Writing together

I’m not much of an extrovert. Far from it. I’d happily stay home and never go anywhere, but that’s not how the world works. You adapt. Leave the house.  Talk to other people. Real people.

So it fascinates me how networked and interactive the writing community is, online and in real life, considering how many writers are introverts. There are those huge web communities where people pitch ideas, get draft feedback, agonise over rejections, beg agents for advice, just like the Writers’ Centres  and events we have in so many places now. There are courses and workshops and a whole lot of people (the extroverts, probably) creating careers out of connecting writers with one another and – of course – with publishers and agents. They scare me a little, but never mind.

The amazing thing to me is how communities develop organically, or when given a gentle boost. The Young Adult authors on Twitter, for example, many of whom have also met in real life at conferences or events, have proved with campaigns such as #YAsaves to be a force for goodness and niceness, able to be mobilised in minutes.

So this week and next I am in writing paradise: Varuna Writers’ House in Katoomba, in the gorgeous Blue Mountains in New South Wales. *

Image of liquidamber leaves

Dry stone wall under the liquidamber - Varuna

It’s autumn here, and some days it rains softly. There are five writers in the house, all working on different kinds of projects and at different stages of our careers. We each have a bedroom and a writing room, in a house filled with books and light. We wake up early most mornings. We may or may not see one another during the day. We slouch about, sit at our desks, proofread in the sunshine, go for walks, refuse to go for walks (in my case), browse the bookshelves, and write.

Mostly write. When we assembled on the first evening we all agreed there was some kind of magic going on. I’d written 5000 words that day – twice the usual rate. We start early (though it’s entirely up to the individual) and most of us are at our desks for 11 or 12 hours. But it’s not just that – somehow the mind becomes more focused, more productive. If there’s a writing zone, we are deep inside it. It’s quiet, respectful, peaceful, dedicated, and we are all conscious of the extraordinary privilege of being here – of being supported, as writers.

We help ourselves to the plentiful food supplies – in some cases every two hours – and then around 6pm we slowly assemble in front of the fire in the dining room, talk about our days, our work, the world and wait for the legendary Sheila to arrive and prepare a fabulous meal.  It’s a little writing community, of sorts: a temporary one, although I know plenty of people who’ve made lasting friendships here.

It’s quite different from my select and extremely rowdy writing circle back home. There are three of us. Most weeks we meet for lunch, for coffee and then go write. Together. We sit about with our laptops somewhere soundproof (for the safety of those around us) and we write in 25 minute sprints, and then for ten minutes we gossip, drink cups of tea, and laugh until we weep. Then another writing sprint. I haven’t been part of that kind of writing community for years, and it’s lovely. (Thank you, Paddy O’Reilly and Fran Cusworth.) It developed naturally, in a way, but we are also all PhD students in a faculty of supportive people.

Online, I’m part of a community of writers and readers, many of whom I’ve never met. We share resources, articles, reading suggestions, outrage, shameless plugs, despair, jokes, favourite videos, support and encouragement. It’s called Twitter and it’s as much a part of my own professional development as – in fact more than, because it’s daily –  my membership of any professional organisations.

So you see – even an introvert gets out sometimes.

Image of Eleanor's studio, Varuna

Eleanor Dark's studio, Varuna

*Varuna was the home of author Eleanor Dark (The Timeless Land)  and Dr Eric Dark, who served with the Medical Corps on the Somme and was awarded a Military Cross following Passchendaele. The MC citation, dated 15th August 1917, reads:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in leading his bearers. He displayed great gallantry and disregard of danger in moving about in the open under the heaviest shell fire, collecting and evacuating the wounded. He worked continuously for thirty-six hours, by his energy and determination contributing largely to the rapid clearing of the battlefield.”

Their house must have been an oasis in their busy lives: both were at the forefront of contemporary politics; Eleanor was a feminist and social justice advocate, Eric a socialist and committed member of the Labour Left during those turbulent decades around the Second World War. Varuna was donated “to literature” by their son Mick and is now a year-round haven for writers of all persuasions. It has a range of fellowships and programs: I was lucky enough to be awarded a Retreat Fellowship.

Tudor plagues

What’s the collective noun for the Tudors? A chalice of Tudors? A gauntlet?

A plague?

There are, at last count, 27,491* historical novels based in the courts of the Tudor kings and queens. It’s not hard to see why. They were a fascinating lot. Sex maniac Henry. His six wives and their sisters. His children: irrational and frigid or possibly sex maniac Elizabeth, psychopathic Mary, frail little Edward and his cousin the bewildered Lady Jane Grey. There are captains with sparkling eyes like Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate. Priests in hair shirts. Head chopping. Rabid Scots. An Armada. There is even Geoffrey Rush. That’s what they were like, right? Ask anybody.

It’s time to enforce a moratorium.

From now on, nobody is allowed to publish any new books on the Tudors without proving to a committee (composed entirely of me) that they:

  • Undertake not to completely distort the historical record and their readers’ sense of history without reasonable cause
  • Have something new to say on the topic.

We get the some thing over and over. That’s right.  Elizabeth never married. I don’t understand how that comes as a surprise to anybody. Mary, Queen of Scots was executed. So was Anne Boleyn. Henry had six wives. Amazing. Who knew?

