The mountain – a sonnet

The Year Nines are studying Shakespeare with me, so I’ve got sonnets on the brain. Stage 3 Lockdown was announced across my state today, Stage 4 in the capital. I am relieved, but also a little disappointed that people weren’t responsible enough to make the earlier stages work. In my new house, however, I have all the tools I need to clip happily along through it, including space, light, quiet and solitude. I also have a seriously amazing view.

Iambic pentameter + seriously amazing view + exciting promo stuff for The Grandest Bookshop in the World = a sonnet for the mountain outside my window. I’ve taken a million photos of this mountain, but the camera doesn’t do it justice at all. Rather than post an unrelated stock mountain photo, I’ve left today’s poem without an image.


The clouds have blown away; your jagged peak
Presides above this valley’s misty slopes.
Now all the world is doubtful, mad and bleak –
You shine on the horizon like my hopes.
You’re shadow-blue at dawn, and white at noon;
At sundown, pink; cold grey when overcast.
You change, yet are as constant, as the moon,
The sky around you glorious and vast.
Some day soon, I will touch that gleaming snow,
Make new clouds with my breath – all in good time,
For though you are within my reach, I know
That first, I’ve my own summit yet to climb.
Until then, ever-changing mountain ancient,
Restore me with your beauty, and your patience.

NEWS: Pre-order my book! New apartment! FAQ! Second book!

I say ‘apologies for the late post’ here so often that it might as well be my catchphrase. Forgive my tardiness. I have spent my weekend moving house. Also, my Year Nines were so horrible today, with the exception of a handful of smart and shy girls, that I have spent all evening in a frenzy of chores so that at least things can be quiet and organised and ready for me at home.

Anyway, in happier news, you can now pre-order The Grandest Bookshop in the World on the Affirm Press website! So for everyone asking me ‘when can we buy it?’, you can buy it now. Go for it!

It’s also available via Book Depository, Booktopia and Amazon. If I can steal a marketing technique from Mr Cole: look for the gold, and the rainbow! 

Books | Affirm Press

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NEWS: ‘The Grandest Bookshop in the World’ trailer

Cole’s Book Arcade will open on the 29th of September.

It is the finest sight in Melbourne and the grandest bookshop in the world.

This is the book trailer that was filmed six weeks ago to promote The Grandest Bookshop in the World. I had to drive out to Castlemaine to film in the gorgeous Mount of Alex secondhand bookshop. It was a really cold, wet day so it was nice to be indoors around so many glorious books!

You might recognise the Cole books appearing in the video from this post. They look right at home on the set where we were, but they’re actually part of my little Cole collection. Photos from the original Book Arcade appear in the video too!

This has all been a huge effort by the wonderful team at Affirm Press and I’m thrilled to finally be able to shout it from the rooftops. And don’t miss the beautiful cover by Elissa Webb and Sylvia Morris at the end of the video!

Riddles and puzzles, part IV

Well, readers, the light at the end of this revision tunnel is coming towards me, and I’m pretty sure it’s not a train. In four weeks, this round of edits (the fourth significant rewrite) has progressed slowly but surely from clueless magenta and vague yellow to self-assured turquoise and fulfilled green:

One of the greatest challenges for me in this rewrite has been coming up with the sixth perilous task for Pearl and Vally Cole to complete in their game with the devious Obscurosmith. My editors and I had a few frequently contradictory criteria for what this task should be, including:

  • Easy enough for the average ten-year-old
  • But hard enough to challenge the average twelve-year-old
  • Related to – or better yet, anchored in – the Book Arcade department in which the scene takes place
  • But not dependent on prior knowledge of the story, which readers cannot be expected to remember and characters likely will not remember due to magical mind alteration
  • Different to all the other intellectual challenges the characters face in the book (riddles, visual puzzles, word puzzles and philosophical conundrums)
  • But still in the spirit of Mr Cole’s Family Amuser and Intellect Sharpener
  • Simple enough that the physical peril and stakes of the scene are not pushed aside to make room for showing convoluted chains of reasoning
  • But complex enough that the characters still an obstacle to overcome

I took five days to come up with a puzzle that satisfied all of these requirements.

