Joy of Writing in Feilding, Manawatu

Manawatu Writers' Festival 2017, September 8-12

Tomorrow I’ll bus to a little town two hours north of Wellington for the inaugural Manawatu Writers Festival. An impressive programme includes more than 40 sessions over four days. I was asked to speak at the official opening and to run a workshop, and am delighted to be part of this boutique writers’ festival.

This event is special because the population of Feilding is a mere 14,000 — on the other hand, it’s only 20 minutes from the provincial capital of Palmerston North. At least three writers’ groups are active in Feilding.

In my workshop I’ll be asking participants about their main source of joy as writers. I know what will happen: each individual will have a definite answer — and their answers will be varied in the extreme.

I’ll also ask them to state what spoils the joy of writing, for them personally. Then I’ll ask everyone to place the kill-joys on a wonky chart on a scale between unchangeable and changeable, and external and internal factors.

  • What would you say were the greatest enemies of your own joy in writing?
  • Where would you place them on the chart below?
  • That’s all: now I’m interested in your thoughts!
Chart for the factors that kill your joy as a writer
Chart for the factors that kill your joy as a writer

After a gross Amazon review, set your novel free!


So, I wrote an “inspiring, comical, feminist” (to summarise a radio review) chook-lit sort of novel about happiness in the earthquake epoch. That’s Fixing Mrs Philpott. Yes, it contains a few sex scenes, but most novels do, don’t they? Then I got distracted and failed to solicit those first few crucial reviews, leaving the book to languish unnoticed on Amazon/Kindle.

Uh oh, not entirely unnoticed. Along comes this email from a guy I’ll call Ron. Wallowing in apologies because he has written a “smart-alecky and flippant” review that “must have hurt your feelings.” Well, I’ve been communicating with readers for the last 40 years. This is generally a source of delight, but not everyone likes my books, and I have encountered the occasional idiot with a personal agenda. However, he did astonish me: how stupid can you get? A. to write such rubbish and B. to confess to it. In the end I’m laughing … and I pity him.

He thought my feelings would be hurt. No, but I’m annoyed because Amazon reviews are hard-won and influential, especially those stars.

My tragic reviews data for Fixing Mrs Philpott


Only a tiny minority of readers write a review. Half of my reviews for Fixing Mrs Philpott consisted of a single thoughtful, genuine review. The other 50% was squandered on — let’s call a spade a spade — sexual harassment.

What do you do with an inappropriate review?

I don’t know what’s best — what would you do? Nothing, if it’s one of 20 reviews. But because it’s one of only two (tragic, I know) here’s what I did:

  • smiled an evil smile
  • clicked “Not helpful” and “Report abuse”
  • made Fixing Mrs Philpott (Kindle edition) FREE on Amazon for the next 5 days.

Thank you in advance, dear reader-writer

I know you’re probably a writer as well as a reader. And that therefore you understand this situation. I was going to say, you have much more understanding than Rob — I mean Bob — sorry, Ron— but that goes without saying.

Forgive me for venting. This is not my problem alone. And if I had 20 reviews, it would not be a problem at all.

Meantime I do hope you enjoy reading this novel. It’s about happiness and I hope it brings you happiness. (Did I write into life? But of course!) I love giving it away free and I’ll do it whenever Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) allows.




Developing characters: lift your eyes from the keyboard

Man in a cap typing on a tiny, very old typewriter
Writer John by Onomatomedia, cc by-sa 3.0

“I am always criticised for my unrealistic characters,” said a writer nonchalantly. We were chatting in a cafe. “People say they’re not interesting.” I moved my eyes and saw seven other people, making coffee, drinking coffee, reading, working at tablets and laptops.

“Do you ever look at strangers, and wonder about them?” I asked.

“No. I’m more interested in ideas.”

I hadn’t noticed that. I’d noticed something else, though. “I climbed Everest last Tuesday,” I said.

“I did a lot of climbing in Wales when I was young,” he said.

“I climbed Everest solo without oxygen,” I said.

“I climbed with a top team, and three of them had climbed Everest multiple times,” he said.

