Keen to improve your creative non-fiction skills?

Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt with rainbow bookshelves

I know I recently came out as a crime writer – and I love crime fiction! One of my absolute favourite authors is John Sandford.

That said, I think my first love is creative non-fiction. In fact, I love it – eep! – even more than fiction, because of its basis in real-life events and facts. If you check out my list of great reads, you’ll see the majority are non-fiction.

When I started writing my first book at 14, it was a novel. But when I got ‘serious’ about writing, at age 26, I only considered writing creative non-fiction.

And while I write both fiction and non-fiction (my first book combines both), my fiction writing always begins with research into true events. So my love for non-fiction is really at the core of everything I do, artisitcally.

My favourite creative non-fiction authors include Malcolm Gladwell, David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, Tamim Ansary, Elizabeth Gilbert, Helen Garner and Samantha Irby. Even my favourite book by novelist Douglas Coupland is his biography of media theorist Marshall McLuhan.

So I feel especially lucky to get to teach Online: Creative Non-fiction, a six-week course with Writing NSW, starting 31 October.

Whether you’re writing essays or working on a memoir or other book-length project – or you’re hoping to but don’t quite know where to start – this course is for you.

I’ve just finished designing the course, and had a lot of fun putting it together. Each of the six weekly lessons includes instruction and advice on that week’s topic, essays and/or book extracts to analyse, discussion questions and generative writing prompts. Weeks 1 to 5 each include a writing assignment with a short peer feedback component.

Topics
Week 1. Delving into creative non-fiction
Week 2. Balancing scene, summary and reflective narration
Week 3. Writing the self and others
Week 4. Drawing on research
Week 5. Exploring form and voice
Week 6. Getting published

This course is entirely online, with no Zoom or scheduled meetups, which means you can enrol from anywhere in the world. The course is designed to work with your existing writing practice, or to help you develop one.

Throughout the course, we’re going to read a wide variety of essays and extracts from many of the authors mentioned here, as well as two of the godfathers of creative non-fiction, Lee Gutkind and Dinty Moore.

At the same time, we’ll consider work from award-winning emerging writers, to help you benchmark your developing skills. I think it’s important to read this sort of variety when we’re learning. It can be hard to look at, say, Helen Garner’s work and think ‘how would I improve that?’ It’s a lot easier to do this with emerging authors, whose work provides a pathway between where we are now, and what we might want to achieve.

We’re also going to learn about the fallibility of memory from Malcolm Gladwell, and consider advice from Anwen Crawford, Kate Holden, Sisonke Msimang, Lee Kofman and Ruth Ozeki. We’ll unpack ten aspects of the elusive concept of ‘voice’, and explore a variety of narrative forms.

We’ll also discuss a key question many emerging memoir writers face: What happens when you write about a family memory who really doesn’t want to be written about?

Along the way, I’ll be sharing behind-the-scenes insights and tips from my own writing journey – because a few years ago, I was enrolling in Writing NSW courses and writing, revising and submitting work with the hope of building a career as a creative non-fiction author.

In turn, I’m excited to learn about your writing and help you toward achieving your goals.

Online: Creative Non-fiction runs from 31 October to 9 December 2022. Find out more and enrol at Writing NSW.

Success story – Curlews on Vulture Street

‘Plenty is going on between humans and wildlife. This intersection of realms is where I have been dwelling now for several decades; the strange, exhilarating place where people and nature mix, often uneasily, trying to understand what the heck is going on.’
– from the introduction to Curlews on Vulture Street

Curlews on Vulture Street: Cities, Birds, People and Me is the newest book from urban ecologist Darryl Jones. Darryl has published a number of popular science books on his area of expertise, Australian birds, including The Birds at My Table, and most recently, A Clouded Leopard in the Middle of the Road.

But Curlews on Vulture Street is special. And not only because I played a tiny part in its creation.

Curlews blends Darryl’s highly engaging writing about birds with a splash of memoir, told with his wry humour and natural storytelling talent.

If Bill Bryson were an urban ecologist, this would be his masterpiece.

