Good news about my Swiss book deal

2015 First batch 418

I am delighted to announce that I have signed a book deal with Swiss publisher Bergli Books for a non-fiction book about Switzerland. I believe this country is hopelessly misunderstood and a little unloved. Armed only with a cheap laptop, I intend to stress-test the stereotypes, and change the narrative about Switzerland.

People always say you should write the book only you could write. That’s what I’m doing now. I came to Switzerland in 2003 on the love train (actually an Aer Lingus flight to Geneva). Since then I have experienced the country on many levels – as an immigrant, a journalist, a foreign spouse, and mother of three Swiss children.

Churchill famously said that Russia was a riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. At times Switzerland has felt like that to me too. But over the past decade of covering Swiss news for, and navigating everyday life, I feel I have stripped away the layers and got closer to understanding the Swiss soul. I’m ready to share the good and the bad about the Swiss.

This book will introduce readers to the real face of Switzerland, from presidents to poets, from bankers to street sweepers. At the same time it will paint a faithful picture of the political, cultural, economic and historic landscape.

Recently I wrote about rejection on this blog because it was becoming my specialized subject. I was getting used to it. In fact I was even getting good at it. After all that I can’t tell you how good it feels to take this long-awaited step towards being an author.

The title of the book has yet to be confirmed. The release date is also still being worked out by teams of experts (well maybe one small team), but I’m expecting it to be sooner rather than later. In the meantime I have a lot of work to do and will keep you posted on progress.

I’ll leave you with one small interesting fact. Bergli Books is an imprint of the Swiss publisher Schwabe, which was established in Basel in 1488, making it the oldest publishing house in the world.

Hot House Novel Part II

November rose

November rose

Seventeen thousand words in eighteen days. I’m pretty happy with the result of my October writing challenge. I didn’t manage to get to the end of the first draft but at least the end is now in sight.

In case you missed the previous post about this, I had half a children’s novel on my hands that I couldn’t seem to finish. Inspired by the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) buzz on Twitter, I decided to tackle the problem with an intensive burst of writing, ahead of the November pack.

There was a small lull in the middle when I went to Germany for the weekend and discovered that my two-prong Swiss plug would not fit into the three-prong German socket. That was the end of writing on the laptop so I tried writing longhand and produced a rather scribbled chapter.

Lots of writers swear by this method, especially for first drafts, but I couldn’t wait to get back to the keyboard where the words stand out crisp and even on the screen and you have the magic of deleting.

All being well I’ll finish the first draft this week and move on to other things.

I never do any correcting or revising while in the process of writing. Let’s say I write a thing out any old way, and then, after it’s cooled off—I let it rest for a while, a month or two maybe—I see it with a fresh eye. Then I have a wonderful time of it. I just go to work on it with the ax. But not always. Sometimes it comes out almost like I wanted it.

That’s a quote from Henry Miller taken from a 1961 interview in The Paris Review, which I came across during the week. While I had to raise an eyebrow at Miller referring to “the writer” by definition as a man, I did find his thoughts on our lack of moral code interesting. At a time when Europe is turning a blind eye, or worse, to distressed refugees at its borders, his words seem to sum things up perfectly.

You see, civilized peoples don’t live according to moral codes or principles of any kind. We speak about them, we pay lip service to them, but nobody believes in them. Nobody practices these rules, they have no place in our lives.

On the subject of refugees, this is the best piece of journalism I’ve read about the crisis so far, by AA Gill. Simply devastating.

Above is a picture of a rose taken yesterday. It cheered me to see something beautiful surviving in a hostile environment – a bit like the kindness being shown by some individuals in Europe.

My other perfect life

Don't get me started on Swiss home decorations

Autumnal scene in Bern, Switzerland

A simple effective way to banish clutter forever. This is the beguiling promise on the cover of Marie Kondo’s book about tidying. It’s big in Japan. But not only in Japan. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying has been published in more than 30 countries and has sold 1.5 million copies.

