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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

That Expat Girl’s Guide to Writing a Novel | Part 1: Ideas

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.

Stephen King, Awaken

This post is the first in a series on the novel writing process. Follow me or subscribe to be notified as soon as a new post goes live.

I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s not really the most secret secret, but it’s one of the most helpful secrets that I’ve discovered in almost two decades of dedicated writing. And that secret is: inspiration doesn’t come to those who wait. Sure, there are definitely moments as writers and as human beings when great ideas come out of the sky, like lightning. They strike and fill you with a creative electricity so powerful that you can’t do anything but dive for your nearest notebook and spill everything out onto the page. But the truth is, if you don’t do anything to invite and encourage those moments, they are, in fact, as rare as lightning strikes. 

So what do you do about that? How do you spark creativity and come up with ideas that are strong enough to carry a whole novel from start to finish? How do you generate ideas strong enough — not just to keep a reader fascinated in your story, but to keep you, yourself, invested enough in your work to finish it? The truth is there is no big, single, easy answer, but for me, I’ve found that the two things it comes down to are observation and practice

Creativity comes from Observation

There’s no one big answer to where the ideas for stories come from. Instead, there’s a lot of little ones.

Ideas are around us all the time, twenty-four seven. Some of them are raw and real and unpolished — an interaction with an enemy at work, the face of a stranger on the street whose smile hits you like a high beam, the headline of a web article on quantum physics, the reality of a global pandemic bringing the entire world to a halt.

Others come to us processed in one way or another: that moment in Avengers when the decimated return, half of Thanos’ battlefield turned into portals of burning light. The back-stitch plotting of a novel like Fingersmith, narrative replaying over itself to reveal new truths. The unique world-jumping mechanic of a video game where books are portals, or the significance of a crack in the ceiling — that’s how the light gets in.

The only real key to gathering ideas is to become aware of them. Start a small notebook to collect ideas from your daily life as well as the stories you enjoy. Keep it with you throughout the day and note down anything that makes you sit up and go “oh!”. I keep this list on my phone, as part of my to-do list app. Once you start keeping a record, you’ll soon find that the world is absolutely brimming with moments and characters and pieces of dialogue and evocative little details.

I tend to be very imagistic when it comes to my story ideas. Often inspiration will come to me while listening to music, and I’ll have to scribble down the images that play in my head while I’m drifting through spotify. Pinterest tends to be similarly inspiring, if only because of how many pictures on there are so wonderfully evocative.

When you start looking at the world around you this way — as a garden of ideas waiting to be gathered — inspiration is no longer just a matter of the right idea coming along. 

Action: Start an idea notebook, phone list, digital scrapbook, or an inspirations Pinterest board. Add observations, images, and things you find in other media that make you go “Oh!” as often as you can. Share your boards and excerpts from your notebooks in the comments!

Discipline comes from Practice

Once the ideas start trickling in, you’ll find yourself making connections between them instinctively. New things that you collect will prompt you to look back to older things, and slowly, slowly they’ll start taking on causation and significance. There’s one surefire way to speed up the process though, and I will always absolutely swear that practice more so than anything else is the basic foundation that all finished writing is built upon.

What do I mean by practice? I mean any and all writing that is written purely for the intention of exploring ideas, and not necessarily as part of a novel or story or article or blog post in its own right. For some people, this could take the form of a dream journal or a daily diary. For me and disciples of Julia Cameron, it takes the form of morning pages: two to three pages of longhand freewriting done first thing in the morning. For others still, it might mean the occasional writing exercise out of The Five-minute Writer or The 3am Epiphany. 

Whatever your writing practice is, try to do it regularly, if not every day. There are daily writers and there are binge writers, and depending where I am on a project, I can go from one extreme to the other. But one thing that I have done every single day for the past year at least is my morning pages.

What you’ll find when you start not just writing, but practicing writing is that all those collected ideas start to naturally emerge and connect themselves. They start arranging themselves into narratives or bigger concepts that invite exploration. By putting in the work and the time, but taking off the pressure, you create an environment for all those little tiny story sparks that you’ve been collecting to connect.