The book traces Darryl’s interest in birds from his childhood in rural New South Wales, growing up near Wagga Wagga, to his first lessons in ecology as a university student-researcher, and then through his highly successful and fascinating career.

When Darryl began his university studies, there was still a clear divide between ‘the natural world’ and urban centres. If you wanted to study anything to do with nature, you could only do so by going out into nature. Whatever animals and other creatures might be doing in the city, no one knew, and no one wanted to know.

Darryl was one of the ecologists at the forefront of a new paradigm, asking questions about how birds live in cities, and why? How can we live better with them? And, you know, maybe not get swooped so much?

The answers he discovers are fascinating – and his methods for getting there are often quite humorous, like the time he tried to build a crow trap. No surprise, the crows very nearly outsmarted him.

Through the book, he explores the behaviour of magpies, lorikeets, cockatoos blackbirds, mousebirds, peaceful doves, curlews, ibises, and more.

And if you’re wondering what a curlew is, it’s this ‘strange, lanky, awkward-looking’ creature, as Darryl describes. They all have they that unensettingly bug-eyed stare; it’s their thing.

I discovered Darryl’s books a few years ago, when what we thought were two rainbow lorikeets were visiting our apartment in Camperdown. It turned out to be a whole flock.

We know this because one day they held their annual conference on our balcony. We had 16 lorikeets squabbling at the top of their surprisingly powerful lungs. I suspect I suffered permanent hearing damage.

Because I knew Darryl was a talented writer, I was surprised when he signed up for a six-week memoir course I ran at the start of 2020. Like all good writers, he was pushing himself to further develop his skills – he wanted to learn techniques particular to memoir, and push his writing into new territory. It was a delight working with Darryl, and when the course ended, we continued on into a mentorship that lasted throughout the early draft of Curlews.

He very kindly mentioned me in his acknowledgements, in this overly generous statement:

‘No one has had a bigger influence on this book than Ashley Kalagian Blunt. At a crucial early stage I was lucky enough to participate in a memoir workshop run by Ashley for Mirrabooka Writers. She provided an extraordinary level of personal feedback as well as invaluable advice and encouragement. She is an exceptional writer and teacher as well as a generous and constructive critic. … When the workshop concluded, I plucked up the courage to ask Ashley if she would act as a style editor for a book I was trying to write. If any of this works, it is largely due to Ashley’s incisive, critical yet gentle touch (and ‘appropriate’ sense of humour). Ashley, I apologise deeply, pointedly and embarrassingly for the overabundance of adverbs that remain. You tried your best.’

(For the record, I don’t believe ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’ as Stephen King has famously said. See? I used one right there. But I do think they’re best used in moderation. Darryl really did try!)

Curlews on Vulture Street is in stores now. It’s a great read for anyone interested in Australian birds (and who isn’t interested in them? They’re so bizarre!) and fauna, but also for anyone who enjoys smart humour and great storytelling.

~

If you’re interested in nonfiction writing, whether that’s essays or book-length work, including memoir, check out my upcoming online course with Writing NSW.

Online: Creative Non-Fiction Workshop with author ashley kalagian blunt, information about this course on the Writing NSW courses website and a copy of her book cover, How to Be Australian, a memoir

Online: Creative Non-Fiction course
Monday 31 October to Friday 9 December 2022, online
Writing NSW

This six-week online course with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt is an opportunity for you to delve into the dynamic world of creative non-fiction. You’ll try new techniques to stretch your writing muscles, and receive feedback in a supportive and encouraging setting.

Each lesson will include writing exercises designed to help you practise a wide range of skills, and weekly deadlines for short assignments will provide motivation. You can work toward the completion of a short-form piece for submission at the end of the course, or develop your skills for a longer project. For full details and to enrol, visit Writing NSW >>

On writing and persistence

In 2017, my manuscript was one of five shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award. None of the writers on the list had a book published at the time. Here’s an excerpt from the announcement:

I started the creative non-fiction manuscript that became Full of Donkey in 2010. I had my first essay, an extract from that work, published in a literary journal in 2015, and was awarded a Varuna Fellowship the same year.

In short, I’d been chipping away at the project for a while by the time of the KYD shortlisting.

