Splitting Skulls

Knock, knock. Hello? Is God in?

So I came to Orkney in part to do Viking-y things, and today I was a true Viking by anyone’s estimation. After visiting the neolithic tomb of Maes Howe to look at the Viking graffiti therein, I headed into the town of Kirkwall (home of the magnificent 12th century crumbly cathedral St Magnus’s) for a spot of lunch and some Orkney ale.

“Give me a steak pie and a bottle of Skull Splitter,” I said.

The bar-keep did a double-take. I swear everyone in the bar hushed.

“Are ye sure, lassie? Skull Splitter is no’ really a lunchtime ale,” he said. “It’s very strong; eight-and-a-half percent.”

“I’m from Australia,” I said. “I can handle it.”

By Odin’s beard it was strong. But I drank it. And here is photographic evidence.

Kim of the Island

I am in the Orkneys, a little group of islands off the top of Scotland. There are only a few places in the world that I’ve long dreamed of going (Milford Sound was another: saw it last February. Iceland is still on the list) and the Orkneys is one of them.

Me at the Ring of Broadgar

To get here, though, necessitated me getting on a really really tiny plane with propellers. Propellers! In fact, it was so old there were still ashtrays in the arm rests. There was a string quintet on the plane too, with their cellos strapped into the seats next to them. I thought that at least, if we went down, they could play us some music, Titanic-style.

Flying off the edge of mainland Scotland and catching the first glimpse of the islands made me cry with excitement. Some of the islands are completely bare except for a lighthouse. I was expecting grey water, but it was clear and turquoise. Orkney is very sparsely populated, there are few trees, but the roads are good and it has incredible views. I’m staying at a cottage with a heavenly view across Scapa Flow to Hoy.

Today I’ve been to the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Broadgar, and Skara Brae. That’s right, it was neolithic sight-seeing day. Viking sight-seeing day is coming up on Friday, but it’s hard to escape the Viking influence here. Just reading the names of places should give you some indication of that.

Best things about today: talking to my kids on Skype, writing the prologue to my novella, blogging with my feet up and Sigur Ros on the stereo and drinking a fine Australian shiraz by the fireplace. Worst things about today: NOTHING.
And here, for your edification, is the (very short) prologue to the novella “The Year of Ancient Ghosts”, as written on a tiny propeller plane over the Scottish highlands.


Shards of bright pain and bright light speared into the cloying vacuum of unconsciousness. He struggled upwards; he had something important to remember.

“Try to be still. You’ve had an accident.”

His tongue swelled against his teeth.

“Don’t talk and don’t move. We’re taking you into surgery.”

The darkness yanked him towards it. Surrender. Beyond this threshold was an end to the pain. But there was something else. Something waiting, as it had waited for nearly thirty years, tangled in seaweed and teeth and veins.

His voice broke from his throat, a blood-soaked gargle. “Jenny! Mary!”

The light blinked out.

Scotland: as Scottish as a Scottish thing

You’re going to have to forgive me. I’m a long way from home and pretty jetlagged. In Edinburgh, which is gorgeous. Walked up the Royal Mile today and went to the castle. Here are a few pictures. I’m sorry, I’m too tired to know what they are of (except the one of me enjoying a cream tea at Edinburgh Castle).
Travelling is such a strange activity. We go so far from our comfort zones, and the results can be viewed both positively and negatively. I mean, you spend a shitload of cash, you’re tired all the time, and sometimes you pay 14 quid to get into a castle and find it a little… well… boring, so you spend another 5 quid on a cream tea that’s a little… well… average. But there’s something incredible about the long flight, passing over strange places that are lit up at night because people really live in them. Parts of Poland sound like fantasy cities: Wroclaw for example. And then you land in Scotland and everybody has this glorious accent you cannae understand. Oh good lord I’m rambling. It’s 5pm here, but 3am back home and my head is somewhere in between the two and my legs are wobbly and when I close my eyes I can still feel the plane pitching and yawing underneath me. One more plane now–to the Orkneys tomorrow to get my Viking on–then I can settle here for the six weeks and get some work done. And write more orderly and meaningful posts. Love you, Mum.

Travelling with books

Changi airport. Super tired. Weirdest and coolest place in the world. All those lights as you fly over, all those cargo ships in the water lit up like a lit-up thing (really tired… can’t make the words come).

I am reading Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens. Oh. My. God. I kept thinking words like: sumptuous, delicious, rich, detailed, powerful. This is an author at the height of her powers. The Rapunzel story retold, two different time period, lashings of mood, passion, atmosphere, and characters who you want to be your BFFs. Can’t wait to finish it on the next leg. YOU MUST BUY THIS BOOK. That is all.

The Fetid Nightie*

It’s important, while writing novels, to make sure you’ve slipped into something more comfortable while you work. I do a great deal of my writing in the early morning, when I first wake up, and this means that I tend to work a lot in my pyjamas. I’ve spent the last few days finishing book number 23 (yes, let’s all pause a minute in due reverence), and I was struck by just how unglamorous this writing gig is.

A glamorous nightie, unlike mine

If you’re squeamish, stop reading now.

The last few mornings I’ve set my alarm for 4.30 a.m. I’ve been wearing a light cotton nightdress because it has been so hot here in Brisbane. Humid, sweaty, violently hot. Even sleeping with the aircon on has been a little sticky. So there I was in my nightie and breakfast would come and I’d eat it and I’d keep working. Eleven o’clock would come and I’d think, “I really should shower.” Then I’d step out of the shower and look about for something cool and comfortable to wear and… well, it was right there, folks, so I put the nightie back on and wore it all day, then to bed again, and so on. On the second to last morning I spilled an entire cup of tea all over self and floor and notebook (not computer, thank God). I sponged the nightie out and let it air dry. In my crazy-artist paranoia, I had begun to believe that the nightie was the thing that kept me writing. If I took it off to wash it, I might lose my powers; like Samson when he gets his hair cut. I wore the nightie for almost 72 hours straight in one the hottest weeks of Brisbane summer. It was foul. When I finished, I finally peeled it off and showered. Free of the fetid nightie, free of the deadline.

