Sunday, February 27, 2011

Web resources on writing & publishing

There seems no end to the number of websites and blogs about books, writing and publishing. I guess that's not surprising. People who write and publish words and ideas are going to do it on every platform possible. But some of it, to be frank, is either crap advice or hysterical or of the Disneyland school of thought (if you want to be a famous author, just follow your dreams and it will happen - even if you can't write to save yourself - so all you need to worry about is what to wear on Oprah).

So in the middle of this overwhelming waterfall of information, where do you start?

Here are some sources I've either found useful or checked out to make sure they make some sort of sense. They are all free, but I strongly suggest that writers at any stage of their career invest in joining a local writers' centre or society of authors.

Writing advice and ideas:
Some helpful websites of writing tips and advice from experienced authors.
Writers' Hub (Birkbeck, UK): news, reviews, interviews
Best-selling author Sara Douglass (Australia) shares her experience of the business of writing and the editing/publishing process
Writing World (US): lots of short articles for people starting out and hoping to get published
Write101 (Australia): it's been around a long time, and chock full of advice
Literary liaisons is aimed at romance writers, but also offers a great list of resources for writers of historical fiction
Allen and Unwin's writing centre (Australia)

Authors' associations and writers' centres:
Trusted and authoritative sources of information and support.
Australian Society of Authors
NZ Society of Authors
UK Society of Authors
European Writers' Congress
US Authors Guild
Australian Writers Centres
International PEN

Getting published:
There are a billion sites and blogs on this topic, of varying quality, so here are just a few.
ASA Guide (Australia - PDF)
VWC advice (Australia)
Society of Authors advice (NZ)
Help! I need a publisher (UK)

Dish it up

The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes. 

~ Agatha Christie

So it's a good thing my dishwasher's blown up, right?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Research tools for writers

This week I've posted about tools for organising your work and a few free online tools to use for writing and promotions.

Today, I've been thinking about the research tools I use most, and thought I'd pass it on.

Yes, I know. Bloody obvious.
Or is it?
I know only too well that many a time I'm too lazy to get up from my desk to check something in a book that is only a few metres away. Instead I spend half an hour faffing around online and shouting at unknown people on the other side of the world because they are hiding the truth from me.

So, I'm reminding myself as much as anyone else - turn away from the screen and look around you.
I have thousands of books and somehow I can pretty much remember where to find things I need in them. That helps. (Of course, I can't remember what I did yesterday, or to turn the PVR on to record my favourite show, but I can remember that the quote I needed from Women in Shakespeare is on a left hand page, second paragraph, in the third chapter or so). When I need to look something up, I have a picture of it in my head. I'm sure I'm not alone in that. But it's much easier to use that spatial/visual skill with objects on shelves than with bookmarks in a browser. I just have to remember to remember.

Everyone's needs are different, but I will say that I had always been obsessed with owning an old edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica and when I finally bought one (they can be cheap as chips on eBay) it made me very happy - and has done so many times since.


Again, bloody obvious, but libraries do amazing things nowadays and some people don't realise it. They are also free, with a few exceptions.
I'm a member of several, and that's very handy because between them they are bound to have something useful even on the most obscure topics. Almost every library now has its catalogue online so you can find out whether they have something you're after, and you can usually order it, reserve it or even ask for it to be digitised.
If you're in Australia, you can also use Trove to search for items in a range of libraries at once - elsewhere, try WorldCat.

I'm a member of:
The State Library of Victoria (where I work, and which has magnificent research and heritage collections and thousands of online databases and journal - see below)
Melbourne City Library (terrific lending library, very strong on multimedia and provides e-books and multimedia to download online)
Yarra Plenty Regional Library (my local - not so great for research but good YA section and contemporary fiction)
La Trobe University Library (my university - again, great collection of licensed databases and really quite a good non-fiction collection, including older titles). Students can also get a CAVAL membership which allows you to go browse the shelves and borrow from other institutions' libraries.

Libraries will get books for you from elsewhere, provide online resources for you to download, chase up obscure titles and show you how to find things you never dreamed of.
Which brings me to ...

Databases, online media and ejournals
I had no idea about these until I started working at a library but now I couldn't live without them.

