Busy Writer-Bees

Over Labour Weekend, the Canterbury branch of the NZ Society of Authors had the great honour and pleasure of hosting some BRILLIANT writing workshops. It was a fascinating and inspiring, practical and encouraging weekend. I learned more than I can possibly cover in a blog post. But here goes…

The first thing I learned, on Friday evening, was how to pronounce Nicky Hager’s surname. Listen up, NZ Media, you’re about to learn something: It’s not Hey-garr. It’s Haa-gir.

And then I learned… oh, so many things. Nicky talked us through his research process, how he discovers hard-to-find information, how he organises his source material, how he approaches writing and rewriting, from the vital title all the way through to the all-important index. As a fiction writer myself I was astounded by how much of his wisdom applied readily and easily to my own writing practice.

For researching, rather than reading a million articles online, which are written faster than anyone can read them, on almost any given subject, he talked about starting with a ‘map’ of possible sources of information.

“Alright, no one’s prepared to talk about this, so what are all the places where there actually is information? Because as you can imagine, in a country like New Zealand there are plenty of people who are related to, lived with, used to go out with, get the shopping for, you know… we’re all connected up… There will often be little pieces of information on a completely impossible to find subject which are drifting around already in the community. And how do you gather those up and start to make sense of them? It’s a job.”


I was struck by Nicky’s eagerness to tell stories that no one else is telling, and to be faithful to sources who take great risks to help him do so. If he’s cunning (and sure, he has to be), it seemed to me to come from a desperate desire to fulfill his responsibilities as a writer and a citizen.

Whatever your stance on his work, you can’t deny he’s produced a lot of readable books on topics which might otherwise be a slow trudge through dull-city. The HOW of this is always fascinating to writers.

“When your aim is tens of thousands of words, eighty thousand words… any particular day is a little bit like rowing across the Tasman sea, you know, the horizons have not moved and so I find… given that you have to slightly whip yourself along… There are some people who have to write every day and there are many people who have to make themselves write if they want to do it and so each day I will finish my work and I will write on my little row boat log book how many words I got up to in that chapter. I find it very useful not because I look back on it but because I just know—I know that I am keeping going.”

It was both reassuring and challenging to hear this. Just what we writers usually need: a kind of pat-on-the-back combined with a kick-in-the-bum. Thanks Nicky!


After a little supper, the venerable Brian Turner spoke about his two writing fields: poetry, of course, and sports biographies. There I was thinking, orange juice and toothpaste, but clearly not. Brian shared his process as well as his passion—for HOME, for the south, for the environment. He challenged writers to speak—or write, rather—our minds.

“As writers we shouldn’t expect others to agree with what we say. But writers think a lot more about things… I like it when writers put up their hands and write to the paper and write about the politics of the day. I think it’s our duty as writers.” – Brian Turner


We were also treated to poetry readings and I took some video. Once I’ve edited it I’ll share that. Thanks so much for coming, Brian!


Bright and early on Saturday morning, we reconvened for workshops with Sarah Laing and Rachel McAlpine.

Rachel asked us to consider what gave us joy in writing. Was it a particular experience or feeling that struck us while we were putting words to paper? Or was it a subject matter, or a result of our writing, like publication or feedback? Then we explored the enemies of our joy, which came in all sorts of forms. One of these was comparing ourselves and our success (or lack thereof) to other writers.

“You poison yourself. You don’t hurt anybody else, just you so… I don’t know if anyone–have you had that feeling? If it comes along just bang it on the head with a hammer… It embitters you. Because writing is so close to your heart. It’s so much your own thing that it really really hurts if you start to think that way… so my suggestion is go straight to a cognitive behavior therapist and get over it.” – Rachel McAlpine

rachel mcalpine

Rachel talked about her joyful self-publishing endeavours in the past, and her more recent books. And she shared some methods for writing therapy and how to form the habits we want. I particularly loved her 30 second trick. Basically, to form a new habit you need only to dedicate 30 seconds a day to it, but it has to be at a very specific time and there has to be room for it to grow. That means you can’t do it just before you walk out the door. But you might do it (whatever it is) when you’ve just come home. And you (initially) only vow to do it for 30 seconds. But when you start, and keep at it, every day, it will grow. You’ll find yourself with a new habit–be it writing, meditating, flossing, dancing, mindfulness, sketching, stretching or keeping better tabs on the budget.

It was all in all a heartwarming and practical session, a wonderful start to the day. Thank you so much, Rachel!


Meanwhile, at the far end of the library, Sarah Laing ran a workshop all about letting your inner cartoonist play. She shared about her own journey—keeping a drawing journal as a child and how this led her into working as a graphic artist and publishing a graphic novel.

Tips for newbies: artists in this genre tend to consider their works cartoons (single panel) or comic books (multi page cartoons). Graphic novels are generally long books of cartoons but sometimes this term is considered a bit pretentious with the the comic book crowd.

Sarah laid out a series of steps for creating cartoon characters and everyone had a try—even those who’d never drawn in their lives.

“One of the really cool things about comics is that it’s so unique–the way that everybody draws writes just kind of seems to express something about the individual which is quite unique and inherently interesting.” – Sarah Laing


And she was good enough to demonstrate the power of the eyebrow. If you don’t believe me, check out her comics.