“I climbed Everest solo last Tuesday wearing nothing but a tutu,” I said.

“I sometimes think about climbing Everest, but my arthritis is a problem,” he said.

“Oh, that’s enough about me!” I said. “Let’s talk about you as a writer who is unable to create realistic characters. Do you ever eavesdrop?”

“No,” he said.

“Well, start,” I said. “Do you ever listen to what other people are saying?”

“I’m more interested in ideas,” he said.


Inventing characters for that novel

Sketches of Beryl, Katherine, Susan, Lilian and Tessa: 5 characters in Fixing Mrs Philpott, a novel
Sketching some of the 27 characters in “Fixing Mrs Philpott”

I faced a crazy challenge with my latest novel, Fixing Mrs Philpott: 27 characters! How to even imagine them all, let about writing them with conviction!

I tried a new trick, which helped enormously — I drew them all.

I’m no artist, so I couldn’t very well draw people from real life. (They won’t sit still.) Instead I would record TV shows like Country Calendar or Antiques Roadshow and pause the flow whenever I found a character who might suit my purpose. Then I would draw that person.

Quite often, though, I drew my people from imagination alone. The five in the illustration above are probably imaginary — but watching TV with a pencil in my hand really sharpened my observational skills, if not my drawing!

I know, I’m terrible at drawing, but who cares? Sketches like these are more than sufficient for my purpose. They are draft characters for me to colour in.

Later I might change many details but at least I had a starting point. I highly recommend this strategy for face-blind writers with aphantasia, like me. Plus it’s so much fun.


Letter to a frustrated poet


Note: This is adapted from a real letter, shared because some writers desperately want the impossible (their books in high street bookstores) and refuse to explore other outlets for their writing. Sabella is not the poet’s real name.

Dear Sabella

It was good to see you the other day after all these years. I’m glad to know you have such an excellent driver to help with transport, especially when you travelled for nearly two hours to call on me and <famous New Zealand poet> and<famous New Zealand poet>.

Thank you for lending me <title of poetry book> to read, and the CD — which as you say, is essential to get the full flavour of the poems. I enjoyed them both as insights into the way your mind is working and your talents as a poet and actor. What I appreciate is the passion behind the poems, even when I don’t grasp the meaning. Your reading brings out that passion and drama. My feeling is that these are performance poems, which don’t necessarily flower on the page. I am pleased you have been doing open mic performances: that’s where you get the most wonderful audience responses!

Sabella, I have decided not to write a review

  1. A review needs an outlet, and I don’t have a suitable one.
  2. With only eleven poems, the book is very short. A reviewer wants something substantial. Customers will not see the book as good value. Bookstores won’t see it as profitable. Theoretically the CD adds value, but people can’t glance through it like a book: they have to listen and they can’t do that in a shop.
  3. You wanted a review, I understand, so that Unity Books would agree to sell the book. Let me repeat, I am certain that a review would not make the slightest difference. Unity has outstanding staff who know what their customers will buy, regardless of reviews.
  4. Every author longs for reviews but the publishing scene has changed. I used to get a dozen or so reviews for my fiction and even my poetry collections. Now, I’m lucky if I get a couple. So I publish new poems on a blog, and am very happy with the readers who gather there. (

I suggest you send a review copy of Quake to Paula Green who runs the New Zealand Poetry Shelf blog. ( Paula is a knowledgeable and wise advocate for New Zealand poetry. Don’t ask her to return the book: that’s not polite.

Don’t be so proud — get online!

It’s really worthwhile learning how to read and write and broadcast poetry online — hundreds of poems are being published in blogs, on Facebook, on Instagram. All this is much, much, much easier than it was a few years ago, I promise. You get to meet other poets and readers, and to publish your own poems in a friendly atmosphere. SeniorNet in <your city> offers very popular computer classes for people 50 and over, and these classes are easy and fun.

This is my own philosophy as a writer

Sabella, my new slogan is write into life — write because you love it, because the act of writing is life-affirming and life-giving and healing and intellectually satisfying, write because you want to write!