But what you would never learn from many of the recent fictional portrayals is that these were among the best educated, most intelligent, influential people in Europe. That some of the most significant political and religious initiatives of all time took place under their reigns (alongside some disasters). That the Tudor queens dramatically altered the understanding of monarchy and leadership. That some of the alliances the Tudors forged and enemies they created resonate to this day.

Instead you can read about an Elizabeth who clings to her lover Dudley’s manly chest while he makes the decisions, like Fabio on a Mills & Boon cover – or was that Essex – or perhaps Walter Raleigh?; about a fey Jane Grey or poor wee sickly Edward; about Mary who lived only to burn people and stalk the hallways like Mrs Rochester; and about a Henry who jumps from bed to bed without ever pausing to ponder economics or military matters or foreign affairs.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy to see new interpretations that cast light on some of these people and those around them. I even think Jonathan Rhys Meyers never ageing as Henry is hilarious – although I can’t quite bring myself to keep watching The Tudors. I don’t mind the odd mash up (such as – a slightly different example – Sofia Coppola’s stylish take on Marie Antoinette, another historical object of mass obsession).

What I hate is the same drivel over and over, poorly written books that only sell because they are about the Tudors, or work that utterly distorts readers’ historical understanding for no good reason. So much of it is little more than fan fiction and bad fan fiction at that. They make me shout and scoff and snort, and that’s not what you want from a reading experience. I refuse to read another one unless a jury of my peers assures me it’s readable.

And as a result, we now have an entire generation of readers who think that one of the great dynasties of British history is just that: Dynasty without Joan Collins (and even she once played Bess Throckmorton).

Those readers now have a historical framework which includes the belief that Elizabeth had Mary of Guise either poisoned or killed by Walsingham’s own hand (she died of dropsy), or that she had Bishop Gardiner murdered for opposing her (he died of natural causes well before she took the throne). Minor examples, but symbolic distortions. And why?

Sometimes historical fiction needs to bend the laws of time or truth and the responsible novelist will make sure readers understand this in an appropriate note at the end. Film-makers do the same. Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots never met, but who could forget Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots sparring with Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth? Katherine Hepburn as Mary also met Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth in 1936. Barbara Flynn as Mary and Helen Mirren’s inevitable Elizabeth locked horns just a few years ago.

It’s a gorgeous idea, if only for the casting – but always promoted as such. It’s a ‘what if?’ fiction. That’s different to swapping historical figures in and out of time or place or even marriages apparently at random.

But I fail to understand why, in your bog standard Tudor narrative, with real historical figures so wondrous, so entertaining, operating in a complex and sophisticated world, almost everybody feels they have to make anything up or add extra intrigue.

We also now have an entire Tudors industry, devoted to churning out trade paperbacks with sumptuous covers of women or girls in gowns but with no heads – which is, in a way, appropriate. (Hmm. Now I think about it, maybe all those headless historical fiction covers are subliminal nods to Anne Boleyn?)

Like Marie Antoinette and Napoleon, the Tudors are fascinating. They have what is known in LA as timeless appeal. You don’t have to do much with them, because the historical figures do a lot of the heavy narrative lifting themselves. And there are so many popular history books written about them, too, you don’t even have to do any really hard research. Easy.

That’s how so many of these books feel.

It’s not enough.

I’m doing my PhD at present, and to be awarded a PhD you have to make “a unique contribution to human knowledge and understanding”. That seems to me to be a very good guide for any book. Each novel, each short story, should be a unique contribution to human knowledge and understanding. It may not be major, earth-shattering, but it should at least be unique.

There have been revelations of new historical material and new perspectives on the Tudor years in the recent past. Most of this has appeared in the work of historians, archaeologists or other writers of non-fiction, but some has and will come from fiction; from novelists shining a torch into the dusty corners of the past. Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a brilliant example.

Find a legitimate way in. Focus on a character previously neglected. Shed light on a particular moment. Make a unique contribution. I know someone who is writing a novel about Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, and I feel sure it will offer unique insights, a different perspective and is impeccably researched. It will pass the committee appraisal with flying colours and satisfy both criteria.

To such authors I say, go forth and bring us as many fabulous new Tudor tales as you can imagine. More power to your arm.

Everyone else, step away from the keyboard.

*That’s a historical distortion – in other words, I made it up.

