Adventures in Self-Publishing: To Tweet Or Not To Tweet

The first piece of advice most self-publishers hear is that they must be active on social media, all the time. It’s not enough for them to have their own websites and blogs – they have to be on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr and Goodreads and a dozen other social media platforms. Authors have to be friendly, funny and confident while endlessly and cleverly promoting themselves and their work – at the same time, ‘being themselves’. This is despite the fact that the majority of authors are introverts, happiest when reading or writing or thinking in quiet solitude or, at their most sociable, gathering with a couple of close friends to have meaningful conversations. The whole ‘promoting yourself’ thing is not only anathema to many authors, but practically forbidden in Australia, unless you’re a white sportsman (and even then, there are limits).

I started this blog seven years ago, because a novel of mine was being published in the United States and my publishers had been a bit taken aback to learn I didn’t have a proper ‘online presence’. I was hesitant at first, but once I’d overcome the technological challenges of setting up a WordPress blog on my own site, I started to enjoy it. I could write about anything I wanted, in as much detail as I liked, whenever I felt inspired to write. And people who liked books would join in the conversation! The only limitation I placed on myself was that each blog post had to be related to books and writing – but as pretty much every topic in existence has some tangential link to books and writing, this was not much of a limitation (see, for example, my blog posts on scones, giant squid and quilting).

I was never interested in joining Facebook, because I didn’t like their privacy policies or business practices. I might have considered LiveJournal, back in the olden days – before it was taken over by Russians. Dreamwidth is touted as the new LiveJournal, but is less popular and doesn’t appear to offer any advantages over my own blog. Instagram and Tumblr seem to be for people who like looking at pictures – I just can’t see how any meaningful, language-based communication can happen on those platforms, although I’m happy to hear otherwise from people who are fans.

As for Goodreads, it’s for readers, rather than authors. I try to avoid it, especially when it comes to my own books. My blog does appear on my Goodreads page (it’s an automated feed, I didn’t have anything to do with it) and I’ve found the Goodreads librarians to be helpful whenever I’ve needed to have book entries corrected. However, I’m not very enthusiastic about becoming a Goodreads Author, especially since reading their Terms of Use. Here’s a snippet of it, explaining that whenever you post anything on Goodreads, including an excerpt of a book, you give Goodreads:

“a royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, list information regarding, edit, translate, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, and make derivative works of all such User Content and your name, voice, and/or likeness as contained in your User Content, in whole or in part, and in any form, media or technology…”

Mind you, Twitter users have to agree to similar conditions. The difference is that I wouldn’t be posting anything substantial on Twitter, so I don’t care as much about them owning my content for eternity. Still, I’ve been a Twitter sceptic for years. How can you communicate meaningfully in 140 characters? Isn’t it just people shouting slogans at each other? What about all those women who’ve been forced off Twitter after serious harassment and abuse? True, they have cute animals on Twitter, but I can get my fix of cute animals in many other places on the internet.

On the other hand, lots of authors and writing-related organisations are on Twitter. It’s probably easier to chat with these people on Twitter than via blog comments (I say, looking meaningfully at authors who use Blogger, which refuses to let me leave any comments). Maybe Twitter will be a useful means of connecting with the writing and reading world?

So, as you have probably gathered, I’m now on Twitter. You can find me at mini_memoranda. (There were already about fifty Michelle Coopers on Twitter. The nerve of them, using their own names for their own Twitter accounts!) So far, I’ve accidentally liked one of my own tweets when I clicked on the wrong symbol, attracted one dodgy follower, and had Twitter tell me I ought to follow Tony Abbott. Please tell me you’ve had better experiences on Twitter and how to do it properly.

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Editing

There is a stigma attached to self-published books. Book buyers are often wary of these books. Self-published books are rarely found in libraries and bookstores, and they’re explicitly banned from entering many literary awards. This is partly due to the perception that self-published books have all been rejected by traditional publishers and therefore must be rubbish – even though we know that publishing houses are interested in commercial potential, not literary quality. Unfortunately, there are a lot of terrible self-published books out there and that’s because a lot of self-published books aren’t professionally edited.

In a traditional publishing house, there’s an editorial team who do their best, within the limits set by the book’s budget and the team’s workload, to make sure the book is a satisfying read. Typically, a structural editor will edit the manuscript for clarity, coherence and cohesion, then a copy editor will look closely at issues such as spelling, grammar and punctuation, and finally a proofreader will check the typeset pages before the book goes off to the printer. There might be specialist editors for certain subjects or genres, and big publishing houses usually have a legal expert to look at possible defamation or copyright issues.

