Mastodon The Writing Desk: January 2014

26 January 2014

Book Review ~ Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon by Kate Williams

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

I can’t remember ever approaching a historical biography knowing less about the subject.  In fact, what I knew about Josephine could fit comfortably on the back of a postcard and would include the immortal lines ’Not tonight, Josephine.’ This meant Josephine, the new book from Kate Williams, historian and award winning author of England’s Mistress, a biography of Emma Hamilton,  was a revelation with every page.

Arriving in pre-revolutionary France from Martinique, the young Josephine was almost illiterate and her front teeth were black from her father’s sugar cane plantation. This book tells the amazing story of how she prospered to became an Empress and one of the most powerful and influential women in Europe.

Kate Williams take us through an often harrowing yet very readable account of the French revolution and its aftermath. It seems something of a miracle that Josephine survived the revolution at all, to meet the anti-hero of the book Napoleon Bonaparte. Inevitable her story then becomes his. Through painstaking study of the many preserved letters between them, Kate tells a very personal and compelling story of how they fell in love and conquered Europe together.

Their later life was marked by astounding extravagance. While Napoleon’s soldiers were starving on the Russian Front, forced to eat rats (and each other, apparently) Josephine was being forced by Napoleon to never wear the same dress twice.  (In one year she bought nine-hundred dresses, five times as many as the unfortunate Queen Marie Antoinette.)

I was fascinated by Josephine’s home at Malmaison, (now a Museum) where she had at one time twenty ladies in waiting and over a hundred servants. Among the many surprising facts Kate uncovers is that Josephine was a talented botanist, introducing many exotic species, now well known,  for the first time to Europe. She also collected rare animals, including an Orangutang which she dressed in clothes for the delight of her many visitors.

The picture of Josephine which emerges is of an incredibly resourceful woman, capable of whatever she set her mind to. There is no question Napoleon would not have achieved so much without her skill at charming those he so casually upset. I am also convinced that he would have returned to her after his exile on Elba.

A real page turner, Josephine is everything I hoped it would be and has renewed my interest in this fascinating period of history. Highly recommended.  

P.S. I found that The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes the phrase ‘Not tonight Josephine’ to a popular song from 1911 composed by Seymour Furth and sung by Ada Jones and Billy Murray.

About the Author

Kate Williams studied her BA at Somerville College, Oxford where she was a College Scholar and received the Violet Vaughan Morgan University Scholarship. She then took her MA at Queen Mary, University of London and her DPhil at Oxford, where she received a graduate prize. She also took an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. She now teaches at Royal Holloway.

Follow Kate on Twitter @KateWilliamsUK  and visit her website

16 January 2014

Rudyard Kipling's Writing Habits

Rudyard Kipling
(Wikimedia Image)
Rudyard Kipling was one of the most popular writers in the world in both prose and verse, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1907, at the age of 41, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature (the first English language writer to be awarded the prize and still its youngest recipient.) Kipling also declined the honour of becoming the British Poet Laureate and refused a knighthood.

After a writing career which took him around the world, Kipling settled down at Bateman's, a mansion house built in 1634 in the rural English countryside at Burwash, East Sussex. Bateman’s was Kipling's home from 1902 until his death in 1936.  It is now in the care of The National Trust and has been preserved with all its contents. Kipling’s study, with his pens, inkwell, paperweight and pipe are still there, just as he left them.

Kipling’s Writing Habits

Kipling tended to get up fairly late in the morning and would soon retreat to his study. The room was at the heart of the house and was also his library, with two walls lined with an eclectic mix of books from poetry to Pepys, naval history, bee-keeping and angling. He worked at a 17th-century walnut refectory table under the window.

He would write for several hours at a time. He was a heavy smoker and liked a messy environment, referring to his desk as ‘my dunghill’ and often screwing up the paper he was writing on and throwing it into a large Algerian wastepaper basket.