And once that happens, the lightning strike isn’t too far off.

Action: If you don’t have your own regular writing practice, try doing morning pages — three pages of freewriting first thing in the morning. If you’re not the notebook and pen type, check out 750words.com, which has a free thirty day trial, plus a lot of cool little insights into your writing mindset. Whatever you choose to do for your practice, do it for seven days in a row, at least — and share your experience in the comments!

From Ideas to Story

Once your collected ideas start to connect, you might be wondering how you turn those ideas into a solid concept for a novel. The only thing I can speak from is my own experience, as this is the one part of the process that is entirely more magic than science.

As I mentioned before, my inspiration is very powerfully image based. Depending on how you engage with the ideas around you, you might have to find a different way of actioning it, but once I’ve started connecting ideas through my morning pages, there’s usually two things I’ll start doing to shape it into a story.

The first is to start actively looking for specific inspiration. If there’s a song that’s sparked a powerful core image, I’ll start searching spotify for more songs like it. If there’s a photo or piece of art I’ve seen, I’ll seek out other works that give me a similar feeling. For The Ravenscourt Tragedies, this meant listening to a lot of Romantic-era classical music. The original spark came from listening to Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. From that eerily atmospheric tone poem conjuring ghosts and haunted houses, I started researching Victorian mesmerism, celtic faerie traditions, and listening to a lot of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

The second thing I’ll do is find a way to organize my ideas. I’ll open a new inspiration notebook specifically for my story, and begin adding my inspirations to that, sorting them into sections according to character, setting, or plot. I’ll start ordering the images in my head according to where I think they might fit on a basic plot line — beginning, middle, or end? My first outline will usually take the form of a spotify playlist, while my worldbuilding might end up on Pinterest — as it currently has for The Shape of the World.

If you take a look at my Buy Me A Coffee page, I’ll be posting some of the original concepts that eventually turned into The Shape of the World there. I’ll also be sharing my spotify outlines for both works in the members area.

And just like the tiny motes of electricity that come together to make a single, overpowering bolt of lightning, it’s those daily little things — the observation, the practice — that will help turn you into a lightning rod for inspiration. The secret, you see, is not to just sit around waiting. The secret is to charge yourself up, little by little, so that lightning has no choice but to strike.

That Expat Girl’s Guide to Writing a Novel

A couple weeks ago, I wrote the first post in what I intended to become a series on the editing part of writing a novel. Editing is the place I’m in right now, and I was super excited to share my editing journey with you. But coming back to write the second part of the series, I realized I might have jumped the gun a bit. While I’m still really curious to hear from any of you who are currently editing a novel, I thought it might be more helpful, on the whole, to share a bit about my entire writing process, both up to this point and past it. 

Every novel is different, of course. So is every writer’s process. Heck, almost every time I sit down to write, I find that I need to approach the page a different way. But still, over the course of writing three different novels (and at least five different first drafts), I hazard to say that I’ve discovered a few tricks to the trade. I’d love to share some of the techniques, processes, and resources I’ve found to make the journey easier for you.

So, this is going to be the first in a series of posts on the nitty gritties of writing a novel, starting at the very beginning with “Where the heck do you even get the idea for an entire book?” In this blog series, I’ll be taking you through my novel writing process, sharing helpful resources and writing advice.

In addition, if you’re interested in seeing how the original ideas change over the course of a project to become finished work, then I’d encourage you to sign up to my Buy Me a Coffee page, where I’ll be sharing scenes, outlines, and drafts from various stages of my two main projects, The Ravenscourt Tragedies and The Shape of the World.

Check back in over the next few weeks for the rest of the series. And if you want to know exactly when I post the next one, go ahead and subscribe to the blog to get the next post directly in your inbox!

