Category Archives: Writing

Read. Plot. Write.

That’s my 3-step approach to planning, structuring and writing a chapter. Or a book. Or an essay for that matter. I write narrative nonfiction: biography and cultural history. I’m often trying to capture a time in history, or a particular person’s contribution to history, so I need to research and absorb lots of disparate facts before trying to string it all together into a coherent, engaging narrative.

I’ll take you through the 3 steps I’ve developed, and describe how they work for me.

Read

I also call this phase ‘Dream.’ It’s where I read for hours, days, sometimes a whole week, absorbing everything I can about the subject in question. I prefer to read actual books, especially second-hand ones I’ve found in bookstores or libraries. There’s something more inspiring about the smell of old texts, the yellowing of pre-loved pages. While reading I prefer not to take any notes, but occasionally I’ll jot things down in pencil on 5×3 index cards, each allocated to a different sub-topic. I especially like to record things I might not remember, like quotes, dates, names and facts. After reading for a few days, I go for a long walk or have a sleep, and when I return I . . .

Plot

I also call this phase ‘Draw.’ It’s where I activate the right hemisphere of my brain, the visuospatial part, to map out scenes for my chapter, chapters for my book, or if I’m writing an essay the subcomponent ‘pulses’ or ‘beats.’ Each of these scenes is represented by a post-it note, ideally just one word, that might have underneath it several 5×3 cards with details, facts, dates, quotes, etc. Even though I write nonfiction, I like, as much as possible, for the scenes to have the qualities a scene has in fiction: subject/protagonist, action, object, place, time, etc. I like to be able to visualise the scene as if it were in a film. And the post-it notes together must have a dramatic arc that gives narrative shape to the chapter.

Scenes for current chapter I’m working on

Sometimes I find it helpful to do a bit of mind mapping too. There are apps for this, such as Scapple and Simplemind, but I find a big block of white art paper and pencil (and eraser) easier to work with. Here is my mind map of the same chapter, including all the characters that will be involved. (If you’re wondering, this is a chapter on Marie Geoffrin, the greatest salon host of the French Enlightenment, and one of the seven women I explore in my next book, Salonnières.)

Mindmap of characters. Words on left are scene titles.

Write

Now that I’ve read/dreamed and plotted/drawn, it’s time to put it all away. I have my structure ready. As Hemingway once said:

‘Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.’

When I’m ready to write, I will select whichever post-it note I’m up to, read the 5×3 cards under it, put it all away, go for another walk, and when I come back, start writing non-stop (without notes) until that chapter (usually 1-3,000 words) is complete. I won’t stop to check dates, quotes, etc because that will stop the narrative flow that is so crucial to first drafts. I can always come back later to fill in the missing bits.

Anyhow, that’s my process: Read. Plot. Write. What’s yours? I’d love to hear your thoughts about what I’ve described above, or any other processes you’ve found helpful to get those words flowing in the way you want them to!

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Essay on Sartre wins Writers’ Award

I was thrilled to be told recently that my essay ‘50,000 at a funeral’, about the funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre, has won a New Philosopher Writers’ Award. As a result, it will be published in the upcoming May 2016 edition of New Philosopher magazine.

I remember the first time I saw this bright new beautifully designed magazine. It was a few years ago in a pie shop in Byron Bay, of all places, and I was delighted to see such an inviting-looking publication about philosophy and ideas, rather than celebrities, movie stars, diets and trivia. Since its first edition on the 5th August 2013, the magazine has gone from strength to strength, increasing its distribution to outlets across Australia, the UK and North America.

A little while ago I went to a talk by the editors, Zan Boag and Antonia Case, hosted by my favourite local bookstore Avid Reader. At this talk, Zan and Antonia explained how the idea for the magazine came to them whilst travelling through South America. They have shown by example that if you have a dream, and are willing to work at it, amazing things – like this magazine – can happen.

If you want to know more about New Philosopher, go to their website here.

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Reading your book aloud in public

Earlier this year I was invited by Krissy Kneen, events coordinator at my favourite bookstore, Avid Reader, to read from my work-in-progress Lovers of Philosophy at a salon event. Krissy, who is a fantastic author in her own right, invited me and other emerging writers Meg Vann and Rebekah Turner to read from our works to help launch Stephanie Bishop’s ‘The Other Side of the World’ (Hachette Australia Books).

Fortunately, I had actually received some training in how best to ensure such a reading goes as well as it can. That training , in my case, was provided by the wonderful Aimée Lindorf at the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC). This training was part of the QWC/Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program which I was fortunate enough to be selected for last year.

