Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fae: The Interview

This summer saw the release of World Weaver PressFae, which features one of my short stories, 'Antlers'. Around that time, the anthology's editor, Rhonda Parrish, asked us authors a few fae-related questions, and I'm pleased to reveal that my interview has now been published:

Fae Contributor Interview: Amanda Block

So head on over to Rhonda's blog at the above link if you're interested in reading my fairy-centric chat (and first interview!) about the inspiration for the story, reworking old tales, and my favourite magical character. Plus there's an extract from Antlers to be found there too, featuring a birth, a death, and some serious sibling rivalry...

Saturday, December 6, 2014

An Update

I seem to have become rather lax about blogging lately so, without further ado, here is an update of my literary activities of the past few months... 

August in Edinburgh is, of course, totally dominated by the festivals, and it’s an amazing time to be in the city – let alone live in it. The highlight for me is always The Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF), which never fails to attract world-class authors, and this year was no different. Below are a few of my highlights:

  • Patrick Ness is basically the king of YA fiction at the moment - and deservedly so. In person too, Ness is funny, engaging, and has a lovely rapport with his audience. I also appreciated the fact that he spoke a lot about writing as a process, and the following are just a few things he said that stayed with me:
On not having time to write: 'Writers don't write, they write anyway. You find ways to write.' 
On self-belief: ‘You can be a writer - no one ever told me that.’ 
On how his stories take shape: ‘I'm a great believer in if an idea's good enough, wait and things will stick to it’
  • Sarah Maitland and Kirsty Logan write original fairy tales, Maitland fusing hers with scientific theory in her book Moss Witch, and Logan creating her own lyrical, sensual fiction in The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. Given that I frequently use traditional stories in my own work, I really enjoyed hearing about their different approaches to this kind of writing.
  • I have never read any of Lydia Davis’ fiction, but her event (chaired by a delightful Ali Smith, whose work I love) made me realise what an oversight that has been, for Davis is truly a master of the short story form (an excellent example of her newer work is Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer). 
  • The wise and witty Sarah Waters talked mainly about her new novel, The Paying Guests, and I was particularly interested when she discussed how her historical fiction develops: she reads extensively around the time period she wants to write about, and then lets the story emerge from her research. Also, her event’s chair, Muriel Gray, was fabulous (‘Sarah, this book kept getting me all hot and bothered. I had to think of Jeremy Clarkson to calm myself down.’).
  • Haruki Murakami was one of the biggest names at this year’s EIBF. I wasn’t sure what to expect from him, though having read three of his books I should have guessed: Murakami was quirky, witty, with a mischievous streak - he had his audience in the palm of his hand.
Meeting him after the event was even better. For privacy, he was signing books behind a strange arrangement of sheets, rather like a blanket fort. My partner (a highly reluctant reader on whom Murakami has somehow worked his magic) and I queued for a good hour to see the author, and then simultaneously froze when we ducked into all the linen and came face-to-face with him. Unfazed by our silence, Murakami chuckled, ‘I am looking forward to a beer after this,’ and – finding our voices at last – we hastily encouraged him in this endeavour. 
Banter about beer with Haruki Murakami? We felt like the coolest people on the planet.

After all that excitement, September had a distinctly back-to-school vibe, especially following the fun of the festival, and I enforced a strict ‘new term’ routine on myself. Each weekday since then, I’ve been trying to finish my freelance ghostwriting by lunchtime, so in the afternoon I can spend a couple of hours on my novel, short stories, or writing admin (ie tasks like trawling the internet for competitions or sending stories off to anthologies). Unless a pesky deadline comes up, it’s not a bad system, so I’m going to try and stick to it for the foreseeable future.

October was dominated by one of the aforementioned pesky deadlines, and most of the writing month was spent pulling my hair out over perhaps the most difficult short story I’ve ever written. Hopefully I will be able to find it a home one of these days...

And finally, November, which I will remember as the Month of the Novel. First of all, I finished my second full-length ghostwritten book. Obviously, I can’t talk about it too much, but it’s been a very enjoyable project, and working on it every day has given me some much-needed structure since returning from my travels, so I will miss it a fair bit.

