Archives: Writing

Where does it all come from?

I’m just back from a session at the marvellous Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (disclaimer: my better half is chief executive) to see a truly fantastic talk by David Almond. The audience were primary school teachers (and me), and David gave us an insight into how he writes books that was at once modest and genuinely inspiring.

‘I’m going to give you a word,’ he said. ‘A four-letter word. When I tell you the word, you have to keep it in your head, but it can only be the WORD. The letters of the word. It can’t be anything else. Just that single word. Ready? Here it is. T-E-N-T.’

The point being, of course, that you can’t. Those four letters become so much more than a word – they become sights and smells and pictures and memories and sounds and everything you’ve ever thought or that ever happened to you that involved a tent.

And that was the theme of the talk: how our minds are vehicles for imagination and creativity, two words which, David said, he was scared of as a child, because they seemed to sonorous and difficult. I still remember my granny saying to me the morning after one of my regular nightmares ‘you have them because you’ve a strong imagination,’ so that imagination became a condition, like asthma or myopia, that made your life more difficult.

David Almond is one of those people who’s not afraid to talk about the magical side of writing, the spark of inspiration – catch his anecdote about when and where the first line of Skellig came to him, and I defy you not to shiver. I’m emotionally hardwired to be sceptical about this stuff, to poo-poo those writers who talk about the mystical side of creativity. But I’m wrong. It’s right to talk about that stuff, because sometimes what we do as writers does feel magical, or at least inexplicable. This morning I wrote two chapters, one after the other. One was great, the other so-so. I have no idea why.

But then, as a counter-balance and a mild name-drop, I did get the chance to chat briefly with David before his talk. What did we chat about? Freedom, the software which allows you to turn off the Internet on the machine you’re working on to allow you to write. So yes, even magicians like David Almond need the right environment.

One other Almond anecdote – when he writes, he writes in Page View, with the numbers of the pages and the title of the book at the top of each page, so he can see the book physically coming to life as he goes. I think that’s brilliant.

A fantastic writer and a wonderful fellow. He signed a book for me, too.

Astonished by Richard Pryor. And Maya Angelou.

This may be well-known to a lot of people, but before I’d read this article on Dangerous Minds | Watch Richard Pryor’s jaw-dropping ‘Willie’ sketch featuring Maya Angelou I didn’t know anything about this extraordinary slice of popular culture, during which a very troubled but brilliant man performs a comic sketch about drinking, at the end of which he collapses unconscious onto a sofa to be lamented by his wife, with words that would not have disgraces Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill.

The wife is played by Maya Angelou.

I can’t think of anything remotely like this in British comedy.

David Mitchell on self-editing

I think this, from David Mitchell, is brilliant on self-editing. He said it during the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop in 2009:

A consolation: as you perform the necessary editing, it really hurts. “I love that line, its such a neat bit, its brilliant!” Brilliant isn’t actually enough–its got to be brilliant, and have a place there. And oddly enough, you cut it, but in a weird way, its still there. It’s gone but it hasn’t actually gone. It’s still there in your denser, and your richer and your better text. It’s in the texture. Books are palimpsests of your earlier drafts. So don’t be too disheartened because its gone, because it isn’t really. Or to give you some Confucianism: what the pruning shears remove remains on the tree in its enhanced vigour. A good rule of thumb: if you have to think more than five seconds about whether or not a thing should be cut, that means do it. In the age of word processors, I’ve got a file called “may be useful one day,” where I put things that are great and that I can’t bear to lose. I cut and paste and put it in the file, so at least its there in case I ever want to go back and retrieve it. How often do I go back and retrieve it? Never. Not once. Which I feel proves my point.

via David Mitchell on self-editing | Humber College – The School of Creative and Performing Arts.

On writing every day

This is a little thing I wrote for IdeasTap last year sometime. I’ve just found it in an obscure iCloud folder so thought I’d stick it up here

There are only two rules you need to make a living as a writer.

The first rule is: ‘write every day.’ Writers are made, not born. Of course, you’ll need a little bit of talent, but that’s just the raw material. To make something out of it, you’ll need to put your bum in a chair, and write every single day.

