The Reading Life

NEWSFLASH: I will reading @BRIXTON BOOK JAM, Monday 5 March 2018 @Hootananny, LONDON

bbj-Mar5th-a6-front copy

South London, are we ready? I am coming straight out of my garret to read from my new award-winning debut, CRY OF THE FLYING RHINO, at the Brixton Book Jam, on Monday 5 March 2018 7:30pm at The Hootananny. (95 Effra Road, London SW2 1DF) – a large pub with a performance space that can hold 600 people. It also provides cooked food. The closest tube station is Brixton (Victoria line) and buses 2, 3, 415, 432 and 196 will transport you very near to the venue. Guess what, it’s FREE to attend!

This will be the FIRST TIME that I am reading aloud from this book and answering any burning questions you may have about it or about me.

Check out the exciting line-up of authors:

Tony White,
Guy Gunaratne,
Stevyn Colgan,
Chris Chalmers,
Zelda Rhiando,
Mark Hill,
Julia Bell,
Sarah Robertson,
The Deserter
Noo Saro-Wiwa

and of course Yours Truly.

During the intervals, resident DJ Andy Carstairs will spin melodic stylings from his hard drive. Check out The Hootananny. See Brixton Book Jam for detailed biogs of each author and his/her book description.

A cartoon by @willmcphail4. Follow @newyorkercartoons for more #TNYcartoons.

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Can You Learn “How to Write Like Tolstoy” from a Book?

 

Somerset Maugham famously said that there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen

should be read with caution. It is, like all other writing books, a How To book that is a How Not To, which means it shows and not tells you via anecdotes and countless examples of great literature, broken down into a structured and systematic analysis what is essentially the magical and unknown journeys we take when we read and when we write. It is a tour de force of all your favourite books in one and why they are. The content page alone is proof that editor and author Richard Cohen has attempted to turn the business of creative writing into practical advice.

Reading about the writing business is an illness that you already know too well, like flu or cold symptoms. For me, it is also a secret and guilty passion because in my heart, I know that you will never know what a great book is until it is a great book so how can this magic, this art be unravelled?

Beginnings

You recognise the symptoms of the infection straightaway. When you start reading a book about writing, they all tell you the same thing, and that is, all books begin in the same way:

“the opening paragraph, the whole question of starting off right. Thereafter the chapters are roughly organized according to the creative process. How characters are created seems paramount – most often, a character will stay with us long after the particular story has faded away – but how does one give them life? What names does one bestow, how much of a back story should be included?”

Can you teach creative writing?

The question is raised in the preface. Hanif Kureishi in the Guardian on 4 March 2014 famously said you can’t. “Creative writing courses are a waste of time,” he said.

“A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’ “

He also says that 99.9% of his students are not talented and the little bit who are left are. If skill comes with talent, then the skill can be taught and improved but the original talent still has to be present. That is why when all else fails, writing is referred to as a craft, akin to knitting a jumper or wood-whittling. If it is crude and wrongly-made, that’s just tough. You have to make it again and again until proportionally, structurally and aesthetically it is just right. There is no magic in it.

The short-lived Brendan Behan (1923-64) described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem”.

“He was invited by a prestigious American university to deliver an afternoon lecture about his craft. Behan’s reputation as boozer and rabble-rouser meant that the lecture hall was filled to capacity with students standing at the back and perched in the aisles, but the appointed hour came and went, with still no sign of the great man. Time laboured on; the stage remained empty. After forty-five minutes or so, a more than usually dishevelled Behan stumbled in, and the audience waited, in equal parts expectant, curious and alarmed. “Good afternoon,” he crooned. “Now hands up all of you who want to be writers.” Nearly everyone raised an arm. Behan viewed this forest with disgust. “Well, then,” said he. “Go on back home and frickin’ write.” With that, he reeled off the stage.”

Kurt Vonnegut who for many years was on the faculty of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, also believed that one could not make writers. He said he himself was like a golf pro who could at best “take a few shots off someone’s game”.

Hemingway said what must be a classic truism by now: the only way for a writer to learn his craft was to go away and write. Despite hours of tutorials from Gertrude Stein, Hemingway had to write to her: “Isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad. Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.”

This different kind of bad confirms that the teaching of the craft only highlights how difficult it is to stand out or be original. Once you become a writer aware, you become writer beware. Although teaching writing and publishing is a big business now, with creative writing Masters programme costing thousands of dollars or pounds of fees, it always comes down to: but Dickens didn’t do an MA, neither did Hemingway, Atwood, Orwell, nor J K Rowling. In reality, no one did because it was only recently (in the last 20 years) that creative writing courses came to exist. There was no such thing before. Either you were a writer or you weren’t.

My MA in Writing at Middlesex University

From a personal viewpoint, I became a “professional” when I did my MA in Writing at Middlesex University. I was already a writer. Doing the course did not make me a writer (I had been writing since I could write i.e. from the age of 8 or 9). But it turned my writing from a noun into a verb. Before there was such a thing as MA in Writing, I attended a writing group, the City Lit Writers’ Club in the late 1990s. Being “taught” creative writing was the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I am a very small person physically and socially, so I feel I need to be part of a big organisation. It gave me confidence that more than one person (i.e. myself) liked my work. I know that writing is like fine arts, a self-taught interest/hobby/profession/career but I still believe that I need to be self-taught in a group. Most recently, I attended the London Lit Lab’s weekend workshop (a story in a weekend). I am still working on that same story now, editing and perfecting it. However, I would not have written 3000 words in a day had not been for the workshop where I was being “taught” to start writing from scratch after a long period of not writing.

Any university course aims to give you skills or to improve your skills, even more so a Writing MA. Cry of the Flying Rhino was born at Middlesex. Yes! It’s actually a North Londoner! Without having attended the MA at Middlesex, I could not have written the book I wanted to write, nor been granted the opportunity to say what I wanted to say, free of constraints, fear, guilt, grammar, market desirability and proverbial voices over the shoulder, free of boundaries of race, language, culture. A book that experimented with patois, multiple voices, a book that is pure literature. A book that ultimately, after 12 years of dormancy on my hard drive, was submitted for an international literary prize and won. Now that I have written two books and am writing my third, I would not hesitate to say that I was “taught” something: that an MA in Writing is the most freedom you will ever get as a writer.

What about George Orwell?

What about him? He is one of my literary heroes. Perhaps what I liked about his honesty and his writing was what he “taught” me, which is not to aim for popularity but to say what you want to say but make it clear:

“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”

He began his career as a clumsy writer. At the age of 24 he moved into cheap lodgings in London, and was befriended by the distinguished poet Ruth Pitter. The two would go for long walks along the Embankment discussing his stories, or meet for dinner of a bottle of red plonk when she would give him unsparing criticism and therefore taught him to compose those stories even though the original gift for storytelling was in fact his own.

Plot

is formula, a template. The titular Leo Tolstoy once said all great literature is one of two stories. A man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.

Naturally this is sexist and I shall avert my eyes. Man is generic. It could be a child or woman or a living thing. Sexism aside, it is not so simple. If it were, then there would not be so many narratives available.

Carlo Gozzi, an Italian playwright of the 18th century said there were 36 plots. 2004’s bestselling Seven Basic Plots won approval of many writers. Oxford philosopher Roger Scruton called it “a brilliant summary of storytelling.”

Overcoming Monster
Rags to Riches
The Quest
Voyage and Return
Comedy
Tragedy
Rebirth
These are just nonsensical hashtags in my view. If there are only 7 then how come all the greatest books have all of the above?

Sex

Naturally I turned to this chapter first being someone who can’t, won’t and doesn’t write about sex. As it happens this is a very interesting chapter. It is not about erotica or pornography. “It’s nearly always best to avoid detailed descriptions or elaborate imagery” which is how one turns the writing about sex into erotica or pornography.

William F Buckley liked to recall a dinner with Vladimir Nabokov who told him that he was smiling because he polished off his OSS in that afternoon’s writing session.

What’s an OSS? asked Buckley.

Nabokov explained. Obligatory sex scene.

A depressing scenario is when writers put in a sex scene, badly-written because they hope it will boost sales, or win them popularity or whatever. Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has a section for erotica and it is aptly called L’Enfer. Hell.

Shirley Conran, bonkbuster bestseller, subcontracts her erotic scenes to Celia Brayfield. Detachment from the characters is still a great way to get attached to them. The irony. Summary about writing about sex?

Writing about sex is a fine ambition but difficult to carry off successfully. Try, but be ready to junk the pages.

The Song of Songs, a long erotic poem, in the Old Testament has been described as the single most instructive example of how to write effectively about physical love. The second most successful love scene is John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”:

Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread

In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed…

By this these Angles from an evil sprite,

Those set out hairs, but these our flesh upright.

Licence my roving hands, and let them go

Before, behind, between, above, below.

O, my America! My new-found-land,

My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d…

To enter in these bonds, is to be free;

Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.

Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee.

The advice in a nutshell is to use poetic licence. Language is still language. Do not describe body parts. Less is more. End of scene.

Endings

There is no need to recap or to sum up with a great statement of “wearisome” arguments already made. “When you have said what you want to say,

Stop.”

Thanks for reading this blog post! If you like South-east Asian and vintage arts and cultures, you will love my award-winning novel Cry of the Flying Rhino set in Malaysia and Borneo in the 1990s. It is dark, macabre and thrilling, it has received a handful of five-star reviews already. And of course, it is stylish like you and I.

 

REVIEW: BBC’s “Chinese Burn” appalling script, racial stereotypes, human detritus not diversity

Did anybody catch this on the BBC over the weekend? A terrible TV film about three Chinese girls in London called CHINESE BURN. The script is so shocking and racist I can’t believe it was made.
One has a permanent cleaver looking at little dogs to chop up and eat.
One is an out-of-work actress who auditions for endless prostitute or cleaner roles with kungfu thrown in.
One is a failed sommelier walking around as a human signboard for bubble tea, who gets molested by her Chinese boss but ends up giving him a hand job.
Very poor. None were empowered or normalised or fit into society as they were terrible cliches and stereotypes of people who don’t even exist, like pulling their eyes into slits. It’s like the writers went: “Hey I know! Why challenge stereotypes when we can reinforce them? This is a great idea. Let’s call it diversity, heh heh! Just throwing that word in for luck. Let’s create hideous characters, the dregs of humanity. Not an ounce of delight or warmth. Let’s call them Chinese girls.”

chineseburn
OK that is my TV review. Apparently it’s a comedy too but it’s not funny at all. Will black people or white people find this funny? I am a very humorous person too – people tell me I am a funny girl. But this show is stupid and not funny.
How are we supposed to move forward when we are moving back all the time? We as in everybody, not just Chinese girls. We as in scriptwriters, writers, thinkers, workers, doers, the Beeb. I am waiting for something clever and funny. Not asking a lot, you see, just some eye candy while ironing.

READ Cry of the Flying Rhino FOR FREE: Now at Southfields Library, South London

Calling SOUTHFIELDS or WANDSWORTH residents/library members/mums/friends/neighbours! What are you waiting for?!!! READ MY BOOK FOR FREE!!! Support local libraries and read for free. If you don’t, they will shut down. We don’t know how lucky we are. When I was growing up I had to read really torn, vandalised or simply extremely old and falling apart books in the Sultan Ismail Public Library in my home town of Johor Bahru. I frequently did not know the ending, the beginning or the middle because of the damage done to them. I moment I could read, I read, and I could not stop. I treasured each book more than anything in the world.
I am next to Helen Dunmore. That is all. My book is in #southfields #library. This is a little local library I have been going to for about 20 years or something like that. #wandsworth #wandsworthlibraries #southlondon #macabre #dark and #literary #crime #fiction #bookstagram. #tattoos#borneo #tribal #story #diy #author #writer #novel #plottwist #cryoftheflyingrhino #ivyngeow #writersofinstagram #onlocation #helendunmore @ Southfields Librarysouthfieldlibrary2Southfieldlibrary1

Lulu Allison: The Relevance of Art in Literature

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” – Edgar Degas

-COVER smlLulu Allison is a Brighton-based artist and writer. Before she started writing she had already been an established artist.

Author photo smaller

Twice the Speed of Dark
is told from the viewpoint of Caitlin, killed by violent boyfriend Ryan. Ten years on, her mother Anna is still burdened by suppressed grief. Dismayed by the indifference in the news to people who die in distant war and terror, Anna writes portraits of the victims, trying to understand the real impact of their deaths. It is only through these acts of love for strangers that she can allow herself an emotional connection to the world. Anna’s uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Ryan is released from prison. As her anger rises will Anna act on her desire for revenge, or will she find freedom at last from the terrible weight of grief? And will Caitlin reclaim herself from the brutality that killed her?

Lulu Allison’s self-discovery
unexpectedly made her transition from visual artist to a writer as an indirect result of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. It was triggered by her curiosity for why the news offered reasons to care about victims of the Boston bombing when the names of those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan were not released. Why were some victims unseen and others offered up for public grieving? Lulu began what she thought of as an art project, writing portraits of the nameless victims in the news. It became clear that writing offered a means of expression that didn’t exist in art. She expanded the portrait writing; the result was her first novel, Twice the Speed of Dark.

Art by Lulu Allison

in a gallery in Cardiff, from her pre-writing days. They are site-specific installations, newspaper and bamboo structures, part of a series called Vagabond Palaces because they are made of waste newsprint.

“I liked the idea that waste becomes something valuable because something is removed from it (the cut holes) and I thought too that it is a vagabond material, transient, overlooked.”

vagabond palace 1

Vagabond Palace 1

vagabond palace 4

Vagabond Palace 4

There are three types of art in literature:

1/ art for art’s sake
Is the purest form of art. There is no one best to represent this than Shakespeare whose literature was to entertain, and not just the esoteric few, but the masses. Shakespeare’s plays were exercises in realism. There was no intention to reform or to revolt against the evils of society or the ruling party. Yet being a true artist, his insights and portrayal of the human condition and the conflicts in his tragedies, histories or comedies are true to character and filled with empathy.

2/ art for social purposes
is for spreading or instilling social ideas. In poor countries, with corrupt, inept governments, art is used as a device through which social ideas are spread, through billboards, public art, printed material such as leaflets. Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Edgar Allan Poe are of the view that society is influenced by propaganda, which is when artistic licence is taken to spread social ideas.

3/ art for morality
is the positive end of art for social purposes. Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Victor Hugo; Goethe; Cervantes; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky speak the truth through their fiction: the truth being their despair and opposition of oppression, fatalism, passivity, and submission to the societal flaws. Twice the Speed of Dark by Lulu Allison is a novel which comes into this third category as there are themes of grief, domestic violence and disorder which ultimately examine the moral and emotional conscience.

This is another example of Lou’s site-specific non-gallery based art from a series called Entropy: Value-Added.

“Again, it was thinking about value, and I loved the bombastic idea that I was adding value to decay. There is something beautiful in that for me. This is essentially street art, but I called it feral, because I felt it had escaped from the studio back into the wild. I guess it suits Anna’s interest in the accidental too.”

entropy value added

Entropy: Value Added

Anna, the grieving mother in Twice the Speed of Dark seeks solace in the viewing of public art at the Tate, but makes the weary re-discovery that her “passion for art has gone” and that “Twentieth-century art… looks tired, more tired than her even.” Yet she stands back, passive, she feels she has outgrown that passion and is unmoved by the passion invoked by one of the trustees, energetic Eva, of the arts organisation.

Also in the same chapter, we see from the viewpoint of the late Caitlin bonding with her mother Anna in a flashback.

“It was easy to absorb her joyfulness, and soon Dad and I were as elevated as she… Today’s happy evening was brought to you by the colour purple.”

Caitlin describes her pride for her mother being an art history lecturer, who

“spent her life looking at paintings, artworks, filling her eyes with arrangements that had been created, if not inevitably to please the eye to fill it.Little_Chittenden_Wood_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1861070

“…But she did offer the chance to share in her looking. Look, Caitlin how beautiful it is! It might be a distant view… it might be something I couldn’t spot at all.”

These scenes in Chapter 4 are firstly symbolic of art which bring people, in this case, family together. It is something that grows up and grows old with us. Secondly, these scenes depict also that in literature, art becomes a habit, a theme, an inspiration both for memory and storytelling.

Author’s Biography:

Lulu Allison has spent most of her life as a visual artist. She attended Central St Martin’s School of Art then spent a number of years travelling and living abroad. Amongst the bar-tending and cleaning jobs, highlights of these years include: in New Zealand, playing drums for King Loser and bass for Dimmer. In Germany, making spectacle hinges in a small factory. In Amsterdam painting a landmark mural on a four storey squat and nearly designing the new Smurfs. In Fiji and California, teaching scuba diving. After a decade of wandering, she returned to the UK, where she had two children and focused on art. She completed a fine art MA and exhibited her lens-based work and site-specific installations in group and solo shows. In 2013 what began as an art project took her into writing and she unexpectedly discovered what she should have been doing all along. Twice the Speed of Dark is her first book, published by Unbound. She is currently writing a second novel, called Wetlands.

You can find Lulu Allison here. Check out her new novel Twice the Speed of Dark paperback version here and the kindle version here. Check out my new paperback award-winning novel Cry of the Flying Rhino here, kindle version here.

 

 

REVIEW: Write and Edit a Short Story Weekend Workshop 7-8 October 2017 @londonlitlab

I was very pleased to have applied for this course. It was just the thing I needed – the luxury of writing. I am not interested in posh hotel breaks or spa treats. What attracted me was the quality of the teaching staff. Zoe Gilbert and Lily Dunn are not only published writers, they are also lecturers. The venue is an eclectic warehouse conversion and extension in Clapton Ponds, East London. The place itself, which you enter through a subtropical courtyard garden, was quite inspiring and filled with natural light and interesting objets d’arts. There were ten people on the course all at different levels of writing. They were all women so it was like a hen weekend for women writers.

On the first day, we did P1050983 P1050984 P1050990P1050991 a couple of word games to warm up, followed by ‘jumping straight in’. You can either use and existing idea or try out a new one using images and articles provided. I tried out a new idea. I originally chose two photos and tried to make up a story but it was already like another story. Cautious not to waste any of my 6 hours of time on that day, I decided to use the other option to generate idea – using articles from newspaper and magazines.

I found a copy of New Scientist and dropped it on the ground. On whatever page it flew open, I read the entire two pages and had found something that sparked an idea. On that day itself I wrote 3,000 words of a first draft I would never have been able to do at home.

Throughout the course we were given plenty of handouts to take away and to study. These are very useful and I will be referring to them again and again as they are very concise and well-written. There were plenty of opportunities for discussion and debate. Zoe and Lily are very encouraging and helpful. They even brought in their own work to crit, so we can learn by doing. On the Sunday morning we were given formal taught lessons in writing. This is all very precious salient stuff and I will revisit my course notes again. After lunch we worked on editing and I edited a story I wrote a few months ago but it was too long to be done at one go (5,000 words) and I also found a way of producing a climactic ending.