A colleague recommended the book to me when he was in between jobs. A bit of a hoarder, he said it really helped him gain control over his environment and achieve clarity. Kondo makes great claims about the transformative power of tidying. I had to find out more.

One of the reasons I love writing is because I have discovered it is something I can see through to the end. I get the satisfaction that only comes from completing a job properly. In other areas I’m not so good at getting across the finish line.

Kondo starts by telling us that there is no use in partial tidying. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. You have to follow her method through to the end, tidying your possessions in every category and every room – every single object – until the job is completely done. Only then can you reap the benefits of the new better life that has eluded you thus far.

I was intrigued by this idea of a better life being just out of reach. Better lifestyle is more accurate. Like that inadequate feeling you get from looking through an Ikea catalogue. I went to Ikea this week but my house is just as cluttered and uncoordinated as it was before I went!

To be fair, Kondo is not saying you can achieve your dreams by buying more objects. She wants us to work hard to reduce the burden of unnecessary objects. True to form, I only made a half-baked attempt at the Kondo method. I will not be granted access to that better life. But I do have her to thank for a massive clear out of my wardrobe.

The Kondo test for whether or not to keep an object is very simple. You have to hold it and ask yourself if it sparks joy. Joy-sparking objects in; non joy-sparking objects out. Now obviously this test doesn’t apply to the tin opener but can be used for almost anything non-essential, she says.

Even though I won’t get to live my other perfect life, I thought it would be fun to list some of those unfulfilled aspirations. In my other life:

I use the juicer I bought to make juices every morning with fresh spinach

I volunteer for several charities.

I have a low meat diet and can think of tasty new vegetarian dishes all the time.

The front path is swept and leaves no longer blow into the hall when I open the door.

I have a short-haired dog or no dog (as opposed to a very hairy collie).

I make homemade ketchup.

My children enjoy dried fruit as a snack.

I let my hair go naturally grey and it really suits me.

I can ski better than my children.

I don’t have a car.

I buy farm produce.

I go horse riding once a week, with galloping.

I banish clutter forever.

May all your troubles be little ones, as they say. Meanwhile lots of progress to report on my October writing challenge. I’ve managed 13,000 words in 11 days and created a wonderful new character inspired by my grandmother and a dastardly villain inspired by a Swiss politician. The story is flying along and I’m on target to have the first draft of this children’s novel completed by the end of the month.

So, are you a clutter clogs or a tidy terror? What super lifestyle are you missing out on? I’d love to hear your secret wishes …

I’ll be back with an update on November 1st.

Hot House Novel

© africa,

© africa,

Some manuscripts need the hot house treatment. My second novel is a prime candidate. I’ve taken the usual slowly-but-surely approach on this book but somewhere along the line the story stopped growing. Now I want to try writing fast.

Today I came across some great advice on writing fast from author Kelly Creighton. The advantage of rapidly firing the words onto the page is that the subconscious takes over, Creighton says. You are less likely to have plot holes because you are immersed in the story. I’ve experienced this flow in the past and now I’d like to try to tap into ‘the force’ again.

Creighton’s advice is prompted by the upcoming annual writing challenge NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – in which participants worldwide try to write a complete novel from scratch in the month of November, fueled by massive solidarity on social media.

I’ve set myself an October deadline, linked to a competition. I started the year with a modicum of competition success when my first novel was longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize. That hasn’t translated into a breakthrough on the submissions front but I have had some encouraging responses. The latest news on that novel is that I have handed it over to a professional editing service. The book still raises too many questions for me and I’m hoping to get some answers from this edit.

In the meantime, the second novel can have its moment. I wrote the opening to the book two years ago during an extended visit to Dublin and the word count has crept up in increments since then. I’m happy with the ‘big idea’ behind this children’s novel, which grew from a rather sinister radio play I wrote. I believe it satisfies the “interesting, unique and universal” criteria, and I hope readers will one day feel the same.

Because I keep letting other writing commitments get in the way, I’ve come to the conclusion that forced productivity is the only way for this story. By hook or by crook I will finish the first draft this month. That means writing every day but I should be doing that anyway. I’m off to flying start and hope to be able to type THE END at the end of the month.

