Friday 29 November 2013

Kivu Writers

I've been spending a bit of time this week helping my friend Firmin set up the social media for his organisation in Rwanda. I've helped put together a blog cum website, Facebook page and Twitter feed. Please do check those out and follow along.

Founded in 2000, we are here to promote a culture of reading and creative writing across Rwanda.

In my former life, I helped to train their Board of Trustees circa 2009. The group waned a little as it was set up by students and, as students are apt to do, they graduate and move away. However, Firmin has returned to Rwanda after his studies and is determined to make a go of things.

A little while back, I set up my own nonprofit organisation called Nüshu. Due to time, and a million and one other activities, we haven't had a chance to do much with it yet, but partnering up with Kivu Writers looks like it could be an excellent first project.

I was also faintly surprised, whilst browsing the list of professions for which you can obtain a T5 working visa for Rwanda, to discover that Authors are considered amongst the 'Occupations in Demand'.

Anyway, I just wanted to give a shout out to the project, as it's such a good one, and I hope to bring you updates along the way.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Paper Angel

I just had to share this, I think it's wonderful. You may remember my friend Palma, who has illustrated some of my poetry. She also runs an awesome blog called A CrEaTiVe JoUrNeY, where you can find more pictures of her work. She's just made the above doll by folding the pages of a childcare book! She's even made a bird house out of folded paper. Hopefully there will be some pictures of that up on her Flickr stream shortly. You can find her online shop on Etsy.

Abusive Amazon

I was absolutely appalled by the Panorama exposé tonight on Amazon's complete lack of employment ethics. After their colossal tax avoidance and their Mother's Day Rape On range, it's hard to believe things could get much worse. 

I've included the video at the bottom of this post.

The long and the short of it is that Amazon's main UK distribution centre is a battery farm, where night staff are forced to work in impossibly stressful conditions which can affect their mental and physical well-being. For instance, if you are sick, or go home early because you are sick, you get a point. Three points and you lose your job. The same if you don't pick enough items in a given number of seconds.

It truly was bizarre to watch. The managers appeared to be operating a Stanford Prison Experiment, gleefully dumping on those working beneath them whilst appearing to completely defy employment law. Amazon says everything it does is legal and that the safety of its workers is their 'number one priority', placing it even higher than paying tax.

Blatantly, Amazon couldn't give a monkey's about their employees, leaving thousands of people across the country feeling a mixture of shame for having bought through them, and horror at the thought of what to do next. Amazon are so easy to use, and stock just about everything...

But there are alternatives. Check out Bookmail. It was founded by a local bookshop owner who was going out of business because he couldn't compete with Amazon's prices. The programme saw him shutting down his seventh bookshop and laying off workers who clearly loved working for him. Now he's fighting back with his own online book store. I for one will be buying my books there from now on, happy to pay a little extra if it helps to maintain a decent standard of treatment for their employees.

I already use Etsy's 'shop local' option a lot, and purchase things from friends and online stores that sell unusual or quirky gifts. I like the sense of supporting individual businesses as much as possible. It's not too hard to ditch global corporations when there's so much choice online, it just means doing a little background research.

The next big question is what to do as an author. Changing who you buy from is easy, changing who supplies your work and distributes it is fairly impossible. Smashwords is a good alternative for ebooks, though their website needs a bit of an overhaul to be considered a real competitor.

It's quite upsetting to think that my paperbacks are sitting on a shelf somewhere in a giant warehouse with exhausted people running up and down unlit aisles like automated robots, trying desperately to find them before they get sacked.

I shall have to give this more thought. 

For the time being, I'm going to have a go at not buying through Amazon and see how easy, difficult, or expensive that is. I will keep a record of my findings and report back in a few months.


