This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin is 99p on Kindle

"The best conversation I've ever had about writing with someone I've never actually met." - Joanne Limburg "Here is the humility, naked courage and fiercely intelligent understanding of what writing a novel takes, and costs." - Jenn Ashworth FRSL "This author of historical novels would seem to have a rich ancestral seam to mine. But, as she reveals in this refreshingly frank, witty, eloquent memoir-cum-biography-cum-rumination, it isn’t that easy." - Saga Magazine Just a quick post to say that if you have a bit of time on your hands and like the sound of all that, This is Not a... Read more →

Being Published 7: Events

This is the seventh in a series of posts inspired by my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, which was published on 12th February. In each post I try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways it can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here. To get a flavour of the sort of events you might do, have a look at the Events page on my website (and if you're inspired to book one, do... Read more →

News: This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin

STOP PRESS: 12th February 2019. This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin has been published! I celebrated it at a Darwin Day event, and since then I've been interviewed by Mariella Frostrup for BBC Radio 4's Open Book programme, as well as blogs and websites. The Literary Review said this: She is unsparingly honest about her battles with self-doubt, her struggle to establish a separate identity as a writer, the difficulties of earning a living and the sheer hard graft of writing. Many biographies have been written about Charles Darwin, and while this thoroughly researched book may shed some... Read more →

Events Round-up: Salons, (Not) Darwin & More

The fact that I'm online in a hotel bar perched above a staggeringly beautiful gorge in North Mexico is not something I'm typing just to make you jealous. I've squeezed in a few days away (photography, poetry, walking, trains ... my usual stuff) while I'm really here for work. But it's made me realise that it's been a while since I posted about what I'm up to in the next few months, so here goes. I don't know how many readers of This Itch of Writing live in or around Mexico City - although it never ceases to astonish me... Read more →

Creative thinking, creative writing, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, and all that (Darwin) stuff ...

What with finishing Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction (the copy-edited manuscript has just landed on my desk) and the way I keep acquiring new writers to mentor, I've been thinking a lot lately about not just creative writing, but creative thinking. It's what writers don't necessarily have in common with literary critics, and may have in common with geologists. It's what choreographers have in common with farriers, and mathematicians with symphonists, and architects with historians. And it's what my physicist grandfather Charles had in common with his composer cousin Ralph, and their shared ancestors Erasmus and Josiah ... Leith... Read more →

Writing Historical Fiction, Creative Darwins, The Genre Swap and other stories

There seems to have been a lot going on, lately, and if the blog's been a bit quiet, that's why. I'm up to my neck in the last work on Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. It's due out mid-Autumn and, as ever, even when I've been living with a project for years, I can't quite believe that it is about to become a Real Book, but all the signs are there! And historical fiction's a bit of a theme elsewhere. Also in the autumn, I'll be heading down to Leith Hill Place, the lovely house where Ralph Vaughan Williams... Read more →

No time to write your novel? Think about coral reefs...

I can't say that my revered great-great-grandpapa often occurs to me when I'm thinking about how writing works, but one of his important pieces of research was into the formation of coral reefs. It had been known for a while that coral was formed by microscopic organisms building on rocks in shallow water: cell by cell, miniature birth by miniature death. But how did they become whole islands and atolls out in the deep ocean? His observations on the Beagle voyage became his first published monograph. My daytime writing time is taken up with Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction,... Read more →

But can you teach Creative Writing?

I get asked this amazingly often, considering that no one ever asks if you can teach the doing of other arts, but, just as I took ages to get on to that other old chestnut, "What is literary fiction?" and my own personal Ancestral Elephant, it's taken me till now to sort out what I think clearly enough to answer the question. My answer, mind you, depends on how long I've got, but it comes from someone who wrote for fifteen years before being taught, (and my thoughts on the pros and cons of writing courses are here) but now... Read more →

The Daemon and the Prig, by the man who saw the torturer's horse.

I've stumbled on something that Auden wrote to an aspiring teenage poet, John Cornford: The real problem though for you as for every other writer... is that of the Daemon and the Prig. Real poetry originates in the guts and only flowers in the head. But one is always trying to reverse the process and work one's guts from one's head. Just when the Daemon is going to speak the Prig claps his hand over his mouth and edits it. The idea of the daemon and the prig is of course at the root of the ideas of Shitty First... Read more →

Published, unpublished and taking your proof to bed

Over on Sally Quiller's excellent blog, she's been asking why unpublished writers sometimes seem to resent published writers so, when being published, after all, is what they're all trying for. And that set me wondering more widely about the often uncomfortable relationship between those who haven't ever had their name on something that appears in editorially-controlled print or electronica, and those who have. Sally's talking about the feeling that published writers "don't deserve", for example, to be allowed to enter competitions which appear to be chiefly intended for unpublished writers to get a toe on the ladder. (And "published-only" competitions... Read more →

