How many miles to Babylon?

rocksAnd what’s that in kilometres?

Or in leagues?

There’s no avoiding the grim reality that I have to nail down the details of the world for a soon-to-be first draft. No more faking it – it’s tipped 99000 words now, so I can’t avoid it anymore.

Don’t worry, I have a map. (Come on, it’s a fantasy world, of course I have a map!)

So far, so easy, I hear you thinking.

But it’s one thing to look at a map, and know where things are in relation to everything else, and it’s another thing to have a sense of the scale of those things. Anyone who is used to driving in a country the size of Australia (or Canada, or the USA, I’m sure) who has found themselves five villages, or a whole county, past the town they wanted , when driving in the UK, knows what I’m talking about.

And then, my questions start: how long would it take to get there by horse? What about in a boat? Or on foot?

Each question has a whole subset of additional questions: what are the roads like? How healthy is the horse? Is there a convenient bridge or ford? Is it a sailing ship or a row boat? What are the currents like? What is the season and how does that effect travel? If a Roman soldier could do 20 Roman miles (not our miles) in five summer hours (not our hours) with a 20 kilogram pack, then how many kilometres could someone reasonably cover in an unloaded, forced march? By what margin would a messenger pigeon beat a horse rider carrying the same message? What exactly is the airspeed velocity of a European swallow?

All I can say is thank goodness for the internet. All the answers to my questions are there – it’s just a matter of pulling them together and making sense of them. I only need to do a little loin girding, and get on with it.

Good luck with your current challenge, whether it is writerly, editorial, or otherwise. Mine is utterly cartographic – Carpe charta!

Oh, and if you ever wondered, the average cruising airspeed velocity of an unladen European Swallow is roughly 11 metres per second, or 24 miles an hour (or, perhaps, only 20 miles an hour – the maths is here. )



Indulgent and satisfying – The Chocolate Tin by Fiona McIntosh


I’m a fan of Fiona McIntosh as a reader, a librarian, and as a writer, but her new book takes the biscuit.

Let me explain:

As a reader I have been completely lost in quite a few of Fiona’s books. She has a fabulous knack of wrapping you up in the story (full sensory immersion) so when I turn the last page I look up at the real world and have to blink and stumble around for five minutes or so because it just doesn’t align with where my head has been. Which is exactly how a good book is supposed to mess with you.

As a librarian, it was an absolute delight having Fiona come to the library as part of her book tours. I have never seen a more engaging author draw a crowd into the story behind a book. She had people, literally, on the edge of their seat, in tears, or gasping with laughter – she is a just a natural storyteller, and so much fun.

Fiona is currently touring for The Chocolate Tin, so check out the schedule and go and see her if she is anywhere near you. I’ll be driving the two hours to catch her at Bowral, because I know it will absolutely be worth it.

As a writer, I attended Fiona’s 5 day masterclass, and it was, quite simply, life changing. She convinced me to take my writing seriously and was so inspiring, supportive, and, yes, tough and realistic. The commercial fiction masterclasses for 2017 are already fully booked, but you can find out about the 2018 ones, and more, at Fiona’s website.

But the biscuit? Well, the beautiful fact is, that if you buy a copy of The Chocolate Tin, you can enter Penguin’s competition to win a trip for two to York. That would be fabulous.

So, that’s my copy in the image above, alongside some vintage chocolate tins, and some not so vintage chocolates that will be accompanying me on my trip into Fiona’s story. And on my trip to York?

Oh, fingers crossed…

Time is relative(ly annoying) to the observer

Buddha in Daylesford

Did you notice we’re almost out of October?

It snuck up on me, like it always does.

It’s been observed, and duly noted, that my time management skills are poor. Well, really, it’s the task management that’s the problem, because there’s not much to be done about the inexorable march of time. There is goes, duly measured and alloted, whizzing by.