Here are some of Aimée’s helpful tips for reading your work out aloud:

  1. Select an appropriate passage
    • It needs to be self-contained enough to work as a stand-alone read
    • It should have a small cast – no more than 4 characters including the narrator
    • End on a cliffhanger if you can (You want to leave your audience wanting more)
  2. Read the passage out aloud before the big event
    • There’s nothing like reading your writing out aloud to sharpen your editing eye. Get rid of clunk and make sure your prose is clear and rhythmically pleasing
  3. Warm up your voice and your body
    • As all singers know, your voice is a physical instrument and resonates and projects much better if you do some deep breathing, vocalising and other exercises before you go on stage. Especially considering how much nervousness can pinch off your vocal cords and make you sound like Elmer Fudd.
  4. On the big day, read SLOWLY
    • Remember. No-one has heard your amazing words before. Read SLOWLY so the audience can hear them and follow your story. Consider using slightly different tones or inflections of your voice for different characters (but don’t overdo this). Pause for effect where appropriate.
  5. Have fun!
    • I made this one up. But having done a couple of readings now, I can vouch that there is nothing more enjoyable than reading your words as if you want others to hear them, and hearing their gasps, expectant silences and laughs. As writers we all want to share our imagined worlds with others so that they can be transported to another place, another time, another world. that IS the magic of writing. A public reading allows you as a writer to have a rare and precious experience – hearing readers’ reactions to your work in a public setting – after all reading is usually a private activity.

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First public reading of Lovers of Philosophy

It’s my pleasure to announce that on Saturday the 7th February I’ll be doing my first public reading from my work-in-progress Lovers of Philosophy.

This will be at a free salon event hosted by the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC). Thank you Aimeé Lindorf and all the crew at QWC for supporting emerging writers such as myself, and giving us an opportunity to share our work.

There will also be a reading by poet and short fiction writer Carmen Leigh Keates, and a Q&A with special author guest fiction writer Inga Simpson. The afternoon, set in The Fox Hotel in South Brisbane, will be topped off with a musical set by O’ Little Sister.

If you’re in Briz Vegas on that day and are able to come along, I’d love to meet you. All writers and readers welcome!

Details are as below:

What: Whispers is a reading salon hosted by QWC throughout Queensland.

Date and time: 3:00–6:00pm on Saturday 7 February 2015.

Venue: The Fox Hotel, 73 Melbourne Street, South Brisbane.

Transport and parking information is available on the SLQ website.

Price: Free.

Full details: On the Facebook event page, https://www.facebook.com/events/602930773140737/.

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Why are adverbs considered to be evil?

Great advice below from K.M.Weiland (with a little bit of help from Mark Twain) about how the best writing shows rather than tells by avoiding adverbs (and adjectives)

Answer by K.M. Weiland:

Amongst writers, one of the ever-quotable Mark Twain’s most quoted witticisms is the succinct bit of advice (which could just as easily have referred to adverbs) found in Pudd’nhead Wilson: “As to the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.”

Ah, modifiers! What writer hasn’t had a joyous fling or two with that most seductive of all parts of speech? In an effort to convey the brilliance and vividness of our prose, we hand out modifiers like candy at a Fourth of July parade. After all, it’s imperative that the reader understand that the barn in question is big, red, and rundown. That the kid on the playground is fighting wildly and ferociously. That the ship’s white canvas sails are billowing in the wind. That’s all need-to-know information, right?

Well, maybe. No one will argue that modifiers clarify mental images. At least, that’s the message we absorbed during all those grade school years of diagramming sentence after sentence chocked full of adjectives and adverbs. What we probably didn’t learn from all those years of diagramming is that modifiers are the sign of a lazy writer. Modifiers break the cardinal rule of storytelling: Show, don’t tell.

In the three sentences mentioned above, never once did I show you what the barn looked like, or the kid who was fighting, or the ship’s sails. With the help of my modifiers, you probably got the general idea, but how much more vivid would those sentences have been had I taken the time to show you? What if I had allowed you to see the dust swirling in the shadows of the barn, the pigeons roosting in the patches of sunlight that spill through the holes in the roof? What if you had seen the kid on the playground smacking his fists into someone’s face, blood splattering from his opponent’s nose? What if the wind had whipped the ship’s sails, filling them to bursting and churning the waves to froth at the prow?

See the difference? By deleting my modifiers, I was forced to dig deeper for specific nouns (pigeons, fists, nose, froth, prow) and vibrant verbs (swirling, roosting, spill, smacking, splattering, whipped, bursting, churning). These are words the reader can sink his teeth into. Suddenly, we can hear the flutter and coo of the pigeons in the rafters, we can feel the warmth of blood against our skin, we can smell the salt and seaweed of an ocean voyage.