A Twist of Gold

Forgive me for how long it's been since my last post, but it's been a funny few days. Not, you understand, in a life-changing sort of way; in fact, my outside self is bored to tears because I've been doing almost nothing but work. My inside self, however, is feeling a bit shaky because I'm rapidly coming to the end of my life with this novel. A few weeks ago I was talking about the strangeness of the novel having become finite, though not finished, and since then I've been working my way through from the beginning, sorting out tweaks... Read more →

The real sixth sense

Have you ever learnt a dance step, or a musical instrument, or a tennis stroke? Felt how it gradually makes sense, how getting your weight in the right place makes the other arm move sweetly to where it needs to be, over and over again, whether it's a bow or a golf club? How suddenly your dancing body finds its place in the music, so that you're free by virtue of being part of the pattern? Can you imagine now, this minute, riding a bicycle down the road, pedal by pedal, push and turn and swoop? No, not the road... Read more →

The tree of life - and other anecdotes

I've been a tad busy this last few days, so I'm afraid this is a bit of a catch-up post. First, I've actually submitted my PhD! I can't quite believe how happy it's made me, not just because the last stages of a research project are notoriously fiddly and tedious and so I've been dying to get rid of it, but because, finally, I realise that I'm actually really quite proud of it. As well as A Secret Alchemy, which I can enjoy again now that the tooth-pulling process of writing it has faded from my memory, I do think... Read more →

No lines to learn, what's not to like?

So, it's festival time again. That makes me sound like an old hand, which would hardly be true. Having said that, if a festival and publisher have paid for you to fly halfway round the world, they get their money's worth, and in ten days in New Zealand and Australia I did something like five festival sessions complete with post-session gallop down to the bookshop tent to sign things, as well as TV, radio, press, a couple of photos. I've a nasty feeling that real authors are supposed to hate it, to be such tender plants or introverts that standing... Read more →

Accept, adapt, ignore

Well, I'd like to pretend that the reason I haven't posted here for so long is something large and amazing - a burst of literary inspiration, a passionate affair, a killing on the stock market - but of course it isn't, it's the usual accumulation of dull but urgent stuff which domestic and freelance life attracts as a drain attracts dead leaves. Most of those leaves are terribly boring (did you think that if the oven door you were trying to mend slipped one inch to touch the floor, it would shatter? No, neither did I, but now a new... Read more →

Telling stories and feeling the not-knowing

On Monday I was at the Royal Society, as Pepys might have said, always being at the cutting edge of the establishment of his day, for the launch of a book co-written by a friend of mine, Nicholas Beale, with the particle physicist Professor John Polkinghorne. I've not often been to that wonderfully grand, white building in Carlton House Terrace, but I never cease to be awed - once I've recovered from entering under the gaze of its founder, one of my favourite monarchs, Charles II - at the history of science which surrounds you: Newton looking mad, Faraday looking... Read more →

One frosty-misty evening

There have been times in the last few days I've thought that my head - my writing head, that is - would explode. Somehow, in just over a month, I've written longhand two first-draft chapters of Kindred & Affinity and after sixteen hours' sorting-out-and-typing of Chapter Two at the weekend, discovered that I've got 31,500 words. By the plan (which, of course, is never set in stone) that's a fifth of the whole thing, which would make it 10,000 words longer than The Mathematics of Love. Yes, there are already 150 separate notes that will take anything from a minute... Read more →

How to make a newish author happy, part two

You might remember that as a postscript (or should it be a postpost?) to a post about covers and blurbs, I linked to Musings from a Muddy Island, which is a booky-writey blog I enjoy, about one thing which makes authors happy: seeing people reading their book. A few other things which have made this particular author happy this week are: 1) A few months ago one of my longest-standing writing friends - let's call her Marguerite - whose beautifully built, beautifully written short stories I admire enormously, asked my advice about arranging and submitting a collection to agents, and... Read more →

Doughnuts, Dickens and utter silence

One of the many moments which made me lose my heart to my Mexican hosts happened just after I'd finished my second lecture, in Cuernavaca. It was packed: a 150 seat lecture theatre had another fifty people sitting on the floor and in the aisles. I'd talked, pointed, edited as I read to suit the audience, even got a few laughs, ended with a suitably uplifting idea, smiled sweetly at the applause, answered long and interesting questions, signed posters, shaken hands, been stood next to, smiled again at mobile phone cameras, answered more questions, shaken more hands, retrieved my notes... Read more →

Still processing: please wait...

Who was it who said that poetry was emotion recollected in tranquillity? It's not just emotion, though, is it? Nor is it simply a process of recollection. (Tranquillity usually helps, though I'm typing this while eavesdropping on, among others, a full-on Yiddish conversation, complete with assimilated American vocabulary...) The thing about experience, as every writing teacher has to explain, gently or forcefully, according to (you hope) the temperament of the beginner writer, or (more likely) the temperament of themselves, is that it isn't enough. What makes experience craft or even art is the business of putting it through the sieves... Read more →