Day 20: Writing True Stories

The complete guide to writing autobiography, memoir, personal essay, biography, travel and creative nonfiction

By Patti Miller

Great cover design!

This book was recommended to me more than once by people who have attended Patti Miller’s highly rated memoir-writing workshops. I’ll admit to not having read it cover to cover yet. I want to approach it like a course in creative nonfiction writing and work through it systematically.

Writing True Stories grew out of writing workshops the author ran at Varuna, the Writer’s House in Katoomba. This shows in its practical approach, as it is written as a series of workshops, covering sources, voice, structure, narrative and style and editing.

Part Two consists of masterclasses that extend the skills in the first part, and deals with genre: memoir, creative nonfiction, essay and more. The last (brief) chapter is about publishing. Miller writes about commercial publication and self-publishing and how to present your work to agents and publishers. Although there’s a lot more that could be said about publishing, that’s best left to a another book.

Writing True Stories is rounded out by a reading list and a page of useful contacts. I can’t wait to get started on honing my skills before I get my project, now at the research stage, underway.

Day 13: Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?

A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon

By Steven Poole

We hate it, we laugh about it, and then sometimes we hear it come from our own mouths. The horrible jargon that was once confined to office life slowly ekes its way into everyday language. So ‘leverage’ started in high finance, and now it’s everywhere. The first time I heard somebody say they’d ‘reached out’ to a colleague, I was alarmed; now I think I might have said it in a meeting, once. I’ve created a list of alternatives for some of the worst words.

I bought this book because I do find office jargon unbearable. I also love a good laugh, and this provides an A to Z of amusing entries. Here’s one of my favourites.

Going forward helpfully implies a kind of thrustingly strategic process, and moving forward perhaps even more so – even though none is likely to be made as long as the work-day is made up of funereal meetings where people say things like ‘going forward’.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower, p. 91

The alternatives to ‘going forward’, ‘in future’ or ‘from now on’, don’t have the implication that the slate is being wiped clean. Using them might sound rather like owning up to a mistake. ‘We won’t charge dead customers in future’ has a different ring to it.

If you write in your job, get your hands on this book. Every time you want to use a tired office cliche, such as bandwidth, leverage or deliverables. You’ll find an alternative. Or if you work in an office and want to know what a brown-bag session is, or what they really meant by saying they would ‘open the kimono’, look it up.

Then circle back to me with your favourites.

Day 12: The Little Red Writing Book

By Mark Tredennick

There are many books, courses and workshops that teach writing. I’ve found many of them inspiring, motivating and full of great tips. For my money, this book is the best.

I’d advise anybody who wants to write better to sign up for a face-to-face course in the first instance. In Sydney, Writing NSW and the Australian Writers’ Centre both offer excellent courses on a range of genres, both creative and for business purposes. Varuna in the Blue Mountains has wonderful literary programs. In any face-to-face course, you’ll benefit from the interaction with other writers as well as from the course content.

The Little Red Writing Book is a great add-on to any writing course. And if you can’t do a course in person, it’s an extremely good substitute. It’s approach is that good sentences are the basis of all good writing. Any writing, from business reports to scripts for your podcast, starts with sentence construction. Clarity is vital, style is everything.

Tredinnick writes both clearly and poetically, so working through The Little Red Writing Book is a joy. It has plenty of writing exercises (do them!) and examples, and processes to help you get your writing project out of your head and into shareable form.

There are six chapters. Try setting yourself the goal of working through one chapter a month. By September you will be a much better writer, guaranteed.

The Little Red Writing Book has a sibling: The Little Green Grammar Book. Catch up on everything they should have taught you in school.

Day 7: The Devil’s Dictionary

By Ambrose Bierce



Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

I have a collection of books with ridiculous titles (Microwave Cooking for One being the saddest) and had to add this when I found it at a garage sale. This edition is from 1958, but he original was published in 1911. It’s obvious that an editor needs a dictionary or seven, but I didn’t know I needed Lucifer’s version.

The Devil’s Dictionary grew ever more fascinating once I got past the title. Ambrose Bierce was a writer, journalist and literary critic who set off for Mexico in 1931, aged 71, and was never seen again. Rumour has it he joined up with rebel troops in the Mexican Civil War. He influenced Ernest Hemingway and worked with Randolph Hearst. Kurt Vonnegut called his short story, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge‘, ‘the greatest American short story’.