Despite his love of his untidy desk, his maid had the task of ensuring it was always laid out in a special way, with cleaned nibs on the pens and fresh supply of best quality black Indian ink in his inkwell (on which he carefully scratched the names of all his books as they were published.) As he was quite a small man, his chair was raised to the correct height for his desk on little wooden blocks.

His desk is also set out with boxes of pen nibs, rubber bands and clips. 
On his writing table sits a huge Imperial typewriter ‘The Good Companion’, of which he often complained "the beastly thing simply won't spell." Kipling only used it occasionally, asking his secretary to type out his handwritten manuscripts.

Kipling's Inspiration and 'hatching ideas'

When he needed inspiration Kipling would go for long walks in the local Sussex countryside developing ideas in his mind, which he called his ‘hatching.’ He also kept what he called his day-bed In the corner of his study, where he would sit and wait for inspiration. He once explained he was listening for his ‘daemon’ that inspired his writing and had a mantra, which was ‘drift, wait, obey.’ 

When ideas came to him he would leap up and write furiously.Kipling loved the process of writing. He would often prepare four or five drafts and once lost an entire chapter of one of his books in the mess. When he was happy with a draft he would leave it for a while, then go back to it with good black Indian ink on a brush and ‘paint out’ anything he thought wasn’t necessary. He said he always knew when a piece was finished because he heard a ‘click’ in his head.

Other posts about the habits of famous writers:

13 January 2014

Smart Formatting: How to format and upload your novel to Kindle, Smashwords and CreateSpace by @ShaunaBickley

Ever wondered how to format your manuscript for uploading to Amazon Kindle and Smashwords? This book gives practical advice on the Word settings to use (and those to avoid) and includes step-by-step guidelines to produce a clean manuscript ready for uploading.

It also covers the steps required to format your manuscript for a print book using CreateSpace.

This handy reference covers:
  • The elements you need ready before uploading your manuscript.
  • MS Word settings to use, how to create and modify styles, indented and block paragraphs, and how to build a Table of Contents using bookmarks and hyperlinks.
  • Formatting for Kindle and Smashwords.
  • Uploading to Kindle and Smashwords.
  • Formatting and uploading a paperback to CreateSpace.
This book has instructions for using MS Word on a Windows PC system. It does not have guidelines for using a Mac, and does not cover how to write and edit a book.

Click here for your free PDF copy of the MS Word section - containing additional screenshots.

About the author

Shauna Bickley was born and grew up in Bristol, England, then moved to Cyprus for a couple of years. Since then she has lived and worked in a number of countries before moving to Auckland, New Zealand, close to the beach. Her latest novel, Lies of the Dead, is a mystery/thriller set in Cornwall. Lives Interrupted is a contemporary novel set in London against the backdrop of a bombing, and looks at how the characters react and deal with this unthinkable atrocity. Driftwood is a romantic thriller set in New Zealand and Australia. Shauna has also published a selection of short stories, Footprints, and had short stories published in Bravado (a New Zealand literary magazine), as well as several competition anthologies, and had articles published in The New Writer. Visit her Website: and folklow Shauna on Twitter: @ShaunaBickley

12 January 2014

Practical Editing Tips For Writers

I am taking a break from editing my current novel to think about the process. I have tried most things, from handing over the manuscript to a professional editor to doing it all myself.  Self-editing can spark new ideas, develop your characters and improve your writing style. There is also professional pride in making sure your work is as good as it can be before anyone else reads it.  Here are a few ideas that work for me, which you may like to consider:

Take a break

Just as I am doing now, it can really help to stand back from your work for a few days.  This doesn’t mean stopping writing. Just like playing an instrument, you need to practice every day, so write or re-write your cover blurb.  Write a blog post. Start the outline of your next book. When you return to your manuscript you may be just a little bit more objective.

Print it out

I hardly ever print out my work, so it is a surprise the first time I see it as a paper book. This is a big mistake, of course. Print out a chapter at a time and go through it with a red pen, looking for unconvincing dialogue, repetition, clichés and all the other things you need to sort out.  I also have a CreateSpace Word template that formats the manuscript for proofing before printing as a paperback.

