JK Rowling on writing

You have to resign yourself to wasting lots of trees before you write anything really good. That’s just how it is. It’s like learning an instrument. You’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot. That’s just part of the learning process.

And read a lot. Reading a lot really helps. Read anything you can get your hands on.

JK Rowling

The voice

No. Not that Voice.

I’m reading Morris Gleitzman’s Once, told in the voice of a small Jewish boy, Felix, wandering wartime Poland in search of his parents. He’s unaware of  the scale and meaning of the Holocaust happening around him, and misreading all the signs – not just because he’s young but also because he is fundamentally good. Foreboding drips onto every page. It’s both gorgeous and dreadful to read.


Felix’s voice is very direct, speaking straight to young readers (and people of any age) so that you immediately attach yourself to Felix and see the world through his eyes, even though you – knowing what you know – also can’t, at the same time.  Gleitzman has said that the series was triggered by the  story of the life (and death) of his hero, the Polish doctor and author Janusz Korczak, and extensive research into contemporary accounts of and by child victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Once must work quite differently for young readers who don’t have information about what is happening in Felix’s world, but those who do know are still somehow conveyed into the world view of that small Polish boy – even though for us, being without knowledge of the Holocaust is realistically impossible to comprehend now that we do have that knowledge, now that the world has been changed by it.

As a writing feat, that’s tricky to pull off. (Another sublime example is Jack in Emma Donoghue’s Room which, although not historical, requires the same balance of belief and disbelief at once. ) But it’s not just that which interests me. The ahistorical voice works particularly well for young readers. You’d think it’d be easy, but it isn’t. It’s not the same thing as writing in a modern voice, but is something else – based on a modern voice but with no (or few) jarring historical anachronisms. The modern voice – the author’s own transitory dialect – will date. The ahistorical voice will last a little longer.

The writing process requires deep research not just into historical events and details but also into contemporary speech patterns, vocabulary and world view so that they can be present without being visible. Hilary Mantell has explained how she does it: ‘I use modern English but shift it sideways a little, so that there are some unusual words, some Tudor rhythms, a suggestion of otherness… If the words of real people have come down to us, I try to work them in among my inventions so that you can’t see where they join.’  (1).

I reckon it was first mastered, especially for young readers, by people like Geoffrey Trease in those golden post-war decades, creating fiction that was different to what Trease called “costume drama”: that is, where there is a great deal of historical accuracy about details of food and dress and perhaps even words, but no contemporary empathy – no understanding of the essential world view of the characters. It’s one reason Wolf Hall is so fine, and some other Tudor novels filled with “prithee” and “pray you” not.

This is partly what I’m working on now, although I have a long way to go before my fiction lives up to my theory.

I’m on the side of V.A. Kolve who suggests: ‘We have little choice but to acknowledge our modernity, admit our interest in the past is always (and by no means illegitimately) born of present concern.’ (2)

And get on with it.

Can’t say anymore. Have to go find out what happens to young Felix.

(1) Mantel, Hillary, 'The Elusive Art of Making the Dead Speak', Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2012
(2) Kolve, VA (1998)'Ganymede/Son of Getron: Medieval monasticism and the drama of same-sex desire', Speculum, 73 (4), 1014-67.

Social media for writers and readers

Here are some of the platforms and examples used in my workshops on social media for writers and readers.


Twitter hashtags:
  • #ewf12
  • #aww2012
  • #1book140

Facebook pages and groups:




Blogging platforms:

  • WordPress (easy to use, can add functions)
  • Blogger (simple, Google product)
  • Tumblr (simplest of all, great for images)

Readers’ resources:

Management tools:

Here are the slides from the sessions:

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.

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.

Researching history

Many people have been asking me how I researched the historical events on which the three Swashbuckler books are based. What did I do? Well…
1. Immersion
Read novels set in the period. In my case I had already read lots of inspiring nautical adventures such as Patrick O’Brian and CS Forester, but I have read many more since I started the research.
I also had to read all the older and current maritime novels and adventures aimed at children, even if they’re bad: firstly to make sure I wasn’t replicating anything, and secondly to get the hang of the vocabulary and feel of the reading age (9 – 12).
Read history texts until my eyes fell out. Looked at maps, original (or facsimile) manuscripts, engravings, paintings, newspapers and pamphlets – anything. Read other stuff – tangential but interesting histories – because you never know what you might find. I didn’t know about the uprising against the French invasion of Malta when I first started writing book one: I just stumbled across it, and found it so fascinating that it became central to the plot of the trilogy.
2. Detail
Once the narrative and the sense of time and place is clear, there’s an awful lot of referencing, fact-checking and map-staring that has to happen. This can be particularly difficult if you’re stupid enough to set three books on the other side of the world, and live in a city without a vast collection of references on Malta. The internet helps a great deal, of course, and through it I found brainy people in Malta who could answer dumb questions for me.
But the web can also mislead. Many websites (like my own) are written by enthusiastic amateur historians – even Wikipedia. This is a great and wonderful thing, unless you’re relying on them for absolute accuracy. They will sometimes be wrong. So will the professionals, even in books. I read about four different locations for the church in Mdina where the uprising took place, for example, some not even in Mdina at all. I couldn’t be sure until I stood outside it.
3. Tracking
I keep a spreadsheet of real life action tracked alongside fictional action, which includes things like seasonal changes (which wind will be prevailing, for example) and actual events. Sometimes I needed to track the action and characters hour by hour – other times it’s week by week. This is particularly important in books two and three where the characters get more caught up in real life events on Malta, as well as lots of fictional events.
I didn’t keep proper records of where I’d found certain items of information (I got bored with keeping card files, which is what I usually do) and as a result drove myself completely mad looking up things all over again.
4. Stand there
I didn’t feel that everything was right until I could stand in the limestone dust of Malta and feel the sun on the back of my neck and stare at the sea and just – know.
From now on I am always going to base my books somewhere fabulous so I have to go visit. Often.
5. Check everything again
Redrafting can be as much about checking and refining information as it is about language and character. You end up taking out a lot of those historical details that seemed so critical at the beginning, and I spent a lot of time working on how to convey information without it feeling like a history lesson. Looking back, I think I got better at it by halfway through book two.
Even though the narrator, Lily’s, voice is really rather modern, I tried to check the etymology of every phrase and significant word to avoid glaring anachronism. I double and triple-checked maps, dates, language, clothing, food, ship details – everything. I hope. No doubt there’s something stupid stuck in there somewhere.
6. Editing
This is how editing works. The manuscript is edited, then I check it, then it is finalised by the in-house editor, and then typeset (beautifully) and I check the pages again, then they are proof-read, then the editor looks through them one last time.
In the early stages, I can still fix things that I’ve realised aren’t quite right, say if I’ve woken up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I’m unable to remember which arm Nelson lost. Editors can ask clever questions like “Why is the candle burning when it’s broad daylight?” (Answer: Because the author is an idiot).
I’m a (magazine) editor by trade, so I do this stuff for a living and my work ought to be flawless – and there’s still a bloody typo on page 89. No, don’t look.

Sandra Gulland, who wrote a successful trilogy on Josephine B, has a great website, and she records some of her less reliable research methods, all of which I also did:

I spent too much money on books;
I collected tacky memorabilia;
I travelled long distances to go to museum shows;
I grew teary-eyed on the cobblestones of Paris…