Category Archives: Writing process

The book-chat paradox

Reading and writing are essentially solo activities. Yes, they’re channels of communication, but they communicate indirectly through the printed page (or screen page). When we read or write, we do so as individuals – and generally in silence. Yet paradoxically, readers and writers can’t stop talking with other people about their literary experiences.

A book-chatterer at the Avon Valley Festival (photo: Amanda Curtin)

Most of us like (occasionally) to listen to writers speaking on the subject of things they have written. For those of us who are writers ourselves there can be a particular interest in hearing an insider’s comments on some aspect of the craft of writing. Literary festivals attract large audiences to sessions that feature various authors using the medium of speech – a very different medium from the written language in which they are supposedly expert.

Most of us also enjoy conversations with fellow-readers, comparing reactions and discussing opinions. The proliferation of book clubs and reading groups testifies to that.

Both of those kinds of book-chat can sometimes be disappointing, irritating, tiresome. In Sally Rooney’s recent novel Normal People a young student called Connell, who is himself beginning to write stories, goes along to a public reading by a notable visiting writer, and finds that ‘everything about the event was staid and formulaic, sapped of energy.’ The writer’s performance is stiff, and Connell wonders ‘why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant.’ He reflects cynically that ‘they were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.’

No doubt some reading group members often feel similarly dispirited after a meeting in which the book-chat has been superficial, taken up with gossipy digressions rather than getting to grips with the literary qualities of the book that they have read (or half-read).

Yet despite our disappointments, we readers and writers continue to involve ourselves in book-chat. This isn’t really surprising, because the spoken word underlies all literature. Voice precedes print. Long before people began to produce books, long before writing emerged, singers and rhapsodic bards chanted epic stories and expressive lyrics around campfires and in ancient mead-halls.

At any rate, whatever reservations I may have about book-chat, I’m up to my neck in it. Within just the next week, for example, I’m giving talks to a couple of MALA groups about myth and literature, conducting a workshop for fellow-writers on editing towards publication, and speaking to the WA Genealogical Society on how a fiction writer looks at family history. Details about these occasions are on the Events page of this website.

Manuscripts then and now

For any writer there are few experiences as satisfying as the transformation of one’s manuscript into the finality of a published book. When at last the precious assemblage of thousands of mulled-over sentences emerges into print publication, a surge of pride mixes with huge relief at the culmination of a long and laborious process.

“Manuscript,” of course, literally means handwritten. Although it’s seldom the case these days that producing a manuscript (conventionally abbreviated “ms”) is a matter of putting pen to paper in the way that authors did for centuries, in its modern usage the term is no misnomer. For while a computer now does the work of converting what we compose into a readable form, we still use our fingers to tap out every word.

But imagine how much more painstaking – and how final – the production of a manuscript used to be before the mid-15th century, when Gutenberg perfected the art of printing with movable type. Until that revolutionary technology appeared, there was virtually no distinction between a manuscript and a publication. Books were entirely written by hand, each copy being unique even if it was transcribing something already written.

From the 8th-century Codex Amiatinus (discussed by Hamel): Ezra writing beside his bookshelves.

I’ve just finished reading Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin, 2018), a wonderfully detailed account of a dozen outstanding medieval books. Hamel invites us “to accompany the author on a private journey to see, handle and interview some of the finest illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.” Its chapters are framed as celebrity interviews with famous documents that are inaccessible to most people. “It is easier to meet the Pope or the President of the United States,” Hamel remarks, “than it is to touch the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry.” So under Hamel’s expert scholarly guidance we visit each beautifully decorative ms in its particular archival setting, questioning it about its often complicated physical production, historical significance, changing ownership and serendipitous survival.

Hamel is the perfect companion, not only a brilliant palaeographer but also a warmly witty writer with a gift for lucid exposition and lively narrative. “The life of every ms,” he says, like that of every person, is different, and all have stories to divulge.” Mss he discusses at length range from the 6th-century Gospels of St Augustine (belonging to an era when a new Christian literacy was emerging from the collapse of Ancient Rome) to the 16th-century Spinola Hours (a gorgeously illustrated work, embodying a culture of high Renaissance luxury).

As I read his book, it occurred to me that some of my own earliest “publications” were childish versions of the kind of production that de Hamel celebrates. Hand-written and hand-illustrated, co-authored with one of my primary school classmates, they testify to the immense pleasure that the physical making of a book can yield.

