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Rebecca Solnit: How to Be a Writer

18 September, 2016

solnitRebecca Solnit recently presented 10 tips for writers. The ones I most appreciate are about shaping and protecting a sense of oneself as a writer. It’s not enough to have a vision of what you want to accomplish in terms of your writing project. You also need to find and maintain the passion and joy of writing. Otherwise, why keep at it?

Many swear they want to be a writer. But the ones more likely to succeed are clear about their writing goal. This focus keeps them on track, both in terms of what they write and how much time they engage in writing and writing-related activities, e.g. reading and research.

Solnit warns about revising prematurely or too often. It’s a common pitfall, enjoying the fun of lovingly recasting little bits of prose and ignoring the major task, developing a substantial draft.

Feedback may seem a great idea, getting a reality check about your material. But its benefit depends on when and what kinds of comments are given. Some writers don’t mind getting quite diverse views about their work. They take what seems useful and ignore the rest. But other writers can become confused and demoralised when they get conflicting opinions about their work to date. It’s worth remembering that if you incorporate everyone’s ideas,  you’ve lost your way. What you’ll end up with is a dog’s breakfast.

SOURCE:  Literary Hub, Sept 13, 2016 online issue.  10 tips for writers. Accessed 18 Sept, 2016.

The Beauty of Illustrated Books

31 August, 2016
Woodcut chains

Starting kindergarten opened a world of colours for me. New crayons, the playground’s garish orange and green merry-go-round, poster paint for art projects. And after learning to read, I discovered picture books. My home had few books and none for children. But what a treasure-trove of story and image at school and in the children’s section of the public library.  

At school, I was  immersed in the exploits of Dick and Jane, Tip and Mitten, my imagination spurred by each book’s illustrations. At the town’s library, I gorged  on ghost stories, even though the ghoulish illustrations gave me nightmares.

But by the time I was in years 5-6 at school, I had to adjust to the fact that few books for older kids included illustrations. 

Now, how great to see a return of visuals for readers. The graphic novels, but also more books  include a visual motif.

The nonfiction hit, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating—about a bedridden woman who finds pleasure watching her tiny snail guest—is more charming because of the miniature drawings of snails in the page margins.

Another non-fiction book, Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud, starts each chapter with an illustration. Below is her sketch of the Wyoming land where she intended to build her dream house. (Spoiler—things don’t go as planned.)


My latest visuals-in-lit find—on the ‘freebie’ cart in my local library—is a classic. Samuel Butler wrote  The Way of All Flesh in the latter 1880s. It was based on his unhappy childhood, and he would not allow it to be published until after his death.

The 1903 novel is a bitter portrayal of small-minded, cruel adults, mainly his parents. For readers, the story’s emotional sense is deepened due to the unsettling illustrations.

Some are realistic, such as this one depicting the young protagonist, Earnest, being bullied by his father, a minister of religion.

Woodcut butler father & son.jpg

Some are symbolic, e.g., Earnest’s enmired life:


 The illustrations are so stunning that I had to find out more about the illustrator.

Donia Nachshen, illustrator

Donia Esther Nachshen (1903-1987) was two years old when her family fled a Jewish pogrom  in Russia and eventually settled in London. She attended the Slade School of Fine Arts and by the 1920s was working as book designer. Her illustrations graced the works of famous writers—Enid Blyton, Samuel Butler, Feodor Dostoyevsky, Anatole France, Nikolai Gogol, and Oscar Wilde. 

During World War II, the British government hired her to design posters to boost morale on the home front and participate in the war effort.
Telegraph Less      Go Through Your Wardrobe - Make-Do and Mend by Donia Nachshen

Another ‘booky’ visual

At the back of Butler’s novel, I discovered another visual artefact, now extinct due to technological advances—the library borrowing card! My copy had been in a school library, and a card at the back of the book identifies student borrowers, their form (class), and due date. 

Butler library card009 copy

 I love the convenience of having online access to my local library, reserving books via my computer. But I also feel a slight sense of loss. Remember the traditional library’s card index, which often revealed serendipitous finds? And does anyone browse non-electronic bookshelves anymore?

Scrivener Writing Software–Great!

23 August, 2016

——SCRIVE SCREEN.jpgMicrosoft Word was my preferred writing program—until I started a large writing project.  Then I found it frustrating having to scroll back and forth to find material,  and  making changes by cutting and pasting.

