Topple over, you charming little TBR pile…

Well, yes, thank you very much for asking, my TBR pile is nice and healthy. Growing taller by the day. It’s such a charming creature, in fact, that I cannot help giving it some delicious tidbits although I know it should go on a diet.

So this is what I’ve been feeding the greedy little creature lately:

Geneva-related chocolates

I bought one of Kathleen Jamie‘s older collection of poems The Tree House in preparation for the masterclass in Geneva. Then I made the fatal mistake (or maybe it was deliberate?) of arranging to meet my friend at the well-stocked Payot bookshop at the railway station and indulged in two Swiss Romande women writers I have heard of, but never read: Alice Rivaz – a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir and equally feminist, with a collection of short stories entitled Sans alcool (Without alcohol); Pascale Kramer’s L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Relentless Brutality of Awakening) – prize-winning contemporary author with a novel about an expat spouse trying to make sense of motherhood and living abroad in California. Last but not least, I also have a copy of Offshoots 14, the literary journal published every two years by Geneva Writers Group. This edition was edited by Patti Marxsen and I am delighted to have a poem included in it.

Blogger Delights

From the Pandora’s box that is reading other people’s book blogs, I garnered an old copy of Letters from England by Karel Čapek, one of the foremost Czech writers.  Emma from Book Around recommended it as a delightful light read and how right she was! Although it is set in the 1920s, it describes many of the things which puzzles us foreigners about the UK (he also visited Scotland, Wales and Ireland, not just England) even now – and all done with great charm and affection (plus his own illustrations). Kaggsy and Simon Thomas also read this and really enjoyed it.

I can’t remember who mentioned Jonas Lüscher – it could have been Shigekuni, who is my source of wisdom in all things German language, or someone linking up to German Literature Month. Lüscher is a Swiss German writer who won the Swiss Book Prize this year for his second novel Kraft. However, I decided to get his first novel Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), about privileged English bankers and a Swiss trust fund man finding themselves in the middle of a financial crisis in the Tunisian desert.

Last but not least, I am a great Shirley Jackson fan and a kind soul on Twitter told me that the excellent recent biography Shirley Jackson. A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin is now out in paperback, so it seemed like the perfect Christmas present for myself.

I Spy With My Little Eye…

I came across these books on the shelves of libraries.

The first one was at Ty Newydd by Welsh author Stuart Evans: The Caves of Alienation. I started reading it there and found it so enticing that I had to buy my own copy (not at all easy to find, incidentally). It’s about a well-known writer, the forces that shaped him, his controversial life and why he comes to a sticky end on an isolated Welsh island. It is very funny and clever, told from a variety of viewpoints (friends, lovers, teachers, documentaries, critics, biographers etc.).

Finally, I saw this children’s book at my local library and just couldn’t resist as a cat-lover. His Royal Whiskers by Sam Gayton is about the heir of the Petrossian Empire, Prince Alexander, who miraculously gets transformed into a fluffy-wuffy kitten… I don’t know if my children will read this – they might be too old for it – but I certainly will! And this proves why open shelf libraries are so essential: you find things you didn’t even know you were looking for. It jolts you out of your everyday and wearisome rote.

Now, greedy little monster, do behave and join your companions over there to digest your food on the night-table!

It is so nice to have a bedroom and two night-tables all to yourself. I have a set of crime fiction books and poetry on the right hand side, and the current books plus library books on the left hand side. These neat little skyscrapers are not so popular with Zoe, who tries to balance precariously on them as she joins me for some evening reading. Maybe she is jealous that the TBR pile gets fed more frequently than she does (or so she thinks). Maybe some day she will learn to jump up at the foot of the bed instead…

 

A Weekend with Kathleen Jamie

Such a pleasure and privilege to be back in Geneva this past weekend for a poetry workshop and masterclass with Kathleen Jamie, organised by the Geneva Writers Group!

I discovered Kathleen Jamie when I was reading Melissa Harrison and Amy Liptrot and wanted to know about more authors who wrote really thoughtful non-fiction about nature. Several of you, my dear readers and blogging friends, suggested Kathleen Jamie and I was captivated by her quiet yet very precise style. Then I discovered her poetry – and it became apparent to me why she was so observant of the world around her.