Tips for new authors: school visits

This morning I’m off to read my one and only (so far) picture book to a kindergarten class.
I love talking to the littlies. They ask such wonderful questions:

  • What’s your favourite colour?
  • Do you have a dog? Why not?
  • Did you write Thomas the Tank Engine? Why not?
  • Are you married? Why not?
  • I went to the beach once.
  • Why is the sky?
Ever so easy to answer.
It got me thinking about what makes a great school or bookshop visit; for the author and especially for the kids. I can still remember the day Ivan Southall came to my primary school. That’s the day I decided I wanted to be a writer.
Now, I’m no big expert, but if you’re just starting out, maybe this practical list will help – it includes things I’ve watched others do and need to work on too:
  • If you’re going to read from your book, practice reading out loud, at home, and slower than you think possible.
  • Ask the teachers if there’s anything specific they want you to cover – any topics being discussed in class, or queries about your own work or process?
  • Ask yourself why you’re doing it. If the answer is that your publisher wants you to, that might not make for the most gripping speech the crowd has heard. So ask again. What do you want to share? Encourage? What have you got to say? Why did you write the book in the first place? Why do you write books at all? Why would anybody read them?
  • Make sure you are agreed and clear on all details: where, when, what year level, payment (if any), tech requirements.
  • It’s work. A professional appointment. Dress respectfully.
  • Pose yourself a few sample questions (eg, someone will always ask: ‘where do you get your ideas?’ so your reply to this impossible question would be…?)
  • Allow time to get lost on the way or stuck in traffic, arrive, find the right room, cool down/warm up.
  • Take a bottle of water.
The big talk
  • Say thanks for having me – it’s an honour and a privilege to have readers, and you have the opportunity to tell them so.
  • Start with confidence, even if you don’t feel it. You are the ultimate authority on your own books. Shine.
  • Make sure everyone can hear you.
  • Move around a bit, if you can. You don’t need to pace the stage, but try to present a relaxed body language that invites engagement.
  • Slow down. Breathe. Look up. And again.
  • Ask them a few age-appropriate questions: favourite books, films, X-Box games, characters – who likes Harry Potter? 
  • Some of those present have dreamed of becoming a writer or illustrator one day – target a few comments at them. 
  • Remember: one of them may be the next you, and this may be the day they decide what they want to be when they grow up.
  • It’s OK to ask people to sshh, but if they are getting a bit too ratty (hot day, hard wooden floor, long talk) get them to stand up and have a stretch or play a little game. 
  • Take note of the room – feel what’s happening as you speak, and adjust your tone and pace as best you can.
  • Look around you, make sure you appear to be making eye contact with people all around the room. And actually do it.
  • Don’t go overtime. It’s kinda selfish. If there’s no clock, ask someone to warn you when you have three minutes left, and then wrap up fast.
  • End with a bang – even if it’s just a big thank you, a call to action as simple as “Keep on reading”, and a round of applause.
  • Enjoy yourself. Yes, really. 


  • Don’t use it if you’re not utterly comfortable with it – or coping without it if there’s a technical hitch.
  • Powerpoint is great to give structure, present images and embed video. Handy for people who are visual. That’s all. Don’t rely on it.
  • You don’t need to put everything on the slides. Images, maybe a few bullet points – not your whole talk.
  • Try not to look at the big screen, or even at the monitor or laptop – know the slides so well that you don’t even have to look. It’s your story. Just tell it.
  • Take the concept of each slide as the jump-off point for that bit of your talk, then have a chat about that concept. What you say should be different to the points on the slide – don’t read the words out loud. 
  • Repeat audience questions or incorporate them into your answer, in case nobody heard it.
  • Ask people their names when you select them to ask a question and say hello.
  • If it’s a complicated or hard question, ask the group if they have any ideas or experience of it – on some issues, more than one perspective is handy.
If you can, take something along you can leave with the bookseller, teacher or librarian – it might be a poster you can sign, or some bookmarks for them to give out later. That will help the kids remember your name and your book title after you’ve gone. Offer to sign the library’s or bookshop’s copies of your books.

Be happy if kids want you to sign books, posters, arms – anything. Ask them questions about themselves as you sign, check how they spell their names if there’s nobody there to help you.

Over the years, I’ve watched world-famous authors (who shall remain nameless) at festivals and events not bothering to engage with kids at all, grizzling about signing their own books, gossiping with their publicists while kids are clamouring to ask them questions, blanking staff members, or getting volunteers up on stage and then humiliating them in front of the whole group.  You don’t want to be that person – no matter how famous or rich they are, they probably won’t get invited back.

On the other hand, I’ve watched amazing writers like Margaret Mahy, Antony Browne and Jacqueline Wilson (and closer to home the likes of Andy Griffith, Richard Newsome and Sally Rippin) really engage warmly with a group of kids, then do it all over again – just as genuinely – an hour later.

You may not be a big name. You may be shy. You may feel nervous. You might not be the person who cracks jokes and works the room like a US President.

But you might be the person who changes someone’s life.

Creating characters

This weekend I’m participating in Melbourne’s wonderful Emerging Writers’ Festival, an annual event for writers, by writers. It’s a terrific program, and the section in which I’m involved is called Living Library. It’s like speed mentoring: you book a 15 minute session with one or more of a range of experienced writers and publishers and ask them any questions you like on specific themes. Great idea.

I’m one of the Books you can borrow from the Library and am answering questions on creating characters.

I figured I may as well post some general thoughts, although for those people who came along and asked questions, I did rummage around in my head and rustle up more specific discussions connected to their own work.

So, some brief and random ideas and advice:

Bad guys
No matter how evil your baddie, you – at least, if not the reader – need to know why he or she is that way. Very few people in history are evil simply because they are evil – unless you’re actually writing about a psychopath (in which case, research the state very well). You don’t have to invent gratuitous redeeming features, but at least allow a little chink in the armour or a little glimmer of insight.

