on the writing & reading trail

Posts tagged ‘research’

Editing, critiquing and research

Days 79-87 (Jul 3-August 8)  

Edit diary: Editing time has been patchy and feels unsatisfactory.Recent days have been full of distractions; catching up with friends, cooking to stock up the freezer, hobbling round with painful muscles after overdoing some exercise, overdue housework to make our home presentable for visitors.

Critiquing:  Our Writers Group meeting last Friday (see photos of wonderful colleagues) was excellent with welcome feedback for all who submitted material even though it left some of us with puzzles about conflicting views and suggestions about tackling some plot or character issues. Whilst the perennial suggestions for how to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ are a constant at our meetings, there were some stunning examples of ‘showing’ in some passages. And we learn from each other.

Treasured colleagues

More of us

Short story:  In a separate entry, I have great pleasure in introducing a short story Miss Understood  by Writers Group colleague and friend, Nene Davies.  

Reading:  Has been disjointed because of constant reference to research resources as I edit my second story Present tense while I have relevant books from the library; to recheck and / or to flesh out information regarding war correspondents and the challenges for aid volunteers in Africa in the late 1990s. Sadly in South Sudan current upheavals seem like a re-run from that time. Even though the political structure has changed, the underlying disputes around resources, ethnic differences, and national and local disagreements persist.

Research:  Because it is such a joy to read one of the books, Emma’s War, by Deborah Scroggins in a large print library edition I’ve been finding it difficult to set it aside even when I’ve found the reference(s) I need. So good not being distracted and slowed down by struggles with the small lettering in my personal copy. Thankfully most of the other books are easier on the eye.

Although the Scroggins timeframe is a little before my story, her book provides a wonderful panorama of the political and aid environments leading up to the later famine years and the increasing unrest that claimed so many lives through violence, malnutrition, starvation and ill health.

Médecins Sans Frontières websites claim me for hours at a time, reading of the work of the volunteers and the experiences of the survivors of the turmoil as they seek help in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. The amazing MSF videos should be compulsory viewing by the whole world.

Why aren’t these people (and others like them in many countries) the ones we welcome to Australia? They have no money to help them move between countries and then buy places on leaky boats. Of course the issues are complex for all asylum seekers and many, many have unmet needs. In my novel the volunteers often have to make diabolical choices about who receives priority for medical care because resources are finite. Same with asylum seekers. We can’t take everyone. My preference is for governments to focus on those people in the most dire circumstances with the fewest or no choices.

Critiques, reading, editing

Day 72 (July 24)

Critiques: The month is powering on and it is time for sending chapters for critique and receiving work from others.

I did an early send to two of our members who offered to take an advance look at a chapter that I wasn’t sure worked as it is totally comprised of reflection by several of the characters after retiring for the night, following uneasy and puzzling interactions when Tony and Alexander meet with the two nurses at the aid camp. Thankfully both critiquers think the material achieves by filling personality and plot gaps as intended. I’d wrestled with other ways of conveying the necessary elements of the story without success. Hopefully when the material goes to other members they will agree, even though there are sure to be different suggestions for overall improvement, or maybe they will offer inspiration for a different approach.

Two short extracts from the chapter follow. The first focuses on the musings of Tony, a logistician, as he thinks about the local political dangers when planning his activities for the next few days.

Tony knew that even a minor provocation could translate to histrionic temper tantrums by the warlords and result in a veto on clinic activities, or additional restrictions on team movements between clinics, camps, embryo hospitals and outreach points, or even the planting of new landmines in the area. Or worse. But with guerrilla activities so unpredictable, guesses about potential reprisals could be notoriously off the mark. With the recollection that general intelligence for the area had been optimistic he dozed again. 

Recurring unease brought him suddenly awake at times.

During one of the wakeful times he started a mental check on the list of activities scheduled for tomorrow. He needed to cover all bases without reference to written lists. The commander he’d be negotiating with prided himself on getting things done and had little truck with education and learning. Tony knew that the tribal elders who would be present understood the tenuousness of talks and were always careful to avoid contentious issues. They wanted the best for their families and their people and he could rely on them to recommend good helpers for the measles campaign if agreement was achieved.

 In the second extract Alexander’s puzzlement emerges about Freya’s behaviour during their brief and unexpected meeting after many years.

Alexander lay for a while, staring at the sky without seeing it. He wrestled with a sense that something to do with Freya was out of whack but couldn’t hook it. Clearly she did not want to acknowledge their old relationship. She was the same, and different. She’d always been so open, transparent really, and now there were pockets of containment and opaqueness. A protective mechanism? He guessed she’d need something of that when doing this kind of work. The passion about anything she was doing hadn’t gone; the graceful gestures remained; still a toucher and comforter.

