Tuesday, February 14, 2017


                          NEWSWRITE (March 2017), the newsletter of the New South Wales Writers' Centre

One: It’s the middle of winter, and snowflakes are falling like feathers from the sky. A queen is sitting by her window; she’s sewing.

Two: Once in the middle of winter, when snowflakes were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat by her window and sewed. 

The tone of first one resembles directions for a play or a movie, or a summary of a story; the tone of the second resembles the opening of a traditional tale. They are both valid ways of beginning to tell a story or an anecdote.  However, unless the Jack the Writer is skilled and practised, it will be more difficult for him to manipulate order and duration with clarity and elegance if he sticks to the present tense. To tell you the truth, the second one really should begin with the phrase: ‘Once upon a time.’ This phrase is of course a traditional English introduction to a fairytale, an introduction that places the narrative, in a strangely specific (once) yet airily vague historical time. And the tenses of the verbs used in language are indicators not only of the era in which events took place, but also of the minutes, days, years between one action and another.
Time is one of the key subjects of narrative. This happened and then that happened, and then the other – a sequence of events across time, until the end of the story or the end of time.  Tempus fugit – for along with sex, the other key subject matter of fiction is death, the marker of earthly finality.

When you write in an eternal present, you have the luxury of denying the inevitability of death, and this can be a comfort to you as the writer and also to your reader. In 1939 Joyce Cary published Mister Johnson, a novel written in the present tense. The novel was seen as experimental, and Cary explained he wanted readers to be ‘carried unreflecting on the stream of events’ as the character ‘swims gaily on the surface of life.’ He wanted the reader to ‘swim, as all of us swim, with more or less courage and skill, for our lives.’
As I write this it is 2016 – and by the time you read it, it will be 2017 – and nowadays a novel written in the present tense is not only unremarkable for its tense, but even fashionable. Perhaps this fashion, which as far as I can tell began to gather momentum in Australia in the 1980s, is fading out, but much fiction and non-fiction, is still being written in the present tense.  With more or less skill.

One: It rains so heavily throughout the spring, that by early summer the leaves on the ivy are the size of dinner plates.
Two: It rained so heavily throughout the spring, that now in early summer the leaves on the ivy are the size of dinner plates.

There are moves you can’t make without the use of a past tense, but maybe you don’t want to make them. Because the present tense gives you an eternal ‘now’, you can’t shift from ‘then’ to ‘now’. As I say, perhaps you don’t wish to shift, although in the first one, if you think about it for a minute, you don’t really know when ‘now’ would be. Not that ‘now’ is invoked. ‘Now’ is inserted in the second one, affording this one an opportunity to draw attention to the rhythm of the time shift, and also allowing a lilt in the music of the prose. It is all a matter of you as the writer taking charge of the effects you want. My examples so far have placed a certain reliance on mention of the seasons, for the seasons are useful pinpointers of time. By putting a season of the year in the narrative, I draw attention to the passage of time, however slightly.

In Book One of My Struggle Karl Ove Kknausgaard sometimes writes in what I call the Ecstatic and Eternal Present: ‘I stare at the surface of the sea without listening to what the reporter says, and suddenly the outline of a face emerges’. This is just one example of a skilled and practised author whose work can glow with the light of recollected truth, defying time, while deep within the fabric of the work, facing the reality of death. David Malouf does this brilliantly in 12 Edmondstone Street, as does Hal Porter in The Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony. In my book Writing the Story of Your Life you will find discussion of ten English tenses, and a detailed analysis of seven different kinds of present tense. 

As you read and as you write, try always to be alert to the ways you and other writers are using tenses, and why.

Monday, February 6, 2017



One    The skeleton in the closet speaks directly to the reader, commenting on the behaviour of the characters, and also telling the reader where to look, what to bother about. What effect does this narrative device have on the telling of the story?

Two    Margaret’s life story is mostly revealed in her journal. Does this intimate view of Margaret help you to understand her, even to empathise with her?

Three   Lillian is a bit different from the other characters in many ways. She is the central location of goodness in a messy, wicked world. In what ways is she different?

Four   The Second World War fractured the twentieth century. How did it affect Margaret? How did it reach into the lives of the O’Days of Toorak?

Five     Doria is ‘the stranger who rides into town’. What effect did she have on the lives of the other characters?

Six    Margaret thinks the past should remain in the past. Most of the other characters seem to want to explore and expose the past. Who is right?

Seven    The subject matter of the novel is dramatic and serious, yet much of the style of the writing is comic. How do you think these two elements work together? Does the comedy make the drama more memorable?

Eight    The chapters are headed by a short quotation form Margaret’s late husband Edmund. What effect do these sayings have on your reading of the novel?

Nine    The novel ends in such a way that the reader is invited to complete the picture. Did you enjoy this freedom for the reader’s imagination?

