Saturday 27 August 2016

Angel Uwamahoro

In my spare time, I've been trying to put together a little writing community in Kigali. Using social media to connect and share info. You can find it here: Twitter, Facebook Page, Facebook Community Group.

I've just finished an interview with poet Angel Uwamahoro for the website.

It was such a pleasure to interview her. She's extremely talented.

Hoping that through this small community I might start finding other writers in Rwanda to help build the Creative Kigali project. There's a very small publishing industry starting to take form, but one of their big problems is finding work to publish. Loads of literacy courses for children, but I'm hoping to inspire a few adults with this in September. If you live in Kigali, please help by printing off one of these flyers. Cut between the lines and pop it up somewhere people might find it. Thanks!

Thursday 25 August 2016

Creepy Fin

Sitting here with a nice cold beer.

Just completed the first draft of my Hookland novel, Creeper's Cottage, weighing in at 106, 443. I predicted a post or two ago that it'd come in at around 106,000 - surprised I guessed to close.

I have to say, it was a hard one to finish.

As I say every time, I'm not so sure how good it is. I'm past the point of objectivity. I'd be disappointed if this is a third bottom-drawerer, but I'm prepared to accept if it is.

Going to take a holiday in the real world and start editing in a week or two, then it'll go off to Martine and Rauirí, my close friends who act as occasional beta readers.

I'll take their advice and work towards a cleaner second draft for submissions.

I've spent the past six months playing in Hookland, so it's going to be sad to say goodbye, but due to the creative commons nature of David Southwell's creation, I know that I will probably return.

I'm revved up for my next project, a retelling of Red Riding Hood, probably novella-length (40-60,000). I need a break. Novels are a long slog.

I've also been battling distractions lately. I met Dionysus over drinks one night and I've had my head turned ever since. Too busy daydreaming to form a coherent sentence of any sort.

It's like that episode of Spaced where Brian, an artist who paints 'Anger, pain, fear, aggression,' falls for Twist and finds he can no longer paint.

Friday 19 August 2016


Well, that's the state of my brain. How's everyone else doing this week?

This post was supposed to read Creepy Fin, but it doesn't, obvs. 

Had a slightly off week. 

Well, off - good.

A very dear friend left the country, and we had a big goodbye celebration, starting at her place and ending with tequila at 3 a.m. in a slightly seedy bar in Nyabugogo (the place you don't go-go after dark). Got home at half-four in the morning after a wobbly ride across the city on a public motorbike. 

This'll come as no surprise to anyone who isn't me, but I really can't drink like I could when I was in my twenties. It took me three days to claw back a sense of self.

Needless to say, this threw my writing routine into total disarray. I'm having a hard time wrapping up Creeper's as it is. Saturated in doubt and struggling to tie things together. I just couldn't face it. I bottled.

I haven't been completely unproductive, though. Managed to submit a fairly decent (in the eye of the beholder) science fiction piece to a magazine. I'm trying to make at least one submission to paying mags a month, using the weekend to work on those. 

We had a glorious thunder storm a couple of nights back. Rwanda's coming towards the end of our long dry season at the moment. This is an average week:

We haven't really seen rain in three months, so when the sky lit up and the clouds rolled in, it felt like a real celebration.

I feel sorry for people back in the UK who never truly get to experience the joy of rain in quite the same way.

Anyway, along with the rains I caught a dose of spring fever, so my mind is all over the place. Need to reel it back in and finish this sodding novel. I'm with R. R. Martin on the 'I enjoy having written' trip. Actually writing is fairly hard work most of the time. It's especially annoying because I can see the end, I just need to get there.

No more drinking for me - ever.

Ever, ever.


Saturday 13 August 2016

Creepy 100

Blimey, what a week.

Had a bit of a marathon session yesterday. Went to a conference on Thursday, so only managed 1,000 of my 2k a day, which left three to complete on Friday. Thought I was doing good at 10k a week until Emma Newman tweeted she does double that. That's exhausting just to contemplate.

Anyway, looks like next week will be the last. Approaching the end, just tipped the 100,000 word count. I'm putting in a bet at 106,000 pre-edit. I have no idea if I've done a good thing or not. Could be looking at a third bottom-drawerer, but hoping it'll stand up.

This is the third time I've cracked the 100,000 mark in eight novels, five published. It's true what they say, writing long is like building a muscle. The more you do it, the easier it starts to get, but in truth I prefer short and sweet. It's a time risk tackling longer work on spec.

