Thursday, 14 January 2016

Fear, Freedom and Banned Books Week)

banned books

Banned Books Week.

Celebrating the works of fiction and non-fiction that have drawn the ire of censors, Banned Books Week looks at a huge swathe of young adult titles as well as now recognised classics like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

It’s a pretty impressive though not particularly exclusive club.

The reasons for banning books are supposedly for sexually explicit content, cultural insensitivity, unsuitability for the cited age group, religious or political view points, violence, or offensive language.  But ultimately, beneath all the complaints, what we really see when a book is challenged – or even banned – for its content, is fear.

Fear of the ideas a book contains. Fear of the ideas that inspired it. Fear of the ideas it might inspire.

I believe fear plays a crucial role in our relationship with books, one writers and readers must all be aware of even on some subconscious level. There’s fear in the writing, and in the act of writing, and in choosing a book, and in the act of reading, and in reacting to reading.

FOR ONE WEEK ONLY: Read all the lascivious literature you desire! Wishing everyone a scandalous #BannedBooksWeek.

— Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost) September 29, 2015

Engines. Wings. Windows. Wheels. Oxygen. Decompression. Bombs. Terrorism. Human error. Computer error. Impact.

It’s early morning. The sun is low but rising. The plane engines are a loud, featureless roar. I’m sitting in the window seat behind the left wing, counting off the myriad ways we could all die.

Engines. A fireball of burning fuel bursts through the seal of the doors. It melts the plastic of the table that a woman braces her head against.

Wings. The hydraulics have gone. We won't slow down.

Oxygen. We’re all sleepy, so slow and so sleepy as the tip of the plane noses downwards.

My brain on overdrive: echoes of stories reverberate in my head. German Airwings. The Hudson River. That writerly imagination  making the possibility of flying in peace impossible. Oh sure there are other things I find scary or threatening. But the horrors of flying are always the same; fear burning away as ferociously as the images.

As foolish as it feels when my chest squeezes tight in the journey from terminal to malodorous tincan, I've used that same fear to develop tension and terror in my writing.

How does my protagonist feel when she steps into her lover’s house, hears the wrong music playing, sees his shadow dance beneath his feet? How does my reader feel as they discover each new clue to his predicament? Do they hang, tremulous as my protagonist? Can they feel the cord draw tight as they realise something is about to happen and it’s going to be terrible?

I’ve turned my almost risible fear into something useable.

Yet some of my other fears do precisely the opposite. They’re detrimental in the extreme and some of them I don’t even notice. Why? Because it’s not the sort of fear that inspires nightmares.

Just the kind that stops me from writing.

Now I understand your raised eyebrows but I’m talking the niggle in your head when you put pen to paper and you decide hmmm maybe not to include that scene or not to write that chapter because you think someone won't like it or it might cause offence. I'm talking about burying the kernel of a great idea for a novel because you know high elves and gargoyles are less popular than the strappings of a conventional mystery. Or deciding to couch a controversial issue behind a listicle or avoid writing about a subject because you're worried about the repercussions.

The same sort of fear that makes eighteen year olds feel self-conscious about picking books out of the young adult section or the majority of young fantasy and sci-fi readers more circumspect as they grow older, moving from speculative to more acceptable genres.


It’s self-censorship curated by a general understanding of convention.

We do it all the time, from not putting up that facebook status to not telling that joke.

Of course, some conventions are there for a reason. You don't throw a gratuitous f-word into Babbity Rabbit. And you don't stick sixty pages of explicit sex into a novel like Harry Potter (especially when the fandom will do it for you). And if dealing with religious or political material, maybe a cursory proof read would be good to ensure you're at least representing a valid concern.

But freedom of expression and speech are two things we should not take for granted. Not when there are writers being publicly flogged for their words or even being killed for them.

As Salman Rushdie said, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

Stories have a special ability to allow divergence of thought, to challenge the everyday, to illuminate an issue and propose new answers. Books have exquisite power because of those stories. They address fear - react to and transform it. And not creepypasta stuff. What does Joyce do if not highlight the fears of his contemporaries? Or Junot Diaz in Drown? Or Irvine Welsh with well... everything? Sure obscenities abound in all the above, but it's fear that antagonises certain readers.

Plus, just because you don't like it doesn't make it 'bad'. Fiction you do not like is a route to books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you. We need to be aware of our fears and the things that make us stutter over the things we want to say or pause before we pick up a book or silence us when we should speak. Until we're aware of our fear we cannot truly understand what we are afraid of.

I struggle with fear sometimes. There are blogs I've scrapped because of what people might think. But I can't think that way and write what I want to write. I'm trying not to shy away anymore.

I know freedom of speech is one of those dark and twisty super slippery slopes. There's a time and place for self-censorship - even a time and place where we wish people would use it (ie. She Who Shall Not Be Named) - but it should be a choice made out of taste not fear, belief not ignorance. So you don't enjoy Frankie Boyle, or loathe Karin Slaughter's attention to gore. Don't read or watch them. But similarly, try not to label and moralise it for other people.

Oscar Wilde said “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

And if that means we must accept Fifty Shades of Grey has every right to be on bookshelves, so be it.


The pink illustrations and the featured image are by the supremely talented Ambivalently Yours (check out the tumblr page for more kick ass feminism in pink). Thank you for letting me use them in this blog!

