To the Lighthouse: Week 3

Dredging up Ideas

I spent a lot of time in the morning looking out of my window. If I hadn’t been so stuck with the next scene of my novel, I wouldn’t have noticed how many times the dredge left the harbour. It just kept on going, digging up tonnes of material, dumping it out at sea, and then coming back for more. Unlike me, who was going nowhere.

So I took inspiration from the dredge’s persistence. I burrowed into what I had already written, looking for anything that was still a bit general, and I asked myself ‘why’. ‘Why’ is my protagonist in a meditation group? ‘Why’ is she a photographer? ‘Why’ does she hate action movies so passionately?

All the answers to these ‘why’s’ were in her past. And weirdly, the deeper I dug into the specifics of her past, the clearer my protagonist’s future became. What evolved wasn’t so much a character bio but a series of past events that were directly related to the present, and these sparked the future events I now can’t wait to write.

I didn’t notice the dredge at all in the afternoon. So if you get to a point in your novel where you’re stuck, try going backwards. And forwards, and backwards, and forwards, and…

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To the Lighthouse: Week 2

“Lily stepped back to get her canvas – so – into perspective. It was an odd road to be walking, this of painting. Out and out one went, further and further, until at last one seemed to be on a narrow plank, perfectly alone, over the sea.”

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Since I’ve started my residency up here at the lighthouse, I’ve been rereading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I don’t really need an excuse, it’s in my top ten books, along with Marion Halligan’s Spidercup and Laurence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.

I took one of those ‘thinking walks’ writers tend to favour: setting myself a question about a writing problem, then leaving it to meander through my mind solving itself, while I walked, observing everything and nothing around me.

For a while I stood here with the lighthouse behind me and the vast empty ocean in front. But then I noticed the sea wasn’t empty. Container ships that looked like tiny caterpillars were balancing along the rim of the sea. And closer there was the whitewash that inconsiderately gave away the secret hiding place of reefs. And the water was all shades of blue and green with lines drawn by currents, tide, sand and depth.

I walked further around the lighthouse and looked out along the narrow breakwater. Three tug boats waited at the mouth of the harbour for a coal ship. Waited for it to come to them.

When at last it came, the sailors threw down ropes and the tugs grabbed hold and fastened them tight.

I was already writing at my desk when the boats passed my window, the tugs escorting the ship down the narrow channel and into its berth, as I steered a clear path through the problem in my novel.

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To the Lighthouse: as an artist-in-residence

To the Lighthouse

Nobbys Breakwall

The sky threatened rain and the walk along the breakwater to the lighthouse, lugging all the things I’d need for the day including my computer, suddenly seemed a lot longer.

Nobbys Lighthouse is on an island in the mouth of the Hunter River, named Whibayganba by First Nations Peoples, and was established in its present form in 1854. A causeway joins it to the mainland. Walking on the breakwater means you’re walking on shipwrecks, convict labour, Awakabal dreaming, a long past.

LighthouseArts director, Karen, unlocked the gate for us Tuesday artists-in-residence (writers, a photographer, musicians) and drove all our paraphernalia up the hill in a little golf cart.

Looking South

It’s a 360 degree view from up there!

East: wide sky and open ocean to the horizon.

North: a sand stretch of coastline and distant hills, the remains of a volcano.

West: a busy harbour and port.

South: the inner city of Newcastle and the Cathedral looking down on it from the hill.

I was a little worried I’d be too distracted by the view to write much.

My studio looked west over the harbour and also onto the courtyard and Nobbys Head Light. The studios are the rooms in two cottages that used to house the lighthouse keeper and workers. The creatives each have a room and every studio has a different view. A writer who looks over a white painted brick wall and out to the sea and sky told me it makes her think she’s in Greece.

The view onto the harbour from my desk
Nobbys Head Light

I started writing. From my desk I saw the dark clouds clear and I kept writing. The air was still and warm, and the only sounds were the waves breaking on the beach below, faint guitars, and the occasional F35 from Williamtown Air Base. I continued to write.

There’s a strange feeling up there that’s hard to put into words. It’s like being cossetted under a warm doona and at the same time floating free in the universe. I know they’re diametrically opposed positions, but one thing they have in common is that neither are concerned about time. There’s only the present. Perhaps it’s what some people call ‘being in the flow’, or others call meditation. Whatever you call it, the closest I can come to describing it is that infinite space where there’s no separation between being in the world and being in the writing. That’s the magic. Maybe you will have a better go at describing it. Let me know.

What writer doesn’t dream of discussing life, the universe and writing with other creative people? The ranges and experiences of the artists I met in the common areas were awe-inspiring. Everyone had a real respect and understanding for the creative practice and the need for quiet and privacy. A true blessing.

While I didn’t keep time, others had to, so at 4pm I reluctantly packed up and walked back down the hill, along the breakwater and into my life.