SJ Norman ended up winning the Unpublished Manuscript Award that year. Which was disappointing for me, of course.

After, a publisher did ask to read my full manuscript. She ended up rejecting it, but did give me some useful feedback.

My Name Is Revenge book cover cake

In 2018, Full of Donkey was also shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers. Once again, it didn’t win.

I kept working. I changed the manuscript’s scope, and it eventually morphed into My Name Is Revenge, my first published book, which came out in 2019.

Author speaks to crowd at My Name Is Revenge book launch

In sum, I started that project in 2010, and the book came out – in a very different format – ten years later.

Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt signs stacks of My Name Is Revenge book

And even though SJ Norman won the award in 2017, it still took a while for the book to find a publisher. Permafrost came out in 2021, and went on to be longlisted for the Stella Award.

In 2017, I didn’t know any of the other shortlisted writers. They were just random names on a list.

I’ve since gotten to know Susan White through a writing alumni group, and so I’ve heard how hard she’s worked to revise Cut and get it to publication.

Cover of Cut a novel by Susan White

Cut is coming out from Affirm Press this month. (Sue had her first book, a YA novel, published in 2019.)

I’ve also gotten to know Amy Lovat, founder of Secret Book Stuff. We interviewed her for ep 34 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, and she was so fantastic (incisive, generous, well read, enthusiastic – I could go on), I convinced her to join my writers’ group at the end of 2021.

And not long after that, Amy signed a contract with Pan Macmillan for the release of Halfway to Nowhere. After working on the novel for ten years, it’s coming out in July 2023.

That leaves Sevana Ohandjanian. I don’t know her, and there’s no book news on her website, but who knows. She might have a publication deal for Black Grass in the works right now. (Sevana, if you’re reading this and that’s not the case, keep going!)

I think you can see my point.

If you’re working on a book that feels like it’s going nowhere, don’t give up. Take a new approach, maybe start a new manuscript, whatever you need to do. But keep going.

~

And if you’re working on creative non-fiction and keen to develop your skills, whether you’re writing essays or a full manuscript, join me this my six-week online course with Writing NSW starting 31 October.

Online: Creative Non-Fiction Workshop with author ashley kalagian blunt, information about this course on the Writing NSW courses website and a copy of her book cover, How to Be Australian, a memoir

Online: Creative Non-Fiction course
Monday 31 October to Friday 9 December 2022, online
Writing NSW

This six-week online course with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt is an opportunity for you to delve into the dynamic world of creative non-fiction. You’ll try new techniques to stretch your writing muscles, and receive feedback in a supportive and encouraging setting.

Each lesson will include writing exercises designed to help you practise a wide range of skills, and weekly deadlines for short assignments will provide motivation. You can work toward the completion of a short-form piece for submission at the end of the course, or develop your skills for a longer project. For full details and to enrol, visit Writing NSW >>

87 words to cut from your writing

For four of the past six weeks, I’ve been on writing retreat, first as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon in rural NSW, and then as a fellowship recipient at KSP Writers’ Centre in Perth, WA.

I love writing retreats because they allow me to focus on my current project to the exclusion of almost everything else, and it’s always a time of new insights and exciting progress. (Unless my CFS is flaring; then it’s just frustrating.)

I’ve been working on a major structural revision to my psychological thriller, and by the end of my two weeks at KSP, I’d made it through to the end of the draft. I still need to review the changes and do some more editing, but the hardest work is done, for the moment.

Now I’m at the point where I’m sharpening the scenes and the line-by-line writing. One of my favourite strategies is to use the find-all function in Word (shift + command + H on Mac) for certain words, and review each use of them one by one.

Instead of reading through the manuscript and getting caught up in the flow of the story, this strategy allows me to encounter sentences out of context. This helps me think about them differently. I ask myself a few questions about each sentence:

  • Does the sentence really need the filler word I searched? (Ex. Does that question need really?)
  • Could I rewrite the sentence to make it stronger, more interesting, with more specific imagery?
  • Do I need the sentence at all – maybe the paragraph/scene is stronger without it.

