Sunday 28 June 2015

Stop Pigeonholing African Writers

Excellent article by Taiye Selasi: Stop Pigeonholing African Writers

It is no secret that Africa (like India) is the starting point of a modern diaspora. There are an estimated 1.6 million African immigrants in the US, a number that has doubled every decade since 1970. That many in this number should consider themselves both American and African doesn’t seem so controversial. Their African-ness may be peculiar to the diasporic experience, and their American-ness peculiar to the immigrant one, but they are legitimate identities, no less comprehensible for being multiple. Asked whether she considers herself Ethiopian or American, Mengiste said: “That’s like asking whether I am my mother’s child or my father’s.”... 
[T]he wider literary establishment has trouble with writers who belong to diasporas. It doesn’t know where to put us. It can be unclear which team we are playing for: home or away, or neither? Our art is subjected to a particular kind of scrutiny; it is forced to play the role of anthropology.... 
Can we really not imagine that the African novelist writes for love: love of craft, love of subject? Do we really believe that she is not an artist but an anthropologist, not a storyteller but a native informant? Would we really suggest that she hasn’t the right to engage a global audience? Many African novelists publish in the west because no alternative path to global readership exists. Even if it did – even if, say, I could have published in Ghana – I’d still want our books to travel the world.

I highly recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk on The Danger of a Single Story in which she talks both about the single perception of Africa and the accusation of not being 'authentically African.' 

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Cocktails With a Bang

Oh, my goodness me. Went to the Manor Hotel in Kigali for supper with a friend. It's an odd place, they serve Indian, Chinese and Italian food with waitresses in ball gowns. Their drinks menu is Irish. I almost spat Mutzig across it when I read this...

Monday 22 June 2015

Amazon Pay Per Page

Beginning on July 1st, authors who self-publish through Amazon’s KDP Select Program will become part of a new publishing experiment... In the new scheme, authors will be paid for each page that remains on the screen long enough to be parsed, the first time a customer reads the book.

It's partly to do with addressing the sentiment that has apparently been aired by writers of longer books that they are shortchanged when their books sell at the same price as shorter works.

This article came up on a forum I follow, and here's some of the reactions:

This appears to be sending out the message that authors should be producing quantity over quality in order to make money. It also seems to be sending out the message that Amazon are snivelling shits who want to rip off authors. If authors are not paid if a reader doesn't read much of their book, will the reader get their money back? Or will Amazon keep their money and not pay the author, making even more profits for themselves? Pay your taxes Amazon you greedy bastards! 
...anything Amazon tinkers with I'm leery of as it tends to screw the authors. 
It only affects Kindle Unlimited users, and from what I understand it's to address the balance issue of authors who were submitting tiny e-books and getting paid the same as authors submitting full novels. As much as I dislike Amazon sometimes, I think this is a good move. 
George RR Martin and all the other popular authors who cynically pad out their series arcs with an extra book or two to milk their fan bases for every last cent should do very well out of it. 
 I don't entirely want to be paid by how many pages, I just want my book to be bought. It kinda deters me from publishing on Amazon first. I didn't really want to do it to begin with. 
If I buy a fantastic e-book and read it thirty times, does the author get paid again every time I finish it? 
Mmmmm. Not too sure about this. Will have to wait and see how it affects me.

I think only time will tell if the idea works out, but whether it's helpful to authors or not, Amazon will always have to battle the overriding legacy of tax dodging and employee abuse it's fallen to over recent years. It could be a great idea, but the simple fact Amazon thought of it automatically places it in the 'approach with caution' pile.

[UPDATE: EU launch an investigation into antitrust between Amazon and publishers.]

Saturday 20 June 2015

Dear Jane...

I don’t usually read chick lit, but I didn’t hate reading this draft of your novel, which you’re calling Pride and Prejudice. I really liked the part where Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle went on a road trip, which reminded me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (also about a road trip — check it out!). Anyway, good job. I do have a couple of notes to share, in the spirit of constructive criticism...