The story is that magazine and journals all over the world are now digitising back-catalogues and putting new editions online. These are all brought together in different bundles, or databases, by big publishers - some academic, some commercial.
Most libraries will pay subscriptions to the publishers so that members can look up citations, journal articles old and new, research papers, encyclopaedia entries, items in indexes and lists formerly kept on index cards in cabinets on the other side of town or the other side of the world.

They might include, for example, the whole Naxos classical music library, audio books from Jane Austen to JK Rowling, the Oxford dictionary, back copies of every journal from Lancet to Studies in the Novel through a source like JSTOR or databases of facts such as AustLit - a huge treasure chest of information about Australia literature and writers. You log in with your usual library ID.
Immeasurable riches await. I promise.

Google books and scholar
Yes, I Google as much as the next person, but much more valuable to me, in many ways, are Google Books and Google Scholar.
Google Books now comes with the option of buying ebooks for all e-readers except Kindle (hee, hee) but that's beside the point here. What it does, after much negotiation and angst amongst the writing and publishing communities, is pay for digitisation of (largely) out of copyright titles, mostly from UK and US libraries including some of the biggest in the world.

The wonderful Internet Archive, Gutenberg Project and Open Library have been doing it for years, of course, and I use them a great deal too.

For me the value of these services is direct access to books from centuries past which are difficult to access, especially if there are no copies in local collections. It also means I can keep them and look them up whenever I need them - which I'm unlikely to be able to do with printed copies in rare book collections. So, for example, I can read anything from Histoire anecdotique de l'ancien théâtre en France to Sex and Suits.

In Google Books, there are also titles in which copyright is still in force, so you get a snippet or preview - but this is enough to tell you how many references there are to your subject and whether it's worth buying or chasing the book elsewhere.

Google Scholar is a different matter altogether: it searches many of those online databases for you and returns not just links to journal articles, but also lets you see how many other authors have cited that article - often a good indication of the original's impact on the field. You can export the citation details directly into EndNote. And if you are a member of a university library (or something like the State Library) it will recognise you and take you through to the licensed database. Free.

The other Google service I find invaluable is Streetview, and Google Maps with Photos turned on, because I'm often writing about places far away from my desk, and in Streetview I can even peep over the back fence of the convent in Avignon that my main character tried to burn down in 1688 or so.

In Google and all sorts of search engines and databases, you can set up alerts, which email you to tell you when anything new has been published online on your topic. For example, for my PhD work, I have Google alerts set up for names of key historic figures, and topics such as "seventeenth century France". They can be quite specific and you can adjust them if they are sending you nonsense. In the journal databases, you can be alerted when new editions of particular titles are posted online.
The information comes to you. That has to be a good thing.

Archives and digital collections

If you're doing historical research, you're probably already using online archives. How many records are available online, and how user-friendly they are, differs from place to place, and archives all over the world have their work cut out for them getting stuff available fast enough to meet demand.

Again, your library subscription might provide you with access to archival material like births, deaths and marriages from countries around the world (eg through, but repositories such as the UK Archives and Archives de France are free, unbeatable sources of historical data.

I use British History Online an awful lot - here you can read the debates in Parliament during the Civil War or read the Venetian Ambassador's private papers. Warning: once you go in there, you may never come out.

And don't forget the many small local historical societies and archives where you can find friendly volunteers desperate to help you out.

I use images to research what people wore, ate, sat on, and dreamed about in centuries past. So if I know a certain artist (eg Vermeer) has captured it perfectly, I'll seek out the galleries and museums with strong collections of either relevant artworks or items such as clothing or weapons and check if they have digital versions.

I find search engines don't pick up collection images so easily. Much better to go to one of the central organising services like Trove. Europeana is also a wonderful way into the thousands of collections in Europe - it includes documents from the archives and is always in English.

And don't forget Flickr, especially for images of places and buildings.

Next episode: where and how to search online...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A writer's tools

When I speak at schools, kids always want to know all the practical details: do you write on paper or computer, where do you sit, do you use a pen? Other writers, too, like to swap stories and tips. So here are mine.

I can write pretty much anywhere, so I often scribble in notebooks on the train or in cafes at lunchtime. I learned long ago not to mix up all my ideas in one book, so I have separate notebooks: one for each project, and sometimes different books for research notes and fiction drafts.

