An Advent Calendar of Prose Poems

It’s officially the beginning of The Season. This year, I’m challenging myself to write a piece of prose poetry for each of the days leading up to Christmas. Trying to get back into the rhythm of writing prose poetry — we’ll see how it goes. Check back for new ones regularly, and let me know your thoughts!

1 | Day One

For now, the ducks and red-billed geese still cut the mirrored surface of the pond, the feathered heads of the reeds that line its banks crowned with winter’s first cracking frost. At island’s edge, a single red-cloaked maple remains adorned with all its autumn finery, the robin’s song cracking through ice-laden branches. Still, the yolk-golden light of morning breaks over grove and water. By the barest of degrees, the frost begins to melt. We step out into the sugar-plum light, and the first deep breath of cold braces, but does not leave its teethmarks on our lungs. We do not shiver. This is only the first day of many. There is time, yet, before the world will fall asleep. There is time yet for the cold to come.

2 | The Next Morning

Night still lingers at the edge of things, dawn hesitant to show itself in full glory. We wake from tangled dreams to frost patterning lace upon the windows, the world outside reduced to crystalline shadows of fog and glass. Lamps flicked on, the heating hisses, we pad downstairs on naked feet. Water boils with a rumble like distant thunder, but this bleakness comes not from the storm, only winter’s touch. Coffee tastes better in the dark.

3 | In Childhood Dreams…

Christmas arrives with a whiff of magic. Out of the attic, we pull out the old dusty tree we’ve had since I was three, fitting together faux-pine branches and making sure the biggest ones end up properly at the bottom. Still, somehow, it always ends up lopsided, but draped with lights and tinsel, we all pretend not to notice. Mom shows me how to turn paperclips into bauble hangers and points out where to place them. Dad lifts me up to place our golden angel at the very top, and in the glow of the fairylights, her wings shift and shimmer with an echo of life. She looks down upon us, her porcelain face patient and unblinking. She will watch as the presents gather, will watch as the visitors flit by, day after day. And at the end, we will take her down, and tuck her away with the tree again, stow them back upstairs in the dark.

4 | The Wreath

The empty house is a nest of possibilities, our sparse furniture only beginning to show the barest outline of what might be. Upstairs, the bedroom comes with a walk in closet, which we stuff with books and blankets and fairy lights, a place for rediscovering childhood pleasures. The walls are bare, the curtains left threadbare by the previous occupants, the furniture unloved, well-worn. Even after our first trip to the grocers, there are too many hollow cuboards, the fridge still half-empty, just milk and eggs. But among the precious staples: pasta, rice, fresh-baked bread — the wreath gleams, all glossy needles and gold dust. Hung on the wall, it makes it feel more like Christmas. Hung on the wall, it gives this place the first feelings of home.

5 | Hibernation

Even the maples, as the weather snaps and the first ice crystals drift down from cloud-swept skies; even the squirrels, who have spent all the shortening days industriously gathering their winter crop; even the badgers, the bears, the hedgehogs and voles will spend months curled up together to stave away the winter’s chill, their little bodies turned to soft, breathing heaps of warmth beneath the snow, sleeping and dreaming of the spring to come. In their slumber, winter will not touch them. Winter will pass them by. Meanwhile, we trudge on, braving the elements — for what we cannot say. Even the maples will spend this season recovering their strength. Why not us?

6 | This Room

On every surface, the gloss of evergreen. Baubles in a vase on the makeshift coffee table, their colourful shine. A candle winking on a shelf. The smell of cinnamon and pine. Lights shining bright on strings along the window. The tree in one corner, fragrant and glittering. And in the middle of it all, two people searching together for home.

Keep Reading

Rivers of London Award Shortlist Interview: Dan Buchanan

The skeleton of my story … serves as a useful guide, not only in terms of inspiring the questions my world-building needs to answer, but also as a kind of framework on which I can bounce the story around, and chop and change as needed.

Dan Buchanan on knowing the story you’re telling

Shortly after Gollancz’s Rivers of London Award, I got in touch with the winners and other shortlistees to find out more about them and thier projects. In this post, Dan Buchanan talks to me about her novel, The Scent of Cloves, and her influences as a writer.