Follows on from an earlier post on writing classes.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Stop Using 'Poet Voice'

This article Stop Using 'Poet Voice' made me laugh:

After being introduced, a poet steps onstage and engages the audience with some light social speech. Maybe they talk about their forthcoming book, what they plan to read, how wonderfully warm it is for autumn here, how surprisingly cool for summer, how nice the people of this village and how prodigious the public works projects. During this banter the poet uses a slightly performative but mostly natural voice. It’s the voice they’d use to introduce you to their grandmother. Then they read the title of their first poem and launch into the first line. But now their voice is different. It’s as if at some point between the last breath of banter and the first breath of poem a fairy has twinkled by and dumped onto the poet’s tongue a bag of magical dust, which for some reason forces the poet to adopt a precious, lilting cadence, to end every other line on a down-note, and to introduce, pauses, within sentences, where pauses, need not go... 
“Poet Voice,” is the pejorative, informal name given to this soft, airy reading style that many poets use for reasons that are unclear. The voice flattens the musicality and tonal drama inherent within the language of the poem and it also sounds overly stuffy and learned. In this way, Poet Voice does a disservice to the poem, the poet and poetry. It must be stopped.

I'm certainly guilty.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Guest Post: Morgen Bailey

Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen "with an E" Bailey is a freelance writer, editor, creative writing tutor, blogger, speaker, and 2015 Head Judge of the annual H.E.Bates Short Story Competition. Author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, and articles, Morgen is also an occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter and Facebook, along with many other platforms (listed on her blog’s Contact page).

Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List. She is working on eight others – various shades of crime – and has several eBook collections of short stories and writing workbooks available. Find out more on her website,, and Smashwords.

Morgen helps other authors with an inexpensive freelance editing and critiquing service, and actively helps to promote guest authors on her blog – see opportunities.

MGW: Welcome to my first ever guest feature on this blog. Rather than just waffle on about me, I've reached out to author friends and people whose work I admire, to bring you different perspectives on literature and creative writing.

I've undertaken guest posts in the past, especially in the run-up to Rosy Hours' release, and know that it can be a sociable and engaging way for authors to share their work and their experiences. So, without further ado, here is a guest post from my friend Morgen Bailey. She's a scribeoholic, a prolific producer of creative writing guides, articles and short stories, who runs creative writing sessions around the county for Northamptonshire council. I have previously blogged my attendance at one of her earlier courses.

An all-round lovely lady, here's what she has to say on the difference between pacing a novel versus a short story.

The Need for Speed: Pacing in Novels vs Short Stories
Morgen Bailey

There are three components to most stories: character, setting (location) and plot. The most important is the character because if you have a character the reader cares nothing for, you can have the best plot but it falls flat because the reader isn’t interested in what happens to your protagonist. If they do, then your next job is to make your plot engaging.

Stories (of any length) are usually made up of a mixture of dialogue and description. Dialogue usually speeds up the story whereas description, especially if a chunk of it, slows it down.

The genre you’re writing can also determine how you want to write. A fast-paced thriller will automatically need shorter, sharper sentences than a slow-burning historical saga.

I cover ‘Direct vs indirect action’ on my page where I say: 

Try and make your writing as direct as you can. 

What do I mean by that? Have the character (Ted) throw the ball rather than say ‘The ball was thrown by Ted’. Also, instead of saying ‘Ted saw the train speeding towards the car’, having the train speeding towards the car means you’re closer to the action.” Your readers will appreciate it as your writing should already have them feeling like they’re Ted.

You also don’t want to make your chapters too long. I read (and enjoyed) Graham Hurley’s debut novel, Nocturne, but at three 100-page chapters, it felt more disjointed because I wasn’t stopping at a natural break – I rarely read novels in one sitting. This is possibly one aspect of why James Patterson novels are so popular; because he has very short chapters. One of my favourite books is his Michael Ledwidge’s Step On A Crack, a fast-paced heist thriller.

I’ve subtitled this article ‘pacing in novels vs short stories’ because they do differ. While you can elaborate in novels, every word really does have to count in short stories. You don’t have the space to go into depth, to have long passages of description, however beautiful it might be. Of course, your readers will want different things from your writing; I glaze over at detailed descriptions whereas one of my writing group poets loves them. I love reading and writing flash fiction so they tend to be short and snappy. 