Read it aloud

I would be useless at making an audiobook as I don’t like reading aloud. It is a great way to get a feel for the rhythm and structure of your writing, though.  Try reading some of your dialogue aloud and see how it sounds.

Find a ‘beta reader'

I have seen advice that you should never ask your partner to read your unedited work. I suppose it depends on a lot of factors, such as the spirit they approach it in, how much time they have and even the relationship you have with them. My wife will patiently read and re-read draft chapters, pointing out things I need to look at. We have a rule that I never argue or get defensive about it, as I have to accept if something looks wrong to her, it probably will to others.

Experiment with writing tools

The standard spelling and grammar checker in Word will let you down. Take a look at some of the add-ons that have a little more intelligence. One of my current favourites is ‘Pro Writing Aid’ see  which can challenge even the most confident writer!

I will leave the final word to one of my favourite writers: 

“To write is human, to edit is divine.” ― Stephen King, OnWriting 

What are your top editing tips?  Please feel free to share.    

5 January 2014

Queen Sacrifice - The Ultimate #Chess Novel?

Set in 10th century Wales, the narrative faithfully follows EVERY move in the queen sacrifice game, known as "The Game of the Century" between Donald Byrne and 13-year-old Bobby Fischer in New York City on October 17th, 1956.

Preview Queen Sacrifice now on Smashwords
Paperback and eBook from Amazon UK or Amazon US

3 January 2014

Four Time-Saving Social Media Tips Every Writer Needs to Know, by Frances Caballo

"...this book is a must for every writer who wants to sell books!" 

What is time suck? It’s the hours of time you can unintentionally spend in front of your computer reviewing Facebook posts, retweeting your Tweeps, and uploading photos while your writing and maybe even your family await your undivided attention.

We've all lost time while using Facebook. Perhaps our only intention was to post an update and an image, but then … look what happens instead? You see a post from a friend who is feeling down, so you stop to write an encouraging note. Then you notice that a colleague posted a great article about self-publishing, and you can't resist the temptation to read it. You navigate to the website with the article and you find a book for sale there. You've got to have it. So you go to Amazon, read the reviews, and decide whether you want a new or used version or an eBook.

You eventually return to Facebook, upload your image, and write the update. How much time have you lost? Thirty minutes? Maybe an hour?

Who has the time for that?  Getting lost in the vortex of time suck is easy, and it’s the greatest fear among writers who are new to social media. But there are remedies.

Four-Step Cure to Social Media Time Suck

There are four basic principles to social media that you can follow:

1.    Curation – Set a timer and spend five to 10 minutes each morning scouring the Internet, websites such as Alltop for the best information to share in your niche. Or use a curation application such as, or Google Trends. 

2.    Schedule – No one has the time to spend all day – or long chunks of time – at their computers posting content to their social media profiles. Use an application such as Hootsuite, TweetDeck (for Twitter only), or Buffer schedule your posts, tweets and updates throughout the day. With Buffer and Hootsuite, you can schedule your Facebook posts; however, Facebook has its own scheduling feature right within the status update box on your Facebook author page.

3.    Socialize – Use your mobile device in the evening while you relax to check your social media accounts. Spend 15 minutes commenting, sharing posts, retweeting and re-pinning on Pinterest. Consciously schedule this time into your day and enjoy it – virtually. If you’re concerned about the clock, set your timer again so that you don't lose track of time.

4.    ROI – Once a week schedule some time to review your statistics to analyze your return on investment (ROI). Indicators will include statistics on engagement, influence, and demographics, and enumerate the number of new likes you received on your Facebook page, retweets, new followers and other measurements. Use this information to gauge your success and understand which messages work best with your audience.

Social Media vs. Broadcast Media

Television and radio programs are considered broadcast media. They tell us what their messages are. In the case of TV, with few exceptions, there isn’t any room for viewer feedback or conversation unless you consider what happens on the Maury Povich Show conversation. Talk radio includes listener views but the environment is still controlled by the producer and the host.