Part of the ritual of starting a new project is buying new stationery. I like lightweight notebooks - a while ago I fell in love with these fat black journals I've only ever seen at Auckland airport, and stocked up, but they are really too heavy for schlepping about every day. I have a small notebook for random notes and ideas. I have even smaller Moleskine notebooks for tucking into a pocket with a stubby pencil if I'm going out walking in the middle of a brainstorm. (If I'm really caught short, I write on old receipts in my wallet, or serviettes, or sticky notes on my phone or Evernote on my iPod.)

I always use a pencil - preferably a mechanical pencil - I have several and for some reason need one for each notebook or task.

I do most of my research and writing on my laptop. I have a wireless router/modem so I can move around at home, work outside or at the dining-room table if I feel like it.

Like most people, I use Microsoft Word (Windows 7). The newer versions have some terrific new functionality and most of us only use a tiny percentage of its capability. One day I'll make time to expand my knowledge of it, but in the meantime I just tap away, track changes, do rough translations, and use the stylesheets/formatting in a very basic manner.

I use Excel for making spreadsheets tracking action across a novel to help me keep track of structure and pace - sometimes I turn these into graphs so I can literally see the highpoints and slower moments - important if you're writing action. For Tragedie, I use it to align the known biographical facts with my novel structure (and also the source of the original fact), like this:

Recently I've been fooling about with screenwriting, and this is made a great deal easier with one of the screenwriting packages which mean you don't have to think about the mechanics of formatting (eg caps here, indents there), which are very specific industry standards. Because I'm just playing, I use a free program called Celtx, which although free is pretty good. Serious TV and screenwriters invest in something like Final Draft or Screenwriter.

I keep my references in order with EndNote. (You can also use Zotero, which I prefer for organising references across web and the real world, but for a formal bibliography like my PhD, I use EndNote, because it's supplied free and supported by my university.) It gathers all resources, downloads bib data from libraries, and spits it all out in the form required for whichever academic journal you're writing for. You can attach files and links and add your own notes. You can download extensions which adjust the format of bib data you're importing from certain libraries, or massage your own data into different citation styles (eg Harvard, MLA, etc). I also use a Firefox EndNote extension which is better at saving web references than EndNote Web itself.

Back-up is critical. TE Lawrence left the first draft of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the train and had to start again. He believed it made his book better - I'd rather not run the risk. So please do back-up your drafts. I have an external hard-drive to which Windows runs an auto back-up every week. I also copy my Writing folder onto a USB drive every so often and keep it in my drawer at work in case the house burns down, and use Dropbox to back up into the cloud. Which brings me to online tools...

Online tools for writers

There is a whole range of free online tools that are useful for organising your work as a writer. Here are a few basics:

Most of us take our web browser for granted. If you own a PC with Windows like most of the world, you probably use Internet Explorer.
A minority of us use other browsers like Firefox, Chrome or Safari.
Yay us.

Whichever browser you use, you need to know that they have changed a lot over the years and you need to keep updating (they're free, so why not?). They also come with a great many more bells and whistles than they used to, such as better management of your bookmarks or favourites.

I use Firefox because it's open source, which means that it has a whole community of people out there who build extra bells and really good whistles that you can bolt on. One, for example, is Gtranslate, which (because I read a lot of documents in French and my French is appalling) allows me to translate any word on any web page into English with a right click.
Another is Add This, which lets me share something I like from any website on a blog or social media such as facebook, or save it to a bookmark list like delicious.
I also have Firefox extensions for programs I use all the time, like Evernote and EndNote.

Make that little search box in the top right hand corner work for you - choose which search engines you use for which tasks (you can get quite different results, you know, searching outside Google), and if it lets you (eg in Firefox) add the option to search sources like Google Scholar or Chambers dictionary. Then you don't have to go to a site to look something up - just type it into the box in your toolbar.

(Firefox - Dropbox, with Zotero open at the bottom of the screen)


I use Dropbox for backing up my drafts and documents: it is an online service which keeps your documents (or pictures or anything) in a secure space online. You simply save items to a folder on your computer and Dropbox will synch it up on a regular basis. This means you can also access your documents from any computer, and you can also set it up as a place to share or collaborate with others. Much easier to use than Google docs, if you ask me.