Of course the lack of quantity doesn’t mean you can skimp on the quality. Your reader still wants to be entertained, learn something new, feel for your characters, but they also want there to be a risk, a dilemma. Having your character sitting around drinking cups of tea maybe company for them, but it serves little purpose, unless there’s a wrecking ball looming over their veranda and they’re sipping Earl Grey, blissfully unaware. To ensure your narrative drive, every scene has to have a reason for being there, your writing has to grip the reader, make them want to know what happens next, that the characters they’ve grown to care for are going to be OK.

Readers should remember your book for all the right reasons, and finish the last page feeling happy, drained – both is the sign of good writing – if that’s how you feel after you’ve written it, then it’s definitely a job well done.

What’s the ‘fastest’ story you’ve read? Do you have any of your own tips for speeding up a read, while not losing enjoyment?


Morgen Bailey's debut novel The Serial Dater's Shopping List is the story of a journalist who decides to take online dating to the extreme, dating thirty-one men in thirty-one days all in the name of research. Morgen is also the author of numerous creative writing guides, including The 365-Day Writer's Block Workbook and assorted short story collections. Find her online, on Twitter and on Facebook.

Sunday 14 June 2015

First Edit and Ferdiad

Well, that's it. Out of words and out of time. Just completed the first edit of The Children of Lir. Shaved off about 3.4%, down from 123,457 to around 119,212 but up from 263 to 309 on the page count, what with sectioning added.

Sent it off to my beta readers, with more than a twist of trepidation. I have no idea what to think about this one. Hopefully it's not so bad I'll need to shred it, but I have my doubts about the second half. No point worrying over it - can't anyway, far, far too much work to do over the next couple of months. How I've managed to get this draft finished is a miracle.

Just thought I'd finish up posting about my swan song by mentioning the website Legendary Love: A Queer History Project by Brandon Buehring. I have only just stumbled upon it as I was thinking about what sort of image to put with this wrap-up. Which themes have stayed with me from the novel, and which characters have surprised me more than others.

The theme of Cú Cuchulainn and Ferdiad, warriors of the legendary Fianna, repeats itself at times throughout the story. The point of Buehring's website is to reclaim sexual stories that have been sanitised and heterosexualised - or plain hijacked - by the Romans and early Christians. It's a return to the celebration of how certain cultures saw the world.

He's produced a nice essay on Cú Cuchulainn and Ferdiad, calling to mind Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles and his lover, Patroclus.

Cú Cuchulainn and Ferdiad
County Louth

Friday 12 June 2015

Jenny Diski’s End Notes

Every now and then, Twitter has its uses. Someone retweeted this interview with author Jenny Diski. She's not someone whose work I'm familiar with, but on the basis of this article I will endeavour to become so. 

She's dying of terminal lung cancer, and she's writing about it. Brought to mind journalist John Diamond (Nigella Lawson's husband) who chronicled his own experience of the disease, which was adapted to television as A Lump in my Throat with Drop the Dead Donkey's Neil Pearson.

That aside, I thought this article was a fascinating read. 

In person, Diski is much like her prose: She talks about herself, and her present condition, with poised alienation. “It’s a unique experience,” she said of dying. “I’ve never done it before, and I won’t be doing it again.”...
She was eager to set something straight. However nonchalant she may have seemed the day before, she wanted me to know that the reality of her experience was far more complicated: “I’m perfectly capable of holding two, or more, contradictory things in my mind. If I say, on the one hand, ‘Death is an awfully big adventure’ (thank you Peter Pan for that quote) and swig morphine and tell jokes with Ian, that doesn’t also mean that I’m not terrified at the prospect of my own nonexistence.” 

A thoroughly thought-provoking interview. You can also follow her on Twitter: @diski

Thursday 11 June 2015

Come, Lose Yourself

Curse you, real world. Why is it that in the midst of distraction, I am distracted?

I have more work than a pit pony, yet suddenly I'm lost in story.

Having felt nothing much towards the final throes of my latest novel, I'm devouring the completed draft. This may well go down as one of the fastest first edits in history: 221 pages in four days. Only 42 left to go!

I'm still not saying it's good - I'm saying I'm happy.

On top of that, I was sent someone else's manuscript for an opinion. I can't really say much about that, but I've thoroughly been enjoying it. Gobbling up the pages each night beneath my mosquito net.

