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 →

Life Writing? Travel Writing? Creative Non-Fiction? What are you writing?

At this year's York Festival of Writing I gave a workshop on literary fiction and creative non-fiction, and one of the topics that came up was: "What is creative non-fiction?" Which is a very good question and (like all the best questions) not quick to answer. Creative non-fiction - which also gets called "Narrative non-fiction" and "Literary non-fiction" - lives in a fascinating liminal area, bounded by fiction and poetry on one side, by journalism on another, and by "proper" history, biography, autobiography, travel-, food-, science- and art-writing on the third. So creative non-fiction is narrative: it is an act... 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 →

When do you stop world-building?

Have you noticed how often fantasy and science fiction - speculative fiction - comes in fat trilogies? And how historical fiction is a bit that way inclined as well? That's partly because of the need for what spec fickers (rightly) call "world-building" and hist fickers (less wisely) call "the researched stuff". That's not just about the politics or logistics of two kingdoms being at war, or their technology, food or writing systems; it's also about the manners and mores of the inhabitants, the traditions, the religions, what the radicals are trying to make happen, gender relationships, psychotropic substances, and so... Read more →

Front-loading, dangling, and dangerous modifiers

Running down the road, the briefcase slipped from Anna's hand and burst open on the pavement. After falling in the practice and suffering concussion, British Team officials say she may not compete. Having been firmly closed and locked, Alice's visit to the pub was fruitless. Elaborately frilled and tucked, John tossed the quilt onto the bed. Blue, orange and pink, the dog ate the latest designs. As a former Mayor of London, I thought it would be great to interview Ken Livingstone. Over 4000 years old, the Queen enjoyed her walk around the ruins. No matter what horrors they have... Read more →

Agonising over your Creative Writing PhD proposal?

One of the things that happens, when you blog about Creative Writing PhDs, is that people ask you for advice - including the whole business of applying for the thing in the first place. As you'll know if you've read that earlier piece, a CW PhD is at once delightfully broad and free-form, and - well - nightmarishly broad and free-form. And, as ever, what gets said about other kinds of PhD often doesn't apply, or only applies in a mutatis mutandis sort of way, which wouldn't matter except that it can be very difficult to know exactly which bits... Read more →

This Happy Fellow: my year at Goldsmiths

The Royal Literary Fund Fellow's job is simple, on paper. We are professional authors who are paid by the RLF to spend two days a week, in term time, for a year, supporting academic writing across the whole of an academic institution. Most are universities, but conservatoires and art schools also have RLF Fellows, and the students who come range from first years who've never written an essay to postgrads in the very middle of the PhD muddle, and staff struggling with a presentation. Their problems can be anything from "What does "critically analyse' mean?" to "I need a Distinction... Read more →

Tomorrow to fresh finds and problems new

The other day, something I was reading tossed a tasty short-story idea into my lap: two people in a particular situation with dramatic possibilities. If you think of craft as a process of problem-finding, as Richard Sennet puts it, then the problem I had found was how those possibilities might be realised. And I worked out how quite quickly - how the problem could be solved - how it could be written. I knew what the voice would be, how the structure would work, and that it would end up as a decent short story that quite a few readers... Read more →

Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "Am I single-handedly ruining my career by not talking personally?"

Dear Jerusha: I read Emma's blog Too Much Meringue and wondered if you could help me with a different facet of coping with the media? I hate all this stuff anyway, so would much rather refuse to do it all, though I have got used to it. But my new novel is set in the rather unusual milieu in which I grew up, although the story and the characters aren't like anyone real at all. And of course everyone wants me to say that it's all about me really, and write about my own parents and my own children. A... Read more →

Guest Post: Where Writing Meets Baseball

One of the pleasures of blogging is meeting people who I might not have met otherwise, and such a person is Barbara Baig, a hugely experienced writer and teacher of writing in the US. Her new book How to be a Writer is a fascinating how-to book which can guide anyone to become a better and more interesting writer than they are, and therefore also an exploration of the practice of writing, in all senses of the word: the kind of thing which I think of as yoga for writers. So when Barbara told me about the research which suggests... Read more →

Waste not, write not

In Jerusha Cowless's most recent missive from the South Seas, she came close to telling a writer what to do. (Clearly Jerusha is not me: I try never to tell anyone what to do, only to unpick the possiblities as clearly as I can. Honest.) Jerusha hinted that a poetry course might be the best way to go beyond the edges of that writer's own commercial-mum-lit-writing nature. And, having read Jerusha's answer, I'm working on a theory that the thing to do when you need/want a break or have got stuck with your writing, is the absolute opposite of what... Read more →

Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "Understated and 'gentle' just is my voice"

Some time ago, I lent This Itch of Writing to Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt, so that she could reply to an aspiring writer. Since then Jerusha has been travelling the world from New Zealand to Harmondsworth, in search of new ways to understand our peculiar art and craft. But every now and again another cry of writerly anguish reaches her by pigeon post, and she stuffs her reply into a bottle and tosses it into the sea to reach me. As she did with this one. Dear Jerusha; I've published four novels with (and had four more novels rejected by)... Read more →

Feeding the hunger

When someone asks me what I do, and I say I'm a writer, they're usually mildly interested. When we've established that I'm not a journalist but write novels, they're slightly taken aback and slightly impressed, and though of course that's slightly gratifying, I still find it more than slightly odd. The thing is, while I recognise that not everyone wants to or can sit down and write novels for as long as it takes to learn how to do it, telling stories is obviously as fundamental a part of human nature as bringing up children, or hunting and gathering, or... 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 →

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 →

Pure noticing and the slippery double

One of my Darwin cousins who I've not yet met (there are a lot of us) is the poet Ruth Padel. Her mother was a biologist, and her grandmother Nora was a botanist in the days when botany was more or less the only acceptable science for women. Apparently Ruth took her mother to a poetry reading, and afterwards her mother said, 'I see the point of poets now. They notice things.' Don't laugh - though poets are allowed a wry chuckle before they open the email which tells them their publisher has gone bust because their Arts Council funding... Read more →

Seeing a hundred colours

I was reminded today of something my great-aunt, the artist Gwen Raverat, once wrote which is just the kind of counter-intuitive idea which I love: The whole of a long life is spent learning to see, to know what one is looking at with one’s inner mind: not in gaining experience, but in losing it. It is counter-intuitive, isn't it, the idea that experience makes you see less well, but I think there's something in it. I know that to take photographs well I need to clear my head out, shed preconceptions, words and analysis. Really seeing the way light... Read more →