And for a great article on the importance of reading and libraries check out Neil Gaiman's keynote speech on Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.

Je serai poète et toi poésie,

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Editing: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.


You’ve finished writing a thing – it might be a short story, a collection of poetry, a first novel, a seventh novel, or a screenplay. You’re pretty proud of it and you think you’re ready for a third-party to enter the relationship. You look up the details of someone to help whip your draft into ship shape before sending to an agent or a self-publishing platform.

So you prep your manuscript for invasive surgery (I'm assuming you're pretty serious about this thing you've written).

You run a final spellcheck, biopsy for lumps and bumps in each page, give it one last lingering look, exchange a final caress, and send it on its way.

Your editor receives it with cheer. Here lies a new project, a new body of work to eviscerate and explore. They’ll forgive the weird typos, the little mistakes symptomatic of a text loved too well to be fully torn apart by their author. They’ll enjoy peeling apart the sentences, marking up the lines where you’ve mixed your tenses, untangling inconsistencies as they stitch the plot back together.

Editors will love you for making them feel like surgeons of style, diction, plot and story.* But there are a few things that will turn them into butchers. Things that they see all the time. Things more irksome than the Avocado Song.

Plot, What Plot?


It’s all very well to want to write a novel where nothing happens like Flaubert, or to explore the failures of convention like Scarlett Thomas in Our Tragic Universe, or to try and be terribly clever like 80% of Man Booker longlistees. But they’re not devoid of plot, not really. Even in these wildly unconventional (for their time) novels they don’t completely alienate the idea of plot. They’re smuggled in there, as Vonnegut said, even if they’re turned on their head.

The Mary Sue / Gary Stu


There’s this concept in online writing circles known as the Mary Sue. Originating in Star Trek fanfiction, the Mary Sue was an original female character (OFC) introduced to the cast only to become an instantaneous hit. She’s beautiful, she’s skilled in literally everything, she’s Kirk’s lover (or Spock’s or both), she’s everyone else’s best friend, and if anyone doesn’t like her, that person must automatically be the bad guy. She’s essentially perfect or if she has flaws, they’re only there to make her look cuter (such as clumsiness – yes Bella Swan I’m looking at you). The male version of this is the Gary Stu or Marty Stu (depending on if you prefer rhyme or alliteration) and it whittles a character down to being an ‘Author Avatar,’ a special snowflake whereby a writer looks to capture their idealised self and idealised life on paper. Result? It usually sucks.

Deceased Parents are the Best


Unhappy childhoods, or lives full of traumatic events, are pretty much a staple backstory trope for those tragic, troubled characters. Now this can be done well. It can be used brilliantly. I'm not saying every Dead Parent Origin Story should be edited out. But it can be a pile of pure wangst. How do you veer away from the latter? Don’t focus on it. Forget the histrionics. Let their actions speak for themselves. Use characterisation instead of backstory to inform your reader. The only person who needs all the details is you.

The Rogue Effect


As my buddies over on Nerd Cactus once pointed out so succinctly, Rogue is the most over-powered X-Man of all time. She starts off with this power, which is awesome but awful, only to become unbeatable as all the bits that stopped her from being an all-powerful genie are relegated to the ashes of comic books past. And why? Because of lazy writing. Rogue is the Deus Ex Machina for all things mutant. When the writers need an escape from an impossible situation, Rogue’s powers develop exponentially in order to play the plot equivalent of a Get Out Of Jail Free card. Lazy. Boring. Don't do it. Rant over.

Pointless Extras

The devil is in the detail. #amediting with @OrendaBooks
— Matt Johnson (@Matt_Johnson_UK) December 12, 2015

From entire scenes of extraneous detail to named characters who float into your manuscript only to disappear forever two pages later, pointless extras will almost always be cut out like a canker. It might be a beautiful image or a character you have a whole story established for in your head. But if it’s adding nothing to the novel at hand, prepare for the editorial slice and dice.

Grand Larceny


These days you'd be silly not to accept that some very successful writing derives from the world of fanfiction. Most editors aren’t too concerned about this. After all, it’s far from new. Alexander Pope essentially created an AU for the Latin poets and ancient gods. The Latin poets pretty much pilfered their best ideas from the Greeks. It’s all one ever-rolling stone when it comes to story and ideas and plots and characters. On the other hand, if your whole novel is a thinly veiled rewrite of Harry Potter, you might want to reconsider sending it to anyone. Just because you turned the Killing Curse blue and Harry’s hair blond, doesn’t mean editors won’t roll their eyes and ding your manuscript. Make something your own, however, and you might just end up as the next Cassandra Clare.

Trauma Patients


If editors can be said to be surgeons, it is important to note they are not trauma surgeons. They’re the general surgeons, the cardio-gods, the neuro-experts, with specialities specific to their skillset. If your novel is a raw, open, bleeding first draft and you think it’s ready for third-party insight, think again. When you’ve typed those last few words onto the page, breathed in the pride of having finished, put that manuscript into the ICU – reread it, rewrite it, edit it yourself before you fob it off on someone to try to resuscitate. Don't rush, we'll be waiting for when you need us.

Je serai poète et toi poésie, 

* This has nothing to do with being paid to read books of course.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

That Monster Called Anxiety



It’s a funny word. Weirdly exciting to say out loud. Kind of daring as the consonantal start cuts off in your throat. Puzzling as the middle, when spoken, is nothing like what it seems on paper. And ending on a high, like a false smile, with that pretty little ‘tee’ sound more commonly associated with small and lovely things.

