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On Medium: Writers’ Group, bathroom-cabinet rummaging and basic life support.

‘Writing was something that I used to do alone, to produce work that I generally filed away and did not share. My words are starting to make it out into the open.’

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I just published a piece about the impact of my Writers’ Group on my process. Click the image above or here for the link.

On Medium: ‘Writing what you know, courage, and the many-faced god.’

‘I’ve come to understand facts alone cannot construct reality, there is legitimacy in the way things are experienced and the most effective stories capture that emotional fidelity.’

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I have a new profile over on Medium and this piece about taking the plunge into creative non-fiction. Click the image or here for the link.

New publication: The silver thaw

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I have a new YA fantasy/creative non-fiction piece entitled ‘The silver thaw’ out now with Intersection Stories*. A big thank you to Eric Benedict for his beautiful illustrations.

The brief was to write a story that relates to personal: loss, recovery, challenge, growth, trauma, healing, shame and/or change. Then the piece was to be reimagined in a fictionalised world.

*Please be aware that the publication and website deals with sensitive issues including assault, medical emergencies, suicide, overdose and death.

Review: Between Us by Clare Atkins

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Ana first sees Jono in a Darwin high-school Science class, where he sits at the back of the class and slouches. When they make eye contact there is an instant connection, and while their first interactions are halting, their friendship and affection grow with each conversation. This contemporary Young Adult novel, however, is not an ordinary girl-meets-boy story. At the end of each school day Ana, an Iranian asylum seeker, is taken with others on a bus back to Wickham Point detention centre where she is being held with her younger brother and pregnant mother.

 

‘He’s staring at our bus in something like confusion. Or shock. Or distaste.

His mouth is half open, like he’s saying ‘Oh…you’re one of them.’

 

While Jono lives in freedom, his life is not entirely easy. His family has also been divided; he lives with his single father Kenny who works as a security guard at the detention centre. Jono is recovering from an episode of depression. There is a tension between Jono and Kenny, a mutual distrust derived from a combination of the recent acrimonious divorce, financial strain and differences in generational outlook.

Like Ana, Jono is also caught between cultures: his estranged mother is white, while his father was born in Vietnam and sponsored to settle in Australia by his sister, who came on a boat in 1977. The spoken history of Jono’s aunt arriving, and the local reception, provide a provocative foil to more recent asylum seekers:

 

‘And they come close, very close and very fast to our boat. And one of them hold up his beer and say, ‘G’day, mate! Welcome to Australia.’’

 

The novel is told at gripping pace from the three rotating view-points of Ana, Jono and Kenny. Each of the teenagers speaks partly in poetic verse, to great effect. There is an instant spark between Ana and Jono. From there, the relationship develops in short bursts of stolen time: on lunch breaks where they share earphones to listen to Australian hip-hop, which Ana describes as ‘beautiful ugly’, through hand-written notes, and online. Dramatic tension builds as we realise Ana and her family may be moved from Darwin after her mother gives birth.

Meanwhile, Kenny becomes compromised between his responsibilities at work and wanting to simultaneously support and protect his son. Within him develops a growing friction between prejudice and humanity.

Adolescence is rarely a smooth transition from childhood to young adulthood; it’s a time of intense emotions, of love and lust, of wanting to belong. Those are years when many want to break free; years of having motivations without means. Ana’s coming of age is compounded by considerable trauma, the fracture of her family, and her environment where powerlessness and perpetual uncertainty takes its toll.

Atkins clearly has done considerable groundwork, particularly in the detailed descriptions of Wickham Point and the detainees which all convey a strong sense of authenticity. Ana and Jono’s plight is sensitively conveyed as the story treads the borderlines between hope and hopelessness.

Between Us is Atkins’ second YA novel. Her award-wining debut Nona and me explores a friendship between an Indigenous and non-Indigenous teenage girl growing up in Yirrkala, Arnhem Land. In both books Atkins approaches complex contemporary social issues and examines them in a manner that is both accessible and unflinching. Her characters and settings effectively create microcosms.  Between Us will appeal both to socially engaged young adults, and older readers invested in younger generations and the situations and conflicts bequeathed to them.