For example, this morning I searched the following words, and made these edits:

  • Reduced my use of almost from 31 to 11
  • Reduced all from 252 to 117 (very happy with this one)
  • Actually from 29 to 9
  • Absolutely from 5 to 1
  • A bit from 19 to 10
  • A little from 25 to 9
  • A single from 9 to 3
  • At least from 23 to 10
  • Always from 26 to 9
  • Back from 262 to 113 (very happy with this one too)
  • Obviously from 8 to 2
  • Very from 17 to 11

In some cases I simply removed these words, but often I reworked sentences to make them stronger. Where I’ve kept words like very and obviously is usually in dialogue.

I’ve created a list of words and phrases I search, and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be working through it while continuing with the revision. I’ve included it below in case you’d like to make use of it too.

87 words to cut from your manuscript – download this list as a PDF

a bit
a little
a single
at least
absolutely
actually
again
also
all
almost
although
always
another
any
as well
at the same time
back
basically
because
both
but
certainly
clearly
completely
decide
definitely
down
entire
especially  
even
everything
exactly
extremely
feel/feel like
first, second, third
generally
have/had a feeling
have/had no idea
hear
here
I think
in fact
just
know/knew/known
likewise
look/looked/looking
make/makes no sense
meanwhile
nearly
next
nevertheless
obviously
of course
off
otherwise
out
particularly
practically
pretty
probably
quite
realise
really
right
see/seeing/saw
seem
similarly
so
so much
some
somehow
something
sound
specifically
straight
suddenly
then
think/thinking/thought
there
too
totally
truly
up
very
watch
wonder
yet

Happy writing!
xo

The 13 top writing tips I wish I’d had before I started

I’ve wanted to be an author since 1989, when I was six years old.

My Name Is Revenge cover with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt
At my first book launch, April 2019

I took creative writing workshops in university and college. I churned out novels and stories and possibly the worst poetry in history of English.

In my early thirties, I spent five years writing and revising a creative non-fiction book that, despite being shortlisted for two unpublished manuscript awards, is still unpublished.

A stack of journals, a writing project
A selection of my journals, circa 2012 to 2020

Finally, in 2019, my first book came out. It only took me 30 years.

Over that time, I collected a lot of writing advice, and thought a lot about the process of going from aspiring writer to published author. If I’d had even half of this advice when I started, I think the process would have been easier and more enjoyable, if not faster.

So here it is, my gift to you.

Author speaks to crowd at My Name Is Revenge book launch
My Name Is Revenge book launch, April 2019

13 tips on building a writing practice

1. Don’t wait for inspiration or the ‘right’ mood
Learn to unleash your creativity through generative exercises and build a consistent practice. More advice on accessing your creativity >>

2. Start by building a creative practice
When you’re starting out, engage with your creativity for its own sake, rather than with any specific end goal (like publication) in mind. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to develop your skills if you want to be an author. Enjoy the process. Plus, engaging with our creativity can be therapeutic – hear art therapist Karin Foxwell discuss the healing power of creativity in this interview >>

Ashley Kalagian Blunt author

3. Remember that your creativity is important
Creativity isn’t frivolous, or selfish, or peripheral – it’s a radically powerful act. Author Sarah Sentilles teaches that when we turn toward our creativity, we turn toward the world. Hear more from Sarah in this interview >>

4. Understand that creative work can spark anxiety
What if we don’t know what we’re doing? What if the work we’re producing is rubbish? This is absolutely normal, and something many published authors still struggle with. Listen to author Kate Mildenhall share her advice >>

5. Tune out your inner critic
Most of us judge ourselves and our ideas harshly, but the truth is you often need to go through a lot of mediocre ideas and drafts before arriving at an exciting one. You can learn to tune out the inner critic that tries to shut you down. Here’s a tip: when I’m find myself second-guessing every word of a new draft, I change my font to trees >>

Ashley Kalagian Blunt 'How to Be Australian' in NYC Trees font
Writing in trees

6. Overcome project inertia
Often during a project we can lose momentum, and day by day it becomes increasingly difficult to go back to the work – resistance builds up. I call this ‘project inertia’ and there are strategies to overcome and avoid it. Read more about project inertia here >>