In terms of my own writing, this was also a big month for my novel-to-be. A while ago, I realised my old draft simply wasn’t working, and therefore much of ‘new term’ has been spent trying to rethink its structure, plot, characters – most of it, really. I think November was the first time I felt like I was making progress with this often disheartening task, helped in no small part by Edinburgh City Council’s wonderful two-day writing course, 'Start Your First Novel'. Run by Alison Summers, the sessions were great for reviewing (and learning) the process of developing a novel from scratch, and so made it much easier for me to look at my new ideas from a fresh perspective. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Australia: Melbourne, City of Literature

'What's this about books?'
Continuing with my travels, I left New Zealand at the beginning of March this year, and flew into Queensland, Australia. Over the course of the next week, I then had a series of strange and fairly dangerous adventures, which included sailing out to the Great Barrier Reef during a tornado warning, night diving with sharks, and getting trapped in the middle of ‘Cape Tribulation’ (the name’s a clue, by the way) during a tropical storm, unable to leave a flooded, spider-plagued hostel because all the nearby crocodile-infested rivers had burst their banks. In short, Australia was enormous fun from the get-go.

After those slightly mad seven days, I headed south, to Melbourne, which was an even more exciting prospect than Queensland. First and foremost, it used to be the home of my creative co-conspirator, Joely Badger, who was my trusted guide for the remainder of my Australia trip. And secondly, Melbourne is a UNESCO City of Literature.

Coming from Edinburgh, and having written about its City of Literature status before, I was keen to find out more about this aspect of Melbourne during my stay there. I was only visiting for three weeks, but it turns out you can discover quite a lot about a place in that time, and so below are just a few of my book-related adventures in Australia’s first literary city.

Detail from the Joyce and Court Oldmeadow Memorial Sculpture

1) Visiting the State Library

Melbourne has some beautiful buildings, and the State Library of Victoria is one of them. Handily situated in the centre of the city, its pillared façade and elegant lawn easily make it the grandest building in sight – exactly as a library should be. 

Inside too, it’s an impressive space, especially the domed La Trobe Reading Room. Although perhaps my favourite part of the library was the Joyce and Court Oldmeadow Memorial Sculpture (above), cast in bronze by Tessa Wallis. It features multiple characters from Australian children’s literature, many of which are native critters, including a koala, a wombat and a platypus.

View of Melbourne over the Yarra
2) Seeing John Marsden at the Children's Book Festival

As luck would have it, the Children's Book Festival was taking place while I was in Melbourne and Joely suggested we go and see the author John Marsden, who she explained was something of an Australian national treasure. His most famous work is the Young Adult series that starts with Tomorrow, When the War Began, which seems to have been required reading for Australia’s schoolchildren over the past couple of decades. Tomorrow kicks off the story of seven teenagers who go camping deep in the Australian bush and return to find their town has been invaded, and life as they know it has changed forever... 

Happily for Joely and me, much of Marsden’s talk focused on writing. As a neat little story-building exercise, he had the audience match some random adjectives and nouns, creating strange pairings such as ‘blue spaghetti’ and ‘glass parrot’, and then he demonstrated how to construct a tale around them, by asking three questions: 

- What led to this?
- What are the consequences of this?
- What is the resolution?

Marsden told us that ‘stories interrupt routine’, which I like as a definition, and then pressed upon us the importance of language, urging aspiring writers to learn the rules of English in order to later enjoy breaking them. Plus he dispelled the myth that authors receive some kind of divine story inspiration: the Tomorrow series developed over time, he told us - the result of combining subjects in which he was interested, such as farming and Second World War history, with a wish to write about a group of resourceful teenage protagonists.

Joely at work in The Moat - with cocktail, naturally
3) Writing in Melbourne’s cafés

Melbourne is famous for its ‘café culture’, which I’m pretty sure is just a hipster way of saying it has lots of nice places to drink coffee. But it does, and obviously there is a natural attraction between writers and caffeine (/alcohol) so in Melbourne’s many cafés Joely and I had a great old time chatting stories, plotting stories, writing stories, coming up with a story-related business idea (maybe more on that one day…) and even meeting up with her Melbourne-based writers’ group.

Our favourite haunt, it should be noted, was The Moat, downstairs from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre for writers. Not only does it have very cool, book-focused décor, they also have literary-themed cocktails. I sampled ‘The Bard (Ode to William Shakespeare)’, and it was glorious.