Without further ado:

That Expat Girl’s Guide to Writing A Novel

  • Part 1: Ideas – Let’s start by looking at ideas: where they come from, practical ways you can encourage inspiration, and finally, how you can start shaping all your tiny sparks of story into the beginnings of a concept for a novel.
  • Part 2: Your First Draft
  • Part 3: Distance
  • Part 4: Plot and Character
  • Part 5: Structure
  • Part 6: Your Second Draft
  • Part 7: Feedback
  • Part 8: Editing
  • Part 9: Nothing is Ever Finished

Boyars, Orphans, and Other Creatures of the Night: Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Deathless Girls

I used to think to make people feel afraid was a curse, an awful thing. But I’d love for them to fear me. I want them to look at me and weep.

The Deathless Girls, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

If you’d told me several months ago that within the next few weeks, I’d be completely consumed by a teenage vampire novel, I would’ve laughed. It’s not that I don’t appreciate vampires, per se. Dracula remains one of my favourite classic novels, and I do admit to occasionally exploring the trope of the tortured undead in my own work. However, the YA trend of the swoony blood-sucking love interest did rather put me off the genre for a bit back in the 00’s.

So when I picked up Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Deathless Girls, I must admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. Still, I love Hargrave’s writing, so of course I was going to read it. Fortunately, there are no Cullens here, only the old-school damned — blood-thirsty and tragic, monstrous and grotesque, and all the more terrifying given Hargrave’s poetic style.

The Deathless Girls follows two traveller twins, Lil and Kizzy, after their camp is razed by soldiers, the survivors sold into the possession of a greedy Boyar. Forced to work in the Boyar’s castle, the sisters hear chilling rumours of an unholy pact between their new overlord and the Prince of the realm, the dreaded Dragon. But when beautiful Kizzy attracts the unwanted attention of a visiting Lord, Lil may be the only one able to save her sister’s life — and perhaps, even her soul. 

Stoker devotes all of two chapters in his novel to the brides of Dracula — or, as they’re called in the original text, the three sisters. It is hardly surprising that Hargrave has chosen to add to their story in her first work for a YA audience. Girls has everything you would expect from one of Hargrave’s novels: characters who are vibrant and unique, a vivid setting, and striking imagery, the threats in the dark both deliciously thrilling and horrific by turns. By far, the beating heart of the story resides in the relationship between the two sisters, multifaceted and delicate as it is. Lil is a reluctant but steadfast protagonist, her gentleness contrasted with her sister’s fierceness and beauty in a way that’s all too easy to relate to.

That said, the novel does suffer from the fact that it is, more than anything, an origin story. While the first half of the novel fully immerses the reader in its setting, the claustrophobia of the girls’ hopeless situation contrasted with their sisterhood and their memories of home, the second half seems all too aware that it has to somehow bridge the gap between these traveller twins and Dracula’s brides. In fact, the third of the brides is only introduced almost as an afterthought, in a sort-of epilogue to the main action of the novel. 

As well, uncharacteristic for Hargrave, the bad guys in Girls are painted in matte colours, without hope of redemption — even Dracul, and to some extent, even Kizzy. But the worst monsters in the book are the normal folk just doing their jobs, their evil all the more unforgivable given its mundanity. Perhaps it’s because of its YA audience, but Girls is, on the whole, an entirely more grim take on the world compared to most of Hargrave’s repertoire.

But what else should we expect from a foray into the Dracula mythos? Even before Stoker, vampires were an outlet for examining the most cursed and taboo aspects of our nature. Kiran Millwood Hargrave has done the tradition justice, all while shedding a little more light on the feminist powers of the night.

The Deathless Girls is now out in paperback, available from Waterstones and Hive.co.uk.

