Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Writing

Writing in 2021

What is ‘success’ in writing? It would be great to report that in 2021 I’d published another novel, won a few competitions and had some short fiction published. But that’s not the case. I haven’t counted the rejection letters, but there have been a few. A commendation or two, but no prizes. And the main work has involved crafting my second novel. I’ve completed a reasonably polished draft.

I feel comfortable writing historical fiction — I love doing the research. I’m particularly interested in the time just before I was born — a time of black and white photographs — a time experienced by my parents and grandparents. That’s where the second novel is placed. But this year I felt I should move a bit out of my comfort zone. I should write more about what confronts us in the world of the 2020s. To this end I enrolled in several Zoom workshops.

Writing the Environment

The workshop I found most challenging was about ‘Writing the Environment’. Why is it so hard to write, for example, about climate change? Maybe because we are embedded in it. The apocalypse is not necessarily an ‘end’, it can be seen as an ‘uncovering’ — a revelation. With the present pandemic some things are uncovered — made visible — for example, social disadvantage. How can we write about these things? The human perspective can be ‘decentred’ through the perspective of animals. Elsewhere I’ve written about Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in That Country

Science Fiction provides a toolbox for writing about the environment. A lot of metaphors are environmental: eg a body of water, burning desire, oceanic feeling, the storm inside, animal desire, as wise as an owl. Try to literalise these metaphors.

Hitchcock’s The Birds

Think of the difference between weirdness and eeriness. Something weird is intrusive. Eeriness has agency, a zombie acting, but there’s ‘nobody at home’. I was first drawn to this idea years ago reading about the mysteries of a disturbed child in Helen Garner’s A Children’s Bach. Hitchcock’s birds have agency — think of the eeriness in that movie. Those of us embedded in Western culture have a limited idea of the scope of agency – the range of entities in agency is very circumscribed. In other cultures landscapes, rivers etc have agency. The ‘light globe’ moment for me was a realisation that these stories can be fairy stories for adults set in the present time.

Compelling Characters and Novel Writing

The previous post in this category outlines some of the advice I gained from Kelly Gardiner. I also attended a workshop through Faber Academy, given by Richard Skinner.

The main advice I picked up was:

Write from your stomach, not your head or heart. I’m not good at this. Skinner’s message seems to be ‘plough on’. Don’t overthink what you write and don’t doubt what you’re writing. Don’t spend a lot of time tinkering with beautiful expression — I’m bad at this — I draft and redraft instead of moving on!

Another interesting suggestion was: ‘Twist your plot like a screw, don’t hammer it like a nail’. Keep the reader in suspense for as long as possible. And: make your character’s life more difficult — the bigger the price the character has to pay, the better! Some of the very best novels are where the main character pays the ultimate price — eg Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Like other experienced authors, Skinner emphasised the importance of conflict.

Reflecting the advice of Kelly Gardiner, Richard Skinner said, ‘a book is never finished, it’s only abandoned. Characters are like friends: you need to know them as well as you know your best friends’.

The Perfect Pitch

I also attended a workshop offered by the Australian Society of Authors on pitching your book to publishers. In Australia there are opportunities to pitch to publishers without working with an agent. We were given advice on writing a synopsis, an introductory letter and how to offer an ‘elevator pitch’.

Historical Novel Society of Australasia

Reverting to my favoured genre of historical fiction I attended a couple of sessions of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia Conference (all by Zoom).

A question that I find compelling when writing about times past is, how do you write about things that today are considered not right, eg racism? The message I gained was, there’s no point in writing if you’re going to white-wash. You have to write about some things that are not okay. But you can avoid offence. Write around the issue if necessary. For example, the speaker doesn’t use ‘the N word’ when writing about slavery, but describes the brutality.

When writing historical fiction, it’s important to try to understand the emotional state of a character: what did the world look like to them? Historical fiction is a made-up story set against a backdrop of real events. Can you manipulate history? Hilary Mantel says you must stick to the facts. But there’s a lot we don’t know. Just be true to the period. History is the foundation. Navigate history rather than manipulate it.

These are just a few of the things I learned in 2021. I probably learned most from reading, from grappling with my own writing and from sharing with my writing group, Elwood Writers

Creating Compelling Characters

One of the workshops I attended (by Zoom) in 2021 was run by historical fiction author Kelly Gardiner: Creating Compelling Characters. I have learned that it is nearly always the case that characters drive the narrative of a novel, novella or short story. Characters develop from people we know, people we see in a shop or on a tram. Kelly says, ‘throw them into the deep end, then make it even deeper’!

