The Overwhelm

How do you survive a pandemic?

Stay Inside. Stay Alert. Wash your hands. Wear a mask.

Make sourdough. Get fit. Bake banana bread. Clean out the house. Teach your kids. Volunteer. Help your neighbours. Do a course. Declutter. Make art. Update your CV. Yoga. Read the classics. Call your Granny/ Mum/ Dad/ Sibling/ Aunty/ Best Friend/ School Friend/ Uni Pals. Clap for the NHS. Sort out the garden. Upskill. Make a podcast. Run. Finish your book. Draw rainbows. Watch live theatre. Knit a jumper. Learn to sew. Catch up on boxsets.

Etc etc etc.

The unexpected side effect of a zoonotic virus rampaging through the global population is the sudden expansion of time. (Unless you’re still working full-time, and having to care for elderly relatives or neighbours, and teach your kids, and keep the kids alive, and everything else.)

No, no, we’ve all got more time. Half the population have been furloughed, with weeks (months) off to lie on the sofa with their hands in their pants. We’re addicted to furlough. We’re in love with the free money.

We’re trying to stay alive.

And we’re trying to stay sane, whatever that means today.

I’m in a very privileged position. Still being paid by my employer, in secure accommodation, with a partner who is earning, no caring responsibilities, no real debt, surrounded by a support system, living in a house with a (very small) garden, round the corner from a park.

Count your blessings, baby.

Think of the nurses, the doctors, the supermarket workers, the carers, the delivery drivers, the binmen, the police, the social workers.

Be grateful for what you have.

It’s the gift of time! You can finish your book! Free money! What luck.

And for the first few weeks I basked in lockdown. Pushed down all my concerns for the future. Made shit-hot cinnamon buns. Did daily yoga. Went for runs. Cleaned the house. Cooked nutritional meals. Wrote every day, and graphed my progress.

Started writing increasingly elaborate To Do Lists. Set up structures for my day. Made plans. Created rules. This was my time, all in my control.

All I had to do was do yoga everyday, not read the news too much, hit my daily wordcount, don’t indulge in hypochondria, make sure the house was clean (enough), be grateful, cook an evening meal for my partner (he’s still working, you’re doing eff-all), don’t stress about being made redundant, run three times a week, check in on your friends, volunteer for something, don’t wallow in worry for healthcare professionals, update CV, is the government really doing this, take the opportunity to declutter.

Etc etc.

It’s an unprecedented global crisis. (Not unexpected. But unprecedented.)

Trying to manage your corner of a chaotic world is expected. Creating elaborate structures and rules gives some illusion of control when you feel powerless.

But it’s important to realise that your internal monologue is trying to make sense of something that is nonsensical. That you can’t control. (We could never control the world, of course. But there were rules and habits. A social contract.)

It’s okay to feel torn and scared and constantly conflicted.

Nothing is normal, except for all the things that are.

And those things are: people continue to show off on the internet. Good mental health takes an irritating amount of work. People continue to fail in all sorts of ways. Sunshine helps. Food does too. The perfect rose blooms with scent. You’ll miss someone, or lots of people. The best place seems to be the place you can’t be.

You’ll miss hugging. Full wrap them up grabs. Perfunctory see you next time embraces. Squishing babies. Cheek kissing greetings. Comforting squeezes. Cuddles with your best friends.

There should be a nice neat ending here. A solution. A conclusion.

But we’ve no timeline for when this will end.

So here’s what I have for you.

I see you. You’re doing your best. Cut yourself some slack. Keep the faith. Take the time to do something dumb that you love. You deserve it.


PS. I wrote this because of this tweet.


Good news! I may be terrible at updating my blog, but I’ve been shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize for Best Unpublished Manuscript.

I’m really delighted to be shortlisted along side three other very talented writers, and have my fingers crossed for September. It’s been a lovely ego boost, and another reminder to get on with the never-ending edits.

In case you’re interested, here’s the blurb for the book; Yellow Tooth, which was shortlisted:

Yellow Tooth is an adventure story set in South Africa in the near future. The novel follows Zaffie, a gutsy teenage girl, as she makes her way through a post-apocalyptic world: battling crocodiles, avoiding lightning strikes, and trying to escape her kidnappers. Yellow Tooth is heavily influenced by H Rider Haggard’s King Solomon Mines, and Willard Price’s “Adventure” series, with a slice of Gerald Durrell’s fascinated affection for creatures great and small.

If you’d like to know more, please do get in touch.

For the Love of Libraries

One of my earliest memories is going to the library. I’m two, maybe three, and the library is just round the corner from my house; close enough to walk to. So every week I toddle down with a parent, around the sloping hill to the temporary box library, and I get to choose my own books.