Some people write a few hundred words a day. Others (like me) write a few thousand. The ones who write a few hundred take care over every thing they put down. The ones (like me) who write a few thousand take less care, but then spend a lot of time editing, revising, chucking out and adding. Both end up at the same place.

But that’s not why you write every day. You write every day because writing is a muscle, and like any muscle it grows flabby and useless through disuse. And by ‘writing’ I don’t mean just putting words down – I mean that strange, mystical combination of the physical act with the intellectual, that combination of concentration, creativity, intense attention and inspiration that only comes for maybe half-an-hour a day, but only arrives once you’re warmed up, like the engine of a classic sports car.

If you write every day, that moment becomes more common, and grows longer. You find yourself reading stuff you wrote the day before which is really good but which you don’t remember, and you realise that, for a moment at least, you were inspired.

That’s why you write every day.

The second rule of writing is this: ignore all the rules of writing.

How does one work with a head like this?

Writers and alcohol have a long intertwined history. Abuse of the demon drink seems to go hand-in-hand with the peculiar mix of self-loathing, egotism and imagination that drives many novelists.

Or does it? This selection of quotes from writers on drinking – from Mencken to Twain – makes clear how sensible a good many great writers were when it came to using drink rather than abusing it. Take this quote from King Whisky himself, E Hemingway:

“I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky? When you are cold and wet what else can warm you? Before an attack who can say anything that gives you the momentary well-being that rum does?… The only time it isn’t good for you is when you write or when you fight. You have to do that cold. But it always helps my shooting. Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief.”

In other words: don’t drink and write.

Or in my case, today, and the reason for this post: don’t expect to get anything decent written when you’ve got a tasty hangover.



Learning how to teach about writing

I am, I suppose, quite an instinctive writer. I’ve now written four books (more on the most recent two of them in future weeks and months) and all of them have started with a fragment: either an existing horror story (The English Monster) or a fragment of biography (The Poisoned Island). The two books I’ve been working on most recently started, respectively, with a title and an imagined scene. I won’t tell you the title – yet – but the imagined scene was an all-female version of the famous opening of Great Expectations.

It’s then been a case of digging out the story from these fragments: inventing characters, researching biographies and histories, getting a feel for places, and, most of all, working out the story. I don’t plot heavily beforehand, and I haven’t always had an ending in mind when I start, so I’ve had to discover these things as I go along.

I have, in recent months, come to think more and more about the mechanics of these instinctive matters. How does character work? What’s the most effective interplay between research and creating? What are the key elements of story? And – I think most importantly of all – what’s the voice of your novel? A fellow writer once told me that Kazuo Ishiguro spends six years on each of his novels, and the first three years are entirely spent rehearsing different voices with which to tell his story. Before I’d written a novel, I would have thought that preposterous. Now I’ve written a few, I find myself asking how I can engineer a career that allows me to do it too. (The answer is: I can’t).

I’m going to be blogging more about these things in the coming weeks and months, on the basis (see this post here) that writing things through on a blog can help you understand them. And I’m also going to be working towards teaching a class: in my case, a Guardian Masterclass on writing historical crime fiction. You can find more details of it here. I’m looking forward to teaching it, and to figuring out how to make it as good as it can be.


Amazing English Monster news

In the two years since I gave up work to write full-time, I’ve made quite a few writerly friends; many more than I’d imagined I would, if I’m honest. I always pictured writers as solitary creatures, shunning daylight and society while drinking themselves into an early grave on cheap whisky, despairing over gnarly metaphors (like this one).

But that isn’t the case. Social media, in particular Twitter, has enabled those of us who sit around on our own making stuff up and pretending to be tortured to have at least a facsimile of a social life. And one of the nicest things about that has been watching fellow authors get that most rare of joys: the feeling of being nominated for an award.

British writers in particular respond to this in a lovely way, an embarrassed delight which shows just how welcome this kind of recognition is. It’s so pure and so concentrated, to be told by people who are paid to have a view on these matters that the thing you’ve made is worthwhile. A great review is one thing. A healthy sales report is another. But there’s something about being recognised by the industry as having created something special which is quite, quite unique.