Editors are professionals, often with university qualifications and years of experience, so they deserve to be paid at professional rates. That makes three rounds of editing prohibitively expensive for most self-publishers, including me. Still, there was no way I was going to let a book of mine anywhere near the public without at least some professional editing, so one of the first tasks on my To Do list was to find a suitable editor.

This was made more complicated by the nature of my book. It’s non-fiction, but it’s told in the form of a story, so I needed someone with experience at editing both fiction and non-fiction. It’s also for thoughtful readers of about twelve years and up. I figured its audience would be a mix of what the US publishing market calls ‘middle grade’ (although that term doesn’t really exist in Australia) and Young Adult (which can mean anything from thirteen to eighteen years old in Australia) – as well as some adults who read the sort of books I write (I think the Montmaray books ended up with more adult than teenage readers). Plus, I figured it would be helpful to have an editor with educational publishing experience, given the potential for this book’s use in the classroom. And naturally, the editor needed to be Australian…

I scoured the directories of Australian professional editors’ societies and came up with a small list of names, which became even smaller when I contacted each editor and explained the project’s complexities and my timeline. And of course, I needed to find an editor who would fit my budget. Luckily, I found someone just right. Helena Newton did a thoroughly professional structural edit, marking up the manuscript with hundreds of queries and useful suggestions, and writing me a detailed editing letter and style guide, all within a couple of weeks.

Helena also suggested I should get legal advice about a couple of issues, so I contacted the Arts Law Centre of Australia. They provide free (or very reasonably priced) telephone advice to creative professionals, as well as lots of free written resources in areas such as copyright and defamation law. I found them to be very helpful.

I’m now almost ready to send my manuscript off to Helena to be copyedited. After that, it will be ready to be typeset into various formats for print and ebooks.

Although I did say earlier that this series of blog posts on self-publishing wouldn’t be Expert Advice, I will pass on any really valuable lessons I learn along the way. And the first of these is this: if you can possibly avoid it, DO NOT WRITE A BOOK THAT REQUIRES AN INDEX. (Does my book have an index? Ha ha, of course it does! Also, a seven-page bibliography!) Professional indexing costs a mint, so you won’t be able to afford that. You’ll have to do it yourself and it will make you want to tear your hair out by the handful. (Don’t think you can just use the automatic indexing function in Word, either. You can’t. Although it will help a little bit.) It feels as though it took longer for me to compile the index entries and track down all the references in the text than it did to write the book in the first place. And my book’s index isn’t even finished yet! All those entries will need to be cross-checked and the page numbers changed once the book is typeset!

I cannot even bring myself to contemplate the potential horrors of typesetting at the moment (given that I have chosen to write a book with not just an INDEX, but also ILLUSTRATIONS and yes, I did them myself, too), so I will talk about social media next.

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: To Tweet Or Not To Tweet

Adventures in Self-Publishing: What’s This Book About, Anyway?

Way back in 2012, I wrote this on Memoranda, in response to a reader’s question:

“Shannon asked me about the new book I’m working on, so I composed a long blog post on the subject, complete with jokes and a cool photograph of a turtle. But then I read over it and realised I didn’t feel comfortable revealing that much detail about a writing project that’s at such an early stage, it doesn’t even have a title, let alone a publisher.

So I deleted the post.

But it wasn’t a complete waste of time, because I also realised that writing that post had made me feel more confident about this new book. After I finished ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, I flipped through my mental catalogue of Ideas For Books and decided I needed to write something that would not be the start of a series, would not be a complicated family saga, would not include scenes of heart-rending anguish, and would not require much research. This next book would be fun and easy to write!

Of course, it hasn’t turned out quite the way I’d expected. I’ve spent the past six months compiling a vast folder of notes and diagrams and photocopies, but feel I’ve barely started on the research. It isn’t a complicated family saga, but at the heart of the story is a mystery that requires far more complicated plotting than I’ve ever before attempted. It was supposed to be a stand-alone novel, but I already have ideas for a sequel and I’m not even sure the book would be best described as a ‘novel’. Plus, there’s at least one scene of heart-rending anguish…”

And five years on, I’m still working on that book, although at least now, I know what it’s about.

