You may have noticed that the little blue square on the side of the page (the one under “Novel-writing madness”) says zero. And you may be wondering why. After all, for the past seven years, the number has risen steadily throughout November – and the final figure proudly displayed for a year.
Well, there’s a simple explanation: I didn’t do NaNoWriMo this year. I didn’t start and then give up; I just didn’t do it. I did write stuff, but there were just too many other things going on for me to focus on NaNoWriMo as I have in previous years. So even though I did do some work on a novel during November, I couldn’t honestly call it “doing NaNoWriMo”. Besides, it’s common practice in some professions to have a sabbatical once every seven years, so let’s think of 2016 as my NaNo sabbatical year.
To all my mates who did do NaNoWriMo: well done – especially if you did hit 50k. And to everyone who’s said to me this year, “I’m going to do that nano thing you’re always going on about”: they always said I’d be a bad influence…
(Only kidding. Seriously, I feel really chuffed to know that I’ve inspired someone to do something creative, so thank you)
November 2014 has been and gone; another stress-filled November in which I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).
I won (again – yay me!), but I’d be the first to admit that this year it was a struggle. But I have learnt a few imortant lessons from the experience – the main one being that I am not a ‘pantser’.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ins and outs of NaNoWriMo, you’ve probably looked at the last word in that previous paragraph and wondered if I’m on something. I’m not (although as a writer, I reserve the right to make words up when I feel like it). In NaNoWriMo-speak, there are two types of writers: Planners and Pantsers. Planners have a clearly thought-out idea, have sketched out a few characters, and have some idea of the plot of their story is going to go. They’re prepared, basically (the level of preparation may vary from one to the other).
Pantsers, on the other hand, don’t have time for all that. They rock up to this thing on Day 1 with nothing prepared in advance; they face the blank page/screen, and fly by the seat of their pants (hence the name).
After three years of going into NaNoWriMo with an idea kind of thought out in advance, I decided this year to see how the ‘blank canvas’ experience felt. Even the title of my novel alluded to this blankness (I named it The Person Who Did a Thing – backhanded tribute to my favourite Swedish authors, Jonas Jonasson and the late Stieg Larsson, whose book titles can all be reduced to that).
So far, so vague- I mean good. I started off well; I aimed to do two thousand words a day, and for the first week, I pretty much succeeded. But then I missed a couple of days and things started to unravel. Nothing much was happening with my characters, and it wasn’t until I decided to switch from telling the story in the third person and made it a first person narrative instead that words started to flow slightly more easily.
Again, the social/community side to NaNoWriMo helped me stay on track at the hardest times. I went to as many of the ‘write-ins’ as I could (usually in a Costa near Oxford Circus) and to the ‘Literary Lock-in’ – an all-nighter at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. That really helped. Writing from 7pm to 7am in a small bookshop with about 40 other people sounds daunting. But by the end of it, I’d done 6,000-plus words and was on track once again. I finally hit the 50K target on the very last day.
At the end of a gruelling NaNoWriMo, I now have two characters (plus half a dozen anciliary ones), tons of mostly self-reflective musings on anything and everythng, and a few ideas that could make a few decent short stories at the very least. So nothing’s been wasted.
What next? Well, after a short break, my plan is to pick up Refugees & Renegades (the novel I won NaNo with in 2011) and give it that long-overdue rewrite and edit. Of all the characters I’ve created so far, Braima, Ed and Alvaro y la Familia Montes are the ones I feel closest to (probably because of the amount of time I’ve spent with them). It’s time to finish their story and get it out. Once that’s done, it’ll be either Yebu and Yasminka (last year’s winning ladies) or the two Bens (from the year before). Either way, there’ll be at least one manuscript done by the time NaNoWriMo 2015 rolls round – and I’ll probably use that time to rewrite one of the other two.
Last night I went to see Emmanuel Jal performing at the Forge arts centre in Camden. As gigs go, it was an exciting performance in a space which at times seemed too small to contain all the energy that was raring to burst out. Support came from members of his backing band who have their own solo careers: vocalists Tanika Charles and Clinton ‘Roachie’ Outten, and Afrobeats artist and multi-instrumentalist Silvastone. Emmanuel’s own set consisted mostly of songs from his latest album, the Key.