I adore Evernote. I started using it simply as a searchable database of research notes (like Microsoft OneNote). For example, I can write a quick note about a building in Paris that was around in 1670, maybe include a link to a relevant website, even a picture of it. In a year’s time when I can’t remember where on earth I put that note, I’ll be able to search for it and there it will be. A great deal easier than flicking through card indexes or notebooks. That alone is valuable, especially for people whose writing includes lots of research – you could use it for character biographies or almost anything. But wait – there’s more. Your notes live online, securely, so again you can access them from anywhere – that means that when I’m in Paris walking down the street where that building once stood, I can whip out my iPod or mobile and take a snap or make more notes, and the Evernote iPod app will synch it up with my other notes. Too easy. In fact, it’s a little addictive.

Websites and blogs

A website, at least, is now a given. You have to get one. People will look for you online and if you aren’t there, they’ll wonder what’s wrong with you. It’s as simple as that.

But it doesn’t have to be a drama. You can set up a blog or site very easily – how much time you put into it is up to you.

There are many free blogging platforms. I use Blogger for my blogs, because that seemed the easiest to use all those years ago when I started blogging. It’s still pretty good. You just sign up (it’s owned by Google), choose your blog name and select a design from a wide range of prepared templates. Then add content: blog posts, links to sites or blogs that you like, images.

After several incarnations and countless hours slaving over Dreamweaver, I now just use Wordpress for my websites. It’s fundamentally a blogging platform, a little more complex than Blogger but still easy to use. You can post, just like a blog, but you can also create pages which don’t change, menus and sub-pages, and again you choose a template from a range and then add images or change colours or page structures according to your taste. Simple is better.

Both these platforms are free and allow writers to get online with an investment of time and effort, rather than having to fork out. If you know about the technical side of the web, you can make them do extra stuff, but I don’t bother (and I am a professional geek in my day job). I'm a writer, not a designer or a developer. They aren't the prettiest websites in the world but that's OK. Up to you.

Both platforms (and others) host your site or blog for free, so you don’t have to pay anyone for website hosting, and both are big stable platforms that aren’t going anywhere (I remember once, years ago, I published my Masters thesis online with a similar service – one day it went bust and millions of people’s websites vanished).

What you might want to do is register a domain name: this does cost money. Say you want your site or blog to be at the web address: You have to buy the right to that name. But with Wordpress you can simply buy the domain name and then use it for your Wordpress site by adding a redirect. Easy. And well worth it, even if the domain name itself costs a couple of hundred bucks, because then you get to own a nice, clear and short web address. I think the redirect costs another $12. Bargain.

Social media
I admit I have only just started using social media as an author – literally just in the last few weeks. But I use it as a civilian all the time and have done for years, and work with it as part of my day job. In fact I train people to use it.

So my advice is, don’t go near Twitter or facebook if you aren’t prepared to post regularly, and that doesn’t include telling the world what you had for dinner.
But if you like the medium, you can use it to be involved with readers and other writers, and that can have a promotional effect in the long-run. It’s about engagement with people, not just flogging your latest book.
First thing is to separate out your personal self from your online author self – set up an “official” Twitter feed or facebook page and only post author-type things. Your friends and family may follow you as an author as well as a real person, but you don’t want readers confusing your personal life with your public persona.

Second thing is to use a few nifty tools to bring together your social media, so that you don’t have to keep bouncing from one to another and spend your whole life posting on different platforms. I use Hoot Suite which allows me to write a brief post and then choose which of my social media profiles or pages it appears on.
I also set up a feed from my blog into my facebook page and my website, so that they appear to be updated without me having to actually change pages on the website or post links to my blog all the time.

Third thing is to keep yourself nice. Behave on social media as you would at a school visit or bookshop reading: answer politely, be interested in your readers, ask them what they think – what they read. Don’t grump at people if they leave nasty comments or bad book reviews. Rise above.

Reader communities
I jumped onto LibraryThing early on in its life, and obsessively catalogued a few hundred of my books before I ran out of steam. I have a widget on my blog which feeds up books from my LibraryThing collection, so people can see what I’m reading (or at least, what I read years ago). I still love the idea of it, but haven’t been much involved in it as a community because I just don’t have enough hours in the day. I also recently joined GoodReads.

Both (and others, like Shelfari) are online book geek communities where people share what they’re reading, post reviews, list their own collections, recommend books to one another, and discuss books, reading and writing – endlessly.

Take a look. Often. See what people are reading, what they say about books and what they are looking forward to. If nothing else, register as an author so you can post updates on your own upcoming titles.
For people outside the US and the UK, you may notice that local titles are less likely to be on these sites (and other places like Amazon reviews) but that’s OK. Just know that’s the case and that there will be plenty of people from all over the world reading a huge range of books from everywhere.