Write. Don’t expect publishers to publish you or bookstores to promote you. Don’t expect fame and fortune. Don’t expect reviews. When you drop the sense of entitlement, you banish bitterness and frustration. And then everything beyond the joy of writing is a bonus — every round of applause at a reading, every message from a reader, every review, every invitation to a literary event, every smile of recognition is something you didn’t demand or even expect and is therefore twice as precious.

This reply is offered in sincerity and respect. I don’t ask of you anything that I don’t live by myself. I expect you are disappointed but you did ask the right person for advice.

I wish you well in every way.



Let the sabbatical begin!

I was feeling anxious for no apparent reason. I checked in with “my” cognitive therapist.

We decided I was feeling a big fat lack in my life of a big fat writing project, the sort that brings me not mere pleasure but sustained joy, the sort of project that makes me leap out of bed every morning with excitement… My life had a schedule but no hierarchy of activities: it was pretty, but shapeless. Everything I did was interesting, even fun, but no one activity took precedence.

That was true, so I have dropped my new online teaching project with a thud. Making video courses was a rebound project — something interesting to do after selling my business and getting another novel published — not a true-love project. I loved the learning … liked the making … but hated publicising. It was starting to feel like work (the dreary sort) not play.

True-love writing projects brew for some time before forcing themselves to the surface of a writer’s mind and the foreground of a writer’s day.

I decided not to hunt for a true-love project, but to wait patiently. To enjoy the novelty of a creative vacuum. To quote Skip To my Lou, My Dharma, “Let’s just see.”

So I’m starting a self-imposed sabbatical on Thursday with a trip to Brisbane and a long weekend with my sister and brother-in-law.

My cat has got the pip. Don’t you love her sunshine tips? I’m bound for Queensland, but hey, she says, there’s plenty of sun right here, what’s the problem?

The message is not the motive: why we write what we write


It began in high school and continued to puzzle me for a few more years, those non sequitur answers to a stock Eng Lit question: “Why did the author write this book?” These are examples of acceptable answers:

  • “To show a peasant class being destroyed by industrialisation”
  • “To criticise Victorian notions of sexuality”
  • “To show that fate and a character flaw can bring tragic unavoidable consequences.”

In the 1950s this was a standard way to approach a work of literature. In retrospect, we may as well blame Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, whose influence on the teaching of English literature was global and decades-long and prescriptive and perhaps absurd — his approach was the only show in town. Just saying.

Anyway, to a future novelist, the convention was most alarming. It implied that we must have a noble theme shaped and polished before we dare to lift a pen. A high-minded morally superior world view and an evangelical urge to win hearts minds and souls were prerequisites for every novel. Obviously I was lacking. I’m still lacking.

The second Eng Lit question: what themes?

We were also asked another question that was more transparent but equally odd and tunnel-shaped: “What are the themes in this novel?” Theme-spotting is a nice game to play, but I could never believe that themes were cut and dried, correct exam answer or not. In the authoritarian culture of our high school, gut feelings (like “this is too facile, this doesn’t ring true) had to be squashed down. Or so I believed at the time.

Sloppy thinking from above

Eventually I got it: apparently my teachers assumed that the two questions were interchangeable, perhaps because apparently the only conceivable reason for writing a novel was to express a theme. Most of my English teachers loved literature with an infectious passion, which I suppose was ultimately more important than their theory. But this closed-questioning did confuse and worry me — because I accepted neither the premise or the implications, both of which frightened me as a budding writer.

Naughty thoughts keep a creative spirit steady

Secretly I continued to think my secret thoughts, naughty thoughts, heretical thoughts such as, “You have no idea what the author was really thinking!” and “You’re not a writer, so how would you know?” and “You’re just analysing a text after the event, and that’s not how people write!”

By identifying with the author, not the analyst, somewhere deep inside I stayed true to myself.

On the other hand, I could thoroughly enjoy myself and even be myself in exams and essays. I relished the game of literary analysis, because it was fun, and because I knew the rules and I knew it was only a game.

But I always needed that private world where you can quietly brew something brand new, all yours, using your mind and hands alone.

You know, I think everyone needs that private world. Not just writers. It gets called many things, for example, “me-time” or “space” or “a shed”.