I’ve known Emmanuel for quite some time; over 10 years, now I think of it. I was one of the first journalists here to help relay the heartbreaking yet uplifting account of his escape from life as a child soldier to the world (that would be in 2003, if my memory serves me well). I was at Westminster with my notebook and camera when he and several other Sudanese people and their supporters staged a ‘die-in’ as a protest against the war in Sudan. We bumped into each other again the first time he played Greenbelt, and at an African music festival in Trafalgar Square. But all that was a long time ago, so it was good to catch up with him again.
Before Emmanuel took to the stage, he and I retreated to a nearby restaurant where I threw a few questions at him…
So much has happened in your life since we last met up. Give us a rundown, please…
Yes, a lot of things have happened. The We Want Peace movement is still going, where I go to schools and share my experiences. I believe that when you share your experiences and stories, it’s like putting on a spotlight in a dark place. When you put a light on in a dark place, evil will perform less.
I’m also still doing charity work with Gua Africa – the charity that I founded, helping families and individuals overcome the effects of war and poverty. I’ve just been in a film called the Good Lie with Reese Witherspoon. And I now have five albums out; the latest one is called the Key.
The Key isn’t just an album. What else is there to the concept?
It all came about when I met Paul Lindley in South Africa. Paul’s the founder of Ella’s Kitchen, a company that makes baby food here in the UK. We started talking about food – but from that I came to realise that Paul cared about children, as I do. And so he suggested an idea: Why couldn’t we make an album about children’s rights? And so we started brainstorming ideas.
Later on, these ideas gave birth to an enterprise. And that was when we formed The Key is E. It’s going to fund small business owners who have a direct impact on children’s lives. It’s going to focus mostly on Africa. The Key is E will be a platform to connect people who want to invest in Africa; connecting the diaspora to local people with ideas, or any other investors who want to go to Africa.
I’ve been doing tours where all the proceeds from the tickets at the door go to the enterprise. All the proceeds from the album go to it too. As for the album, we had lots of people involved. Nile Rodgers did a song called ‘My Power’. Nelly Furtado’s on two songs, and then we have two songs from the album featured on a film soundtrack.
You’ve also started your own record label. What acts have you signed so far?
The label’s called Gatwich Records and it’s based in Canada. In terms of artists, at the moment there’s just me and my sister Nyaruach. But we’re looking to sign others. What we’re going to try to do is focus more on management. It’s not easy to make money from CD sales, so we’re trying to bring 360 deals in.
How did you find the writing process when you did your autobiography War Child?
It was a difficult thing to come out and tell the story. One of the most difficult things is, when you tell the story, who’s going to believe you? And because there’s a political side to it, you could get attacked. People will accuse you of lying.
The main questions are: who’s going to believe you, why are you doing it, what’s going to happen and will it create change? Those four Ws all have to be answered first. After I’d answered them, I just took the risk and wrote the book. But yes – telling it personally was difficult.
What’s this new film you’re in, and how are you finding the acting experience now that you have two films under your belt? The Good Lie is about the ‘lost boys’ of South Sudan who escaped, and how they survived. Some became child soldiers, and they finally made their way to the US. Reese Witherspoon’s in it, and I brought the musical and cultural aspect to it, together with other South Sudanese, we helped make it accurate. The writers did a fantastic job; the director was awesome. It’s an amazing project – and it was fantastic to have Reese Witherspoon humble herself and help put the message out.
The hardest acting experience for me was Africa United – the first film role I was ever given. It was hard because I was being told to act! But then, the role was that of a child soldier, so that made it easy. I was a soldier before, so I acted as if I was going to kill. Sometimes soldiers act when they’re threatening you.
One of your collaborators on this new album is Nile Rodgers. I’ve been a Chic fan for, like, forever; how did you get to link up with him?
When you’re walking your path and you keep on doing your work positively, you’ll meet a lot of positive people on the way. And that’s how I met Nile. I met him at a UN concert. From there, we kept in touch. He invited me to a We Are Family Foundation event; I supported him; he liked what I was doing – and so we ended up doing a song together.