Saturday 23 November 2013

Word Porn

Just discovered this lovely Facebook page called Word Porn (also on Twitter), which is full of fun things to feast your eyes on regarding literary memes. I also quite like the Twitter feed TheIntelligentWriter which throws out interesting quotes on writing. #writing #amwriting #writetip #litchat

Friday 22 November 2013

Folkestone Weekend

Well, it's over and out from me for a few days. I'm off to Folkestone tonight to stay with my mate Jenny. I'll be giving a talk on Saturday at C@feIT (also known as Five Youth Centre) as part of Folkestone Book Festival. If you're aged between 13-18 and interested in writing, come along. I'm more than a little amazed to be appearing on the same bill as Lionel Shriver!

After that I'm headed back via London to catch up with some friends. Last time I was there, I went drinking with author buddy Will Davis and ended up winning a £100 bar tab at Public House in Islington. As I hardly drink at the moment, one cocktail will probably floor me. I'm so not a party animal these days, but hoping some friends will help me out. Should be a nice way to round off the weekend.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

ISBNs Close the Book on Developing Writers

The 10 best contemporary African books – 2012

[UPDATE May 2015: Rwanda now has an ISBN agent!]

I've been helping out my friend Firmin recently. Back in 2009, whilst working in Rwanda, I assisted in training his organisation's Board of Trustees, and a couple of funding volunteers. The organisation drifted a little as many of the volunteers graduated from university and moved away. Now he's back in Kigali, and we're working on a website for Kivu Writers.

Kivu Writers was founded in 2000, and remains the only dedicated creative writing non-profit organisation in Rwanda.

Our goal is to develop a written literary culture across the country, and to raise awareness of the potential of creative writing to engage people on issues such as HIV/AIDS, gender equity, human rights and social tolerance.

I'm going to be talking about them a bit at Folkestone Book Festival this Saturday. The difference between having a good literacy rate and an actual literary culture is quite a distance. Maybe I'll blog about it too at some point.

One of the things I was reading whilst looking for information to add to the site, was this:

In case the link goes down, the basic argument is that International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) are preventing authors in developing countries from getting their books to the international market. An ISBN is a unique referencing system invented c.1970 and administered by RR Bowker in the US and Nielsen in the UK. Australia, Canada, India and Pakistan also have their own issuing agencies. 

The reason you need an ISBN number is:

If you are selling your book on your own, you are not required to have an ISBN. If you want to sell your book in bookstores, place it with distributors and wholesalers, and put it in libraries, you are required to have an ISBN on your book.

Prices range from around $125 for a single ISBN in the USA to just under £130 for a job lot of ten in the UK (where you can't purchase them individually). Whereas there is no legal obligation to purchase one, you'll have a seriously hard time trying to distribute or sell your book through major suppliers without one.

Even if it weren't incredibly difficult for small publishers outside the aforementioned countries to source ISBN numbers, very few of them could afford to purchase them.

Thus, their books are at a serious disadvantage in the world market.

As one comment on the article states: when the world is moving to digital books, why keep the ISBN system? And if Europe insists on keeping the system at the expense of other countries, why don't other countries invent their own systems? 

Just because a system is developed in Europe does not mean it's good for us or is needed.

Quite. Amazon already issue an ASIN number of their own for ebooks, free of charge, to help keep track of sales and distribution.

I don't think anyone really wants to see more systems developed, as that would end in bureaucracy (even more than we already have), and I don't think anyone really objects to a system of monitoring book sales and distribution. The problem is that this is a global monitoring system that is not globally available, excluding publishers and authors in many countries, and it is also a monopoly market where the designated distributor in each country gets to set the price. 

Time for a re-think.

[Update: A good article from Rwanda here. Also a good article explaining exactly what an ISBN is.]

Monday 18 November 2013

Laotian Crime

I mentioned a while back that my friends Ruairí and Martine have moved to Laos, and that Ruairí and his teddy Alfred are blogging the experience.

There are lots of fun literary inclusions, such as Ruairí's The Ballad of Hua Lo Prison (aka Hanoi Hilton):

The Ballad of Hua Lo Prison (aka Hanoi Hilton)

The Hanoi Hilton has a special place
In writings on the war in Vietnam
Which John McCain did with his presence grace
Along with other guests from Uncle Sam.