For at least a year, the only books I choose are Thomas the Tank Engine. (I loved Thomas the Tank Engine. I used to call him Thomas the Tangy and pretend to be a train for hours and hours.) My parents used to try and get the librarian to hide the Thomas the Tank Engine books to save them from yet another rendition of Thomas and Gordon and Annie and Clarabelle, and the librarian always refused.

You see, librarians don’t censor people’s reading.

And then, when we moved to England and everything was horribly different, there was still the local library. To get to this one you had to run the gauntlet of the scary older boys hanging around outside on their BMX’s, but inside there were books. Lots of them.

For the next ten years, that local branch library was the place I visited the most. Even when I had to dodge the cool kids and hide my stack of books, it was worth it.

Because in a library you get to find other lives.

I did my work experience in that local library, then came back in the summer to help with kids doing the Summer Reading Challenge.

Fast forward another eight years, and I work on a reading project in conjunction with three county library services. This time, it’s about encouraging adults to read different books: books that they wouldn’t pick up ordinarily.

I wouldn’t be the person I am without libraries. I would be much sadder, much emptier, much more lonely.

Today it’s #NationalLibrariesDay, and we need to save Britain’s libraries. Please, go and use yours.

Here’s a longer article I wrote for The Norwich Radical about The Freedom of Libraries. 

Not the Novel I’m Writing Now

But the one I was writing before.

When I was studying on the UEA Creative Writing MA I was working on a novel, provisionally entitled Heartsick. I’d been writing it on and off for a couple of years before I started the course, and thinking about it since I finished my undergrad. (It grew out of a short story I wrote for one of my third year assessments.) I took this novel into workshop after workshop.

In hindsight, that was a huge mistake. Because by the time it got to writing my dissertation I had no idea how I wanted to write Heartsick any more. I’d heard too much from other people, and my own feelings for how the novel should “go” were confused and muddled and anxious. (Top tip, Masters students, shake up your submissions.)

So, I started a new novel for my dissertation. Which was the right decision, because I enjoyed it so much more and I got a bloody good mark. (*smug*)

Still, I’ve got about thirty five thousand words of Heartsick and I have every intention of finishing it eventually. If you’d like, you can read a section of it over on The EDP named it as one of their highlights, and described it as “bleakly comic”, which was nice.

If you do read it, and you like it, please let me know. (I love praise.)

How I Write: An Ineffective Guide

Sit at desk, sweep paper into cluttered stack and place coffee cup in vacant space. Watch coffee slop over brink of mug onto keyboard. Consider licking keyboard. (Swipe with sleeve to dry instead.) Turn computer on.

Open Word Document. Decide more caffeine needs to be consumed before yesterday’s words can be read. Allow five minute online break in preparation.

Look up from Twitter half an hour later. Curse. Realise if all tweets were combined there would be enough words for a novel. Curse again. Refill coffee cup.

Tab back to Word. Discover previous writing is appalling mashed mass, not tightly honed prose. Sulk.

Remember that scribbled useful notes in middle of night. Scrabble beneath layered-desk-mess for notebook. Find black moleskine. Search for notes—notes appear to have vanished—wonder if dreamt useful comments.

Check in other room. Find stack of identical black moleskines. Resign self to searching through all of them. Find useful notes twenty minutes later. Comments consist of ‘Plot squiffy- improve. NB Disaster’. Curse self.

Go downstairs to fetch motivational hobnobs. Grab three biscuits. Congratulate self on not taking whole packet. Decide on one hobnob reward per 250 words.

Spin in chair, wait for inspiration. Watch couple having argument on street. Duck when angry man notices. Knock stack of library books onto floor. Pick up books. Turn back to computer. Reach for hobnob.

Hobnobs have vanished. Look round for hobnobs. Notice crumbs strewn down front. Realise have consumed all three motivational hobnobs. Swear.

Threaten self with exercise. Subconscious decides writing better option. Type.

I wrote this when the lovely Hayley Webster asked for submissions to her online writing festival All the Words. Do check out all the other pieces.

It’s been a while

In fact, it’s been exactly a year. (And what a year it has been.)

I’ve been busy. Too busy.

I went back to South Africa, and spent a month visiting friends and family and lying on the beach. I also travelled to Berlin, Stockholm and Dublin. (That year of travel insurance was money well spent.)

I’ve been studying at Creative Writing at UEA, where I’ve tried to become a better writer. I’ve written lots of words, and deleted many too. I’ve started three novels, and finished none. (Luckily, I’ve finished a few stories.)

I left one job, and started another.

I’ve made new friends and neglected old ones.

I’ve drunk far too many pints and suffered through an excessive number of book-launch-wine-hangovers.

I’ve sobbed at election results, and screamed at new policies.

I’ve spent way too much time tweeting when I should have been writing.

I’ve read hundreds of books.