Nile’s an amazing person. He’s like a mentor to many people. Whenever you meet Nile, he will always give you the support you need.
How are things in South Sudan at the moment?
Right now, South Sudan is in a difficult situation. I feel betrayed when I think about the situation, where the people we trusted – the people who fought for our freedom – pocketed our freedom. The war that’s happening in South Sudan now started as a disagreement between people in the same party. The president was questioned by some of the other party members, who said “we have corruption going on; we need to have accountability towards the people we’re leading and towards our party”. They said they needed to be transparent and put institutions in place that would protect all of us. Some of them also said they would like to be able to run for the presidency. That made the president angry – and he fired the entire cabinet.
When that happened, people started to speak out, and the president started putting them under house arrest. He broke the constitution and dissolved the electoral system. His biggest threat was his vice-president, so what he did was arm members of his own ethnic group within the city and made them the presidential guard. That was what led to the conflict. Later, he accused the cabinet that he’d fired of trying to stage a coup. His plan was to silence any opposition. When that failed, those who escaped discovered later that their families had been killed. A lot of young people got angry when this happened, and they thought it was a tribal war. Some of them attacked the government’s barracks; some carried out revenge attacks on people from the other tribes.
According to community research, about 20,000 Nuer people were killed in Juba. We’re talking innocent civilians here – women and children in their homes. My house was burnt down. Sixty people from my family got killed – including my brother and stepmother.
What saved the situation was the widow of Dr John Garang. She spoke on the radio and said, “Look – what happened in Juba is not good.” Her speech on the radio was what prevented the conflict from becoming a tribal one. I give her credit, because without her intervention, genocide could well have happened. A lot of innocent people would have died.
The situation is terrible. We have approximately two million displaced people; thousands killed… Our country spent a billion dollars on arms, while the UN is looking for 1.3 billion to fund the refugees that need food. But now I think both sides are beginning to come to their senses. I hope they find a peaceful solution, and that all those involved in these killings are held accountable.
This time last week, I was at Cheltenham Racecourse with a few thousand other folk, taking in (and contributing to) the 40th annual Greenbelt festival. The first one since 1995 or thereabouts that I haven’t attended as a member of the Press (although I was on reporter duty for Surefish and did do some festival coverage for them). This was my fourth year of being involved with Greenbelt as a volunteer, and I’m still learning a lot about the inner workings of this crazy festival I’ve been a devoted fan of since 1990 (as those who’ve seen the interview with me in this year’s festival programme will tell you).
In some ways, ‘#GB40’ (as it’s known on Twitter) was a smaller Greenbelt than usual. Cheltenham Racecourse is in the early stages of major renovation work and parts of it are yet to recover from the almighty flooding that made last year’s Greenbelt so ‘memorable’. As a result, the festival site was shrunk a bit. That, coupled with the fact that some of the regular traders had either gone out of business or stopped doing festivals, meant that a few regulars from previous years – Nuts Cafe, for example – weren’t around this year (it probably also explains why Higgledy Pies ran out of my favourite mash so quickly – but let’s not dwell on that).
But ‘smaller’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘of lesser quality’. And as far as the programme went, Greenbelt delivered goodies a-plenty. Both Extra Curricular and the London Community Gospel Choir were a joy to watch on Mainstage on Saturday (and as the DJ between the Mainstage bands that evening, I was privileged to see both gigs from side stage). Amadou & Miriam were great too – as were those mad folksters Folk On, the Austin Francis Connection (of whom, more later) and the ‘oldies’ who played each afternoon: the Fat Band, Fat & Frantic and Why? (I’m actually wearing my XL dark blue “Giggle, ‘cos it’s fun” T-shirt as I write this; a T-shirt that got completely soaked in cider on Sunday afternoon).
The line-up in the newly relocated Performance Cafe was just as great (not that I’m biased or anything) and included stellar sets from Eska, Eliza Carty, Jacob Lloyd, Daughters of Davis and a poetry showcase curated by Harry Baker.