4) Picnicking at Hanging Rock

All right, this wasn’t exactly in Melbourne, but just outside of the city is the infamous spot featured in Peter Weir’s cult 1975 film, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Although the story of the turn-of-the-century schoolgirls who disappear on a Valentine’s Day picnic at the rock - some of them never to be seen again - was actually originally a novel, written in 1967 by Australian author Joan Lindsay.

I never saw any of these people again
Naturally, staying so close to Hanging Rock, Joely and I decided to visit this notorious place with a couple of friends, and of course we had a picnic there, and obviously we dressed up in frilly white tops and re-enacted parts of the film (shouting ‘Miranda!’ at one another from between the rocks, and so on). And, maybe I’m imagining it, but the Rock does have a weird atmosphere, perhaps not helped by the fact that we visited on a particularly hot, bright day not unlike the one featured in the well-known film. 

It seems to be a popular misconception that Picnic at Hanging Rock is based on true events - even the author herself grew vaguer over time as to the inspiration for her novel. So, for me, perhaps stranger than the Rock itself was its visitor’s centre, which shows a kind of documentary film on a loop about the girls’ disappearance, despite the fact that - as far as anyone knows - it never happened. I thought this piece of marketing quite interesting: although we’re so used to fictionalising facts in books and films and TV shows, it’s rare to experience the factualising of fiction, which appears to be what is happening around the story of Hanging Rock. 

5) Having tea at Miss Marple’s

Finally, one of the things I liked best about Australia was that even when I thought I was getting used to a country that, in many ways, is very similar to my own, it would take me by surprise. I was shocked, for example, by the high quality of hot chocolate there, the high prices of books, and the high probability of being subjected to violence when attempting to feed cockatoos. 

Another such surprise occurred in the middle of the Dandenongs rainforest (again, just out of Melbourne), when we came across the memorabilia-packed Miss Marple’s Tea Room and stopped inside for scones and cake. Why, one might ask, was it there? Did the Dandenongs have some link to the Miss Marple stories? Had Agatha Christie once visited? Or were the owners just very enthusiastic fans? I have absolutely no idea, for I never solved this particular Marple mystery. But then, why shouldn’t one find a café dedicated to a fictional English geriatric sleuth in the middle of an Australian rainforest? Why on earth not? 

Miss Marple's Tea Room, complete with suspicious-looking man on roof

For more bookish bits and bobs from my 2014 travels, see New Zealand: Literary Landscapes.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fae: Out Now

It’s finally here: Fae, World Weaver Press’ fairy-centric anthology, is out now.

I have written about my involvement with Fae here and here, but wanted to mark its release date by posting a little extract from my story, Antlers. I’m reluctant to give away too much about the tale, nor the specific fae-creature it concerns, so below are just the opening lines of Antlers, to give a taster of what's to come in the book:

The garden is a crypt. Vines grasp at the walls, pulling themselves upwards, right towards the throats of the tallest trees, which bow forward to meet one another, branches clasping branches. 
Inside, there is no breeze, and the air is thick with the musk of pollen and damp, dark earth. The birds that remain stand still in the shrubs, their songs low and mournful.  
At the centre, lies the Lady. Under the netting of shadows, her skin seems to shine and shift, like moonlight upon water. The only colour is at her breast, opening up like a red flower thrust forward through time, blossoming around the arrow that has pierced her heart. 

Fae, expertly edited by Rhonda Parrish, is available now in trade paperback and ebook via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and other online retailers. You can also find Fae on Goodreads.