That Expat Girl edits a novel | Part I: Editing Goals

If you, dear Writer, like me, have recently found yourself in the possession of a mass of words that reads, front to back, in a way that almost (but not quite) makes complete narrative sense — a.k.a: the first draft of a novel, you may be wondering what you’re actually supposed to do with the thing. Having been in this particular predicament more than once before, I hope that I might be able to provide some helpful advice. The first part of it goes like this:


You’ve written more consecutive words on a theme than most people will write in a lifetime. Be proud of that fact, that somehow or other you have created people and places and objects and perhaps even entire universes out of nothing more than blood and sweat and thoughts and tears and digital (or perhaps physical) ink and sore fingers. This is amazing! This is magic at its most pure!

Are you proud? You should be.

Now, for the bad news: you definitely have to edit the damn thing.

Think about what kind of editing you need to do

Every writer’s editing process looks different, but one way to make it somewhat less painful is to think about what you hope to accomplish in your revision. For myself, as an example, I always know I’ll have at least two rounds of major revision with any piece of work that I produce. My rough drafts are not fit for ANY readers’ delicate eyes (beta or, indeed, zeta), and in fact, there have been times when even I myself have struggled to disentangle the web of scribbled, scratched out lines, ad hoc author’s notes, and mad-libs-style fill-in-the-blank placeholder scenes in order to turn the rough composition in my notebook into an actual readable draft. 

In the case of that first edit, then, for me, the goal is simply to translate the story from the half-way stage of the composition, into a fully-formed skeleton of a narrative on the digital page. 

Think about what you want your story to be

Once you have a full first draft, however, you can start thinking about your goals for the story in a more concrete way. On the most basic level, this means thinking about what you, as a writer, hope to do with the story when it’s finished — are you hoping to get it published by one of the Big Five with the help of a respectable literary agent? Or do you want to keep control of your work and publish it yourself, enlisting the help of a professional designer and editor along the way? Or do you simply want to share your work for free on the web, putting it in front of as many people as possible?

As with all goals, it helps if the targets you set down (and write down!) for yourself are specific, and to some extent, measurable. This is where your critique partners and beta readers are worth their weight in gold. For example, I know that I need to work on the emotional and thematic resonance of my novel in progress. More specifically, I want the ending of my current project, Shape, to be powerfully tragic. Not everyone is going to cry, of course, but if I can get even one of my critique partners to shed a single weak tear, I would at least have an inkling that I’m on the right track.

Break down your goals to make them manageable

It also helps, if you have a full-length novel on your hands, to break down bigger goals into smaller pieces that can be accomplished across multiple editing passes over your work. So, for example, I know, as most writers do, that I want the characters to come alive on the page — for readers to relate to them, and to feel for them, for readers to be totally invested in them. 

But this comes down to a few different things: do their actions within the plot make sense, both logically for the character as well as emotionally? Have I made their motivations and goals clear throughout the narrative? Do I describe them in ways that are not just un-cliche, but lively, evocative, and enjoyable to read? 

Those are three different facets of the same goal, and I would be likely to focus on the first one during my first pass — strengthening the relationship of the characters to the plot, as it’s easier to add and adjust entire scenes at this stage than it would be after polishing them all to a shine. In my second pass, then, I’d focus more on clarifying the look and feel of them, the little flourishes that make them breathe. 

My goals for The Shape of the World

So, here, now, coming back to this mess of a draft after putting it aside for a few weeks to distance my perspective, these are the spoiler-free goals that I’ll be working toward over the coming weeks. 

Main Quest: Polish my work in progress, The Shape of the World, so that it’s ready to face agents by the end of April.

  • Subquest: Characters – Build the protagonist’s relationships with the other characters more naturally and with a lighter touch throughout the book; make the main character more proactive
  • Subquest: Plot – Clarify the stakes for the protagonist; build more ambivalence and mystery around who is a threat and who is not; clarify the thread of cause and effect from scene to scene
  • Subquest: Setting – Solidify details of the worldbuilding and speculative elements; cut infodumps
  • Subquest: Theme and Tone – Make a beta reader cry (no punching, no onions)

Are you editing your novel?

I’d love to know if anyone else out there is in the same place, and if so, what you’re working on! And if you’d be comfortable sharing your writer’s editing goals, I’d love to see those too. Post them in the comments, or link me to your blog, so I can share the journey with you.

