Margo Lanagan on How Writers Work













This week I welcome Margo Lanagan!

How did you get your first book published?

My first several books were written under pseudonyms. They were romance stories for teenage readers, quite formulaic and simple. I’d been writing and publishing poetry for a while, and I’d written a literary mainstream “novel”, which was not a novel at all, because nothing happened in it – it was just a novel’s-amount of words, really. I’d realised as I wrote it that I didn’t actually know how to construct a story – where it should lead, how it should drag readers along from page to page and chapter to chapter. I simply knew nothing about pacing or suspense.

I was working as a freelance (non-fiction) book editor, and one day when I was ringing around publishers looking for work, one of them said, “We haven’t got any editing work, but would you like to try your hand at this new line of teen romances we’re going to put out?” Which I did; I sat down and wrote a chapter breakdown, and a sample chapter, and that worked for the publisher, so then I wrote a chapter a day for two weeks, and at the end of it I had a small (32K), publishable book called NEW GIRL, about a girl who moves to a country town and starts at a high school there.

I wrote 9 or 10 of those novels. The first one published (in the Bantam Wildflower series) came out in 1990. The others were published in the next few years, some with Bantam, some with Dolly Fiction, some with a series called Paradise Point. They gave me a good grounding in holding readers’ interest – and in writing fast, because I stuck to my original habit of writing each one in two weeks, ten pages (3200 words) a day.

Best of all, they taught me that, no matter how hard the writing is on the day, the words produced aren’t noticeably worse than those produced on an “easy” day – so just plugging on regardless of self-doubt is the only way to go.

What is your daily writing routine?

Get up as early as possible and, before I’m awake enough to attack myself with criticisms, start writing (I write the first draft of everything longhand, in biro on lined bank-weight paper). If I can get in a couple of hours before breakfast, that sets me up for a productive rest-of-the-day.

Breakfast, then head off to my rented Writing Room, two blocks from my house. Install myself there, immerse myself again. I still aim for ten pages a day – I’m not allowed to beat myself up about it if I don’t make the count, but I do have to try. I’ve found that if I’m on a roll and write substantially more than ten pages, I’m in fact stealing words (and likely slightly sloppy words) from the next day.

Sometimes the ten pages are done by 11am, sometimes it takes a full 8 hours to get them. Whatever’s happening, don’t let anxiety leak into the process. Keep it as enjoyable and hopeful as possible. Writing snacks: raw carrots, Vita-Weats, anything crunchy – but low fat (don’t want to get sleepy!) – I literally chew my way through plot glitches. If I can, stop writing at a point in a scene where something interesting’s about to happen, to make it easy to start again next day.

Walk away from it and do unrelated things. Exercise is the best; rinse out my brain with oxygen. Put the book out of mind until just before going to sleep, then just gently prod at the scene I’m going to tackle in the morning, get it ready to take up on waking.

I type up what I’ve written towards the end of the week in the evenings, or over the weekend. Or sometimes I wait until I’ve accumulated quite a stack of pages, and spend a couple of days getting it all digital.


My writing room is upstairs in a Victorian terrace house that’s been broken up into 8 little apartments, with a kitchenette in each one and a shared bathroom down the hall. People live in the other apartments, but mine’s just a work space. It’s very, very quiet. It has 2 windows, which both look out into trees. Lately, what with our house renovations, it’s become a bit more crowded with boxes stored from home, but it still feels spacious. As well as the desk and chair and shelves, there’s a very comfortable couch, which is excellent for work avoidance should I need it.

What is your latest publication or WIP?

My latest novel published by Allen & Unwin is Sea Hearts. It’s about a small island where all the women are selkies, seals that have been magically transformed into humans. It’s very romantic, very tragic, and there is a wonderful snarling witch at its core. It started as a novella, which was published in Keith Stevenson’s X6 anthology in 2009 and won a World Fantasy Award. Then I grew curious about how the situation in the novella had come about – and as I explored the story, the witch herself explained it to me.



Margo blogs at

11 thoughts on “Margo Lanagan on How Writers Work

  1. Thanks Gabrielle and Margo for this really enjoyable and insightful interview. Love getting into writers’ lives in any way they allow. Just love the idea of the separate writing room – a dream. Congratulations on Sea Hearts, Margo, sounds intriguing.

  2. Thank you for sharing your process, Margo. I write draft by hand too, with a fountain pen, but I do a lot of it in the first few hours I wake up in bed before I get distracted. You are an inspiration and I hope I can write as well as you one day. Warm wishes, Rosanne

  3. That is so fascinating that you find you’re stealing words from the next day if you keep going! I could see that happening with myself, indeed!

  4. Thanks, Susanne—you’re so kind. I should point out that that desk is in a between-drafts rather athan a mid-draft state. It does look inviting!

  5. I was particularly struck by the line ” before I’m awake enough to attack myself with criticisms, start writing”. It’s such a good idea to circumvent the inner critic.
    Thank you for sharing your work practices and as a fellow selkie fan, I am looking forward to reading The Brides of Rollrock Island soon.

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