The satire is biting and clever. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but the kind of humour that makes you snort inwardly at its brilliance and then wish you’d thought of that. We need a Devil’s Dictionary for these times. Or anything, in fact, to make us laugh. It seems that literature is overwhelmingly about trauma and misery at the moment. Bring on a good satirical novel or memoir!

If you know of one, please pass it on in the comments section.

Day 6: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published

How to write it, sell it and market it…successfully!

By Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry



This expert guide to getting your book out there is packed with helpful information for new writers, would-be writers and those who have already published. The authors are simultaneously editors, literary agents and published writers. The first edition was published in 2005. This one, updated in 2015, takes the huge shifts that happened in the industry in those 10 years into account and includes ebooks and how to deal with social media. Although it’s written for the American market, most of it applies to publishing in Australia too.

The guide pinpoints what I aim to do for my writer clients to help them to get their work into shape to submit to publishers or for self-publishing. Read about the levels of edit most professional editors offer here.

“Outside editors, a.k.a. book doctors, diagnose, treat and help you fix your book.”

One of the book’s strengths – and there are many – is that it has sound advice no matter what you want to publish, from cookbook to potboiler, business manual to poetry volume. It’s not a writing manual (I’ll deal with those next week), but a practical (and pragmatic) how-to.

Publishing success comes from four basic principles:

  1. Research. Not just your subject matter, but what else is out there and who might publish your book. Do this and … your odds of getting published will go from nearly nil to extremely decent
  2. Network. Use your people skills to find the right publisher, create buzz, reach your readers and sell books. I believe this has become critical for successful publishing. The days of the cloistered author are well and truly over.
  3. Write. While this seems obvious, the authors say it’s the one thing published writers told them over and over. Get your ideas down on paper and keep at it.
  4. Persevere. You will have to deal with rejection. Probably a lot of rejection. As the authors say, ‘please, don’t quit five minutes before the miracle’.

Day 3: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

by Mary Norris


I bought this one because a copy editor wrote a 200+ page book and it made the New York Times bestseller list. And because through it I learned that there is an Apostrophe Protection Society with a really ugly website and a chairman.

Mary Norris is a copy editor with The New Yorker, and has worked there since 1978. She turns her vast, enviable experience into a funny and fascinating encounter with language. In her investigation of why Moby-Dick is hyphenated, she describes ‘…that immortal hyphen, stuck like a harpoon in Melville’s famous title…’. She has a whole chapter devoted to profanity, called F*ck This Sh*t. Sometimes you need to know how to handle that stuff.

I love her approach to language: precise, but not pedantic. I learnt so much about the origins or words, the uses of various arcane punctuation marks, and what a dream job working at The New Yorker is, and had a whole lot of fun doing it.

PS: Her new book, Greek to Me  will be published in April.

Book-a-day February

Every day in February I will write about one book. I will write about why I  bought it, and why I’m not going to get rid of it any time soon.

Day 1: The Art of Reading
by Damon Young

I first came across this book while editing a client’s work, and revisited it recently when I proofread the final manuscript. Christopher Smith has written an amazing book about the power of reading, called The Reading Ripple Effect. It’s in the process of being submitted to publishers, so watch this space!

Christopher runs Shared Reading NSW, which runs reading groups that are ‘a relaxed space for people to read a short story, poem or part of a book aloud, reflect and then discuss it’.

In The Art of Reading, Philosopher Damon Young argues that excellent reading is not valued as much as fine writing and, with a lot of reference to his own reading, makes the case for the reader’s power ‘to turn shapes on a page into a lifelong adventure.’

It’s published by Melbourne University Press, recently in the news because its chief executive, Louise Adler, and five board members, including former NSW Premier Bob Carr and former human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs, resigned because the university announced it was no longer going to publish books for a general readership.

February will be my book-a-day month

 

I buy a lot of books – definitely more than I read.  I know that  Marie Kondo  has said we  should only keep 30 books (or did she?),  but for me that is clearly impossible.  I looked at the piles on top of piles, the stacks on top of bookshelves, and had the idea that every day in February I will post about one book. I will write about why I  bought it, and why I’m not going to get rid of it any time soon.

I’m not going to include novels or other forms of reading that are’ just for fun’. I’ll only be  including books that I have bought with a professional writing or editing  goal in mind.  I might also add in a couple from the library because I love borrowing from libraries too.