And their accounts did tell -I'm sure you know -
Of hunger, fear and torturers most cruel.
And so I went to see this Hua Lo
And find out if these tales were really true,

But now the scales have lifted from my eyes
For suffering was not these prisoners' fate,
And I - along with you - can but surmise
That life in prison here was truly great!

Despite the heinous nature of their acts,
The Viet Cong treated them with fondest care.
They dressed their wounds, they treated them with tact
And from revenge they always did forbear.

And as for food! They fed them up like kings
(I know because the film says it's true);
While Viet Cong peasants starved on mouldy rice
They gorged on chicken, bread and hot beef stew.

They played guitar, they played at cards and stuff,
Their team at volleyball was much the best.
And if perchance a pilot should feel rough
A doctor came and listened to his chest.

At Christmas they were made to feel at home
With decorations hung upon a tree.
And Ho Chi Minh sent them a Christmas poem
And warders came with flutes and played with glee.

And as went by the years, the months, the days,
And seeing that their captors were so kind,
They came to see the error of their ways
And wondered why America was blind.

And when they left they rued the awful day,
Instead of smiles their aspects were of woe;
For if they could, they would have liked to stay
With their friends and bosom pals in Hua Lo.

And the wonderful observation en route to Vietnam's ancient capital:

Personally, I found the idea of Fifty Shades of Grey being on sale here far more upsetting than the dogs being fattened up but maybe that's just me. (Alfred: Yes, it's just you.)

Still, the part that intrigued me most was the discovery of a crime novel set in Laos: The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill (who has one of the most awesome websites I've seen in a long time). Not an easy book to find at a sensible price, but persistence paid off and I've ordered a copy. Hoping to visit Ruairí and Martine later in the year, so I'm expecting a sort of Death in Paradise prelude. I shall report back.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Euphemistic Double Entendre

This is the kind of silly thing writers lose sleep over:

The other day my cousin posted on Facebook:

John: Time to make myself extremely unpopular with the neighbours again! Grinding out my pointing!

To which I replied:

Me: Hope you're not grinding out your pointing in public, cous. Don't know about complain, you could get arrested for that!

To which he said:

John: There are no euphemisms being used at this time Maz! 

To which I was about to reply, but didn't:

Me: Euphemisms or double entendres? 

To which I then found myself trying to answer my own question.

Just for those who aren't sure (thanks to Google's 'define' function):


Noun: A mild or indirect word or expression for one too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.


dou·ble en·ten·dre 

Noun: A word or phrase open to two interpretations, one of which is usually risqué or indecent. Humor using such words or phrases.

In this context, 'grinding out your pointing' is both a euphemism for 'having a wank' (which is in itself a euphemism for masturbating) and, in the same vein, a double entendre, because it has both a euphemistic meaning and a literal one. It's possibly moreso a double entendre as it has a specifically risqué and indecent application.

I then started to wonder whether all double entendres are euphemisms, though not all euphemisms are double entendras? But that isn't right either, because some double entendres are simply grammatical mistakes, such as the example: let's all eat grandma (let's all eat, grandma), or miners refuse to work after death (miners refuse to work, after death).

But then, doesn't that make this form of double entendra a pun?


Noun: A joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words which sound alike but have different meanings.

So, are all puns double entendres, and most double entenres also euphemisms, except when they're grammatical? And are euphemisms only ever puns when they're double entendres?

It was about this point that I saw the article Metaphor, Simile and Analogy: What’s the Difference? and gave up thinking forever.

Friday 15 November 2013

Novel Idea: Write on Track

Sometimes, all you need is a good whinge before things get back on track.

I certainly did that the other day, but then, when I started Novel Idea, I did say I'd let you in on the process of writing a novel, warts and all. Whinging is a big part of my creative process, in equal measure with blind panic and boredom. That may not sound like the romantic ingredients for writing, but somehow the souffle always rises.

