Friday 28 August 2015

The Indecisive Novelist

The Blotter

Just a heads-up. Thanks to the lovely Laine Cunningham, author of He Drinks Poison (who has previously interviewed and reviewed me), I'm in this month's The Blotter magazine P.8.

Lovely to arrive home to the UK and find a copy of Writing Magazine waiting. Never did see the December article in glossy print before.

Friday 21 August 2015

Falciparum Fiend

Nyamata Genocide Memorial, Rwanda

The dead at Nyarubuye were, I'm afraid, beautiful. There was no getting around it. The skeleton is a beautiful thing. The randomness of the fallen forms, the strange tranquillity of their rude exposure, the skull here, the arm bent in some uninterpretable gesture there - these things were beautiful, and their beauty only added to the affront of the place. I couldn't settle on any meaningful response: revulsion, alarm, sorrow, grief, shame, incomprehension, sure, but nothing truly meaningful. I just looked, and I took photographs, because I wondered whether I could really see what I was seeing while I saw it, and I wanted also an excuse to look a bit more closely. - Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

For more reading on Rwanda, check out Remembering Rwanda.

I know I haven't posted much about my writing lately. It's been a fairly intense few weeks hopping about the country, visiting genocide memorial sites and refugee camps.

Then went and got malaria, so feeling a bit poorly at the moment and desperately trying to pack so that I can catch my flight to the UK next week. 

Looking forward to sleeping, bathing, and returning to the less physically demanding role of writer.

The Fever by Sonia Shah
How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years
Picked this up a couple of months back.
How prophetic.

Monday 17 August 2015

Reflective Writing

There's a nice series starting on Idealist exploring how reflective writing can help maintain a better work-home balance:

As a kid, I never understood why my father only had enough energy to eat dinner and sit in front of the television every evening when he got home from work. Now I get it. He just wanted to circumvent the vicious circle that is ruminating at home about the things going wrong at work with something mind numbing and benign like 60 Minutes. When everything is overwhelming in our work lives the repercussions are inevitably felt in every other part of our lives. 
What happens to so-called work life balance when you are unemployed and looking for work, or in a job where you are struggling with demands, stress, office politics, or a particularly unpleasant boss? How does deadening ourselves with Netflix marathons night after night to avoid thinking in circles about our troubles at work count as “life”? 
The trouble with watching entire seasons of Gilmore Girls back to back is that, although it will take our mind off our troubles, it’s passive. We’re just immersing ourselves in white noise and spoon-fed fictitious worlds to escape our own reality. Unfortunately, passivity breeds passivity.

For the next few weeks, poet and professional writer Dr. Tara Mokhtari will be offering up a series of short reflective writing exercises

Sunday 16 August 2015


Had a wonderful visit with this organisation in Kigali the other week. Please take a moment to watch the documentary and see how they're changing the lives of street children through hip hop, ballet and contemporary dance.

There's a little more on their program below. If you're a professional dancer, drop them a line. Each year professional dancers from around the world visit MindLeaps to work with the kids. Rebecca Davis, who founded the program, is an alumni of the Global Youth Connect Human Rights program. If you're aged between 18-35 and passionate about human rights, check them out.

You can find MindLeaps online, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Friday 14 August 2015


Each Friday there's a Twitter tag #FridayReads where people share their recommendations. This Friday I've splashed out in anticipation of my forthcoming UK holiday. When not writing, I intend to be reading. This is what I've added to my TBR list today.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Not entirely sure about the retro cover, but hooked by the premise. Tripped across it browsing the Cheltenham Literature Festival line-up this year. I was also a fan of the FF style of multi-adventure books. Sounds like fun and I'm always extremely interested in authors who have discovered a fresh way of telling tales - something a little out of the ordinary. I'm currently on Cloud Atlas. When a review states 'requires a lot of effort on the part of the reader,' I'm there. Bored to tits of easy reading.

