Thursday 26 January 2017

Musical Interlude: Bebel Gilberto

And I'm Done

Hellfire. What a start to the new year. I've just finished editing almost 160,000 words, 566 pages. Went through the hard copies and transferred to soft.

One novella, Wolfish, and one novel, Creeper's Cottage.

Somewhat knackered.

Kicking back with a beer and contemplating how best to rejoin the real world.

Just sent them out to my trusted beta readers. 

It's been quite an experience. I've never had two novels completed so close together, and they're in very different styles. Wolfish is first person and highly poetic, a lot like Rosy Hours and Children of Lir. Whereas Creeper's Cottage is a complex third-person, multi-character ghost story, more like Lucid. I'm very curious to see the feedback. I've suspected for a while that to write something special, I need to go with poetic form. It really showcases the type of language that gets you noticed. On the other hand, contemporary is quite good fun to write. I just worry it's not as appealing to readers. But I might be wrong - two different audiences.

Is the idea that you have to stick to one style dead in the 21st century? Part of me hopes so, but it makes approaching submissions difficult. If you sell something off the back of one style, you may bottom out with the second. 

Creeper's Cottage carries an extra nervous rattle as it's based on a creative commons world created by an established author. If he doesn't like it, I may have to burn the manuscript in shame.

All of this has taught me a lot, though.

I am very clear about what I want to write next, and I think I need to hit a spot between floaty prose and contemporary. I need to learn how to do that.

I also need a break. 

Writing is habitual, and it's fun, but every writer needs to recharge their batteries - and pay rent. So I plan on doing some socialising over the coming months. I have a house part to plan, and a trip to Maasai Mara with friends. Hopefully I'll return from that so knackered that all I'll want to do is slump in front of my keyboard and type.

But I've also learned that I need to plan better.

I've always been a die hard pantser. I like not knowing where I'm going. But that didn't work so well for me with Creeper's. Juggling all those characters was complicated, and I found myself getting really irritated during the edit, falling down plot holes and having to work out where to shoehorn in the missing details. My stories usually fall quite neatly into place, but this one came out mangled. 

By the time I get to the edit I'm usually quite tired. I like sitting back to enjoy my story. Polishing the grammar, but letting the story wash over me as a reader. Creeper's was a bit stressful. I'd rather not do that again.

My next novel has the heart-pull factor of Rosy Hours and Georg[i]e, in that I have to tell it. I really, really want to tell it. The theme speaks to me. But the rest is a blur. 

For the first time ever, I'm going to sit down with a piece of paper and work it out chapter by chapter. Not in minute detail. Not to the point I grow bored of it before I start writing. But now that I feel I've cracked the technique, my writing needs a little structure to hold everything up.

Still, two novels submission-ready and it's only January.

I'm planning to hold these two back as competition entries, just because the money's better. If they bottom out, I'll consider other approaches. Or maybe they're both bottom-drawers. I'm comfortable with that nowadays. I have several in my own personal slush pile. But you learn something from every novel you write. 

That doesn't always mean the next thing you go on to write is a solid step forward. We all regress. We all write things because we feel like it, not necessarily because we should. As I get older, I start to feel the pressure of time a little more. A novel can take up to a year to write, and up to two years to hit publication. You need to start choosing your projects. 

Hopefully a bit of rest will see me right (or write) again.

Saturday 21 January 2017

Creeper's Hard Copy Complete

Yeash. Long week. I've been slowly working my way through my doorstop of a manuscript, Creeper's Cottage. I've taken to proofing my novels in hard copy now. I seem to spot a lot more that way, both with grammar and phrasing. Finally finished today and already started transferring corrections to soft copy. To be extra thorough, each time I correct a page, I get Word to speak it back to me. You sometimes hear things your eyes miss. Just wish Sen looked a little more impressed.

Thursday 19 January 2017

Good Company

Very proud to appear alongside such talented authors on the Ghostwoods Books website. If you haven't heard of them before, please do check them out. They have a strongly author-friendly focus. The only fair trade publisher I know of who split profit 50/50 with their writers. Champions of great fiction. Fabulous cover designs by Gábor Csigás.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Social Media Marketing - Is It Worth The Effort?

Last year, I applied for a job with a cutting-edge digital publishing company. I was really interested in their approach. The whole business is based on an algorithm that claims to predict the next best seller by the habits of online readers. You upload your manuscript, and if enough traffic keeps clicking 'next' on your book, they'll market it to one of the big international publishers. A digital agent, if you will.

I'm always interested in how science and technology impact the 4,000 year tradition of writing stories down.

