How I Write: Ockham winner Vincent O’Malley wrote the introduction last

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Vincent O'Malley has won the General Non-Fiction award at the 2022 Ockham Book Awards.

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Vincent O’Malley has won the General Non-Fiction award at the 2022 Ockham Book Awards.

Vincent O’Malley is a writer and historian from Wellington and the author of numerous books on New Zealand history, including a hugely popular trilogy on the New Zealand wars of the 19th century. Her 2021 book, Voices from the New Zealand Wars/He Reo nō ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, published by Bridget Williams Books, recently won the hotly contested General Non-Fiction category at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He also recently co-wrote (with Joanna Kidman, Liana MacDonald, Tom Roa and Keziah Wallis) Fragments from a Contested Past: Remembrance, Denial and New Zealand History.

What book do you come back to re-read from time to time?

As a historian, I regularly return to certain books as reference texts – they occupy the first shelf within easy reach of my office and include works by Angela Ballara, James Belich, Claudia Orange, Ranginui Walker, Alan Ward and others.

What book did you read as a child or teenager that made a deep impression on you?

In sixth grade English, we read Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country, a searing story of racial injustice in South Africa, and I remember being very moved by it – shortly after joining the protests in Christchurch (where I grew up) against the planned 1985 tour for the All Blacks to South Africa.

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What is your writing routine?

I write in my office and try to get in early every morning. I will set myself a daily word count goal just as something to help me stay focused and I usually find that after six or seven hours of writing I have more than achieved that. The first week or two can be painful – after that I normally have a bit of flux. It’s amazing how much you can end up writing this way, especially when you’re working five or six days a week.

Voices of the New Zealand Wars by Vincent O'Malley.

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Voices of the New Zealand Wars by Vincent O’Malley.

Can you share a great piece of writing advice you’ve received?

I don’t know where I first found this tip, but writing the introduction last makes it so much easier to start working on a new manuscript. Instead of agonizing over that perfect first sentence and trying to figure out what the book is about, you’re right in the body of it.

What advice do you give to writers just starting out?

Find other writers in your genre whose work you admire and figure out what you like about their approach. It’s not about imitating them, it’s about finding your own distinct voice by having a clear understanding of what you want to say and how you’re going to go about it. It can also be very important to know who your audience is. All of these things take time and experience. It’s rare to break them all first. So even missteps and mistakes can be helpful in this learning process.

Do you write in the margins of books?

When I was younger I did that, even using highlighters in books – maybe it was just typical student stuff. But as I got older, I developed a real aversion to it – which is why a lot of my books are filled with post-it notes instead.

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