It is, apart from anything else, fun. You’ll find a whole lot of books you suddenly must read.
And that's a good thing. Right?

Those are a few of the tools I use. You will have your own favourites or latest apps and add-ons that get your blood racing. So go on, blog about them.

Saturday, February 05, 2011


Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
~ E. L. Doctorow

Lately I've been...

  • The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, having screwed up my courage in the face of its not being The Poisonwood Bible. But it's pretty wonderful in its very own way so far.
  • Phryne Fisher books by Kerry Greenwood (under strict instructions from my aunt, who was right - I did like them). Very happy to read the ABC is making a series: will be great stylish TV if they get the casting right.
  • Travel guides to Paris and Provence.
  • Prisoners of War by Patsy Adam-Smith - dipping in an out - it's too horrific to read right through.
  • Seventeenth Century France Through the Eyes of Travellers. Fascinating and often hilarious.
  • Also re-read Pride and Prejudice on my iPod to see how it was on the tiny screen - far too much page  turning for my liking, but fine if you're stuck - astonished, after so many reads, to find things in the book I'd overlooked or forgotten.

  • New Guinea art and artefacts at the Museum of South Australia. Two afternoons in a row. Too exciting. Identified a few of my arrows.
  • Carrick Hill house and gardens in Adelaide, with a perfect little collection of old English oak pieces and jewel-like paintings by the likes of Nolan, Dobell, Fox, Nora Heysen, Gaugin, fake-Gaugin, and Fantin-Latour. Lalique glass. Gorgeous Streeton of Venice. Arts & Crafts garden including a children's book trail with a hobbit house and a Secret Garden (although it was far too hot to explore it thoroughly).
Not admiring
  • The new Saturday Age layout, clearly designed without any usability advice.
  • The weather.

  • About poor Mission Beach, where I would happily spend every winter forever. Of all places for a cyclone to cross the coast.

  • Research for Tragédie only, not drafting at present. Have to do the immersion thing - period food, clothes, buildings, streets - before I go much further. Met with the lovely Michael Shirrefs who is full of tips on how to do research in French archives.
  • Ideas for something set in Marvellous Melbourne - maybe a sensation novel - maybe a detective novel - probably both - too early to tell.

  • To Tancrede, a baroque opera in which La Maupin performed
  • Brand New Heavies - just rediscovered a couple of old CDs and forgot how much I loved them

Friday, February 04, 2011

Writers' houses

Latest favourite website: Writers' houses. Mostly US so far, of course, and a hell of a background coming through slowly and affecting usability.
But fun, especially this post from  on Willa Cather and Red Cloud.

This is where I live.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Inky cuffs

It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them.  The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.  

~ Joan Baez


Happy to see Swashbuckler books on the lists for the Premier's Reading Challenges in NSW and South Australia this year, and never fail to be amazed at what a wonderful idea the PRC is.

In news of other challenges, summer is the time for people to make resolutions and sign up for everything from gyms to book clubs, and book bloggers are no exception.

One of my favourites, to which I challenge you all, is the Australian YA fiction challenge, kicked off by Irresistible reads and Inkcrush. The idea is that you simply read 12 local YA books this calendar year, and post reviews: you sign up so everyone else can read your reviews (and vice versa) even if they're on Good Reads or the like, rather than a blog.

And you get to wear the badge of pride:

I haven't decided on my books yet, but titles by both Simmone Howell and Margot Lanagan are in the pile already. And I need a copy of Stephen Herrick's latest.

I doubt very much that any vampire/angel/unicorn books will be on my list. Mind you, I'm not averse to a decent fantasy novel, especially if there's lots of sword-fighting (unless it involves several chapters of crossing plains and mountains on horseback and eating herb-laden stew - which, by the way, fantasy writers, is a stupid thing to cook on the road unless you have a pressure cooker - or Esky).

In fact, I'm not normally averse to a decent vampire/demon novel either but I am so sick of standing in the YA section of a bookshop staring at nothing but black and red covers, and now just want it to be over.

Dragons? Any time.
Your good old-fashioned vampire-killer? Sure.
Smart, strong, sexy vampires? Depends.
Magic? You bet.
Evil trickster demons (so long as they aren't too scary)? All good.

Total vampire epidemic? Done. Next?