the idea, myself and my co-author writing a sample chapter each, another coffee or two, and a contract. What a perfectly civilised way to do things! I’ve finished the first draft of my half in a highly motivated frame of mind, with the prospect of a publication date next year being something that at least has the solidity of a shared understanding, rather than a crazy dream of my own.

Same experience with most non-fiction articles I’ve written: a pitch to an editor who knows I can write and deliver on time, followed by a slow, steady climb towards a completed piece which appears, and, not unimportantly, attains some sort of monetary value. This latter point isn’t because I’m financially motivated. It’s more about the vague idea of my work having some sort of value beyond me thinking it’s the cat’s pyjamas for a greater or lesser period after I’ve written it (3).

Contrast this with the north face of the Eiger anyone in my situation peers up at every time they send out a novel. It goes (following, to the letter, the detailed and yet curiously always slightly different submission guidelines) not to someone who might publish it, but to an agent. Certainly in my case, this agent will not know me from Adam. S/he will be unlikely to have read any of my 76 published stories or poems, and almost certainly not Common Good Law or Legacy of the Sacred Chalice. I will be a speck of seaweed, a plankton farted by a whale, amidst the tide of emails s/he will receive from unknowns.

I also have a full poetry collection, and at least one non-fiction book, in the back, written on spec. I’m very much open to offers.

On the other hand, writing for an anthology  – or a spoken word show – you’ve been asked to submit to, is great. Although even more fun is playing guitar with my buddies.

Which is why, back in November, I tried to combine these activities by putting on a spoken word and music show of my own. I called it Duality Tango, to give it the thin veneer of a theme, but in reality it was a kind of showcase of different styles of story and music combinations I’d been working on for about a year. Central to the whole philosophy of it was heavy use of a looper pedal, pre-loaded with backing tracks I’d  done myself with drum loops, guitar, and keyboard.

I even had feedback forms, and all of the 9 paying punters (4) faithfully filled them in.  Opinions were generous, but varied as to what people liked best. Quite a few of them liked Gavin Inglis best.

So what have I learned?

ü  I   I’m not fussed for writing on spec any more.

ü  I   I am, however, still available for weddings and barmitzvahs as a writer-for-hire (this may not necessarily involve your actual money).

ü  I   I do want to make this blog a repository of all things quirky and unexpected, and any other words that mean things like quirky and unexpected. No more navel gazing (5)

he  The Bongo Club is a bloody big place to fill on a so-so November night.

ü  I   I need to work through all this and match the bits I find fun to an audience that wants to turn up to those bits. This may take some time.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to more musical experimentation with Kelly Brooks, Kenny Mackay and Mark Allan.  Tribute to Venus Carmichael will be starting to emerge from under the tarpaulins soon, as long as baby Brook continues to prosper; but there are some other, equally interesting, projects in the wings.

I think Kenny may only want me for my looper pedal (it’s more reliable, cheaper and way less moody than a real drummer, and it lives in a drawer quite happily) but I want to hear The Greatest Song Tom Petty Never Wrote. Which apparently Kenny’s written instead. Wouldn’t you?

Coming soon blog-wise, The Surrealist Year Ahead. And my short story, Blink, in Spanish.

In the meantime, here’s a recorded version of one of the pieces I did at Duality Tango. It’s called Whitby.

Have a great winter break, and here’s hoping 2014 is a happier year for all of us.


(1) For the record, my highest hit rate in a single day was 115. I have 13 ‘official’ followers (thanks, guys).

(2) The stomach muscles around it could do with a few more abdominal crunches than I give them, but as tummy buttons go, it’s ok.

(3) Often only days.

(4) Thanks again, guys!

(5) Interestingly, the entry which – by a long chalk – gets most hits on this blog is the review I did of the Vox AGA acoustic amp, some time ago. 16 views the week I started writing this alone. I’m not quite sure why that is. However, if Vox want to give me one of their gutars to review in return for, oh, let’s say, keeping it, I’m open to offers. Or Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, etc.: I don’t want to seem too fussy.


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