Lunch on both days was homemade soup. It was very tasty vegetarian soup with accompaniments of salad, bread, cheese, pickle and chutneys. It was very healthy as there was no dessert! I am a very bad cook so I have no idea what soups they were. After a few days I recovered from the intensity and hard work. I am ready to edit the story I wrote there and I cannot wait to share it once I have got it right. I would recommend this course to anybody, beginner or advanced, who is keen in an intense burst of writing, or to kickstart writing after a hiatus like myself.

A Slacker’s Lesson in Promotion

FSF

1/ Someone once said “Writing is Showbusiness for the Shy”.

Events/talks/gigs to promote one’s paperbacks is quite a nice thing to do if you are a) young or b) young at heart or c) have tons of time or d) all of the above ideally. As I am having a déjà vu, this method is not commercially viable, sustainable or cost-efficient for me.

2/ Lessons from Satsuma:
In the good old days of the 90s and 00s, I was gigging with my band Satsuma and in those days people actually bought CDs. I know. At times we played to 5 people and at times 500. You would still put your 110% into it like every gig is your last ever gig. You could sell between 0 to 40 CDs per gig. If you don’t lose money per gig, you’re laughing.

3/ Highs:
Actual sales, new and old fans, actual gigs, photos shoots, stylists, cover design, interviews, excitement, adrenalin. Remember this is the only thing that the audience sees and wants to see.

4/ Lows (time, energy and costs):
Travel, the hours and hours in the rehearsal rooms, recording your EP, five hour sound checks, the travel time and journeys through every kind of weather, loading and unloading at all hours of night or day, flat tyres at 1 am in the icy rain. Nothing is quick, even when I was driving the van, which saves time and money for everybody else. All of this takes an astronomical amount of time and energy, which I no longer have due to having young children and two jobs and a few time-frittering hobbies.

5/ Sour grapes:
The only worse thing than being a complete non-success is a tiny bit of success because that lured us into the belief that there was hope in any of it and therefore more and more time, money and energy should be recycled and ploughed back into gigging and promotion. At some point the balance must have tipped because I was unable to write any more songs. You can burn out from promotion and marketing (and this is before social media). There is no end to it. As someone from the late Slacker generation which is of course in itself a total farce, I may still uphold an optimistic yet cynical view of promotion because I am still constantly figuring out what to do by doing.

6/ Lessons from Hong Kong:
“Yeah, whatever.” Said the Slacker. Despite being on the Unbound and the HK publisher’s conveyor belts, I cannot figure it out. There is no right or wrong. The HK guys say a different thing altogether from Unbound forum. Their view in one line: Forget social media. Stick to word of mouth. Have more parties, sell more books. If books don’t sell, write more books, have more parties. Wanna be a writer? Write more books. Wanna sell books? Write more books. Wanna win a prize? Write more books.

7/ Lessons from crowdfunding:

The Unbound publishing model works for the author because through crowdfunding an author already has shifted between 190 to 300 books. That is more books than you will sell at any gig!

Editing, schmediting and COVER DESIGN!

FSF

I have been working on the cover design with the graphic designer who has designed bestsellers like The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith and Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. As a designer myself, I find it both easy and hard to take the back seat and let someone do the driving. I’ve even done a moodboard, see below, as the designer inside me always kicks in when you don’t want it to, like at 5 am. The last update I wrote was 24 May just before half term break. I seem to be making updates just before the end of term. Today is the last week of term. Subliminally I don’t know if I will survive school holidays. That is why I have to do my updates just before school breaks up. Question time: “Where’s. Me. Book. Where’s. Your. Book. Where’s. OUR. book.” Answer: It will be out soon – follow these updates closely from now. The clock is ticking. Baby will arrive soon. Parents, be brave! Writers, be braver!

moodboard