7. Trust the process
As you progress in your practice, you’ll develop a process that works for you. But then you’ll get derailed and feel lost. Go back to your process, and learn to trust it >>

Three people in front of shrubs
One of my writers’ groups

8. Get a writers group (or two)
Once you’ve started producing work you think might be headed for publication, it’s time to get feedback. One of the best ways to do that is a writers’ group. I credit mine with helping me sharpen the skills needed to get published. Read more about how to get the most from writers’ groups here >>

9. Learn your craft
Like any craft, writing has technical elements. If you want to produce publishable writing, you need to learn these skills. In this interview, I talk about applying scene structure to my memoir and other craft aspects >>

On stage at Sydney Writers’ Festival, 2019

10. Build your confidence
Submitting your work means getting rejected. Don’t let that dissuade you, or take up too much of your emotional energy. You can learn to handle rejection! Here’s my advice on building up your confidence >>

11. Accept the ups and downs
If you want to become published and get paid for your work, the process will have many ups and downs. This is true for practically all writers. Here’s the messy process I went through, summarised into 10 easy steps >>

Writers group with six people holding books
My other writers’ group

12. Find your joy, even through rejection
For a lot of years, I received a lot of rejections. But I found myself having a wonderful time, because I loved my creative work, and I loved all the fabulous readers and writers I was meeting through the community. During that, I got involved in supporting the writing community as a way to connect with others, and wrote about how much I learned through this process >>

13. Get ready to be surprised
You never know what will happen. I wrote four full-length books – two novels and two memoirs – and couldn’t get any of them published. Then my publishing career began with a 25,000-word novella and essay collection, which also became my first audiobook >>

*

Keen to learn with me? See my events page for upcoming workshops and other opportunities.

But how does your HUSBAND feel about your memoir?!

When I started writing, one major thing I had absolutely no idea about was narrative structure. I thought I just had to write a good story – and that’s true, but it was only later that I discovered how essential structure is to good stories.

It took me an embarrassing number of years to even realise this, and then I had to learn how to actually do it. That took a less embarrassing number of years.

In fact, once I started microplotting, scaffolding scenes and applying story structure to my writing, that’s when I suddenly started getting interest from publishers.

That’s why I was so excited to delve into these aspects of writing with the fabulous Michelle Barraclough on the Writers Book Club podcast.

I loved her concept from her very first episode: “It’s a no-holds-barred insight into an author’s writing craft and process, applied to a real-life novel.”

Or in this case, memoir.

How to Be Australian Kalagian Blunt

In Writers Book Club episode 11, I walk through the process behind writing my memoir How to Be Australian, including how to shape your voice on the page, how I structured the memoir to best reflect the narrative and character arc, how I plot scenes and specifically focuses on scene turns, the role of truth in memoir, and the lessons from fiction writing that help with writing memoir.

Michelle asks great questions, including why I decided to write a memoir in the first place, what that process looked like, when I decided on the themes.

We also talk about what lessons I took from fiction, how to include conflict and stakes in memoir, and the pesky concept of “truth”.

I give some readings How to Be Australian to illustrate my approach to some of these topics.

Caramel Slice on How to Be Australian

Plus we talk about the eternal question – what does my husband feel about my memoir?! (He’s the other major character.)

Michelle is a writer whose first novel, As I Am, a contemporary drama, was Highly Commended in the 2017 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers and earned her a 12-month mentorship at Hachette. She’s also a lot of fun.

And if you’re interested in starting a memoir, or would like to get some more insights into the process now that you’ve delved in, you’re in luck! I’ve got an upcoming online workshop just for you.

Tips and Tricks to Writing Your Memoir
Tuesday 22 February 2022, 6:15-7:30 pm AEDT
Online via Zoom
Tix $9-14

So you’re thinking of writing a memoir and you’re not sure how to start. Or you’ve already started and you’re not sure how to keep going.

Writing a memoir can be a therapeutic process. But it can also be challenging, whether you’re doing it to better understand yourself and the events of your life, or with the aim of publication.

In this workshop from published author Ashley Kalagian Blunt, you’ll learn tips and tricks to make the process easier and rewarding.