Not five days to write the scene – that took even longer. Five days to write a decent puzzle. I have fresh respect for crossword writers, my editors, and Mr Cole. I mean, I have the internet. If I get stuck, I can find thousands of new puzzles, and entirely new types of puzzles, in the blink of an eye. I have the books Mr Cole wrote to build on, as well as those of other authors from his time. He had to use whatever puzzle books existed in the late 1800s, the people around him, and his own dang brain. 

Here are some great puzzles and resources that I either discovered in my research, or did not make the cut. 

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NEWS: ‘The Grandest Bookshop in the World’ has a 2020 release date!

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‘Extra, extra!’

Good morning, wonderful readers!

This is a bit of a bittersweet post because I have some very good news, but it means that today will be short and practical, rather than the creative content that characterises this blog.

Item 1: New town

I’m writing to you from my new home in the mountains. Despite the social impact of the bushfires (the town was evacuated several times during January, before I arrived) and the occasional smoky day, I have fortunately not seen any fire nor been directly affected. It’s a beautiful area and I have been welcomed with enthusiasm. Even in suburban-esque residential areas, you can always hear native birdsong and often see kangaroos grazing on people’s front lawns. The river is 200 metres down the road and the water is cool and mostly clear – although it was tinted black with ashes during my first few days.

I’ve even joined the local amateur theatre company and have landed a hilarious part in their play: a twenty-something failed writer hell-bent on revenge against one of her uni lecturers. I get to tie up a senior citizen, shoot a prop gun and swear a lot. Continue reading

Ten terrible pickles I would be in if I fell in a time warp right now


A fact that has been impressed upon me many times while researching ‘The Grandest Bookshop in the World’ is that the past was terrible in ninety-nine out of a hundred ways.

I do have a special fascination with the Industrial Revolution and Victorian society, but that fascination is compounded by the knowledge of all the ways it completely sucked. Yes, on the one hand, they were not dealing with the imminent collapse of the ecosystems upon which they depended for their survival. Yes, amazing treasures like Cole’s Book Arcade and the thylacine still existed.

But on the other, one in three children died before they reached school age. Eighty-five per cent of the global population was illiterate. The best medical treatment they had was “inducing hysterical paroxysm”, while the worst was throwing a combination of snake oil, heroin, cocaine and leeches at the problem until the patient either died or didn’t. And unless actual physical filth was visible with the naked eye, nobody washed their goddamn hands.

That’s not even touching the massive systemic oppression: classism, sexism, ableism and good lordy lord, the racism.

So, while some people with a favourite historical period wish they were born in those times, I do not. In fact, here are all the ways I would be completely screwed if I fell through a time warp into the Cole family’s Melbourne right this minute, with only the clothes on my back and the contents of my handbag.

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Short stories by a neural network

photo of green data matrix

I have recently finished reading ‘You Look Like a Thing and I Love You,’ the book that sprang from one of my favourite blogs, AI Weirdness. It’s interesting and funny, and it proves how, to paraphrase author Janelle Shane, we should be wary of artificial intelligence, but not for the reasons you probably think. For instance: no AI is going to spontaneously revolt and kill us all for swearing at Siri. However, AI is very easy to confuse, which can lead a self-driving car to misinterpret road hazards, thereby accidentally killing drivers.

So, I thought, why not outsource this week’s post to an AI? After all, people seemed to like the poems it generated last time.

GPT-2, the neural network at Talk to Transformer, is apparently pretty good as text-generating AIs go. It has been trained with thousands of different pages from the general garbage heap of the internet. It therefore knows some of the kinds of things go together: not just the logical order of sentences, but the kinds of concepts that match, such as summer, winter, and spring. It doesn’t know what these are, or even what English is, but it knows what characters it has seen before, in what orders and proximities to one another, and it tries to imitate these.

It also has a memory. Not much of one, but it can often keep track of writing styles and important concepts in the text you give it. If you start with a list, it will generally go on trying to create a list, remembering its own text as it goes. Last time, I gave it a snippet of a horror story, written in second person, which mention a creepy man-like being on the train. It remembered (among other things) to use present tense, ‘he,’ ‘you,’ ‘train,’ and the general concept of strangeness throughout its story. In ‘You Look Like a Thing,’ Shane uses an example in which GPT-2 generates somewhat coherent Harry Potter fanfiction, and keeps track of the fact that Snape has a snake on his head.