Finally, here is some lovely advance praise for Fae:

A delightfully refreshing collection that offers a totally different take on your usual fairy stories! I found it difficult to stop reading as one story ended and another began – all fantastic work by gifted writers. Not for the faint of heart, by any means.
          — Marge Simon, multiple Bram Stoker® Winner
Anyone with an abiding love of Faerie and the Folk who dwell there will find stories to enjoy in FAE.
          — Tangent (C.D. Lewis)
The Cartography of Shattered Trees' by Beth Cato and 'And Only The Eyes of Children' by Laura VanArendonk Baugh are shining examples of what could be done with the subject of faeries that surpass tricks on the reader, that build worlds and characters worth knowing and exploring, that have something important to say about the real world.
          — Tangent (John Sulk)
Nibble on this deliciously wondrous collection of stories of fae one at a time or binge on its delights on one night, you'll love the faerie feast this collection provides. I devoured it.
          — Kate Wolford, editor of Enchanted Conversation: A Fairytale Magazine

Update (05/08/14): You can read my (highly biased) review of Fae at Goodreads here. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Seven Weeks of Freelancing, Seven Things I've Learned

The other day, I realised that I'm nearing the end of my second month as a freelance ghostwriter. This has come as something of a surprise, not least because in my mind I'm still on my travels, frolicking across white-sand beaches in the sunshine, and sloshing around cocktails while I laugh about all the books I've had time to read... But no, I do appear to be back in Edinburgh now, where there are very few sunny days and quite expensive cocktails, and I actually seem to be working. 

In fairness, the job itself is not all that different from what I was doing in Geneva, it's the experience of ghostwriting from home that I'm having to get used to. And already, I've learned that there are several things I need to keep in mind, in order to have a productive working day - or rather, any kind of working day at all.

1) Morning tea is essential to morning work: My partner has a Proper Office Job and therefore leaves the house at some unholy hour each day. I have managed to 'persuade' him (read: 'subject him to a merciless campaign of moaning, pleading, sulking and bribery') to make me a cup of tea before he goes. The positive effects of this pre-breakfast beverage on someone like me, who struggles to think before noon, cannot be overstated. In fact, one day, when the kettle broke... No, I can't talk about it.

2) Get dressed: This is pretty good advice for life, actually. But in a freelance context, what I say to myself is this: no matter how good you feel in your adorable New Girl-style pyjamas, for goodness' sake put on some proper clothes. Because pyjamas make it easier to go back to bed, and if you go back to bed... Well, there's no one around to make you tea anymore.

3) Flat-hunting is not conducive to writing: Sadly self explanatory.

4) The internet is your friend: Research! Advice! News! Opportunities! Instant communication! Supportive writerly people!

5) The internet is your enemy: The following are some genuine questions my friends and I have asked one another on Facebook etc. during work time over the past seven weeks, each prompting thought-provoking and time-consuming discussion:

  • What shall we call our pub quiz team?
  • How did they trick Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford into appearing in the next Star Wars film?
  • How shall we celebrate World Gin Day?
  • If we camp in the Trossachs, what is the likelihood of being entirely devoured by midges?
  • Who, according to Buzzfeed, would play your dad in a film?
  • When/where/how shall we watch the Game of Thrones finale?
  • Will there be ice cream?*

(*This one provoked the most chat, I'm not even kidding.)

6) Just keep swimming: Dory is obviously the wisest character in Finding Nemo, if not in all of Pixar, because we know she wasn't just talking about swimming. Me, I am just talking about swimming: it is the only kind of sport for which I have any enthusiasm or talent, so I find a good break from the computer screen is to go and thrash around in the local pool for a while, and become weirdly territorial if anyone else comes into the 'serious swimmer' lane.

7) It's, erm, kind of great: There are obviously downsides to working from home; the lack of real company is a big one, and the amount of discipline I have to muster just to start typing in the morning is pretty momentous. But when I reach my daily word count, and I'm happy with what I've written - that's a good feeling. As is, seven weeks in, realising I'm already more efficient, I'm finishing the ghostwriting earlier each day, and I finally have some time - precious, much-anticipated time - to start concentrating on my own writing.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

New Zealand: Literary Landscapes

Mount Ngauruhoe, also known as Mount Doom
Back in February, between leaving Geneva and starting freelance work in Edinburgh, I set off on a three-month trip around Australasia and Southeast Asia. My first stop was the mighty New Zealand, a country of which I had a very favourable impression, despite the fact I had never been there and actually knew very little about it. Well, I knew the obvious, clichéd stuff: New Zealand was the home of the haka, the bungee jump, and far more sheep than people; it had landscapes many claim are ‘like Scotland, but better!’ (seriously, a lot of people say this); and, thanks to Peter Jackson, it was a place inextricably linked in my mind with The Lord of the Rings.