This is a workshop for novice writers in the beginning stages of writing a memoir or thinking about starting one. Get your ticket here >>

Unleash your creative genius

Humans are creative creatures. Look at everything we’ve created, from the Eiffel Tower to competitive hot dog eating to this amphibious bicycle.

Ready to bike across the Atlantic!

I’m always bursting with ideas (though none as great as that Floaty the Bubble Bike). And I’m sure you are too – even if you don’t know it.

This has been one of the delights of becoming an author. When I was writing my first book, one of my 8000 worries was that I only had this one idea. What if I wrote the book, and it got published, but then I couldn’t think of anything else to write about?

But learning to write meant, in part, learning to pay attention to my creativity. And the more I paid attention to it, the more I realised the problem wasn’t too few ideas.

It was too many.

Now I have a list of about a dozen ideas for books, some more far-fetched than others. I have ideas for essays scrawled all over the place, and no time to even start them.

More and more research is showing how creativity is a muscle, and that even if our adult selves have been conditioned to tune out our creative impulses, they’re still there. We just need to rebuild them, which basically means to start listening again.

Elizabeth Gilbert has lots of wonderful things to say about this in Big Magic. Do yourself a favour, listen to her narrate the audiobook. She advises having an affair with your creativity – sneak it into your life however you can manage, get excited, let it be joyful.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Big Magic - Vogue
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

And creativity is worth pursuing, not just for the joy, but also because it can be healing! As art therapist Karin Foxwell explained in an interview, creativity can help people discover why they feel the way they do and how they express meaning in their lives.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that creativity is a practice – that means just sitting down and doing it. There’s incredible freedom in that. There’s no right or wrong way to be creative, whether you’re writing or dancing or gardening.

Recently I had the opportunity to discuss all of this with author, Story Room Aus host and positive ageing activist Karen Sander for her podcast, Ageing Fearlessly.

Ageing Fearlessly Podcast

In my work at Writing NSW, I’ve met a lot of people who started writing later in life, often in retirement. They usually say that they always wanted to write, but that they never had the time. I always admire them for finally making time to reconnect with their creative selves.

In my interview with Karen, I talk about the process of developing my writing practice and prioritising creativity, and share tips and resources for doing the same.

Wishing you creative joy,
Ashley
xo

Listen, be interested and be brave: Q&A with Samia Goudie, Boundless Mentorship runner-up

The Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, presented by Writing NSW and Text Publishing, is awarded to an unpublished Indigenous writer who has made substantial progress on a fiction or non-fiction writing project. The writer is paired with a senior Indigenous writer for a structured year-long mentorship.

The 2021 Boundless runner-up is Bundjalung writer Samia Goudie, for her memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. She’ll be working under the mentorship of Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko.

Samia Goudie, 2021 Boundless Mentorship runner-up

I’m especially excited for Samia because my husband and I had the honour of funding the 2021 runner-up mentorship. In this Q&A, she talks about her early experiences with writing, how she began to work on her memoir, writers that have inspired her, and her best writing tip.

When did you start writing, and what kind of writing did you first aspire to?
As a child and all through my teens writing was my to go safe place and I wrote prolifically. Stories, poetry, prose, mostly long streams of consciousness and long 10-page letters to my grandmother and pen pal friends.

The touch of a fresh sharpened pencil and feel of the pen on paper completely absorbed me. I was deeply traumatised as a young person, so reading, writing and painting were my world, my safe place, and helped me survive.

I had two significant English teachers. One was Mr Jardine, he wore a cravat. It was the 70s, he took us to A Clockwork Orange, exposed us to Russian writers, Blake, and the classics as well as contemporary Australian and American writers. In my mid-teens and I was introduced to feminists and Marx, which was unusual, through another English teacher, Elizabeth Cousins.

Elizabeth knew my life was hard and in many ways I couldn’t function in the mainstream-learning environment, so she just let me write whatever I liked and didn’t require I come to class. I’d meet with her regularly instead and she’d read my writing, point me to things to read and make comments and constantly encourage me.

I also did a radio show at my school, so I was very influenced by radio, drama, youth theatre and music. A real mix, symphony, opera, jazz. Mozart and Pink Floyd and Country. We didn’t have a TV till I was 11. So these things shaped my world.