So… tasks. A review might help, I suppose:

  1. MS 1 is currently in the painful throes of its second rewrite/third version, which is 20,000 words shorter than version 1. It’s better, I know it’s better, but it’s not done yet and (whining) it’s hard.
  2. MS 2 is finished, but kind of a dead albatross. Thankfully, it’s in a cardboard box, rather than hanging around my neck. I may be able to rescue it, later, but right now I’m not thinking about it. At all.
  3. MS 3 is finished, but as the sequel to MS 1, it will also need a good, hard edit.
  4. MS 4 is so close to finished it hurts. 5000 more words, tops. And then the first draft will be done and about 8000 words more than I wanted it to be so, hello, more hack, slash, edit and rewrite.
  5. MS 5 is just an idea… and a lot of handwritten notes, and a mostly empty Word document, and a character sitting in the back of my head saying ‘Write about me, write my story, now!’, while all her friends stand behind her waving their arms around like a demented Greek chorus indulging in a spot of interpretative dance, skrieking ‘Me too!’. It’s so helpful.

All in all, though, it’s not bad, as far as time usage goes, when I remember that, two years ago, I had never finished a manuscript.

I’d like to get some stuff finished before the end of the year, because, you know … end of the year, psychological deadline reasons.

But, there are only 66 days left in the year.

Annoying. That doesn’t sound like much.

Luckily, there are 1597 hours, and six minutes, remaining before the end of 2016. Clearly, I just need to prioritise my tasks to make the best use of those hours:

  1. finish the rewrite of MS 1 and resubmit for consideration
  2. finish the first draft of MS 4
  3. slap a handy 30000 words into MS 5 so as to get my creative brain to shut the hell up and stop whinging about having to do edits
  4. the rest of that life stuff

No worries! Let’s get cracking, then…

The sound of silence


Those who know me, know that silence is not really my thing. The challenge is not so much to get me talking, as to shut me up.

So it probably won’t come as much of a surprise to let you know that last night I was awarded the Australian Rostrum (ACT) Freeman Colin Johns Trophy for the New Speaker of the Year.

(Well, new to Rostrum, if not exactly new to speaking.)

The topic was silence, and one of the really fun things about public speaking competitions is to see how everyone interprets the topic differently.

Here’s what I had to say on silence:

Silence is not golden.

Silence is dangerous.

It is the tool of tyranny, the insidious weapon of oppression that smothers dissent like a toxic gas and maintains the illusion of homogenous conformity.

Ladies and gentlemen, I can see that you are all charming, intelligent people. I think that in all likelihood I am preaching to the choir. But is case you are in any doubt on the dangers of silence, let’s consider how we are lured into it, how as Paul Simon warned us, silence like a cancer grows.

In the 1950s psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments that purported to be about visual perception, but instead tested whether people would conform with a majority decision.

36.8% of responses agreed with a deliberately incorrect majority and 75% of participants conformed in one or more of the tests, doubting their own judgment as the tests progressed and becoming increasingly uncomfortable with being out of step with the majority.

They were more comfortable agreeing with something that they knew to be wrong, than going against the group consensus.

If I told you that this chair was a pelican, and everyone else in the room agreed that, yes, it was obviously a pelican, would you be willing to stand up and say “no, it’s a chair.”

Asch’s Paradigm indicated that 5% of people would, straight up agree it’s a pelican, and that up to 75% could be convinced to indicate their agreement.

Now, Asch’s experiment was in regard to the relative length of some lines drawn on pieces of card. The more controversial the issue, the less likely people are to speak out.

The spiral of silence theory explains that people will not speak out when there is a difference between what they believe and what they perceive to be public opinion.

Human beings are social animals, and because of it we can be controlled.

Our fear of isolation motivates us to conform to a perceived social norm.

And where does that lead us when our social norms are depicted, or indeed dictated, through mass media, or propaganda that silences and divides us and apportions blame to a marginalised ‘other’.  History has shown us time and time again.

War. Genocide. Destruction. Have we learned our lesson?

We must speak. We must be willing to risk social isolation, to risk scorn and ridicule, to risk abuse and indeed attack.  Everyone from Plato to John Stuart Mill to Tolstoy to Einstein has said it, in one form or another: The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. For us to be silent.

Those willing to break the spiral of silence are the non-conformists who don’t care if something is public opinion, they look to its merits and speak against it if it is wrong.