Until next Tuesday.

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Writers’ Festival Gems

Every writers’ festival has its own personality.

sydney writers festival

Sydney Writers Festival

Sydney Writers Festival is big, brash and busy. The speakers are the top of the literary game nationally and internationally, as well as including promising new authors. But it’s so huge now you can wait in line for 45 minutes in all weather (I’ve had blazing sun and driving rain) and still not get in. Many people only go to the ticketed events because getting into free sessions is just too frustrating.


Melbourne Writers Festival


Melbourne Writers Festival is smaller and much more civilised. They also attract the top liners and the free sessions are easy to get into. There’s also this quaint caravan where you sit inside with a small group of others and get close and personal with a writer for a chat.


Edinburgh Writers Festival


Edinburgh Writers Festival. Ahh… more like Melbourne but when writers like Will Self, Sebastian Barry and Anne Enright live just a stone’s throw away you can fill all the tents with the Masters.


Newcastle Writers Festival


Newcastle is a relative newcomer. But this year’s line up was impressive – Robert Dessaix, Kitty Flanagan, Robert Drewe, Kathryn Heyman, Michael Sala, Ryan O’Neill, Jock Serong, Jimmy Barnes, among others. But what stands out at Newcastle, more than anywhere else I’ve been, is the warm friendliness of the volunteers and the relaxed and easy navigation around sessions. It’s a pleasure to be there.

Many things are said at festivals that are worth noting. What resonated most powerfully for me this year in Newcastle was said in a panel discussing what fiction is for:

If you open readers’ hearts,lia1 you open their minds. Lia Hills

The latest Newcastle Festival Newsletter provides more highlights:

I like to put Australia on the slab and see how it is operating. Robert Drewe

I’m encouraged by young people, who are much better at looking after the world than we are. Bruce Pascoe

This city has magic in it and I’m grateful that my first ever visit was for the love of words. Holly Ringland

Women like Elizabeth Macquarie and Caroline Chisholm can teach us to encourage a politics of caring for those in need. Luke Slattery

There’s a cone of silence around Aboriginal massacres on the colonial frontier that needs to be challenged and taken down. Lyndall Ryan

brigWe’ve unnecessarily complicated what is good for us. Brigid Delaney

Wellness is about self-education, it’s not supposed to be an alternative science or medicine, but that’s the way it’s progressed. Nick Toscano

Enid Blyton was an impossible woman but she made me the man I am today. Robert Dessaix

Know your rights and collect your sisterhood and supporters before you speak out. I’m a great believer in collective power. Tracey Spicer

My whole career has been pure luck. Kitty Flanagan

If you stand very still and listen very closely, stories come right up to you. Richard Fidler

Reading should be therapy for the reader. Kathryn Heyman
For satire to work, it must be targeted at the powerful. Ryan O’Neill

Living for years in a female body was like trying to play an instrument that was out of tune. Eddie Ayres

We have an electronic curtain descending between nature and the next generation. Charles Massy

Next year the Newcastle Writers Festival will be April 5-7. Save the date!

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Newcastle Writers Festival


April 6-8, 2018 

Newcastle Writers Festival is becoming one of the most dynamic and friendly festivals in Australia for both writers and readers. It attracts big names in the world of writing and ideas: Robert Drewe, Jimmy Barnes, Kitty Flanagan, Michael Rowbotham, Robert Dessaix, Michael Sala, Tracey Spicer, to name just a few. Full program is available here.

One of the most popular sessions each year is run by a local writing group, Hunter Story Creators, and is always full of practical and helpful advice about writing. This year they’re teasing out the question of how to give your stories a future by bringing them to life.

Jessie Ansons will be talking to Aidan Walsh, Maree Gallop and Sally Egan about their published stories and novel. Further details are available on their blog.

GIVE YOUR STORIES A FUTURE: Sunday 8th April, 10am – Newcastle Writers Festival – FREE session


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Generating Writing Ideas

200 word story books

Some of my favourite books that inspired my stories

One of the questions writers are asked most often is, where do you get your ideas?

At the Newcastle Writers’ Festival I went to a great session on Microfiction where author Susan McCreery talked about her New Year’s resolution to write a 200 word story a day for the year 2015. And that’s what she did. Just imagine – 365 stories in one year! Sloopholespineless Wonders published over 30 of them in a gem of a microfiction collection called Loopholes.

I don’t know how she kept generating new ideas every day, but the thought of gradually building up a collection in this way excited me. What’s 200 words? Bah, nothing! But instead of an anxiously-long 12 months I would do it for 30 days – after all it only takes 21 days to create a habit so who knows what could happen.

Then I got this idea! What if every day I took one of my favourite books from the shelf or a short story I love, opened a page at random and selected a phrase, a paragraph, or a concept, or even some interesting thought the reading triggered, and wrote 200 words inspired by it? It could be like a little conversation with the authors I love. I immediately knew what my first book was going to be: Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary.