Kelly introduced us to a questionnaire known as Proust’s parlour game. The game was popularised (though not devised) by Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that, in answering these questions, an individual reveals his or her true nature. Kelly suggested that we pose these questions to our characters. You have to really know your characters — including aspects of them that may not seem relevant to the story you are writing.

Marcel Proust

There are thirty-five questions in the questionnaire. I selected eighteen of them to pose to the characters in the story I am writing.

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  2. What is your greatest fear?
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  4. Which living person do you most admire?
  5. What is your greatest extravagance?
  6. What is your current state of mind?
  7. On what occasion do you lie?
  8. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
  9. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  10. What or who is the greatest love or your life?
  11. Which talent would you most like to have?
  12. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  13. What is your most treasured possession?
  14. What do you most value in your friends?
  15. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  16. What is your greatest regret?
  17. How would you like to die?
  18. What is your motto?

Revisiting Lily Campbell’s Secret

Elwood Writers colleague, Helen, unearthed this article published around the time that my debut novel was launched. It’s a clear outline of how I came to write the book. Here is the link:

Every Second Tuesday Launch

Back in July I suggested ‘watch this space’ because my writing group Elwood Writers is publishing an anthology of short fiction, poetry and memoir. Well — now we have a launch date: Wednesday 9th December, 6.30 pm (Australian Eastern Standard Time). Because this will be a Zoom event, it’s exciting to think that (providing the time is not in the early hours of the morning where you live) followers from overseas will be able to be there as well as our Australian followers.

The link to obtain a ‘free’ ticket and receive an invitation from Readings bookshop is:

Our anthology will be available in hard copy or ebook; of course it’s not required to obtain a copy in order to come to the launch (but we’d love you to read it).

More metaphors

As a writer, I find it helpful, instructive and intriguing to keep collections of what I (rather loosely sometimes) call metaphors or similes that jump out at me when I’m reading. Here are some that I’ve come across recently.

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All the wretchedness of their shared pasts had been distilled into this one child Kate Atkinson: Big Sky, p. 11
With the remnant of his laughter still trickling from his face Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim, p.46
Through the tulle of darkness Lee Kofman: The Dangerous Bride, p.75
Prongs of excitement Lee Kofman: The Dangerous Bride, p.92
Its walls seemed to throb with his anger Pat Barker: Life Class, p.5
Corrugated faces Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come, P.25
Someone’s scraped me out with a spoon Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come, P.66
The lights along the embankment shuddered in the water Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come, P.132
A thorny sort of woman Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come, P.149
Citrus-sharp brain (Diana Mosley) Laura Thompson: The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters p. 238
His glare could have burned through brick Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves p.145
The tangling of two hearts Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves p.232
My smile felt as brittle as porcelain Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves p.233


Here are some more!

Faces deranged by the dancing firelightDiane Cook: The New Wilderness, p.20
A scramble of rocksDiane Cook: The New Wilderness, p.217
Her severe face had no thread of relaxation in itCharles Dickens: Little Dorrit, p.49
The spool of his thoughtsMaggie O’Farrell: Hamnet, p.38
A deep undertow of shameMaggie O’Farrell: Hamnet, p.96
Coiled furyMaggie O’Farrell: Hamnet, p.145
Scorched with rageMaggie O’Farrell: Hamnet, p.345
A scarf of cloud drifting across the Centrepoint TowerHelen Garner: One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987 – 1995, p.1
Frozen in their own importanceHelen Garner: One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987 – 1995, p.3
A long street quivering with plane treesHelen Garner: One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987 – 1995, p.72
V’s face lost all expression, like a blackboard just wipedHelen Garner: One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987 – 1995, p.123
I vacuumed dramaticallyHelen Garner: One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987 – 1995, p.224

Every Second Tuesday

Watch this space, because in the next few months my writing group, Elwood Writers, will be launching an alluring anthology of fiction, memoir and poetry that we have written over the past ten years. Published by Rightword Enterprises, the book will be available in paperback and ebook.