These kinds of against-the-clock challenges are only meant to help writers achieve a first draft, and anything written at speed is likely to need a lot of reworking. No matter. I’d rather be reworking a rough first draft than have an unfinished manuscript humming ‘you don’t send me flowers anymore’ in my head.

The final words of inspiration come from Kelly Creighton, debut author of the psychological thriller The Bones of It: “In writing, nothing is ever a waste of your time.”

Is anyone considering taking part in NaNoWriMo?

What was your most productive writing time?

Five flash book reviews

( pannawat)

( pannawat)

I’m just getting over a bad dose of reading fever (feeling better now, thanks) and thought I’d share a few short reviews of the books that have been keeping me glued to the screen and page over the past couple of weeks. It’s an eclectic mix so there should be something for everyone here.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character, all connected in some way to an English-language newspaper in Rome over four decades. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s superbly plotted. The setting is lovely. Loss and loneliness feature prominently and the relationships are complex and fascinating. Rachman has a wonderful satirical touch which he applies lightly, poking fun in the right places. I think I’ve found my book of the year. Thanks for the recommendation Nicki Chen. Anyone who has worked in journalism will get a special kick out the novel but it’s in no way written for a clique. I’ll be pushing this hard at my book club next month. Going to start buying votes now.

His overarching goal at the paper is indolence, to publish as infrequently as possible, and to sneak away when no one is looking. He is realizing these professional ambitions spectacularly.
He opens a manila folder so that, if anyone happens past, he can flutter sheets and mutter “Preparedness!” which seems to put most people off.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I borrowed this book from a friend after attending a scintillating talk by the author in Zurich in May. I’ll admit I was a little put off by the heavy intellectual fabric of the novel. The paperback travelled with me to Ireland and back, by car and ferry – unread. I finally started it a month ago and did what is normally unheard of for me – I alternated it with other books. Indeed The Blazing World is probably to blame for this bout of reading fever as I kept fleeing to other books for light relief.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, in the way you might enjoy trekking through the jungle with a machete. I loved the premise of the disillusioned old artist who tries to hit back at the New York art establishment by colluding with three male artists to pass off her work as theirs. Like The Imperfectionists the book is polyphonic, written in the voices of about a dozen different characters. The different accounts are assembled and presented in the style of an academic work, complete with footnotes (I’ll be a long time getting over those footnotes), cleverly building to a full revelation of what went wrong with Harriet Burden’s plan. I’m not sure I liked the format but this book, but the questions it raises about ageing, gender roles, art and psychological scars will resonate for a long time.

I want to blaze and rumble and roar.
I want to hide and weep and hold on to my mother.
But so do we all.

Trespass by Rose Tremain

Something completely different. I don’t even remember how I came into possession of this book but I do remember starting it and abandoning it last year. Last week, burning with fever, I found it in among the children’s books and rescued it. Since I finished the book I looked up Rose Trumain and it turns out she is a prolific prize-winning writer, quite the maestro. Set in the arid Cévennes region of France, this cracking whydunnit is a dark portrait of the terror of early old age, unhealthy sibling ties and psychological scars galore. She uses the landscape brilliantly to help build the atmosphere of oppression and dread. And oh the malice that the characters feel for each other! Not to be read by anyone considering a move to warmer climes to buy that dreamy old stone house surrounded by wizened vines. This book will kill the dream.

A Better Man by Leah McLaren

I was hooked when I heard about the plot of this book in a review on Anne Goodwin’s blog. Man wants to divorce his wife and mother of their twin children. Realises it will cost too much because she has become a deeply dissatisfied (and neglected) stay-at-home mother. Decides to fake a complete change in his behavior to being loving and supportive to make things more advantageous for the divorce. Ends up becoming a better man by behaving like one. But will it save the marriage? I couldn’t sympathise with either of the two spoilt main characters (he runs a groovy adverstising agency, she is an ex-lawyer turned neurotic mother with full-time nanny and chip on shoulder). This was ok because we were mostly watching them suffer. It felt a bit like writing by numbers but I kept reading to see where she would take the story. The twins featured quite a lot but I didn’t feel the child characters came off the page. The perfect South American nanny was also a cardboard cut-out. Despite all the negative things I’m saying it was very readable. Proof of the power of a strong central story idea.