On the other hand, it’s prone to go wandering off on random tangents. What starts as a poem can finish as a list of species. Its ability to make associations can lead it to weird places too. It knows that ‘dog’ appears near words like ‘black,’ ‘ball,’ ‘cute’ and ‘run.’ It may be able to refer to ‘the dog’s tail’ – but it’s just as likely to refer to ‘the dog’s fingers’ or say that the dog drove the car to the bathroom, because it doesn’t know how these things work in real life.

There are a few differences between this post and my last one.

Last time, I embraced GPT-2’s randomness to see what kind of interesting poetry it would spit out, since poetry is often pretty random anyway, in the name of art. This time, I’m doing the opposite: I want to see how long GPT-2 can seem to stay focused on a single story. Each of the stories below is a slightly different genre, as well.

I’m also curating its output a little more this time. I won’t be adding or changing any of its output, but I will be deleting parts to highlight the best things it produces. Some of today’s AI-generated stories were its fifth or sixth try, since the first few didn’t interest me. This is how other writers and artists who use AI do it as well. When AI is used to create art, the intention and creativity is really coming from humans. Humans decide what data goes into training the AI, what kinds of goals to give it, and what results to present.

The final difference between this post and the last is that this time, I’m prompting GPT-2 with its own text to create longer stories. I thought you might like a key, to keep track of which text means what.

  • Normal text = commentary
  • Italic text = GPT-2’s stories
  • Bold italic text = prompt text
  • Bold, italic, underlined = prompt from me (will only appear at the start of the story).

So let’s find out what kinds of stories an artificial brain might tell.


How about we start with a fairytale? I gave it the prompt, ‘once upon a time, a poor girl lived’ – it made up the rest.

Once upon a time, a poor girl lived in the heart of the city, under the shadow of the towers, at the foot of the trees.

Amazing first line! I especially like ‘under the shadow of the towers.’

Her name was Zazu.



Her father died when she was young, and she was left to the care of a neighbor, a wise old woman. One day the old woman was out on her own, and when she returned, she found her daughter in a deep sleep.

Okay – it’s forgotten that Zazu is the woman’s neighbour, not her her daughter, but still, not bad.

She took her outside to the edge of a great cliff, where she let her go with the wind and rain, and the tide. Zazu lived for twenty years, and then, in a moment of madness, she plunged from the cliff, and fell into the water. The old woman rescued Zazu, but the next day, when she went to take Zazu back to her old house, Zazu had disappeared. In her old age, the woman began to talk of the time when she took Zazu from the water. 

Wow! This story has a beginning, a middle and an end: we’re introduced to Zazu and the old woman, madness happens, Zazu falls in the sea, and the old woman rescues her! Let’s see what happens when I use the last line as a prompt for the next paragraph.

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Three practical strategies for rewriting your novel

There’s a lot of writing advice out there. Some of it is useful. Much of it, as very famous writer Annaliese Famouswriter has shown us, is not.

(By the way, Annaliese might be a parody character, but the ten tidbits of wisdom she gives in bold are all real terrible advice I’ve encountered in the wild! Some industry “professionals” really are out there telling you to hire an editor before you submit your novel – and that if you can’t afford one, to show up at their house with fresh produce in exchange for editing services.)

But good advice for rewriting tends to be harder to find. Rewriting isn’t as glamorous as the initial draft – and many writers never get that far. In fact, most people who want to be writers don’t ever finish a manuscript. Most of those who do never get it published, either because they give up too soon on finding the right fit, or because it’s not ready for publication (or not publishable at all, due to an inherent flaw in the concept – a contemporary drama from the point of view of a sentient toilet is probably beyond help). Out of the lucky few who get published, most will never see a second published work. It is because it is very easy to be excited about the first few pages of a new project, and often very difficult to see that project through to the end.

I’ve finished three more-or-less publishable manuscripts – the third, as you may recall, has been accepted by a respectable publishing house. I’ve been a project-starter since I was nine years old, and a writer who actually gets her work seen since I was seventeen. In all that time, I’ve come across more advice about why I should give up on writing than advice for rewriting. Most of this came from people who wrote one manuscript, sent it to a handful of publishing houses, then gave up.