Tell us about the work you submitted to the RoL award in a tweet or less.

The Scent of Cloves tracks the story of the restless years preceding the war through the eyes of Bahira Solomon, Arbiter, and on the trail of dangerous sentiments brewing in the corners of vampire society.

Where are you in your process with the work?

At this precise moment? Writing through the nascent urge to delete everything I’ve done so far and begin again.

What are a few things that inspired or influenced your novel?

The first is an abiding love of vampires, as a concept. This is balanced by the second thing, which can best be described as a particular weariness with the shape and heft of the vampire canon as it currently stands. Finally, I wanted to tell a story cooked up in my world, all mixed up and anxious and brittle with culture and history, with enough of both that it hasn’t cracked under the pressure. Yet. This project is fuelled by that.

Could you share the first line or paragraph?

*breathes gently-like into a paper bag* I wish I could…

What is one key part of your writing process?

An important element of storytelling, for me, is knowing the story you’re telling. Within my process, I find it helpful to lay out the skeleton of my story before getting on with most of the other bits and pieces. It serves as a useful guide, not only in terms of inspiring the questions my world-building needs to answer, but also as a kind of framework on which I can bounce the story around, and chop and change as needed. It’s by no means a fixed thing, but it is a starting point

Which book or author has most influenced you and why?

Lucky for me, the two are linked. I first read Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey when I was about fourteen years old, and it’s been a well-thumbed favourite ever since. Above everything (which is saying a lot, since the plot, character creation and development, and worldbuilding are *chef’s kiss*), Carey’s luscious, gorgeous prose has always stirred a certain part of me that lives and dies for beautiful word craft. It has influenced every word I’ve ever written since.

Finally, what are you reading at the moment?

Well, first up is Katy Rose Pool’s There Will Come A Darkness; no feedback yet, unfortunately, but I’m only a few chapters in so time will tell. I’m also eyeing up Gideon the Ninth by Tamysn Muir, and Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

And what is one book you would wholeheartedly recommend everyone to read right now?

Stop everything you are doing and read the first instalment of the Terra Ignota series by Ada Palmer. Too Like The Lightning, a phrase borrowed from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, is a book that wavers brilliantly between science-fiction, fantasy, dystopian utopias, and alternate futurism. It is sharply and exquisitely flavoured with magic, cosmic philosophy, intrigue, mystery, religion, lust, and a profound and liminal commentary on society and us. Also, it will blow every single one of your nerve-endings like a bulb and it’s sensational.


You can find out more about Dan and her writing by following her on twitter, instagram, and goodreads.

Rivers of London Award Shortlist Interview: Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson

This is a story we are hesitant to tell…

Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson – The Principle of Moments

Shortly after Gollancz’s Rivers of London Award, I got in touch with the winners and other shortlistees to find out more about them and thier projects. In this post, Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson talks to me about her winning novel, The Principle of Moments, and her influences as a writer.


Tell us about the work you submitted to the RoL award in a tweet or less.

It’s about a girl living in the far future, under an oppressive regime, who discovers she has a sister imprisoned by the emperor and risks everything to go and save her. But it’s also about the power of righteous anger, family, and the importance of friendship.

Where are you in your process with the work?

Somehow, I have managed to finish writing it! At the moment I am going through the first round of edits with my agent, and hoping they’re the only ones I have to do before we go out on submission.

What are a few things that inspired or influenced your novel?

  • The idea of Black Girl Magic! It isn’t often that Black girls and women get to see themselves as powerful beings in huge adventure stories, and so I wrote what I always wanted to see.
  • My love of stories set in space that are character driven rather than just about the Cool Space Stuff (though I have definitely written more than my fair share of Cool Space Stuff into this book!)
  • My sisters! I have two sisters, and they mean the world to me (even if they drive me up the wall most of the time). But I remember thinking when I knew I wanted to write this book, that sisterhood would be at the centre of it. Essentially it asks the question: how far would you go for your sister? And the answer is: as far as it takes. Which is true for me too!

Could you share the first line or paragraph?

This is a story we are hesitant to tell, though it is true we are many years removed from it now.

What is one key part of your writing process?