Ten    What does the skeleton want the reader to notice in the advertisement on page six?

Eleven    Without the presence of Doria, would the secret have been buried forever?

Twelve     The skeleton says to take no notice of such things as the butterflies. What game is the skeleton playing?

Saturday, January 28, 2017


I was writing some memories of Paris long ago. I found this picture of myself in the rue de Sevres, wearing a dark green velvet coat I had just bought, and looking quite pleased with myself. It seems so funny and old-fashioned to be also wearing gloves. Gosh.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Diary of Events 2017


       Saturday 4
"The Mind's Eye" Soiree, Christ Church Castlemaine, 7pm
       Wednesday 8
Author Talk, Toorak-South Yarra Library, 6.30
       Saturday 11
Writing Workshop, Toorak-South Yarra Library, 1pm
      Thursday 16
Interviewing Jacinta Halloran (The Science of Appearances) Kyneton Library, 7pm
      Thursday 23 to Sunday 26 
Perth Writers' Festival

St Kilda Library, Conversation with Jacinta Halloran, mediator Donna Ward

Saturday 8 to Sunday 9
Newcastle Writers' Festival

Saturday 27 to Sunday 28
Sydney Writers' Festival

Monday, January 23, 2017


I have no experience of writer’s block. However I have studied the phenomenon over the years in some of my students – although it seems to me it is not as common as people seem to imagine. I am inclined to believe that it is related to some kind of fear – fear of failure, fear of success, fear of the truth – for example. Fear of writer’s block, maybe.

One good exercise it to stop trying to write on, and to write instead a quick list of things that frighten you – fire, flood, spiders, heights etc. And maybe write a few paragraphs under the heading ‘Fear’. In my book
Dear Writer Revisited
there is a chapter on facing the fear and overcoming writer’s block. And another of my books on writing  
Writing the Story of Your Life
grew out of a project I gave myself to help a friend to overcome her inability to recall events in her early life. She had been asked by her therapist to write down these things, and she had no idea what to do – a rather huge writer’s block, that one. The whole book is in fact a series of twenty-eight exercises in how to deal with writer’s block (although I don’t think I used the term in that book.)

The thing is really that you need to separate yourself from the thing you are writing, and concentrate on the business of the fear, meet the fear itself. Some people try to push forward by just keeping writing, but I have observed that this does not seem to work. So I suppose you treat the condition (fear) by taking it separately seriously, and return to the writing task in due course. I have seen this treatment, this process work for writers.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Every published piece of work has its own readership, its own audience. The bedtime story you make up for a three year old is different (I trust) from the poem you write to communicate your grief at the death of a friend. This is of course a dramatic difference, but I choose it to try to show you that the destination, the readership, the audience to which your work is directed, really really matters. And between the work and the audience sit the publishers – and the publishers know what they think the audience will want, because usually the publishers are proposing to sell the work to the audience. 

You have heard the old advice ‘know your enemy’ – that’s a good one – but it’s also a good idea to know your audience, to befriend your audience, and the gatekeepers between you and your audience are publishers – so in a sense you need to ‘know your publishers.’

What you as the producer of the work need to know is – what kind of things do publishers A, B and C like to sell to their audiences? 
How do you discover this? It is not a secret. The publishers make it clear every time they publish something. 

You have to study, to READ what publishers put out. 
You want to have work in Fiddlededee Journal? Then READ a few copies of FJ. You want to have your novel published by MishMash? Then you simply HAVE to read some books by MM. I mean READ them. Take the time to read them.

I know all this sounds so obvious – and you are probably thinking – yes yes yes – tell us something we don’t know – BUT – in my experience (vast)**  I have observed that although writers KNOW what I am saying is true, many, many writers ignore the whole idea, and just go ahead and bombard journals and publishers with their writing which is DOOMED to be rejected because it is going to the WRONG PLACE. 

Look, I know what I have just said is not the be all and the end all (funny expression) to getting work published, but it is just about the first rule.

Other things that will get in your way are publishers who ignore every approach you make to them. You could try barring their way to the exit at a writers’ festival (publishers are notorious for not answering emails – this is not necessarily personal – maybe they just don’t like email). You will really have to work out your own strategies for getting their attention – but I can tell you the first rule of having work published really IS – know your desired audience, and realise that the publishers are the LINK between Beautiful You and your Beautiful Readers.

So that was One Thought – but a good one.
**Sometimes I think that writers might have a secret desire to get work rejected. They will come to me in woe and say their bedtime story has been rejected by Fiddlededee Journal.
Me (astonished): But why would a journal for young violinists consider publishing the story about a family of mice living in a drawer full of embroidered tablecloths?
Writer (also astonished): Oh, I didn’t realise Fiddlededee was for violinists.
Me (weeping): Oh, right, yes, right, I see.