I’ve failed at lots of things, and succeeded in a few.

I’ve laughed and cried and sulked and moaned.


This has been the worst year of my life in many ways. I’ve spent it struggling to hit deadline after deadline, wishing away the months so I can only get to the end. I’ve been incessantly stressed, constantly anxious, and inexorably whiney.

But in a lot of ways, it’s also been the best. Because I’ve been studying on the best Creative Writing course in the country, and I’ve given myself a chance to become better at doing what I want to do. I’ve benefited from brilliant teaching. I’ve met some amazing, supportive writers, and been lucky enough to befriend some of them. I’ve taken a step up the career ladder. I’ve seen parts of the world with people I love. My friends have proved themselves to be far better than I deserve, and my family have been behind me, gently shoving me up the hill.

And now the end is almost here, and I’ve almost reached that quarter-century mark.

Who knows what’s going to happen next?

Optional listening to accompany this post.

Not Stories, But Writing

I’ve been pretty busy over the last month or so. There was Worlds Literature Festival, sorting out my upcoming trip to South Africa and preparing to leave my job. Oh, and I’m leaving my job because I’m going back to UEA to study the Creative Writing Masters (Prose) in September. (Yay!)

But, I’ve written a few blogs too. If you follow me on Twitter you’re probably all too aware of them – do feel free to look away now:

Discovering Vladislavić – One of South Africa’s Finest Writers – Ampersand: And Other Stories
On meeting Ivan Vladislavic, author of The Restless Supermarket.

Norwich – A Fine City (of Literature) – Waterstones
On Norwich’s literary heritage and UNESCO City of Literature status. 

So, you want to be a writer? – Waterstones
My selection of the best creative writing guides.

Noirwich Crime Writing Festival – Waterstones
On upcoming crime writing festival Noirwich.

A Criminal Celebration – Writers’ Centre Norwich
Another Noirwich blog with a fiction introduction.

You might also like to read about how Rich designed the Noirwich logo.

If you do read of the blogs, I’d love to know what you think! And if you’d be interested in me writing something for you, drop me a comment or tweet me @DilysTolfree.*



*I’d hope to be paid, but we can’t have everything in life.

Congratulations to the lovely Emma Healey

On the publication of her debut novel Elizabeth is Missing. It’s already receiving some rather marvellous reviews and Jonathan Coe described it as One of those semi-mythical beasts, the book you cannot put down”. 

Elizabeth-is-Missing-final-UK-cover-copyMeet Maud … ‘Elizabeth is missing’, reads the note in Maud’s pocket in her own handwriting. Lately, Maud’s been getting forgetful. She keeps buying peach slices when she has a cupboard full, forgets to drink the cups of tea she’s made and writes notes to remind herself of things. But Maud is determined to discover what has happened to her friend, Elizabeth, and what it has to do with the unsolved disappearance of her sister Sukey, years back, just after the war. A fast-paced mystery with a wonderful leading character: Maud will make you laugh and cry, but she certainly won’t be forgotten. (Find out more on Waterstones)


Isn’t that a pretty cover?

It’s a really wonderful book. Cleverly constructed, emotionally truthful and absolutely gripping, Elizabeth is Missing deserves all the praise it’s getting.

You can buy Elizabeth is Missing online, or you can pop into your local bookshop.


 Emma modelling her wonderful book.

healey_launch_groupAll of us looking excited.

The Restless Supermarket

The-Restless-Supermarket-RGB-300x457By Ivan Vladislavic

It is 1993, and Aubrey Tearle’s world is shutting down. He has recently retired from a lifetime of proofreading telephone directories. His favourite neighbourhood haunt in Johannesburg, the Café Europa, is about to close its doors; the familiar old South Africa is already gone. Standards, he grumbles, are in decline, so bad-tempered, conservative Tearle embarks on a grandiose plan to enlighten his fellow citizens. The results are disastrous, hilarious and poignant.

A classic novel about the post-apartheid era, brimming with surprising perspectives, urban satire, riotous imagery and outrageous wordplay. Vladislavić’s tour de force was awarded the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize. (Find out more on And Other Stories.)


I’ve only just started reading this, but I read Vladislavic’s novel Double Negative last year and adored it. I’m 34 pages in, and I’m already tweeting about it, which is a very good sign.

Oh, and if you’d like the opinion of a proper writer:


(Teju Cole is the author of Open City.)

Anyways, if you’re at all interested in South African politics or apartheid* you should probably read The Restless Supermarket.



PS. I just finished The Vacationers by Emma Straub and that was pretty good too. More later…

PPS. I started reading it almost a week ago, and am now reading it in small, succulent bites. I want to savour it.

*Or ‘apart-hate’, as in The Wasp Factory

© 2021 Rowan Whiteside