One key part of my writing process is not having too much of a process! I really think that (if you are someone who enjoys going with the flow) it can be very helpful to let the characters lead at times. Mine are especially bad at following the plot, so for the first two thirds of the first draft, I’m usually plan-less, letting them run around in the world.

Which book or author has most influenced you and why?

The list is so, so long, but probably N.K. Jemisin. She is my absolute hero. I don’t think my writing style is similar, but in terms of showing me what it is possible to do — to make people feel! — with the medium of a novel, or a series in three parts, she is the one I keep returning to. Also to see a Black woman in science fiction become as successful as her is like wind beneath my wings when I’m questioning everything. She feels like an awesome aunty I’ve never met. One day I’d love to be able to tell her that!

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m in the middle of The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. It’s incredible on every level! It’s definitely an aspirational book in terms of craft. One day I’d love to have such a handle on political writing and the things that make a rebellion — but for now I’m just enjoying being completely blown away.

And finally, what is one book you would wholeheartedly recommend everyone to read right now?

It’s always anything by N.K. Jemisin, and An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon.


You can find out more about Esmie and her writing by following her on twitter, and of course, make sure to check out her winner’s video from the Gollancz awards ceremony!

Rivers of London Award Shortlist Interview: Jaya Martin

Sickening, yes. But if you wanted to keep your job, if you wanted to avoid severe punishment and if you wanted your belly to stop burning, your head swimming, your mouth running dry from starvation, you watched.

Jaya Martin – Blood of the Wolf

Shortly after Gollancz’s Rivers of London Award, I got in touch with the winners and other shortlistees to find out more about them and thier projects. In this post, Jaya Martin talks to me about her shortlisted novel Blood of the Wolf and her influences as a writer.


Tell us about the work you submitted to the RoL award in a tweet or less.

The title is Blood of the Wolf, a YA/Crossover fantasy. It is about a young Mage who has to risk her life to save a captive prince so that she will not be hanged for a crime she accidentally committed.

Where are you in your process with the work?

It is complete at approximately 115,000 words

What are a few things that inspired or influenced your novel?

Mainly, it was my love for writing. I started writing stories at the age of 10 and have continued to do so. Secondly, I love to read.

Could you share the first line or paragraph?

It was execution day. Anoushka gulped hard, and felt blood drain from her face, as she stood among the staff gathered in the courtyard to witness this loathsome, compulsory, monthly ritual at the castle. Sickening, yes. But if you wanted to keep your job, if you wanted to avoid severe punishment and if you wanted your belly to stop burning, your head swimming, your mouth running dry from starvation, you watched. Anoushka stood rooted to the ground, her eyes fixed on the developing scene.

What is one key part of your writing process?

Writing daily. I usually write early in the morning when ideas are fresh and the house is quiet. 

Which book or author has most influenced you and why?

No particular book or author has influenced me. Not that I can instantly recall.

Finally, what are you reading at the moment? And what is one book you would wholeheartedly recommend everyone to read right now?

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams and The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi


You can find out more about Jaya and her writing by following her on twitter.

Rivers of London Award Shortlist Interview: Victor Ogana

It all started with a broken roof and a bangle made of cowries.

Victor Ogana – Seeds of Heaven

Check out the other interviews here.

Shortly after Gollancz’s Rivers of London Award, I got in touch with the winners and other shortlistees to find out more about them and thier projects. In this post, Victor Ogana talks to me about his shortlisted novel, Seeds of Heaven, and his influences as a writer.


Tell us about the work you submitted to the RoL award in a tweet or less.

Seeds of Heaven is the first in a planned series of books about a boy and his sister, a washed-up prince, and a runaway academic and how their actions shape the future of humankind in the face of a rising holy war.

Where are you in your process with the work?

I’m currently putting the finishing touches on the first draft for the second book and boooooy it’s a doozy

What are three things that inspired or influenced Seeds of Heaven as a novel?

The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan was an eye opener for me on the emotional impact of high fantasy. Secondly, the Broken Earth series by NK Jemisin. I mean I don’t think I need to explain why this one is on here. And finally, the variety of African culture and an exploration of how the post-colonial loss of identity has affected spirituality and gender politics

What is one key part of your writing process?