I was an adopted baby, taken from my birth mum, and my parents were significantly older than all my friends’ parents. I had a very lonely and abusive childhood. I just didn’t fit in for all kinds of reasons, Race being just one, so, I had to have a rich inner life to survive.

I spent hours learning and reciting poetry, long form and verse. I loved acting, and I would write my own scripts and then spend hours playing all the characters.

As a young teenager I also spent a lot of time at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and this is where I first started to understand that there were alternative stories and histories to the ones I was being exposed to. I’d grown up with Albert Namatjira on the living room wall, strict Methodists who had both been in the Army during WWII, and a father who grew up in an orphanage. I also spent long periods of time with relatives and then in institutions, so there were lots of disconnections and contradictions. Writing continues to fulfill the same role. It’s my safe place and my way to challenge the complexity of my inner and outer world. To give voice to these complexities and challenge the status quo of society. I love the craft, the voice, the landscape and terrain of stories. I love reading other people’s stories, ones that take you on a journey that transports you. That’s what I’d love to achieve. Telling a story that takes the reader on a journey.

I’ve written a lot of poetry over more recent years, up till then I put all my creativity into community projects, films, digital stories, events, concerts and lecturing and travelling.

Tell us about your memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea.
Last year after I had an accident and was having a lot of severe pain, I started writing again just for myself, to distract myself. It started to become what felt like a story, one that had been sitting inside me for decades. I decided okay, just write.

Once I made that decision words just flowed out faster than I could type. I have called this work The Woman Who Came from the Sea because the ocean, salt water, and fresh water have always been important in my life. I have experienced deep bliss surfing down the face of a clear blue wave and near death in the center of a cyclone in the middle of the ocean on a small yacht.

I’d say its memoir, but also could fall into being creative non-fiction. I don’t want to give away too much yet; I can say it’s a wild story, a story of adventure and survival against the odds. I know I have lived a life that’s very full and left of center. I actually hate boxes and strive to challenge being labeled or locked into other people’s definitions of who I am. I’d like that to be the same with my writing, I am not trying to write in a specific formula or write for a living. I am just writing.

Various people throughout my life have heard pieces of my life and always commented that they would love to read the full story. So, maybe they will get that chance. I hope so, that would be wonderful.

What books or authors have inspired your writing?
I have read broadly, the books that really stand out are always ones with rich landscapes and diverse voices. First Nations writing from this country has always had a special place ever since meeting and then reading the work of some of our early trailblazers, people like respected Elders Oodgeroo Noonuccal or Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert who founded the writing group I’m currently part of called Us Mob writers in Canberra.

Since being involved with Us Mob writers and First Nations Australia Writers Network, I have made a point to read nearly exclusively Aboriginal and Indigenous writers. We have so many talented storytellers; I have a never-ending pile.

I also love Hispanic and Latino and First Nations writers from the Americas where I lived for 12 years, mostly in the southwest. So, of course I am very impacted by the landscape of those places and the voices from those lands. I like to read and listen to stories that are recommended me by other writers. Films, theatre and podcasts inform me as well.

Jane Sullivan reviews 'Too Much Lip' by Melissa Lucashenko

Through the Boundless Mentorship, you’ll be working with author Melissa Lucashenko, winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. What are you hoping to take from this?
Being runner up in the Boundless Mentorship and being matched with Melissa Lucashenko, whose book Too Much Lip won the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award, is an extraordinary opportunity. The process of shaping my writing into structure and working out how to keep the story moving, is why it’s important for me to have a mentor. Just to get feedback and encouragement and not be so isolated means a lot.

I’m just grateful to learn whatever I can from her and hope it helps me bring my story to life.

What writing tip have you found most useful so far?
Right now, it’s just about getting the writing on the page. That’s the best tip I have had. Just write, don’t stop, don’t edit, just get it down first. The rest will follow. The others are to read and read a lot. I’d add listen. Listen, be interested and brave.

It’s scary sometimes, to be visible, but I have such a great community of writers who inspire me. Aunty Kerry kept telling me before she died that she’d watching me and will be on my back if I don’t write. So, I have to honor her, as she really believed in me.