It’s a less funny condition.

Apparently more and more people – of all ages though especially mine – seem to experience it every year. Because whilst stress is something everyone goes through from time to time – the millstone of tension, uncertainty, worry and fear can sometimes hang heavier than usual and last what seems like forever.


Anxiety malingers around you, clasps like a vice around your skull, squeezes your insides like someone vacuum-sucked your abdomen. It feels like you’re stuck perpetually living in that ‘oh shit’ moment – the one when your car is skidding on ice, you’re no longer in control, but you don’t know if you’re going to crash and die or if you’re going land safely in the hard shoulder.

This isn't helped by pop culture painting anxiety as the ‘new depression’, and us millennials as ‘Generation Stress’. As if somewhere between hitting our teens and overtaking the Boomers in the work place, being anxious also became ‘trendy’. The ‘it’ mental health condition.

Yeah. Right.

Not only is this ridiculous and slightly patronising, anxiety is also far from a new thing.

In the 4th century BC, Hippocrates wrote that anxiousness is “a difficult disease. The patient thinks he has something like a thorn, something pricking him in his viscera, and nausea torments him.”

Hippocrates, Father of Modern Medicine, 460-370BC

This makes it a mental health issue so ancient that we seem to have forgotten that it’s ancient. Knowing this doesn’t make it any less difficult for people suffering from its symptoms. Just like the fact that large groups of people having it, doesn’t make it some kind of fad or trend.

Now, I would say I’m pretty lucky.

Throughout my life, I experienced no more than the average stress and pressures of exams and music and boys. To be fair, most of that pressure was of my own creation too. ENTP that I am, I never saw the point in aiming for less than the top grade or settling for second in anything. Sure, in that time I would have 'high stress' days and I’m fairly certain a few of my friends and family have been witness to that maelstrom. But until this past year, living and working in London, I can’t say I’d ever dashed out of a store suffering from a panic both sudden and inexplicable in its origin.

Saying all this: I’m doing fine. I’m low down on the anxiety spectrum. When it comes, it may cloud every faculty of reason that I’ve come to cherish and leave me feeling overexposed and exhausted. But it’s manageable and writing always helps.


On the other hand, many people I know struggle to manage it.

I have friends who have had to take days off work because of their fear or who call to cancel plans because the idea of leaving the house makes them want to curl up in the corner and cry. One of my oldest friends told me she’s developed a form of obsessive compulsiveness. When she leaves the house she’s so worried she’s forgotten to lock up or has left something turned on that she has to double back at least twice to appease her panic.

It’s not just girls either before you start thinking it’s ‘just a woman issue’. Even though female brains are more sensitive to stress neuropeptide Corticotropin Releasing Factor, or CRF, men experience anxiety too. Several of my guy mates have, albeit more grudgingly, discussed times when the only thing in their mind was a sense of impending doom and Matt Haig and Professor Green have both openly talked about male mental health.

So I can point you to stats. I could talk about 24 hour news cycles and cite research on the effect of social media attachment. I could list the number of changes that people between the ages of 18 and 35 go through – from leaving home, to passing exams, to getting that precious J.O.B we always thought we wanted and now are realising we’re potentially going to have to have for the next forty years because unlike Made In Chelsea, life doesn’t have cut scenes and we’re really going to have to start thinking about saving for when we’re old and grey and wrinkly.

I could talk about triggers and trigger warnings. I could discuss the pressures of constant social performance. I could delve into detail about why something seemingly banal like a work appraisal can cause the same panic as something life-changing like being diagnosed with an illness or loss of a loved one.

We explore the paralysing effects of anxiety in the modern world, and how to conquer it

— Stylist Magazine (@StylistMagazine) November 29, 2015

In truth, we already know all that stuff.

We’ve heard the stats before and read the stories with trigger warnings attached. We’ve got that t-shirt. And probably a matching mug and pen set.
None of it will explain, fully, what is going on with every single person who goes through anxiety. It’s different for everyone, even though the symptoms might align.

This blog, however, isn’t about saying something trite like ‘you’re not alone’ – although of course you’re not alone. We’re all in this together it seems. And I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m an expert and give advice to those who go through extreme anxiety by saying something inane like ‘stop overthinking’ or ‘it’s all in your head’ or ‘have you tried this Mindfulness app’.

I’m not going to tell anyone that everything will work out or that things will be ok either. When that ripple of horror pulses through me, people saying these kind of things, does not help. They mean well, but hearing doesn’t reassure me at all. If anything, it might make me feel worse. Because then I’m reminded it’s my own silly brain with its silly quirks and that slide is a spiral I never enjoy going down. However, there’s help out there and it’s a darn sight better than any I could give you I’m sure.

By Ambivalently Yours

No. I just want to say this: to all my fellow anxious twenty-something friends, to those younger, and older (because otherwise my dad will call me ageist again): we are not ‘generation wuss’, we are not ‘generation me’, or ‘generation stress’, or any other nomenclature we’ve been given by the media. We’re just people going through a turbulent time in our lives.

What makes our anxiety stand out is that we like to broadcast.

We’re vocal. We believe in speaking out and speaking up. What we experience is more public because we’re sharing it through social media and such.