Like so many, I grew up with Tolkien’s world: as a child, I was read The Hobbit at bedtime; as a young teenager, I tackled The Lord of the Rings books on my own; as a sixth former, my friends and I obsessed over the films. Although there are aspects of the saga on which I’m not so keen (the endless songs, the [lack of] female characters, The Hobbit films…), I have always found Tolkien’s world irresistible, its originality and scale marking it out from the rest.

To return to 2001, when we were devouring advanced publicity for The Fellowship of the Ring in the sixth form common room, I remember all the media focus was concerned with the same thing: New Zealand. I didn’t get it at the time - as far as I was concerned, Middle Earth was a fantasy version of olde worlde Britain - but then I watched the film and, of course, I understood. And now I've been there, I understand even more: New Zealand is a magical place.

Hobbiton: view from the party field up to Bag End

The most genuinely 'Middle Earth' experience I had on my trip was undoubtedly my visit to Hobbiton, also known as Alexander Farm on the North Island. Used as a filming location for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and recently rebuilt for The Hobbit films, the site has since been preserved as a tourist attraction. There, you can wander past the iconic round doors of the hobbit houses, all the way up to Bag End at the top of the hill, before finishing up in the Green Dragon pub for a drink and perhaps some second breakfast.

What particularly struck me about Hobbiton was that it didn’t feel like a film set. There are no lighting rigs or tyre tracks or wires spoiling the view. Almost everything is authentic, from the vegetables in the gardens, oversized in comparison to the little trowels and rakes, to the shirts and trousers hanging over the gates, which look as though they've been shrunk in the wash. Walking around that place was not just like walking into a story, it was like walking into that story - the one bound up with my childhood - and so was somehow completely joyful and hauntingly nostalgic at the same time.

Anyone for second breakfast?

But to talk about New Zealand only in terms of The Lord of the Rings would do the country, and my time there, a great injustice. For starters, it has a rich literary history of its own, from the folktales of its indigenous people to its current contributions to the bestseller charts. While in the country, I was fortunate to connect with stories from both ends of this scale. In Rotorua, I visited the Tamaki Maori Village where, aside from watching the famous – and frankly terrifying – haka, I was enthralled by our hosts' storytelling, their tales having been passed down in the oral tradition over countless generations. Then conversely, during much of February, I was absorbed in The Luminaries, a historical novel set in New Zealand that, among its other accolades, won last year’s Man Booker Prize (its Kiwi author, Eleanor Catton, is the youngest writer ever to win the award). Speaking, once more, of walking into stories, it was great fun to spend long bus journeys lost in Catton’s fictional chronicle of New Zealand’s gold rush era, only to look up and find we were driving through the very places mentioned in the book.

Rainforest near Franz Josef glacier
Incidentally, the bus I’m referring to here is the big green Kiwi Experience bus, a ‘hop-on, hop-off’ mode of travel that allows tourists to cover a surprising amount of land. And what land it is. New Zealand’s topography is unbelievably diverse; on the Kiwi Bus we would set off from a surfers’ paradise in the morning and end up in a rainforest next to a glacier just a few hours later. The country has it all: picturesque, snow-topped mountains; lakes so flat they perfectly mirror the scenery around them; tangled, fairy tale forests; gorges that disappear into menacing mist; craggy coastlines packed with chubby seals… and so much more. While the Scottish half of me is reluctant to confirm that it is truly ‘like Scotland, but better!’* there must be few places in the world where you can find such a variety of scenery without crossing a border.

I’ve written before how, as an outdoorsy sort of person, I find the natural world very inspiring, so strangely enough one of the aspects of the trip that I enjoyed the most was the long journeys. During my time on the Kiwi Bus (and when I wasn’t tackling The Luminaries) I would gaze out of the window at whatever spectacular scenery we were driving through that day and allow my mind to wander off where it liked. I reflected on what I had written, I thought about stories I wanted to tell, and I even began to sort out the plot of my novel-to-be. Because of this, New Zealand was probably the most creatively productive time of the whole trip.