That night a friend posted on Facebook that she had been given a book containing 365 daily writing exercises. So she was going to start doing a short piece of writing every day and wondered if anyone would like to join her. How’s that for serendipity!

But I was so looking forward to re-connecting with Virginia Woolf and my other old friends that I stuck to my original idea.

I’m now up to Day 17.

There have been so many unexpected pleasures. The pleasure of running my finger along the shelf and rediscovering books I had forgotten. The anticipation of opening it up and finding a perfect treasure. Of getting lost in the reading and remembering why I loved it in the first place. It didn’t take me long to realise that if I chose my book first thing in the morning I could let the little morsel I discovered bubble away at the back of my mind and when I sat down to write my words flowed faster and easier.

One morning I didn’t choose a book. My husband sent a text message that gave me such a brilliant idea I used that instead. I’ve always gone with “write where the excitement is” so for Day 8 a text inspired my 200 word story. It only came out at 100 words. Writing rules are guidelines only, right? But Day 11’s story finished at 1000 words so you can see there’s lots of flexibility here. Whatever gets you writing…

So do I have 17 brilliant stories? Of course not. I wrote them in 20 minutes. But what I do have are a handful of delicate buds that with work and nurturing might blossom into something fine.

It occurred to me that I might be in my own short story writer’s version of NaNoWriMo. DaShoStoWri? (Daily Short Story Writing) Nah, doesn’t really have the same ring.

Why don’t you give it a go, too? Now! Daily! And no need to wait for November.

IMG_9769 (2)

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Lose the writing doubts


A writer friend asked me if I would be her accountability partner. She has nearly completed her “autobiographical novel,” a beautifully crafted, honest and moving story of love, belonging and tragedy. She now rings me every Friday, and for half an hour she tells me what she has achieved for that week and what she plans to do for the next.

The first week she was beset by doubts about whether what she was doing was worthwhile. She was very contrite because she hadn’t done any actual writing. But she had achieved huge breakthroughs in her thinking, made inspired connections and links in her material, and gained a greater understanding of what her latest draft meant. I couldn’t believe she was even questioning the value of this week’s work, or her ability to do something with it.

And in listening to her I suddenly realised it’s been over a year since I felt that crippling doubt about whether what I was writing was any good, if I was wasting my time, if my writing was self-indulgent, or worthwhile. After we hung up I wondered why I didn’t feel like this anymore.

One night, nearly 2 years ago, I was reading a “tips from writers” article and I came across a writer – I think it was Neil Gaimon – who only had three words of advice, “JUST DO IT.” Now I’d seen that advice many times before but I think this time I was so frustrated and annoyed with my continually crippling state of anguish that the message finally hit me.

About the same time, I heard a conversation between Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. Cameron said that writing is like wearing loose pyjamas.


Billie Dove

I’ve written about this elsewhere on the blog so I won’t go into details now. You can look it up here. What it offered was a way of writing that was casual and carefree, without the crippling expectation of producing something of value and worthiness.

So I JUST DID IT. I wrote for fun, pushed away the doubts, and had no aim to produce anything worth publishing. I just wrote. And I loved it!

And the funny thing was my stories started to finish themselves instead of lying in folders waiting for the final revision. And when I sent them off – filing them in competition and publishers’ piles instead of my drawers – some of them won awards, and others found publishers. And of course, that’s a huge motivator.

But so was learning that the most prolific writers, the ones who produce the largest quantity of good writing, are also the ones who produce the largest amount of poor writing.

Perhaps I had to go through that self-doubt stage to reach this next one. It’s not that I don’t have doubts anymore, it’s more that they don’t get in the way. I can now ignore the crippling personal doubts and concentrate on the doubts about my work. They’re usually pointers to the problems in my story, and are invaluable.

So that’s what I told my friend: wear loose pyjamas and JUST DO IT.

I hope she still rings me next week…

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Writing Colour


Menindi by Virginia Hanlon,

This week I watched my friend Virginia, an intuitive painter, throw aquamarine and cobalt blue onto a green, purple and vermilion background, and then spray on water so the gleaming paint dripped down the canvas like rain. I could drown in the depth and layers of colour in her paintings.

I started to think how much writing is like painting, except words are our medium. How what we’re trying to do is show the reader a picture: images of the world of our story and the people in it. And how much colour plays a part in brightening it.

Later that night I came across a letter Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother from Arles which painted colour with words:


… we saw a red vineyard, all red like red wine. In the distance it turned to yellow, and then a green sky with the sun, the earth after the rain violet, sparkling yellow here and there where it caught the reflection of the setting sun.

A green sky? Violet earth? It takes careful observation to see what is really there in front of us rather than what we believe should be there. This past week with the fires raging out of control to the north of us, the sea was burnt sienna.