 So far I’ve received only one chapter for critique. It covers the ongoing development and success of the Australian opera singer who performs magnificently in Monte Carlo and who is bound for more tuition in Milan. Her ambitions are being realised. A few structural suggestions made – I hope they are useful.

I’m expecting several more submissions in coming days.

Reading: Hospital’s volume of short stories, Forecast: Turbulence has been fascinating. Such power. The blurb says: Janette Turner Hospital sensitively weaves stories of heartbreaking poignancy, shocking power and steadfast resolve, all honouring a universal question: how can we maintain equilibrium in a turbulent and uncertain world?

Although this is a theme in each of the three existing books in my family saga, it is much more so in the one I am currently editing than in the first. In the first book Past imperfect, the dilemmas are more at individual level, while the second book Present tense attempts to explore issues in a wider context. I am reaching out to emulate the power of Hospital’s prose. An elusive ambition I suspect.


While still dipping into Nigel Brennan’s different type of saga as the members of his family dealt with his incarceration and efforts to free him, I’ve also started to read The Postmistress by Sarah Blake which was recommended by a friend and just appeared on the hold shelf of the library yesterday. Looks promising.

Editing: I’ve finished the current sweep of Part One of Present tense and am now working on the humanitarian aid part of the story. Although exhaustively researched many months ago I need to re-read resources and perhaps find new material to strengthen what is already written. The passage of time has not made it any easier to represent with authenticity the atrocities that can occur between human beings or the impact of natural disasters. Among the survivors, resilience and hope prevail for those who are not broken; so many humbling stories in the midst of despair. Where are the ways to overcome evil and greed in their many guises? Maybe somewhere amongst the survivors the will and talents will emerge to find ways to share the resources of this marvellous world co-operatively?

Editing, writing, critiquing, reading

Day 39 (June 22)

Editing: Moving through the chapters slowly, experiencing the same hiccoughs as previously, but generally satisfied with progress.


Short story: In the context of the Locked collection of stories I envisage, the first one is taking shape out of an amorphous conglomerate of ideas. About the experience of a young woman, about a first pregnancy, the story will mirror the inevitable expedition resulting from the unique genetic permutations that take her budding embryo through to the outside world. With a husband absent in a war-torn zone, she immerses herself, not just physically, but more and more emotionally and philosophically into the event. The question is: Can I do the ideas justice?

Another novel: Last year when I was travelling alone in Canada I filled some of the empty time spaces between viewing the landscape and being an inevitable eavesdropper on surrounding conversations during a couple of long train journeys, by jotting notes for a story that was hankering to be told. In odd moments this week (almost a year later) I’ve been typing up those handwritten scrawls and fleshing out the tale of an expat who was trying to escape memories of the violence of Northern Ireland in rural Australia. Not sure how it will go, but it seems that just when she was reaching longer spells of peace, a thoughtless prank by a youngster at her workplace revived the memories. But it also directs her energies in another direction.

Critiquing: Next Writers Group meeting is in sight so the chapters are dropping in by email clamouring for comments. I’ll make a start over the weekend, first with the ongoing fictionalised biography of Maggie Gard, an aspiring Australian soprano as she explores the mysteries of her teacher’s French castle in the gaps between lessons. The teacher, Emma Calve is most famous for her role in Carmen.

I’ll submit part of a late chapter from my own Present hope novel. That section won’t be in my editing sights for quite a few weeks. It’s a challenging multi-person conversation, so input will be most helpful for when I get to that stage.

Helpful sources

Reading: I’m spoilt for choice at the moment. Will finish the Atkinson yarn tonight – am totally devoid of predictions about the twists, there will be a few more to come for sure. My shelf dedicated to library books is full and I’ve a few favourites from my own collection set aside for re-reading sometime.

And now I have another choice: Wanted women: faith, lies and the war on terror: the lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui by Deborah Scroggins. What a wonderful coincidence that the author’s name beamed out from a library trolley of new acquisitions just as I was leaving today. I can’t be absolutely sure of the details after a gap of five or six years of thinking about my saga novels and following many lines of research, but I know that Deborah Scroggins had a role in how my story developed after I read her book Emma’s war. It is located in large part in South Sudan and tells the unique story of Emma McClune and her marriage to a local warlord. Some scraps in the book that referred to the work of Medecins Sans Frontier at that time led me on a much wider search, and later on, snippets of the experiences of women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali within Holland, found their way into my story as well. Now I know which will be my first read of choice after Atkinson is done.

Weekend: Won’t be able to turn a blind eye to the housework screaming out for attention.

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