As I said at the start, I had had high expectations for my Kiwi experience, all of which were totally surpassed by the country itself and the wonderful people I met there. But what I hadn’t anticipated were the moments that didn’t feature on any bucket lists, or that I couldn’t capture on camera: the feeling of stepping into Hobbiton, for example, or a eureka moment while mulling over something make-believe on a bus. In this way, New Zealand gave me even more than the adventures I had sought out there, and in terms of stories it was - like that of Bilbo Baggins – an unexpected journey.

Mirror Lake reflecting Mount Cook

*The English half of me has no such qualms

Friday, May 23, 2014

Fae: The Cover Revealed

Earlier this year, I wrote that one of my stories, 'Antlers', is to be published in an anthology entitled Fae. Now, I am very excited to share its beautiful cover and the book's description, both of which have just been released by Fae's publisher, World Weaver Press.
Meet Robin Goodfellow as you’ve never seen him before, watch damsels in distress rescue themselves, get swept away with the selkies and enjoy tales of hobs, green men, pixies and phookas. One thing is for certain, these are not your grandmother’s fairy tales.
Fairies have been both mischievous and malignant creatures throughout history. They’ve dwelt in forests, collected teeth or crafted shoes. Fae is full of stories that honor that rich history while exploring new and interesting takes on the fair folk from castles to computer technologies and modern midwifing, the Old World to Indianapolis.
Fae covers a vast swath of the fairy story spectrum, making the old new and exploring lush settings with beautiful prose and complex characters. Enjoy the familiar feeling of a good old-fashioned fairy tale alongside urban fantasy and horror with a fae twist.
With an introduction by Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman, and all new stories from Sidney Blaylock Jr., Amanda Block, Kari Castor, Beth Cato, Liz Colter, Rhonda Eikamp, Lor Graham, Alexis A. Hunter, L.S. Johnson, Jon Arthur Kitson, Adria Laycraft, Lauren Liebowitz, Christine Morgan, Shannon Phillips, Sara Puls, Laura VanArendonk Baugh, and Kristina Wojtaszek.
Fae is released on the 22nd July 2014. To win an advanced copy through Goodreads, click here.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

‘Well, I’m back.’

Sam and Rosie's house, Hobbiton (New Zealand)
Since mid-February, I've picnicked at Hanging Rock and second-breakfasted in Hobbiton; I've partied with Maoris and hiked with Vietnamese villagers; I've fed kangaroos and wallabies by hand, and been feasted upon by more mosquitoes, sand flies and leeches than I can count; I've climbed to the top of an Angkor temple to experience a sunset, and I've crawled through a Viet Cong tunnel to experience a mild panic attack. Then there was the diving (scuba and sky), the jungle trekking, the missed flight in Sydney, the lost tooth in Melbourne... and a thousand other barmy, totally exhausting and utterly wonderful adventures in Australasia and Asia. In fact, during the last three months, it seems like one of the only activities I haven't managed to cram in (outside of a travel journal) is writing.

Which was exactly the plan. Part of the reason I went travelling after leaving Geneva was I felt overworked and in need of a break (sometimes not an easy thing to take, when half your job is in your head). So while I'm hoping that the time away will be good for my fiction, first and foremost it's been good for me.

Besides, I didn't give up stories entirely - I don't think I could. Whether you want them to or not, new places and new people bombard you with stories, some you might anticipate and some that are completely unexpected. While I won't be writing an account of my travels, exactly, I have some literary bits and bobs from the trip I'm hoping to share with Writer's Block over the next few weeks.

Picnic time? Hanging Rock (Australia)

Plus there's plenty to look forward to, right here, right now. I'm back in Edinburgh and about to start writing and ghostwriting full-time, which is very exciting/terrifying. Fae, the anthology featuring my short story 'Antlers' is to be published by World Weaver Press in July (a post to follow on that one shortly). Then there's the fact that, without setting pen to paper, I've been having a good old think about The Novel and some other writing projects during all the long bus/boat/tuk tuk journeys of late, which may have given me some much-needed perspective. And I suppose, at the end of the day, gaining a little perspective is what travelling's all about.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Coming Soon: Fae

I'm about to take a bit of a break from Writer's Block, as I'm off to do some travelling before starting full-time freelance work in May. However just in the nick of time (my first flight - to New Zealand - leaves tomorrow night), I'm able to reveal that one of my short stories, Antlers, is to be published in a forthcoming anthology by World Weaver Press.