Clare Atkins Between Us Black Inc. 2018 PB 268pp $19.99

Meet you at the intersection.

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‘Every doorway, every intersection has a story.’

~Katherine Dunn

I had some exciting news last week, I found out my work was accepted for a Young Adult anthology.

Here was the brief:

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I was so taken with the prompt that after I’d read it my mind refused to let it go. So I entered despite the fact that I’ve never written YA before, and only attempted memoir once.

The next step is my work will undergo an editing process and then be forwarded to 2-D artists for illustration. I can’t wait to see what they create.

The project will culminate in the first publication of a new venture called Intersection StoriesThe stated aim of the anthology is to  ‘create an adventurous roadmap of our battles and bruises.’

I’m so looking forward to watching this publication evolve and I will keep you posted on its progress.

 

Artwork: Ursula Vernon

An Oxford comma.

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I have some exciting news to share in this new year: I’m moving to Oxford, United Kingdom in two and a half weeks! The germination of this began several years ago when my husband and I were in the midst of our medical training. When we finish we would say, looking at each other with crazed eyes over study notes, let’s move overseas and travel. The thought of it was probably a kind of psychological carrot, but after a few years, seven exams and two children later, we have both managed to secure jobs and so, off we go.

As many of you know I am an Immunologist by day. I will be working as a medical researcher in the field of Cancer Immunology at Oxford University. For my night job, the one fuelled by passion not pounds, I will of course continue to write. I have already found two writers’ groups: The Oxford Writing Circle and the Oxford Writer’s House and am looking forward to joining in the local literary community.

I recently received comments back from my editor regarding my first novel manuscript and so the plan, once I am settled, is to begin my next draft. As my novel is set along the East coast of New South Wales, sitting and editing in the Oxford Winter, when the average temperature is 4°C should provide the sense of perspective I have been looking for!

I’m so looking forward to the experience of living somewhere new, of getting lost in unfamiliar streets and discovering new sights and sounds. Of meeting new people, and having travel adventures on the weekend and during holidays. Who knows, some of that inspiration may make its way into my next work.

I recently read and enjoyed Sarah Winman’s Tin Man, a beautifully told story of loss, love and friendship. If you have any other recommended books set in Oxford please let me know below. Also, if you have any pointers for trips in or around the UK, and/or survival hacks for long-haul travel with children, I would love to hear them.

Until then I’ll be doing mundane, necessary things for our intercontinental move: packing boxes, throwing away stuff I didn’t know I had, and practicing my use of the Oxford comma.

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2017: My year of writing dangerously.

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I remember this time last year. I was on maternity leave with my two-month old who was gradually starting to settle. During those early weeks while she slept I managed to finish the initial draft of my first novel that I had been working on for some time. I wondered Now what? Where do I go from here? As a new mother, and a doctor before that, the literary world seemed an exotic realm, behind glass; an aquarium. I carefully watched other writers: authors, journalists, bloggers. I wanted to be in there with them, but couldn’t find the entrance.

Eventually after late-night web-surfing I found my answer: a course at the NSW Writers Centre called “From First draft to polished manuscript.” This. I thought, and signed up.

That series was my way in to the writing world, a rabbit-hole I fell further into in the following months. I learned valuable lessons about structure and characterisation. I workshopped my writing with others for the first time. It was here I met the three other members of my writers group; an eclectic group of talented, witty and kind people who have made me a better writer.

I knew the mantra about the only way to become a writer: write. This is true, but I also needed direction about what to do after: how to redraft, who to send it to, when and how to submit for publications, to editors, in competitions. How to know when a piece is finished. How not to give up.

Some of the highlights for me this year have been having a poem and memoir piece published in the Hunter Writers Centre Grieve Anthology, and seeing my name up in lights as part of the Queensland Writers Centre #8WordStory. I reworked my manuscript twice and then sent it to my excellent editor Kate Goldsworthy, who completed a thorough and thoughtful review and has provided me with a blue-print for how to finish the work. I still have four pieces submitted for publications am awaiting my fate regarding these. I started a dedicated creative Instagram account over at @sarahsassonwrites.