I'm actually pretty geared up for the next novel, working title Wolfish, which I'm hoping to turn into a novella-length distortion of Red Riding Hood. A return to the poetic prose of Rosy Hours and Children of Lir (which I'm assuming is likely to be a 2017 release, haven't heard yet).

I'm always hugely uncertain about my contemporary attempts. Both bottom-drawer misses have been those, but I'm not yet ready to accept that I can only sell books when I embrace eloquence in the past tense.

I always get a bit jittery towards the end of every novel.

Just have to wrap it up and wait to see if it has wings.

Friday 12 August 2016

Living for Literature

Interesting couple of articles recently.

“When readers were compared to non-readers at 80% mortality (the time it takes 20% of a group to die), non-book readers lived 85 months (7.08 years), whereas book readers lived 108 months (9.00 years) after baseline,” write the researchers. “Thus, reading books provided a 23-month survival advantage.”

And it does appear to be fiction, rather than factual journals, that make the difference, helping us to enter a state of deep reading. This is the point at which books can bend our brains and contribute to evolutionary processes.

As the article goes on to say:

The benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them. 

The other article I thought was interesting: The mystery of why you can't remember being a baby.

This gaping hole in the record of our lives has been frustrating parents and baffling psychologists, neuroscientists and linguists for decades. It was a minor obsession of the father of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, who coined the phrase ‘infant amnesia’ over 100 years ago.

I explore this issue in one of my earlier novels, Lucid:

When a parent dies, you don’t just lose them, you lose part of who you are. Other people come and go through your life. Most of them you don’t meet until halfway through. But parents are there from the very beginning. They were there through all of the things you can’t remember. They were there even before you had memory. It’s all those conversations beginning with ‘do you remember...’ that die with them. There are parts of your life, of who you are, of what made you you, that cannot be accessed alone; that need someone else to return you to that moment in time.

It’s scary how little of life we remember, and how much relevance we place on those precious fragments that we do. They become our anchor in this void of transient oblivion.

What did you have for breakfast this day two years ago? If you don’t remember, does that mean it never happened?

The answer might be ‘because it’s unimportant’, but isn’t it funny the things that are important. Little moments of childhood, the tone of somebody’s voice, the look in someone’s eye, an experience, a heated exchange, and, in between all of those muddy remembrances, the half-imagined things which leave us with only a sense of something having happened.

I was having a conversation with my friend Jo the other day. I asked whether she was worried that all of the places she visits with her daughter are going to be forgotten, and Jo said something very interesting. She feels that her daughter will remember more of her childhood than you or me, because of the digital age in which we live. Photographs and video clips act as external memory. When we see them, we often remember so much more about the time and place they were taken than we would if there was no visual prompt. She says her daughter already looks at photographs and recalls who was there at the time and what they were doing.

Memory is such a fascinating subject.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

Creative Kigali

Just confirmed.

I'll be teaching an Introduction to Writing Fiction course in Kigali from 29 September 2016.

The idea is to go one step beyond creative writing to help nurture adults looking to develop their fiction writing skills.

It's a six-week course at Casa Keza, near Kacyiru SOS.

More details on the Creative Kigali website.

Very much looking forward to this.

If you'd like more info on Creative Kigali, you can also find it on Twitter, Facebook, and join the Facebook group for Rwandan writers.

Monday 8 August 2016

Endangered Names

Whilst researching for Creeper's recently, I stumbled across a site listing 10 Rare English Surnames About to Go Extinct. Quite surprising to see some famous ones on there: Mirren, Nighy and Bonneville.

Friday 5 August 2016

Creepy 90

It's Friday, and I've finished for the week.

Just crossed the 90,000 word count with Creeper's Cottage. That's twenty thousand words added in the past ten days, excluding weekends.

This week has been wonderful. I really feel connected to the story again, and I can finally see the end approaching. It's been one of those easy weeks where the characters have taken control and the action has flowed. The only moment of hardship was a touch of performance fright in the bedroom. Two of the main characters finally get it together. The last sex scene in the book, and it's been brewing for so long there's enormous pressure to make it good.

I think it's something I will have to revise in the edit, but it holds together for now.

After so long building up to an ending and worrying I won't get there, I'm now afraid that it's all about to happen too fast. 

Still, I've clocked off and I have lots of things in my schedule for the weekend and the beginning of next week. I'm sure I'll figure it out on Monday.