That's why I applied for the job. 

Part of the interview process was to write a marketing report. The scenario was: 

You have to promote a writing contest in one week of time, your budget is 0! The topic of this contest is romance. The goal is to get 50 authors/writers to submit their story to the company.

In a former life (which occasionally overlaps with this one), I was a development consultant. I've delivered social media training to international nonprofits in the past, but I had never really explored the mechanics of social media marketing. It doesn't exactly turn me on. But, for the sake of a steady income, I thought I'd give it a shot.

After submitting my report, and a second interview, I was asked if I'd be willing to relocate to Berlin.

As Paul says, sometimes you just gotta roll the dice. My life is often led by applying for things and following the offers I get. That's how I ended up in Africa the first time. Only, when this offer came, I realised that I love Rwanda very much. At the moment, there's nowhere else I'd rather be. 

I declined the job, though I am still grateful for the offer. It's been close to a year now and I felt that I wanted to share that report with the wider writing and publishing community. I have no doubt the company I wrote it for have taken something from it, so it's fair others should too. It was a job application, not an exclusive piece of consultancy.

The report looks at the challenges of social media marketing and the methods that get the best results. The introductory section is a bit technical, but the recommendations section is fairly straightforward.

If you are a publisher or author trying to promote a competition, crowdfunder or book, hopefully it'll give you some tips. If I've missed anything or got it wrong, please drop a comment on this post.

And please take note that my estimates for click-through and entry rates are incredibly optimistic. I needed to reach 50 entries before I ran out of ideas.

Sunday 15 January 2017

Writing 101: Safe Punctuation

As part of my Writing 101 section, I sometimes give out tips and tricks on writing which I've picked up myself over the years, and which I teach in my fiction course in Kigali.

A topic which comes up regularly is punctuation for dramatic effect.

I believe this is one of the major factors which separates professional writers from those who are still developing their style. What I mean by this, is that if you pick up a published work of literature from a bookshop, you won't see these mistakes:

  1. People using ellipses to... build suspense, or end sentences... 
  2. Constant! Use of exclamations! To keep you! In a state of surprise!
  3. Regular use of semi-colons; especially where a comma; or full stop would work better

In short, there are some punctuation marks which are safe. You can use as many of these as you like, but only one at a time. These are:

Full stop (.)
Comma (,)
Apostrophe (') - in the right place
Question mark (?) - but never ?? or ???

Then there's the difficult punctuation. The stuff that, if over used, can really drag down your manuscript. That's not to say you can never use these punctuation marks. Of course you can, every punctuation mark has its purpose, but use them extremely sparingly, and only when you're absolutely convinced nothing else can do the job with more subtlety. Once or twice in a book is fine. Once or twice every page is not.

These are:

Semi-colon (;)
Exclamation (!)
Ellipsis (...)

The reasons for this:

Punctuation is the unsung hero of literature. Its purpose is to make writing flow effortlessly, so that the meaning is clear without detracting from the story.

Semi-colon (;): 90% of the time, a full stop or a comma work better and detract less. A semi-colon does one specific job. It partitions two separate sentences that are so closely related, they could be the same sentence. Meaning that the sentences sound disjointed with a full stop, and can't be separated by a comma because they aren't joined by something like and or then or which - the second sentence really is a complete sentence in itself. The instances of this occurring in a novel are pretty slim, and the likelihood of it being the only way of saying what you want to say without tweaking it to a full stop or a comma, even less so. If you see yourself using a semi-colon more than a couple of times in a chapter, you probably want to rethink how you phrase things.

Exclamations (!): An exclamation is the highest point of extreme excitement or surprise you can get. If you see it used lots! Like, more than once or twice in a chapter! Then your reader will be in a constant state of surprise! It's really irritating! Also, it's often used when it's surplus to requirement!

For instance: 

"Come here!" she shouted.

The shouting and the exclamation denote the same thing. It isn't wrong, but it's just as right, and perhaps more succinct, to choose one - the punctuation mark or the descriptive:

"Come here!"
"Come here," she shouted

Use exclamations extremely sparingly throughout your manuscript, and only when you're writing on the edge of your seat.

Also, only in dialogue, not in the body of the prose.

The point of writing is to describe situations and emotions. If you do that well enough, your reader will be on the same page as you anyway, without needing sledge hammer punctuation to illustrate a subtle point.

Ellipsis (...): This is sometimes used to build... suspense, but most often used to end a sentence when the character is trailing off...

It's the opposite of an exclamation. An exclamation is really immediate! It denotes urgency! Everything needs to be read quickly!

