How’s it going NaNoWriMo people?

Are you basking in early creative freedom? Or crippled by writers block with a k? Maybe it’s bouts of both.

On Saturday, Geoff went to the Creative Non-Fiction Festival at the NSW Writers’ Centre and has brought back some great tips from the very talented panellists that might help you stay focused over the next month. Especially, the final session titled Writers’ Toolkit.


Going to the NSW Writers’ Centre is always a joy. Walking up the hill and under the jacaranda trees, up to what must be a heritage listed building, I could hear the easy laughter coming out of the windows and down that beautiful verandah. A sure sign that Benjamin Law is panelling the discussion and has the audience in the palm of his hand. As he did all day.

The Story that Nearly Killed Me

Stories of Tajik tanks on the tarmac in Dushanbe, dinner with Ivan Milat’s brother and confrontations with newspaper standover men were some of the choice stories about how far Monica Attard, Trent Dalton and David Leser have gone to get something filed.

Heroics aside, Monica Attard spoke candidly about the grubby and guilty feeling you sometimes get having to mine human tragedy in the process of putting together a profile. This unease was something that was echoed by other panelists through the day, especially when interviewing ‘ordinary’ people.

David Leser had some fascinating tales of being physically threatened to the point of asking to be taken off a story; one of his greatest regrets. He also mentioned the lengths he had to go to when profiling Alan Jones. Month and months of research, interviews leading up to one shot with the man himself. But as David said, as he gets older the greyer life gets.

Profile Writing: Villians and Icons

There were some great war stories in this panel about going head to head with some of the biggest egos in Australia. One of my favourite lines was from Jane Cadzow who said that after Gina Rinehart’s receptionist answered the phone, she stated “We don’t take phone calls”.

Another fascinating anecdote was from the time John van Tiggelen had dinner with Andrew Bolt. A man, he describes as, a complete aesthete and ultimately frustrated by his audience. The profile was to be written at the same time Bolt was the first person to be tried under the Racial Discrimination Act. During dinner, John offered a beautiful Victorian bottle of red, given to him by a neighbour who owns a vineyard. That same neighbour being Justice Mordechai Bromberg, the man presiding over the trial.

The one thing I took away from all of the great stories was to save the sting in the tail for the end of the interview. Jason Treuen spoke of asking Sarah Blasko a personal question too early and having to scramble to get the interview back on track. He also said, the only way to avoid a bad interview is preparation, especially if you only have 15 minutes.

Jane Cadzow also likened profile writing to detective work. She gave an example of uncovering more than a few inconsistencies in Bryce Courtenay’s own personal narratives. One in particular name checked Stephen King and the Boston Marathon. A quick call to King’s PA uncovered that he’d never even entered the marathon.

Ordinary People

This was one of the most touching panels of the day. Trent Dalton admitted that life as a journalist required you to balance the amount of light and the dark stories you take on when doing profiles that deal with personal tragedy, especially when stories deal with children.

Jane Cadzow however did add that writers, to some degree, need a sliver of ice in their veins. She also advised everyone in the room to know why you are doing a story and think of your readers. Count yourself out of the equation as best you can.

Tim Elliot had a great suggestion from the editor of the Good Weekend. He said the best stories are in the briefs, often from the Daily Telegraph. Newspapers break so many stories that they can’t often go back and spend a lot of time on the person to profile. This could be a great place for story ideas or characters for your novels.

Cadzow added that when you’re profiling someone that has been written about a lot, you need to be embedded in some way as it’s too hard to avoid celebrity schtick in a one hour interview.

Writers Toolkit

Unfortunately I had to duck off after lunch and missed a few of the afternoons panels (I was doing a podcast called Wax Quizzical). However, through the glory of Twitter and Storify, the following are some of the best tips given from the panellists, NaNoWriMo tips throughout:

1. Carry a notebook wherever you go. In profile writing, write notes as an interview is taking place to record immediate impressions.

2. Scrivener is a great program for longer articles and novels because you can use subsections to order the structure as well as following plot lines and developing character

3. Turn off the Internet. One panellist uses Freedom to turn the Internet off when trying to write so you don’t fall into an Internet hole. Another goes to the Uni library to write because he can’t use their Internet.

Also, if you’d like a distraction free environment to get some writing done, come along to one of our #writehere sessions in November. Get in touch if you’d like one, or are keen to start one in your area.

4. If you’re writing creative non-fiction, get an AP Style Guide and a Macquarie dictionary app.

5. If you’ve got writers block, get away from the computer. Camera phones are great for capturing ideas when you’re out and about.

6. Physical exercise is really important. Swimming, a walk, going for a jog. Doesn’t have to be solo but do it early in the day so you get your blood flowing.

7. Get a digital dictaphone and use Express Scribe, which helps with the transcription process. You can also use shortcuts. You can also get a contraption to record phone interviews.

8. Apps such as Evernote and Google Drive are great because the sync all of your notes to the cloud.

9. Dom Knight also writes on an iPad with a clip on keyboard because he can use the program IA Writer.

10. More apps: Grammarly: It’s an excellent way to get your grammar right.

11. Give yourself some writing rewards! (You could come to our Writers Bloc Party on December 1)

12. (This one is from the teacher in me) Make sure you read your work out loud. “It makes the errors shine”

Happy writing!

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