I needed a writing program with more support and oomph. After trialing five—some cute but superficial, some much too complicated—I found one that stood out as writer-friendly, powerful, supportive, practical, and versatile: SCRIVENER.

After using it for an extended time,  I love it, and here’s why. 

1 Screen, 3 Major Functions

In Scrivener you can change your  desktop so that it has 3 parts—Binder, Editor, Inspector—and work with all three at once.

Binder is short for the traditional 3-ring binder. I like to think of it as a filing cabinet drawer, with folders of anything relevant to my project. When I find new material, I capture it by putting it in a new file/folder in Binder.

The information in Binder keeps me focused on the ‘big picture’. Every file and folder is shown as a column, enabling me to create a useful hierarchy of material. I can emphasise this hierarchy through colour-coding, e.g., orange to identify my main headings, green for details, etc.

Binder is flexible so that I don’t need to commit to a firm outline at the beginning of a project. When my ideas change, I can easily move material to a new location by clicking and dragging it to its new spot.

The folders in Binder can hold different kinds of material—not just drafts and finished chapters, but also photos and drawings, music files, electronic articles, etc. That means that all my source material stays in Scrivener.

The central section of the Scrivener desktop is similar to a word processor screen.  I can shift from the three-section screen to a single screen, where I can blank out everything except the file I’m working on. That’s useful for keeping focused while drafting.

I sometimes split the  Editor section so that I have two screens. That’s handy when I want to view two locations within one file or compare two separate files. When I’m revising a long document I no longer need to scroll back and forth to cut and paste.

This section is useful for adding notes about a file—its creation date, POV, status (e.g, draft, revised draft, whatever). I can add notes to myself, such as reminding me to recheck a fact. It’s more efficient than scribbling ideas and notes on paper.

Automatic Save 

Scrivener automatically saves my work every few seconds. Worth buying the program  just for this feature.

Supports Writing by ‘Bits’ 

After using Scrivener, I stopped categorising my material by form—e.g., article, news item, interview, chart, photograph. Now I think of it all as information bits. 

It supports how each writer prefers to write.  I started my current project by gathering facts and views—some immediately relevant, some not but still interesting—plus many questions I wanted to assess. I soon had a mosaic of facts and conjectures, one that threw up some new possibilities.  F

Another plus when writing in infobits is that it enables me to use short free periods to write.

Great technical support

Good technical support is crucial. I’ve had queries/issues twice, and Scrivener’s help desk  was great in terms of timing and assistance. (Special shout out to Jeff, Scrivener’s wunder-tech.)

Low price 

It’s hard to believe that such a comprehensive program costs less than $50 US. Some blogs and sites offer discounts. But to ensure getting the most recent program, you may want to buy it from the official Scrivener site:

Excellent training options

Scrivener is such a comprehensive program that newbies have much to learn about how to use it. I muddled around, then decided to seek help. There are plenty of Scrivener experts running courses or providing useful blogs.

I highly recommend the online training course developed and taught by the amazingly knowledgeable and helpful Gwen Hernandez. She authored the Dummies Guide to Scrivener, is generous in providing help, and charges only a modest tuition fee for a comprehensive course.

Scrivener App

I was recently asked about the new Scrivener app. I tried it out on my iPad, and it’s fine. It would be useful for notes, photos, references, etc. But much depends on the kind of writing project a writer has in mind. I prefer writing at my desk, with two monitors, a full-size keyboard, and a mouse. 


Get Creative with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

25 July, 2016



I enjoy hunting for inspirational books about creativity and specifically about writing. Recently I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s  2015 book:  Big Magic:  Creative living beyond fear. 

After her mega-seller, Eat Pray Love, Gilbert wrote Big Magic to discuss and promote creativity.What affects our desire to create? How can we develop as artists?

According to her, too many worry that they have lost out in the creativity stakes. They sabotage their dreams through endless self-criticism. For example:

  • I have no talent, or not enough.
  • I’ve left it too late, all my creativity has dried up.
  • My creative work may be rejected, and then where would I be?
  • I worry that I won’t find a market for my work.
  • I won’t be accepted because I don’t have the right experiences or the right education.
  • I fear creating something honest because it will upset others.

Gilbert suggests separating internal creativity (input) from external  success (outcome). The job of writers is be actively creative. At the same time they need to accept that they cannot control success.

Gilbert provides many inspiring examples about the magic that evolves when we get serious about pursuing a creative life.