So let’s try to remember that researchers weren’t even that serious about collecting mental health data until recent decades. As Maanvi Singh said: there’s no real generational comparison. Not even to our parents – the Boomers. Which is why I’m inclined to believe what we’re experiencing is not that unique. After all, they talk about how paranoia dominated hearts and minds during the Cold War, and for evidence, what else would you call The Red Scare?

Let’s also remember this – we might be stressing now, we might feel like the world is closing in and nothing will ever change. But for all that, research also shows that we are the most confident generation. The most aware of our mental health and the most open to discussing it. The most positive and open to change.

Our anxiety – the condition that has been around for literally aeons – is just a part of our being human.

Je serai poète et toi poésie,



If you need or want support, then check out MIND charity's page. It comes with some great PDFs and advice and also a handy phone number that you can call if you really need someone to talk to. You can find their details here.

If you want more information, you can also watch Zoella's YouTube video which gives a really in depth and personal look at anxiety and panic attacks. She's also an ambassador for MIND.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Of Dos and Don'ts (Because Writing Rules Suck)

Of Dos and Don'ts 

dos and donts

Because Writing Rules Suck

Oscar Wilde said: If at first you don't succeed, redefine success.

As a teenager, these words hung upon my wall (on one of those cheap bits of decorated metal you can find on Camden Market). As words to live by, it was right up there with ‘I will not let school get in the way of my education’ and ‘never trust someone who has not brought a book with them’.

When you think about it, redefinition of success is all literature is about.

Shakespeare redefined the sonnet. Laurence Stern redesigned Sentimentalism. Descartes revamped philosophy. Pope reconstructed Englishness. The Sage writers right up to T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the Beats – were similarly about evoking a new, fresh sense of literary identity as well as society; they’re all showing how literature, and how we think about literature, needs to adapt and challenge and engage with the modern man and culture, our struggles, our failures, our limitations.

Take as an example Realism with a capital R. It started in France circa 1800 appealing to lofty ideals such as verisimilitude and poetic mimesis. Yet these ideas are ones Aristotle and Plato debated whilst they reclined and dined on grapes fed to them by small boys. When you try to read some of the novels produced through the Realist 'movement', you have the extremities of Balzac, Flaubert, George Eliot and Dostoevsky. The fact there are so many differences between them - Balzac claims to be a 'historian', Flaubert to have written about 'nothing' – only emphasises how even under the guise of a new ideal, in actuality they simply perpetuate what came before.

On a more contemporary level, let's remember The Matrix - it's Alice in Wonderland meets Plato.

It’s Hegelian thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

And we can break it down even further. There's an idea only a limited number of tales exist. For example, Christopher Booker claimed only Seven Basic Plots occur throughout literature. So whether you're a writer of crime fiction or romance, fantasy or drama, poetry or prose, all you're doing is redefining what is already written.

Once upon a time, this used to bother me. Actually, there are some days when it still does.

One of my earliest ‘novels’ (I was twelve, I’ve mentioned this attempt before) has a stone in it. This stone can contain a soul piece, though it takes a sacrifice in order to be able to use it. Should the sacrifice be made and the stone accepts the soul, then it keeps the person whose soul it belongs to safe from death.

Sounds familiar right?

Yeah, I thought so too. But there was twelve year old me, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire about to be released, with what amounts to a less evil version of a Horcrux and a character who needs to not be able to die for what little plot I came up with to work.

dos and don'ts

What was I to do when the inestimable Ms Rowling imagined an idea so eerily similar in the most famous series of our childhood?

At the time, I was aghast. I grumped. I scowled. I tucked the finished draft into a box and struggled with the reality of my concept not being half so original as I thought.

Typing over a decade later, there remains a small rankling child inside me for whom the coincidence still stings. However, the young adult version of me reacts differently. Thrilled at whatever hit-and-run literary smashup occurred, it opened me up to archetypes, theories of form and convention and, consequently, reinvention.

Because having a similar idea or concept or even an entire plot, doesn't mean that your story is any less interesting. Provided you possess a modicum of talent (and are not a twelve year old creating implausible beasts in a narrative thick with formlessness) there is the possibility of writing something that is yours. To take each word of the rule book and scatter them into a thing of imagination.

Genre fiction epitomises convention most overtly; it’s crystallised in your crime novels and romances, your sci-fi adventures and your battle-filled epics. It’s actually a really handy thing. The element of predictability and assumption in genre fiction means readers have an idea of what they’re buying. It also gives writers power. To disrupt and deny and disappoint all those presumptions.

The same goes for literary fiction, storytelling at all levels. Readers remember the writers who scupper those rules, who refute the dos and don’ts. They remembered the ‘but’, the volta, the turn of the piece.

Stories are built and broken on twists giving the finger to reader’s expectations. In doing so, authors not only make their work surprising but make us shudder, fret, cry, laugh, hold our breath and pray for another ending.

I never much liked rules.

dos and don'ts
Take them as guidelines and develop your own voice - no one else's. 
There are some great words of advice out there for writers; Vonnegut’s lessons are invaluable, Chekov’s insights are peerless, and if you want to grasp how to be ruthless read King. But take them as guidelines, not rules. Use them in the editorial slice and dice. Don’t get caught up in worrying if the idea has appeared before.

There will be different characters, different styles of writing, different voices in your work.