Social media is the first form of media that emphasizes and rewards conversations. You now have the opportunity to talk with your readers, learn about them, and empathize with them. Writers who don’t schedule time to be social on Facebook or Twitter are turning a social platform into broadcast media. If you simply broadcast your messages – “Buy my book!” – you won’t be rewarded in website visits or book purchases. However, if you allot time for talking with your readers via social media, you will gain loyal followers who, in many cases, will help to market your books.

You can schedule 15 minutes at the end of your day for thanking your retweeters (Twitter followers who re-post your messages), commenting on your friends and fans’ posts, and interacting with your growing body of contacts. Use this time to engage with other writers, colleagues, editors, agents, readers and friends. Thank people for finding and posting a great blog you enjoyed reading. Share a stunning image of a dahlia that a reader pinned on Pinterest. If you interact with your contacts, your following will grow.

Measure Your Return on Investment (ROI)

Social media platforms are free, but our time isn’t. In this 24/7 culture that we live in, there never seems to be sufficient time to check all of our email, read our Facebook friends’ posts, and finish all the books we hope to write. So we want to be certain that our time on social media is well spent.

We also want to analyze what works and what doesn’t. Do more of your friends and fans on Facebook comment when you include an image with your post? If you’re testing blog post titles, was there a certain title that your Tweeps retweeted more often? Are you losing followers on Twitter as fast as you’re gaining them? Do you know why your Facebook page likes soared by 300 last month?

You need to know the answers to these questions so that you will know what to post in the future. Discovering the messages that resonate with your audience is critical to your marketing efforts. To know what these metrics are, subscribe to an application that will analyze your performance and help you to learn from the data that it culls. Here are a few:

•    LikeAlyzer

All you need to do is type in the web address to your Facebook author page (not your personal profile) and this free program will analyze your engagement. Your score will be somewhere between 1 and 100. The higher your score, the better you are doing. It will rate your growth in likes, rank your score against similar pages, measure your response time to comments left by fans, determine whether you are asking questions often enough, and remind you to denote more milestones. Basically, it provides an at-a-glance look at the areas you excel in and the areas that need improvement. Everyone with a Facebook tool should take advantage of this free analytics program.

•    SproutSocial

For $39/month, SproutSocial will analyze your Facebook and Twitter accounts. The analytics are comprehensive and in addition to a PDF report, you can download an Excel spreadsheet that examines your click-through-rates on a day-by-day basis. It provides in-depth demographics and measures tweets, retweets, follows, mentions, replies and direct messages. It will also measure how social you are and determine your influence. You can also use this application to schedule your posts, unfollow users, and at the premium level, it will determine your best posting times.

•    Measureful

For $49/month, this application will analyze your data every week, build your reports, and send them to you. Measureful automatically distills your Google Analytics data into weekly insights and reports. You can connect your accounts in five minutes or less and wait for the reports to arrive.

•    Curalate

Curalate bills itself as the only analytics program for Instagram and Pinterest. It will analyze social media conversations and provide insights into your Pinterest and Instagram profiles. Use it to measure, monitor and grow your influence. In today's increasingly visual world of applications, Curalate can combine sophisticated image recognition algorithms with technologies to provide you with an analysis of your images. If you're a writer and photographer, this is an analytic tool you’ll likely need.

Social media needn’t force you to spend hours at your computer every day, sucking the hours out of your day when you have other pressing needs, responsibilities and desires to write. By spending fifteen minutes every morning curating and scheduling and fifteen minutes every evening socializing online, you will benefit from the power of social media in today’s world and find readers who will be happy to find you and read your books.

About the Author

Frances Caballo is a social media strategist, manager, and author of Social Media Just for Writers: The Best Online Marketing Tips for Selling Your Books and Blogging Just for Writers. Her new book Avoid Social Media Time Suck:  A blueprint for writers who want to create online buzz for their books and still have time to write will be available in February 2014. Her ebook, Pinterest Just for Writers, is available for free on her website. Follow Frances on Twitter @CaballoFrances