Raise your hand, raise your voice, take that risk

Do you think your opinion doesn’t count?

Do you think that other voices should be prioritised above your own?

Are you silent because you want to avoid conflict?

You might feel that you are freely choosing not to speak, but perhaps self-silencing beliefs inform that choice.  There is no surer method of oppression than to convince the oppressed that their opinions do not count, will not be heard, and so should not even be voiced.

I want you to think for a moment about how social inequality causes self-silencing, and forces marginalised people into the spiral of silence.

You are non-conformists – you will speak out.

Before you do, imagine yourself not within the spiral, but at the centre of a series of circles. You are the point of commonality in a complex Venn diagram that maps your lived experience, that reflects the groups you belong to. Some of those groups might be obvious – visual cues such as the colour of your skin, or the clothes you wear will reveal them. Others are hidden – but you know them because they are a part of you.

Age, gender, sex, sexuality, morality, nationality, occupation, education, family, faith, creed, and colour.

Look to the person beside you. You see some of those visual cues. Do not think, for one moment, that their set of circles is any less complex than yours.

Now, consider the “Everyman” who stands at the centre of a set of circles that map our society’s perception of ‘the norm’. Those unearned assets – a Venn diagram of privilege.

He is a man, aligned to the male gender.

He is white.

He is heterosexual.

He is able-bodied, attractive, fit, healthy, wealthy and, if not necessarily wise, at least educated and within the parameters of mental wellness.

He is a Christian, most probably a Protestant.

He has a house and a job, and a regular income.

At how many points do the circles of your Venn diagram overlap with his? From how many points of privilege do you speak? You might not even realise how lucky you are, but I would encourage you to think about how willing our society might be to prioritise your voice and your opinions, because of that privilege.

Spiderman says, paraphrasing everyone from Lord Melbourne to Franklin Roosevelt, that with great power comes great responsibility.

Use your privilege for good, instead of evil.

Use your voice.

Do not be silent because your opinion is different to public opinion.

Do not be silent because you have learned to self-silence and prioritise the voice of others.

Do not be silent because you speak from privilege, but know that you do so.

Silence is dangerous, but you can break it, and your voice can make things better for those who are too afraid to speak.

I’d like to leave you with the words of Audre Lorde, an African-American activist and self-declared ‘lesbian mother warrior poet’ who said:

I write for those who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they’re so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.

The sunny side up of no

rejectionI’ve been rejected.

Well, not me, per se, but two of my manuscripts.

I’d sent the first few chapters, and a synopsis, to open calls for submissions to UK-based publishing houses. For my historical fiction with elements of fantasy, I received a polite note from Gollancz to the effect that it’s a ‘neat’ idea, but they don’t want it. For my YA urban fantasy, Hodder & Stoughton sent an email saying it had gone through to the stage where more than one person had read it, and liked it, but they don’t want it.

I’m still waiting to hear back on another submission for one of the manuscripts, and, you know, hope springs eternal, etc, etc, but, honestly, I love those stories and it makes me sad to see them rejected.

On the plus side, though, what’s a writer without a few good rejection stories, hey?

I know (tick all that apply) – happy, – smug, – published,  – validated, – celebrating.

So, one year and one month later and I’m not yet eating my masterclass chocolate frog that I promised myself would be my reward for becoming a published author. Damn it all – I should have promised myself that treat just for finishing writing a book, but thus speaks the wisdom of hindsight.

Anyway, no wallowing in self-doubt, self-recriminations or sulfuric acid. If you look carefully at the image above you’ll see my green Fiona McIntosh Masterclass pen has acquired a bend. But it’s not a broken pen – it’s the world smacking me on the side of the head with a metaphor.

The pen was on loan to my adorable spawnlet, and he somehow managed to crush it in the folding seat mechanism of the back of the car. But – here’s the sunny side thing – it still writes. Really well. And it still clicks in and out. And now it kind of hugs my hand a little bit, as I use it. Nice.

I could say it was a happy accident. I could say that, like Fiona, her pen exhibits grace under pressure, resilience and persistence. But, instead, I tell you – I AM THE PEN. A little bit crushed and bent (by rejection) but still writing. Really well.