So I’ve been looking at writers’ use of colour.

Any common object that has a stable colour can be used as a colour word. Look at the way Josephine Rowe uses colour  in her short story Glisk which won the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short story prize in 2016 to describe her character’s hair.wheat

Fynn arrives on a Saturday morning with one duffel bag, his blondeness gone to seed, hair brushing the collar of the bomber jacket he wears in spite of the January heat.

Colour that come from objects or living things are often metaphorical. This extract from Donna Meehan’s story of an aboriginal girl taken away from her family uses blue to colour this heart-breaking scene. And the image of Mum waving a white hanky is loaded with symbolism.

There was my mum in her only good blue dress standing next to my aunts and our old grandmother. Just standing there. Standing there with tears rolling down their cheeks too fast even to wipe them away. Then Mum waved a white hanky and I pressed my face against the windowpane as hard as I could, watching her. Watching until her blue dress faded into a tiny blue daub of colour.

Look at the colour metaphors in Jean Toomer’s Cane.

Sempter’s streets are vacant and still. White paint on the wealthier houses is a chill blue glitter of distant stars. Negro cabins are a purple blur. Broad Street is deserted.

Colour can accurately depict a situation, as in Lucy Treloar’s story, Natural Selection. Kate’s obsession with her son blinds her to effect this has on her daughter Rosie.large_coorong_sunset

Everywhere Kate looked was saltbush and sea beneath a pan of impossible blue sky. She lifted her face and felt the white light fall on her and let it burn away the thought of Rosie sunk in the black hole of her room.

Character and situation are revealed through the use of colour in Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room, about a visit from a friend, the colour of her skin hinting of her cancer.

I made it up nicely with a fresh fitted sheet, the pale pink one, since she had a famous feel for colour, and pink is flattering even to skin that is turned yellowish.

Nouns and verbs have a stronger impact than adjectives. For stronger writing use nouns that carry their colour – plum, ebony, salmon – and colour verbs – the fire reddens sky. Keep colour adjectives to a minimum to avoid purpling your prose.(Sorry, bad pun.)

If you come across a great example in your reading of how colour is used I’d love to hear from you.3-turner

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Man Booker Winner 2016


I heard Paul Beatty talking about his novel The Sellout on Radio National’s Books and Arts . It’s an insightful interview by Sky Kirkham.

The Australian Independent Bookseller had this to say about the novel that won this year’s Man Booker:

A biting American satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court.

Born in the ‘agrarian ghetto’ of Dickens – on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles – the narrator of The Sellout is raised by his single father, a controversial sociologist, and spends his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. Led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes, he is shocked to discover, after his father is killed in a police shoot-out, that there never was a memoir. In fact, all that’s left is the bill for a drive-through funeral.

Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: his hometown Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident – Hominy Jenkins – he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school.

What follows is a remarkable journey that challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement and the holy grail of racial equality – the black Chinese restaurant.

It’s on my reading list now. And I can’t resist Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk either.

What with Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek, it’s an exciting year for writing!

What new writing have you loved this year? Have you read any of the 2016 Man Booker Shortlist? What did you think of the choice?

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Big Journey of a Little Fiction

Who would have believed that one little 200 word story could travel so far? Other stories I’ve had published, 20 times as big, live in the dark pages on my bookshelf after their five minutes in the spotlight. ‘Koi’ keeps getting asked out as if she’s the popular girl on Tinder.

When ‘Koi’ was shortlisted for the Newcastle Writers’ Festival Microlit short story award, director Richard Holt made a movie about her. (Drum roll) ‘Koi’ won the Oscar, and her movie was screened at the iconic Civic Theatre. If you haven’t seen it yet you can watch it here.


Little Fictions  –     Sydney Stories

A month later she was invited to the Sydney Writers’ Festival session of Little Fictions’ Sydney Stories at the Knox St Bar, and read by actor, Holly Myers, to a full house.

This month ‘Koi’ came back from the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and the launch of the Award Winning Australian Writing 2016 anthology published by Melbourne Books in which she’s included. The launch was held at the grand sandstone Athenaeum Library in Collins Street, which somewhat made up for having to be read by the author instead of a professional actor.


launch @ Athenaeum Library


The Books!

This week ‘Koi’ has learned she’s performing with Spineless Wonders at Book Expo Australia 2016 in Sydney on the 8 – 9th October. She will be part of the initiative called story phone. You pick up the handset of a 70s
style push-button phonetelephone and press a number to listen to one of nine stories.

As a work of fiction ‘Koi’ may be tiny, but the opportunities and possibilities for micro-fiction are enormous and excitingly varied. As you can see from Koi’s journey.

Want to try your hand at writing short fiction? See What is Microlit? for writing tips.

And then check out the burgeoning avenues for microfiction, including creative short fiction publisher Spineless Wonders.


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