And I’ll admit to having experienced the odd moment of envy, seeing those friends receive that recognition and spark with pride over it. I didn’t set out to write a book that would attract that kind of critical attention; I just set out to write a book (though I’m not sure anyone really does try to write an award-winning book – they write the book they want to write). And The English Monster is quite a Marmite undertaking: not quite historical fiction, not quite horror, not quite crime. I once found it in three separate sections in Waterstones Piccadilly.

All of which is preamble to the inevitable ‘me me me’ explosion, because yesterday I had my first and only taste of that delicious tingle. Because, yes, The English Monster has been nominated for a prize! It’s the Author’s Club’s Best First Novel Award, and the other eleven books on the list are so impressive that they can only deepen my sense of pride and wonder at being nominated at all. Absolution. The Marlowe Papers. Alys, Always. A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. I mean these are – well, they’re proper books.

Next week, this original list of 12 goes down to six, and given the other titles on the list I have no expectation of making the cut (this isn’t false modesty – as of the day before yesterday I had no expectation of ever being nominated for any prize, ever). Right now I’m basking in a warm glow of pride, and I’m going to sip away at that for the rest of the week and into the weekend. It is, right enough, an absolutely lovely feeling.

englishmonster_UKpaperback_250px copy

Introducing my second book: The Poisoned Island

As those who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will know, at the end of last week an exciting package arrived at my house. It contained two pristine copies of the hardback of my next book, The Poisoned Island.

Here’s the beautiful front cover:

Poisoned Island Hardback Front small


I’ll write more about it in the coming weeks. In fact, I’ll write so much about it you’ll be forced to silence me on whatever platforms you currently read this gush on. But for now, here’s some salient facts:

  • it’s out in the UK on February 28th – no dates for other territories, including the U.S., just yet, but I’ll let you know when I get them
  • it’s a sequel to The English Monster
  • it’s set a year later, and features a mysterious ship, the island of Tahiti, the botanical gardens at Kew, and a tree which is not all it appears to be. It also features Sir Joseph Banks and Robert Brown, as well as the main characters from The English Monster
  • the cover is beautiful

That’s all for now. Other than to point out that the cover is beautiful.


Hitting the right notes: talk to Design of Understanding conference, January 2013

Below is the text of the talk I delivered yesterday at the Design of Understanding conference in London. It’s a somewhat meandering thing on the subject of research, note-taking, creativity and technology. It did start off with a set of clips from The English Patient as illustration, which I’ve decided not to add here for obvious copyright reasons. I’ve replaced it with a set of stills. If you’re interested in seeing the actual clips, rent the movie and find the best match for the screencaps here!

I’d like to talk to you today about the way we make sense of things through research. Specifically, I’m going to be talking about the way we take notes, or at least the way I take notes, and how note-taking has been changed by technology. This seems an appropriate subject to be discussing in a library called St Bride’s, the church of scribblers, journalists and Grub Street hacks, all of them carrying the most fearsome hand-held weapon of all: the notebook.

To start: some clips from the movie The English Patient. For those of you who don’t know the film, it’s about a torrid affair between the wife of an English spy and an archaeologist who is Hungarian but is mistaken for an Englishman. Much of the film hinges on identity – on who we are, what makes us who we are, and what happens when we forget. Here’s the clip.








It should be pretty obvious why I’ve picked those scenes. It’s because of that thing Kristin Scott Thomas has got hold of there. Look at it. LOOK at it.

It’s a notebook. But it’s so much MORE than a notebook. Above all it’s an emblem of its owner. It says: ‘This man is intelligent. This man is knowledgeable. He is careful and diligent and artistic and concerned with the world.’ More than anything, this notebook seems to say “this is what my owner’s BRAIN looks like, and it is MAGNIFICENT.” The notebook is who this character is because he has created it.

I think this act of creation through note-taking is a crucial matter. And when I’m talking about notes and notebooks, what I’m really talking about is how we make sense of this amazing stuff around us.

