what is the point of writing a bookI wonder how many books have never seen the light of day, because the potential author of that book kept thinking “What’s the point?”  Whether you secretly think it (perhaps so secretly that you keep it from yourself) or whether you find yourself sighing out loud when you sit down to write, “What’s the point?” is a serious book-stopper.

Lots of writers — both aspiring and published — suffer from ‘What’s the point?”  Anyone who has ever seriously thought about writing a book has considered the huge number of books out there.  Books in bookshops. Books in charity shops. Manuscripts of books piled high on the desks of agents and editors. All the the books that aren’t published. All the books that are published.  All the books that don’t get reviewed or win prizes.  All the books that sink without trace.

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Leave A Comment, Written on April 1st, 2015 , tips and advice Tags: , ,

abandoned_typewriterHe wrote with all the inventive precision of a young Vladimir Nabokov. Every piece he submitted was thrilling to read. As his tutors, we discussed our most promising student over after-work drinks; wondered if we might be named in his acknowledgements, looked forward to being invited to his book launch.

Shift to the present tense. Six years after he completed the University’s Creative Writing programme as one of our ‘tipped for the top’ authors, I bump into Martin.

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Leave A Comment, Written on March 30th, 2015 , Workshops Tags:

writing styleOn April 14th I’m talking about writing style at Senate House in London, as part of the Open University’s Contemporary Cultures of Writing series.  I’m hoping to attend at least one of the other events in the series, too.  I’ll be talking about the difference between academic and creative writing styles.

I switch between the two all the time; I’ve just finished writing a 10,000 word article on Shakespeare and Warwickshire dialect, for example, in the same week that I was proofing my forthcoming novel, Devotion.  Writing style is an interesting beast.  I’m curious to know how similar (and how different) people will find the prose of Devotion from the poetry of The Marlowe Papers, for example.  I know that years of poetic compression have affected my prose, and my love of imagery is impossible to bury.  Creative style isn’t (for me, at least) conscious.  It is just how I have come to write, after thousands of hours of practice and thousands more hours of reading.  It’s what pleases my inner ear.  My academic style was learned far more recently; (what I consider to be) good academic writing styles have a lot more in common with each other than creative writing styles.  Academic style is a uniform I put on: practical, sober, persuasive.  My creative style I’m not even sure I could categorise, but it involves changes of clothes (within a recognisable palette of cut and colour) and occasional flashes of nudity.

How does creative writing style develop?  What does one’s writing style say about you as a person? How much is it about being the best (edited, revised, perfected) version of yourself?  These are things worth pondering.

Leave A Comment, Written on March 2nd, 2015 , Being a writer

writing retreat

Writers: Escape to France!

Writing Retreat 28th June – 3rd July 2015

Come and spend a week with me in the Dordogne this summer on a fully-catered writing retreat. Each morning there will be workshops focusing on some of the key elements of good fiction.  Then we break for lunch, usually by the pool if the weather is good.  The afternoons are all yours: see me for an in-depth discussion of your works, take the chance to do some writing, swim in the private pool, go for a walk in the extensive grounds (with woodland and lakes), explore local villages, or a combination of all of the above.  No need to do any cooking; just kick back, relax, and get inspired. A real chance to focus on you and your writing for the week.

Every participant will get two one-to-one tutorials, with in-depth feedback on a short story, or a chapter of your novel-in-progress, or any other piece of writing you’d like to share.  Plus of course there’s a chance to chat over lunch and dinner, about writing, getting published, or anything else you’d like to talk to me about!

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Leave A Comment, Written on February 16th, 2015 , Workshops

Like many writers, I have used my family as material more often than they probably would have liked. For me, poetry began as a way to find out who I was, and why I was who I was, and to process difficult experiences. Through our families we discover and construct who we are, both in opposition and through osmosis. Thus, in learning who I was, I wrote repeatedly about my family.

During that process – which now feels complete – I avoided, on the whole, subjecting my children to the writer’s lens. My family of origin felt like fair game, although I recognise that on a logical level this is nonsense. But my offspring? Quite frankly it is suffering enough to be born to a writer without becoming the focus of your parent’s pen. All the time you are growing up, a writing parent is obsessively interested in something other than you. They have these other text-based offspring growing in their heads and hearts, taking up spaces that are rightfully yours. A writing parent has no right to embarrass their child publicly, beyond the standard parental actions of singing loudly, dancing badly and the like.