Like I’ve no doubt mentioned before: you have to stick at it. You don’t have to push the same failing project for ten years, but the key is not to give up on writing itself. When The Grandest Bookshop in the World comes out, people will call it my first novel. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know about Anomalies and The Celestial Kris, which I wrote earlier and won some awards for, but which didn’t tempt publishers or agents enough (though I got plenty of requests for fulls). You might even know about some of my plays, which are published by a small educational press. But before those, I wrote tons of “novels” at recess and on the school bus: The Necromancer’s Daughter, Soda the Talking Dog, The Desert of Shadow People, Ghost Girl Story (working title), Idea for a Sci-Fi Thing (working title), Creepy Chess Story (actual title). None of these were publishable, and that’s as it should be. You’ve gotta put in a lot of hours of squeaky violin lessons before you can sell out the Opera House. Those practice stories you write become the fertile soil from which you grow masterpieces.

But let’s assume you’ve done your practice hours and you’ve finished a manuscript you can be proud of. The first bit of advice you’ll probably get is celebrate, and the second bit is probably now leave the damn thing alone. 

Let’s say you’ve done that. It’s been two weeks, or six weeks, or six months, or a year; you’ve taken the manuscript out and read it again. Or perhaps you’ve given it to your most trusted beta readers. Perhaps you’ve paid for a manuscript assessment service, or won a mentorship.

Whatever the circumstances are, it’s time to rewrite. It’s a big task, and the success of your novel depends on it. Here are some strategies I’ve developed to streamline the rewriting process and even make it rewarding. A quick disclaimer: I’m more of a plotter than a pantser, so these systems all have a pretty strong structure and require you to be methodical.

person using silver macbook pro


Make a record of all the issues to be addressed, and how you intend to address them.

If your betas have given you verbal feedback, or if you’ve noticed some changes that need to be made yourself, write down what they are in a new document or notebook page.

If you have an editor, they may have written these down for you. This is what I’m using now! I have nine pages of highly detailed feedback, most of it focused on pacing, the development of the antagonist, the involvement of some key secondary characters, and the role of magic in the world of the book.

When someone has been kind enough to give you thoughtful, thorough feedback on your novel, take note. For instance, if you have eight betas and three say they’re not quite satisfied with the ending, it probably needs to be done over (unless the other five absolutely loved it). However, if they’ve given you suggestions on how to do this, don’t feel obliged to follow these to the letter. You may well have a better solution.

It’s important not to take their feedback personally, or be too precious about your work. Toning a character down, changing the order of events, or cutting the pretty but useless scenes is NOT compromising your vision. Your vision isn’t the sparkling diamond you might think it is: it’s a flawed piece of art, and while a few flaws can be beautiful, you don’t want them to detract from your novel’s virtues. Think of your story as Cinderella. Your goal is to get her all sparkled up and ready for the ball – to scrub away the filth and rags, put her in clothes that accentuate her figure, use makeup to draw attention to her best attributes and help her true beauty shine through. You’re not changing who she is inside, but how she is presented.

The trouble is, you’re not a fairy godmother. You’re a regular old human godmother. You can’t wave your wand and do the makeover by magic. You have to build the carriage, sew the dress, round up the horses and mould the shoes under your own steam.

Making a record of what you’re going to tackle helps you stay focused. When you have, say, four major structural issues and fifteen minor ones to address, it can be easy to forget some of them, with the result that the new subplot about the main character’s strange birthmark can end up vanishing unresolved from the story around Chapter 18.

If you have a plan, though, you can refer and add to it through the rewriting process. It’s also useful for the next strategy…

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Readers, I’m proud to announce that ‘The Grandest Bookshop in the World’ has been accepted for publication by Melbourne-based Affirm Press!

If you follow me on Twitter – or, y’know, talk to me in real life – you’ll have heard of this already. This post is designed to fill in everyone else, as well as answer the FAQs I’ve received so far.


Amelia! Are you joking?!

Nope! I’m really going to be published.

I’ve had plays, poetry and short stories published before, but this is my first full-length work, and therefore will make me a published author.


Which project is this?