8 things an award-winning author can teach you about being a writer

Mark Brandi is the author of the award-winning novel Wimmera, described by one reviewer as ‘a dark and disturbing story from a substantial new talent’. It’s both a crime thriller and a coming of age story, set in rural Victoria. Recently he discussed what it’s like to be an author at a wonderfully relaxed session at Varuna the Writer’s House in the Blue Mountains.

Picture of cover of Wimmera by Mark Brandi

Wimmera by Mark Brandi

1. It’s true: write what you know.

This maxim holds if you want your work to be the best it can be. Wimmera’s closely observed reflection of small-town life feels all the more real because the author grew up in rural Victoria. He captures both how free this life is for kids, who can go yabbying and stay out until dark; and how claustrophobic it is for adults when the world closes in on them. He also draws on his experience in the criminal justice system as an advisor to the police minister, and the experience of his three brothers, all of whom work in the police and justice system. But remember, you don’t have to have experienced every single thing you write about either.

2. Find a way – and it might be unconventional.

Mark gave up a full-time job as a policy advisor, enrolled in a writing course and – wait for it – WON $50,000 ON MILLIONAIRE HOTSEAT!* And by guessing the final answer! He could have ignored the entry form his brother sent him, but instead, without telling anybody, he applied for this most unlikely source of literary funding for his new life as an author. He doesn’t suggest you give up your day job, but the point is to make it happen if you’re serious about being an author. Find an hour a day or a couple of hours at the weekend. Join that writer’s group. Apply for those residencies that will give you some time out to focus on your writing.

3. Use the support and inspiration that’s out there.

Attend courses and writer’s festivals. Take a look at everything Varuna has to offer, from one-off events to fellowships. Two residential fellowships at Varuna helped Mark to develop the manuscript for Wimmera. Join Writing NSW. See what the Australian Writers Centre has on offer.

4. You can start with a short story.

Mark’s book began as a short story called To Skin a Rabbit (click to listen to the RN audio version).  Two of the main characters in the novel continued to haunt him after he had written the short story. He pursued them, and Wimmera is the result. Often aspiring writers are told to focus on either novels or short stories as their demands are so different. Break the rule. If finishing a short story will inspire you to get that novel out, go for it!

5. Enter competitions and awards.

If nothing else, it will give you the discipline to work to deadlines and get your writing finished. You may even win! Plus, you will attract interest from publishers if you are shortlisted. When Mark won the 2016 Debut Dagger, publishers contacted him. But…

6. Get used to rejection.

Don’t take it personally. Use any feedback you get to learn and to improve your writing. Mark submitted his book to different publishers and programs and got plenty of what he described as ‘nice rejections’. Some of them contained useful feedback, which he took into account as he reworked Wimmera. Instead of regarding rejection letters as negative, consider what they have to say and try to act on the feedback. Publishers may say no for a range of reasons, and many of them have nothing to do with the quality of your work. Keep going.

7. Enjoy the editing process.

I know, it can feel a bit like the teacher got out her red pen and pointed out all your errors, but editors bring perspective and loads of experience to your work as well as fixing your grammar and punctuation. Mark described how an editor researched and corrected details in a scene in which he described a cricket match on TV in the background to a scene in Wimmera. You can be sure one reader will be an expert in almost anything you write about and errors undermine the quality and credibility of an author’s writing. I recently read a book which had the name of one of my uni mates spelled incorrectly. It’s not hard to check that. My reaction was to wonder what else in the book was inaccurate. A good editor will fact check everything as well as look at the broad scope of your work, switching between a sweeping overview and a microscopic focus on detail

8. Revel in being an outsider and an introvert, if that’s what you are.

Mark was from the only Italian family in town. School was tough and he was bullied and excluded. But, as he said it, the excluded tend to be sharp and thoughtful observers. Use what you see and hear around you every day to inform your characters and your stories. Mark does this so well, conveying how children cannot and do not understand adult motivations, how the adult world is inscrutable to his characters in boyhood, and using this point of view to drive the narrative in Wimmera.

Varuna The Writers' House in Katoomba

Varuna Writers’ House

I learned so much from Mark Brandi’s generous sharing of his experience at Varuna’s Open House Day. There were other sessions, including one that explained Varuna’s programs and included a speaker from the Australia Council who fund writers and writers’ organisations. Above all, it inspired me to stop dreaming get back to my desk and write. I hope these 8 tips help you do the same.

*Writer Melissa Lukashenko also won big on Millionaire Hotseat. Read about it here.