So next time you think writing is a glamour career, please remember the story of the fetid nightie. And when the book comes out (go check out Kimberley Freeman’s blog for more details), stay in bed with your own stinky pyjamas on, just to keep in the spirit of things.

*This blog is so named to honour my Sistah Sal, whose birthday was on finishing day, and who thought it would be a good title for something.

2011 sucked. Bring on 2012.

We’re one hinge swing away from 2012, and like all human mammals I find myself reflecting on my year. 2011 had some awesome moments, but I have to admit, dear reader, that they were sometimes cold comfort as I got used to a whole new way of being in the world. The reason, which I have hinted at here but never fully explained (being an old-fashioned girl who remembers the concept of privacy), was the breakdown of my marriage after 20 years together and the subsequent recalibration of my motherly duties to two young children. I had incredibly favourable circumstances in this regard, being financially independent and being able to remain on good terms with the kids’ dad, but it still sucked all of the joy and industry out of me. I have never been so tired, so sick, so lazy, nor so self-absorbed. The year whooshed past my ears at supersonic speed, and all I have now are the tinny echoes.

And yet, hope blooms again. Other wonderful things, both personal and professional, are already coming to be. I realise now that if you are lucky enough to live a long life, you can’t avoid bad shit happening. It’s a simple mathematical equation: the longer you are out here, the greater the chance that one of those ill winds is going to blow you no good. I am in my forties; I was probably due. And then, because I’m still out here, more fair winds may yet come my way. Damn I’m grateful to still be out here. So grateful.

So here’s to all the shit, because if you put shit on your garden it might stink for a while; but then your flowers bloom in vibrant colours.

How to write a novel, by me

I’m doing something exciting with the Queensland Writers Centre next month. Because I’m not taking any year-long courses for them, I came up with the idea for an intensive weekend course (a “boot camp” if you will) that teaches everything I know about preparing to write a novel. It’s going to be full-on, starting on a Friday afternoon and ending on a Sunday. I challenge the writers involved to clear the decks, batten down the hatches, and assorted other shipping metaphors. We’ll be planning out our narrative structure, getting to know our characters, coming up with a blueprint for getting the novel finished (students can then go on to do a Year of the Novel course if they like). My goal is to drive the students really really hard so they push through their resistance and go home inspired and equipped to write their novel. It’s an application-only course (I am trying to put together the group that I think will work best), and if you’re interested you can find more details here. If you’re too far away to come in for a weekend course, you might be interested in taking my online Year of the Novel course (26 lessons over a year). This one will be tutored by another writer, but the lectures and lesson plan are all me. More info here. You’ll have to be a member of QWC to take either course, but they’re the best writers centre in Australia (possibly the world) so why would you NOT want to be?

The Year of Ancient Ghosts

I am very very VERY excited to announce that I have just signed up with Ticonderoga Publications to release a collection of novellas in early 2013. The collection will be titled The Year of Ancient Ghosts and will feature a mix of existing and new publications. All of the works are in some way based on or inspired by medieval literature and history. The draft table of contents includes “The Death of Pamela”, first published in 2000 (based on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur); “Crown of Rowan”, first published in 2010 (based on my ongoing OBSESSION with all things Anglo-Saxon); “Wild Dreams of Blood”, forthcoming in an e-journal in 2012 (which does funky things with the Eddas and cage fighting), and two as-yet unwritten novellas tentatively titled “The Year of Ancient Ghosts” and “The Lark and the River”. There will also be a nonfiction essay in the back about researching and writing the medieval.

The Ring of Brodgar: one of the locations in "The Year of Ancient Ghosts"

Kimberley Freeman, my more-popular alter-ego, has kept me very busy the last few years, so it has been a while since I’ve conceptuatlised and written a speculative fiction novel. Working on these novellas is giving me a chance to drink from that well again, and I’m very grateful that Ticonderoga sees value in the project. I love the novella form: it has a similar structure and weight to the novel, but is a quicker and easier write and read. Part of my research trip to the UK next year will be taken up in researching, developing, and writing these works, including a week in a lonely cottage near Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. I feel very blessed to have such great support around me, and that I can spend the next six months or so (once Kimberley Freeman #4 is off in the River Publish) indulging these creative ideas that mean so much to me.

How to edit: a pictorial guide

Before I can finish my next novel, I have to make some changes to the first 70 000 words (which, unfortunately, weren’t working very well). Such a task can be overwhelming, so this is what you do.

1. Go to a location far away from phone and internet where you will feel guilty if you don’t work.



2. Write down a one-line summary of each scene in the story, as it stands, on a file card.




3. Arrange the file cards in chapters on a large surface (like a luxury king-size bed) so you can get a bird’s eye view the whole story, or at least the chapters that need attention. Now stop and think for a bit. What needs to be cut? What needs to be inserted (make a note of inserts on different coloured cards)? What scenes need to be combined or moved? Here is some thinking music…


4. Now make a list in your notebook of all those fixes. Make sure there are check boxes next to every point! Colour-code them if you want it to look super purty.




5. Transfer the list onto your computer copy, make a note (using “comments” in Word) wherever something needs to be done. Sometimes it will be a simple tweak, sometimes it will be a big fix. The example at the left shows that I need two new scenes and a bit of rewriting in a third scene. You might have dozens of notes to start with. As you complete the notes, you delete them. The number of notes decreases in a pleasing fashion.



6. Added fun can be had by ticking the check-boxes in your notebook!