‘The Grandest Bookshop in the World’ is my Cole’s Book Arcade story. This is the one I’ve been talking about since 2017, for which I won the May Gibbs Trust’s 2018 Ian Wilson Memorial Fellowship (the three weeks I spent in Adelaide last year).

It’s an historical fantasy for middle-grade readers. In layperson’s terms, that means it’s set in Melbourne in 1893, but magic exists. ‘Middle grade’ roughly means it’s a novel intended for older primary-school students. It’s not what industry professionals would call a ‘chapter book’ – that’s technically a division for much younger readers just starting to read on their own – but it’s what a lot of kids’ book buyers (i.e., parents, librarians and kids themselves) would call a ‘chapter book’ as opposed to a ‘picture book.’

The novel follows two of the Cole children on a race against time to solve a range of challenges (based on Mr Cole’s books) and save their father and the Book Arcade from the malicious Obscurosmith. Read my Cole’s Book Arcade posts linked above if you want to know more about the inspiration and the plot.


When will it come out?

2021. [UPDATE: It’s now going to be October 2020, because ya girl is good at deadlines!]


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Writing exposition in fiction: Part 2 – Neologisms


Last week, we covered what exposition is and why it’s necessary. Today, we’re going to start looking at some tips for writing exposition well.

I showed you what a passage without adequate exposition can look like in various genres. Contemporary drama often requires little more than an orientation in the character’s life – their family, their circumstances and so on. A mystery might require knowledge of some obscure fact, such as infrasound, and a ghostly mystery will require some backstory about the ghost. But it’s historical fiction, sci-fi and fantasy that require the most heavy lifting in terms of exposition, because the characters understand hundreds of things about their own world that will be different to the world of the reader.

One thing that’s different is language.

In historical fiction, as we saw last week, any words or concepts unfamiliar to the reader are usually old words that have dropped out of usage. Sometimes these are words for old things or customs that nobody uses anymore, such as ‘combinations’ (comfortable cotton onesie worn as women’s underwear) or ‘symphonion’ (an early form of record player, using metal discs instead of wax or vinyl). Sometimes they’re words we no longer use for things that still exist – this applies especially to slang. For instance, we still have criminal gangs, but we don’t call them ‘pushes.’ If we were to read that an unmarried woman was ‘confined,’ we’d likely assume she was in jail, whereas this would have been quite a different scandal to the Victorians. A woman who was said to be ‘confined in a delicate condition,’ or simply ‘confined’, was in fact pregnant – and therefore couldn’t be seen in public, lest people imagine how she ended up that way.

But historical fiction has one massive advantage in this regard. These concepts and words did exist at some point in the past. There are records of them. Therefore, if the reader has no idea what they are, they only have to pick up their phone and look it up.

Sci-fi, fantasy and all their many subgenres – collectively known as speculative fiction or spec – also involve customs and concepts that the reader is likely unfamiliar with. But these are often things that have never existed outside the writer’s imagination. The writer must come up with words for these imaginary things, yet if the reader tries to look them up, they are often none the wiser.

These made-up words are known as neologisms – literally ‘new words.’

Neologisms can flesh out your spec novel and make it feel like a three-dimensional, fully realised world with its own unique language and culture. They also have the potential to frustrate and annoy the reader to the point of quitting.

So here are my tips for making neologisms work for you.


Do: use your neologisms to do some of the exposition for you.

When we invent neologisms to fit the real world, they often bear some relation to words that have existed previously. When computers came along, we named them after what they do – ‘compute’. Blenders blend, razors raze, speakers speak, lifts lift (or elevators elevate), and whippersnippers snip by whipping. Hair straighteners and sewing machines also tell you exactly what they do. We use a whisk to whisk, and a brush to brush.


Eyeshadow, lash-curler, powder brush – all new words at one point

Sometimes we create compound words for new things. Last week, we examined ‘screenshot’ (a picture or ‘shot’ of the screen), ‘keyboard’ (a board arrayed with keys), and ‘newspapers’ (papers that tell you new things); other examples include ‘lighthouse,’ ‘chainsaw,’ ‘paintbrush’ and ‘candlestick.’ Sometimes we combine what they do with how they look, as in a tuning fork or an oil drum – you shouldn’t eat with a tuning fork, and an oil drum is a poor musical instrument.

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