In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

This book should be compulsory reading for every citizen of Europe over the age of ten. It is a fictional treatment of the true story of Enaiatollah, a young man who made a remarkable five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy where he finally managed to claim political asylum aged fifteen. The author met Enaiatollah and was so intrigued by his story he wanted to write it as a novel. If you want to know how it feels to be an illegal immigrant risking your life crossing seas and borders, this book will bring that experience alive like no other. So compelling. It also gives valuable insight into the push factors driving the undocumented ever onwards – misery upon misery in the transit countries.

All in all a highly enjoyable run of reading. I’m glad the fever struck when it did. In other reading news, I received an e-reader as a gift earlier this year and I’m very happy with the transition. The score for the above list: E-reader versus paper book – 3: 2. And I finally joined Goodreads, a great resource for readers and writers. Hope to see some of you there.

What’s your reading news?

A positive African voice in Switzerland

Lisa Chuma loved this gift from the organisers

Lisa Chuma loved this gift from the organisers

It you had to talk about your life, would it make a good story? Would it inspire people? I listened to someone in Bern yesterday who has the gift of being able to present an inspirational narrative of her life. Her name is Lisa Chuma and her message is about empowering women in business.

Chuma is a rarity in Switzerland – an African businesswoman. The Zimbabwean-born entrepreneur has been attracting attention in Swiss media since she emerged as the founder of Women’s Expo Switzerland, an annual networking event in Zurich which serves as a platform for businesswomen to showcase their products and services.

As a journalist I’ve sat through more than my fair share of talks. These are usually horribly detailed presentations involving a criminal amount of line-by-line Powerpoint reading.

The talk by Chuma was like a breath of fresh air in comparison. It’s not only her message that has a positive effect, it’s how she communicates the message.

Watching her last evening, I was trying to figure out the secret. Chuma took her time speaking to us. She paused to allow her ideas to sink in. She built her message around stories that were all linked to defining experiences in her life. This was public speaking as a form of storytelling.

What I found most interesting is that the stories Chuma told could also have been presented as stories of suffering and defeat. Chuma spoke about her mother’s brave decision to leave an abusive marriage and the tough year she spent at a Zimbabwean boarding school when her mother was establishing a new life in London.

The inspirational part came in the support that Chuma’s mother received when she left her husband. It was a difficult place and time to be a single mother. Her female friends rallied round and thanks to their practical and emotional support she was able to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse and achieve financial independence.

We need to see more women helping women, Chuma said. Too often we have fine ambitions but when we come up against our own limitations we give up. The trap of talking ourselves out of progress is more a female one, which is why Chuma’s focus is on women. Together we can achieve much more. Chuma’s talk was really aimed at women who have their own businesses but the principle can be applied to any area of life.

Chuma came to Switzerland because of her husband’s job and began her life here moving in expat circles. She noticed that expat women were not mixing with Swiss women, both groups wrongly assuming they were not needed or wanted by the other. It is a great achievement that she has broken down those barriers and built a community of businesswomen in Zurich who are now actively collaborating with each other. The vast majority of women who attend the annual Women’s Expo are Swiss.

The talk in Bern was organized by the American Women’s Club of Bern and Bern English Resource Network BERNnet, which happens to be a great example of Chuma’s ‘better together’ principles put into practice.

If you’d like to see Lisa Chuma in action, here she is giving a TEDx talk in Zurich this summer.

The A to Z of rejection for writers

© Witthaya Phonsawata,

© Witthaya Phonsawat,

Hi, my name is Clare and I’m a submitting writer. It’s been one day since my last rejection. This post goes out to all those who are submitting their work to agents, competitions, journals or the man in the moon. Big hugs everyone.

