Death of a Thousand Cuts

 

Rewriting and editing are often two of the biggest challenges for would-be authors. They certainly were for me. During the many years I spent trying (and failing) to write a novel, I struggled with how to get my manuscripts into publishable shape.

I could discipline myself to get up early, sit at my desk and churn out a certain number of words each day. But once I had those words, I was at a bit of a loss as to how make them better.

I know from discussions with many authors all over the world that I’m not alone in this. Whatever language you write in, it can take years to discover the process by which you hone and craft a raw splurge of text into a story that someone else might want to read.

This is one of the reasons that I’ve long been a fan of the blog and now podcast ‘Death of a Thousand Cuts’ by poet, author and musician, Tim Clare. Tim and I studied on the UEA creative writing master’s course together in the early 2000s and his first novel, The Honours, was published to great acclaim in 2015.

Some years before this, Tim spent time working for a literary consultancy (one of those companies that provides editorial feedback on manuscripts). In the blog and podcast, he uses the editorial skills he sharpened doing this and through working on his own writing to critique the first page of an unpublished novel sent to him by an aspiring wordsmith.

What I particularly like about Tim’s approach is that while he pulls no punches – and his comments about manuscripts’ weaknesses are often extremely funny – he is always kind. His blog is not about ripping someone’s work to shreds but about showing them (and everyone else reading or listening in) how to make it better. As a result, his posts are not only entertaining, but also full of valuable insights for writers of all levels of experience.

So when Tim mentioned that he would be inviting some authors to guest host ‘Death of a Thousand Cuts’ with him, I lost no time in raising my hand. A few weeks ago, we met in a studio in central London to record ourselves discussing two opening pages. You can hear what we made of the first submission through the SoundCloud link above.

And in case you want to see the extract we’re discussing, here it is:

Clear (by Dan)

They don’t even have magazines any more, just pamphlets smeared with filth. I can smell the mother with wide, sun-cracked shoulders, fat kid lolling in her arm pit. Girl next to me looks vegan, pale and pointy. No smell.

My jeans haven’t dried properly and I smell like a banana.

I try to pull into myself, tighter and tighter, but I bend back to shape like a coat hanger. Another fat mum, pushchair too big. Not regular either: tubes, pipes, a machine for God’s sake. Baby seems chirpy though, gurgling into its raw pink chin. Try to look normal.

I’ve been rehearsing my script. I can’t tell them what it is and admit I’ve been googling gloopy wreckages of flesh since 4am. Last week it was Impetigo, so she said. But it’s…

Tom Creckan, room 6

Polite knock. He actually gets up and meets me at the door. Normally just a sullen clack of the keyboard, whiff of mint. New and keen. And clean. Creamy hand-soap hand-shake. Hint of acne himself if you peer close enough, gnawing at the corners. No hair gel/wax/crème, just a breezy morning fluff. Shirt well ironed. This man is a fucking morning.

I start my tale. Just throw it right in.

‘I get these cold sores.’

He stares, unflinching, bobbing my reflection in his spectacles.

‘Last week…your colleague said it was Impetigo…I mean, not that I’d question…but…’

He’s about to stop me. Smother me, politely, with a creamy palm.

In conversation with Ireland’s Marian Finucane

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PODCAST: Interview with Marian Finucane

This weekend was exciting. I was invited to be a guest on the Marian Finucane show on Ireland’s RTE Radio 1. It’s always an honour when people are interested to hear about A Year of Reading the World, but I knew this was a particularly big deal when my Irish neighbour’s eyes lit up at the mention of the programme. ‘Oh how wonderful,’ she said. ‘I must try and listen in.’

Because Dublin was a little far for me to travel from London on a Saturday morning, the producers had booked a studio for me at BBC Western House near Oxford Circus. The arrangement was that I would go there and do the interview remotely.

There was only one snag: as the place is unmanned at the weekends, I would have to let myself in. There wouldn’t really be anyone around to help set me up.

Not being a technical person, this made me slightly nervous. I had visions of myself sitting in front of a bewildering array of buttons and switches desperately trying to work out what to press as poor Marian called my name again and again from across the Irish Sea.

Luckily, the reality was quite different. I arrived in the studio to find three microphones –coloured so that I could be sure I was sitting in front of the correct one – and an incredibly comprehensive list of instructions. ‘To your left there is a phone,’ I read. ‘Pick it up, dial this number and tell the control room in Broadcasting House that you are ready to proceed.’ It felt a bit like being a secret agent in a spy film.

Before I knew it, I was listening in to the show, waiting for my slot. If I’d been at all anxious from the technical shenanigans, I’ve no doubt Marian would have put me at my ease. She was so charming and interested in the project that it was a real pleasure to speak to her.

As you can hear from the podcast of the show above, we had a great chat. And if I needed any more proof of what a star Marian Finucane is, the number of visitors to this blog from Ireland over the last few days has told its own story. Céad míle fáilte to you all.

Photo by curtis.kennington

South Sudan: the first New Year

 

New Year is a time for fresh starts. And they don’t come much fresher than in South Sudan, where, since declaring independence from Sudan in July 2011, the leaders of the world’s most recently declared sovereign state have been getting to grips with all the challenges that come with establishing a brand new country from scratch.

As I discovered when I interviewed senior civil servant Deng Gach Pal around the time of independence, these challenges are particularly formidable in South Sudan. Ravaged by 21 years of civil war, much of the country lacks the most basic infrastructure, with roads, schools and hospitals few and far between. In fact, when I phoned the country last month, I still had to use the old Sudanese dialling code to get through. And as today’s sad reports of infighting have shown, even peace itself is brittle and intermittent.

Small wonder, then that, as far as I could discover there has been little, if any, literature published in the country’s short history (under the terms of this project anything published before the date the country was established would not count).

I did find some mention of a Writers’ Association of South Sudan on the internet, but beyond their draft constitution, dated 8 July 2011, I couldn’t find any more information about them (if any South Sudanese creative writers would like to get in touch, it would be great to hear about what it’s like building a national literature from the ground up).

So I was honoured and delighted when the Chair of the Civil Service Recruitment Board in South Sudan, Julia Duany, agreed to write and record a story for the launch of this project. A former refugee and research associate at the University of Indiana, Duany published her memoirs Making Peace and Nurturing Life: Memoir of an African Woman about a Journey of Struggle and Hope in 2003. She returned to South Sudan in 2005 to help prepare for independence, spending five years as Undersecretary in the Ministry for Parliamentary Affairs.

Here, reading in English, South Sudan’s official language, Duany remembers the aftermath of the conflict that she describes as a ‘pantomime of hell’ in her homeland and looks forward with hope to a brighter future as the South Sudanese celebrate their first ever New Year.

‘To Forgive is Divine Not Human’ by Julia Duany. Publisher: ayearofreadingtheworld.com (2012)

Blogcast: Final preparations

So this is it: less than 48 hours to go until the great adventure begins. The shelf is ready and the list is groaning with suggestions of books from more than 110 countries (just 86 or so left to find — let me know if you can help… or if you’ve got an idea for a better title than the ones on my list).

Already the first consignment of books is peering down at me as I type, ooh, and producer Chris Elcombe has put together this blogcast about the project…

With thanks to Steve Lennon for the shelf pic.

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