With an ellipsis... it sort of... y'know... slows everything... down... a lot...

Again, it's something you use in dialogue, not prose. It has its purpose, but like a semi-colon, there's usually a better way to do it. Use your words:

"I don't know. I feel like..." 
"I don't know. I feel like," James paused, trying to find the right words. "I feel like I should have used a comma instead of an ellipsis."
Ange wholeheartedly agreed.

Sometimes an ellipsis is used to show characters interrupting one another. I'd suggest an em dash works better:

“Just listen, I’m trying to—”
"Trying to what, Marion? Teach me grammar?" 

An em dash is a long hyphen. You get it in Word by typing two hyphens together and hitting enter (--). I think you can also achieve it with ctrl+alt+minus (not hyphen). 

Those are my top tips on punctuating a solid manuscript. Like I say, it's not that you never use the difficult punctuation marks, it's just that they speak very loudly and can detract from the flow of your story. Choose your moments, and grow to rely on the safe ones. Never forget that it's your words, your descriptive, that guides the reader through the story, and the character's emotions, above the use of punctuation.

That said, check out this poem.

Sunday 8 January 2017

Musical Interlude: Tina S

French guitarist, Tina S (Facebook/Twitter), aged seventeen, playing since she was six. Astonishing.

Saturday 7 January 2017

New Year Autobiography Exercise

I'm predominantly a fiction writer, but people often come to me asking advice about writing their life story.

Really, the two things are not so very different. The same things that make fiction gripping, make for an interesting life story:

  • Truth
  • Honesty
  • Mystery
  • Adventure
  • Momentum
  • Insight

The tale is in the telling - how you present your story.

New Year makes for a good time to practise writing biographies and autobiographies.

  • Autobiography - when you write about your own life
  • Biography - when you write about somebody else's life

Rather than attempting to recount the whole of your life in one go,  let's take a single year to begin with. A good autobiography isn't about how many small details you can recall, but about what makes your life truly interesting. People read biographies to live experiences they never will. You're the tour guide to your own world.

A subject I touched on briefly in Lucid is the aboriginal concept of time. In native Australian culture, time isn't generally linear. The things that you remember most clearly, that have the biggest impact on your decisions in life and your sense of self, are the closest in time. You don't remember what you had for breakfast this time five years ago? That doesn't mean it didn't happen, but it's not important. Yet the way someone looked at you in high school, the tone of voice your mother uses when she's angry - those things happened a moment ago.

This is really what you're looking for in a good autobiography. What are the things that make you, you. What makes your life unique?

What's your aboriginal timeline - what is close in your memory, and what is very far away?

Break open the post-it notes and colouring pens.

What were the big events that happened to you in 2016?

When you close your eyes and let your mind wander, what rises to the surface first?

Each year I do an Oath, Boast & Toast roundup, featuring some of the highlights from the last twelve months. I tend to put them in order of the things that made the biggest impression, rather than chronologically from January to December.

Do this for yourself. Brainstorm the things that happened to you. If you keep a dairy, it might be useful to refer to it, but try not to get bogged down in the day-to-day minutia. Go for the really big things that feel significant.

Aim for five or six experiences. If you have more than that, start cutting back. Rank the post-its in order of importance and drop some off the bottom. Remember, an autobiography isn't an account of everything you've ever done, but the things you've done that will really interest other people. The stuff that gives a real insight into human nature, and what it's like to be somewhere, meet someone, or do something that others probably haven't.

I'll post another time about chronology in storytelling, but the two key things to remember are:

1. The order of time is often less interesting than the order of reason

What this means is that whether something happened on a Monday or a Wednesday, really doesn't mean much to your reader. They won't remember it five pages on. But why something happened - the cause and effect - is important. Why a character got blindingly drunk in a bar and started a fight is far more interesting than what time of night he started it. In an autobiography, you are your own character. Help the reader to understand why you did the things you did, and how previous experiences converged to create that moment in time.

2. Start in medias res

This is a literary term simply meaning 'in the middle of things'. It's the opposite of David Copperfield (I am born...) or the Bible (In the beginning...). 

Instead of: I was born... I went to school... I graduated (or didn't)... I was in a terrible car crash... I got married...

Start with the car crash.

Begin by describing whatever is at the top of your memory list for the past year, the anecdote you're most likely to tell at parties, then take it from there.

Have a think about how the experiences on your list connect with each other.  Try to shuffle your vivid moments into some sort of order. You can peg them to a washing line, space them in a circle with a central event in the middle, stick them to a sheet of flipchart paper and draw joining lines. Whatever works for you visually.