So, after declaring that I'd lost the plot and needed to step back, I sat down Tuesday morning and bashed out a solid 2,500 words. I wasn't wrong though, I did need to step back. The story was headed over a cliff and trying to push it that way was causing the block. By taking my foot off the pressure peddle I was able to see another route. I refocused on the most important thing: the characters, and from there the rest of the plot started to come into view.

It didn't take long at all, and I'm back to being confident about what I'm writing - and enjoying it.

I'm currently at 200 off 81k, and I'm less worried than I was about the count now that I'm okay with the direction it's going in again. It still feels like a high word count not to be able to see an ending yet, but I shall put my faith in the page and assume that everything will wrap itself up in the next 20k. I don't think I've ever got to this point and been unsure before.

Part of the problem has been that this novel stretches over a five year period, whereas everything else I've written has happened over about a year, or over two specific timeframes that you flick between. This is a bit more epic. I've spent a long time covering the first two years, and now I need to move it along much faster. It can't be serialised, it all needs to happen in this one book. 

If I were to over-analyse (hey, procrastinator, alright?) I'd say that the No Editing Rule is partly to blame. Usually, when I'm not sure about the plot, I read back over what I've already written and have a little fiddle with the format.  Doing this reinforces the characters in my mind and helps me to feel confident about who they are and what their limitations and abilities might be. Because I've stopped myself from doing that on this one - for the sake of getting to the end faster - each time I start to type feels a bit fresh. Perhaps if I did allow myself to comb back over the characters, I'd feel more confident that they are whole and fully fledged, which would make jumping straight into action much easier. Each 1k I add almost feels like it needs a beginning, middle and end of its own, rather than building on a constant.

Or, perhaps when I do come to edit, I'll realise that's a load of balderdash.


I feel relieved.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Thank You Reviewers!

I've been having a slight downer on writing recently, firstly trying to fathom out what to do with my Nemesis Novel, which is an 85k work of fiction that I've been sitting on for two years because I can't work out if it's any good or not, and, secondly, since the spark went out of my current literary relationship. It's worn me down a bit, opening the floodgates of doubt.

Then, yesterday, I was doing a little browse and discovered a couple of reviews on Goodreads that I hadn't seen before.

It's always incredible to get reviews from people you've never met; the thought that your characters are out there, living somewhere, without you. Having spent all that time writing them, you sort of feel as though maybe you'd know when they were being read, like you'd get a nervous twitch, or your ears would burn, or you'd feel a maternal twist in the pit of your stomach.

You don't, of course, and most days pass without a second thought for past characters you've written. So it is strange when you see a review, because it means that somebody has taken time out of their life to go on a journey you've mapped out. Not only that, but to tell people about what they found along the way.

Thankfully (and probably the reason I like reviews) I've never had a truly dreadful one, or a masterclass cynic who vented their anger at the world on my vulnerable prose. If I'd discovered one of those, this would probably be a whole different post.

Instead, I was really touched by what I read, especially the one which begins:

This book was destined to seep into my soul through my windowed eyes this morning...

I appreciate that she's written a literary review in a literary style.

But the bit I really like is the reason she connected with the collection so much:

I have been feeling murdered by my own muse this morning, and for the past week...and I posted the quote, "Muses had a way of killing those whom they inspired." on facebook this morning. Within the hour I stared at the first line in [Splintered Door], which preceded the acknowledgments. "To My Murderous Muse, I Win."

And for that alone, I was hooked to read this.

I know that feeling myself: the strange sense of serendipity, where minds collide between pages. I opened a book last night which, on the first page, started to tell an ancient folktale that I had just written about in my own novel. Like my reviewer, I was instantly hooked, because it felt almost as though the book were talking to me directly, or that I was meant to pick up that book at that exact moment. It's a really nice feeling, and it's nice that she took the time to mention it. 

'I really liked this book,' and 'the characters were believable' are all great to hear too, don't get me wrong, but it's kind of special when someone comments on how the book affected them personally, and how they connected with it.