The book, entitled Fae, will celebrate fairy-like creatures of all shapes and sizes. As editor Rhonda Parrish outlined in the call for submissions back in September:

Historically speaking fairies have been mischievous or malignant. They’ve dwelt in forests, collected teeth or crafted shoes. In Fae, we want stories that honor that rich history but explore new and interesting takes on fairies as well. We want urban fairies and arctic fairies, steampunk fairies, time-traveling and digital fairies. We want stories that bridge traditional and modern styles and while we’re at it, we want stories about fairy-like creatures too. Bring us your sprites, your pixies, your seelies and unseelies, silkies, goblins or gnomes, brownies and imps. We want them all. We’re looking for lush settings, beautiful prose and complex characters.

Hot off the press today, Fae's table of contents is now up on Rhonda's blog, and I'm very intrigued by the sixteen story titles that sit alongside Antlers. Fortunately, there isn't too long to find out how my fellow contributors have interpreted the fairy theme, as publication of the anthology is scheduled for this summer.

Plitvice National Park in Croatia, where I'm sure a few faeries dwell

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Au Revoir, Genève

The Schynige Platte: a nice spot
for some writing
For two and a half years, I have spent my days tidying stories in a turret. I have lived in a wood-panelled room – a land-locked ship’s cabin, I like to think – and I have watched the drifting of the clouds and the phases of the moon through the windows above my head. I have walked to a market each Sunday, or else taken a tiny orange train up a hillside to visit my cousin and his family. I have explored: cities, lakes, woods, summer mountains on foot, winter mountains on skis. I have become used to the unfamiliar, not just languages and cultures that aren’t my own, but the sound of church bells in the morning, the smell of cooking cheese or vin chaud in the street, the sight of little old men walking giant chess pieces around giant chessboards in the park… Reflecting on it all like this, I realise how wonderful and strange my time in Switzerland has been, almost like something from a story in itself. And now it is coming to an end - as all stories must.

I have always been driven by the desire to write – and the hope that writing could one day make up the bulk of my income. My Literary Consultant job here has been fantastic, but now I have the opportunity to put aside the editing and administration and concentrate on freelance ghostwriting and my own stories. And I know the place to do that is not in this charmed but expensive and faraway city, but in my beloved Edinburgh – my home, to which it is time to return.

View of Grand Rue, Geneva Old Town, the street on which I've lived and worked

Despite feeling fairly confident about this decision, it's breaking my heart a little, leaving Geneva while I'm having such a good time. I think perhaps it would help to dwell on the negative: the endless bureaucracy here, for example; the lack of sea; the customer service that borders on abuse. But I can’t. Switzerland, despite its reputation as a rather twee and snoozy little country, is an extraordinary place - not least for the fact its people once had the bright idea of dipping bread in booze and melted cheese. 

The mighty Matterhorn
It's also beautiful. I remember learning about  nature inspiring feelings of the sublime when studying Gothic literature at university, and I have felt that sensation again and again in Switzerland. When I hiked around the Schynige Platte above Interlaken last summer, or under the Matterhorn’s domineering shadow in early Autumn, the sights made my heart soar. I think I now understand why Julie Andrews went twirling off towards that mountainous horizon singing all sorts of silliness about musical hills – she just couldn’t keep it in. If you have never been to Switzerland, I urge you to visit at the first possible opportunity.

Of course, it’s people that really complete a place, and I have made some amazing friends out here. Geneva is a transient city, where most only stick around for a few years (or even months), so I’ve been very fortunate in this regard. Whether we’ve been indulging in thimble-sized glasses of wine in expensive bars, or slobbing out in front of TV shows in each other’s apartments; whether we’ve been lounging in the sunshine at the Perle du Lac park, or zooming down ski slopes in the biting cold - my friends and I have experienced this mad and magical place together. 

In many of these friends, and especially in my colleagues, I have also found kindred, creative spirits. We’ve swapped new story ideas, we’ve made colourful spreadsheets of competition deadlines together, we’ve read one another’s fiction – first drafts, fourth drafts, last drafts – and offered our comments. We’ve been there to share in each other’s successes – and commiserated in the face of a few, inevitable setbacks. We even made it official, forming The Pen Poppers writing group for regular practice, feedback and encouragement. As I have said before, writing is such a solitary occupation, I find it best to try and share as much of the process as possible. 

Skiing with my creative colleagues
(and two of my favourite Geneva people), Helen and Elodie

Which leads me onto my writing in Geneva. One of the reasons I want to pursue the next stage of my career in Edinburgh is that I have been a little starved of writing opportunities (as opposed to writing people) in Switzerland. But, in a way, being cut off from the UK literary scene has encouraged me to connect more in cyberspace. In the past few years, I have set up twitter and LinkedIn accounts, dedicated more time to Writer’s Block, completed Nanowrimo twice, joined two Reading Challenges, acquired Goodreads and Amazon author profiles. Now I think about it, I’m not sure I would have made my online presence quite so known, had I not felt far away.

I know I’ll return to Switzerland, both physically and in my writing (I’m already noticing a lot more mountain scenery popping up in my fiction), so I’m sure this is not the last time I’ll talk about my experiences here. But I wanted to get at least some of it down before I went, because I know it’ll seem different in a few weeks, and more different still a year or two down the line. So this is how it is right now, on the brink of leaving Geneva - and this is how I am: happy, grateful, inspired, better organised, more focused, more like a writer, even a little more worldly. And, conversely, because of all that, I'm also ready to go.

Jumping for joy at the top of Mont Salève

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ghosting, Introduction: What is a Ghostwriter?

When I moved to Geneva a couple of years ago, I went to a few getting-to-know you events in order to avoid becoming a complete social outcast. Because of the corporate-humanitarian focus of this city, I always felt something of a curiosity amongst all the frighteningly ambitious young bankers and jaded UN interns at these drinks, especially when the inevitable question came up again and again: what do you do? And I learnt, after a few evenings of clutching at an overpriced glass of wine and trying to make conversation with - shudder - strangers, I could answer this question in two ways...

Answer One: I'm a Literary Consultant. I work in a Geneva-based publishing house doing editing, proofreading and coordinating the administration.

Answer Two: I'm a ghostwriter.

Both are true. Answer One is my day job, Answer Two is my freelance work. But I'm sure you can imagine which one always provoked the better reaction.

But what is a ghostwriter?* Although it varies from job to job, generally a ghostwriter is hired to write or rewrite a piece of text - whether that be a book, short story, report or article - by somebody who will be credited as the official author.

Going back to those drinks, this explanation has prompted some incredulity in its time: Is that a thing? I've never even heard of that.

By this point, I've found the easiest way forward is to mention the multitude of celebrity autobiographies that grace the bookshop shelves and bestseller lists. Of course, there are a lot of ghostwriters of fiction out there (myself included), but I would imagine the biggest pool of work lies in biographical writing; the self-penned stories of actors, sports stars, businesspeople and so on. In fact, I think most people would be surprised how many books out there are written, at least in part, by someone other than the named author.

And it's not a bad thing. That's another issue that arises from the ghostwriting conversation: there tends to be judgement - not of me, but of the clients - as though it's somehow shameful to have put your name to something you haven't bashed out on a keyboard, word for word. It's not. Plenty of individuals have stories to tell, but not necessarily the time, skills, education or even the confidence to tell them without a little help.

I'm hoping to return to these issues and more in an (occasional) series of posts entitled Ghosting. Firstly because the three and a half years I've spent as a ghostwriter have hugely affected my own creative writing - almost entirely for the better, believe it or not. Given that Writer's Block is intended to track my writing progress, it would be strange not to talk about it.

I also freely admit to not knowing a huge amount about the world of ghostwriting myself because, for obvious reasons, much of it is shrouded in secrecy. In Ghosting, I'll be talking about my experience in general terms, to protect the anonymity of my clients, and I would love it if other ghosties could come forward and do the same, in order that we might learn a little from one another. After all, I suspect there are a number of you out there, haunting the internet, so do give me a wail or rattle your chains in my direction if you feel so inclined.

*Incidentally, many don't need me to explain the concept of ghostwriting to them, because they've seen the Ewan McGregor film The Ghost Writer, or read the Robert Harris novel Ghost on which it's based:

In my experience, the profession is not nearly as exciting or dangerous.