Presenter Dan Simpson interviewed me for the brilliant ‘Writer’s Routine’ podcast – in it, we discuss how I work and the various challenges of writing a novel. You can listen here.
If you’re in the UAE and would like to hear more, my writing workshop at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has sold out, but there are still tickets available for my talk with Jonathan Siklos on writing ‘The House of Whispers’ on Friday 11 February – you can get them on the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature website.
Litfest! Litfest! Litfest!
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature kicks off on Feb 3 at a new venue this year: Al Habtoor City on Sheikh Zayed Road. I’ll be taking part in three events and would love to see you there, whether you’d like to hear more about my own writing journey and the inspiration for my latest novel, want to ‘level up’ your own writing at the workshop I’m hosting with Jessica Jarlvi (no, you won’t need to read any of your work out loud!), or listen to a letter of thanks I’ll be writing to someone who’s affected my life. See you there!
The House of Whispers
I’ll be talking about my writing life and the dark psychology that underpins my novels, as illustrated by my “spine-chilling” fifth novel, The House of Whispers. Come along to hear how I got the inspiration for this story about toxic female friendship, guilt and obsession set in a creepy Victorian house. Book-signing with me after the event.
Friday 11 February 2022 17:30-18:30
Venue: Chia, Hilton, Al Habtoor City
10 Ways to Level Up Your Writing – workshop with Annabel Kantaria and Jessica Jarlvi
You can write – but how do you make your words come alive on the page? In this creative workshop, we’ll look at how you can use elements such as character, dialogue, setting, tense, voice, language and emotion to paint pictures in your readers’ minds, then we’ll focus on mastering the subtle art of showing not telling: an essential skill that’s guaranteed to make your work stand out to agents and publishers.
Sunday 13 February 2022 12:00-13:30
Venue: Arfaj, Hilton, Al Habtoor City
The strongly worded letter
Ben Miller, Marina Wheeler, Mira Sethi and I have each been asked to write a ‘strongly worded letter’ of thanks to someone who left a lasting impression in our lives. Come along to hear these letters, followed by a wider conversation on the story behind our words. I think it’ll be emotional.
Saturday 5 February 2022 20:00-21:00
Venue: Al Joud Ballroom 2, Hilton, Al Habtoor City
Tickets to all events available here.
Let’s talk about book clubs
Are you in one? Do you run one?
As an expat, I’ve found book clubs to be a terrific way to meet like-minded people. As an author I’ve spoken at plenty of book clubs and have found them all so different: some are really strict and have specific questions, discussion points and ratings for all the books they read. Others are far more about the social side than the reading…
I first joined a book club back in the late 1990s. It was difficult to get hold of the latest books in Dubai back then, so it was a brilliant way to share books we’d picked up on our travels.
I set up my own book club after a while. It’s a bit different to most in that there’s no pressure to read a specific book each month – it’s more like a mobile library curated by us.
We take it in turns to host the club, and the host that month chooses a couple of books to put into the battered suitcase that gets heaved from house to house. Ideally, although not always, the host will have read the books she’s introducing and she’ll tell us why she chose them. The book that made the most splash was probably The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop – purely because we all loved it so much we went on a book club holiday to Cyprus to see Famagusta, where it was set.
After the new books have been introduced, we’ll each talk about which books we read from the suitcase that month and, at the end of the evening, we each choose what we fancy taking home from the suitcase that month – we can take as many or as few books as we like depending on what we have on that month. And there’s no penalty if we bring them back unread the following month (and, trust me, that happens).
I know that probably sounds slack compared to the stricter book clubs, but it’s the way I like it. Reading should be a pleasure not a chore. And the book club is as much about the company of my reading friends as it is about ticking books off a list. Cheers to that!
The picture is me talking about my newest book The House of Whispers at the Dubai Festival Plaza book club in May – one of the first live events I’ve done in a while. If you live in the area, check it out – it’s free to attend and the book chat was great.
My week as a writer-in-residence: Dubai Central Prison
In November 2019, author Clare Mackintosh and I spent a week inside Dubai Central Prison, delivering a writing workshop to inmates. The goal? To enable the prisoners each to produce a 2,000-word story or essay that could be published as part of an anthology.
It was a ground-breaking project and one I was very proud to be a part of. Thanks to the openness of Dubai Police, it was the first time that two authors had been allowed to remain as unsupervised ‘writers-in-residence’ inside Dubai Prison in order to deliver such an intense workshop. Clare was to teach in the Men’s Prison, while I was to be in the Women’s.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. Not only were the stakes high in terms of the trust shown to us by the authorities, but I had so many questions on my first morning, over and above what conditions would be like inside the jail: had Clare and I pitched the teaching at the right level? Would the students be keen? And, more importantly, would they be dedicated enough to put in the hard work that we needed them to over an intense week? Each piece would have to be written by hand without the ‘copy/paste’ convenience of a computer. Any editing and rewriting would involve a huge amount of physical work.