This is a must read for me. I once spent a weird week in Wales on a writing retreat with Sarah. She's a lovely lady, and it's fantastic to see her doing so well. I knew this was out, but just saw she's talking about it at Cheltenham alongside author Claire Fuller. So get down there and support her on Friday 9th October 2015 if you can. You can also find her on Twitter. I'm extremely interested to read her debut novel as I know she's been working on it for a while.

H. P. Lovecraft Complete Collection

Um... yeah. Not even sure how to explain myself here. My publisher keeps releasing Lovecraftian anthologies, and I'm feeling left out as I can't contribute, never having read any. So, here goes. Pastiche primer ahoy. All I know about Lovecraft is his possible influence on Scientology. This is a really thick volume, so it might take me some time. Who knows, this might be the start of a beautiful thing. Or the end of everything.

Nothing if not eclectic. But it will take some time to get around to all of this. I've been reading the same book now for two months due to exhausting work commitments. I'm lucky if I can finish a short chapter a night before falling asleep. I'm hoping that once back in the UK I can throw myself into editing, writing and reading at least until the new year.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Rosy Hours Book Club Pack

Hold the phone! 40% book club discount when you order five or more copies! 

Pleased to announce a book club and writers' pack to accompany Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran.

It includes:

  • Questions for book club discussions
  • Links to related media and reading
  • Prompts for creative writers

If you are a member of a book club and wish to buy in bulk, please contact Ghostwoods Books directly to discuss discounts. 

I will be in the UK from September 2015 - January 2016 and available for book club discussions. If you'd like to request this, please also contact Ghostwoods Books directly. Check my website for upcoming events.

If you are a book review blogger, you can request review copies online.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Author Under-earnings

The 2014 Digital Book World and Writer's Digest Author Survey has come up with some interesting facts:

  • 54% of traditionally-published authors and almost 80% of go-it-alone writers are making less than $1,000 (£600) a year
  • Just over 77% of self-published writers make $1,000 or less a year
  • A startlingly high 53.9% of traditionally-published authors report their earnings are below the same threshold
  • Only a minority of respondents listed making money as "extremely important" – around 20% of self-published writers, and about a quarter of traditionally-published authors
  • 60% of traditional authors judged it "extremely important" to "publish a book that people will buy"

With five novels accepted by three different publishers, I have mixed feelings about this. I've certainly become more aware of the market over time. The first couple of books I wrote purely because I wanted to write. I wrote about subjects that interested me, and I switched genres over the first three novels: horror, romance and historical fiction. By novel number four, I'd found my voice, and novels six and seven (in the making) are written with a solid eye on audience.

When we say 'money doesn't matter' - that's not quite accurate. It's true that habitual writers like myself would write no matter what. Take away paper and pens, we'd probably finger paint stories on caves. It's a compulsion. 

Before anyone makes money writing, they don't make money writing. 

That doesn't mean money doesn't matter. It matters a lot: rent, food, car, clothes - everything costs money, so everyone needs money.

That said, there's a distinction between writing as a hobby, or learning your craft, and writing professionally. You wouldn't say in athletics that everyone who runs a marathon should get paid Mo Farah's wage. Same with acting, few people who tread the boards at an am. dram. performance will command Nicole Kidman's salary.

It isn't fair. It really isn't. Everyone should get the opportunity to earn a living doing what they enjoy doing. Life is very short, after all. Sadly the nine-to-five materialist culture we've embraced is an ailment of our human state. If we wanted to, as a species, we could live very differently: quit running drugs and guns and go spend the day (a lifetime) at the beach. Why not?

But, working within the system we have - part supply and demand, part rampant capitalism - writing is no different to an elite sport or a televised talent competition for those looking to make a living out of it. 

Most people who love to paint, sculpt, sing and dance put on a suit each morning and go to the office.

To break out of that, I assume you've either got to be very well connected (not what you know but who you know), extremely hard working and tenacious (you still qualify for a Young Person's Discount with the Society of Authors until you're 35), very lucky (right place, right time) or very clever (judged the market spot on).

You could say the same for any art.

Having said all that, for me personally, money earned through writing is sweeter than anything else. Even though a development contract brings in many times more than royalties, when I received a PLR cheque earlier this year for just enough to buy a second hand fridge, I leapt so high I almost hit my head on the ceiling. Earning money doing what you love has a certain magic to it.