In September, I read my first post for this blog site more than ten times, trying to summon the courage to post it online. It was like waiting to dive into water from a great height. What will happen? My hand shook as I published the page. It was exhilarating and terrifying sending out thoughts as words, into the world. The result? People read it, and responded, and I spent the next couple of days having interesting online conversations. Then activity died down and I started thinking about what I would write next.

Of course, there have been setbacks. I have a poem that has not found a home. Along with 578 others I did not win the Richell Prize for emerging writers. Part of the unexpected fallout from not advancing in the competition was connecting with others who’d entered. In the past year I have met so many wonderful writers, mainly through twitter, Instagram and other forums. The camaraderie I have found through this community is beyond anything I could have imagined. I am particularly grateful to Michelle Barraclough, Louise Allan and Jacquie Garton-Smith, all who I have never met in real life but who offer me regular advice, encouragement and insights.

I am taking a break from my manuscript for now, letting the editing dust settle so I can see my work with new eyes when I begin again in 2018. I hope to build my novel up into a more finished product, with the hope of contacting agents after that.

December has come around again, but things feel different now. I’m no longer pressing my nose up against the glass; I’m on the other side: in that wide-eyed state of being overwhelmed the moment after submersion. I’m looking around the topography, getting used to the light and seeing who else is nearby; I’m beating my legs and remembering to breathe. I’m learning how to go.

What my sensible day job taught me about creative writing.

 

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It was 2014. I was working as a doctor-in-training, and a Professor who I had worked with for several years, approached me about writing an editorial. He’d been asked to contribute the article as a companion piece for a paper about gene therapy in HIV infection*, but was snowed under with work. If I wrote the editorial I would be the lead author, the catch was the deadline was short: less than two weeks.

I enjoy a challenge. I prepared to write the editorial. I read the research paper on which we were focussing and related background material. After a few days, I had a first draft and a few days later a final draft that I copyedited and sent to the Professor for review prior to submission.

Shortly after the editorial was submitted, I was at home working on the manuscript of my first novel. I could barely write a paragraph. I was completely blocked. In a moment of clarity, I realised that out there was another writer: furiously constructing sentences, selecting words, reordering paragraphs. They were being productive and decisive in their creative writing in the same way I had been in my non-creative writing.

That made me question: What was it about my non-fiction writing that fostered productivity? What was different about my creative process? I began to wonder what my sensible day job could teach me about making art.

In the years since I have discovered a few hacks that help my writing, whether it be academic or creative:

  1. Don’t get too emotional.

I could highlight this point over and over. The stark realisation I have come to is that I am far too emotional about my creative process, whereas I am almost devoid of emotion regarding my non-fiction work: it’s just a job that needs to get done. A task that requires ideas and information to be communicated as clearly and concisely as possible.

Why is my creative writing so emotionally charged? Obviously, it has a meaning to me that non-creative writing hasn’t. When I write poetry or fiction, even if it’s not autobiographical there are pieces of me in it. Kernels. An idea, a moment, a thought, an interaction. I find these piths are the most resonant parts of my writing. Even if the writing is not about me it is of me. Therefore, it follows that when the words aren’t flowing, when there are mistakes and parts that clang, the writing is not just a page of words that needs tinkering with, but something that reflects badly on me.

When my writing is not functioning, my internal monologue sounds like this: This sentence is not working, therefore this paragraph is terrible therefore this piece is a disaster, therefore as a writer, I am a failure. This can be a lot to take.

However, just by recognising how debilitating and destructive these emotions are to my creative process has allowed me to have control over them. Now I have retrained my inner voices to say: Don’t get too emotional about this or Pretend you are doing this for your non-creative job. Surprisingly (or not) this has helped.

  1. Sketch out the main points quickly.

When I’m writing non-creatively, the first thing I do is to sketch out the structure. I put in the title, subheadings and the first sentences of the paragraphs. This helps me to think about the limits of the piece and the points to cover.