Why does this matter to me now? Because I’ve changed careers recently. I’ve had two already. I was a journalist for a long while, then I was a digital product manager for a bunch of different companies.

But these days, I write books. More than that, and through an unexpected sequence of events, I appear to have written historical books. My first two – The English Monster and The Poisoned Island


- take real historical events, and mess with them in ways which I hope are interesting and revealing.

Of course, the trouble with historical novels is they require research, and a very great deal of it. For example, to write The Poisoned Island, I had to learn about botanical science, a subject about which I knew nothing whatsoever. That’s hard enough. But then I had to make sense of the state of botanical science in 1812. This is why they tell you to ‘write what you know.’

Here’s what I’ve learned in the process of writing these books.

First: taking notes has become easier while, at the same time, choosing what notes to take has become vastly more complicated.

Second: turning notes into knowledge – into understanding – has, I believe, become harder. In other words, when it comes to Understanding, the Design of Taking Notes needs thought and it needs work.

Taking notes used to be a simple but laborious exercise. The tools were certainly simple: a piece of paper and a pen or a pencil. Perhaps a pair of scissors and some glue. For the advanced user, an audio recorder of some kind, and a visual recording device, or ‘camera’, as we used to call them.

Today we’ve still got notebooks and paper. But instead of scissors and glue, we’ve got screengrabs and scanners. We can clip webpages and save images. We can turn ourselves into recording devices that are almost never turned off. My latest toy is a scanning wand, no bigger than a small umbrella.

At the same time, the capturing process has become omnipresent and omniscient, always-on, always-aware. We have all become Data Sentinels, detecting information and recording it. We take photos at concerts and then find them on our computers, FaceScanned and indexed. We review books on our Kindles and influence recommendation algorithms on mighty servers in far-off countries. We absorb information like we absorb oxygen. Note-taking used to be like eating; now it’s like photosynthesis. The smartphone, in particular, has turned us all into walking, breathing scanners, each with our own little tricorder, noticing and capturing and recording all the long day.

But this kind of frictionless capturing is only one part of note-taking. As I’ve discovered, taking notes is mainly about choosing sources. And that has become both a wonderful and a maddeningly complicated aspect of my life. Gone are the days when almost all notes were taken out of books and newspapers. A standard networked computer today gives access to a million Libraries of Alexandria within seconds. And more than this – every bit of knowledge is now connected to every other bit of knowledge via the gloriously simple wonder of the hyperlink.

Today, I can fall into deliciously interesting historical rabbit holes at any moment, from any piece of knowledge. Research used to be like going into a room where one person told you something and you noted it down. Now it’s like walking into a room where hundreds of people are talking; you have to choose who to listen to.

Choosing who to listen to is easier if you know what you need to find out. Some people know what they’re going to write before they start writing it. I’m not one of those people. When I start out, I have an idea, often quite a vague one. I don’t know the ending, the middle, or even the second chapter. Since I started out writing fiction, I’ve discovered that quite a few fiction writers go about things the same way. You inch your way forwards, working things out a bit at a time. There’s a nice quote by EL Doctorow: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

At the beginning of a new writing project, I read widely and indiscriminately, and a great deal of that work is wasted – at least in terms of getting the book written. And because of this vast cybertrove of information, the wasted work is potentially, well, infinite. I read dozens of books, and look at hundreds of websites. I take notes in such microscopic detail that I might as well just transcribe the Internet. Because I don’t know what I need, do I? And I might miss something.

I write in the morning, and do research in the afternoon. As I say, the afternoon research is typically wasteful, but it’s also serendipitous. More often than not, I find a fact or an anecdote or a character during research that bleeds back into the story. For quite a few weeks, this is how I go: meandering through research, blindly working my way through story, lit up by the occasional illumination from my reading to move the story on.

And then, at some point down the line, I get the story. I know why it is I’m writing what I’m writing. I might not know the ending yet, but, to quote another man who had no idea what he was doing, I do now know what I don’t know. From here on in, the research becomes tighter and less wasteful. I go looking for answers to questions, rather than randomly coming across answers to questions I didn’t even know I was going to ask. I write my way into doing better research.