How much? That depends in part on the age group for which you’re writing. Younger readers like well-rounded characters as much as anyone, and they do need to understand motivation. Adult and young adult readers expect to be able to understand why each character behaves the way they do – without being banged over the head with it.

Baddies don’t need to have hearts of gold or tragic childhood circumstances. It may be that they do evil things simply because they are greedy. Or jealous. Or furious at the world. Or lack empathy.

Good guys
Flipside: your protagonists need to have chinks in their armour too. Nobody wants to read about a brilliant student/writer/mathematician/train driver/surfer who is perfect in every way.

What’s the catch? The fatal flaw? It doesn’t have to be something that renders them unsympathetic. It might be fear. Anger. Not listening. Being random. A bit ditzy. Not returning phone calls. Immobility in the face of danger. Uncertainty. Preoccupation. Lack of understanding about certain plot elements.

What mistake do they make that changes the course of their lives, or the plot? What don’t they notice?  Do they let someone down? What is the conflict or pressure they have to live with or resolve? What drives them, gets them out of bed each day? Why on earth would anybody want to read a whole book about them?

So long as they don’t let the reader down. Some people may want to read about a protagonist who verges on insufferable – think of Lolita or, less extreme, Madame Bovary – but you have to be a genius to get away with it. For the rest of us, flaws and insecurities will be enough.

Everyone figures out their characters differently – there are no rules. I heard Geraldine Brooks speak this week, and she does months or years of historical research before writing, then waits to hear a first person voice in her head – and she really does hear it – and the voice tells her the character and the character (and, in her case, historical fact) leads her through the plot.

Some authors write out extensive back stories for each character before they even start drafting. It’s kind of Method. You learn/imagine everything you can about these people before you can understand them enough to portray them.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I tend to hear a voice and see a character in a situation, in an instant, then flesh out the main characters and some of the minor ones in some detail, as well as figuring out narrative. Some of this I do before I draft too much; some of it as I work; and I get as surprised as anyone else by where those voices go sometimes.

How to write specific voices is another topic altogether, but if there are any rules about voice and dialogue, they are:

  • Don’t let everyone sound the same
  • Don’t let everyone sound like you
  • Don’t try to do fake authenticity in historical voices.

If you’re not a writer that hears voices, at least make some notes about how the voice should sound. Just list words that embody the voice. Then make a list for another character, and you will see at a glance how different they need to sound.

Because I work mostly in historical fiction, I also have to understand a great deal of context before I can imagine how the characters might look and dress and behave. What kind of houses do they live in? How do they sound? How often do they wash their hair? What books will you find on their bookshelves? Even if you are writing contemporary fiction, this is still valuable.

I keep a source book – it might just be a folder in your computer – with clippings, images, quotes, contemporary diary extracts and letters. My folder for the protagonist Isabella in Act of Faith, for example, includes a great many paintings by the Dutch artists of the 17th century, including this:

It’s a detail from Girl Interrupted at Her Music, by Vermeer, it’s Isabella’s face as far as I’m concerned, albeit a bit young, and I kept it in my mind and on my desk throughout the initial drafting process. Vulnerability, intellect and wisdom.

I’m happier once I have a face to think about. It can be imagined or it can be someone that looks just a bit like your character – so borrow a face, any face. Nobody else ever need know. Look at a photo stock site such as stock xchng, flick through art books, browse Flickr, until you find someone who has the right feel to them.

But everyone’s different. Last week at the Reading Matters conference, Ursula Dubosarsky said she never sees the faces of her characters – they are like shadows to her. But she was inspired, when writing The Golden Day, by Blackman’s paintings of schoolgirls and the Alice series. It’s easy to see how the very facelessness is intrinsic to the grace of her work.

Drawings, doodles, lists, pictures, postcards, recipes, dry cleaning receipts, anything can help you flesh out your characters. I remember hearing Victoria Glendinning recount how she spent months working her way through Leonard Woolf’s papers and he kept every receipt, so that became one way for us to know him through her biography: he was the kind of man who carefully filed his receipts for lawn mower maintenance.

Using it
On a practical level, I have used index cards to keep track of the back stories and now I use Evernote, but if you use Scrivener for your drafting, it has the character profile modules built in. It doesn’t matter how you organise it – use notebooks, mind maps, index cards, spreadsheets, corkboards, sheets of cardboard with everything stuck on to them – whatever works for you.

Your next decision, then, is how much back story to include. The general answer is: not much.

My back story for Master de Aquila in Act of Faith includes his childhood in Cordoba as a converso; his father’s arrest by the Inquisition; his own escape to Amsterdam; his happy marriage to a Dutch Protestant which lasted for many years until she died of cancer at sixty; his grief; his disconnection from any formal religion; his hair, clothes, shoes, reading habits and preferred meals. All that was imagined, but some was derived from historical fact. His life story was based in part on a generation of Jewish printers who fled to Amsterdam from Spain, and so I researched the books they printed, their family histories, their business arrangements. Only hints of this ended up in the text. I hope.

The readers need to learn about the characters slowly, just as we learn about people in real life. You will never (please) use all the back story, but those elements that are used are best revealed slowly – a hint here and there, maybe an outburst under pressure.