So, yes, just like an office, the majority of desk jockey writers are under-employed, under-paid, and subject to rampant sexual discrimination, but, unlike most workers, at least we derive a modicum of perverse pleasure from the machine. 

Keep at it.

Sunday 9 August 2015

Writing Jouissance

Earlier this year I was reading a story collection and one story in particular really stood out. I loved the writer's style, so looked her up. Turns out she's both an erotica writer and a lecturer on the subject. That means she not only knows how to talk dirty, but can teach you to do it too, then rank you F to A* on effort.

Having read one of her novels and a couple of short stories, my appreciation of Remittance Girl's writing has simply grown. Swelled. Engorged.

Okay, stop it.

Most writers write sex at some point. In the case of the Bad Sex Awards, some don't always get it right. But erotica is a genre unto itself, with numerous subgenres. As with any approach, getting it right takes study and skill.

I just wanted to share RG's recent address at Eroticon 2015 (love their motto: Write Sex Right). It's best to download her slide presentation alongside the podcast, so you can follow.

I love people who challenge me to think. This talk is particularly stimulating - ahem. RG has a special gift for sexual inventiveness in literature, and for subtle subversion. I hadn't realised just how powerful erotica can be at pushing you out of your comfort zone, shattering the fourth wall and coaxing out your dirty little freak. I wouldn't question in life that sex is the fastest route to the core, so I don't know why it should surprise me in literary form. Raw, emotional, messy - all the best books are.

It's more important to stop and question yourself even if you don't find an answer. - Remittance Girl (twitter)

Saturday 8 August 2015

Introvert Writer

This is a really interesting article, tweeted by @TheAtlantic: An Introverted Writer’s Lament

It's written by author  Meghan Tifft, whose book The Long Fire is due for release later this month. You can preorder (UK/US). I must admit I'm tempted by the blurb. Waiting to see'f it'll come out on Kindle.

The article explores the issue: Writing used to be a solitary profession. How did it become so interminably social?

At first I thought it was just another of these regular articles about 'why do writers have to be promoters too?' I get it, I really do. For every novel I write, I know my facebooking, tweets and blog posts outstrip the word count tenfold. It is draining.

But this article was slightly different, and it really did hit home with other writers (based on retweets, reposts and comments, ironically).

She had me at:

What I want to know is, since when does making art require participation in any community, beyond the intense participation that the art itself is undertaking? Since when am I not contributing to the community if all I want to do is make the art itself? Isn’t the art itself my intimate communication with others, with the world, with the unfolding spectacle of the human struggle as we live and coexist on this earth?....

We’re real-life writers, not actors each in our own third-rate art film about the writing life. Aren’t we?

I thought about this for quite a while. I'm afraid I am a constant self-narrator. I've lost count of the number of blogs I write, more since I split my main blog into a couple of compartmentalised thought streams. 

I'm a self-confessed socmediaholic. I bloody love Twitter for its ability to connect me with other writers I madly admire, and for introducing me to those I'd never have known I madly admire had I not been tweeting.

When I choose to be, I'm a sparky extrovert. I'm quite happy to stand up and talk in front of people, answer a Q&A session, give a reading. Especially if it involves a few drinks and a bit of like-minded literary chat afterwards.

At the same time, I cannot write with anyone else in the house. I hate it. Even if they're in the garden or downstairs. When I'm in a 'writing mood' my friends don't see me for weeks. I get mad messages asking if I've been eaten by cats.

I recently mentioned in an interview that a top priority for a good writing day is isolation. And, being honest, just because I can talk about a book, doesn't mean I usually want to. I don't mind discussing other people's work, but when it comes to my own, everything I wanted to say is on the page. What other people think of that isn't really my business. It's uncomfortable when people make it my business. 

I'm happy, of course, when people love something I've written. It's bloody marvellous to write something that finds its mark in someone else's mind. But it's also awkward to hear about. The connection isn't between you and me. I don't know you, you don't know me. The connection is in art. That's where we both recognise ourselves - or lose ourselves. Whichever.

It is the act of creation itself that compels. 

I'd agree wholeheartedly with Tifft here that the pleasure of a book is in that intimate, private connection with the page. In sharing a secret no one else can hear. A moment that is yours entirely. 

I doubt anyone who knows me would call me an introvert, but suggest a day out with friends or a day locked indoors with a laptop - no contest I'm afraid. Irritable antisocial that I can be, that's just my way of saying leave me alone with my thoughts.

I don’t not want to be your friend. I just don’t want to dance with you. - Tifft

On that note, here's the blurb for her book. I had to laugh as earlier that day I'd read an article on The Most Interesting Diseases To Have Ravaged Humanity (writers love this kind of shit) and pica was on the list. That's a surefire sign I need to buy this book.

Natalie is propelled through life by pica, a disorder that has her eating a wide variety of inedibles—from pencil shavings to foam peanuts to plastic doll parts. A lowly staff worker for the local news, she follows the inane demands of the station’s senile weatherman and comes home to an empty apartment, unless of course her father uses the spare key.

But Natalie’s past stalks her at every turn. With her mother recently killed in a tragic house fire, and her runaway brother, Eliot, missing for years, Natalie and her father Boris only have each other. When a cryptic voicemail implicates her mother’s gypsy roots in her untimely death, Natalie begins to consider the demons that consumed her mother, and drove her brother away. With increasing suspicion, she traces her mother's mysterious family legacy back to the gypsy neighborhood she left behind.

As a wary Gypsy community tracks her every move, Natalie resolves to confront the dysfunctional and tragic figure at the heart of the mystery: the dead matriarch herself. Smart, elegiac writing, and a page-turning drive, make this a wonderful literary thriller with a hero as intriguing as the mystery.

Friday 7 August 2015

Dara Passano

I've recently fallen in love with a columnist from the Guardian.

If you have anything to do with development, have ever been an international volunteer, or even just have a sense of humour on humanitarian issues, you've gotta follow @DaraPassano

Telling it like it is. A serious breath of fresh air, which is welcome as it's really dusty in Rwanda at the moment. Not many people know it's a dusty country during the dry season.

Here's a taster:

Did you know there is a direct correlation between the depth of compassion you display for the suffering, and the size of the showerhead you washed under that morning? There is. I’ve done operations research on it.

I think we can all agree – with the exception of my boss, who doesn’t agree with anyone about anything – that the quality of this proposal is low. As in, even lower than our usual.

But in our defence, what maniac releases a request for applications over the Christmas holiday? Are you trying to rend whatever fragile family structures we aid workers have left? 

I probably should keep quiet on The Consultant's Manifesto... *ahem*

Observational humour at its finest.

Also worth checking out the Development Book Club (@devnovice) if you're interested in #intdev issues.

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Sexism Rampant in Publishing

Hot on the revelation that female protagonists scupper an author's award chances comes the news that a woman writing under a male pseudonym is eight times more likely to get published!

After an extended period of writer's block and ennui — during which she'd sent out 50 queries to lackluster response — Nichols, presenting herself as George, fired off six queries to agents she'd planned to address under her real name. Within minutes, she received a response ... which quickly turned into five. Five responses. Three manuscript requests and two warm, detailed, constructive rejections. On a f*kin' weekend. 
Nichols upped the ante, sending out 50 queries under the pseudonym — the same number she'd let fly under her own name. As herself, she received two manuscript requests. George got 17. Nichols grimly observes, "He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25."

In one forum the depressing response came:

I thought this was common knowledge? That's why many now-famous female authors tend to use initials and a last name or a blatantly masculine pseudonym. Not only is it less likely to be published, but people are less likely to pick up and read a book written by a female author (with the exception to the rule being the romance genre).

Think I'm going to give this a go myself with Secret Order. Nothing to lose (except my gender), everything to gain. In the words of Zachry o' Bailey's, I have a woahsome curio.