Dr Huxley’s Bequest grew out of several ideas. One of them was sparked by my irritation at shoddy articles about health and medicine in supposedly reputable newspapers. One particular Australian journalist, who clearly had no scientific education whatsoever, specialised in what I came to think of as ‘blueberries cure cancer’ stories – that is, articles that misrepresented or ignored scientific research in favour of sensational, fact-free assertions by celebrities and self-proclaimed experts who had no medical qualifications. I have a science degree and have worked in health sciences for most of my adult life, so I could see these articles were utter rubbish, but what about other readers? People were spending lots of money on these useless ‘cures’ and sometimes putting their health at risk by following harmful advice.

I was especially concerned about teenagers who dropped science subjects early in high school because they hated maths or decided science was boring or difficult. Scientific literacy is just as important in modern life as being able to read and write and interact socially. Science doesn’t always have to be learned in a classroom, though. Some of my favourite reads in recent years have been popular science books – books written by experts who are good at explaining complex scientific ideas in an entertaining and informative way. But those books are all aimed at adults. Where are the popular science books for teenagers, especially teenage girls?

It’s not that there are no Australian books about science for young readers. There are thousands of colourful, interesting books for primary school students on a wide variety of science topics, from astronomy to zoology. There are science books for older students, too. There are well-written and well-designed text books used by science teachers in the classroom, but they’re not intended for general reading. I’ve also seen books with eye-catching titles and cartoon covers, along the lines of There’s a Worm on My Eyeball!, full of disgusting facts and clearly marketed at boys.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop girls picking up these books and some girls do like them, but I was interested in writing something more thoughtful and philosophical, although still entertaining – a book that would appeal to teenage girls who were interested in history and stories and people, but thought science was difficult, dull and only for boys. I decided a history of medicine, from superstition to science, might be a good way to introduce the beauty, creativity and power of scientific thinking. The book needed a framing narrative, so I came up with Rosy and Jaz, two very different thirteen-year-old girls who are thrown together one summer holiday because their parents work at the same college. A mysterious bequest sends Rosy and Jaz on a race against time to identify thirteen strange and wonderful artefacts – which turn out to tell the story of medicine, from the superstitions of ancient Egypt to the ethical dilemmas of genetic testing.

Rosy and Jaz find themselves arguing with Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen, being horrified by the Black Death, body-snatching and eighteenth-century surgical techniques, and scrutinizing modern homeopathy and the anti-vaccine movement. They uncover the secrets of the brain’s anatomy in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, and find a link between herbal medicine and Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpieces. They learn how the discovery of penicillin demonstrated the benefits of having an untidy desk, why an Australian scientist thought it would be a good idea to drink dangerous bacteria, and how traditional Aboriginal remedies might save lives when modern antibiotics fail. And there’s more:

What does aspirin have to do with secret agents, revolution, stolen treasures and explosions?
Can unicorns cure leprosy?
Who thought it was a good idea to use heroin as a cough medicine for children?
Is grapefruit evil?
Did a zombie discover the cure for scurvy?
Does acupuncture really work?
Did the bumps on Ned Kelly’s head predict his fate?
And how exactly did parachuting cats save a village from the plague?

It’s a little bit like Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, but about the history of medical science rather than the history of philosophy. (Incidentally, whenever I said this to publishers, I got blank looks. How can you work in the publishing industry and not have heard of Sophie’s World?! It was an international best-seller! It won awards! It was made into a film and a TV series and even a computer game! And by the way, it was the reason the narrator of the Montmaray Journals was called ‘Sophie’.)

Anyway, this is how Dr Huxley’s Bequest starts:

CHAPTER ONE

Afterwards, Rosy always blamed the turtle.

‘It wasn’t the turtle’s fault,’ said Jaz, as the two girls sat in the courtyard beside the pond, eating salt-and-vinegar chips.

‘You weren’t there, Jaz. You didn’t see his evil expression. He knew exactly what he was doing. None of it would have happened without that turtle.’

The turtle in question raised his head and turned his beady yellow gaze upon them.

‘Look,’ said Rosy. ‘He’s doing it again. Malevolent, that’s what I call him.’

‘How do you know it’s a boy?’

‘He’s got a beard.’

Jaz peered closer. ‘I think that’s a bit of lettuce stuck to its chin.’

‘After all that everyone here’s done for him, too,’ Rosy went on. ‘Feeding him. Cleaning his stupid pond. And how did he repay us? With treachery and disloyalty and, and … dirty tricks! Just imagine the disaster that would have befallen this college if we hadn’t come to the rescue.’

‘Well, considering there wouldn’t have been a problem if you hadn’t –’

‘Malicious,’ Rosy said quickly. ‘That’s what he is. Mephistophelean.’

‘That is not even a word.’

‘It is. It’s from Mephistopheles. Remember, that stone demon spitting into the fountain in Science Road?’

‘Oh, right,’ said Jaz. ‘Faust. The quest for knowledge.’

‘Exactly,’ said Rosy.

The turtle lunged at a passing dragonfly, snapping off its wing and a couple of legs. The unfortunate insect tumbled onto the surface of the pond and the turtle gulped it down, then twisted his wrinkled, serpentine neck in the direction of the girls.

‘He does look a bit sinister,’ Jaz conceded.'Dr Huxley's Bequest' turtle illustration

Text and illustration © Michelle Cooper

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: Editing

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Why Self-Publish?

It’s been five years since my last book, The FitzOsbornes at War, came out and occasionally readers contact me to ask whether I’ve written another book and if so, why it isn’t available for them to read.

There’s a long, complicated answer to that question, and there’s a short answer.

The short answer is ‘Yes, I’ve written another book! I finished writing it ages ago! It’s really interesting and funny! But it hasn’t been published because no-one wants to publish it!’

The long, complicated answer is … long and complicated. Firstly, for the past few years, my energy has not really been focussed on my writing career. I got really sick and was in and out of hospital for months, so I felt I was doing really well just to finish my manuscript and write some blog posts and answer readers’ emails. When I was better, I went back to college to update my (non-writing) qualifications and then found a new day job, and that took up all of my time and energy for a while. I pretty much handed my manuscript over to my agent and left him to get on with his job, which was trying (and, it turns out, failing) to get my new book published the traditional way, the same way my previous four books had been published.

The second part of my long, complicated answer has to do with how much the publishing industry in Australia has changed since I became a professional writer. When I signed my first publishing contract in 2006, ebooks barely existed. There were lots of Australian publishers, of all different sizes and types, all keen to take a chance on an unknown author, and there was much excitement (and money) in the Children’s and Young Adult section of publishing, due to the success of Harry Potter and then Twilight and The Hunger Games and all those other best-selling books for young readers. It was a good time to be writing YA, and I was lucky to get my start then.

However, in recent times, publishers have had to deal with a number of challenges. The Australian government keeps trying to push through legislation that would devastate the local publishing industry. Large publishing houses have merged into huge multinational publishing houses, and lots of small publishers have been swallowed up or disappeared, so there are fewer publishers accepting manuscript submissions. Digital piracy is now a massive problem and book sales are down. There’s a new generation of consumers who want everything on the internet to be free and available immediately – and why should they read a full-length book, anyway, when there are so many other things they could be doing online? It’s much harder for publishers to make a profit these days, so they need every book they publish to be a best-seller. When Fifty Shades of Grey sold by the truckload, I’d hoped this would give that particular publisher some spare money to spend on quiet, thoughtful, quirky, unlikely-to-be-a-bestseller books (like mine). But no, what Australian publishers are actually looking for is the next Fifty Shades of Grey, or at least a clone of whatever is currently on the New York Times bestseller list.

This is a problem for me as an Australian reader, and even more of a problem for me as an Australian writer. Australian publishers are still publishing books by Australian writers, including debut authors, but these tend to be writers who are easy to market – celebrities and young, attractive, gregarious writers with a huge social media following.

Given all this, it’s not really surprising that publishers’ marketing departments were not wildly enthusiastic about my new offering. “Wait, it’s about … science? And history? But in the form of a mystery story? With teenage girls as the main characters, girls being all clever and … solving problems with science? And there’s no romance? And you actually expect teenagers to read this? Wait, this is mostly set in Australia, are you serious, don’t you realise how useless that is for attracting international sales…” And so on. It didn’t help that the book doesn’t fit neatly into one marketing category or genre. I was told it would be impossible to market, and therefore publish, “because booksellers won’t know which shelf to put it on”.

(I should point out here that my new book does have lots of jokes! And cool illustrations! Also vampires, witches, werewolves, body-snatchers, unicorns and parachuting cats. I should probably also note that there’s quite a bit of what Americans call ‘diversity’ and I call ‘real life’, which tends to worry Australian publishers – although hopefully that is starting to change.)

Anyway, by the end of last year, it seemed clear that the only way this book was going to exist was if I published it myself. I did think very hard about whether it was good enough to be published. I mean, if more than one publisher had rejected it, it must be badly written, right? Except publishers are not making judgements about a manuscript’s literary quality, but about its commercial potential (see aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey). And there are many examples of publishers getting it wrong (all the publishers who rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for example, or those who told Rebecca Skloot that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks wouldn’t find a readership). In any case, I think I’m my own harshest critic. I’ve previously abandoned one whole first draft of a novel, plus another half-finished manuscript, because I just didn’t think those particular stories were good enough for publication. When I picked up this new manuscript after a long period of time (it sat on one publisher’s desk for nearly two years), I was able to read it with a fresh eye – and I was genuinely interested in the story and the information, and even laughed out loud at one of the jokes. I think it’s the sort of book I’d pick up at the library or pay actual money for in a bookshop.

So, I’ll be running a series of blog posts over the next few months about my experiences publishing my own book. It won’t be all How To Publish Your Own Book expert advice, because I don’t really know what I’m doing. It may end up being a What Not To Do, which should be helpful for authors contemplating taking this path. As always, I welcome your comments!

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: What’s This Book About, Anyway?

‘The Furthest Station’ by Ben Aaronovitch

'The Furthest Station' by Ben Aaronovitch

There’s a new Rivers of London book out! Except it’s not a novel but a 140-page novella, and I’d thought it wasn’t being released until September. It turns out that an American publisher, Subterranean Press, has just released a signed, limited-edition hardcover for $40, with another 26 signed, lettered editions available for those willing to pay $250.

My local council librarians must have been in an extravagant mood, because they’ve just bought three of the limited-edition hardcovers. I read copy number 676. Look, it’s signed and everything:

'The Furthest Station' signed by Ben Aaronovitch

Is this book worth nearly two dollars a page? Well, no, but it’s a charming story with some characteristically amusing Peter Grant commentary, set sometime between the events of Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree. In this book, London’s trains are being haunted by some ghosts who are behaving very strangely, even by ghost standards. Peter, Abigail and Toby the ghost-hunting dog join up with Jaget of the British Transport Police to find out what the ghosts want – and then realise that they need to save a real, live person from a terrible fate.

There are two other strands of the story, one involving a brand-new river god and the other involving those talking foxes who first popped up in Whispers Under Ground. This is at least one too many strands for a book of this length. Neither of these two stories seems to have anything to do with the main mystery plot and they aren’t resolved in any satisfactory way. I’m particularly annoyed about the foxes, because they’ve been hanging around for four books and we still don’t know anything about them. No, wait – we find out they talk to Abigail because she feeds them kebabs. I sincerely hope they do something more interesting in the next book.

The central mystery itself is resolved fairly quickly and is probably the least interesting part of the book, although the ghosts themselves are poignant. I most enjoyed the bits in which the Folly characters interact – Abigail and Peter taking a break from ghost-hunting to sit on a train platform and eat Molly’s packed supper (“steak and kidney pasties, still warm, with a recycled jam jar full of pickled onions staring out at us like so many eyeballs”), Nightingale sitting at the kitchen table polishing his shoes and reminiscing about his school days to Peter, Abigail teaching Molly how to upload cake photos to Molly’s Twitter account. It was good to learn about Abigail’s ‘internship’ at the Folly, although she did show distinct signs of being a Mary-Sue. (Nightingale calls her a genius! Postmartin’s amazed by her Latin skills! She’s bound to ace her GCSEs! She’s such a techno-whiz that even British Transport is impressed! She can talk to animals! And she hasn’t even turned sixteen yet!) Peter and Nightingale argue about whether they should teach Abigail magic or not, but we all know perfectly well that she’s going to be the next Folly apprentice. And let’s hope that turns out better than the last time a brilliant young woman joined the Folly …

Curious Science: ‘Can Writers Prevent Disease?’

This evening, I attended a talk on two of my favourite subjects, writing and science. It was held at my local council library, which happens to be located at Circular Quay, between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. I arrived early so I went for a little walk and took some photos. Here is my artistically blurred depiction of the Bridge:

Sydney Harbour Bridge at night

Customs House, which houses the library, is a rather impressive structure itself. (I didn’t take any photos of it because there was a mob of seagulls loitering in a menacing manner on the forecourt, but this is what Customs House looks like.) The foyer has a glass floor and underneath it is an amazing 1:500 scale model of the City of Sydney, updated yearly, complete with tiny yachts and ferries bobbing about the harbour and tiny street lights that are turned on each night. I also checked out the current exhibitions, including Count Us Together, a small but fascinating collection of photos, posters and newspaper articles about the 1967 Referendum.

The writers-and-science talk was organised by a confusing number of institutions (“The City of Sydney Library joins forces with Inspiring Australia to host a Vivid event as part of the Curious Science series”) but aimed to discuss new partnerships between the Charles Perkins Centre and Australian writers. I was especially interested to learn more about the Charles Perkins Centre, because I happen to work next door to it, and often spend my lunch break in an adjacent courtyard, eating my salad sandwich and wondering what they actually do in that snazzy new building. It turns out the Charles Perkins Centre houses about nine hundred University of Sydney academics who are working on the problems of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other associated disorders. The Academic Director of the Centre, Professor Stephen Simpson, explained that obesity has a range of causes and consequences. It’s not simply about people eating too much and not exercising enough, or even about will-power – it has complex causes that include poverty, education levels, agricultural practices, cultural expectations, the built environment and many other factors. Accordingly, the Centre employs staff from a wide range of academic disciplines – philosophers, medical specialists, architects, psychologists, physicists, agriculturalists and many more – who collaborate in a fluid, creative way in research and teaching. Given all this fluid creativity, it seemed natural that the Centre would seek to work with some writers, especially when a generous philanthropist gave them a lot of money for this exact purpose.

Their Inaugural Writer in Residence last year was Charlotte Wood, whose writing was described as “innovative and confronting”. I have not actually read any of her novels, even though she is a Very Famous and Serious Literary Figure in Australia, because each time I come across an interview with her, she’s saying something that annoys me – for example, informing readers that they are lazy and immature if they enjoy reading novels with likeable characters. (I’d thought she was also the Serious Literary Australian Author who’d sneered at YA novels, complaining they were all about Issues that were resolved in “candy-floss epiphanies” involving trite “growth and change moments”, but then I realised it was Anna Funder who said that.) Anyway, I was interested to hear how Ms Wood’s residency had worked, but her description was a bit vague. I think there were some formal meetings and presentations, but she emphasised that many of her most valuable interactions with the Centre’s scientists had been serendipitous meetings in stairwells and so on. She told the scientists about her novel-in-progress (she noted that this required a mind-shift of her own, novelists being notoriously reluctant to discuss their work in its early stages) and asked them lots of questions, and then she incorporated this new information in her work. For example, when she told a geriatrician that her planned novel was about three women in their seventies, he made an offhand remark that at least one of the women would have a mother who was still alive and in her nineties, which came as a surprise to her. Another scientist challenged her to include some evolutionary biology in her novel, which she did by giving one of the characters an elderly dog with dementia.

Her novel about aging – which is still a work in progress – does sound very interesting and I’m keen to read it. Mind you, Ms Wood did manage to make me roll my eyes (metaphorically speaking, of course) at least once, when she claimed that elderly women characters in OTHER books (and indeed, in our entire culture) are ALWAYS depicted as frail, incompetent and obsessed with the difficulties caused by their aging bodies and minds, whereas her book will be UNIQUE in that it will have women characters who just happen to be in their seventies and otherwise are as real and complex as younger characters, although of course she will avoid making her characters look like the ridiculously happy, healthy and wealthy people in glossy retirement home advertisements. Now, I can think of at least half-a-dozen well-written novels with real, interesting elderly women characters and I’m not even researching this area, so I don’t think it’s all that unique. But possibly I misunderstood what Ms Wood was saying or my listening comprehension had been biased by my previous impressions of her.

Then Alana Valentine, who’d been commissioned by the Centre to write a play about body dysmorphia, read some scenes from her work-in-progress. Ms Valentine interviews people on a particular theme – in this case, how people, especially women, prepare for their wedding day – and then uses their words to construct a play. The scenes involved a wedding dress couturière talking about a distressed customer being emotionally abused by her thinner mother and sister at her wedding dress fitting, and then a fat woman discussing her fear of even entering a wedding dress shop to look for a dress. The scenes were funny and sad and thought-provoking, and she read them very well. She’d been planning to drag audience members up on stage to enact another scene with her, but the session was running out of time and this idea had to be abandoned (to the great relief of the audience).

Professor Simpson was keen to note how the Centre’s scientists had benefitted from the partnership with the writers, by increasing the scientists’ awareness of a different form of creativity. However, he stressed that this was not the sort of thing that could be measured in relation to Key Performance Indicators and that the writers weren’t being called upon to ‘communicate science’ in any kind of didactic way. The Centre is also considering partnerships with other creative types, including visual artists and musical composers. One audience member asked whether Ms Wood had felt the residency put a lot of pressure on her to ‘deliver the goods’, which I’d also wondered about, but Ms Wood felt that it had been no more than the usual novel-writing pressure (that is, hoping it will all work in the end) and in fact, the Centre had provided a free and inspiring atmosphere and the scientists had been generous and helpful in sharing their knowledge.

No one actually answered the question of whether writers can prevent disease, but that was okay. It was an interesting discussion, I learned some things and I got to take a nice walk around Sydney Harbour.

I should probably also mention that my new book, which will be out later this year, is all about science and medicine and is set in the University of Sydney. More about that later.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler turns fifty this year and The Smithsonian Magazine has a great article about the true story behind the book. Really, that book is the only reason I’d ever want to visit New York (although sadly, the bed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Claudia and Jamie slept in and the fountain they bathed in are no longer there). And did you know there was a film made in 1973 called The Hideaways, starring Ingrid Bergman as Mrs Frankweiler? The trailer looks … not very good. Has anyone seen the film?

– And speaking of beloved books, did you know that I Capture the Castle has been made into a musical?

– Here’s an interesting article about the day jobs of various famous authors. Did you know that Dorothy Sayers worked in advertising and devised the ‘Toucan’ Guinness ads? And that Jack London was an ‘oyster pirate’, and Vladimir Nabokov a butterfly curator in a museum, and Harper Lee an airline ticketing clerk?

– Sadly, authors need to scrounge for money because “celebrity deals are shutting children’s authors out of their own trade”.

– Regarding Nabokov, apparently his favourite word was “mauve”. A new book by Ben Blatt reports on the statistical analysis of thousands of ‘classics’ and contemporary bestsellers, concluding that while women write about both men and women, men write overwhelmingly about men; that the writers who used the most clichés were all men and those who used the least clichés were all women; and that Tolkien really liked exclamation marks.

– Finally, here are instructions for how to turn your boring conventional shoes into shoes that look like pigeons. (My favourite part of the story is that Kyoto Ohata created the shoes because she was worried her regular shoes were upsetting the pigeons she encountered on her daily walks.)

‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith

'Other Minds' by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds is an engrossing account of how intelligence and ‘consciousness’ might have evolved in animals, specifically in cephalopods – that is, octopuses, cuttlefish and squid, those fascinating sea creatures who are “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien”. Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney, writes in a clear, accessible manner about this very complex subject, with a great deal of warmth and humour and creativity (for example, he describes scallops as “swimming castanets” and cuttlefish as wearing “animated eyeshadow”).

He begins by discussing how neurons (nerve cells, the building blocks of the nervous system) might have evolved in our earliest common ancestors, then looks at how the cephalopods developed their vulnerable soft bodies and why they might have ended up with such large and complex nervous systems. An octopus has about 500 million neurons, comparable to a dog, but these are not distributed in the same way. Dogs and other vertebrates, including humans, have a large brain that directs the actions of the body using neurons, which branch off from a spinal cord. However, the octopus “is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system”. Its arms can act on the direction of its brain or can act completely independently of the brain and each other.

Octopus behaviour is as mysterious and strange as its neuroanatomy. They can perform well in experiments – learning how to navigate a maze, unscrew jars or operate a lever to receive food rewards – but they also have a tendency to cause mayhem. In one experiment in the 1950s, an octopus named Charles decided to break the lever he was meant to be pulling, snapped off the lamp above his tank, and directed jets of water at the experimenter. Octopuses in captivity often escape, cause floods or short-circuit the lights. Even if they decide to hang around and cooperate, they can recognise individual humans, are aware of when they’re being observed, and can behave in ways that seem deliberate:

“Octopuses love to eat crabs, but in the lab are often fed on thawed-out frozen shrimp or squid. It takes octopuses a while to get used to these second-rate foods, but eventually they do. One day, [Jean] Boal was walking down a row of tanks, feeding each octopus a piece of thawed squid as she passed. On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she’d come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.”

Fortunately, most of the observations described in this book are not of poor captive octopuses, but octopuses in the wild, notably at an unusual site off the east coast of Australia, which the author and his colleagues named ‘Octopolis’. Although octopuses are usually solitary creatures, the octopuses living at Octopolis have built a little town, perhaps for protection from predators, and they interact in fascinating ways. The researchers make a point of not interfering with the octopuses, but the octopuses are curious about the divers and their camera equipment, and even make ‘friends’ with one particular researcher, Matt Lawrence:

“Once at a site close to this one, an octopus grabbed his hand and walked off with him in tow. Matt followed, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child. The tour went on for ten minutes, and ended at the octopus’s den.”

There’s also an intriguing chapter about the giant cuttlefish, which can change its skin colour and shape in seconds – as camouflage, to communicate with predators or prey or its own species, even as random patterns when resting. Remarkably, it can match its skin colour to its surroundings, even though the two eyes in its head seem to be colourblind. What it does have are thousands of photoreceptor and colour cells all over its skin, which can detect and reflect changes in light and then activate colour cells in response – in effect, ‘seeing with its skin’.

So much about cephalopods is still unknown, and a lot of this book consists of questions and tentative attempts at answers. Why do cephalopods need such a complex nervous system when most of them barely seem to communicate within their own species? Why do they have such enormous brains, when they have such short life spans to use those brains? How can a tree live for two thousand years and a boring rockfish for two hundred years, when the splendidly colourful cuttlefish and curious, clever, playful octopus live for only two years? (Also, who knew that there was such a thing as a vampire squid?)

Other Minds is highly recommended for readers interested in animal intelligence, and in cephalopod intelligence in particular. It would probably help readers to have some basic knowledge of the theory of evolution and how human cognition works, but I think the author does a good job of explaining complex ideas in an accessible way. There are some lovely photos in the book and the author has posted some interesting videos on his You Tube channel.

‘Aunts Up The Cross’ by Robin Dalton

“My great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was travelling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been travelling fairly fast in the wrong direction.”

'Aunts Up The Cross' by Robin DaltonSo begins this highly entertaining memoir about a rich and eccentric Sydney family in the 1920s and 1930s. The author’s many older relatives tend to die in unusual ways: Aunt Juliet’s husband was killed when he fell through the dining room floor and broke his neck; Uncle Spot fell off a ladder while attempting to change a light bulb; Uncle Luke tumbled backwards off his office chair; Aunt Eva ate too many green apples; Aunt Jan died “from blowing up a balloon”. Even a visiting plumber dies of a heart attack after catching sight of the author’s ravishing mother, who’d “emerged naked from her dressing room en route to take a bath”.

There are also a number of unbalanced servants, pets and permanent house-guests, as well as an interfering grandmother who lives downstairs with batty Aunt Juliet (before Juliet gets run over by the bus) and a doctor father with a gambling habit who manages to shoot his own knee off (by accident, in his consulting rooms, while seeing a patient). The author claims “it was the clash and mingling of the Irish [on her father’s side] and Jewish [on her mother’s side] temperaments which provided this climate of high dramatic comedy. The fact that the doors were open and everybody joined in was pure Australian.”

Aunts Up The Cross was first published in 1965, long after the author had moved to London, and it shows (the author is particularly scathing about Australian architecture and the state of Australian theatre). The edition I read, however, was the 2001 Penguin re-release, which includes dozens of fascinating photographs of the various aunts and uncles and grandparents, the author’s extremely good-looking parents and the author herself as a pretty and indulged only child. There are also photos of the family mansion in Kings Cross, which burned down during the Second World War and is now the site of Fitzroy Gardens and the El Alamein Fountain.

My only criticism would be that this book is so short, a mere two hundred pages. I’d have liked to have learned more about the author herself, who went to a day school with the Governor’s daughter, then a posh country boarding school before working for the U.S. Army office in Sydney during the war and getting engaged multiple times. However the author, now ninety-six, has a new memoir out entitled One Leg Over, apparently about the many men who fell in love with her over her long and eventful life, so I have that to look forward to.