Author Archives: Fiona McMillan

Ship in a bottle

sailcloth ship in closed with cork bottle

Image credit: witold krasowski  dollar photo club 


I have new science blog post up and ready over at

It’s a story about the unexpected consequences of losing your grip: when human ancestors began to walk upright, the infants slowly lost their ability to hold onto their mothers and this may have set us on the path toward language and bigger brains.  I was fascinated by the hypothesis and I thought it would be a straightforward story to write, but the more I researched the more complex the story became. This was at once wonderful and frustrating.  There was so much interesting science that it was difficult to include every angle without ending up with an unreadable deluge of facts.  For all that I loved the topic,  I almost gave up on the story several times; it was such hard work finding and holding onto the story arc.  I guess you could say I lost my grip a bit.

I then remembered a wonderful piece of advice from science writer Carl Zimmer who wrote about his early days as a journalist, and how – at first – he’d try to painstakingly build these incredibly complex stories; each one like a ship in a bottle. But the problem with that approach is that there is often too much information to include and if you want to tell a good story, in addition to deciding what to put in, you also have to decide what to leave out. He explains in more detail here:  “Don’t Make a Ship in a Bottle” by  Carl Zimmer.


And so, I got back to work.  It was a learning process, figuring out which research served the story and which didn’t.  There were heaps of random facts that I’d stumbled across and just loved and wanted to share, but when these were included in the story they made it dense and difficult to follow.  Sometimes, you just have to say ‘OK, that can be in a story, just not this story’.

It seemed to work.

I made it through, and here is the result:



On Interesting Things and The Art of Doing

Every now and then I put on a smelly coat. I don’t even realise I’m doing it at the time. You’d think I would – it reeks – but I don’t. I’m not the only one either. In fact, there’s a bit of a smelly coat epidemic going on.  Most of us have one.  Most of us have worn it.  Some of you might be wearing it right now.

But if there’s something you want to do — that ever elusive thing — you’re going to have to ditch the coat. Yes, it’s a metaphor. A borrowed one at that. But stick with me on this, it gets pretty interesting.

I subscribe to a wonderful newsletter from Maggie Koerth-Baker.  She’s a science journalist and author in the US, and is currently a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. During the fellowship she’s sending out regular updates of three amazing things she discovers on her journey.  It’s called the Fellowship of Three Things, and it’s brilliant.  The content and scope, well, it’s whatever takes her interest. “It might be a photograph and information about a museum object; a video of a laboratory tour; a short interview with a ground-breaking scholar; or a fact that will give you something new to think about.”

Take a look for yourself and sign up here.

Koerth-Baker’s fellow Nieman-Berkman fellows are contributing as well and the result is a great read. So far they’ve talked about the history of colours, the hidden art in old books, and an astronomical computer made in 1540. I also learned about a 1690 publication on the virtues of chocolate, coffee and tea, and I think we can all agree they were onto something back then, yes?

The interestingness goes on. A fish may not need a bicycle, but in 1881 some fish in California needed a railroad. There was an article on the blood cells that help salamanders regrow their limbs, as well as some views on war and peace from the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor.

Told you it was good.

This month, the newsletter rekindled a fire in my belly. Alicia Stewart contributed to that January 6th edition of the Fellowship of Three Things. She’s an editor at and a Nieman-Berkman fellow where she is pursuing her interest in ‘true stories about identity, culture and spirit: who we are, what we do and why we do it.’

Among her selection of three interesting things was a compelling remark from filmmaker Ava DuVernay on how desperation to achieve can get in the way of real achievement.

It was an excerpt from a speech DuVernay gave at the 2013 Film Independent Forum.

Intrigued, I clicked the link to hear the rest. I will be ever grateful that I did.

DuVernay’s speech is one of the most inspiring talks I’ve heard in a long time and a fierce reminder that if you want to get somewhere in particular, if there’s anything you aspire to, something you want to do, then get started. And then keep going. DuVernay speaks from experience, and she is indeed a marvel.

Only a few years ago she aspired to make films but didn’t know quite how to turn this dream into a reality. She couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t move forward. She couldn’t get into the training programs she longed to join. Through it all, she says “I wore my desperation like a coat.”

Skip forward to today.

DuVernay has now built an astounding body of work.  In 2012 she became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival for Middle of Nowhere. She was also nominated for Best Director at this year’s Golden Globes for Selma —  the first female African American to be nominated. Her film Selma was also nominated for Best Picture at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. Of course, what she has accomplished with these highly significant films goes well and truly beyond award ceremonies.