I needn’t have worried. On the first morning, I was shown to a classroom, next door to the prison library, where 15 women from almost as many countries sat waiting and ready to learn, and I set about getting to know them: what made them tick, why they wanted to write, who they were writing for.
By the time the gate clanged shut behind me for the last time, I’d witnessed patience, resourcefulness and resilience in ways that were new to me. I’d also made 15 new friends with whom I’d shared jokes, banter, life stories and doughnuts, and each of these women had also produced a unique piece of work, which is now part of the anthology ‘Tomorrow, I Will Fly’.
The book was published by the Emirates Literature Foundation and will be shared with prisoners throughout the region and ultimately released online as a free download.
In February, Clare and I went back to launch it inside prison to an audience of officials, inmates and select guests, who were treated to readings by the prisoners.
Here are a few links to media articles about the project:
Friday magazine – Creative writing for inmates: A mentor’s perspective
Arab News – Inmates serve their sentences in this collection of personal essays written by UAE prisoners
The National – Tales from inside Dubai’s prisons
Montegrappa Writing Prize
Jessica Jarlvi and I held a workshop on Saturday for those intending to enter the annual Montegrappa Writing Prize, held by the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. I won the competition in 2013, and Jessica was a runner-up in 2016 – since then, we’ve both gone on to become published authors.
In 90 minutes, we covered what you need to do to win: namely, submit a killer synopsis and the first 2,000 words of your work, which should begin with an intriguing hook. We worked on how to create your elevator pitch, how to work that up into a synopsis, and examined what the synopsis needs to cover. We also looked at opening sentences that would grab the attention of the judge, ways to create three-dimensional characters, how to pace your action, and did some work on the famous ‘show, don’t tell’. In the words of Chekhov, ‘Don’t tell me the Moon is shining – show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
At the end, Jessica and I sat one-by-one with the participants and gave individual feedback on their potential competition entries to help them get their work into the best possible shape.
Even if you weren’t at our workshop, there’s still time to enter the Montegrappa Writing Prize – and you could win the attention of top London agent, Luigi Bonomi.
Highlights of the Emirates LitFest 2019
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature really is the highlight of the year for any book-lover in the region, weaving together as it does voices from all over the world to enjoy a unique environment of talks and cultural events over two action-packed weekends.
The Desert Stanzas evening, featuring Zeina Hashem Beck, Talal Aljunaibi, Selina Tusitala March (the New Zealand poet laureate), LionHeart, Anis Chouchene, Frank Dullaghan and the wonderful Afra Atiq speaking under the stars in the silence of the desert, was a particular highlight for me.
Here’s what I got up to:
Luigi Bonomi (agent), Flora Rees (editor), Karen Osman (Montegrappa winner 2016) and myself (Montegrappa winner 2013)
Luigi said publishers are still looking for psychological thrillers despite the market being saturated because readers are still buying it. Publishers are also looking for ‘uplit’ – stories with happy endings.
The 2019 winner of the Montegrappa Writing Prize was announced as Polly Phillips: a graduate of the Montegrappa workshop Jessica Jarlvi and I ran last November! Good luck Polly!
‘Is the Future Social?’ panel:
Ty Tashiro (psychologist), Katharine Osmerod (author) and myself
Ty revealed that ‘popular’ people and ‘likeable’ people use social media in different ways. While popular people, with huge followings, tend to use it for personal gain, people considered to be ‘likeable’ use it to lift up others by ‘liking’ their posts and posting encouragement.
The consensus on the panel was that social media is now a part of the fabric of our lives, so learning how to use it responsibly; limiting time wasted on it; and protecting our data (from companies as well as from individuals) were things everyone should be looking at doing.
‘How to Write a Novel in 30 Tips’ Masterclass
As this was a 90-minute class, I decided to deliver 50 ‘tips’ instead of 30. Aimed at people who were either struggling to start a novel or who had got stuck after started, my tips covered everything from hooking in the reader to preventing a ‘soggy middle’ and leaving your reader satisfied at the end.
As it was, I created my own tension by nearly running out of time – thank you all for coming! If you were in the class and would like a copy of the tips, please email me on email@example.com
Win tickets to my social media panel!
What does social media do for us? Does it help us feel more connected to others, or is it just white noise – a distraction from the things we really should be doing? Is it fanning the flames of narcissism and creating a generation of youngsters who measure their worth by the sum of their ‘Likes’ or is it an invaluable tool for a global population?