As far as talks go, I found the short talks in GTV easier to get in to see than some of the others (I took one look at the queue for Vicky Beeching’s talk and knew I wasn’t getting in). I was able to see Sami Awad speak, and enjoyed a talk Catherine Fox gave offering an insight into the novelist’s craft – plus short talks from Andrew Howie, Sara Batts, Cieran O’Reilly, Steve Lawson, Vicky Walker, Jonty Langley and Jim Wallis.
I mentioned the AFC earlier. Their Sunday afternoon Mainstage gig was also their swansong, the band members having decided earlier in the year to disband. I interviewed founder and front man Edi Johnston for Surefish; you can hear an edited audio version of that interview – plus a few of their most popular songs – here.
My other jobs over the weekend included co-hosting a GTV talk show with Chine Mbubeagu, interviewing a few of the Israeli and Palestinian speakers at the festival. I also had another stint DJing at the silent disco in the Big Top on Monday night. I did record the set (mostly world music for the first two hours, plus some soul, some more Latin music, and a couple of what my rival DJ on the night described as “low blows”). The plan was to put that out on Mixcloud, but it appears that the audio file needs some work before I can do that.
Greenbelt, it was a pleasure celebrating your 40th. Life begins; let’s see what life has in store…
And boy, did I write. I wrote in my office (the one at home, that is!), in bed, in Starbucks, on the bus, on a plane, in a Latin music bar in Soho, a hotel in Istanbul, and reclined on a beanbag in a really nice café in Sultanhamet called the Palatium. I wrote on my new MacBook Pro and my old G4 iBook, as well as on my mobile phone (thank God for Evernote!) and even, on occasion, with good old pen and paper.
This year’s NaNoWriMo felt a little different to previous ones where, for the most part, I’d come in to the exercise on Day 1 with a blank sheet and just winged it. I always believed that I would be more in control if I already had an idea and outline planned in advance, and so knew what I was supposed to be writing about when writing time came along. This time round, I did have an idea – and with a little help from the NaNoWriMo workbook Ready, Set, Novel! I had a handful of characters ready to work their magic. All the advance preparation helped me build up some great momentum in Week 1 – which helped, because things got a bit slack on the writing front in Week 2 (see previous blog post for some idea why; I had far too many late nights and other events in my diary that week). I struggled a bit in Week 3 but kept writing, and got back on track in the final week.
What would I say I learnt from this year’s NaNoWriMo experience?
Well, I’d learnt a long time ago that NaNoWriMo is a means to an end and not an end in itself. But that became more and more obvious to me as the month progressed. Basically what happened was that I developed an idea I thought was strong, but then struggled a bit with making it work (too few subplots to keep you going from one end of the story arc to another). I kept on writing nonetheless, but a lot of the time, it felt like treading water; just writing to keep the word count up, rather than to advance the plot.
Just write. It seems like daft advice, but none of that work is wasted. If nothing else, it is good practice – and it really does help sharpen your writing skills!
Well, November is over and I have a little under 51,000 words about an unconventional family I’ve quite grown to like. It would be nice to work on them a bit more and get them to the point where I’d be happy to introduce them to the rest of the world. That phase, I’ve decided, will start after Christmas.
One of the funny things about being a music journalist is the completely opposite ways the people in your life view your job. On the one hand, you have those friends and relatives who imagine that it must be really glamorous getting to rub shoulders with the stars (trust me, it isn’t – well, not always).
On the flipside of that (actually, now that even CDs are becoming obsolete, does anyone use the word ‘flipside’ anymore?), people within the trade will always warn you, “Never meet your heroes.” Don’t be too eager to meet that artist you’ve always admired, because chances are they might turn out to be a complete tool. I’ve heard more than a few stories from fellow music writers who stopped being fans of one artist or other the day they finally got to meet them in person.
Well, last night I met one of my all-time favourite musicians… and I’m happy to say that things didn’t go quite so badly.