Book reviews are so incredibly difficult to get, only a small percent of readers ever leave them, yet they're one of the key things (alongside cover art) that people make impulse buys off the back of. So, to anyone who takes the time to leave an honest review, please know that it is hugely appreciated, and that authors often do read them.

Just to push my luck, if you do leave reviews, please take a moment more to put them on Amazon, Smashwords and Goodreads - which are the biggies - then social media link to the review using Twitter and Facebook. Word-of-mouth is also a powerful way to help promote an author you like, so if you've enjoyed a book, tell people about it. It is so difficult for authors to get noticed, every little really does help.

To everyone who has ever read one of my books and taken time to leave a review:

Monday 11 November 2013

How Not to Survive

Right, well, last night I finished the latest instalment in The Life of Jaz: How Not to Survive, the follow-up to My Side of the Story.

I was struggling for a way to phrase it, but someone else has managed it better on Amazon: lovable but unlikeable.

This isn't the story of a bad guy gone wrong. It is a young, gay theatre of the absurd (with an homage to the incredibly boring Waiting for Godot). I may not like Jaz, but I wish him well.


I think I enjoyed it slightly less than the first round, simply because, in My Side, I was on his side. I empathised quite strongly with his predicament, very little of which felt like it was directly his fault, plus he was young(er), and we've all done daft things growing up. It felt like a coming of age story; the completion of a process.

This follow-up is a bit darker. It bounces from one horrific disaster to the next, like watching a train derail in slow motion. And, this time, it mostly is Jaz's fault. Sure, there are some kookie, messed-up characters, but he really doesn't help himself at all, to the point where you start to run out of sympathy. It's like he's had a self-preservation bypass.

Most of the characters in Jaz's life he describes in terms of how bat-shit or aggravating they are. From his mum to his drama teacher. There really are some doozies. Towards the end I started to have this schism, wondering whether any of the characters were actually genuinely nuts, or whether they were all fairly normal people that were being completely caricatured through Jaz's eyes. Was he a magnifying glass to the frayed edges we all have? 

I considered it some more and thought, no, actually, I know a host of people that could match what he's describing, he's just unlucky enough to be surrounded by them.

At the same time, the line 'you probably think I'm selfish' did start to ware thin. In the first book, I always answered that with 'not at all, I see where you're coming from,' but by the desk-spewing audition scene I was nodding along thinking 'yes, extract head from arse, put down the party fodder.'

But, like a train crash, you can't stop watching. It's this crazy shaggy dog story that pulls you along on the end of a leash. Like Jaz, I have a fairly limited tolerance for sap, I'm a sap-free zone whenever possible, but I did find the final outburst with Fellows pretty moving, and the last addendum was arousing enough to wonder what happens next. It felt like a bit of a sudden ending. A nice one, but it left me with a lot of questions about 'what happened to Eli?'

I rather like the idea of the next one (and I would definitely read a next one) set in double-vision. Alternating chapters from Jaz and Eli's perspectives. It would be interesting to see Jaz from the outside looking in, but I doubt he'd be willing to share his audience.

Novel Idea: Stepping Back

I've stopped writing.

NaNoWriMo was a bad idea, to be honest.

It's not about the word count. It's about the story.

NaNo's fine if you want to write to challenge yourself; to see whether you can write that many words in a short space of time. But it isn't useful for me at this moment, and neither is the pressure I've put on myself to finish this novel by the end of the month. In fact, it's counter productive, not least because I have a literature festival to prepare for.

I've been avoiding writing for about a week now. After an initial burst of about 5,000 words, I realised something was wrong. I've been feeling it for a while now. The idea behind the novel is absolutely solid, and the characters are alive. It's delicate, dark, deceptive and any number of wonderful words beginning with d (dichroic, discordant, daedal...), in short, it has been a delight. 

Now, however, I am stumbling. Something doesn't feel right. At almost 80,000 words I should be entering the climactic phase, but I cannot see what my characters are doing in a room together, yet alone where they go from there. Sometimes that is absolutely fine. You really don't need to know what comes next. Your fingers hit the keys and you find out what happens next.