When I read something I’ve just written, I ask myself  ‘Am I excited by this?’ If the answer is no, then something’s gone horribly wrong. If the answer is yes, then I’m on the right track. Simplistic but it really does help. 

Which book or author has most influenced you and why?

Octavia Butler. Her ability to use the macabre and bizarre to tell a riveting story is something I’ve spent most of my writing journey trying to learn. It talks to me.

Finally, what are you reading at the moment? And what is one book you would wholeheartedly recommend everyone to read right now?

The Will To Change by Bell Hooks and… er… The Will to Change by Bell Hooks? Such a good book!


You can find out more about Victor by following him on twitter and instagram.

Rivers of London Award: Getting to Know the Shortlistees

Way back in February, one of my colleagues alerted me to the new Award being organized by Gollancz and Ben Aaronovitch, focused on lifting up the voices of unpublished BAME authors and fostering new talent in the industry.

Fast forward to all the craziness of this summer’s pandemic and the announcement of the shortlist, where I was absolutely ecstatic to be placed with seven other amazing writers and their works. But of course with the virus raging and in-group meetups cancelled (including Gollancz’s planned prize-giving ceremony), all of us were only able to talk online. Still, I wanted to know more about the shortlisted works, and the people who created them.

So I reached out to ask them a few questions about them and their writing. I hope you find the answers as fascinating as I did! These are all writers to watch, and I can’t wait to see what happens with all these amazing stories.

The Shortlistees

Dan Buchanan – The Scent of Cloves

Dolly Garland – Kali’s Call

Kyla Jardine – The Reeves’ Guild

Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson – The Principle of Moments

Ewen Ma – Nowhere More Changeable than the Mortal Heart

Jaya Martin – Blood of the Wolf

Victor Ogana – Seeds of Heaven

I’ll be posting each of the interviews over the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned. And of course, for the winners’ announcements, definitely check out the immensely talented Esmie and Kyla on the Gollancz blog.

Herbarium: An artistic heritage post

Stories lie at the heart of all our relationships. Whether they be with people, food, places, or flowers, our relationships and our lives are built on memory: the narrative thread that gives shape and meaning to our experiences. Over the course of nine months starting in 2015, the Stejjer Imfewħa project, organized by Charles Bennett and Simone Cutajar on behalf of Friends of the Earth and Integra, sat down with a number of migrants and natives to the island of Malta.

During the Stejjer Imfewħa workshops, participants were invited to interact with and share memories of various flowers, herbs, and spices, many of which held special significance not only in their personal lives, but also within their cultural heritages. Afterward I, along with the other artists involved with the workshops (Antonella Sgobbo, Sarah Mamo, Glen Calleja, and Kasia Zmokla) led participants in sessions that would allow them to turn their remembered experiences into works of art. My work involved shaping these thoughts and experiences into narratives of various forms, preserving the voices of the participants to be relived and shared anew.

The finished works were presented to the public at a multi-disciplinary exhibition curated by Sabrina Calleja Jackson at the Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa in June of 2016. I have also replicated the recordings here for posterity, and I invite everyone to observe these moments plucked from the lives of others, and to uncover their own stories—coloured, scented, or spiced as they are by the herbs and flowers that surround us.

Exhibit I: Basil

Narrative by Antonella

Exhibit II: Dandelion

Narrative by Stef D.

Exhibit III: Lavender

Narrative by Censu

Exhibit IV: Chocolate

Narrative by Simone C.

News from the Querying Trenches

Friends, I have news.

For all of you who haven’t yet seen it through my social media yet, I’m absolutely over the moon. After two years of shaping and revising this book to make it the best it can be, as of two weeks ago, I finally managed a major leap forward.

I have a literary agent.

I’m so, so pleased and excited to announce that I’m now represented by Sara O’Keeffe at Aevitas Creative Management UK. It’s been a long and winding road to get here — and this year in particular has been a roller coaster.

Still, this is only the first step in a much larger journey. It’s going to be a while yet before The Shape of the World sees print — there’s still more polishing, more submissions, and more rounds of edits to go. Still, I can’t wait to tackle whatever comes next, and whatever happens, I hope to have you all there with me!