Rejection ALWAYS comes when I least expect it. Thanks smartphone. The latest polite message came when I was walking aimlessly around a forest. Tip: rope parks are more fun for kids than for the accompanying adult on the ground.

Every rejection is a test of your BELIEF in yourself and your work.

Accept the CHALLENGE! One particular person at one particular point in time cannot or does not wish to take this specific piece of work. Change the person, the time and the piece and anything is possible.

DESPAIR will make an appearance with each rejection. Keep it brief. Just let the big D come and go again and you’ll be fine. Treat the two imposters just the same and all that.

In the old days writers waited for the postman. Now the poison dart is sent by EMAIL and you will hear a ding before you are struck. Assume the crash position and click!

You come to treasure the personalized rejections because they contain precious FEEDBACK. We will take these crumbs from the publishing table because, you know, starvation. Hearing that my story was “strongly crafted” gives me wings.

Submission GUIDELINES. They are serious about this S**T. Ignore at your peril.

HOWEVER. This word comes after something half positive like “I genuinely liked the work” or “I enjoyed reading your chapters”. It means no.

INSIDE job. Don’t get all bitter about other people getting published because of some perceived unfair advantage. Authors get dropped by publishing houses all the time. You still have your chance.

JUST be yourself. Authentic work is what counts. There is no point trying to mould your writing to fit a particular fashion. Anything that is popular now is likely to be old hat by the time you are submitting and your version won’t ring true.

KNOWLEDGE The publishing industry is just that, an industry. Don’t be a total ingénue. Do your homework and be preprared for a long apprenticeship.

You’ve got to LAUGH a little, cry a little, until the clouds roll by a little.

“Could you send me the full MS?” These words herald a good day. The great big hot air balloon of hope rises but you need to pull it back down quickly. At the very least it will lead to precious feedback.

NETWORK. I’m not talking about stalking agents, although twitter is good for building up a picture of someone. The best networking you can do is among peers who support each other and pass on valuable information.

ORGANISATION is a key part of perseverance. Do the research and keep a record of every submission and whatever progress it makes. Keep a note of what agents / journals are looking for. Could save you legwork the next time.

Nobody likes to be ignored but that doesn’t mean we can break the golden rule of submitting. Be POLITE. You don’t want to end up the star of the ‘crazy author’ anecdote at the annual agents’ bash.

QUITTING. Don’t even think about it. If Donal Ryan sent his second book out to 45 agents, I’m not giving up after 16 and neither are you. But don’t forget to write the next book or story. Helps take the sting out of things.

Be prepared for RADIO silence from time to time. It happens. Even after a request for a full manuscript. Some agents simply cannot keep up with their correspondence. Not to be taken personally.

STANDARD rejection. ‘Not right for my list.’ ‘Unable to offer representation at this time’. ‘He’s just not that into you,’ as Miranda would say. If you are getting annoyed by standard rejections, try drafting your own to see if you can do any better.

Submitting is a quest and should retain at least a modicum of enjoyment and optimisim. If it’s becoming a grim obsession give yourself some TIME OUT.

Don’t UNDERESTIMATE how long the process of submission is. Putting together a good submission takes time and effort. Multiply that by a large number and then add the waiting game. We are in this for the long haul or we might as well forget it.

VANITY. Actually this should be PRIDE but I’ve already used up my P. We all want recognition but don’t let pride become too central in this quest. Modesty is the best policy.

WORD count. The devil is in the detail. 10,000 words, the first three chapters, one-page synopsis, under 500 words, less than 3,000 words. Read the fine print.

The eXCEL sheet is where you keep track of all the rejections. Date sent, name, email, submissions policy, response. Mine is colour coded (I know). After each rejection I upate the file and I feel back in control. An important little ritual.

YES! One day you too will be asked to the ball and you will be able to smile and say YES!

ZEN is the only way. The writing is one thing and the business is the other. The hard truth is that not everyone can get picked for the team so let’s keep this in perspective. Life outside writing has to be more important.