But does this mean that the modifier is dead? Should we avoid them completely? Of course not. Modifiers, like all parts of speech, serve their purpose. Another quote from Twain:

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” ( Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880)

Adjectives and adverbs exist in the English language for the sole purpose of refining it. We cannot show the reader every detail, both due to time and space constraints and the simple fact that some things—such as colors—are impossible to show on the written page without a bit of telling. When added to an already strong scene, modifiers can boost the description into precision and vibrancy.

Take, for instance, one of our example sentences. The new description of the ship doesn’t indicate that the sails are white canvas. I didn’t include those details because most readers will assume this to be the case unless told differently. But what if my ship belonged to the Dread Pirate Roberts who always lofted black sails when he went into battle? Suddenly, we have a vital detail that could only be conveyed with a modifier:

The wind whipped the ship’s ash-black sails, filling them to bursting and churning the waves to froth at the prow.

Notice that this sentence conveys everything the original version did (and more), yet it contains only one modifier.

Even when modifiers are necessary, economy is vital. It’s ridiculously easy to get carried away with modifiers. When we write phrases about “the remarkably, incandescently, breathtakingly gorgeous woman,” we not only smother our reader in repetition, we also drown out the already strong modifier “gorgeous.”
So, in short, while we probably need not go to Mark Twain’s suggested extreme of extermination, our writing can only be better for a careful pruning of adjectives and adverbs. Modifiers do their job best when used sparingly.

Why are adverbs considered to be evil?

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16 Things I Wish I’d Known as a Beginner Novelist

Some great tips below from Jackie Lea Sommers for anyone considering writing a novel or long work of narrative nonfiction. If you want to comment go to jackieleasommers.com or click on Jackie’s link. Thanks Jackie.

JACKIE LEA SOMMERS

16 things1. This journey is probably going to take longer than you think.
In fact, you might bust your butt on something that never sees the light of day.  It’s okay.  You become a better writer by writing.  I had to write a novel to prove I could write a novel before I could write a good novel, if you follow me.

2. Write because you love it, not because you want to be published.
You might never have your work published.  If you write because you have to write, because you’re a writer in your bones, then this won’t matter.  (Or at least it won’t matter enough to stop you!)

3. Write every day …
Establish a writing routine, even if some days you only get ten minutes to write.

4. … but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t.
I’m still learning this.  GRACE.

5. If…

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Lovers of Philosophy selected for QWC / Hachette Manuscript Development Program

I was delighted recently to receive a call from Stacey Clair at the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC) to inform me that I was one of the ten successful applicants for the QWC / Hachette Manuscript Development Program. Along with the nine others from around Australia, I have been invited to a four-day Manuscript Development Retreat in Brisbane from 31 October to 3 November 2014 at which editors from Hachette Australia, one of Australia’s largest publishers, will provide individual feedback and consultation to help me work on developing my manuscript. I will also get to meet other publishing industry professionals such as literary agents, booksellers and established authors.

At the residential retreat in Brisbane I will have four glorious days to write, mix with other emerging writers, and tap into the expertise of those in the publishing industry. I can’t wait to meet the other writers and making the most of this wonderful opportunity.

After years of researching, writing, editing and polishing my manuscript for Lovers of Philosophy, this is very welcome news, one of those breaks every budding, struggling writer hopes for.

Thank you QWC and Hachette!

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How I got shortlisted for the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship

Hi fellow writers

Hope your writing is going well.

It’s hard to believe it has been six months since I last posted. In my last post ‘Pitching to the Market’ I mentioned a few tips for helping you to get your book published. Today I wanted to report on how I got a little closer to that goal myself by, of all things, following my own advice (not something I often do!).

In  ‘Pitching to the Market’ I mentioned an excellent workshop I attended given by Meg Vann, CEO of  the Queensland Writers Centre. Meg talked about how important it is to develop an author’s platform, including building an online presence. Reluctantly I followed her advice and opened a Twitter account (to me it all seemed like superficial time-wasting. I just wanted to get on and write.). Anyhow I started following on Twitter people who interested me – other writers, authors, publishers, anyone tweeting about my passions of writing (and reading).

Then one day, a tweet popped up from one of my new twitter-aquaintances – a literary agent in Victoria, Australia, called Virginia Lloyd. In this tweet she mentioned the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship. As it turned out, the late Ms Rowley’s work had been a key resource for my writing project. My book is about the love lives of philosophers, and she had written an amazingly well-researched and gripping book called Tête-à-Tête about the love lives of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. The Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship had been set up to further the legacy of this great author by providing up to AUD$10,000 for emerging or established writers writing biography. I thought I might as well have a go.

So I submitted my manuscript to this Fellowship, and just found out two days ago Lovers of Philosophy had been shortlisted, as recently announced on the Writers Victoria website.