The Call to Adventure

Imagine this.

The day has grown late. Outside the windows, the sun is setting, the sky is purpling, and the first stubborn stars have started peeking through the veil of night. It’s been a good, restful day, but before parting ways, you and your Player 2 decide to take a walk around the nearby common. The air is brisk, and the sky is clear, but the wind strikes a mournful tone.

Past the abandoned children’s playground, with the swings and see-saws creaking desolately in the night, up the mud-washed path where moonlight shines, reflected in the puddles. You climb the hill past the old, fenced off rookery, past the cafe boarded up for the night, up to the edge of the grove that surrounds the run-down factory that still, on occasion, churns out unmarked boxes of unknown stuff.

Here, the trail forks. Part of it winds through the trees toward the factory, with a sign promising a pond and garden. The other branch makes a sharp turn back toward the orange streetlights and the sleepy trundling onward of civilisation. You and Player 2 exchange a look, and start your way down the forest path.

Here there is no moonlight. The wind seems to whisper terrible things through the trees. Soon the path is no more than the sense of emptiness below your feet in the dark. There, just at the bend of the path, there is the glow of someone bent over their phone, the light turning their face into spectre. You slow. Who could this be, sitting alongside this darkened pathway, looking at instagram in the darkness?

SHHHHHHHHHHH! comes a hiss from the trees.

There is someone — or something — moving through the wood. A glimpse of matted hair, long limbs sharp and bulky in the gloom. It moves away through the darkness, back past the glow of the lonely instagrammer, back into the shadows too thick to peer through. Still, you hear the crunching of their feet, the mutter of words beneath their breath, though you cannot tell what they are muttering about.

You find that you’re digging your fingers into Player 2’s arm, though both of you are frozen in surprise. A deep breath…

Do you go on?

Or, like me and the boy, do you immediately turn around and hightail it back to the lights of the common, making a beeline for the busy street that will take you straight back home?

Into the Woods

Last Wednesday, the Boy messaged me the cryptic question: “Your next free day is Sunday, right? Up for an adventure?” Details were less than forthcoming. All I was told was that we would need some easy-to-carry snacks, some rugged boots, and to be ready by 10:30am Sunday morning. So of course we agreed for him to camp at mine after work on Saturday.

Naturally, the Boy shows up with a mountaineering backpack. In the backpack were a homemade quiche, a tub of made-from-scratch mince pies, two pairs of hiking socks, and a first aid kit (which I forgot to top up with plasters). Though I woke up on Sunday feeling a bit sneezy, we set out from mine at 11am to catch a train, destination still unclear until we pulled into Chipstead station.

Banstead Wood is a rambling stretch of ancient woodland in Southwest London, still within the Oyster zone but far enough away from the center that you can see the stars at sunset. The Boy grew up not far from here, and this was his childhood stomping ground — a maze of rambler trails dotted with chalk and flint and the remains of old roman roads; ancient trees crowding close on every side; robins and crows and even the tap of a nearby woodpecker; and of course, doggos.

So. Many. Doggos.

Something new the park added recently was a handful of tributes to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. At the entrance to the park, we found Lucy standing guard next to Mr. Tumnus’ lamppost, while further in, Aslan and the White Witch took shelter in the trees. I even managed to take a peek into a very curious wardrobe…

Stepping through the wardrobe in Banstead Forest

We spent the day exploring, climbing, and planning how to survive the coming apocalypse, sitting down for lunch perched in a fallen tree. You know what’s amazing? Quiche. You know what’s even more amazing? A homemade goat’s cheese and caramelized onion quiche eaten in the middle of a goddamn forest. Finish that off with some still-hot jasmine green tea and an also homemade mince pie, and you’ve got a picnic fit for royalty.

Before heading back into the big smoke, we stopped for a drink at the Rambler’s Rest, a cozy little pub just down the road from the station. Lounging next to us by the fire was the biggest English Mastiff I’ve ever seen. Turns out we’d chosen our day well, as the pub was planning some renovations starting on the 20th. I look forward to going back there when they reopen.