I want to thank Boundless, Writing NSW, Text Publishers, Booktopia, the judges, and of course my generous sponsors. I hope I can give you something that rewards your choice in supporting me with this opportunity.

Time is precious, so, now, it’s back to my story. I hope you might get to read it one day.

Congrats also to this year’s Boundless winner, Torres Strait Islander Lenora Thaker. For more about the Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, visit Writing NSW.

Getting the most from writers’ groups

I’ve been in a writers’ group for over six years now, and the process of getting regular feedback has been transformative for my writing.

Whether you’re thinking about joining a writers’ group (do it!) or you’re in one already but think it could be more effective, here are my tips on getting the most out of the experience.

Find the right group for you
All writers’ groups are different, so it depends on what you’re looking for. The first one I tried focused on generating material in their sessions, then reading aloud and giving light verbal feedback. I think the most important thing you can get from a writers’ group is robust, in-depth feedback, but it depends what stage of the process you’re at. Don’t be afraid to try a few different groups before settling on one. Or form your own.

Exchange excerpts in advance
My group focusses on feedback, and our monthly meetings work like this: approximately one week before each meeting, we email our excerpt around, so we can all read them in advance. To me, this is essential. For one thing, it means I have time to re-read and think deeply about the excerpts. It also means I can make as many comments as I feel necessary, on what works as well as areas I think need improvement. This is a time commitment – everyone in my group sends up to 6000 words each month – but it’s worth it for the quality of feedback.

With one of my two writers’ groups

Set the rules
When my group gives feedback, we follow a set of rules: if my excerpt is being discussed, everyone takes turns giving me their main points of feedback – they may have written more comments for me, but verbally they only raise their key points. As the feedback recipient, I can’t talk until everyone is done – I can’t explain what a certain paragraph meant, or tell the reader why they misunderstood. I shut up and take notes until everyone is done, then I have five minutes to ask questions. This helps to keep the meeting moving along. This also gives the writer a chance to absorb the feedback and think about why the person might have interpreted the excerpt in a particular way.

Another rule we stick to is restricting the group to five members. Three is too few, and six means we don’t have enough time in our meetings to fully discuss each piece.

Finesse your feedback
Great feedback focuses on your experience as a reader, while drawing on your expertise as a writer. Note what works well, what captivates your attention, where you feel the tension building, and your emotional investment in the scene. Note also where you’re jolted out of the scene, where the description drags, where you’re confused or uncertain. This can be most helpful when it comes to the balance of showing and telling. Are the details showing what the writer thinks they are? Your own writing skills will improve as you develop your ability to pinpoint what works in others’ writing, no matter the genre.

Find your writers’ group
State and local writers’ centres are a good place to find a group. Writing NSW hosts over 30 groups and lists more around the state, some of which are open to new members. Early each year, they also host a Writers’ Group Open Night, which is a chance to learn about the various groups, meet their members, and discuss.

If you can’t access an in-person group, you might try joining an online writers’ group. One way to do this is to take an online writing course, and connect with others looking for ongoing peer support and feedback. In Writing NSW’s online writing courses, online groups often form after the course.*

Scenes from our Mudgee writers’ group retreat 2021

Looking for more writing advice? Check out these posts
The secret to fighting project inertia
Be the fan you wish you had
Trust the process
How to write a book in 5 words a day
From final draft to publication to audiobook
Rejection goals and more: an interview

sutherlandshire-baxter-kalagian-blunt authors

This August, you can also join me for two online sessions with Writers Unleashed.

Writers Unleashed Festival
Saturday 21 August 2021
Online!
Full-festival access pass $90
Writers Unleashed has a fantastic line-up of authors on this year’s online program, and I’ll be taking part in two sessions:

Getting Your Scenes Right: The Nitty-Gritty of Scene Structure
9:30-10:30am **live**

Social Media and Building an Author Profile
Pre-recorded, part of your seven-day access pass
Ashley Kalagian Blunt & ​Alan Baxter

Hope to see you there!
xo

*These tips were originally published on Word Mothers.