Meanwhile, I've been feasting my eyes on the Strange & Norrell adaptation, and the latest series of Game of Thrones. Despite wanting to wait until I caught up with the books, I just couldn't resist. 

So, right now, story is all around me. 

The more I immerse myself in story, the better my dreams tend to be at night. I feel more whole, I think more, I observe more - I'm more alive.

Still, all of this must go on hold shortly whilst my schedule turns manic. 

Soon, very soon, I shall crack on with the next novel.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

First Edit - Let the Games Begin

I'm doing the happy stressed dance today.

I was fairly fed up when I finished writing novel number six last Wednesday (no, you haven't missed anything, one of those was never published). It had been a long hard slog to the end. I swore I wouldn't touch the manuscript again until I return to the UK in September.

I reasoned that even if I did want to look at it before then, I have far too much work to focus on. I have twenty international human rights delegates arriving in the space of three months, with hotels, transport, volunteer placements, homestays, speakers, logistics and all that jazz to figure out. I have a great team, and a program assistant (flying all the way from Bosnia), to help me out, but it's still a lot of work. 

Honestly, who has time to edit during all of that?

Well, I thought I'd just take a little peek...

I'm now on page 139!

That's edited.

Despite having broken the spellchecker with the weight of dodgy words, it would appear that most of those dodgy words were Irish. Or fore'n as me spellchecker likes to think of it. There doesn't actually appear to be that much glaringly wrong with the words themselves. They seem to have fallen into an acceptable order.

I'm still not entirely confident about it - no one ever is. Not on first edit. But the fact I've foregone stuff I really should be doing in favour of reading stuff that can probably wait, attests that it is, at least, readable. 

Couple of characters I'm loving. Aoife, obviously, the wicked stepmother. Bit of a rebel child, born before the days of crack cocaine and Harley Ds, making up for it with fast horses and soma. She's a mess, but I understand her. "Love me!" she cries, whilst killing everyone you know. 

She has her issues, who don't?

Then there's Aodh, the eldest man child. The character I thought I'd feel least towards, and actually feel the most. He's the surprise in the story that kept me going. I've mentioned how hard it is to retell a story where you can only alter the in-between but not the ending. Where you know where it's all going to end up even as you start the first line. It's difficult for people who just like to invent shit to stick to an outline. You have to have something in the story that's a complete unknown - that you write to discover.

For me, that was Aodh. I had no idea who he was when he first appeared, and I've watched him write himself into a full-grown character.

The book's in three parts, and I'm just coming to the end of Part I. This was the easiest part to write, because it's a bit of a court intrigue: plots, petty jealousies and plenty of sex. Easy writing, easy reading. 

It got a bit more complicated after that - when the children are turned into swans. It's hard to write about a group of swans without sounding insane or corny. You certainly can't write about swans having sex - especially with humans - unless you're going to turn it into an altogether different sort of story (one that would get you banned on Smashwords). Relationships need handling with care.

They're also in the middle of the sea for 300 years, so that needed work. Unless you're willing to skip over three hundred years in a couple of paragraphs, or bash away at it, making symbolic reference to the sea and analogising your readers to death, something else really needs to happen there - other characters, other sights, other worlds. 

I'm happy, because I think the style I found for myself in Rosy Hours has followed through into Children of Lir. I think it is pretty - and I like pretty writing. But this time it isn't dark - and I like dark writing. 

I mean, there are some dark parts, but there are no horrorful parts, and I miss that a little.

I don't know yet because I haven't asked anyone else, but I think it's a good book. It's very different to Rosy Hours. I think it might attract a very different audience. Or it might attract a great deal of criticism. Always a risky business with retellings, especially loosely historical ones.

Really, this is just a post about how happy I am that it doesn't suck balls.


Saturday 6 June 2015


Doing the happy squirrel dance. Got this notification from Ghostwoods the other day:

I thought you'd like to know that the legal deposit libraries have requested their copies of your book. So it will be in at least six British libraries. Yay!

Yay indeed. Curious to see whether it has an effect on my next PLR payment

In other library-related news, I'm going to be appearing at Kendal Library, Cumbria on Thursday 12th November 2015 at 3PM, talking about Rosy Hours and all that jazz. Hope to see you there!