On not knowing what your novel’s about

full cover (2)

On the blog today, it is my great pleasure to introduce the English writer Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails, whose journey to publication I have been following with great interest since we first connected through blogging two years ago. In this guest post, Anne shows it’s not always easy to distill the essence of your own story.

So, you’re lying on your deathbed (hopefully, many years from now) and an angel comes in with a shorthand notebook and retractable pencil. He’s been commissioned to write your obituary, but first he wants you to tell him what your life was about. Could you tell him? Would the sentence even make sense?

A novel isn’t the same as a life. A novel has structure. A novel has plot. But it can be just as difficult to reduce the essence of a novel to a single headline as it can be to sum up a life.

So I identified strongly with Clare’s post couple of years ago, What’s the book about? Yet some might imagine I should’ve known better. Unlike Clare, I wasn’t in the process of getting acquainted with my first novel. I was a few months into the submission circus, with some encouraging feedback from agents alongside the stack of rejections. Shouldn’t I have known what my book was about?

Of course I had my pitch. I had my carefully-crafted one-page synopsis. But these were summaries of what happened; what my novel was about lurked somewhere underneath.

In my initial attempts at synopsis writing, I’d finished off with a list of the themes. But somewhere along the line I was advised to drop the intangibles and focus on the fictional “facts”.

I’ll never know if my failure to snare an agent is attributable to my woolly pitch. It certainly didn’t prevent several requests for the full manuscript, but some of those who liked my novel might have been daunted by a perceived difficulty in representing it to publishers. Thankfully, there are lots of independent presses around who can take more of a risk (and the early reviews of my novel suggests they were right to do so).

But no-one’s going to want to publish a rambling novel without focus. When submitting to small publishers, I still did my best to present a coherent story. But this had a surprising downside, of which others should beware.

Sugar and Snails is a midlife coming-of-age story about a woman who’s kept her past identity a secret for thirty years. (An “about” sentence I’ve found only recently, partly through attending a media training day run by the Society of Authors.) The catalyst for change is her meeting with a man who takes a fancy to her at a dinner party and their on-off relationship provides the skeleton of the contemporary strand. Now, we all understand the romance genre; it’s hardwired with the fairytales we heard at our mothers’ knees. Somewhere along the line, without a conscious decision, boy-meets girl provided my novel a ready-made structure to contain the more amorphous story of a woman’s journey to self-acceptance.

Now, I knew Sugar and Snails wasn’t a romance. My publisher knew it wasn’t. My therapist certainly knew it wasn’t. Even friends and family who hadn’t yet read it but had listened patiently to me babbling about it knew Sugar and Snails wasn’t a romance. But when it came to writing the blurb to go on the back cover, that’s exactly how we framed it. In the emails shuttling back and forth in an attempt to perfect the words and punctuation, neither I nor my editor recognised we were stuck in the romance mode. It was as if we were engaged in a folie à deux.

Okay, we might have come to our senses without external intervention. The wider Inspired Quill team might have refused to give it the go-ahead. But, for me, it was only through the happenstance of consulting a few friends on a disagreement on some minutiae of the wording, that I recognised how close we’d come to mis-selling the book. Although a lucky escape, it was a painful moment to have this exposed. I was supposed to be the wordsmith, not my friends.

The romance element still gets a mention in the rewritten version, but it’s background to the larger story of a woman learning to live with herself:

The past lingers on, etched beneath our skin …
At fifteen, Diana Dodsworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound.

To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance … until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.

Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.

Two weeks now since publication, I’m having fun playing around with what my novel is about. Writing guest posts and completing Q&A’s for my mammoth blog tour lets me explore my novel from different angles and the reader reviews reflect it back to me in interesting ways. I can’t begin to describe how wonderful, moving and humbling it is to have my novel not only read, but thought about, even discussed.

Yet there are still points at which I reach for that single-sentence summary. Print journalists and radio broadcasters need their soundbites and, grateful for the coverage, I try to give them just that. But I relish the opportunity to give a more discursive version of my story.