So maybe think about the story and its predecessors, consider where the story's coming from and what you're working with. Perhaps examine ways you could improve upon before, and how it can be relevant now.

Vonnegut said: No modern, postmodern, metafictional, or any wildly unconventional story will succeed unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.

Such a perfect insight, but it's not everything. It's the subversions of the old-fashioned plots that make a story successful, that create patterns of tensions and release.

There's only one rule in writing and that's to write. Go write. Fuck the rest of the rules and define your own success.


Read More, See More:

Atwood, Margaret. ‘Hair Jewellery’. The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories. Ed. Daniel Halpern. London: Penguin. 1987.

Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots. London: Continuum. 2004.

Boyle, T. Coraghessan. ‘Greasy Lake’. Greasy Lake and Other Stories. London: Penguin. 1986.

Chekov, Anton. ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’. The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904. London: Penguin. 2002.

Freytag, Gustav. ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’, The Basic Formulas of Fiction. Ed. Foster-Harris. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. 1960.

Halpern, Daniel. The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories. London: Penguin. 1987.

Joyce, James. ‘Stephan Hero’, Moments of Moments: Aspects of the Literary Epiphany. Ed. Wim Tigges. Netherlands: Editions Rodopi B.V. 1990.

McEwan, Ian. ‘First Love, Last Rites’, The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories. Ed. Daniel Halpern. London: Penguin. 1987.

Mishima, Yukio. ‘Patriotism’, The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories. Ed. Daniel Halpern. London: Penguin. 1987.

Paz, Octavio. ‘My Life with the Wave’. Eagle or Sun?:Prose Poetry About Mexico trans. Eliot Weinberger. London: Peter Owen Publishers. 1990.

Vonnegut, Kurt. The Shape of Stories. The Man without a Country.

Je serai poète et toi poésie,

Monday, 26 October 2015

Book Review: Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith's Gory New Chiller

robert galbraith

He had not managed to scrub off all her blood. A dark line like a parenthesis lay under the middle fingernail of his left hand. He set to digging it out, although he quite liked seeing it there: a memento of the previous day’s pleasures.

As first paragraphs go, the latest Cormoran Strike novel has one of the best.

Atmospheric (not to mention some wicked tricolonic syntax) Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil fires readers straight into the mind of a killer with all the propulsive force of a bullet.

Calling this character a killer, however, is something of an understatement. Galbraith (ok Rowling) has created a serial murderer with far more than a grudge against private investigator Cormoran Strike. And his sociopathic mind exists in a landscape more warped than many found in fact or fiction.

It’s darker as a novel. Less genteel but a lot more bizarre than either the Cuckoo’s Calling or The Silkworm. Dealing with paedophilia, serial murder and Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) with equal amounts of candour and indulgence, the plot takes us across country and into the past, fills pages with macabre details and grisly redherrings.

Reading Career of Evil after attending its launch event, however, makes the departure from the previous two novels stark and strange.

Because the event I went to was almost the set for an Agatha Christie. It was positively Sherlockean, a puzzle game, intentionally similar to one of those tightly plotted, third-person omniscient mysteries.

Let’s put this into context.

— Harriet Allner (@TheScribbleBug) October 21, 2015
On Wednesday, Little, Brown hosted something like a dozen teams of mystery lovers (and Potterheads, lots of charming Potterheads), who they’d invited to become ‘a detective for the day’. With my crime writing finally on track, I of course leapt at the opportunity to feed my inner mystery solver.

It took place at London’s Time Run.

The first challenge was to find the place – which took me a good extra twenty minutes because I kept walking past it (not surprising given it’s not signposted and even the front door has buttons misdirecting you to people who don’t exist). Once inside, however, the 'Crystal Maze But Better' adventure space is all about immersive experience, and Little, Brown used it to recreate elements of The Silkworm. This meant that after a coffee and a short briefing, we were ushered to a door and into the reimagined halls of Roper Chard – the publishing house of Galbraith’s second novel. Distant sounds can be heard upon entering, tinned laughter and clinking glasses. We’re at the drinks party attended by Cormoran Strike (who infiltrates it during the novel to discover more about the publishing house and its authors). However, in this version, Owen Quinn is still missing and it’s up to us – a motley team of five – to find a manuscript that might uncover his whereabouts, hopefully alive.

The odd mix of Victoriana, curiousity shop and publishing house made for an exciting trip into Galbraith’s fictional world, and as we solved one clue after another, racing against the clock, we were filled with a childish, gleeful excitement.

Team 5 challenge complete! #MakeMeADetective@RGalbraith Had so much fun, can we do it ag…

— Jax Blunt (@liveotherwise) October 21, 2015

We did pretty well. For about an hour we were even in the running for the signed and dedicated copies of the book by Robert Galbraith "himself".

The success was totally a team effort. We were brilliant together – each of us with a different way of thinking and problem solving. We had the eminently logical and the creatively minded. The type who know every twist and trope in crime fiction and therefore know exactly where we need to be looking, and then the kind who understand puzzles and games and how to solve them. Together we worked well and it was great to play the detective with them. (Read More from Jax, who was on the same team here)

Yet this quintessential crime narrative, the Sherlock style solving of clues, the ‘shut-room’ mystery, is a farcry from the topsy-turvy morbidity of Career of Evil. In fact, the only real similarity is the ever-building chemistry between Robin and Strike, and the exuberance of the writing.

robin ellacott cormoran strike
Cormoran Strike & Robin Ellacott

Plus, though this may be because I’ve read an awful lot of Ian Rankin and McIllvanney the Elder and Younger, compared to either The Cuckoo’s Calling or The Silkworm, this novel is decidedly more akin to those of the Tartan Noir clan.