She comments that in the past, the term genius  was not a personal attribute–She is a genius–but a force or spirit that helped the individual artist. Well, yes!  In the 1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that the writer of Walden, Henry David Thoreau, was led by his ‘muse and genius’, a dominant force that shaped his ‘opinions, conversation, studies, work, and course of life.’

For , Gilbert the ‘magic’ of creativity includes her sense that ideas actively seek a creator, such as a writer, to develop them. Odd, but she provides examples that suggest it’s crucial to develop ideas immediately when they present themselves.

To start exploring your creativity, you might start with this tough question that  Gilbert poses:

What would you do even if you knew that you might fail? What do you love doing so much that words—failure, success—essentially become irrelevant?

Well worth a read.

Writing Prompt: Memories of Food

23 June, 2016

Green tomato pie

A couple of weeks ago, at the end of autumn here in the southern hemisphere, a friend collected her unripe tomatoes and gave them to me. Since then, I’ve been making different versions of green tomato pie. (Yes, it’s a dessert, not a savoury dish.)

As I chopped the tomatoes, childhood memories surfaced. My grandmother, knowing it was my favorite pie, always made one in tomato season if I was staying with her. At the time I took it for granted, but now I treasure it for the loving gesture it was.

Years later, in Australia, I worked on the outskirts of Sydney where market gardeners had their fields. I often bought green tomatoes from an elderly Italian farmer who kept a roadside vegetable stall. I could tell that he was puzzled when I searched through his tomatoes for the greenest ones. But he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian.

As a writing prompt, the phrase remembering a food may elicit rich ideas.

  • Do  you have a pleasant memory about a particular food? Or a bad or scary memory?  Is there food that leads to nostalgia?
  • What about a hilarious food episode, real or imagined?
  • A food ritual, from the past or present.
  • A particular food, related to a specific place, such as a restaurant or a neighborhood.

Once you select a food to write about, consider if you want to write as if you’re in the past, or in the present reflecting on the past. Or try fiction, perhaps by exaggerating the real-life food experience you had.

One of the writing-about-food pieces I love is Garrison Keillor’s recitation on his radio program, about sweet corn. He talked so lovingly about this humble food that  I wanted to go out immediately and buy a few ears .

I was amused to find his additional comment about sweet corn:

Sweet corn is our family’s weakness. We were prepared to resist atheistic Communism, immoral Hollywood, hard liquor, gambling, dancing, smoking, fornication, but if Satan had come around with sweet corn, we at least would have listened to what he had to sell.

Fiction, Voice & Vision Make Great Nonfiction

27 May, 2016


Voice & VisionStephen J. Pyne’s book  about writing nonfiction, starts with the question: Why do we write?

Many unpublished writers dream of garnering fame and fortune. Pyne doesn’t think these aims provide a practical impetus for writing. He suggests  the real trigger for writing  is the desire to connect with readers, by entertaining them, helping them understand a topic, or providing some type of fulfillment.

If you have a great topic, that’s good—but it’s not enough. Many people have an idea that could be developed into a book-length manuscript. But few end up with a finished manuscript. Why?

According to Pyne, some simply don’t have time to write. I’d add that some don’t make the time to write. Others lack the motivation, skills, or knowledge to develop their ideas in terms of creating a major writing project.

Even writers who succeed in finishing a manuscript may hit a brick wall when it comes to publication. One can self-publish. But if the idea is to get an agent or publisher, it’s worth knowing that manuscripts flood in to these gatekeepers, increasing ‘arithmetically’, but they ‘die exponentially’. In other words, only a small percentage of writers get their work turned into a book, by a publishing house.

Putting all that aside, how can nonfiction writers improve their chances by improving their writing?

Draw on fiction elements

Utilising fiction elements when writing nonfiction is increasingly popular. A few years ago, the term creative nonfiction was relatively unknown, but it is now a popular category.

Whatever your topic and take, can you include the following fictional elements in your material?

  • A strong plot
  • A narrative arc
  • Memorable characters
  • Vividly described settings and scenes
  • Action and narrative
  • An effective tone and rhythm

Identify voice 

Voice is how an author relates to readers and tries to keep them reading. An author’s voice is made up of three major writing elements.

  • Word choice
    Formal or informal?  What suits your expected readers?
  • Sentence and paragraph structure
    Are your sentences and paragraphs usually long, or short? Informal, or formal? Simple, or complex? Does this structure suit your readers and your topic?
  • Tone
    What is your attitude towards your subject? Towards your expected readers?