Why is it called Every Second Tuesday? More, anon…

Cover Every Second Tuesday

St Kilda Historical Society Short Story Competition

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I’m involved in setting up an excellent new short story competition to bejudged by local Melbourne writer Lee Kofman   The competition celebrates the 50th anniversary of the St Kilda Historical Society, but it isn’t necessary to be a resident of St Kilda to enter and the story doesn’t have to be historical — just some link to St Kilda. There is no entrance fee and there are good prizes: first prize in the open section is $1000 with prizes of $500 and $250 for second and third places. There is also a junior section with a first prize of $500 and $250 and $100 for second and third places. Full information is at

The competition closes on 7th August.

Adelaide Writers’ Week: another engrossing day

Elwood Writers

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My day started sitting beneath Lombardy poplars, myrtles and holly oaks in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, to hear a session entitled ‘Trees for Life’. The trees in the garden are symbolic, as I learned from Wikipedia:

The design of the garden is a simple rectangle with a low decorative brick wall. At the centre of the garden is Cohn’s sculpture of a female figure, raised on a plinth. This is surrounded by green lawns, and four garden beds with ornamental trees and shrubs at the edges. Cornish’s choice of plants was influenced by their symbolic meanings, selecting five Populus nigra “Italica” (Lombardy poplars) to represent the five women of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Trust; Quercus ilex (holly oak) and Myrtus communis (myrtle) for protection and love; Lonicera (honeysuckle) for love, generosity and devotion; and Syringa vulgaris (lilac) to symbolise memory, protection, youth and tenderness.

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The session on Trees for…

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Adelaide Writers’ Week 2020

Elwood Writers

Elwood Writers, has attended Adelaide Writers’ Week for many years — I’ve lost count how many — maybe for the last six or seven years. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Adelaide Festival, and Adelaide Writers’ Week, which has been a significant part of the Festival since its inception in 1960.

There are many attractive things about this week of listening to authors talk about their work — one of the main being that the main events are free. We sit on the banks of the Torrens River, in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, in the summer sunshine, appropriately shaded by blue canvas, with a choice of parallel events on East Stage and West Stage.

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John Boyne had come from Ireland. He has written eleven books for adults (there was discussion about the unnecessary labelling of books as ‘for young people’, ‘for adults’). His most famous book is

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Helen Garner: Yellow Notebook


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When I first read that Helen Garner had published her diaries kept from 1978 to 1987, I selfishly thought, oh — if only I’d kept a journal — what a way to publish your autobiography! I do wish that I had kept diaries, as Helen Garner has done, but I doubt they would be as readable as Garner’s. And this is not an autobiography.

Helen Garner 2

After burning her early journals, Helen Garner decided to start writing in a journal again – around 1978 – and did so in a yellow notebook –  hence the title. When I picked up the published book, I expected to find that the journal had been edited – maybe there would be themes – after all, Garner has been known to say that her first novel, Monkey Grip was just an edited version of her diaries of that time.

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Clearly, the extracts have been selected, but they are presented as a serendipitous collection of musings, quotes, descriptions… Her endeavours to keep friends, lovers, husbands anonymous sometimes make the reading heavy going. As a writer, I found it fascinating to have glimpses of Garner’s daily routine, of how she quite often had to drive herself to write. I was surprised that this writer who, even back in 1978, was ‘successful’, has a  lurking lack of confidence. She is cut to the quick when there are harsh reviews of her work and elevated to blissful delight when the reviews are good.

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Garner has been a hero of mine ever since I read Monkey Grip back in 1978.  In both her fiction and non fiction (and I have heard her discuss that there is not a lot of sense in these distinctions) Garner confronts the reader with the reality of our existence — be it in a rooming house imprisoned by drug addiction or in a courthouse confronted by human frailty. So too in these diaries there were moments when I was entranced by her attention to detail or her encapsulation of a feeling by use of metaphor. We do have to wade through some of Garner’s everyday notes. This is not intended to be a polished novel or essay, but, as Peter Craven has written in The Saturday Paper, ‘worlds of incident and feeling are clipped into a shape of entrancing implication’.

A few of these descriptions are:

‘doors open in my head like those in a cuckoo clock’ [page 7], on preparing food ‘the brutality of its preparation’ [page 19], ‘her permed brown hair quivering’ [page 30], ‘the music ran, bounced and thickened’ [page 42], ‘500-watt blue eyes’ [page 82], ‘she paraded in, chin high, teeth blazing’ [page 118], ‘a grille clanged down between him and the world’ [page 233], ‘the jaws of my purse straining wide’ [page 245], ‘the monolith of his marriage’ [page 253]

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