Thanks to Clare and her blog readers for indulging that need in me here.

Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.

Best of luck with the book Anne!

Best of luck with the book Anne!

Dying a fictional death


Death comes to all, even fictional characters, but it is a particular challenge to write about death through the perspective and diminishing senses of the dying character. In previous blogposts I’ve written about dastardly husbands, childbirth and bad marriages in fiction so it seems death has a natural place in this series.

Before I get into the fictional accounts of dying, there is one very interesting factual account of dying, or the feeling of being close to death, that I’d like to share. It comes from a radio interview I heard two years ago when I was living for a short time in Dublin. Irish radio is full of these kinds of gems.

The woman being interviewed was an eminent surgeon in her early fifties with no children. She described a time when she had been seriously ill with cancer. Her life at that point was hectic because on top of her regular work she had taken on other charity commitments abroad.

A fiercely independent woman, she had never had to rely on anyone for help before. That was the first big transition she had to make. When things had got very bad, she said she remembered lying in her hospital bed, weak and completely helpless and being certain that she was going to die. She felt unmoved about the prospect of her life being over and not in the least alarmed. ‘So this is how all my problems are going to be solved,’ she remembered thinking with a feeling of relief.

Life does present us with a seemingly unending chain of problems, big and small, and how surprising it is when the chain suddenly turns out to have an end and the end is now. The individual who realizes they are dying may well have time to rationalize what’s happening before the lights go out for ever. This process is no more beautifully expressed than in the dying moments of William Stoner at home alone in John Williams’ novel Stoner.

“A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure – as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been. Dim presences gathered at the edge of his consciousness; he could not see them, but he knew that they were there, gathering their forces toward a kind of palpability he could not see or hear. He was approaching them, he knew; but there was no need to hurry. He could ignore them if he wished; he had all the time there was.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”

I’ve just finished A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, which I read on the recommendation of fellow blogger Safia Moore (based in the United Arab Emirates), a great supporter of new writers and recent winner of the Bath Short Story Prize with her poignant story That Summer.

This novel was a delight to read – moving, entertaining, thought-provoking. You can check out Safia’s review here and then please read the book too because all of life is in it and there is so much to enjoy. The main character is called Teddy and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal his death scene here because the author makes it clear early on in the story that he lives to know his grandchildren.

Moments left, Teddy thought. A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment. Life was as fragile as a bird’s heartbeat, fleeting as the bluebells in the wood. It didn’t matter, he realized, he didn’t mind, he was going where millions had gone before and where millions would follow after. He shared his fate with the many.

And now. This moment. This moment was infinite. He was part of the infinite. The tree and the rock and the water. The rising of the sun and the running of the deer. Now.

This next one is a spoiler so if you want to read Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, skip ahead to the end. The story, told in the multiple first person, is set in Mumbai and revolves around residents of an apartment block faced with an offer they cannot refuse by a ruthless property developer. In the end the neighbours turn against each other and the story concludes with the murder of one of their number, Yogesh Murthy, who is first badly beaten and then thrown from the roof.

Now, when he opened his eyes, he could not tell if he were dead or alive; these men seemed to be demons, though kindly, who were forcing his body to budge from some place between life and death where it was stuck.
And this was because he was neither good nor bad enough; and neither strong nor weak enough. He had lost his hands; he had lost his legs; he could not speak. Yet everything he had to do was right here, in his head. He thought of Guarav, his son, his living flesh. ‘Help me,’ he said.

And then he realized that the thing that was blocking his passage was cleared, and he was falling; his body began its short earthly flight – which it completed almost instantaneously – before Yogesh Murthy’s soul was released for its much longer flight over the oceans of the other world.

There are other notable dying moments that come to mind, such as the death scene in One Day by David Nichols which I thought was very movingly written, and the heart-wrenching drowning scene from The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell where the character fights for her life through the growing realization that she will be absent from all the future important moments of her child’s life.