As always, rough and unedited:

Evermore rose as Oskar entered, extending a hand at the end of which he found a cool, firm handshake. The man had changed since the day his church arrived. His dress seemed more elaborate, more expensive, yet also dated, as though attending a fancy dress ball. Oskar untangled himself from the lace sleeve and sat in the chair indicated.
“So, Mr. Dziedzic, you are an acquaintance of the lovely Miss Łucja Kosmaczewski?”
Oskar did not like the way he said lovely. It sounded like the sort of empty flattery rich men paid to people they hadn't given a second thought to all week. He knew Evermore’s type. There were enough of them in Poland.
“Yes, yes.” Oskar said, putting on his widest grin and pulling his chin inward. It was his stupid Pole impression, the one he used with his neighbours. The British, they looked at you one of two ways. When they thought you were clever, you were a threat, stealing their jobs and fucking their women. When they thought you were stupid, you were just an annoyance, someone to grumble about and occasionally swear at. He didn’t want Evermore to think he was smart.
“Well, it is delightful to make your acquaintance. Łucja tells me you are also a proficient of the building trade?”
“Yes, yes. For me, I was builder,” he said, shovelling on his accent so thickly he could barely understand himself. “Now, I rent house to builders, and me, I take easy life.”
“Easy, indeed.” Evermore sat back, his arms resting along those of the chair. His body appeared relaxed, but Oskar could see the intensity in his eyes. “So, what do you think of my grand scheme, Mr. Dziedzic? Do you approve?”
Oskar said that he approved very much. He complimented Lord Evermore on the size of his estate, his community spirit for opening it to the public, then fed him some bullshit line about running a landscape gardening business on the side.
“Many, many good workers,” he said, pulling in his chin and beaming. “Much experience with big house like yours. Cut grass, clean pond, grow flower. Whatever you need.”
“How fortuitous, we have recently lost a gardener.”
Oskar pulled a business card from his pocket. He’d had them specially made for the occasion. Years ago, before the UOP and the fall of the People’s Republic, back in the days of the communist regime, Oskar had worked for Esbecja, the Polish secret service. In those days he’d been good-looking, half a ton lighter with a thick mop of hair the colour of krówki. Women came easy to him, and he could charm his way through any door. Due to the disappointment of genetics, Oskar had been a man whose physical appeal had faded fast. In his youth he’d harboured dreams of being on the big screen, but when the Esbecja disbanded in 1989, he took the more realistic route into private security. It was through this line of work that he learned more about reading people than any of the jobs he’d undertaken in counter-espionage. When he could no longer get what he wanted with a simple smile, that’s when he had truly learnt to read people.
Because Oskar had spent so much of his career smiling, he always began with the smiles of others. Something about Evermore’s didn’t look right.
“So, you tell me,” Oskar said, trying to buy more time for Łucja, “how do you want garden to look for big day? You have old house, maybe you want old trees to go with it?”
“We do need two yew trees transported from Gumbleston.”
“Say no more, say no more. I get man to do it. How big the tree?”
Oskar was only half lying. If there was money involved, he could certainly find a man. About a year ago he’d met a Polish tree surgeon in a bar. Someone would know how to get hold of him.
As Evermore came to the end of his description, he changed the subject.
“I would appreciate it if you could take care of that. Now please, more about yourself. How did you come to England’s green shores?”
That’s when he knew it was time to leave. Not because he hadn’t thought up an entire backstory about a sick relative in Ashcourt, not having the money to get home, and, by the time he’d earned it, realising he’d adopted this country with its cold weather and warm beer. All of that was on the tip of his tongue, ready to weave a convincing yarn. No, it was that smile again. It hadn’t changed with the topic of conversation. Evermore had smiled at him just the same whilst talking about yew trees as he had when first greeting him, and whilst asking about his past. It was fałszywy uśmiech – a false smile.
In 1987, two years before he left the service, he’d been on a mission in Elbląg, a city to the far north. An Esbecja agent was suspected of selling secrets to the Americans, and surveillance suggested he was preparing to flee the country. Oskar and three fellow spooks had descended on the agent’s house, but when they got there, only his wife was home.
They decided to send Oskar in, so as not to cause her to panic. After all, he was the one with the handsome sweep of hair and the smile women went wild for. He’d be able to charm her into telling them where her husband was hiding.
She took him into the kitchen and made him a cup of tea. He told her he was a colleague of her husband's with some important, top-secret information to pass on. She told him that she hadn’t seen him in days and didn’t know when he would return. They sat and chatted about small things, the inconsequential minutia of day-to-day life.
She smiled at him the entire time.
It wasn’t until he felt the cold metal of the shotgun against the back of his head that he realised what that smile meant.
That smile was shorthand for you’re fucked.
If precisely translated, it meant: You’ve come here to con me, and I’ll sit here and pretend to be conned, whilst all the while I’m conning you.
She had simply been a distraction, pretending to play along with his game whilst her husband snuck up behind him. He would have blown Oskar’s brains out if it wasn’t for an exceedingly lucky shot by Piotr through the kitchen window. For nights afterwards he’d wake in a cold sweat, that woman’s smile sliding before his eyes.
Whereas Oskar was fairly certain Stanlake wasn’t about to creep up behind him with a shotgun, he felt that same sense of misdirection.
“Anyway,” he said, completing an abridged version of his fake life. “I must not talk all day. You have plenty things to do.”

Thursday 4 August 2016


Mind. Officially. BLOWN.

I've had some fairly weird stuff happen to me in the past, relating to writing. In the back posts of this blog you'll find mention of the time I wrote a short story that, a couple of years later, bore horrible resemblance to actual events. There's the time I went walking in the Scottish hills, to the old seat of Celtic power at Dundurn, and stumbled upon the forgotten grave of an author who died on the same day (different year) that I was born. He shared some other spooky coincidences, I later discovered. There's also the time I wrote a novel which bore such striking similarities with the short story of a deceased author, that a friend suggested I had channelled the spirit of Somerset Maugham.

A lot of weird stuff happens when I write - perhaps it does for everyone? I've heard other authors tell tales of falling through the gaps between the print.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, has given me the shivers quite like this.

I'm teaching a course in fiction writing from September. It's a six-week course, and I'm kicking off with a short history of literature, so that people start to feel connected to this long lineage of inky lines which stretch back to the Bronze Age.

It begins with Enheduanna, who is the first known author in history. A priestess of the moon, and daughter of the King of Akkadia.

I stumbled upon her whilst writing a bottom drawer novel. I was rather smitten by the idea that the first author was a she, and that her life was, at least in some part, known.

I was so smitten, that I recently dedicated my writing desk to her. That's her name in cuneiform along the bottom of the last photo.

Naturally, before I can teach something, I have to understand it myself. So I spent a couple of days researching all of the links in my chain. People such as Murasaki Shikibu (the first novel), Ibn Tufail (first philosophical novel), Aurelius Ambrosius Of Milan (first person to popularise reading with his mouth shut), and, of course, Gutenberg.

I do a lot of reading for research, but if there's a YouTube documentary available, I'll often start there.

Turns out there's a rather dated documentary about Enheduanna:

So, what blew my mind?

Well, Enheduanna was discovered in a lost temple in 1927.

By an archaeologist named Sir Leonard Woolley!

Think that's weird?

Like Gordon Bottomley, he also died on 20th February.

My birthday. 

Wednesday 3 August 2016

The Healing Power of Papaya

Love this picture.

Those who have been following the finger fiasco either here or on my travel blog will have heard me mention the wonderful Nurse Moses, who has been making time for me every three days for the past two months. Well, this is he.

Was a bit tearful as I said goodbye on Monday. After two weeks off for good behaviour, I went back for a last examination by the dermatologist. Her name is Dr. Kimonye, but to me she will always be Dr. Caligari, because her consulting room is Cabinet No.6.

That's it now until September. Apparently you can't tell whether scars are likely to be permanent for at least three months, so I just keep rubbing on the cream until then. I can now type perfectly well, but I can't play the tin whistle or fully cope with the knife half of a knife and fork (I'm a lefty knify).

Had an emotional photo shoot, bought a wee thank you preset for Moses and a large tub of sweets for the staff. Everyone has been so kind to me, even on days when I was running a little low on good cheer. Really going to miss everyone.

Anyway, I just wanted to share some information in case it proves useful to others.

The reason it took me so long to get the all clear was that there was a patch of skin on my wrist that just refused to close. It was a real, weepy mess. We kept plying it with Fucidine, but that wasn't working and it left me feeling dreadful.

In absolute desperation, I tried pouring raw honey over it.

Someone had suggested I try this because honey is good for wounds. Raw honey simply means that it doesn't have any processed crap in it - straight from the hive. Rwanda makes exceedingly good honey.

It stung like nothing on earth. For a while I wondered whether I'd done something dreadfully stupid (almost as stupid as throwing myself on a bonfire), but within two hours the wound had completely closed and scabbed over!

After two months of trying to get it to close, I could hardly believe my eyes.

Encouraged, I slathered on a thick layer of bee bum fluid and bandaged it up overnight. This didn't work so well. The next morning it was a little gunky again. When I went to the clinic, Moses explained that they use honey in traditional medicine here, but that it's best to apply it sparingly and leave uncovered. Following that advice, I managed to return to healthy scabs.

The problem, now that the wound had closed, was that the honey was a little too effective. The scabs were really thick and the skin started to pull in tightly around the sides. I worried that this would lead to severe scarring. Everything I was reading online suggested that wet dressings were best for the prevention of scars.

The antibiotic creams just made me feel yucky, and even the gentlest moisturisers were too harsh, burning and making the wound weep again.

During my research, I came across a few articles which suggested papaya (pawpaw) was good for wound healing. I happen to have two trees in my garden, so I decided to give it a go. The articles mostly said that papaya milk is best. You obtain the milk either by scoring the skin of a green (unripe) papaya, or by cutting the tree. There are two problems with this. Firstly, my trees are very tall, so there was no way of getting up there. Secondly, we are in the middle of the dry season. We haven't had rain in two months. It seemed a little unkind to bleed water from a tree that needed it more than I did.

I tried pulping a green papaya and using the juice to wash the wound, but that didn't work so well.

I managed to hook a ripe papaya instead, and thankfully this works just as well.

Take a clean fork and mush a bit of the fruit into a pulp - you only need a little, and it feels extra nice if you put it in the fridge beforehand to cool. Papaya is really weird stuff. What makes it so strange is that the fruit starts to dry pretty quickly when exposed to the air (it took about twenty minutes in a warm climate, so perhaps forty-five in a cooler place), yet the part touching the skin remains moist. This makes for an excellent natural dressing. As it dries, it sticks itself to the wound. You can move about and it won't fall off.

It does sting on an open wound, but nowhere near as badly as honey.

I applied a fresh dressing three times a day: morning, noon and night.

During the night, it can dry out completely. This really aches on an open wound because it pulls tightly on the skin. It woke me up a couple of times. It can also be quite tough to remove, and you may need to soak it off with tepid water. The process really isn't pleasant. It eats away at all the gunk in the wound - even the scab. Papaya contains an enzyme called papain, which is used as a meat tenderiser. As the fruit dries, it sticks to all this gunk and pulls it out when you remove the dressing. This can seriously smart, but it's worth it as it cleans out the wound really well, and the damaged skin starts to heal quickly under the moist, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory conditions. 

After three days (nine applications) things were looking good. Honey had staunched the weeping, and papaya had reduced the scabs without reopening the wound.

At this stage, I found a tube of 100% aloe vera gel in my post box. My friend Sharon had sent it out from the UK. I didn't feel that there was much more to be gained from papaya at this stage as the scabs were much smaller and there was no more gunk to remove. I gave my arm a rinse, let it dry, and switched to the aloe vera, which is also lovely when kept in the fridge.

Don't worry if you can't get all of the papaya off when you clean. It can be pretty stubborn. Try your best, but don't damage yourself. It won't rot or anything. Your body and the aloe just seem to deal with it, as I found out.

On day three of applying aloe, I stepped out of the shower to discover the edges of the aloe peeling. The gel and the papaya residue had combined to create an orange film. Curious, I picked at it and the entire scabbed area simply lifted off, exposing perfectly smooth skin beneath. No sign of scars.

The above picture is after a couple more days of aloe application.

I am truly ecstatic. After two months of a weeping wound which antibiotic cream couldn't close, these three natural products sorted it within ten days.

Speaking only from my own experience, I'd suggest:

  • Honey for emergency use if you have an open, leaky wound that refuses to close or scab. Apply minimally, leave uncovered, and expect it to hurt.     
  • Once the wound stops weeping and either goes closed-and-soft, or scabbed, switch to ripe papaya dressings. This will clean the scab out and keep the wound moist to help prevent scarring. It'll also encourage skin growth and help to fight infection and inflammation without stinging quite as badly a honey.
  • Once the wound is close to healed, or you no longer feel the papaya is offering much benefit, clean the area, let it dry, then apply aloe vera.

I would really love to hear whether other people find this helpful. 

Once the skin is completely healed and ready for standard lotions and potions, I found unrefined shea butter quite nice. You may need to warm it up a little, it needs to be soft before you apply, especially to delicate skin. You can also mix it with a little massage oil. I've been using a shea product called Miss Africa, produced in Ghana, packaged in Kenya, probably available in the UK. It doesn't smell fantastic, but it's supposed to do wonderful things for the skin. 

The Humble Papaya