So, when I heard that Geneva Writers Group was inviting her over for a poetry masterclass, I was the first to apply. And it lived up to all of my expectations (as well as being a great opportunity to go back to my beloved mountains and lake, and see dear friends again).

In person, Kathleen Jamie is as quiet, modest, unshowy yet crystal-sharp as you would expect from her writing. The first day was for a large audience, so it was more of a classroom type environment (not her preferred way of working). However, we are a lively group, the very opposite of quiet, so we all joined in, even those who are not poets.

Nature poetry, Kathleen argued, is all about letting the animal or natural object be – it’s writing around nature rather than writing about it. It’s about the poet dumping the ego, the need to show off, the need to draw attention to oneself and one’s problems. I loved her wry humour: ‘Poets often go off on a silly flight of fancy but forget about the close, careful observation.’ Since this is exactly what I am aiming at now in my own poetry, to move from the confessional rant to a more measured, considered, slant approach, it was the right workshop at the right time.

We brought in an object from the natural world and tried to describe it in third person and in second person (relating to it) and observing the difference. We did close readings of nature poems with a whole range of approaches: from the very cool emotionally detached observation of a whale by Peter Reading to the personal commentary and use of a salmon as a metaphor in Ted Hughes, from the warm and intimate begging for forgiveness that Gillian Allnut addresses to a geranium to the awe-struck tribute to a cactus by James Wright.

The second day was a small group of ten and we sat and discussed the poems we had circulated beforehand. This was so valuable – Kathleen was tough but encouraging at the same time. She said it is not about editing or eliminating (even though she started folding the pages like origami to reduce the poems to the essential stanzas or lines), but rather about nurturing and bringing out the poem that is hiding sometimes inside our work. It’s like being a mother and helping the poems, like children, become what they want and need to be, rather than what we want them to become.

I learnt so much from listening to comments and reading everyone’s work. I’ll also be eternally grateful (and perhaps somewhat smug) that Kathleen liked the specific details and use of the senses in my poem. She also encouraged me to be brave about using foreign words, as she uses Scots in some of her poetry, while acknowledging that it can feel transgressive and fraught with the danger of being misunderstood.

Feeling Grateful for Bookish People…

It’s events like these, Geneva Writers’ Group Meet the Agent and Publisher weekend , and people like these

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From left to right: Jo Unwin, Joelle Delbourgo, Kathy Bijleveld, Karen Sullivan, Eric Ruben, Christine Breede-Schechter and Susan Tiberghien.

who make me happy to be alive and talking about books. I have tweeted some of the pearls of wisdom these guests have shared with us under #GWGlit, but my favourite insight – manifesto, almost – comes from Joelle Delbourgo: ‘We are not just sellers of books, we are purveyors of culture.’ Thoughtful words and diversity of points of view are more important than ever nowadays, so a huge thanks to these wonderful people who keep the passion and the flame alive.

And. of course, the backdrop couldn’t have been lovelier. The place I called home for 7 of the past ten years does not disappoint.

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But there were some important lessons I learnt too as an organiser and writer:

  1. You have to be present yourself professionally as a writer, not just as a creative individual. That means respecting the publisher or agent’s time, following guidelines, meeting deadlines and keeping your appointments. It also means not changing your mind several times about what you are submitting and then expecting them to read the latest version overnight. It might mean not signing up for one-to-one feedback sessions in the first place if you think there is a chance you might not be able to attend, since there is a long waiting-list of participants who have been turned down because you took that place. I know life gets in the way at times, but would I dare to behave like that with my corporate clients? No. So why should I behave like that with literary people, just because I assume they are nicer and more forgiving on the whole?
  2. It isn’t easy to write a great first page, but it is far easier to write a great first page than to write a whole novel. And it really helps if you do have the whole novel to send to the agent when they get excited about your first page, otherwise the magic might be gone by the time you finally finish your manuscript… (this one reeks of bitter experience)
  3. We all secretly hope they will love our writing, recognise us for the geniuses which our families don’t think (or do think) we are, but in most cases there is still work to be done. Even if you get accepted by an agent or publisher, there is still work to be done. Don’t get so defensive that you refuse to listen to any advice or feedback that these busy, busy people are giving you with the best of intentions. Writing is a life-time job of learning and self-improvement. You have to be humble and willing to learn, even as we all admit that no single person has all the answers or God-given right to judge. We are unlikely to please all people all of the time, but when more than one person tells us we are over-writing or trying too hard to be literary, maybe we should listen.
  4. There is no point in complaining, sighing and fretting that it’s all about commercial interest nowadays. Of course it is, it always has been. Agents want to sell your oeuvre – otherwise they don’t make any money. The commissioning editor then needs to sell it to the marketing and finance team, the publisher then needs to sell it to the media and booksellers, the bookshops need to sell it to the readers. It is impossible to win literary prizes until you have jumped through a few of these hoops. You don’t have to write genre or sell hugely, but someone at some point in the process must have been ‘sold’ on your idea. Don’t make it too hard for them to pass on this vision – you are planting the seed of something which they and others can get excited about. We can have debates about just how diverse publishing is and how many mediocre books are getting published, while more worthy ones are sinking without a trace, but… that’s the game. Harsh but true: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, but don’t lament that cooking is all fast food these days. You can only change things from within.
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected...
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected…