This isn't one of those times. I'm stumped. It's such a good idea for a story that I worry a lot. I'm building on a tale that has already been told. One that people will recognise. What if it isn't good enough? I've stayed as true as I could, whilst being as original as I can. But what if it disappoints? Falls short? Have I missed anything I should have included? I have the opportunity to write anything I like, but do I like what I write?

Unlike any other story so far, I have forbidden myself to edit as I go. The beginning of this story feels like years ago. Like that game you play where somebody draws the head, folds the paper, the next person draws the middle, folds the paper, and you only get to see the full picture at the very end, with the final reveal.

What if it's a mess? What if the head doesn't match the body and it's wearing odd shoes?

It's too late now. If I went back to the beginning and started to work my way through, I don't think I'd ever get to the end. 

Suddenly I'm faced with three characters at a place that feels like the middle but should be the end. There's a battle going on in my mind over who lives and who dies, and how. Each part of the plot is a stepping stone across a river of ideas, but right now the next stone looks too far away. Each time I try to jump to it, I end up ankle-deep in thoughts, all too fast-flowing to keep hold of.

To continue with analogies here, sewing a good story together is like knitting a jumper. Your needles are clicking along (or your fingers tapping along) at full pace, until you realise you've dropped a stitch. Knit one, pearl one, knit one, pearl one, knit one, knit one, pearl one.

If you stop the moment you notice something's amiss, even if you can't see exactly what it is at first, you stand a much better chance of rectifying the problem and ending up with a nice jumper. If you ignore it, it throws everything else out of line and things end up looking distinctly shonky.

I think I may have ignored something I shouldn't have, in favour of meeting word counts.

I'm not entirely sure where I've gone wrong, but I need to fix it.

I may never write another novel with as good a premise as this. If it isn't everything it could be, I'm not sure I'd recover.

Even though, as Wild so eloquently points out: all art is quite useless.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Write What You Know?

I mumble about things from time to time, can't remember if this has been mumbled about before. Blame it on the cold I have, the third in as many months. Starting to draw the conclusion that lack of alcohol, cigarettes and sex isn't actually good for me. I've been re-blogging an old travel journal the past couple of days, in which all three featured quite prominently and I appeared to be much healthier. Late nights and reggae. That's the cure, I reckon.

Anyway, whilst I'm sitting here waiting for my immune system to kick in, I stumbled across PD James' top 10 tips for writing a novel, featured on the BBC today.

#2: Write about what you know.

This is a mantra oft repeated in the writing world. So much so that someone even asked Ian Rankin and Linwood Barclay whether it was good advice at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival.

As Rankin very astutely pointed out: what you know is often a good place to start, but if people only ever wrote about what they knew, Game of Thrones wouldn't exist.

Indeed, you could kiss goodbye to the entire Fantasy genre.

Plus, unless you're Anne Perry, I'd suggest there's a limit to how much you'd actually want a crime thriller writer to know about their subject.

So, that's the first reason that I think WWYK is questionable advice.

The other reason I don't like it is because I know lots of stuff, most of which bores me rigid. I struggle to recall half the stuff I know, and certainly wouldn't wish to bother a reader with it.

So, what would I advise instead?

Write what you're passionate about.

Most historical fiction authors didn't start out as history teachers, or sci-fi authors as scientists, and most readers don't want to read a textbook on the subject.

It's more important to have an idea: the sense of a story. The rest you can learn as you go. With Wikipedia and Google Image, the whole world and all of its history are there at your fingertips. Everything from YouTube tutorials on how a car engine works, to fashion and popular music filed by year. 

If you don't know something, that's not a problem.

The important thing is the impetus to find out.

Which only comes through having an awesome story you want to tell.

And, let's make no mistake about this, 80,000 words is a lot of writing. If you're not madly interested in your subject, you'll feel every sentence of it. But if you're passionate about what you're writing, the words will fly by, even with the additional time required for research.

So, sod what you know, what do you love?