Now people seek out DuVernay as a mentor and she is an adviser for some of the very same training programs she once couldn’t get into. [for more about her:

What changed? She let go of her desperation when she realised how much it was holding her back.

“All of the time you’re spending trying to get someone to mentor you, trying to have a coffee, all of the things we try to do to move ahead in the industry is time that you’re not working on your screenplay, strengthening your character arcs, thinking about your rehearsal techniques, setting up a table reading to hear the words, thinking about symbolism in your production design, your color pallet.  All the time you’re focusing on trying to grab — I need this! I need this! I don’t have this! — you’re being desperate and you’re not doing.

You have to be doing something.” “Desperation,” she explains, ”is not action. It’s not moving you forward, because all of the so-called action is hinging on someone doing something for you.”

It’s one thing to info gather, to ask for guidance. That’s fine. That’s wise. But when it becomes all you do. When your dreams become too dependent on what other people can do for you, then it’s a real problem, she says, because “the desperation, it reeks off of you… like a smelly coat.’

So how do you know if you’re wearing it?  She offers a simple test:

“If you spend more time in the day thinking about what you don’t have, than working with what you have.  Then you’re acting in a desperate manner and you’re not doing. Until I changed my mind about that, I was really stuck.”

Her advice for ditching the coat: action. “The feeling of yearning coupled with action is not desperation. It’s passion.”

You need to create something for other people to latch onto, to collaborate with, and get excited by. Build something for a mentor to connect with and care about. Start small if you need to, but start nonetheless. “No excuses.”

DuVernay’s advice can be applied to anything creative, anything where you have yearning but haven’t taken much action, or perhaps you’ve stalled and need a good reminder to keep going. Watch the whole thing, including her responses to the questions, as there are many words of wisdom there, too.  Yes, its 42 minutes or so, but I genuinely found myself wishing it was longer.

I’d like to extend a big thank you to Ava DuVernay, Alicia Stewart and Maggie Koerth-Baker for the interestingness, the guidance, and the inspiration. I’m going to do my best to ditch the coat and get on with the work. I’m continuing a big project – oh yes, it hasn’t defeated me – but I need the fuel, the action, the surge that also comes from smaller projects. Some change, some action, and I’ll see where it takes me.

So here’s to 2015. Create something, build something, drive something forward. Make a film with a smart phone. Find poems. Make beautiful food. Bring people together. Weave short stories. Tell long ones. Write a song. Curate. Investigate. Explore. Whatever it is. Get started.

No excuses.

The Accidental Series


Once upon a time I set out to write a novel and, quite by accident, wrote two.

When I had finally locked onto the idea for the story [see Girl Meets Book], I began to write, letting the tale evolve as I went. New to the craft, I followed the school of thought that a story should be as long as is needed to tell the story. A year and a half later, give or take a few meltdowns, I finished the first draft. To my own vaguely impressed horror I realised I had written just over 1100 pages. In the month following, presented with deadlines, I hastily edited the bastard down to a meagre 800 and titled it The Unkindness. This was meant to be a reference to ravens, but could also allude to printing costs and lost sleep. I hoped the aptness ended there.

‘The story should be as long as is needed to tell the story.’

In the absence of a better plan, this is precisely the kind of thinking that leads to a bend-at-the-knees-when-lifting tome. But there it was. I felt a bit guilty about asking others read this early and immense draft. I also worried about the fate of a book that size, given that publishers tend to avoid enormous books from new authors. The reasons for this are myriad and depressingly reasonable.

But what to cull?  The story lines were all interwoven, so there were no large sections of easily jettisoned material. Remove one thread and the whole tapestry would fall apart. It appeared to be a case of a story that wasn’t too long but a book that was.

But there was cause for hope.

“You’ve written two books,” said the estimable Dr Kim after reading it.

I was dumbfounded. Given how painful it had been to write one novel, writing a second should have been something I’d remember.  I resisted the idea initially, but soon realised she was right. First came a wave of relief.  Brilliant!  Problem solved! Cut the thing in half, whack “a To Be Continued scene” at the end of the first book and something akin to “Previously, on Buffy…” at the start of the second. Instant series!

Then reality sank in, as it does, with a sinking feeling. Turns out, there is a big difference between writing a story the size of two books, and writing a story that can be told across two books in such a way that each book can hold its own.

The first problem was finding the point where the story could stop and then begin again. To compound this, I have two major storylines, one present day and one historical. This meant re-working each so that their new endings occurred at the same time.  Moreover, the task of avoiding a stark, cliff-hanger ending proved difficult.  Not surprisingly, the original story had been written so that the ultimate resolution came at the very end, but now Book 1 needed to stand on its own in the absence of that grand finale. The solution was to hone in on the subplots, then re-work and clarify them so that they began and ended beneath the greater arc of the series. All up, it took another year and a half to tear the story apart and, from that, create Book 1.