This Will Be a Great Year of Writing… in a Week

2017 will be a great year for writing, I can feel it in my bones. I don’t just mean the rise of writing as political protest more generally, around the world, but for me personally. (Yes, forgive me, I am shallow and self-centred this time round.)

And this week has been a little microcosm of that.

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It’s a long road ahead, but Voltaire is there to guide me… even at a distance.

First of all, as the title of my blog indicates, the greatest challenge I face as a writer is simply finding the bladidah time to write! So I joined the 5 day writing challenge on Prolifiko, a productivity coaching website aimed specifically at procrastinating writers such as myself. The idea being that by sticking to your resolutions for five days, and being held to account over them, you will develop new habits and will want to continue. My resolution has been a very simple one: to write for one hour a day 6 days a week (7 if I can manage it).

It may seem ridiculous that I cannot commit to writing more at this moment in time, when I am not working and while the children are in school from 8:30 to 15:30 every day. But I am also job hunting, doing some freelance work, reviewing, doing tax returns for two countries, doing housework, sorting out tricky financials and having discussions with solicitors etc. etc. By ‘writing’, I do not mean blogging or book reviews or HR articles or cover letters for job applications, but actual creative writing. Poetry, novel, short story.

So far, so good. I set my alarm for 12 noon and then scribble away blissfully for an hour. I find it works best if I have a combination of older work to edit and then allow myself to play around with ideas and words to bring out some fresh stuff. It certainly never feels like a chore, which confirms my impression that I would be the world’s happiest little writer, if only I didn’t have to do all the other boring bits in life.

Secondly, I’ve tried to apply for jobs I might actually enjoy (typically, those that have to do with books) rather than jobs that will merely pay the bills. Hopefully, I will eventually find one which meets both criteria, but in the meantime it has made the application process a little more fun. Organising a Meet the Agents/Publishers event for Geneva Writers Group in February is also highly energising and much more exciting than running workshops on workforce planning or business strategy.

Thirdly, I submitted a translation sample for a competition (German to English) and have also been in touch about translating crime fiction from Romanian into English. Fingers crossed! The next best thing after writing yourself is to be able to present other writers’ work to a new audience.

Fourth, I have three poems featured today on the literary site Clear Poetry (one I have always enjoyed reading and to which I had previously submitted unsuccessfully). The sound of my own voice makes me cringe a little, but there is audio of me reading the poems too, if you can bear to listen. The moral of the tale: if at first you get rejected, do submit again!

Fifth, I attended a fun-packed book launch  and talked to other writers about their writing process and publication journey, and it helped reset my energy and optimism buttons.

Sixth, I have decided to launch the #EU27Project for reading literature from all of the remaining countries of the EU. The response has been fantastic, and I would invite anyone to join in, whether you can read just one or two or all 27. It’s a project very dear to my heart. Call me a sentimental old idealist, but I was really hoping the European dream would come true. Now I see it in danger of going down in flames, it saddens me. I’ve never belonged to any country in particular, but I do belong to one continent: Europe.

To end on a hopeful note...
To end on a hopeful note…

 

 

Poetry Immersion in Geneva

What a delight it was to be back in Geneva this past weekend and plunge into the refreshing, healing power of poetry!