Looking at them now, I recognise how tritely formulaic they are, how full of verbal and visual stereotypes. But those home-made thrillers were also amateur in a better sense: we loved the process of putting them together ourselves. Nostalgically I salute here The Valley of the Headhunters, Pioneers of Space, The Creeps of Crumbly Castle and our other humble latter-day examples of the art of the illustrated manuscript.

Though we produced those little books of our own accord and primarily for our own enjoyment, they did reach a wider audience: an indulgent teacher read them aloud to our school class. In this respect, too, our publication method echoed what had been normal practice in the Middle Ages, when the literate few gave voice to words on the page for the benefit of groups of listeners.

Did any readers of this blog have similar childhood experiences of hand-producing books?

Hoarding and writing

There’s a painful process I need to put myself through from time to time: discarding accumulated books. They keep multiplying until they threaten to take over the house. Recently my groaning shelves and other cluttered surfaces – desktop, bedside table etc. – told me another big cull was overdue.

It’s a cyclic pattern: as fast as I shed books, I acquire more. Costly, but for a writer it’s mental food and I also try to justify the expense by thinking of all the other people who’ll get to read these copies more cheaply when I donate them to charities for resale.

Of course I can’t ever bring myself to part with certain books. There are those I know I’ll want to re-read periodically, from Edith Wharton’s to Patrick White’s. And those inscribed to me by fellow-writers are also too precious to let go.

My hoarding habit isn’t confined to books. It’s just as hard for me to relinquish various things related to the writing life. Letters, for instance, from novelists, poets, editors, critics – sometimes responding to my work, sometimes about their own. I’ve previously recorded on this blog my thoughts about the decline of letter-writing, and I’m particularly conscious that literary correspondence is already becoming extinct, so I seldom throw away the vestiges. Whether ‘from sentiment or inertia’ (to borrow Margaret Drabble’s phrase in her novel The Dark Flood Rises), I’ve kept on file some letters received from authors in the past, while putting most of them in a special research library collection.

There may be a fundamental link between the hoarding habit and the writing habit. Writers typically collect and store away miscellaneous phrases, ideas, images, mementos, snatches of conversation, observations. Some of us record such things more or less systematically, seldom going anywhere without a notebook, obsessively preserving scraps of information for possible later development. I think of the eponymous character in Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue Karshish, who describes himself as a ‘picker-up of learning’s crumbs.’

Hoarding is especially attractive, I guess, to writers who are drawn to historical subjects, as I am in my novels. We cherish all sorts of objects, documents and visual materials that preserve aspects of the past. Often we incorporate these into what we write, deploying them to reveal characters or provide narrative turning points.

Years ago I wrote a poem about the compulsion to hoard. It appeared in my book The Shifting Shore:


The old retainers are surrounding you.
From oddment jars, leftover keys implore:
‘One of these days we’ll come in handy! Don’t
discard us yet. So many things require
unlocking. In the long run you’ll remember
where we fit, and why. Some happy hour,
with a smooth click, we’ll turn for you again.’
Albums of photos clamour, ‘Keep us here!
Each picture tells your story. We contain
the moments of your memory and desire.’
Rusty-hinged notebooks hoarded from schooldays,
and never written in, say they need more
extended deadlines. Boxes of fading postcards
rattle for your attention – you can hear:
‘Just hold us tight! We’re full of messages
from misplaced friends.’ Name-tags recall each year
of conference-going. Worn-out copper coins,
scuffed shoes, wide ties, stretched cardigans, the flare
of trouser-cuffs, packets of ancient seeds,
dried-up ink-bottles …

                                                 You stare at the debris –
then fling away the keys; what they might open
no longer holds a promise. Photos and cards
belonged to earlier selves; out with them now,
and out with all the other hoarded trash,
into the bin of past expiry dates
like rhymes that have lost their grip.

But the empty notebooks: those, perhaps, you’ll keep.
They’ve waited blankly there for long enough,
And now you’re ready to inscribe them all.

You need an editor in your head: instalment 2

IMG_3789My previous post emphasised how important it is for any writer to incorporate a self-critical attitude into the process of composition, so that you edit your own work as you go. (When I say ‘you’ in this context, I’m giving advice to myself as much as to anyone else!) The end of ‘instalment 1’ foreshadowed the point that the editor in your head should keep a watchful eye on three aspects of your writing: content, structure and texture. I’ll explain now what these involve. My focus here is on literary creation but most of the underlying principles are adaptable to the writing of essays, professional reports or journalistic articles.