It seems to be a fact to me that making sense of all these notes is a creative process. It’s the story I am trying to tell which makes sense of the notes I am trying to take. It’s a personal, self-generated, aesthetic process. It’s only by writing the story I’m researching – by discovering what that story is as I go along – that the research itself begins to gain focus and momentum. It’s a two-way street. And it confirms me in my belief that we need stories or pictures or other creative artefacts to make sense of knowledge.

And this is where I come to my second point: about how the Design of Understanding of note-taking is faulty. Because, as I hope I’ve shown, the taking and sourcing of notes has been transformed by technology and network culture. Now, here’s the thing: has that made research any easier? Because it should have done. That enormous availability of knowledge is one of the great achievements of digital culture – if pushed, I’d say Wikipedia was the greatest achievement of digitial culture. But I feel that something is missing. I’ve got the same itchy sense I have when I look at my iTunes Library.

2,220 albums, I say to myself. How on earth do I make sense of all that?

I’m going to argue that our tools for understanding this plenitude are currently poorly designed. And I’m going to pick, unfairly, on the note-taking tool I use every single day – Evernote.


I’ve flirted with quite a few note-taking platforms, but I’ve always come back to Evernote. It has an excellent suite of capture tools, and it plays very nicely across desktop, laptop, tablet and phone.

At least, its capturing tools play nicely. But this is the Design of Understanding conference. The Design of Capturing conference is at the Excel Centre later in the year, and features more arms dealers.

So, how easy does Evernote make it to understand what you’ve captured?

Not so much, I find. Even its Search is a bit disappointing, with none of that almost-magical sense of precognition and omniscience that I get from a Google search. Evernote’s search feels flat, disconnected. And at the end of the day, what does all that beautifully frictionless capture give me? A lot of stuff, certainly. But how much understanding?

Remember when Moleskine notebooks started appearing in offices? For me, it was in the early Noughties, just about the same time serious note-taking software began to appear on computers. Were people looking for a more pleasing, aesthetic, old-fashioned way of taking notes? Did they feel that technology wasn’t supplying something they valued? What did these rather self-consciously old-fashioned notebooks offer?

Was that something creativity? Art? The very personal feeling of making something yourself, making sense of something yourself, and bringing it to life? A few years ago I was in a Channel 4 News workshop with Matt Jones, who’s a designer and creative technologist. I watched him taking notes that day. He was writing thoughts and ideas and notes down with a thick marker pen, and because he’s a designer these notes were a combination of doodles and typefaces which, to me, looked fantastic. And they were his. He’d made something come into being out of the stuff we were taking notes from. He was creating and thinking while he was taking notes.

That kind of personalised, aesthetic thinking aloud is the essence of understanding what we take from our sources, I think – be they books or meetings or websites. And I think technology is singularly bad at this.

Here’s the thing about tech: it forces me to organise my thoughts and my assets in ways which the tech provides. A record collection in random disorder, inside a piece of furniture in a cluttered bedroom, with coffee rings on some album covers and a smear of hash on the odd gatefold sleeve, has been morphed into the antiseptic iTunes Library. Photos in boxes, in albums, gathering dust at the top of shelves and discovered by chance within the pages of books, become the prescriptive Face-matched archive in iPhoto. And notes – in books, files, scattered across Moleskines and scribbled in the margins of texts – become the uniform, well-organised, regimented interface of Evernote.

Sure, they’re easier to find, these catalogued Notes. They’re certainly easier to create. But are they easier to understand?

I am of course asking for the impossible. I want the note-taking power I’ve been gifted by technology. I want my notes backed-up, indexed, searchable, downloadable, sharable.

But I also want these notes to be beautiful. I want them to express my own journey towards understanding the knowledge they contain. And perhaps most of all – I want this collection of notes to somehow express something about me as well as about the work I’m doing.

I do think this is a wider issue for technology, and it goes further than what we used to describe of as ‘personalisation.’ Technology has allowed, of course, enormous self-expression and creativity when it comes to the making of new stuff – words, pictures, songs. But when it comes to our tools for making those things and for using them, the picture is pretty homogenous. My desktop looks like your desktop. My notes look like your notes.