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1 Comment, Written on December 30th, 2014 , Being a writer, learning experiences Tags:

Depression cureThe last few night I’ve slept badly; blessed with a nuisance daughter, a nuisance cat, and a time-pressured commission that keeps me gnawing at it in my head when I should be sleeping.  At 3am I found myself on Twitter – and there was the kicker.  The news that Robin Williams has killed himself. For the second time in a week I find myself crying because a brilliant, funny, and much-loved man who brought light and joy into the world has killed himself after losing a battle with depression.

The first, a few days ago, was the much less well known Ian Smith.  He was one of the founders – and undoubtedly the face – of Brighton’s original Zap Club (when it was a quirky all-comers cabaret venue, not yet another dull thumping seafront nightclub). We were on the same bill for a couple of weeks in the mid-1980s, when I was singing/strumming in the two piece Honey Guide with Pete Sinden, and he was banging six-inch nails up his nose. I didn’t really know him, but he affected me. He was brilliantly being himself and inspiring others to be so.  He was funny, and startling, and weird, when I was afraid to be.  He moved to Glasgow and carried on doing the kind of performance art that makes you wonder, and laugh, and think.  He made a lot of friends. He had a wife who loved him and two kids he adored.  But he also had depression. And last week, aged 55, he killed himself.

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3 Comments, Written on August 12th, 2014 , learning experiences

the best tool for writersLast week, I taught for the Arvon Foundation at Totleigh Barton in Devon.  It was a massive thrill for me to be back there as a tutor. The last time I was there was as one of the students, the very youngest on the course at just 15.  Teaching a residential week for Arvon is just one of a long list of dreams-come-true that have materialised in my life over the last three years, and follows hard on the heels of getting a permanent job in the English Department at Goldsmiths and selling my second novel, Devotion, to Oneworld.

None of these things would be possible if I hadn’t written The Marlowe Papers.  And believe me, there were quite a few moments between 2006 and 2011 when I thought it was never going to get written. Or that it would be terrible rubbish, and no-one would want to read it, let alone publish it.  Now, wherever I go – and last week’s Arvon was no exception – people ask me “How on earth did you write it?”

I have several answers to this question, and I usually offer a few of them, one after the other, and yet I find my questioner often continues to be unsatisfied.  And it’s true, that even when all of my stock answers are added together, something absolutely critical is missing.  The part I tend to miss out is the most important part of all.  It is the daily practice that moved me out of frozen terror (when I realised the enormity of the task) to steady progress and eventually into – dare I say it? – genuine ease.  It’s the technique that allowed someone who was timid, fearful, and uncertain of her own talents to become courageous, audacious and bold.  Here it is: I obliterated all of the psychological blocks in the way of writing it by using EFT.

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3 Comments, Written on August 5th, 2014 , Uncategorized

The very belated second half round up of 2013 may have to wait.  2014 has begun with a flurry of activity around the release of the US paperback, including my first articles for the Huffington Post.  The first, 7 Brilliant Writers Who Were Overshadowed by a Contemporary was quite a hit, with over 900 social media shares to date, and the usual flurry of comments from people who would have written it differently.  This week, a post dearer to my heart: the question of whether Christopher Marlowe might have faked his death.  I mention in that article about Shakespeare’s obsession with false death and resurrection:  thirty-three characters in eighteen Shakespeare plays are wrongly thought dead for anything from a few seconds to almost the whole of the action, and seven of those deaths are deliberately faked.  I thought I’d put the full list up here for anyone who is interested.

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1 Comment, Written on February 6th, 2014 , Shakespeare authorship question Tags: , ,

Ros Barber wins the Desmond Elliott Prize 2013No question about it, I had an extraordinary year.

On my birthday in January I was given one of the best presents I have ever had: I was asked to step in and teach a week at Arvon Lumb Bank, Yorkshire, at short notice. Coincidentally I was just setting off that morning to spend my birthday weekend in York, so I grabbed a few extra jumpers and some teaching materials, and drove Northwards in the snow.  The week was amazing, and I could not have asked for a kinder or more-experienced co-tutor than Chris Wakling, who (with more than fifty Arvons under his belt) rapidly brought me up to speed. The week held some interesting challenges but I loved pretty much every minute of it and returned on a high…

Only to fracture my coccyx the very next day in a seesaw accident.  Thanks husband!  (Always good at bringing me down to earth). One thing I won’t miss about 2013 has been twelve months of sore sitting.  It still gives me gyp now. And for a while there, it was real pain in the arse.