Surprise us, and let your characters surprise even themselves.

Then we’ll all be happy.

The carrier bag versus the spear

Been worrying lately about the narrative structure of my work in progress, Tragédie.

The core of the problem is obvious to me. I’m used to inventing stories, usually adventures for younger readers, which I build from event to event to a climax, alongside the characters. Or something.

But in this case, I’m working with real historical events, a woman’s life which, extremely eventful though it is, just kind of petered out at the end. (You can read more about Mademoiselle de Maupin here.)

I’m writing it in an episodic way, as my interpretations of the events come to me – not in any particular order, and interspersed with purely fictional passages in her voice.

I also have a formal structure of five acts plus prologue, the same as the tragédies en musique in which she appeared  on stage in Paris.

My question – to myself and also to my PhD supervisor, Lucy Sussex – was, basically, is that OK? Is an episodic approach enough? It feels a little uncomfortable to me, because it’s not what I’m used to, but that’s part of the point of a doctorate.

Lucy suggested I read Ursula Le Guin’s essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, from her brilliant collection of essays, Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989).

Le Guin’s contention is that the narrative with which we are most familiar – that of events leading up to a major climax – is the male form. She (rather delightfully) retraces the possible narratives that would derive from a hunter/gatherer society: one which relates a great many repetitive daily tasks – the gathering, done by women; and another in which the thrill of the hunt and chase and final climax of the kill is told – by the men, the hunters.

Le Guin argues that the stories of the mammoth hunt are those which are remembered in the cave art and in the ideas that have come down to us about what makes a narrative. Thrilling adventure stories, perhaps, or even those stories in which small things happen but still follow an arc to climax – the story of the Hero and his conflicts. But those, she says, are not the only stories that can be told.

The first tool, she argues, was not a weapon, but a receptacle, a bag or leaf or scoop in which to carry the results of the gathering:

“…the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”

Should note here, too, that there are a great many modern narratives told by men in which nothing much happens beyond maybe an affair or a slight humiliation, but it seems that when they are told by middle-aged public-school white blokes, that still counts as a mammoth hunt story – to them, and to those that award prizes for narrative.

Hence – well, let’s not go there right now.

Been thinking also about some of those novels which subvert that structure. Obvious examples are Atonement, in which the climax in the action arguably comes quite early on, while the narrative itself (as distinct from the plot) slowly reveals and builds to something quite different and equally shattering.

Or Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, which does climb to a peak but in which the central narrator switch hinges on a moment so dramatic that I shouted aloud.

In my case (not that I’m comparing) the episodes in La Maupin’s life will appear confused, perhaps happening out of chronological order, as they are remembered by a feverish mind. Not sure yet. Don’t want to confuse the readers but I do have great faith in their intelligence.

It is La Maupin’s narration and her reminiscence that needs to build, then falter, and again.

It’s not an action thriller for kids. It’s a life, an imagined but nevertheless real life, filled with too many dramatic moments nobody could never dream up – and, as always, it’s the character – the woman – at the core of the story that matters the most.

So although the process of questioning also kicked off some major re-ordering of episodes, and it still feels unfamiliar to me, I’m at peace with it now. Me and my carrier bag.

A writer’s tools

When I speak at schools, kids always want to know all the practical details: do you write on paper or computer, where do you sit, do you use a pen? Other writers, too, like to swap stories and tips. So here are mine.

I can write pretty much anywhere, so I often scribble in notebooks on the train or in cafes at lunchtime. I learned long ago not to mix up all my ideas in one book, so I have separate notebooks: one for each project, and sometimes different books for research notes and fiction drafts.

Part of the ritual of starting a new project is buying new stationery. I like lightweight notebooks – a while ago I fell in love with these fat black journals I’ve only ever seen at Auckland airport, and stocked up, but they are really too heavy for schlepping about every day. I have a small notebook for random notes and ideas. I have even smaller Moleskine notebooks for tucking into a pocket with a stubby pencil if I’m going out walking in the middle of a brainstorm. (If I’m really caught short, I write on old receipts in my wallet, or serviettes, or sticky notes on my phone or Evernote on my iPod.)

I always use a pencil – preferably a mechanical pencil – I have several and for some reason need one for each notebook or task.

I do most of my research and writing on my laptop. I have a wireless router/modem so I can move around at home, work outside or at the dining-room table if I feel like it.

Like most people, I use Microsoft Word (Windows 7). The newer versions have some terrific new functionality and most of us only use a tiny percentage of its capability. One day I’ll make time to expand my knowledge of it, but in the meantime I just tap away, track changes, do rough translations, and use the stylesheets/formatting in a very basic manner.

I use Excel for making spreadsheets tracking action across a novel to help me keep track of structure and pace – sometimes I turn these into graphs so I can literally see the highpoints and slower moments – important if you’re writing action. For Tragedie, I use it to align the known biographical facts with my novel structure (and also the source of the original fact), like this:

Recently I’ve been fooling about with screenwriting, and this is made a great deal easier with one of the screenwriting packages which mean you don’t have to think about the mechanics of formatting (eg caps here, indents there), which are very specific industry standards. Because I’m just playing, I use a free program called Celtx, which although free is pretty good. Serious TV and screenwriters invest in something like Final Draft or Screenwriter.