I’ve been an admirer of the work of Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards for, um – let’s just say a very long time. Back when I lived in Freetown, I got hold of the 12” single of ‘I Want Your Love’ (on shocking pink vinyl!) at around the same time I came across a copy of their Grand Tour souvenir book. ‘Le Freak’, ‘Good Times’ and all their Sister Sledge tracks were already firm favourites, and over the years I pretty much gobbled up anything that had their stamp on it. I can remember vividly where I was when I heard of Bernard’s death (I was driving to Shepherd’s Bush to interview the author Courttia Newland for a literary mag when Danny Baker announced it on his show on GLR).
More recently, I’ve been following Nile’s blog, Walking on Planet C (detailing his fight against cancer), which has been enlightening, having lost a couple of friends to the vile disease myself in the last few years. And yesterday, I was one of about 200 fans who gathered at Waterstone’s bookshop in Piccadilly, for an evening with Nile promoting his autobiography, Le Freak. I bought my copy a couple of weeks ago and have started reading it – though I won’t get a great deal of reading done this month, as I’m more preoccupied with writing a book of my own (yes, it’s that time of year again). The little I’ve read so far, however, I’ve found really captivating.
I found Nile himself to be just as captivating during his interview. He is quite the storyteller; some of his stories I’d heard before (being a self-confessed Chic anorak), but quite a few I hadn’t – such as him being asked to be a judge on American Idol and turning it down (which is how Randy “yo dawg” Jackson ended up with the gig). When it was all over, we shook hands and said hello, he signed my book and my Chic box set, and I left Waterstone’s (in the words of the old Chic song) a Happy Man.
Nile wasn’t the only hero of mine I encountered last night. The interviewer was Pete Paphides, whose writing I’ve enjoyed for many years – and who I was able to have a brief chat with as we stood in line waiting to have our books signed. When I started doing music columns for Surefish, I modelled my style on Pete’s articles in the little entertainment guide that comes with the Guardian on Saturdays (a writing style which has led to comments that I write “like a white person” – though I really don’t think I do, or even know what that means!).
So yesterday I got two heroes for the price of one – and they both turned out to be quite nice blokes. Amongst the many stories Nile told us, he spoke about the time he and Bernard produced Diana Ross’ Diana album. Tonight, I’ll be meeting Diana’s daughter, Tracee Ellis-Ross (who’s in town promoting her new TV series), and then from there I’m going to see Switchfoot in concert. Yay me and my rock n’ roll lifestyle…
Anyway, I’m in Paddington station’s First Class lounge, waiting for my train to Cheltenham (yes, first class. I’m going to be spending the next five nights sleeping in a tent, so allow me a little luxury before then) – and, as with last year’s train ride, I’m using the down time to remind myself again what it is I love about the festival, and what I’m looking forward to most at this year’s.
On the music side of things, there’s quite a lot I’m excited about. I’ve already waxed lyrical on the Greenbelt blog about how happy I am that Eska is going to be there. I’m also looking forward to seeing a few old friends play – Freddie Kofi and Henry Bran. There’s a lady by the name of Dayana Trindade who’s travelling all the way from Brazil to sing in the Performance Cafe. I’ve been listening a fair bit to Listener and Hope & Social (both of whom I interviewed for a Greenbelt preview article in the Church Times newspaper); also to Rob Halligan, Lanre, Jason Carter and Atlum Schema. I’ll stop now before this turns into a list of all the bands playing (but not before mentioning the “leg end” that is Mavis Staples, of course).
I also plan on making time to see and participate in as much of the literature programme as possible; hang out with fellow writers and glean as much writing wisdom as I can from them. And then there’s the comedy. I saw Milton Jones at the Hammersmith Apollo a few months ago, so if I don’t get in to see him, I won’t be totally devastated. But there’s no way I’m missing ‘ma gurl’ Jo Enright. Or Paul Kerensa. And I’m praying that Mark Thomas‘ show on Monday doesn’t clash with my DJing duties that day. If it does – well, too bad…
But more than the music, the comedy or anything else, I’m excited about the hanging out. For the past few weeks, my Twitter stream has been abuzz with people I follow making Greenbelt hook-up plans. I’ve had a few invitations to have a coffee (or a beer) myself, and I plan to make good on every one of them. Greenbelt – it’s all about people, really. Now should I or shouldn’t I take part in the speed dating? That is the question…