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Much Ado About ItalyThe Shakespearean Authorship Trust’s annual conference is a one day event aimed at a general audience.  Just as last year, this year’s event at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London was a sell-out. Although many of the attendees are involved in researching the authorship question there are also those who are simply lovers of Shakespeare who come out of curiosity.  The SAT supports no individual candidate to the authorship and all are welcome, including those who favour William Shakespeare of Stratford as chief author.   A friendly, collegial atmosphere is encouraged.

It was, therefore, slightly ‘off-message’ to open with an entertaining but combative presentation from Alexander Waugh,[1] whose article in the Spectator has recently inflamed such ire.  An attendee who declared himself a ‘sceptical Stratfordian’ later said he had attended the SAT conference several times and it was the first time he had felt unwelcome; this was regrettable.  Despite the tone of Alexander’s talk, which will do nothing to soften the general air of mudslinging that unfortunately surrounds this topic, he raised some excellent points about the sloppiness of Stratfordian scholarship on the subject of Shakespeare and Italy.   Based on his chapter in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?, it was a challenging beginning to one of the strongest conferences for years.

Following Alexander Waugh, Hank Whittemore gave a talk on the work of the late Richard Paul Roe, whose landmark book The Shakespeare Guide To Italy was the inspiration behind the theme of the 2013 conference.  A full transcript of Hank’s talk can be found, in three parts, on his blog.   Roe’s work has been an inspiration to all lovers of Shakespeare who have read it, and non-Stratfordians in particular, as it puts paid to the numerous orthodox assertions that insist Shakespeare was utterly ignorant on the subject of Italy.  Hank knew Dick Roe personally, and accompanied his talk with numerous photographs both of the man and of his Italian research trips, some kindly provided by Roe’s daughter Hilary.

Next, Kevin Gilvary shed light on the relationship between various Shakespeare works and four categories of literary works: Roman comedy, Italian novellas, Commedia Erudita and Commedia dell Arte.  Details included how the much cited ‘sailmaker from Bergamo’ in Taming of the Shrew is not only an accurate topographical reference but a literary one: traditionally the servant in Italian comedies comes from Bergamo.  Most significantly, he identified for the first time Italian literary sources for The Tempest, always considered Shakespeare’s chief ‘sourceless’ play.  All three of the morning’s talks were filmed and will be available for viewing on the Shakespearean Authorship Trust’s website.

After lunch, we were treated to talk on Italian costumes and fashion from costume and stage designer Jenny Tiramani.  She focused on the (relatively few) references to Italian and French dress in Shakespeare’s works, and on the challenges and choices that must be faced in designing costumes for his Italian plays.

Julia Cleave of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust then presented the work of the late Roger Prior on the Bassano Fresco, and its relationship to Othello.  Prior’s work was published in 2008 in an extremely obscure (and hard to source) Italian journal, but it provides compelling evidence that the author of Othello visited Bassano, and indeed, sourced the protagonist’s name from the town, whose main square contained two apothecary shops, one owned by a man called ‘Otello’ and one, operating under the sign of a Moor’s head, known as ‘The Moor’.  Like Jenny Tiramani’s presentation, this presentation wasn’t filmed due to copyrighted images, but an article on the Bassano Fresco which contains much of the information in Julia’s presentation can be found here.

My own presentation, ‘A New Approach to the Authorship Question’ was a plea to end the name-calling and antagonism that bedevils the authorship debate and approach it calmly and rationally on the evidence alone.  Stratfordians are no more liars and fools (as I have seen them called on internet forums) than non-Stratfordians are snobs and conspiracy theorists: each side believes they are either defending, or seeking, The Truth.  This led into an introduction to Shakespeare: The Evidence, a new authorship question resource which is sponsored by the SAT.   A technical glitch means a film of this presentation is not available, but details of the project are here.

After tea and the traditional SAT cake, we had brief (5 minute) presentations on the Italian connections of a number of key authorship candidates. This was followed by the Q&A/Forum which tackled a number of audience questions, including co-authorship and stylometry.  A film of the Q&A is also available on the SAT website.

All in all, one of the most stimulating conferences yet, and a great tribute to the work of the late Richard Paul Roe and the late Professor Roger Prior .  See some of the talks, and the Q&A, on the Shakesperean Authorship Trust’s website.



[1] Alexander Waugh is aligned with the US-based Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, who are decidedly anti-Stratfordian and combative in approach.  The UK-based Shakespearean Authorship Trust, by contrast, is non-Stratfordian (as opposed to anti-) and welcomes Stratfordians too, being inclusive of all authorship candidates (including the man generally attributed with the works).

3 Comments, Written on December 6th, 2013 , Shakespeare authorship question

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Ros Barber

Novelist, poet, scholar