After a brilliant first weekend, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature continues apace, and I’ll be discussing these and other issues on Thursday 7 March at 7.30pm with online dating expert Ty Tashiro, and Katherine Ormerod, whose book Why Social Media is Ruining Your Life is a must-read for everyone in the digital age. You can get tickets here, or…
Win a free ticket!
For a chance to win one of five tickets, follow me on Instagram (@dubaipix), and leave a comment under the relevant pic, or ‘like’ my author Facebook page and tag yourself in the comments under this entry. Winners will be notified by 6pm on Wednesday 6 March.
Meanwhile, massive congratulations to the 2019 winner of the Montegrappa prize: Polly Phillips! I can’t wait to see you become a published author!
‘You have children – do they use social media, and if so, how do you protect them?’
That was just one of the thoughtful questions put to me by Expat Woman in this interview because – guess what! –The 2019 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature begins this week.
Among other things, as the author of a psychological thriller that revolves around over-sharing on social media, I’ll be debating the pros and cons of social media in a panel discussion with Ty Tashiro and Catherine Ormerod on Thu 7 March.
‘Do we live in an age of distraction or greater connectedness, and what will our social lives look like in the future? Weighing in on whether or not social media can be a force for good in mental health, personal safety and community are Annabel Kantaria, whose latest domestic thriller I Know You revolves around the dangers of social media; Katherine Ormerod, the author of Why Social Media is Ruining Your Life; and author, psychologist and relationship expert Ty Tashiro, who is known for his expertise on the science of relationships and online dating.’
Tickets available here.
Come and join in: I think it’ll be a lively one!
Last week, I visited two schools as part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature’s Education Programme.
I spoke to the Year 7s and 8s at The Oxford School and the Year 7s, 8s and 9s at GEMS Founders Al Mizhar School about what the job of author entails, how to become an author (clue: write a book!) and what sort of characteristics might help you become an author.
It always surprises children to hear that writing is only a small part of the job of author and that, by the time you factor in research, editing, marketing, social media, talks, teaching, networking and so on, the writing often takes a back seat.
Pupils and teachers at both schools couldn’t have given me a warmer welcome – I loved the banners! – and the students asked brilliant questions but my favourite moment was when a boy came up to me at GEMS Founders Al Mizhar.
‘I’m going to be an author,’ he told me, ‘and I’m going to be bigger than JK Rowling. And when I am, I’m going to look back on your talk today and remember it as my inspiration.’ I wish with all my heart that his dream comes true and that, one day, he’ll be signing his book for me.
EAFOL runs from March 1-9. Browse the programme and get tickets here.
How do I get a literary agent?
I was a guest on the Afternoons with Helen Farmer show on Dubai Eye yesterday, talking about writing and getting published with fellow author Brandy Scott.
Her debut Not Bad People, about a group of friends who suspect they may have caused a light aircraft to crash when they launched a Chinese lantern (that’s not a spoiler btw), was published this week and sounds brilliant.
We talked a bit about our routes to publication: I was lucky in that I won a competition that got me a toe in the door of top London literary agent Luigi Bonomi, while Brandy had the incredible experience of emailing an agent her idea and being taken on, but it’s often not that simple.
Helen opened up the lines for questions and the overwhelming query people had was along the lines of: I’ve written something, how do I get it in front of an agent?
I have a few pointers regarding the market in the UK:
- Buy the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, which is published every year and lists all the agents in the UK, along with contact details and how they wish you to approach them i.e. whether they want a covering letter and synopsis, or the first three chapters. This book is invaluable. The link above takes you to Amazon, but I’ve also seen it in bookshops in Dubai.
- Do your research. Use the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook to target an agent who’s interested in the type of manuscript you’ve written: don’t send poetry to an agent looking for crime.
- Use social media. Get onto Twitter and search the hashtag #askagent; follow agents, and get a feel for the market. When you submit, point out in your covering letter why you think you’re a good fit with that particular agent, and include any info or experience that makes you sound like an author they’d want to take on.
- Enter competitions. Obviously, I’m biased because that was my route in, but aside from offering you a foot in the door of the publishing world and getting your name noticed, who doesn’t want to be able to be able call themselves a prize-winning author? There are plenty of competitions for unpublished authors; some of the bigger ones even offer the winner a publishing contract.
- Visit literature festivals: many now offer ‘quick pitch’ sessions with top agents, giving you a chance to get your work in front of an agent. Even if they don’t like your work, the feedback they can give in just five minutes could be priceless.
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai offers these sessions with Luigi Bonomi this coming March. Check it out here.
- Sign up for writing courses and masterclasses: there’s no harm in polishing your technique while you’re waiting for your publishing deal. If you have the time and inclination, you can do excellent online novel-writing courses at the Faber Academy and at Curtis Brown Creative. I’m teaching my own masterclass at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature this year, too. Good luck!