Lac Leman on a typical November day...
Lac Leman on a typical November day…

I attended a poetry workshop and masterclass organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group, with guest instructor Laura Kasischke. I’d read and admired Laura’s poetry and novels and was very keen to hear her in person. The workshop was everything I had hoped for and more and you can see some of my initial impressions of it on the GWG blog.

Prose can not quite do it justice, so instead I will attempt a confetti of poetic impressions, like petals gathered from the quotations, ideas and timed writing exercises we listened to over the course of these two days.

Laura Kasischke at Payot Rive.
Laura Kasischke at Payot Rive.

You can’t create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion
where is the body, where are your senses?
I have no way to express this in words
so I just sit down with a pen and try to find the words
it’s the very essence of being
but it has to use the language of shared experience

The recipe for writing a poem?
It’s simple.
Nothing to do with subject matter.
It comes from somewhere else, as if your mind
and pen is seized by someone
the poem was coming to him
although he had yet to hear the words
he knew it was already written

wp_20161120_12_55_16_proSharp edges she slices to
control the slopes
feel the reassuring bite
and crunch of bones and dreams beneath her

poetic and creative insights come not haphazardly
but only in those areas in which we are intensively
committed
on which we concentrate our waking, conscious experience

wp_20161120_16_55_21_proa writer who means to outlive the useful rages
and despairs of youth
must somehow learn to endure
the desert of writer’s block

Nothing was in the mind that was not first in the senses.
When our mind is actively thinking about one thing,
we can be writing about something far more interesting
unawares
I throw a lot of stuff away
better start from scratch then spend too many years
on a mediocre poem

wp_20161122_12_51_49_proThere’s plenty more where that came from

The time-maker, the eye-maker, the voice-maker, the maker
of stars, of space, of comic surprises
bent together
over the future

I’d rather be a restaurant that is not to everyone’s liking
than the lowest common denominator
of McDonald’s.

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Professional Blogging vs. Personal Connections

Two recent blog posts which talked very candidly about blogging got me thinking about the ‘cookie-cutter’ blogging advice out there. These posts are by people who put their writing first, above ‘content creation’. Most of the blogging advice seems to come from social media gurus who want to make money out of their blogs: attract millions of subscribers and therefore feature big advertisers on their sites.

AnneRAllenThe first post is by Anne R. Allen: she openly acknowledges how following advice very nearly destroyed her blog, her credibility as an author (and her health).

People will subscribe and come back if you are engaging and fun. It’s much more important to be friendly and have something interesting to offer than it is to have the right keywords, post frequency, or wordcount.

Networking with other bloggers will probably be your number one source of traffic when you’re starting out. That means making friends, not tricking people.

  • A blog shouldn’t become more important than your WIP
  • Blog to make friends, not sales.
  • For a writer, good writing is more important than SEO.
  • Manipulating people may get short-term results, but it’s a bad idea in the long run.

lucyAs for those who are confused by the contradictory blogging advice which they hear: ‘blog as frequently as possible’ vs. ‘don’t blog everyday, you will only overwhelm people’, here are some lessons learnt by Lucy (aka Blonde Write More), who challenged herself to blog every single day for a year on her blog . Lucy was successful with this strategy and won ‘Funniest Blog Award’ for two consecutive years, but she embarked upon this challenge predominantly for herself. To find her own writing mojo, as it were. Aside from the focus and discipline that the daily blogging required, it also helped her find her creative direction – the kind of writing she most enjoyed doing, find out what she was best at and what she was happiest sharing with others.

Oh, and she doesn’t intend to keep up the daily habit… She will now cut it down to 4 days a week (which still feels like a LOT), in order to spend more time on her creative writing. Daily blogging is not sustainable in the long run.

So this got me thinking about my own blogging. It’s no mystery that I started it for accounting and accountability purposes: to force myself to write something every day (not necessarily post something every day). But it achieved that goal within the first year of its existence. I have now returned to writing with a vengeance. I dream, eat, sleep, breath writing (and reading) – although, sadly, not always actual writing on my novel.

So why continue with it?

Pictureportrait
Portrait of me drawn by a charming, kind fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group during one of our workshops.