Also, check out Laine Cunningham's book Writing While Female or Black or Gay.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Coffee and a Book Comp

My publisher, Ghostwoods Books, is running a cool competition. Simply take a picture of your coffee and a book you're reading (or another beverage if you're not a coffee drinker), then tweet to @GhostwoodsBooks or e-mail to by 31st August 2015. Though this is an ongoing thing every few months, so keep checking back. You can find full details on their website, plus a list of current entries. You stand to win - coffee and a book!

Sunday 2 August 2015

TBR Calculator

Neat little calculator to help you work out how long it will take to finish reading your TBR (To Be Read) pile... that's provided you don't add any more titles!

Lost for Words

Cave probled reasing texts. Call at cate.

That was the text message I sent to my colleague the other night. 

No, for once I wasn't drunk.

It was half an hour before I had to be at Kigali airport to collect my second human rights delegation of the summer. I was feeling fine. Just finishing up some e-mails, when all of a sudden my hands weren't my own.

It's hard to explain. My hands just don't belong to me. They're usually larger than normal, often blue or green, sometimes trailing light, but always moving ahead of where I imagine them to be. It is seriously trippy.

Next, my field of vision goes. Zigzaggy, colour-enhanced, with blocks missing or blurred. People usually pay good money for this.

Most distressing of all is the loss of one side of my body. It's usually my right side. It goes numb, like pins and needles, and in extreme cases I can lift up my arm, let go, and watch it flop back down again. It affects one side of my mouth and leaves me slurring like a drunk. 

Finally, I lose language. 

When a migraine first starts, I'll wander about the house talking to myself to calm myself down, but as things progress, my head just empties of words. All of them. The more I focus on a word that I need, the further away it seems. I was about to do a Google search for spices that might help, in case anything in my culinary arsenal might prove useful. Spices, that was the word I needed in order to complete the search. Five minutes later I'm still staring into the screen, goggle-eyed, drooley mouthed, vocab flat-lining.

Probleme. Communicate difficult. Call when st house. Will open.

Trying to Whatsapp my colleague was excruciating. I think I can honestly say that I understand dyslexia better than most non-dyslexics. The text messages above read perfectly fine to me. But if I stared at them to try to proofread, the words started swimming and I couldn't be sure of anything. They kept changing in front of my eyes until the sentence that read in perfect English a moment ago made no sense in any language.

Apparently my type of migraine is hereditary, a  Familial Hemiplegic Migraine (FHM), probably due to a defective chromosome 19 (50% cases), which is possibly something to do with calcium absorption? My mum suffers from them. Women are apparently three times more likely than men to get migraines, but whereas 15-20% of a population may suffer from migraines, only 0.01% suffer this particular type. So I'm especially defective.

Thankfully I only get them once every couple of years. They've also changed as I've grown up. Until my early twenties, the trippy stuff was followed by the most excruciating headache you can imagine. Like someone's trapped your head in a vice, or is caving your skull in with a claw hammer. Absolute agony.

One day the pain didn't follow, and it never came back. It's probably all just chemicals, but I like to think I sat down and gave myself a stern talking to. Told the migraine to fuck off and myself to chill out. Got my body on-side. It's still unpleasant, but in a masochistic way I do sort of enjoy it. How often do you get to experience something that mad? To be unable to read or write or think. To lose all sense of language. Especially when language is my life as a writer. To watch words swim across the page and be unable to grasp them. To think you're speaking in sentences, only to find they didn't make sense at all.

What are you if not words?

When it becomes unmanageable, I pop the pretty pink pills and drift off on a comforting cloud of codeine. Wake up the next day feeling dewy-eyed, reborn. 

Every time it happens I do a search for links between migraines and strokes, or migraines and Alzheimer's. I've read all sorts of conflicting evidence, from migraines increasing the chance of stroke to them possibly protecting against it. There's an interesting genetic idea that perhaps migraines serve some sort of evolutionary trade-off, like sickle cell. But nobody really seems to know what it means. The good news is that episodes are supposed to be very rare after fifty.

Anyway, that's it over for a couple more years, hopefully. 

Did coincide with a full moon.