Lockdown Diaries: That First Week

In our ninth week of lockdown, I find myself looking backward — more of the deeper stuff soon, but for now, I’ve gone back to look at my morning pages from that very first week…


The Sunday before the lockdown began, I was tending the shop. First things first, before we even unlocked the doors, advice came in over the company email — we were to enforce social distancing measures: five customers in the shop at a time, no more. Three of us on shift; that meant that we’d have to break up our lunches in order to be able to always keep one of us on the door.

Long story short, the day ended with a grumbling queue of customers, an injured member of staff, and a death threat called in on one of the higher ups through our landline. Needless to say, we closed early. It wasn’t until Monday evening, though, that they announced London would be officially locking down.

Day One: I slept in — actually allowed myself to. Part of me still cannot conceive that it is real. In a way, I am almost joyful. Like the banker at the end of that episode of The Twilight Zone, stuck in the vault with his books: There is time now! And yet, I cannot help but wonder what the streets of the city look like as I am writing my morning pages, as I am making my coffee, as I plan all the works I will get done in this precious, stolen time. By the end of the day, I have a schedule, and a plan, and the bones of a new short story, tucked away into a document folder at the very bottom of my harddrive.

Day Two: We begin as the day before. Breakfast and coffee. Lingering a little too late over all of it. Pages and planning, and a schedule for the edits that need to happen on novels and prose poems. And by lunchtime it has already been an age. I eat because I need to eat, not because I am hungry, and back into the work we dive. Look at how the light slants through my window! Were afternoons ever so bright before?

Day Three: “Of my brief imprisonment”, says the note in my pages. And it is so difficult to focus. Who knew the days were so long and so wanting to be filled. I write the ending of a story, two thousand words over the course of the day, edit a different short, consider the changes that need to be made on a manuscript and decide how they will be done, and still it is not enough. Dinner happens as the sun is setting. I bury myself in a book for the rest of the evening.

Day Four: I start to feel the rhythms in a day, how it starts and finishes, lengthens and fades, the colors from dawn to afternoon to blue-tinted dusk.

Day Five: The first weekend in lockdown, but it doesn’t feel like a weekend, does it? No, it feels odd and stretched and quiet. The queue at the shop is terrifying, the tension in the air even more so. I cannot find pasta anywhere, and must make do with a dinner of greens and white toasting bread. Still, there is time now, isn’t there?

Day Six: Yet still, a Sunday. Feels no different, and yet I know. How long has this already been our lives? How is it that I still wilt, even in the sunlight. How is it, that with all the time in the world, I still manage to fall short of what I’m reaching for? How has it already been too long?

The next day, I stopped numbering the days.

Of Unpublished Novels, Competitions, and Shortlists…

So, I’ve been sitting on this news for THREE WHOLE DAYS (well, more like two and a bit), and I can finally tell everyone — I can tell EVERYONE!: I’ve been shortlisted for the Rivers of London SF/F Award for BAME Writers! Check out the news on Gollancz’ (YES, IT’S GOLLANCZ. AND BEN AARONAVICH. I’M DYING) website, and also take a look at those amazing titles for the other shortlisted novels!

For anyone who’s currently at the point of finishing up a draft of a novel, you might be wondering about what’s involved in submitting to competitions. From personal experience, I can tell you that novel competitions are equal parts terror, anxiety, and excitement, with heaps of disappointment thrown on there for good measure. I can also say that they are always totally worth it, no matter the outcome.

WHY SUBMIT YOUR MANUSCRIPT TO A NOVEL COMPETITION?

Seriously? I can hear you asking. Can they really always be worth it? And I can tell you without a doubt that they are. Before my third novel, Shape, was shortlisted for PRH’s Write Now Mentorship, I submitted my first and second novels to several different novel competitions, including the MsLexia and Bath Awards for Children’s novels. And even though none of those competitions netted me a win, or even a shortlisting, they did give me one major thing:

They convinced me to put my work out there. As writers — and especially as novelists — it can be extremely difficult to share our work with other people, especially strangers. Even more difficult is knowing when we can call our drafts done. As DaVinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

What novel competitions will always do, without fail, is give you a deadline to hit, and a goal of making your work the best it can be in that time. Sometimes, you won’t even make it to the submission — and that’s okay. Maybe you manage to submit your work, but you never even get longlisted — and that’s okay too. What matters is that you put in the time and effort to make your manuscript the best it could be, knowing that, at the other end of the process, it is going to be read and judged by a stranger. If your ultimate goal is to one day be published, this is vital.