I have started doing this in my creative writing, especially in short and long-form fiction. I outline key parts and scenes before I write them. Before, I used to write with no over-arching plan. This was not a great approach. I got lost in the forest of my plotlines and couldn’t find my way out.

This technique has an added bonus of helping to balance a work. I can keep track of the word counts of sections so that the beginning and middle and end are proportional. I used to think such an approach would be “over-analysing” the creative process, but in fact I’ve found the opposite. The more time I spend on thinking and planning a piece, the easier the words flow when it’s time to sit and write.

  1. Write in the moment.

Too often I worried about the quality of the final piece while I was just getting out the first draft. Of course, the first draft isn’t going to be publishable. Writing is a process. The best authors write and re-write. I suspect they focus on each phase, each draft, with a particular and distinct intent and I’m trying to do this too.

Whether it be non-fiction or fiction, after the initial planning phase comes the first draft. Here, I try and get the ideas down. I don’t worry about finer plot details, repetitive words or spelling errors. I try to capture the ideas and tie them to the page before they evade me.

In the second draft, I focus on at logic and order. I ensure the point of view and tenses are consistent. I consolidate the structure. This is the technical read: if the first draft was about the creative, right side of my brain, the second draft is led by the left.

The third draft is about finesse; about the writing itself. It’s about words: finding the best ones, deleting those that are inadequate or repeated and creating rhythm.

  1. Dot the i’s and cross the t’s, but do it last.

I’m a terrible speller at the best of times, and when I type quickly I make lots of typos. If I spent too long fixing all of this in the first three drafts my productivity would be close to zero. Of course, everyone is different and with any luck you will be far superior at spelling, grammar and touch typing than I am. I find it helpful to not worry about these aspects during the first three drafts and then set aside a large chunk of time to do a careful copyedit. I mean, copyediting is tedious and painful; I would rather do it once near the end than in association with every draft.

I’m pretty sure this annoys the hell out of my writers group and it’s possible that they thought I was only semi-literate for our first few meetings. However, I think I have convinced them that sometimes it’s alright to focus on the ideas and the “big picture” at the expense of a few errors. If I haven’t persuaded them, they are at least very tolerant of me.

  1. Send it out for feedback.

I’ve published sixteen peer-reviewed articles in the medical literature. A major difference between these and my creative pursuits is that medical articles generally involve a number of co-authors. Even if I am the first author, and responsible for the majority of writing, after I am satisfied with my article the next step is to distribute it to my co-authors for review. Each co-author then sends back edits and comments which have to be taken into consideration. Only after all of these updates have been addressed is the manuscript ready for submission.

Essentially, in my academic writing, I have anywhere between 6-8 (or sometimes more) beta-readers and/or editors. What a privilege that I don’t have to pay these people for their time! I have come to realise how important this process is for my medical writing. I receive feedback on aspects including the title, structure, they also help catch those pesky spelling and grammatical errors.

I realised last year that my creative process was far too isolated. While I workshop portions in my writers group every month, usually this is only five pages. Recently I got to the stage with my novel manuscript that I felt I really needed help with it. All of it. Professional help. I arranged to work with a fantastic editor from the Freelance Editors’ Network who read the whole novel cover-to-cover and spent just under a month writing a structural edit report. This has been a worthwhile investment, as I now have a roadmap for how to finish my novel.

Writing can be a lonely business. I find adding social elements like writers group and working with editors a good way to stay motivated. It also brings my writing out from my private world into a more public space. The work becomes a tangible thing, it crystallises in the process of me handing it over. It is realised; no longer a creature of my imagination. The discussions regarding my work bypass the introspective circuits that can perpetuate in a writer’s mind. Sharing my creative work with beta-readers and editors helps me to ensure that it can stand independently and stops me from feeling like I’m talking, and writing, to myself.