And so we hurried home under the stars, the air gone bitter with frost. Back to work tomorrow, but all the better for one brilliant day, well spent. Sometimes life’s not so bad.

A Spark in the Darkness: Liz Hyder’s Bearmouth

Read my original post on The Book Slut here.

“You sed it taykes one person to start a revolushun, but that ent true is it? Taykes more than one. One to start it and uvvers to believe it can happen.”

Bearmouth, by Liz Hyder

The genderless protagonist of Liz Hyder’s Bearmouth goes by the name Newt. That name is one of the few things Newt has ever been freely given in the mines of Bearmouth, as they are neither friendly nor generous. The miners must pay the Masters for their boots and their tools, and even the precious candles that allow them to see their work. But work is the only way to survive, because all this toil ticks on under the blessing of the Mayker. The Mayker is all-seeing and all-knowing, and his prayer says the miners were cast down for their sins. And it is only when the Mayker deigns to give a sign that the workers will be free. Until then, the miners belong to the mines.

The time period of Liz Hyder’s ambitious YA debut is unclear, as is the society of the wider world that allows such heinous conditions to exist. But the immediate setting is dark and warm and damp. Claustrophobic and oppressive, sunless and barren; this is Bearmouth, and it might as well be the end of the world.

The close, nightmarish setting is one of the most striking things about the book. It will remain with you long after you have turned the last page. What you might notice from the very first page, though, is Newt’s voice:

Page from Bearmouth by Liz Hyder

In a way, reading Bearmouth invokes the sense of wading into a foreign language, the sense of deeper meaning lurking beneath the unfamiliar and strange. Best of all, the text itself evolves with Newt, reflecting the protagonist’s learning and realizations. At the very beginning of the novel, Newt is resigned to the conditions of Bearmouth. To some extent, Newt even embraces Bearmouth — the members of their dorm being the only family they have ever truly known, the mine itself the only home that has any meaning or certainty for them. Not only does Newt not want an escape. They can’t even imagine an escape from the prison that is Bearmouth, despite the obvious oppression and the inequality between the miners and the Masters. Newt is even suspicious of the new arrival on their team, Devlin, because the new boy’s name rhymes with the enemy of the Mayker.

“It carnt be a coincidence. Devil. In. Can it?”

Though the borders and details of Bearmouth’s wider world are only vaguely hinted at, the novel’s impact lies in the way that Newt progresses from a willing prisoner to a revolutionary. What it takes for Newt to choose freedom — and to make that freedom real — touches on some of the darkest and most gut-wrenching themes rarely dealt with in YA. 

Hyder doesn’t shy away from portraying the cruelty of Newt’s world in unflinching detail: one of the major developments in Newt’s story involves escalating threats from another group of miners, culminating in an act of sexual aggression where the only way for Newt to defend themselves is by answering violence with violence. The moment highlights Newt’s sense of powerlessness against the system — a powerlessness that may feel all too real to many readers, especially those growing up in a system that seems eternally rigged against them. But it also becomes the first step in Newt taking back control over their own thoughts, their own body, and their own choices.

Ultimately, Newt’s journey is about how the tools that are used to control us are also the tools that we can use to free ourselves. The realities of Bearmouth might be grim, and the exploitation horrific, but the novel is, more than anything, a reminder that even a single spark of hope can be enough to light a wildfire — or at the very least, a well-placed stick of dynamite.


edit /ehd-it/ (verb, with object) | A long, dismal process of rearranging broken things, aligning the ragged edges of mis-matched puzzles, filing too-sharp points to polished facets and hiding the unfinished corners. Trace over fracture lines with molten gold; find diamonds to set in the pockmarks. Perhaps the thing is not a ruin after all.

Just a short prose poem that somewhat captures where I am at the moment (i.e. editing hell). Anyone else in the same place right now?

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