I now believed I knew what I was doing and proceeded on to Book 2 with giddy optimism.  I knew where each storyline was meant to continue, and the finale was already written.  It would be so much easier.

That was in March.

Of last year.

Granted, I’ve had a big break from writing in the last twelve months — a form of writers block I like to call Baby Interruptus. Much of my free time in early pregnancy was spent in a kind of nauseous fug just this side of a coma.  I didn’t bother trying to write with a newborn in the house — I’m not that crazy.  Now my beautiful daughter is four month’s old and, when I can, I write during her nap times. It’s erratic at best and there’s always that maternal alert system on in the back of my mind like a nervous, hyper-caffeinated meercat. Paradoxically, I haven’t had any caffeine in ages (also not helpful).

Although writing in any cohesive way is a challenge at the moment, sometimes the planets align, the muse rocks up, and the words flow.  It’s then I realise that Book 2 has its own unique issues.  In fact, they are almost precisely the opposite of those of Book 1. The problem doesn’t lie in where to begin, but how to begin the story so that it is as compelling to a reader who has just finished Book 1 as it is to someone who read it a long time ago, or perhaps never at all. That’s where I am now, reintroducing characters, plots and settings, worrying over how much backstory is needed, and generally building a new Once Upon A Time.

When the planets align.

When the muse rocks up.

But mostly when I pretend they do.

I don’t think there’s much I can do about the meercat.

Thus is the tale of the accidental series. It’s a big punt and probably the most ass-backwards way you could go about writing a series, but I have to admit I’ve learned a lot about the mechanics of novel writing this way.  And if I pull it off, if I do it right, maybe it’ll look like I planned it from the start.

Girl Meets Book

“How did you come up with the idea for your novel?”

It’s a sensible question. People often like to be told of that epiphanic moment when an idea for a story came into being.  Given that writing a novel is essentially an all-consuming long term relationship, it seems reasonable to expect a writer to possess a vivid, preferably interesting, memory of that first moment of meeting.  And after all, Oprah might ask.

In truth though, I really don’t remember.  It’s kind of embarrassing, like not remembering the moment you met your husband.  You know, eyes locking across a crowded room, angel choirs perhaps accompanying that sudden shifting of life’s path. I don’t really remember that either (but it’s OK, he is a bit fuzzy on that as well).  We agree at least that we moved in similar circles, and without passing through any distinct, introductory moment, we just kind of knew each other.

This could be what happened with my story as well. So in an effort to understand how the idea came into being, I’ve done some digging through my old files.  It’s been an interesting exercise.

The story of my idea for a story probably began when I heard the sage advice of Dr Kim Wilkins, now my fellow SoP.  She said, simply, “Write what you would like to read.”  I mulled over this for a while, and then began sketching out two characters: one male, one female. A simple-enough place to start.  I added a woodsy setting, though I’m not sure why, and threw in some gentle enmity for good measure.  I knew these characters shared a problem, but I had no idea what it was. I started writing anyway.

Scenes began to form and though there was no plot to unite them, they helped me get to know my characters.  Even though I was the one creating all this, I felt more like an observer.  Plot ideas formed and faded. Still, there was no ‘problem’ that could drive the story. This was proving harder than I thought it would be.  But then, in one scene, in a paragraph that I hadn’t seen coming even just a few lines earlier, one character dreamt of a wolf.  Something deep down must have known this way lay the real story, because within days I had begun collecting information about wolves: legends, folklore, even simple zoological information.  While the writer in me continued to play around with the characters, moulding them into something more tangible, the researcher pressed on, gnawing at the wolf idea.  And then, the research, well it hit marrow.

The older the wolf folklore, the more interesting it became.  Not only was this stuff tapping into interesting psychological concepts of the second self, it also linked strongly with a very common fairytale. You know the one:  girl meets wolf.  But the medieval versions were unlike anything I’d ever heard before, and far more interesting.  Stranger still was the link between the origins of Little Red Riding Hood and some very real historical events in 15th and 16th century France.  Truth is stranger than fiction and truth in fiction is strangely addictive.  I was hooked.  I had found my ‘problem’.  And I’ve been cutting my writerly teeth on it ever since.

So, no, there was no single ‘Let there be book!’ moment. I suspect these are more the exception than the rule.  My story idea decidedly evolved over time, and that’s been half the fun.

As for the other half of the fun? Well, for now, I can tell you this at least:  I’ve learned first hand that you can’t outstare a wolf.  You’ll always be the one to blink first.