  1. Submit without fear

These days when I’m writing for the medical literature I’m less worried about if it’s going to be published. I’ve had enough experience to know if the experiments, cases or review are original, and the writing is polished, it will be published somewhere. Sure, it’s probably not going to be Nature or Science, but there will be a journal that will take it.

What I normally do is write a wish-list of six or seven journals I would like to publish in, ranked from most desired to less so, and then I work my way down. Sometimes I get accepted into my top-ranking journal but more commonly it’s number two or three. Out of seventeen papers only one that I’ve written hasn’t been published and that was because there were some issues with the experimental work.

How I would love to get to such a stage with my creative pieces! Of course, in creative writing there is less of a beaten track to publication. Emerging writers have to take chances, enter competitions and call-outs, submit to agents and publishers. I’m trying to approach this in the same way I do academic writing: to not take the rejection personally, to learn from constructive feedback and to have faith that if the content and writing is good enough, it will eventually find a home.

The creative process is to a large degree, mysterious and undoubtedly every writer is slightly different and has specific road-blocks and potholes to navigate. I suspect though that our struggles are not ultimately unique and hope that in sharing some of these insights that have helped me to write in a more productive way they help others.

I would be interested in hearing any tips or tricks you have in overcoming creative writer’s block or improving productivity. I love hearing tales of writers who spend their days waitressing, bartending, or farming and would be particularly intrigued by anyone else who takes lessons from their day job and uses them in their literary world.

 

*and for those that are interested the article about gene therapy in HIV infection is here

Writers’ Group: an unexpected joy

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At the start of 2017 I joined the NSW Writers’ Centre and enrolled in a course called “From first draft to polished manuscript”. It was the first formal class I had attended since my Arts degree. Over the previous few years I had cobbled together the first draft of a novel manuscript and I was ready to take the next step. I didn’t know then that, in addition to the timely advice I received, I would also come away with a new writers’ group.

There were around twenty-five of us in the class run by Linda Funnell, who has an extensive history in the publishing industry and co-founded the Newtown Review of Books. We were strangers sitting in a room: a mixture of young and old, working and retired, men and women, single, attached, parents and widowed. We had two things in common: a love of language and the dream of publishing a book.

I’d had a baby four months prior and having the chance to sit among adults in a room for three hours a week, for six weeks, to talk about words seemed the greatest of blessings. I enjoyed hearing about everyone’s work. We had most genres represented: crime, thriller, romance, historical, memoir, contemporary, literary and speculative fiction (which I learned was what you called science fiction these days).

Towards the end of the course four of us had gravitated towards each other. Initially we exchanged mobile numbers and email addresses. I thought it would be useful if we could act as beta-readers for each other. I’m not sure who suggested we meet as a writers’ group, but we decided to give it a go.

We meet monthly at the NSW State library. I remember the first time we were a bit shy and unsure of how to run things. We were fairly new to the process of giving and receiving feedback, and we didn’t really know each other outside of our writing.

What has evolved has been the following process:

  • At the end of each meeting we decide on the date for the following month and determine who will book the meeting room.
  • Around a week before the meeting the emails start. We send each other 5 pages of whatever we are working on. Sometimes it is longer, but we are careful not to over-burden each other.
  • We aim to read each other’s work before the following meeting and usually return with “tracked changes” and an overall comment.
  • We meet for 2h and focus on each member for 30min. We learned to do this the hard way at the first meeting when we got carried away with the first three members and kind of ran out of time for the fourth person.
  • We try and take it in turns to give reasonable and directed feedback, but this generally escalates into an animated and lively conversation with all of us interjecting and trying not to speak over each other. We follow threads of ideas; take possibilities to extremes. Something remarkable happens during that process, when we are grappling to understand a character’s motive, a time-line gap or a plot issue. I can almost see the flint of our ideas sparking as they crash into each other around the room. Through that process we create new ideas, options and dialogue that the author can later decide to use, or not.
  • Occasionally we “write in” to each other’s work.

‘I need to know what your character is thinking and feeling in this moment.’ I’ve said, and then jotted down what I imagined that was. Recently one member crafted an amazing monologue that provided a vivid character study for an elusive person in another’s work.