The other thing that quite a few novel competitions are good for is building a community and getting to know other writers who at the same part of the process as you. WriteMentor is especially good for this: even beyond their annual writing competition, the #WriteMentor community on Twitter is brilliantly active, supportive, and encouraging.

And then, of course, maybe just the one time, you push yourself to finish your manuscript by writing 20,000 words in a week, and a month later, you find out that you’ve managed to scrape onto the shortlist. And maybe, just maybe, the next time, you find out you’ve actually won.

PROSE AND CONS

That said, competitions are not for everyone. Probably the biggest drawback to competitions as a whole is that most of them do cost money — this is of course to keep the competitions running and to be able to offer the winners prizes, but it can also be a huge barrier to those of us who are functionally living without disposable income. The good news is there are still quite a few competitions that are free, and usually the bigger ones will have schemes to support writers who can’t afford the entry fees.

Of course, there’s also that huge heaping pile of disappointment that I mentioned at the beginning. Not placing in a novel competition can pack a demotivating punch, but if you keep in mind that these competitions are highly subjective as well as hugely… well… competitive, then hopefully it’ll feel less like a rejection of your work and more like the bad luck that it usually is. Take a breath, shrug it off, and turn your focus to the next opportunity. No writing journey is EVER going to be free of rejection, and if we’re being honest, a “we had a huge number of submissions this year, and we’re sorry…” stings a whole lot less than an agent’s form response of “yeah, not for me.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that, even if you place in a competition, there’s no guarantee that it’ll lead to publication. Probably the most heartbreaking moment in the past year for me was having my manuscript requested by an agent as part of the fallout from being shortlisted in the WriteMentor CNA, only to have her send me the most honest, difficult, and heartfelt rejection letter I have ever received in this entire journey.

THE TIPSY PART

So, if you’re thinking about getting that draft into a competition, what’s my advice? First off, if you can do it, absolutely DO IT. Especially if you can find a free competition or one that gives all entrants critiques or feedback. With free competitions there is literally nothing to lose.

Secondly, always read the full requirements and guidelines very carefully. Stipulations on formatting, number of words, lengths of synopses, manuscript completeness, eligibility, and whether your name should be anywhere on there need to be followed to the letter. Just like any other submission, you want to present yourself in the best possible light, and for a competition, that means following the rules.

And finally — probably my biggest piece of advice for anyone else who gets anxiety like me: detach yourself from the result. The point of the competition is submitting to the competition, not necessarily to win or to place. Once you’ve sent your work out, take a breath and congratulate yourself. You’ve already done something amazing.

A VERY PARTIAL LIST OF PRE-PUB NOVEL COMPS

Bath Novel Awards – an annual prize open to international writers for an unpublished adult or young adult novel, with a separate award for children’s and 12+. First 5,000 words and a £28 entry fee, with sponsorship for low income writers available. Prizes range from workshops and feedback to £3,000 prize money.

Write Mentor Children’s Novel Award – amazing mentoring community with a yearly prize for children’s fiction from picture books to YA. Requires synopsis and 3,000 words of a complete manuscript, with the full manuscript being judged for the shortlist. Prizes include mentoring, feedback, and up to £500 cash.

PRH’s Write Now Membership – Penguin Random House’s BAME outreach program gives 10 finalists a year-long mentorship, and has produced Run Rebel and the Million Pieces of Neena Gill. 1,000 words is all you need.

Myriad First Drafts Competition – Cancelled due to the pandemic this year, but annually awards one unpublished novelist a week-long writing retreat as well as a six month mentorship with one of their authors.

Have you ever submitted to a novel competition or short story prize? I’d love to know what your experience was like! Share your thoughts in the comments.