OK, I’ll stop there. I hope I haven’t depressed anyone with these notes on dying. Can you think of any other memorable dying scenes that deserve a mention here?

Coming up on the blog later this week I will have my first ever guest post, from new author Anne Goodwin. Keep an eye out for Anne who is on a blog tour to coincide with the launch of her novel Sugar and Snails. My copy has been dispatched so I will tell you more about the book as soon as possible.

Five reasons why self-publishing isn’t for me


When you say you’ve written a novel, it’s common enough to be asked whether you’ve considered self-publishing. I usually mumble something non-committal about it being too much to take on, not the direction I want to take. But what is really holding me back?

Think of the pre-published author as a wannabe sailor. Actually want-to-be doesn’t cover it. This is someone who has dedicated years to developing their knowledge of sailing, they’ve bought all the gear, read all the books and bored everybody around them with their endless nautical talk. The only problem is they’ve never actually been out on the water.

Down at the harbour is the old respected yacht club. This is the gateway to sailing, the place where real sailors congregate. There are experts on hand, hot showers, a state-of-the art marina and opportunities to crew on fantastic yachts every day.

The sailing enthusiast grew up hearing about this yacht club and their only wish is to join the yacht club and become a real sailor. But the yacht club is exclusive. There is a long waiting list and the club selects only a handful of new members every year.

Why not just buy a little sailing dingy and launch it from the public slipway at the other end of the harbour? They’ll have to get the boat there themselves, carry it down to the water and drag it back up again. There may not be any wind the day they manage to get all this together but they will be sailing. They will have their place on the ocean. Why sit on the shore and wait when they might never get a chance to sail at all?

Here are five reasons why the single-handed option doesn’t appeal to me.

1. Drop in the ocean. Self-publishing has become hugely popular with close to 450,000 titles published per year! This massive democratisation of the sector has created legions of new readers and new writers and that’s a great thing. But it also means an incredibly crowded space for authors to be trying to catch a wind. Most of those little dinghies are still stuck inside the harbour and this is a frustrating place to be. Only a tiny minority make it out into the bay where they can pick up speed.

2. All hands on deck. Self-publishing requires strong project management and entrepreneurial skills and there is no avoiding the out-of-pocket costs, knowledgeably listed by Jann Alexander in this recent post:

Publishing is a teamwork-based business best navigated with the help of an agent. Do you really want to have to sort out the cover design, proofreading, printing and distribution on top of writing your next book? And I haven’t even mentioned marketing.

3. Pieces of eight. This is the part that gives me the shivers. The people I see who appear to be making a success of the self-publishing route have a big author platform and often a big personality to go with it. All their social media is strategic. They are manically engaging with people not based on any organic process of interaction but because they are pumping energy into an online presence that has to work for them – ALL THE TIME. Sometimes intelligent and interesting, sometimes inspiring but also a little bit scary.

4. Ship shape. No matter how much has changed in the publishing game in the past decade, having one’s work chosen by the industry as worthy of publication is still the most important measure of quality. It’s not that established publishing houses aren’t guilty of publishing poorly written books or that masterpieces can’t be found among the half a million. It’s just that self-publishing is an open door and that unavoidably lowers the value of the group.

5. Deep water. From what I’ve seen, self-published authors fall into two categories. There are the crusaders for whom self-publishing is a quasi-political movement and there are the pragmatists who have opted for self-publishing as the only viable way to get their book read, usually after trying and failing to go the traditional publishing route. The pragmatists are making the best of things and may even turn into crusaders in time but underneath it all you can sense the strain.

Obviously I’ve stretched the nautical analogy to the absolute limit at this point and probably managed to reveal how little I know about both sailing and publishing in one fell swoop. I’m aware that publishing your own work takes a lot of courage and dedication and that this discussion can be quite divisive. What are your thoughts? Is it possible to like one option without loathing the other?

(Please check out Marc Kuhn’s response to this post on his blog. A former radio journalist, Marc lives in Florida and is the author of two children’s novels and two adult novels.)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,141 other followers

%d bloggers like this: