5000 Words Per Hour

I’ve neglected the poor old blog a bit lately, but for probably the best reason a writer can have – I’ve been writing. Quite a lot, actually. The Iron Line is now about three-quarters of the way through, and I’ve also started a non-fiction book under the auspices of my business called Communications for Volunteers, which lays out everything volunteer-run community organisations need to know about how to get their message out there in a professional-looking way.

On top of all that, I’ve been travelling quite a lot for work as well, and doing backstage crew work for a local amateur theatre production, so life is pretty full! But the freelance life is very much agreeing with me, and I love having days like today where I can just sit alone in my office and work on my own projects – it’s introvert heaven.

My surge in writing productivity is partly due to my changed work arrangements, but the thing that really kicked it up a gear was discovering a handy little book (and its companion app) called 5000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox, or 5KWPH for short.

5KWPH cover

To be honest, I initially bought this book in order to make fun of the premise. As if anyone could write 5000 words per hour! At the time I bought it, if I was writing 1000 words per day I was happy. Then I read it.

Fox is an app developer by trade, and his system is just one more example of gamifying productivity – that is, using the same competition and reward techniques that video game developers use to make their games so addictive. And the thing is, because it’s based in psychology, it actually works.

The premise is pretty simple: it’s based on ‘writing sprints’. Fox recommends starting small – three to five minutes – but I do 20 minutes as I’ve been at this writing thing for a while and I’ve got the stamina. During these sprints you get rid of external distractions, turn off your inner editor and just write whatever comes to you. If you need to do more research, you put a comment on the relevant section and move on so you don’t go off on tangents. The aim is to get a first draft down, however imperfect it may be (and as Hemingway rightly said, the first draft of everything is shit). You can fix it in the editing stage later.

Once your sprint is done, you note down how many words you’ve written and then multiply it to calculate how many words you’re writing per hour. The 5KWPH app does this all neatly for you, then graphs it, gives you little stickers as rewards for reaching certain milestones, and calculates how many hours you have left until you reach your word count goal (based on your current hourly rate).

Fox recommends having a good outline before you start your writing sprints, so that you know where you’re going and aren’t stuck for material. He also recommends using dictation software to boost your speed, but I tried this and didn’t really like it, and since I type quite quickly anyway it didn’t make a huge difference to me. But if you’re a slow typist then it will probably make quite a difference.

And the outcome? I went from 1000 words a day to just under 3000 words an hour. Now, when I work on The Iron Line, I do four 20 minute writing sprints, which means I usually write between 3000 and 3200 words in an hour and 20 minutes. That’s basically a full chapter for me. It’s much slower for the non-fiction book, and actually I don’t really use the app for that as I find it less useful due to the different writing process. But for fiction it works a treat.

I’m a sucker for a good productivity app and I’m also pretty competitive and goal-oriented, so it’s probably not a surprise that I like this system. It may not work for everybody, but if you’re looking for ways to increase your writing speed I’d recommend giving it a go.

Now, back to writing.

Community arts


A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending five days in the gorgeous Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, at the Sydney Artists Retreat. This is an annual gathering of artists run by the Annandale Creative Arts Centre, which is based in Newtown, Sydney, and it’s a close cousin to the summer school I often go to at the Poatina Arts colony in Tasmania. So the group was a mix of old friends and new faces (who became old friends by the end of it) – and it was fantastic.

The last time I went to the Sydney Artists Retreat was in 2014, and at that point I was doing the second lot of edits on Greythorne, after it had come back from my beta readers. I was also working full-time, so having four days (the 2016 retreat was a day longer) where I could do nothing but write was an incredible luxury, and I was very productive.

This year was different. I’ve been through some major upheavals work-wise over the last 12 months, accompanied by at times quite high degrees of stress and anxiety, and I didn’t realise how much I needed to decompress until I got to a place where I didn’t have to worry about anything for a few days. I’d planned to be fairly productive, but I wasn’t, really – at least, not in the sense of getting words on paper. But I actually felt relaxed for the first time in about 9 months, and having the chance to just hang out and chat with other artists – writers, musicians, actors, dancers and film-makers – was exactly what I needed. There are certain aspects and challenges of creative practice that I think are hard to relate to unless you’ve experienced them. It’s not all sitting round waiting for the muse – it’s often bloody hard work and accompanied by existential (and financial) angst and, more often than not, a fair degree of guilt for doing something that the world tends not to value too much.


One of the big themes of the retreat was ‘permission’ – giving ourselves and other people permission to be authentic and true to who we are in terms of our creativity. That may sound a bit hippy-dippy, but it’s actually a huge struggle for many artists, me included. When you’ve been told from a young age (by family, friends and society in general) that you can’t make any money at your art and you should keep it as a hobby and get a ‘real’ job, it can be hard to get over the feelings of guilt you get every time you devote time to producing it. That’s not saying artists should ignore the financial realities, but there are actually ways of making a living through art, and if you’ve got a bit of business sense you can make it work. So it was a huge thing for me to actually acknowledge that I want to make writing a significant income stream. It won’t be the only one, because reality, but it can certainly be a legitimate part of my business. For this reason, I’ve decided to independently publish The Iron Line, because I want to have more control over my rights and publishing timeframes. So I’m having a crash course in indie publishing at the moment, but it means that the new book should be out later this year.

I’m a huge advocate for artistic communities where artists support and value each other (as opposed to competing, which unfortunately is often the case). Becoming part of a community centred on Poatina and Annandale had a huge impact on me as a writer – not only have I learned so much from other writers and artists, but I’ve felt truly supported as I’ve tottered out into the world as a baby artist and started to grow and learn to walk for myself. Without that community I think I don’t think I would have had the courage to give myself permission to write properly, and I would have been thoroughly miserable as a result (I know, because that’s the way it was for most of my 20s). So here’s to the crazy ones – the artists, the writers, the dreamers – who taught me to be brave.

A day at the circus

Circus (5)

Last weekend I did something I haven’t done since I was six years old. I went to the circus. And it was fabulous.

Circuses seem to pop up in our area relatively frequently (once or twice a year) and each time I see the spires of a brightly coloured tent I think about going, but don’t usually get round to it. There’s also an idea that the circus is just for kids, which is probably why, until last week, I hadn’t been to one since I was a kid myself. But when the Great Moscow Circus came to town and a friend recommended it, I bit the bullet and bought tickets.

Circus (3)

I go to a lot of theatre, both amateur and professional, so I assumed the circus would be similar, just inside a giant inflatable tent. And it was, yet it was so much more visceral as well. There’s something undeniably thrilling about seeing people doing quite risky things – like trapeze flying or tightrope walking – right in front of you. It felt much more real and immediate than the productions I’m used to seeing.

Circus (2)

I’ve been fascinated by circuses for a long time, especially the old-time travelling shows and carnivals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I think it’s because they occupy a kind of liminal space – in the heyday of circuses and travelling shows, they were important to the community (in fact the circus couldn’t exist without them) but at the same time they traditionally provided a haven for people who were otherwise socially excluded due to disability and difference (although the darker side of this was just another kind of exploitation). Probably for this reason, in popular culture the old-time carnival combines a fascinating mix of joy and menace, which has been deftly illustrated by authors such as Ray Bradbury (in Something Wicked This Way Comes).

There’s also a certain element of romance about the circus life – the freedom of the nomadic existence can seem, to those of us stuck in the workaday grind, like the answer to all our problems, although no doubt the reality is rather less glamorous. But who hasn’t at some point dreamed of running off to join the circus?

Strangely enough, as I was sitting there ringside thinking about circuses, it occurred to me that this is one of the big reasons I like being a writer. I’ll never run off and join the circus in reality – not least because I have no talent for it – but in my books anything is possible. My forthcoming novel, Dragonscale, has a troupe of circus folk in it, and I’ve long been toying with the idea of a book set in an American travelling carnival at the start of the twentieth century, when barnstorming was all the rage. One of the great perks of being a writer is you can be anything you want to be, so once I’ve finished being a nineteenth-century level-crossing operator in my current novel, The Iron Line, I may just become a circus acrobat for a while.

Anatomy of a Novel Part 6: The paper anniversary

This, incidentally, is why authors should never design their own covers!

When my husband Tristan and I first started dating three years ago, we had a ‘food-for-stories’ deal – he’d make me dinner and in return I’d read him the next chapter of Dragonscale, the long-running young adult fantasy novel I’d been writing off and on since 2007. We each thought we got the better end of the deal, although I’m still convinced I ultimately did. The unconditional support he expressed for my writing in those early days was one of the many things that convinced me this relationship was going places.

But over the intervening years, life got busy and Dragonscale lapsed. I went through a rough time at work and a period of quite crippling creative drought where I found it very hard to apply myself to anything; it took a new idea in a completely new genre – which ultimately became Greythorne – to snap me out of it. In the meantime, Tristan and I moved house, got married and I got the contract for Greythorne while on our honeymoon, so poor old Dragonscale languished in a corner of my hard drive.

It wasn’t until I went back to it earlier this year that I realised how close to finished it actually was. During a particularly obsessive phase I’d mapped out the content chapter by chapter, so I knew exactly where it was going and what needed to be done. Then I had a brainwave: Tristan and I were coming up to our first wedding anniversary in April, which is the ‘paper’ anniversary, and what gift could be more ‘paper’ than a manuscript? Finally I’d complete my end of the food-for-stories bargain and he’d get the ending he’d been waiting patiently for for three years.

I only made this decision in March, so it was a bit touch-and-go as to whether I’d finish it in time, but there’s nothing like a deadline to motivate you! And I got there…just. Here it is, all nicely finished and bound.

Dragonscale bound

As to what will happen to it now, that’s a good question. It needs a lot of editing, and Tristan is the only person I trust to read what Anne Lamott aptly calls ‘shitty first drafts’, so no one else will be getting their hands on it for a little while. I’m off to a retreat at the end of April where I’ll give it the first overhaul, and then we’ll go from there. Hopefully by the second half of the year it’ll be in decent enough shape that I can begin shopping it to publishers, so watch this space. I can’t lie though, it feels pretty damn good to have finally finished a book that’s been nearly 10 years in the making.

Local history

Down by the Queanbeyan River

I live in Queanbeyan, a smallish country town just outside Canberra, and one of the things I love about it is I’m constantly stumbling on new nooks and crannies, despite having lived here for four years.

The other day, for instance, I went for an afternoon walk and found myself down by the river. Walking along a little way, I discovered Riverside Cemetery, where a lot of the district’s pioneers are interred. It’s part of the local heritage trail and is speckled with half a dozen fascinating information signs. The oldest grave dates back to the 1840s – which is pretty early by Australian standards – and the latest I found was 2008, although the cemetery has been closed to new burials since 1996 unless the deceased has a connection to the founding families already buried there.

Some may think it morbid, but I find cemeteries and graveyards – especially old ones – fascinating because they tell you so much about bygone days. For instance, I learned that Victorian headstones are often very ornate, with lots of stonework and symbolism such as urns, garlands and angels, while later headstones (from the Edwardian era onwards) tend to be much more plain. The Victorians also went in for verse – many of the tombstones are inscribed with either Scripture or poetry. In contrast, modern graves (from the mid-twentieth century onwards) give a lot less information and are arguably a lot less sentimental. But I have a fondness for the Victorian ones myself!

An ornate Victorian tombstone
An ornate Victorian tombstone

Riverside Cemetery is informally divided along faith lines – Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist – which reflects the make-up of the original settlers. Many of those interred were Irish and their tombstones note their place of birth, e.g. ‘Native of County Cork, Ireland’.  One of my favourite headstones, from 1936, belongs to a Roman Catholic priest and is inscribed entirely in Latin.


The bit that tickled my fancy (which is a bit hard to see in this photo) was the phrase ‘Pastoris huius paroeciae Queanbeyanensis’, which I’m guessing translates roughly as ‘parish priest of Queanbeyan’. It just seems so weird seeing Queanbeyan, which is the bastardisation of an Aboriginal word meaning ‘clear waters’, wrestled into grammatically correct Latin. I had an image of Father Patrick as being a rather upright, straight-laced sort of man, based on nothing other than this inscription. So I did what any child of the internet age would do, and googled him.  I wound up in the National Library’s Trove service (whose praises I’ve previously extolled), which has a digitised copy of an article announcing his death, and it appears my first impression wasn’t quite right.

13 July 1936

POPULAR PRIEST REV. FATHER DEENIHAN | Death Announced at Queanbeyan

Gloom was cast over Queanbeyan last night when the death was announced of the Rev. Father Patrick Deenihan at St. Gregory’s Presbytery, at the age of 42 years. The late Fr. Deenihan who had become a popular figure in the Queanbeyan district during the last two years that he had been parish priest, had been seriously ill for some weeks.

The death occurred at seven o’clock, shortly before the commencement of the Benediction service at St. Gregory’s.

Born in Lixnaw Parish of Country Kerry, Ireland, the late Fr. Deenihan was eeducated at St. Michael’s College, Listowel, and was trained for the priesthood at St. Patrick’s College, Carlow. He was ordained in 1918, and came to Australia in a troopship in 1919. He has served in the priesthood in the Southern districts of New South Wales, his first station being Tumut, whence he was sent to Crookwell and Moruya. He was the administrator of Gunning parish for 12 months and at Cootamundra for four years, after which he was priest at Michelago and for the last two years at Queanbeyan. Known in the southern districts for his interest in sport, he had been a great athlete in Ireland; having played for Kerry in the all Ireland football competition. In Queanbeyan, he had been prominently identified with many sporting organisations.
During his last illness, the late Fr Deenihan has been constantly
visited by his brother priests at Canberra. The late Father Deenihan will be succeeded as parish priest by the Rev. Father Patrick O’Carroll, who arrived at Queanbeyan on Saturday.

The remains of Father Deenihan will be interred at Queanbeyan. His mother and father are still living in Ireland, but his only relative in Australia is a cousin, who is a priest in the Townsville diocese.

A Requiem Mass will be celebrated by the Bishop of Goulburn (the
RC. Rev. Dr. J. Barry) at St. Gregory’s Church, Queanbeyan, at 10 a m. on Tuesday prior to the funeral.
A second article, dated 15 July 1936, notes that “Hundreds of persons were unable to gain admission to St Gregory’s Church, Queanbeyan, yesterday morning for the Requiem Mass for the late Father Patrick Deenihan, and the funeral cortege was the largest ever seen in the district.” Father Patrick was clearly well-loved in the district, and it makes me happy that 80 years later he’s still remembered.

Out and About

Tintern signing
Signing books for Tintern Grammar students

I’ve been AWOL from the blog for the last month or so as most of my energy lately has gone into getting my new business, Pure Arts Communications, off the ground. But I’m starting to hit a rhythm now and am loving the freelance life, not least because it gives me the flexibility to do one of the many book-related things I love – getting out and meeting readers.

Last week I travelled to Melbourne to do a couple of book events with people at contrasting ends of the age spectrum. My first stop was Tintern Grammar, where I ran a fiction-writing workshop for a group of keen writers in Years 7-9. We had lots of fun telling progressive stories (which got quite dark very quickly – teenagers!) and learning about setting, characterisation, plot, structure, dialogue and editing. It was great meeting the next generation of writers – and I have no doubt that in a few years’ time we’ll be seeing some of their names on covers, for there was a wealth of talent in that room.

The next day I joined the residents of Donwood Community Aged Care for a chat about Greythorne and the writing and publishing process. Many of the ladies (there were only two gentlemen in the group of 20) are mystery fans and were keen to find out what Professor Greythorne is up to in the cellar! It was a very different group to the school kids (obviously) but lots of fun in its own way, and I’m very grateful, if a little surprised, that I’ve somehow written a book that appeals to readers from 13 to 93.

I just love being able to get out and meet readers, and I really enjoy running fiction-writing workshops and getting to pass on some of what I’ve learned over the years. If you’re interested in a workshop for your school or group please contact me.

Travellers’ tales

Plane wing.jpg
From here.

I made a whirlwind interstate trip this week, and it reminded me of this article I wrote a couple of years ago about the extraordinary stories of ordinary people. How are the two connected? Read on…


I’m afraid of flying. Not in the way that I’m afraid of spiders, or needles – which provoke a minor twanging of the nerves – but sickeningly, panic attack-inducingly afraid. The mere thought of swooping upwards in a multi-tonne pressurised metal tube is enough to get my heart thumping and stomach churning; in severe turbulence it’s all I can do to hang onto my sanity and my dignity. Anxiety is a psychological issue with all-too-real physical symptoms: sweaty palms, racing heart, upset stomach, vomiting and uncontrollable shaking are all sensations I’ve experienced at some point before, during or after flying. Indeed, it’s not unusual for people to mistake panic attacks for heart attacks. And – something that people lucky enough never to have been on this rollercoaster can’t understand – I can’t switch it off. I realise it’s irrational and all in my head, and I’ve learned strategies to manage it to a certain extent, but I don’t know if it will ever go away. All I know is that no one would choose to feel like this.

Unfortunately, I also love to travel. Many times – usually while sitting in gut-churning apprehension in airports – I’ve wished I was the kind of person who is content to just spend the rest of their life in their hometown, but I’m not. Study, work and general curiosity have taken me to many far-flung parts of Australia and the world, and unfortunately one of the things these places have in common is that you inevitably have to fly to get there.

Consequently, I would willingly do just about anything to be rid of my phobia, and I’ve certainly never thought of it as a blessing. And yet it’s led me to meet people I otherwise would never have encountered, proving that there’s a silver lining to every dark, turbulent cumulonimbus cloud.

I’m naturally an introvert and, as such, I dislike small talk. On planes, however, I’m looking for distraction, so, if the person next to me is willing to engage, I’ll quite happily chat for hours (though if they’re not, I’m also perfectly happy to respect their personal space and suffer in silence). And the people I’ve met, almost without exception, have been fascinating.

There was the woman from Cairns who told me how she found a python stuck in her chook shed one morning; it had eaten a chicken and been too fat to exit through the hole it entered by. Then there was the Slovakian Orthodox-turned-Pentecostal preacher who was on his way home from India, where he’d started an orphanage. The retired dentist and amateur pilot who had flown with his mate in a Britain-to-Australia air race just because he thought it’d be fun, and who managed to make even someone like me see the beauty in flying. The former deep-sea fisherman – now working with the Department of Fisheries to develop turtle-proof nets – who talked about life on a Tasman Sea trawler. The ex-New Zealand Army officer who described how to eat your way round the South Island, including apparently the best fish and chips you’ll find anywhere. The woman who, like me, was trying to find a road-map for her faith journey, leading to an hour-long discussion of theology. And, perhaps most poignantly, the lady who was going home to give evidence before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, who told me how she’d learned to keep smiling despite her suffering.

I’ll probably always hate flying, but I’m learning to control the fear so it doesn’t control me. If there was a way I could be rid of my anxiety tomorrow I’d take it without a second thought. But in making me vulnerable, my phobia has also given me an openness to other people’s stories I might never have had, and that’s something I hope I’ll never lose.

Anatomy of a Novel Part 5: #amwriting

Am Writing

There are few things more frustrating as a writer than seeing all your writer friends using #amwriting on social media when you’ve hit a slow patch. Thankfully though, despite a few false starts, I can now once again claim to be part of that select, productive group (hooray!).

I recently left the full-time workforce to start my own communications consultancy, which means I’m working from home and am able to allocate a bit more time to writing than I could previously (and at civilised hours!), so I’ve actually had a run of productive days and I’ve just finished Chapter 1 of my new novel, which I’ve tentatively titled The Iron Line. Here’s a short synopsis:

Jane Adams is only nineteen, but she’s already a widow. A daughter of the railway, she takes a job as a level-crossing operator in the little town of Tungold, out at the end of the line. But all is not right in Tungold. The townspeople are frosty and unwelcoming, and Jane’s only ally is the new young police constable, Alec Ward, an outsider just like her.

When Jane is woken in the night by a mysterious ghost train, she becomes determined to get to the bottom of the town’s secrets. But Jane is also hiding a secret of her own…

In some ways I’m following a similar process to that of writing Greythorne (doing a bit every day) but I’ve refined it to take into account things I’ve learned along the way and to make it more efficient. For example, after I’d finished the first draft of Greythorne, I realised that if I didn’t have a good grasp of my characters, and particularly their motivations, they tended to come out looking two-dimensional and a bit clunky, which can be hard to fix later on. So this time around I’ve done preemptive character studies for Jane and Alec, and I’ll probably do some more on important figures in the town as I go along (I’m not really sure who the ringleaders are at the moment out of my cluster of minor characters,  but I daresay they’ll reveal themselves in time).

I’ve also started using Scrivener, which I’m finding really useful so far – I love having all my outlines, research and drafts in one place, rather than in five million files that I have to keep switching between. I also love its target word count feature – previously I used an Excel spreadsheet to calculate my daily and overall targets and how close I was to reaching them, but Scrivener does all that for you (you just put in the estimated word count of the manuscript and how many you aim to write per day and it calculates it for you. It even goes from red to yellow to green as you near your target).

Scrivener word count
Scrivener word count target

I’m trying to get the first draft done in time for an artists’ retreat I’m going on in late April, which would be the perfect place to do the first-round edits…but there’s a few other things on the boil as well so we’ll see how it goes. I generally like deadlines, and not just in the Douglas Adams sense (“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by”) because I like having something to aim for, but I’m having to learn not to beat myself up so much if I don’t meet them. It’s the same with the daily word count – I’m aiming for 1500 words a day, but I need to stop myself saying ‘I only wrote 800 today’ and instead think ‘Well, I have 800 more words  today than I did yesterday’.’  I’m not always great at being nice to myself, so this is a challenge! It feels fantastic though to be back in the saddle again with a story that so far seems to be working. If you’d like to get exclusive updates and excerpts please subscribe to my newsletter. I’ve also just started a new monthly giveaway, so every month new subscribers will go into the draw to win a signed copy of Greythorne.

Anatomy of a Novel Part 4: Dead ends and U-turns

From here.
From here.

As I’ve said before, books, like laws and sausages, are things you may not want to see getting made, and this is why. I think there’s a popular perception that authors just come up with a great idea and then write it down, but the reality is much messier. It’s not so much taking a road from A to B as finding your way through a labyrinth.

I wrote in  my last Anatomy of a Novel post about some of the unexpected difficulties I’ve been encountering recently with my newest story idea. The challenge (and I guess this is where experience comes in) is working out whether those difficulties are just minor speed bumps or terminal obstacles. In the case of The Dark Before the Dawn, I initially thought they were the former, but I’m increasingly getting the feeling that they’re the latter. Basically the middle is non-existent, and 200 pages of characters just wandering round the wilderness is pretty boring – just look at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There’s not many writers who can pull that off successfully, and especially not plot-driven ones like me.

The good news is that I’m blessed with a husband who’s a wonderful sounding board for ideas, and between us we’ve come up with something new. It’s still set in Australia, still in the 1860s, but it’s much more in traditional mystery territory rather than quasi-literary fiction and there’ll be a murder and a ghost train, among other things. I’ve only done a rough outline at this point, but I already feel much more excited and enthused about it.

So what is it? Join my mailing list to find out – plus if you sign up in January you’ll automatically go into the running to win a signed copy of Greythorne or a $25 Amazon voucher.

The best present for writers

A tour of the Southern Highlands

The thing about being a writer is you always get given notebooks for Christmas (not that I’m complaining – I love a good notebook!). But this year, an enterprising friend made me something very special. Using the National Library of Australia’s amazing Trove database – which houses pictures, newspapers, maps, music, documents and more – she created this: a collection of historical material related to the Southern Highlands region of New South Wales, where I’m planning to set my next novel. I can now wander through and explore the people and places of the region through the pictures and accounts she’s collected. I can hardly think of a more suitable (or more innovative) Christmas present.

What do you think is the ultimate writing-related present?