Whilst set in London much more time is spent bombing around the United Kingdom, including a jaunt around Scotland in a Mini. Galbraith also spends longer constructing personalities - beyond the sensationalistic elements, the shifts of the narrative voice into that of the serial killer himself attempt to capture something of that coy, insightful type of profiling familiar to any reader of Val McDermid. Then there's the sort of 'Tony Hill / Carol Jordan', 'Will Trent / Sarah Linton' sexual tension thing that we're all so used to seeing in today's crime fiction.

tartan noir

Admittedly, there's something of the romantic comedy in this pair compared to McDermid's most famous partners. Here are two protagonists who clearly fancy each other much more than they do their respective S/Os  but have yet to figure this out despite all their super-sleuthing powers.

Different is not necessarily better, but neither is it worse. It's just different. I'd be quite nervous to be thrown into the Time Run 'experience' of Career of Evil.

Overall, Galbraith's latest novel is a compelling read. It has it's 'daft' points, as the Guardian said, though I think those parts are what stop it from being overwrought and heavy. It also has it's faintly unpleasant moments (the toe, guys, the toe) but they're not gratuitous - we're not talking gore and grit and horror here.

So with this in mind, I would recommend Career of Evil to any crime fan, but if you're looking for the goofy and sly satirical plot of the previous two novels, that's not what you'll find here.

This is Galbraith at "his" most fiendish and entertaining.

If that entertainment is a little gruesome along the way, so be it.

Je serai poète et toi poésie,

Buy Career of Evil, the third book in the highly acclaimed crime fiction series by J.K. Rowling, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, at your nearest bookstore - Hardback £20, ebook £10.99 - or check out to order online.

Of Characters & Coffee (or what starts writers writing)


Different writers have different styles of writing. That’s a given. Starting from the very basics of narrative voice to the inspirations behind the story, what makes up a writer’s style is a question of influence, taste, and personal voice. It’s their literary fingerprint. It’s why even the best ghostwriters will always be slightly paler imitations of their author’s voice (regardless of how well the chameleon blends into the background, he’s still not part of it right?).

Yet one element that has always fascinated me but readers and aspiring writers don’t necessarily ever see is the writer’s style of creation.

Oh we’ve all heard about the peculiar ones, the quirky habits: the hoarding of postcards, the walls of notes, the lucky chair that squeaks, the writer who, like some method actor, cloisters himself away in order to experience the same crippling isolation as his protagonist. I’m not focusing there today.

I’m focusing on the stories and how they begin, where they come from, what makes a person pick up their pen and write. It’s the initial spark that I’m curious about and thought I’d discuss.


The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons. 

All together, those neurons contain about enough electrical energy to power a small lightbulb when you’re awake. In fact, our human brains are so fast that it takes the world’s most powerful super-computers 43minutes to process what we do in a second. So with a ton of information flooding the brain at any given moment, it’s no wonder it has to organise everything somehow nor that it does so in story form.

Stories are how we make sense of the world.

Implying all humans are innate storytellers, why then doesn’t everyone tell stories? Why don’t all humans fill up the hours by writing down their ideas? After all, doesn’t the saying go something like: ‘everyone has a story inside of them, waiting to be writ?’

For one, it’s a matter of interest – not everyone cares enough to write and others not enough to finish. More importantly, in this sense, writing isn’t about solipsism and the grand tangle of ganglion cells passing information neuron to neuron. Writing is an opening of one person to another person, a door from one mind to another.

Human language didn’t develop just so we could think in more complex ways, but so we could develop socially. Through ‘social development’ we learn about ‘self’ and ‘other’, and through understanding those things we develop stories because they help us comprehend the barriers, links and blended spaces between persons.

Ok, moving away from my degree in neuroscience, if not everyone has the interest or the determination to be storytellers in the commercial sense, then the writers that succeed, the ones that write and write and regardless of monetary achievement keep writing, must have something that triggers their ideas, that sparks them into action.

Talking to writers you’ll hear about all their different methods. One of the best writers I know (and who I mention frequently – check her and her writing partner out on Nerd Cactus) is a ‘world-builder’. More often than not her inner historian creates a ‘what if’ situation, a world that is transformed by a single decision, and then she comes up with characters to populate it, a theme that drives it, a plot that underpins each sequence of (often unfortunate) events.

On the other hand, despite working really well together on literary projects (our best is Renegade Earth, the trilogy) I almost always come from a completely different angle. I start with a character. Often just one, who I ‘hear’ in my head. They become part of a scene. That scene develops. We have a discussion: what’s their story, who are they, why should I care. If they fall down in any of these areas, I then investigate whether there’s another person I can talk to instead. I build up from the people, figure out their world, then start on the actual plot and idea.

The way we work together might seem strange. We start in such completely different spaces at times. But it functions because where she can become bogged down in the background, I can pull it back to the people; where I can find myself stuck in one character’s head, she’ll drag me back to the story we’re telling. As part of our development as writers, we’ve learnt from each other and so whilst my ‘initial spark’ is a character and hers more a question, the process is beautifully balanced.