Looking self-critically at the content of your work should include a wide range of things. In the case of novel-writing, for example, content covers all the events and settings and situations, all the interactions between characters. Factual mistakes and inconsistencies easily creep into a draft, and need to be spotted and fixed before they become fatal flaws. This is vital in historical fiction: have you avoided anachronisms? Would this person have said or done that in those circumstances? Exploring countless such practical questions was part of the research for my latest novel, The Mind’s Own Place. How long did a coach journey take from London to Liverpool in 1833? What songs and hymns might a family in rural Essex sing at home in the 1840s? At about the same date, what were the everyday material realities of working-class existence in a Potteries town, and what were conditions like in certain English prisons for convicts awaiting transportation?

Beyond those material considerations, achieving a credible semblance of reality must also involve the use of authentic, appropriate language – an equally fundamental part of the content of your work. As a novelist who specialises in evoking times past in various locations, I’m particularly conscious of a need to persuade readers that my story is rendering accurately how people spoke and wrote in a given period and place: characteristic turns of phrase, conversational habits – these should give an insight into the way they thought or felt, often different from what we’re used to today. For The Mind’s Own Place this was a tough challenge because the action moves through several regions of Victorian England and then to Western Australia, with characters not only from different places but from different social classes – so their speech patterns are quite diverse. Linguistic accuracy isn’t a pedantic matter if you want your story’s content to ring true.

The second aspect of your work that needs editorial scrutiny as you write is its structure. An interviewer once asked film director Jean-Luc Godard: ‘Surely a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end?’ Godard replied, ‘Yes, but not necessarily in that order.’ So at an early drafting stage you ought to consider carefully whether you’ve chosen the best starting-point for your story, and whether the sequence of chapters maintains interest.

It’s important to pause over other structural questions as you go along. Does the point of view achieve the scope you want? What if you were to filter part of the narrative through a different character? Is there anything superfluous or cumbersome in the arrangement of parts? Discarding chunks of what you’ve written can be painful, but if an episode doesn’t earn its place you may have to reach for the editorial knife. Conversely, is anything missing that ought to be there? Quite late in the process of writing The Mind’s Own Place I reluctantly decided an additional scene was necessary to shed more light on the relationship between two characters. I now think this extra chapter is one of the best things in it, but if there hadn’t been a vigilant editor in my head I’d have overlooked the need for it.

The third area for editorial focus is the texture of your writing – the style, the tone, the rhythms in your prose. Have you avoided clichés, verbosity, adjectival overload? Is some of the phrasing too repetitive? Are there descriptive passages that need to be enlivened? (“Don’t tell me the moon is shining,” said Chekhov; “show me the glint of light on broken glass.”) Are you sure about the grammar and punctuation? Is your use of dialogue always functionally justified?

One way of paying attention to the rhythmic balance of sentences is reading passages aloud – “giving voice to print.” When working on a new novel, I’ve always read an early draft out loud to a discerning critical friend – and the same again when it’s more fully developed. With The Mind’s Own Place these test readings not only produced thoughtful comments from my friend but also allowed the editor in my head to hear any false notes, any awkward phrasing.

No doubt this list of things to keep in mind makes the writing process seem arduous. So it is. Anyone who imagines that perfect prose will flow effortlessly is not serious about the craft of authorship. “I work like a pack mule,” said the Russian writer Isaac Babel, “but it’s my own choice. I’m like a galley slave who’s chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar… I go over each sentence, time and again. I start by cutting all the words it can do without.”

One of the secrets of successful writing is not to be too easily satisfied with what you write, and to keep listening to that editor in your head.

You need an editor in your head: instalment 1

In younger days I used to think that producing written work of good quality would get easier and easier with increased experience. Wrong! The more we know about writing, the higher we set the bar for ourselves. Gradually acquiring a fuller awareness of what first-rate work demands, we become more exacting. After decades of publication, I still find that writing well remains a real challenge – but at least I now recognise how important it is to keep an editor in my head.

Guinean face masks, Baga Tribe

Guinean face masks, Baga Tribe

Inexperienced writers commonly misunderstand the nature and scope of editing. Shouldn’t it wait until the end of the main writing process? No. Shouldn’t it be left to an expert professional employed by the author or the publisher? No.

Experience has taught me that we must edit our own work as we go.

This doesn’t mean fussing over every sentence before we permit ourselves to move on to the next, but it does mean trying to write with a double consciousness, so that the creative impulse goes hand in hand with a critical awareness. Why so? Unless there’s an editor in your head as you write, scrutinising details while simultaneously keeping the larger picture in view, it’s likely that the way you shape your work will undervalue two fundamental things: engaging the interest of readers and maintaining their confidence.