I keep my references in order with EndNote. (You can also use Zotero, which I prefer for organising references across web and the real world, but for a formal bibliography like my PhD, I use EndNote, because it’s supplied free and supported by my university.) It gathers all resources, downloads bib data from libraries, and spits it all out in the form required for whichever academic journal you’re writing for. You can attach files and links and add your own notes. You can download extensions which adjust the format of bib data you’re importing from certain libraries, or massage your own data into different citation styles (eg Harvard, MLA, etc). I also use a Firefox EndNote extension which is better at saving web references than EndNote Web itself.

Back-up is critical. TE Lawrence left the first draft of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the train and had to start again. He believed it made his book better – I’d rather not run the risk. So please do back-up your drafts. I have an external hard-drive to which Windows runs an auto back-up every week. I also copy my Writing folder onto a USB drive every so often and keep it in my drawer at work in case the house burns down, and use Dropbox to back up into the cloud. Which brings me to online tools

Online tools for writers

There is a whole range of free online tools that are useful for organising your work as a writer. Here are a few basics:

Most of us take our web browser for granted. If you own a PC with Windows like most of the world, you probably use Internet Explorer.
A minority of us use other browsers like Firefox, Chrome or Safari.
Yay us.

Whichever browser you use, you need to know that they have changed a lot over the years and you need to keep updating (they’re free, so why not?). They also come with a great many more bells and whistles than they used to, such as better management of your bookmarks or favourites.

I use Firefox because it’s open source, which means that it has a whole community of people out there who build extra bells and really good whistles that you can bolt on. One, for example, is Gtranslate, which (because I read a lot of documents in French and my French is appalling) allows me to translate any word on any web page into English with a right click.
Another is Add This, which lets me share something I like from any website on a blog or social media such as facebook, or save it to a bookmark list like delicious.
I also have Firefox extensions for programs I use all the time, like Evernote and EndNote.

Make that little search box in the top right hand corner work for you – choose which search engines you use for which tasks (you can get quite different results, you know, searching outside Google), and if it lets you (eg in Firefox) add the option to search sources like Google Scholar or Chambers dictionary. Then you don’t have to go to a site to look something up – just type it into the box in your toolbar.

(Firefox – Dropbox, with Zotero open at the bottom of the screen)


I use Dropbox for backing up my drafts and documents: it is an online service which keeps your documents (or pictures or anything) in a secure space online. You simply save items to a folder on your computer and Dropbox will synch it up on a regular basis. This means you can also access your documents from any computer, and you can also set it up as a place to share or collaborate with others. Much easier to use than Google docs, if you ask me.

I adore Evernote. I started using it simply as a searchable database of research notes (like Microsoft OneNote). For example, I can write a quick note about a building in Paris that was around in 1670, maybe include a link to a relevant website, even a picture of it. In a year’s time when I can’t remember where on earth I put that note, I’ll be able to search for it and there it will be. A great deal easier than flicking through card indexes or notebooks. That alone is valuable, especially for people whose writing includes lots of research – you could use it for character biographies or almost anything. But wait – there’s more. Your notes live online, securely, so again you can access them from anywhere – that means that when I’m in Paris walking down the street where that building once stood, I can whip out my iPod or mobile and take a snap or make more notes, and the Evernote iPod app will synch it up with my other notes. Too easy. In fact, it’s a little addictive.

Websites and blogs

A website, at least, is now a given. You have to get one. People will look for you online and if you aren’t there, they’ll wonder what’s wrong with you. It’s as simple as that.

But it doesn’t have to be a drama. You can set up a blog or site very easily – how much time you put into it is up to you.

There are many free blogging platforms. I use Blogger for my blogs, because that seemed the easiest to use all those years ago when I started blogging. It’s still pretty good. You just sign up (it’s owned by Google), choose your blog name and select a design from a wide range of prepared templates. Then add content: blog posts, links to sites or blogs that you like, images.

After several incarnations and countless hours slaving over Dreamweaver, I now just use WordPress for my websites. It’s fundamentally a blogging platform, a little more complex than Blogger but still easy to use. You can post, just like a blog, but you can also create pages which don’t change, menus and sub-pages, and again you choose a template from a range and then add images or change colours or page structures according to your taste. Simple is better.

Both these platforms are free and allow writers to get online with an investment of time and effort, rather than having to fork out. If you know about the technical side of the web, you can make them do extra stuff, but I don’t bother (and I am a professional geek in my day job). I’m a writer, not a designer or a developer. They aren’t the prettiest websites in the world but that’s OK. Up to you.

Both platforms (and others) host your site or blog for free, so you don’t have to pay anyone for website hosting, and both are big stable platforms that aren’t going anywhere (I remember once, years ago, I published my Masters thesis online with a similar service – one day it went bust and millions of people’s websites vanished).