When I put the question to some of the folk on Writer Unboxed, the answers came back with similarly disparate ‘starting points’ for writers. For some it’s when ‘an image blows up’ in their mind – a scene, a moment, complete with words and concepts. For others its all about concepts – they see a thing, remember it; read something, discover a new angle to develop. Some might prefer working with a relationship or a situation.

Most of the writers I spoke to, however, also mentioned that it’s far from being ‘kissed on the ear’ by the muses.

Inspiration might fall into an empty mind, or one that’s so full the idea of fitting more in hurts.

It also can shift. Whilst characters might instigate eight out of ten ideas, later finding an interesting idea in a book of conspiracies or in someone else’s writing is hardly unusual. No two stories are completely the same and no two writers seem to have identical processes.

Seeing the world in different ways is crucial. So whilst we may all claim a coffee habit, or a need for a nicotine fix (this is actually neuroscientifically explicable due to the dopamine dependencies curated by writerly minds that also link to the deficit disorders, depression and creativity associated with them), how we create ideas or start stories is almost entirely distinct from story to story, person to person.

So yes, writers work in different ways and have unique starting points that are as individual to a writer as their literary voice. It also means that if you're writing one way and your favourite writer works another - don't panic. No one really works the same way.

Your artist antenna can be trusted even if it’s not receiving the same signal as everyone else. In fact, that’s probably the best news you can hear.

Next up - best places to write in London

Je serai poète et toi poésie,

Thursday, 27 August 2015

20 Things I'm Learning As A Twenty-Something

In a couple weeks, I won’t be 24 anymore.

I’ll officially be a quarter of a century old. Which is to say, not very old at all. But still a wee bit lot older than I told a barman the other day – he asked for my ID; I was like ‘sheesh I’m eighteen already fool.’ Then corrected myself... ‘I mean, I’m really twenty-twooahuh-four. Twenty-four. ’ And he looked absolutely bewildered. Let’s pretend that’s because he was Australian not because I was talking nonsense.


This past year, I feel like I’ve done an awful lot. I finished my Masters, graduated and left university (finally), interned, moved back south, became employed, started really paying taxes, dated, discovered Crobar, got promoted, dated some more, taken up climbing, taken up boxing, learnt how to make vegan haggis, decided to never date again, lost touch with good friends, reconnected with old friends, made new friends, joined a London music society, and a book group, and a writing group, been lonely, been happy, been excited and mostly just been busier than ever.

And I’m finally in London. London. The city I always knew I needed to live in. The city I love the way a crow loves a murder and a plot loves a twist. The city that I’m sure will churn me up and spit me out like it does most everyone, but where, in the mean time, I’m content to figure myself out.

It’s amazing. It’s scary. And how the hell am I nearly twenty-five?! Anyway, seemed like a good excuse to jot down twenty-four things that I feel I’ve kind of learnt in the last twelve months. Or am learning. Everything these days seems more process than revelation.

At first, it’s all about being independent.

You’re out! You finished. You did the thing! Now there’s a level of independence that didn’t fully exist at university. There you were at least looked over by the system. Now there’s a sense of self-reliance, using your own reason and resources. Sort of. Some of the time. Mostly anyway.


It’s exciting! It’s novel! And still an itsy-bitsy-teeny-tiny bit terrifying in a big way.

YEYYYYY we’re freeeeeeeeeeee. Now we can have adventures! Or not. We have the choice to adventure or not! Also discovering the joys of living in a clean, tidy house with no risk of contracting a disease every time you make food is The Best. There are suddenly really big questions and uncertainties and you think you’re looking for something but most of the time you don’t really know what that something even is.


Which is why it’s really great to be in touch with your family.

Sometimes you just want a hug, or a no-nonsense phone call, or someone to give you £10 for taking the train to visit them. Of course not every family is perfect, for some it’s the family you chose not the family you were born into that fits into this role, but having those reliable people who are always there when it matters – they mean the absolute world.


Because finding your feet takes time.

It can feel like you’re youth in desult. Ok that was actually a silly reference to one of my favourite humans and his blog – which is literally about this EXACT feeling. Do you want to be in business? Do you want to be a tattoo artist? Are you even using anything you learnt in your degree? What on earth are we even doing with our lives? Does anything have any meaning? What's the point?! Was there ever a point?!


And not having everything figured out is ok.

Really, it’s totally fine. There’s no magic shuttle to success and even the folk who look like they’re totally sorted, probably don’t feel that way all the time either.


Even when it comes to finances…

Doing things like figuring out your tax code and translating your pay slip might take a moment or two – especially if you’re going from one tax bracket to another. On the other hand, if you’re like me and you’ve moved from the super-cheap and affordable North to London’s cocktail of failed dreams and extortionate prices, sometimes it’s as simple as realising your weekly shop is no longer £15 that makes your head pulse.


And saving money? No one does that anyway (wait really, is anyone doing this?!)

There’s an option to start putting money into a pension at work. You probably have friends that have them. It sounds very sensible. Put £200/month away for the next few years and you’ll be able to go on at least one and a half cruises to the British Virgin Islands in your 60s. But right now, you’d probably rather use that couple hundred quid for a boozy weekend in Bruge or put it towards buying a new coat for winter.


At least money isn’t as hard as dating.