Of course the first reader you must impress – not counting loyal friends, who will usually find it hard to be frank about your manuscript – is a prospective publisher. If you don’t score a success there, other readers will never materialise; and if your work isn’t already highly polished when you submit it, the publisher won’t give it a positive reception.

Even if you succeed in getting past first base, gone are the days when you could rely on a publisher’s editor to tidy it all up for you. Of course there are some highly skilful professional editors out there. (One substantial benefit of being in the UWA Publishing stable is that two excellent editors have worked with me to ensure that every detail in the final version of each of my novels is as polished as I can possibly make it. I’m indebted to Linda Martin for help with The End of Longing and That Untravelled World, and to Nicole Young for help with The Mind’s Own Place.)

You may be lucky enough to get your work not only accepted but also put into the hands of a really astute, diligent editorial person. But you can’t rely on that. The book industry faces financial challenges these days, and hard-pressed publishers sometimes cut corners (though mine doesn’t, fortunately). So if you haven’t taken all possible care with your writing, it may go forth into the world in a form you’ll later regret. Having something in print should be a happy experience, but the exhilaration will soon evaporate if reviewers and readers are turned off by defects that scrupulous editing should have fixed.

The principle of incorporating an editorial attitude into our own writing is just as relevant to an advanced practitioner as to a novice. It means spending a lot of time meticulously checking and revising what we’ve drafted. If we steam ahead with a first draft, never hesitating, we may eventually find we’ve gone so far down the wrong road that it’s almost impossible to retrieve the situation. On the other hand, anxiously fiddling with every sentence as we go can be an inhibiting compulsion, which never allows a creative momentum to develop. So it’s a matter of balance.

The editor in your head should keep a critical eye on three aspects of your writing: its content, its structure and its texture. In a sequel to this post I’ll explain what I think these should involve…

Cultivating one’s garden: the writing process

At the end of Voltaire’s satirical tale Candide (1759), the eponymous hero – sadder and wiser after all his misadventures – comes to the anti-climactic conclusion that ‘one must cultivate one’s garden’: il faut cultiver notre jardin. This attitude, relinquishing naive optimism and embracing steady self-disciplined labour, is one that any experienced writer eventually learns to adopt.


I do a fair bit of gardening – usually as a servile semi-skilled Caliban; chez nous the dominant Prospero role of designer is already taken.

Even at this time of the year, after many weeks of unremitting dry heat in Perth, there are plenty of chores waiting out there in the backyard.

This morning it was time to uproot a large bed of overblown petunias, regretfully dislodging countless small frogs who’d been sheltering beneath the flowers. (They soon found an alternative place to rest, adjusting their colours accordingly.)

Gardening seems to me an apt metaphor for the writing process. Getting quietly on with the task, preparing the ground, planting seeds, weeding, reshaping, pruning, regularly feeding and watering – all these mundane horticultural activities have their obvious counterparts in the work of creative authorship.

Between the Leaves cover

In the introduction to her book Between the Leaves: Stories of Australian Women, Writing and Gardens (UWAP 2011), Katie Holmes quotes Michael Pollan’s remark that writing and gardening, as “two ways of rendering the world in rows, have a great deal in common.” Holmes goes on to note that “both have immediate and long-terms results”:

Writers can erase one sentence and immediately replace it with another; gardeners can remove a plant and immediately plant another. But a book and a garden taken time to mature and develop. In each case, the end result will often bear little or no resemblance to those naive initial plans, with everything in proportion and place. Disappointment, failure and frustration are common to both, as are joy, delight and satisfaction.



Whether one’s development project is a garden or a book, the slow shaping process requires much the same kind of dedication.

And potentially there’s a closer link as well. For if (as in my case) the two creative spaces are situated side by side – if the writing desk is only a few steps away from the green shade where things grow and creatures roost (or wriggle, crawl, splash, visit) – then the vitality of the garden can enter the words that emerge on the page.



I look out through my window, or stroll over to the pond, or pick a bunch of parsley – and I’m reminded of the teeming variety of life forms on my tiny patch of the planet: more than a dozen kinds of birds, innumerable insects, an assortment of snails and worms and arachnids and amphibians, along with all the vegetables, herbs,  flowers, bushes, trees…

Any of these can become fertile sources of imagery for a writer. (Don’t be surprised if frogs make a cameo appearance in my next novel. Unless the kookaburras get to them first.)