Evernote, for one, are clearly aware of this disjunction between the physical world and the digital. They’ve recently announced a deal with Moleskine – who else? – to provide “Evernote-enabled” notebooks. For now, this means using a smartphone to snap pictures of your physical notes, which can also be tagged – virtually and physically – using stickers. It’s a laborious process, I think, but it’s an interesting step.

A step towards what, though? Well, perhaps towards one aspect of the Internet of Things. Here’s an early definition of the problem which the concept of the Internet of Things seeks to address, from Kevin Ashton:

We’re physical, and so is our environment. Our economy, society and survival aren’t based on ideas or information—they’re based on things. You can’t eat bits, burn them to stay warm or put them in your gas tank. Ideas and information are important, but things matter much more. Yet today’s information technology is so dependent on data originated by people that our computers know more about ideas than things.

Which is precisely what I’ve been talking about. Notes aren’t just ideas. They’re things. They have a physical resonance to us. So does an Internet of Things provide a means of us understanding our notes better? Can an asset I create with my own hand, pen, eye and brain be somehow mutated into a digital artefact – indexable, searchable, archivable – which is both mine and everyone’s?


Back to where I came in: the remarkable notebook in The English Patient. Why is the notebook so central to the film? Because it’s the Patient’s life, and he forgets his life and has to find it again. He finds it in the pages of his notebook. And what is this notebook? It’s a copy of Histories by Herodotus. It’s a book of stories, into which the Patient adds drawings, letters, clippings, postcards and mementoes. He draws his life onto the pages of Herodotus. His notes become who he is.

Thank you.

Kevin Ashton, That ‘Internet of Things’, RFID Journal

FOOTNOTE: In a rather glorious and entirely unplanned demonstration of what I was talking about above, two people took beautiful notes yesterday. Here they are on Flickr (thanks jaremfan and evalottchen):

Lloyd Shepherd - Design of Understanding 2013

Lloyd Sheperd & Will Stahl-Timmins @ The Design of Understanding 2013

On turning off the sponge

I’m coming towards the end of the first draft of my third book, and I’ve noticed a dangerous tendency – I’m so embedded in it, most of the time, that pretty much anything I see, hear or read becomes possible material.

This is dangerous.

It’s not helped by what I find myself listening to and reading at the moment. In my ears I’ve got In Our Time, RadioLab and This American Life. Thankfully, IoT is taking a summer break, but not before it’s chucked in all sorts of interesting stuff which could, if I smashed it around a bit, fit into the book.

Even more deadly has been my new fave podcast, A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, which starts with the Pre Socratics and then covers a different philosopher, or school, every week in only 20 minutes. I’m up to Democritus, and every time I listen there’s a new idea to get in.

The trouble is, you don’t just have to smash the idea about to get it in, you have to smash the draft about, too. On this book I’ve tried writing an outline before starting, something I haven’t done before, and if the outline is a map then it’s one I departed from a long time ago and I’m now, frequently, lost. I’m the kind of motorist who says “oooh, look, shiny!” and heads off down a back lane and then can’t find his way back.

A lot of this meandering will be fixed in the redrafting (I hope). Because I’m still pretty new to all this, I find myself asking if this is just how I do things, or whether I should try and change. It seems to me I’ve picked up some cool stuff while acting like a magpie. But I’ve picked up some rubbish too. And I’ll never know how the book would have read if I’d ignored all that other stuff.

I suppose that like other things – a craving for cake, an unquenchable taste for heavy metal, a preference for dogs over cats – I yam what I yam.

It does sometimes feel like a bloody inefficient way of working, though. And the maddest thing of all is worrying that I’ve forgotten something really cool I heard when I wasn’t listening or saw when I wasn’t looking.

A stove pipe sponge, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

PS: Classic case. In finding links for this post, I just discovered the History of Philosophy website, which has a page for each episode with comments at the bottom which are almost as revealing and interesting as the podcasts themselves. Turn it off! Turn it all off!