Friday 5 June 2015


Really nice short documentary: The Story of Hedgebrook: Women Authoring Change  You can find them online, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Thursday 4 June 2015

Rwanda Gains ISBN Agent

Huge news for Rwandan publishing - the country now has its first ISBN agent: Rwanda Library Services. Thanks to Nielsen for the update. For why this is such a big deal, check my article ISBNs Close the Book on Developing Writers. Here's to Rwanda contributing diversity to international literature!

[UPDATE Feb 2016: ISBNs from Rwanda Library Services cost FRW 2,000 (£1.80/$2.60) for one, or 10,000 (£9/$13) for ten. Both individuals and publishers can purchase them. For more on the subject of ISBNs in developing countries, see: ISBNs, PayPal, and How Technology is Failing Artists]

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Final Swan Song

That's a wrap, folks. I've just finished the first draft of my next novel, a retelling of The Children of Lir.

At 123,457 words, it's the longest one yet. Rosy Hours previously held that record at around 100,000.

This one's been hard slog. I don't know why. Had a lot of RealWorld(tm) work to attend to lately, which has beckoned me away from the creative. It could also be that, apart from my own spin on things, the ending, and the overall arc of the story, were already know. I love this legend, I've always wanted to retell it, and I've done so with quite a flourish of originality in terms of characters and their relationships, but overall - it's the same story. 

Rosy Hours was a retelling of sorts - inspired by a story within a story. Yet the degree of creative freedom in that was far greater. There was no ending, there was no explicit outline of what happened, when and with whom - just the hint of intrigue. 

My nephew wrote a story outline recently. He's a young lad who will hopefully keep up his love of a good story, his poetry and inventiveness. But my advice to him was 'never start a story with the outline - start with the story.' An outline gives the impression of having already told your story. Your heart has already started to disengage. Also, by outlining the synopsis first, you run the risk of missing those quirky twists and turns you'll take on a road less well defined. 

The joy of writing a good story is that it can surprise you along the way.

Rough plot markers are fine, but too much detail and you suffocate creativity beneath a blanket of narrative conformity.

I think that's possibly what happened here.

Yet I refused to edit as I went, so I honestly have no idea what lies between pages 30-263.

Maybe it's very good. Maybe it needs a serious rewrite. Maybe it's somewhere in between.

All I know is that I felt a definite sense of relief when it was over. 

I'm very much looking forward to writing something shorter now. I thought Rosy Hours would be my last long-write, but this one sort of crept up and tapped me on the shoulder. For a while I've wanted to switch to shorter books, possibly a trilogy. Around 80k max. Shorter, sharper bursts of creativity. Prolonged ones can really take it out of you. 

Work is going to be full-on now until the end of August, then I'm planning to head back to the UK for a few months. Perhaps I'll start editing then. It's hard to catch the ambiance of an Irish legend when sitting in the middle of Africa. Bananas and 26c heat don't quite evoke Iron Age Éire. Provided I don't freeze to death, it might just add a little creative perspective.

Still, I'm proud of myself. It's the second novel that's proved a real challenge to finish writing (the first is in a draw somewhere). It's the test of a writer to keep writing even when it isn't easy. It was at 10,000 words last October, so it's taken me eight months to complete. That alone is encouraging - even when I don't feel like I've been very productive, I have been.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

May Newsletter

Just to mention, my latest author newsletter is out:

Irish legends, refugee camps and uni years. You can find back-issues here.

Monday 1 June 2015


My word for the week, hands-down, is polychronic.

It's just revolutionised my life.

Living in Africa, I work to 'African time'. It's the concept that any time you call a meeting, people will be late. Sometimes only a little bit late, twenty or thirty minutes, sometimes much longer - several hours, or even tomorrow.

Only, 'African time' is a misnomer. I once worked in Armenia and time was just as malleable there: "Meeting starts at 9AM" translated into "breakfast at 9AM, meeting starting at 10:30."

To discover there is actually a word for this concept of time is phenomenal. He starts to explain at point 3:06 in the video - the difference between monochronic (typically Western culture) and polychronic (most of the rest of the world). Really helpful for me to explain to colleagues why punctuality is so important in the (geographically misplaced) West, and to help me understand why it isn't in many other places.