She also provided the names of helpful references from names such as Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, Barry Linton, Roz Chast, etc. A few lucky participants were able to buy copy of MANSFIELD &ME: A GRAPHIC MEMOIR, Sarah’s latest book, and have it signed on the day. Thank you Sarah! Maybe bring more books next time…

After morning tea I was in Harry Rickett’s session, ‘Borrowing the Editor’s Eyes’, which was jam-packed full of great advice.

“Become a tougher reader of yourself—you owe it to yourself because you want your work to be as good as it can be.”

But sometimes, that equates to…

“Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean it isn’t shit.”

harry ricketts

He covered all sorts, from the borderline-philosophical,

“You might not turn out to be the kind of writer you hope to be. Find out what kind of writer you are.”

to the nitty gritty,

“The right moment to use a semi-colon is when you want to link two sentences which are complete sentences, but in which the second looks back over its shoulder to the first.”

He talked about taking feedback and advised that,

“the suggestions that are most helpful are the ones you half thought of yourself. They were sort of ghosting on your shoulder.”

And he encouraged us to we willing to change tack and revise dramatically—that cutting words is NOT wasted effort.

“You found things out through that… the history of writing is full of stories of people who set off on one track and then found another better track.”

Who hasn’t needed to hear that once or twice? We were all sitting there, enthralled, eating up his words. Thanks so much, Harry! And sorry about the dicky projector…


At the same time, others were attending Mandy Hager’s session on building a powerful story. She spoke about how a memorable story can have such an huge impact, on a heart level.

“Fiction can be a window, or a mirror, to all that resides within ourselves. We need to forage from our own experience to make heart-to-heart connections with our readers. The key is to write about stuff that really matters to you.”

Mandy was the real deal, admitting writing is often difficult (even for those with her experience and renown). She encouraged writers to give themselves something to keep them going. Follow your own heart, in other words.

“Our stories should help us make sense of the world; help us figure out how to live in this world.”

mandy hager

She suggested taking time to develop a story—before even starting to write. You can think about the slogan or theme and who the characters are. Consider what the pivotal moments could be and the conflicts. What does the protagonist really need, not only what she or he wants? Then, the voice of the story needs to reflect all this. It needs to release the character onto the page.

After lunch I went along to Jillian Sullivan’s session on the Hero’s emotional journey. And boy, did we go on a journey! We did actual writing, too. Always a bit of a mission after a decent lunch, am I right?

Jillian’s first writing exercise was about accessing the subconscious by continuous writing—pen on page, keeping moving, even if you’re writing drivel, don’t stop for five whole minutes. Our prompt, to begin with, was “I want…” and later we could add, “But what I really need is…”

“Our subconscious is such a rich vein, that we can trust, but we think we have to think things out and sometimes it’s just good to tap into that.”

Next we wrote from the point of view of a fictional character we’d created. The prompt was “I know…” followed by, “I want you to know…”. And to this we were given two additional words, completely unrelated to anything. In this case, THISTLE and GLIDE, but you might use any two random words. This is another access-the-subconscious trick known as BISOCIATION. Basically, your brain will make strange connections in order to incorporate these two words which you probably would not have used otherwise.

Jillian talked about the Hero’s Journey, the ol’ 12 steps you’ll find in all the classical narratives, and she applied this to a couple of fresh stories using her own take: The Hero’s EMOTIONAL Journey. All in all, a super helpful session. Thank you so much, Jillian.


At the same time we had Rachel O’Connor talking about how she found a London literary agent. Indeed, ’tis something of a holy grail. But Rachel broke it down, sharing her story and encouraging writers to start with their very best work. She spoke about getting a query letter and synopsis in order, as well as that vital first chapter.

She encouraged writers to spend time building a list of preferred agents, making sure they are passionate about and experienced in working with your genre, but also that they have some shared interests. Make sure they operate in a way you’re happy with, and that they work with the publishers you’d like to pursue. Their relationships, connections and expertise are what you want them for. Make sure you’re approaching the right people!

Next, know your logline. That’s the elevator pitch. The single sentence sales-pitch. The hook. Write it. Hone it. And learn it. Off by heart.

And before you send anything, study each agent’s submission requirements. They do vary. One will want three chapters, another ten pages and a synopsis, another will only want the query letter. Read carefully and give them exactly what they want. Watch the details: send only the correct file types, and exactly the number of pages or chapters they ask for.

When you’re ready, submit. Agents will say on their websites how long you will need to wait for. You can absolutely follow up at the end of the usual period—and you should do so.

rachel o'connor

Rachel’s session was, essentially, her own story, a successful case study if you like, but it is in line with the best practices for finding a literary agent in London, or New York for that matter. Attendees saved themselves hours of online research and potentially a lot of rejections by attending this session. Thanks Rachel!

And that was it, the end of the workshops. But not the end of the fun because we capped off Saturday with the Prizegiving for New Zealand Heritage Book Awards and Writing Competitions! Follow that link for all the info about the winning entries and writers.

Thank you so much to all who attended and especially to our awesome presenters. And of course, warmest appreciation to Creative New Zealand for their generous grant. It was a wonderful weekend, the highlight of NZSA Canterbury’s calendar once again.


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