  • At the end, we recommend books to read (fiction and texts on writing), websites, competitions and podcasts.

There have been some memorable moments:

‘Who is this Mrs Jones character that keeps asking your protagonist to come in for a cup of tea?’ Asked one member.

‘Just a minor character, a friendly elderly neighbour-type.’ Said the author.

‘Well you keep using her name, so it makes me feel like she is someone important. Does [the protagonist] eventually go in for tea?’

‘I think she would.’ I said, ‘I think she would go in, use the bathroom and rummage through the medicine cabinet.’

‘What would she find?’ Asked my offsider.

We all chimed in:

‘Panadeine’

‘Vagifem’

‘Stool softeners.’

‘I don’t know, I think you are underestimating Mrs Jones, I think she has a whole secret life. I think she’s having an affair with the gardener.’ I said.

We agreed Mrs Jones needed a four-book spin-off series. At least.

 

I’ve made a list of what I think are the best things about being in a writers’ group:

  • Real-life people are reading your work in a thoughtful and considered way.
  • The turn-around-time for feedback is quick.
  • Members identify the parts of your writing that work and are emotionally resonant.
  • You find out what parts of your writing are confusing and/or boring.
  • You receive help identifying grammatical and copyediting errors.
  • Members can help you edit down longer works to desired word-counts.

 

Giving feedback on other people’s writing is a skill that we are all learning. Luckily, we seem to understand and respect how much everyone’s work means to them. Flat out derision or unhelpful criticism has never featured. In general, we start with what we like about the piece: what is interesting, compelling and evocative. We might frame feedback in terms of what is lacking, needs explanation, or is confusing. We point out inconsistencies in points of view and/or tenses. We give ideas and suggestions. We always let the author have the final say about their work.

Here are some things we have said about each other’s work (both positive and negative):

  • The opening scene is powerful.
  • The premise of your book is fascinating.
  • Your novel is so marketable.
  • I loved this paragraph. The dialogue is realistic. I can imagine being a part of that family.
  • This part is visceral.
  • This really resonated with me.
  • I was sad when [that character] died. I felt I should have been at his funeral too.
  • That character is revolting. I love her.
  • This part is a bit of an information-dump.
  • This is all beautifully written but I just don’t care about them.
  • I’m confused about [your character], I just don’t understand what’s motivating her.
  • Your tenses are all over the place.
  • If the story is told from [main character’s] point of view, how would she know that?
  • This part here you need to “show not tell.” Actually, it is amazing how often this last point comes up. We have all written at least one full-length manuscript by now, some two. We have read books on writing, attended courses and listened to podcasts. Yet it’s astounding how telling can creep insidiously into our work; a mould we need to bleach.

Of course, there are times when we get carried away.  Last meeting someone needed a reason to put a character into hospital ‘for about three days’. The suggestions started:

‘Dehydration.’

‘Drug overdose.’

‘Head injury.’

‘Amputation.’

‘Just kill her off!’

The meeting may have involved me up on the desk demonstrating CPR. I can’t confirm.

Months have passed and I’ve seen the writing of my peers, and my own work improve. This is in terms of sentences and paragraph composition, but also at a more macro level, as we tackled our novel structures.

At the start of 2017 I didn’t feel like a writer. I felt like a person who wanted to be an author looking in on a secret world, not knowing how to join in. Being in this group has allowed me to see myself as a writer and made me feel part of the community.  It has helped me find my creative voice.

Writing was something that I used to do alone, to produce work that I generally filed away and did not share. My words are starting to make it out into the open. They are being read, shared and commented on; people are having thoughts and opinions about them. Now when I write I think about my audience. My work feels alive, something that lives and breathes; it belongs somewhere that is collective.

After our meetings I feel invigorated, I see my text with fresh eyes and I feel more optimistic about its quality. I am motivated to do more.

I catch the bus to and from the NSW State library and it’s $1 for a locker. Sometimes we have a cup of tea after. That’s a total of around $12 per session. It would be hard for a writer to find better value.