I hope my story inspires you to reach out and share or submit your work to one or more of the large number of fellowships and competitions out there. I’ve submitted my work to other comps and fellowships and had mixed success. The key is getting your work as good as you can get it (including by running it by beta-readers for feedback-more on that in a future post), and persevering.  Joining your local writers’ organisation is a great way to hear about the many opportunities that are available.

I’d love to hear your experiences of whether tweeting, blogging and what I still consider as other necessary evils that distract me from my writing (if I’m honest I’d always rather be writing!) has helped you to further your writing aspirations in any way.

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

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Pitching to the market

books

books (Photo credit: brody4)

In my last post I reported on a blogging workshop I went to at the Reality Bites Writers Festival in Cooroy. I also attended another great workshop called Pitching to the Market. This was delivered by Meg Vann, CEO of the Queensland Writers Centre. Meg had lots of great advice about how to get your manuscript published. The publishing industry is going through an interesting and difficult period right now, with fewer and fewer people reading books, and more and more people writing them. Many publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. I’ve certainly been disappointed to find, on visiting my favourite publisher’s website for information about submitting my manuscript, words to the effect of: ‘such-and-such a publisher no longer accepts manuscripts.’ What is the poor budding writer to do?

Well, some of the major publishers have pitching days every week or month when they do accept manuscripts. Examples include Penguin’s Monthly Catch, Pan Macmillan‘s Manuscript Monday and Allen and Unwin‘s Friday Pitch. As Meg highlighted in her workshop, a good pitch should include not only a pithy and enticing few lines capturing what your book is about, but where it would sit in the market, and a little bit about yourself as a writer/author.

Remember, publishers need to make money by selling your book, and along with the book they need to sell you as an author. So building an author platform, including an on-line presence, is important to help your prospective publisher place you in the market. More about building an author platform in a future post.

But in terms of your pitch, it’s important you create opportunities for yourself to meet publishers, agents and other people in the ‘book industry’. You can do this by attending writers’ festivals, conferences and events. I’ve certainly found this to be a useful way to meet publishers and editors whose submission link on their websites may be closed but whose minds may open up a little bit if you present them with a sellable publishing opportunity. That’s where the so-called ‘elevator pitch‘ is needed when a publisher or agent you meet at one of these events asks you ‘So what is your book about?’. This is where it’s best if you don’t stammer or turn pink but say something clear and engaging about your book. It’s important you don’t bore the potential publisher with the whole story of your novel. You just need to whet their appetite and engage their interest, and help them to see there might be a market for your ‘product’.

If you want to learn more about pitching to publishers, I highly recommend you consider doing what I did and join your local writers’ centre, where you can get a wealth of support, advice and opportunities to publish your masterpiece. If any of you have any experiences with pitching to publishers, both good and bad, that you’d like to share, please leave a comment. I — and I’m sure other new writers who read this blog — would love to hear from you.

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Reality bites in Cooroy

reality bites festival header

Cooroy

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m sipping on a latte in a cafe in Cooroy after spending the last four days attending the Reality Bites nonfiction writers festival. For those of you who don’t know Cooroy, it’s an unspoiled hidden gem of a town in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. Wind back four days to Thursday morning as I drive into this sleepy rural town, and I am welcomed by the sight of organic grocers, massage therapist signs, op shops and very relaxed and happy-looking people walking around very slowly in the crumpled and colorful clothes you often see on tree-changers and middle-aged hippies. I pull up and walk into the newsagent where the lady behind the counter seems genuinely pleased to see me, and as I leave, wishes me a good day in a way that indicates she really means it, not something I’m used to in the throbbing cosmopolis of Briz Vegas (Brisbane) where I come from.

The first workshop I went to at the Reality Bites festival was on blogging, delivered by Rhonda Hetzel who has a very popular award-winning blog, Down to Earth, about her daily experiences of trying to live a simpler life, where she makes everything herself from soap to butter and ice-cream. Her blog eventually resulted in a book deal with Penguin. Rhonda pointed out, as have many others, that blogging is an almost obligatory requirement for writers who want to ‘build a platform’. To be honest, industry phrases such as ‘author platform’ leave me a bit flat. As a writer I prefer just to write. But of course as writers we all want to connect with our readers and blogging is a way of doing that.The key suggestions I took away from Rhonda’s talk were:

  • develop a disciplined routine to posting on your blog
  • include photos in your posts
  • be generous in your blog in what you give to your readers
  • end each post with a question to encourage readers to interact with you

So on that note my questions for you at the end of this post are:

What would you like to see on this blog? More about the continental philosophers? More about these philosophers’ relationships and love lives? Or perhaps you’d like to hear more about writing resources and processes that I and others have found helpful? I’d love to hear your comments…

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