When we tell stories about ourselves, we very rarely keep to a straight timeline. We bounce about, changing the direction of our narrative as we remember things we had forgotten and things that came before, or after, but are related to what we're talking about now. Next time you're having coffee with a friend, or asking a grandparent about their early life, pay attention to how they tell their story.

It's perfectly fine to do this when writing an autobiography, so long as things don't get confusing. If your sideline runs for more than a paragraph or two, perhaps devote a new chapter to it. 

When sectioning up your autobiography, do it by theme, not time. Instead of:

  • School
  • College
  • Work
  • Travel
  • Retirement


  • Discovering my parents were human
  • First love
  • Realising life is worth more than money
  • Stuck up a tree in Timbuktu
  • How to cope with ageing

You've found the defining moments of last year, now find them for a lifetime. Use each chapter to talk about a theme, and use your life experiences to illustrate that theme. 

See where you get to.

Thursday 5 January 2017

Soft Copy

Kicking off the New Year by transferring all the hard copy edits to the soft copy manuscript of Wolfish. The process is definitely more time consuming working in hard copy, but I honestly believe it's worth it for quality. You miss a lot staring at a screen that you pick up in double spaced print. It almost becomes a different story once you ink it.

Sunday 1 January 2017

Oath, Boast, Toast 2017

Time for my annual oath, boast & toast.

This year has felt like a fairly quiet one, until I sat down to think about it. 

As with years past, it's been full-on, but it's also brought a huge sense of contentment. 

Some of the main highlights have included:

  • Trekking mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, with two beautiful ladies, Jo & Maia, and a jazz band.
  • Continuing the animal theme by hand rearing four abandoned kittens (two of whom, Sophie & Howl, became family - cute pics).
  • Had a couple of earthquakes and saw a solar eclipse
  • Bought a piano and starting to learn how to fix it up. Also built up the courage to sing songs around a campfire. I always sing to myself at home, but it takes quite a bit of courage to do it out loud in front of strangers.
  • On the down side, I suffered a really bad accident and fell on a bonfire, severely injuring my left hand. However, seven months on from that things are pretty much back to normal, if one set of fingerprints fewer - and I can play the piano I bought. Also learnt about the incredible healing power of pawpaw.
  • Despite all that, had a lovely time hosting my friend Paul, singing to the royal cows and floating out upon Lake Kivu.
  • I have made some fab friends this year, namely Maia and Lulu, plus reconnected with Tracey from Kenya, who came for New Year with friends, who have all just left for the gorillas. One of my best friend memories is of staying out all night with Maia and Cindy, at Cindy's nightclub, Envy. Getting back to Maia's just as the sun was rising, and falling asleep on a mattress in her garden. Such a good night.
  • Fed my interest in African artifacts by learning a lot about Congolese masks.

Also got the good news that my visa has been renewed, so I get to call Rwanda home for another two years.

I felt a bit bad after last year's OB&T. I wimped out. I said I wanted to 'focus more on writing,' when what I actually wanted to say was: 'write three novels,' but I was unsure whether I could do it, and felt more likely to fail if I put public pressure on myself. As it was, I managed this. I wrote a bottom-drawer urban fantasy, just to see what it felt like. I wanted it to be a trilogy, but it's not that good. Then there was a Hookland novel (possibly the first?), called Creeper's Cottage, and a retelling of Red Riding Hood, Wolfish. I've got the latter two printed out, ready to edit once I find time. Between them that's roughly a total of 240,000 words.

In truth, I did keep my oath. I threw everything behind writing and it's really changed things.  

  • I started teaching fiction at my friend's café cum night school
  • I became a proofreader for the new national curriculum textbooks
  • Sold an article to The Author
  • A friend I edited made it into print
  • I've been hired to write business profiles and web content for two big local companies and one start-up

I still do a bit of consultancy on the side, but I've stopped pursuing it. I've cut right back to make more time for literary-related work, and ironically the educational proofing job has paid better than any contract I've had in a long time. It was actually one of my writing students who put me onto that job.

So there's no reason I shouldn't continue developing this. It makes as good financial sense as NGO consultancy, and it adds far more to my sense of contentment. Although, it does still carry the issue of needing to make time to do my own writing, in between writing for other people.

So, what's lined up for 2017?


I've really enjoyed learning about the inside of pianos. Instead of getting someone to come and tune it, I've decided to turn Lirika into my own project. This year, my oath is to fix my piano until she plays properly, and to learn about piano refurbishment.  



Dude, I hung with mountain gorillas!



To another two years in Kigali.