    When I read Bill Bryson’s  A Walk in the Woods, I so much enjoyed how he told his tale of hiking the Appalachian Trail that I went on to read his other books. But I tend give up on a nonfiction book if the author writes more than a general reader needs to know, seems egotistical, or goes off on confusing tangents.

Identify your vision

What Pyne calls vision is I call themeIt’s the writer’s big idea, the organising principle that helps writers shape their topic. Once you know your theme, you’ll find it easier to make choices, in terms of material that supports versus material that does not.

Pyne likens vision to a sheepdog that ‘keeps your flock together’ and reminds you ‘where to go next, how long to stay, what to keep, what to discard’.

How do you choose your vision? He suggests focusing on topic and purpose.
Topic:  What do you want to do? What is your book going to be about?
Purpose:  Why?

If you cannot get a clear sense of your topic and purpose, the what and the why, it may help if you consider where your finished book would be placed. 

  • Where would readers find your book, in relevant bookshops, libraries, and websites?
  • What other books would be on the shelf with your book? How do they differ from your book? How are they similar?
  • If someone asks what genre or category your book fits, how would you answer?

Later, when drafting, keep returning  to these questions. As you read and research more, you may become more specific in terms of your topic and purpose.

Interestingly, Pyne believes that if writers keep their focus on voice and vision, they won’t suffer the dreaded writer’s block. How good is that!


Pyne, Stephen J. (2009). Voice & Vision: A guide to writing history and other serious nonfiction. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard UP.

Map First, THEN Draft

15 May, 2016

Mapping—sometimes called clustering, ballooning, or bubbling—encourages writers to play with ideas before creating their first draft.

The aim of mapping is to be loose—exploring ideas and making connections, without restriction. Mapping helps writers generate more ideas at the start. Later, they can sort through the results to work out which are worth developing.

The main benefit of mind-mapping is that the exercise often takes a writer beyond obvious ideas and into new creative territory. It’s fun, and satisfying, to follow where your mind takes you.

Here is a visual of what a mapping exercise may look like when finished.  This example is from Scapple, a good, inexpensive, online mapping program. I use it, but many writers are happy to map using a sheet of paper and a pen.

Start mapping

If you have never tried mapping to develop material–short story, essay, speech, whatever—why not have a go?

When mapping, let your mind free associate. Imagine you decide to  start with the term crazy love.  Jot it down in the middle of your paper, and circle it.

Now, what does the term bring to mind? Capture the first idea that pops into your head:  Write it down, circle it, and draw a line to link  it to crazy love. 

Keep going, adding words and circles. Some circles will have their own offshoots as you think of additional ideas.

At the end of the exercise, your sheet of paper will be filled with a network of circles and lines, words and phrases.

Sarah wants to write  a poem about home. She writes the wor HOME in the centre of her page, and draws a circle around it.  Then she free associates, adding whatever words and phrases come to mind. She does not censor anything, no matter how silly, but lets her imagination run.

When she thinks she has done enough, she puts her mind-map of HOME aside. Later,  when she returns to her map, she not only has lots of material, but she may now have a better sense of which items on her page could work for her. The exercise has taken her beyond her first ideas.

Starting now

If you haven’t used mapping as a playful pre-drafting activity, have a go. Imagine writing a short story, poem, essay etc. on one of these topics:

  • Early memory
  • Scar
  • Great
  • When I was young
  • Not again
  • Conflict
  • If only
  • I need

Place your word or phrase in the centre of your page. Then start adding words and phrases as they come to mind. Work quickly. Don’t censor or evaluate.

As you work, add connecting lines, to show relationships. The aim is to work quickly, creating a web of words and phrases. You may opt to leave some terms on their own. With other terms, you may come up with more connections. For these, use linking lines to new circles.

When  you have reached a finishing point, put the results aside for at least a few hours, and don’t think about the exercise.

When you return to your map, shift into editor mode. Assess what you want to keep. Perhaps you’ll get a sense of where you want to go with the material. Highlighter pens can be useful here. Use one colour to identify possible main points and another colour for secondary points. Or one colour for items you definitely want to include,  and another colour for items you might add. Or start by crossing out the items you don’t want to include.

Once you’ve assessed your mapping results, You can refer to it when developing an outline, if that’s how you start writing. Or perhaps you will start drafting, given that you now have a better sense of your topic and what you wish to include.


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