What you might want to do is register a domain name: this does cost money. Say you want your site or blog to be at the web address: http://www.yourname.com. You have to buy the right to that name. But with WordPress you can simply buy the domain name and then use it for your WordPress site by adding a redirect. Easy. And well worth it, even if the domain name itself costs a couple of hundred bucks, because then you get to own a nice, clear and short web address. I think the redirect costs another $12. Bargain.

Social media
I admit I have only just started using social media as an author – literally just in the last few weeks. But I use it as a civilian all the time and have done for years, and work with it as part of my day job. In fact I train people to use it.

So my advice is, don’t go near Twitter or facebook if you aren’t prepared to post regularly, and that doesn’t include telling the world what you had for dinner.
But if you like the medium, you can use it to be involved with readers and other writers, and that can have a promotional effect in the long-run. It’s about engagement with people, not just flogging your latest book.
First thing is to separate out your personal self from your online author self – set up an “official” Twitter feed or facebook page and only post author-type things. Your friends and family may follow you as an author as well as a real person, but you don’t want readers confusing your personal life with your public persona.

Second thing is to use a few nifty tools to bring together your social media, so that you don’t have to keep bouncing from one to another and spend your whole life posting on different platforms. I use Hoot Suite which allows me to write a brief post and then choose which of my social media profiles or pages it appears on.
I also set up a feed from my blog into my facebook page and my website, so that they appear to be updated without me having to actually change pages on the website or post links to my blog all the time.

Third thing is to keep yourself nice. Behave on social media as you would at a school visit or bookshop reading: answer politely, be interested in your readers, ask them what they think – what they read. Don’t grump at people if they leave nasty comments or bad book reviews. Rise above.

Reader communities
I jumped onto LibraryThing early on in its life, and obsessively catalogued a few hundred of my books before I ran out of steam. I have a widget on my blog which feeds up books from my LibraryThing collection, so people can see what I’m reading (or at least, what I read years ago). I still love the idea of it, but haven’t been much involved in it as a community because I just don’t have enough hours in the day. I also recently joined GoodReads.

Both (and others, like Shelfari) are online book geek communities where people share what they’re reading, post reviews, list their own collections, recommend books to one another, and discuss books, reading and writing – endlessly.

Take a look. Often. See what people are reading, what they say about books and what they are looking forward to. If nothing else, register as an author so you can post updates on your own upcoming titles.
For people outside the US and the UK, you may notice that local titles are less likely to be on these sites (and other places like Amazon reviews) but that’s OK. Just know that’s the case and that there will be plenty of people from all over the world reading a huge range of books from everywhere.

It is, apart from anything else, fun. You’ll find a whole lot of books you suddenly must read.
And that’s a good thing. Right?

Those are a few of the tools I use. You will have your own favourites or latest apps and add-ons that get your blood racing. So go on, blog about them.


I’ve been watching Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. Pretty much non-stop. For weeks.

Missed it completely when it was actually on TV. Couldn’t have cared less. Didn’t watch Xena. I grew up with The Bionic Woman, Princess Leia, and the original Charlie’s Angels; and nobody, I figured, could measure up to Lynda Carter in her red undies in the superhero stakes. So the 90s superhero phase completely passed me by. Never even saw The Matrix on the big screen (something I deeply regret).

Also, while I quite like action thrillers, I’m not very good at watching scary things, so I’ve never seen Alien.

But since then, you see, there are children – then teenagers – who really want to watch Spiderman or X-Men over and over and you get sucked in and the next thing you know, you’re begging your niece for Buffy DVDs. All seven series.

Now I remember what’s so super about superheroes.

My pirate books were, in fact, anti-superhero. I’d read so many frustrating kids’ books where the protagonist – especially if she was a girl – only escaped the usual near-death experiences due to her amazing and often unsuspected superpowers.

Superpowers suck, I decided. My books will NEVER feature superpowers. In fact, I think I constructed some sort of thesis along the lines of superpowers undermining feminism because … well, I don’t remember the rest and that’s probably just as well ’cause it’s bollocks.

I am, however, still quite happy to argue that many authors let themselves and their characters or plots off the hook with the use of superpowers or paranormal activity. It can be lazy, distracting, pointless. It can be just plain stupid. Read I, Coriander? I rest my case. I’ve mellowed, and am again quite happy to be completely immersed in a well-constructed world of superheroes, so long as that world has its own creative and mythological logic – and not just powers splashed about like fairy dust.

At any rate, Lily Swann, in the Swashbuckler trilogy, quite specifically has only one power that her fellow pirates consider to be extraordinary. She can read. Oh, and she can fence. Both quite remarkable for an ordinary girl in 1798.

She follows the Joseph Campbell-style Quest, as do all heroes, and as many Jungian archetypes a person can muster – they come out of the mythical woodwork while you’re not watching, I swear.

Of course, she is incredibly brave. That goes without saying.
She’s consciously a hero without superpowers, as is Isabella in Act of Faith (out next year) – unless you count education as a superpower which, until recently in the western world, it was. They save themselves and others, including men; they overthrow great powers almost single-handedly; and they – I hope – get all the good lines.