I go on about it (sorry not sorry) but dating gets weird after university. And not only are there the six lads you’d totally find in a Taylor Swift song to consider, there’s also this whole dating like an adult shindig. It feels like part Darwinism, part job interview. Or if you're in a relationship: people start talking marriage and babies. Pressure much?!


But at least it’s good to see the back of the hanging out vs. hooking up conundrum…

There are definitely days where the simplicity of meeting up with someone in the library or lounging around drinking tea whilst whining about your creepy professors, coursework and other students will be thought of with dreamy nostalgia.


Part of that nostalgia will also be for your friends.

You’ll notice that your friendship group will shift. People you used to see everyday are now people you barely speak to. With others, your interests may change and take you down different paths. You might move to different countries and never see them again. Some people are in your life briefly and some people forever, so be prepared for those changes and don’t worry too much about it – it’s not just you.

dancing (1)

Moving city, whether it’s London or anywhere else, can be lonely.

You may be biggest city in the world or a leafy suburb, fact is sometimes being home alone on a Thursday night feels like the end of the world. That the bars are full and you are the only person left all alone, that no one loves you now and never will, that the diary will never have another plan put in it, that your heydays are over and the world will forever turn without you. The best thing to do in this situation is to call someone else. That way you can feel alone together. 


It’s ok to grieve a little.

Things change. You’re turning over a chapter. You’re saying goodbye to parts of your life you never thought you’d lose or leave. So yes, of course it’s ok to go through the many stages of grief. But not too much.


Especially since it’s not like you lose EVERYONE

You might fall out of touch with some people but the friends who go through all this with you, who go through the same or similar experiences, they’re so important. They’re part of the process, weird and wonderful as it may be.


Better yet, not only is making new friends not impossible but you might find yourself reconnecting with old ones.

People will surprise you. Sometimes complete and total strangers will be the ones to stick their neck out for you, or at least be the ones who end up brightening your day. Similarly, you’ll be stunned just how many people you’ve lost touch with would secretly love it if your paths cross again. So if you know one of your old friends from prep school is in the same town or that someone from university is passing through – send them a message, see how they’re doing. You’re finally moving in the same direction again. Plus it’s really fun to play Sherlock with them to find out what happened to everyone else.

Work is still work.

Unless you’re extremely lucky, you’re not in your dream job with the dream salary. You might be en route to that dream job, but you’re probably not famous or CEO of your own independent music label or running an antiquarian bookstore just yet. That’s ok. Work is called work for a reason and whilst there will be bad days where getting up at 6.30am seems too much and people grate on your nerves, there will also be amazing days. And then there’s always the weekends too.


Living for the weekend kinda means you learn to use time wisely.

Buy a diary. Even better: a Filofax. Staying in touch with people means learning to schedule in days when you’re all free. Especially since it’s easier to go to Edinburgh than to figure out the right tubes to Zone 4 half the time.


Although the hangovers genuinely are worse than when you were 20…

The recovery time from drinking, staying up late, or dancing the night away is so much longer. And apparently it only increases with age. Same kind of goes for the weird aches and pains you start experiencing when out running…


Let’s not even discuss work hangovers.

Even though they’re kind of inevitable. Like on a Tuesday after spending a whole night singing Elbow in a pub with four people that used to be strangers.


Which is why there will be days when you’ll not-so-secretly feel pretty smug, all cosied up at 10pm.

Sleep and ‘off time’ is so much more precious than it ever used to be. So whether it’s a good book and a glass of wine, Netflix and tea, or just an early bedtime, don’t worry about appreciating those evenings.


There will be days you are totally unprepared for.

You will never be prepared for everything, especially not the big changes and decisions you have to make. You might become stuck for a while, then have an awesome opportunity drop in your lap. Don’t freak out and panic just because it’s sudden. You might have hell descend. Punch it right back, no one escaped by cowering in the corner.


Days when the real world sucks a lot more than you expected

Once upon a time, you looked forward to being a real adult where you go to a fabulous job from 9-5 and attend events every week where you meet Interesting And Charismatic People who invite you back to their penthouse parties. NO. The real world is a cold, harsh place. And you are just thrown into it blind and completely unprepared.


Days when you really don't like yourself that much.

These days are the worst. You might doubt yourself. Be angry at yourself. Be sad that you've gained a few pounds or upset that your new grown-up hair cut makes you look like the bad guy from that independent film set in Mexico. Fact is, bad days don't stop because you're not a teenager anymore. However, being in your twenties is amazing, so shake it off and remember the longest relationship you're ever going to have is with yourself. So make it a good one. 


Just remember: you are not stuck.

Change is fine. Change is good. Change is what brought you to where you are in the first place. It’s also ok to change your mind. It might not seem possible at the time. It might be hard. But there will be situations that you really find yourself stuck in – so if you have the choice and you’re unhappy and you can change your stars… do it. Some of the best people I know have already done this (in one case repeatedly) and it’s only been for the better.


You're just a twenty-something.

So you don’t have a jaw-dropping job, a wicked salary, your own flat, a relationship, and tons of cash saved. Your life is so far off track it’s basically the Starlight Express. But don’t stress. Just because you had this grand scheme and thought all the keys were ready to slot into place, it’s ok if they don’t all at once. Be patient and trust that things are going to work out as they should. Be weird. Be as far off track as you like. Be a twenty-something.


Je serai poète et toi poésie,