My blog is quite a shambles from the POV of ‘blogging gurus’. It has no clear focus or purpose. It doesn’t bark, but nor does it meow and pur and rub against you. It is neither a pure book reviewing blog, nor an author’s blog. It sometimes gets political and at other times embarrassingly personal. I have no intention of ever monetizing my blog, or using it to obtain freebies such as clothes, make-up, concert tickets or holidays. [Although, if you know anyone who is willing to trade a writing retreat for a write-up, please pass them on to me…] I don’t really believe that it will increase the sales of my book considerably when I (finally!) publish it. I never expected to have so much content, so I should probably tidy it up a bit and make it easier to find older posts by topic. It’s incredibly bushy looking at the moment!

However, it gives me two wonderful benefits:

  • A community of articulate, book-loving people with whom I can debate the finer points of a character’s unreliability without being regarded as a freak. I was going to say ‘like-minded’ people, but we are not clones, we all think and feel differently about things (in spite of some general commonality of spirit). The main point is we can debate them in a respectful and supportive way, without name-calling, and are always open to learn from one another. This is far, far less common nowadays than one might think.
  • It gives me an outlet to practise different types of writing, experiment, get some feedback. It’s an online writing group to a certain extent – especially valuable when I am in the process of moving and not sure that I will find a writing group in the Thames Valley area which will be as active and friendly as the Geneva Writers Group.

Above all, it’s poison and antidote in one. It may occasionally stand in the way of my freshest, best writing on my WIP, but it also assuaged my guilt on those days when the words refused to make their appearance. Or appeared in disguise, the rogues! Surely any writing, even if it’s dressed up as a pirate, a one-eyed cowboy, a serpent in the grass, is better than none at all…

***

So, here are my resolutions. After a break at the end of July and perhaps most of August this year, I will return to the blog with a more manageable schedule (perhaps 3 posts a week, so I can focus on my writing). I will continue to blog about whatever takes my fancy, but will make more of an effort to group them into categories such as: original work; book reviews and bookish thoughts; random rants. Fear not, escapism will continue to feature heavily in here!

 

 

 

Books and Crowds at Salon du Livre Geneva

The 30th Salon du Livre in Geneva took place from the 27th of April to the 1st of May. Although one of the biggest Swiss press groups Ringier and the Swiss broadcasting corporation have pulled out of the Salon du Livre in Geneva this year, claiming that it’s too expensive to rent a stand and that the impact upon audience or reader figures is negligible, roughly 100 000 visitors beg to disagree with that.

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The Salon has lost the ‘international’ in its title, but still brings a fair number of authors from all around the world. This year the country focus was Tunisia, but there were plenty of other non-Swiss, non-French language events. For instance, there was a special Paulo Coelho exhibition and talk given by the famously reclusive Brazilian author. There is an African ‘salon’ and an Arabic ‘pavilion’, a large English language bookseller, plus all sorts of cultural associations within Switzerland (Armenian, Serb, Spanish, Chinese) – and of course the Geneva Writers’ Group was there too, for all those reading and writing in English.

It is not a trade fair, but much more a ‘get to love books’ event, targeted at families and schools and the general reading public.

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I didn’t see as many big names this year (or at least not ones I was interested in), but I did get to hear the wonderfully articulate and enthusiastic Dany Laferrière, first black author in the French Academy. He also signed a book for me (and drew a flower, bless him!)

Sal3Laferriere

There were a number of famous BD illustrators present, including a special exhibition dedicated to the Swiss claim to fame: the unruly teenager Titeuf.

Sal4Titeuf

It was not all about books. There were a lot of musical and comedy events, particularly in the Le Cercle tented area, which had the atmosphere of a jazz club. Well, a well-lit, immaculate jazz club of the Swiss persuasion…

A polar bear bemoaning global warming.
A polar bear bemoaning global warming.

The emphasis is most firmly on interactivity. The Factory this year was designed like a house, with each room in a different colour and theme, where you could share your selfies, your worst nightmare, your superpower, your great secret etc.

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Of course, there were plenty of places to eat and rest, and the beloved Swiss cow had to be present somewhere as well.

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I didn’t manage to attend any conferences in full, but I did catch the odd 5 minutes here and there. And I got a hug from Alain Mabanckou, who was looking very dapper in a bright blue suit and a hat.

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There were fewer craft sections than last year, but there were some beautiful decorations and art objects everywhere. How could I resist these Niki de Saint Phalle women dancers?

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In my next post I’ll also tell you about how I fell in love with the art and rare books stand next to ours…