But then, so does Buffy.
Brilliant lines in some pearl-like scripts – scripts so good that I have twice stood and applauded, literally, at the end of episodes – although one of those episodes had no dialogue at all.
For example:

Xander: I’ve been through more battles with Buffy than you all can ever imagine. She stopped everything that’s ever come up against her. She’s laid down her life – literally – to protect the people around her. This girl has died *two* times, and she’s still standing. You’re scared, that’s smart. You got questions, you should. But you doubt her motives, you think Buffy’s all about the kill, then you take the little bus to battle. I’ve seen her heart – and this time not literally – and I’m telling you right now she cares more about your lives than you will ever know. You gotta trust her. She’s earned it.
Faith: Damn, B. I never knew you were *that* cool.
Buffy: Well, you always were a little slow.

It’s hilarious and moving and strong and beautifully written (especially the later series) and scares the shit out of me on a regular basis.

Drusilla: [as The First] Do you know why you’re alive?
Spike: Never figured you for existential thought, luv. I mean, you hated Paris.

Jennifer K Stiller argues in Ink-stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors that the quests of female superheroes are different to those of their male counterparts. Their attributes – and challenges – include compassion, leadership, friendship, family, love, community, and the potential loneliness of those who wield great power. Above all, their stories are about redemption. They usually operate in ways that are not found amongst the Justice League of America or even the X-Men.

The rules about vampire slayers, says Buffy as yet another apocalypse draws near, were made up by a bunch of men, thousands of years ago. Her friend Willow (who happens to be one of the best-loved queer characters on TV – ever) is more powerful than all those men combined. Together they create an army which conquers not only the great evil, but also Buffy’s loneliness, Willow’s insecurity, Faith’s alienation, and the gang’s paralysing fear.

Harry Potter can’t survive without Hermione Granger. Superman’s greatest hero is Lois Lane. It’s Sarah Connor (and her astonishing arms) who terminates the Terminator. Drew Barrymore’s version of Charlie’s Angels kicks ass only when the team is in synch.

There are exceptions – lame chicks who still have to get saved by someone else (I’m looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow), or whose main aim in life is to look hot in latex in movies aimed at a male audience, rather than inspiring young women (and men) to think differently about female protagonists. In recent years, many of the female superheroes in comics seem to have had breast implants and a ticket to Sleaze Ball 1998. And don’t start me on Twilight.

Perhaps it’s a pendulum that swings back and forth, much like attitudes to feminism. Boringly.

So who knows? Maybe I might have to create someone with superpowers. Some day.

In the meantime, I can’t wait to see what Joss Whedon does with Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers.

And most importantly – what will she wear?

Concentrating. Hard.

This morning was my first trial of a new discipline: Two Golden Hours.
This is the plan. You sit down at your desk, metaphorically nail your feet to the floor, assume the position, and write.
No researching, no looking up references, no fact-checking.
No editing as you go – supposedly not even correcting spelling but I can’t quite take it that far.
No reading articles or searching databases for citations. And especially no emails, no checking the news sites or facebook, no suddenly remembering you meant to reinstall software or reorganise files, no putting out a load of washing or checking the letterbox or feeding the chooks.
Just Two Golden Hours of drafting. First thing in the morning, before getting distracted by any other tasks.
I wrote 1500 words. I’m not saying they’re all brilliant, or even usable, but two key scenes are out of my head on down on … well, pixels or something. That’s normal for a morning’s work but it felt a little more intense, and it’s definitely draft – not processed (much) on the way from brain to Save button. If I couldn’t immediately think of the right word I just chose the closest thing and highlighted it to fix later.
But it was strangely difficult. I’m someone who can easily write for long hours, forgetting to eat and not realising it’s nightfall and that I was supposed to be somewhere. But to do it on schedule is a different matter entirely. I got twitchy. Kept looking at the clock.
It’s important to schedule the time because we easily get lost in historical research, or think we have to find more and more academic references, and working at home also has a whole lot of other dangerous distractions as well. Like morning tea. And afternoon tea.
I try to be at my desk at 9 and work through, just like a day at the office, but it’s easy to get distracted from the drafting by the need to look stuff up. And then you realise you don’t know some related thing, so you go look that up. And then you see a reference for an article that might help, so you go trawl for it online. And while you’re doing that you notice this journal you didn’t know about so you kick off the usual searches to see if there’s anything there related to your subject. By which time you’ve forgotten the original problem you were researching and why. And you might be working but you aren’t actually writing.
So I’ve written it into my Filofax: Two Golden Hours. Capital G. Capital H. The capital letters make the two hours a serious commitment to yourself, a thing that cannot be rescheduled or easily forgotten. They are important.
After all, we multitask all day every day, with meetings, and emails, and people asking questions. You have to do stuff and think at the same time. Even on the train, even in the evenings. Focusing your mind gets harder and harder.
Choosing what’s important among all the many options floating around in your brain is sometimes impossible, so the brain opts for the easiest.
I learned about the Two Golden Hours at a handy seminar for postgrads at uni last week: ‘Turbocharge your writing’, with Hugh Kearns from Thinkwell. Highly recommended.
Now all I have to do is to put it into practice.
I will do that every Thursday and Friday morning. I would do it every single day if I could, but unfortunately I have to earn a living – which is, as we know, quite a different thing to being a writer.