Alumni Feature November 2010

“Please no, not this again”: squaring up to the second draft

by Diana Jenkins

It’s hard to know with so much material to choose from, but perhaps the single most naïve, ignorant thing your News Editor has ever said is, “That’s it; I’m done.” I was talking about my first draft, and like a big fat lazy delusional dumb-dumb, I actually thought my novel was finished. Just to put the full extent of this embarrassing miscalculation in context for you, that first draft took five months to write, and next month marks our four-year anniversary together. A bruising recent rejection suggests there’s still a way to go before anyone calls, ‘Time.’ And even though some of us sure as hell aren’t in Second Draft Kansas anymore, Toto, let’s head back to those good old days now, back to when it was still possible to count drafts on both hands, and consider the crucial role of the second born.

So you’ve written a first draft. Let’s start right there. As Alumna and author of Wasp Season, Jennifer Scoullar, observes, “A painter doesn’t usually manufacture his own paper. A potter starts complete with clay. But writers have to produce their own canvas – the first draft. For me, its completion marks the real beginning of the writing process. First drafts have their advantages. For one, they don’t have to be brilliant. Nobody writes a great first draft, do they?”

A Um, no – at least, nobody sitting at this News Desk. But once you have that first draft, do take a moment to enjoy your accomplishment (even if you know it sucks). You’ve written the bones of a novel: it exists where once there was only a blank page. Sincere kudos, props, and high-fives to you! It’s only the beginning, sure, but it’s still a difficult, brave thing you’ve done, and writers ought not forget that they’ve managed something thrilling even in getting this far.

Reaching the first draft milestone is also, as Alumna Susanne Gervay points out, a huge relief. “You've got the first draft done,” she says. “That's not to say it's great, but it gives you the skeleton to work and rework. I always feel relief by then.”

No wonder. The pressure in your brain probably eases once you’ve coughed up that first gigantic fur ball, so enjoy the reprieve, because you’re going to need all your strength again soon enough. As Louise Doughty says in A Novel in a Year, the book version of her highly successful column in the UK’s Daily Telegraph:

…allow yourself a moment of pleasure. Here, before you, is your novel. Yes, it’s a mess. Yes, it’s got more holes than an abandoned cobweb. And yes, you are going to have to work harder than you have ever worked in your life to fill in the gaps and re-order it if necessary – and, crikey, we haven’t even got started on the quality of your prose yet. But you have an idea for a book and it has shape and form, and now the real work can begin.

On Writing cover Before it does, most advice, including Doughty’s and Stephen King’s in On Writing, includes taking a break at the conclusion of the first draft stage. King and our own Carol Major, part of Varuna’s Creative Team, recommend working on something else in the interim – you may find it invigorating to have several things (particularly shorter pieces) on the go. But the main thing is to step back from that manuscript. That’s it, there’s a good writer, come away from there...

Next, during the first reading pre-second draft, when you’ve hopefully returned refreshed and bright-eyed, King’s own practice is concentrating on story and toolbox concerns (pronouns, adverbs, clarifying phrases and so on), but underneath all that he admits he’s really asking himself the Big Questions too:

The biggest: is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme? I’m asking myself What’s it all about, Stevie, in other words, and what can I do to make those underlying concerns even clearer. What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf […] Most of all, I’m looking for what I meant, because in the second draft I’ll want to add scenes and incidents that reinforce that meaning. I’ll also want to delete stuff that goes in other directions.

King also passes on a now oft-quoted formula given to him by an encouraging editor before (and this is hard to imagine, I know) he was published:

2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%

Sounds easy, and it’s an excellent starting point, but for many writers, the reality of tackling a second draft goes well beyond shaving the word count (and while we’re about it, ten percent?! Really? Just the ten?!). For Jennifer Scoullar, for example, redrafting consists of so much more.

Second drafts are where all the real action is,” she says, “where the big improvements can be made. I’m a big second draft fan. It’s a challenge, writing additional scenes, for example to strengthen conflict or pick up the pacing where it lags. If I spot the plot becoming predictable, I can throw in a furphy or two. I can finally add in all that colour and texture.

I’m at the tail-end of a second draft at the moment, and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The pain might come during the third draft, if I decide my shining prince of a manuscript is more of a frog. But still, nothing will erase the pleasure of writing that second draft.

Indeed, King’s own advice includes thinking about what your story means and enriching your following drafts with your conclusions, so like Jennifer, you may find yourself adding words before you can begin subtracting them (then again, if you and the Delete key reach this later stage without yet making each other’s acquaintance, now might be a good time to take another look at that formula…).

Now, Stephen King is a prolific and gifted freak whose books are written in two swift drafts and a polish; those of us on the other end of the scale must cling to the belief that every writer is different. It’s not a race, or a contest, even if it sometimes feels like both. Even ‘ole quick-draw himself points out that Kurt Vonnegut ‘rewrote each page of his novels until he got them exactly the way he wanted them,’ and some authors take decades to redraft. Two drafts or ten, the object is always the same: to whip this thing into shape until it is worthy of a reader.

Speaking of readers, King talks about two stages: the draft you write with the door closed, and the one you write with it open. The first draft, he suggests, ‘should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else.’ He acknowledges the strong urge to show what you’re doing to someone else, and arguably one of the best pieces of advice in a book chock full of good sense is to resist this impulse. Showing work too early is like opening the oven door on a partially cooked soufflé: potentially disastrous.

Negotiating the minefield of reader feedback is a learned but absolutely essential skill. As Carol says,

Seeking feedback from other writers and insightful readers can help – a writer doesn’t always see what’s on the page and what’s still in his or her head, whereas a reader can tell you what’s actually there.

But having said that...I also think it is important to gain confidence in your own processes and vision. Others can help you refine that vision by asking questions: Why this story? Why now? And it’s good to have others point out crafting issues that are holding back your vision. But resist rewriting things simply to please these people.

It’s a tricky balance to strike, because no one asked to provide feedback ever comes back and says they have none to give. In addition, some readers can’t resist imparting their own vision for your story. Such input may come even or especially if your writing is strong, perhaps because your reader is sufficiently motivated to make some claim for it – something most of us do unconsciously when reading published works. This kind of involvement is gratifying, no question, but at the drafting stage, it’s dangerous too.

Good writing usually provokes to some degree,” says Carol, “and this means that some people (given the opportunity to alter a manuscript) will want anything that makes them feel uncomfortable resolved in the text. But in some cases they should feel uncomfortable. Harmony doesn’t equal safety or homogenisation. Beware re-drafting in a way that diminishes the vibrancy of your writing and flattens things out.

Indeed, exercising caution is a good rule generally. When King talks about the next stage – opening the door – he’s not talking about sending the manuscript out to every agent and editor listed in The Australian Writer’s Marketplace. ‘Opening the door’ means showing the draft to a few trusted readers and getting their (hopefully honest and constructively critical) feedback, and then bracing yourself to receive the same number of completely different subjective opinions in return.

Peter Bishop This closed and open door is very similar in spirit to Varuna’s long-serving Creative Director Peter Bishop’s idea of the writer’s draft, in which we tell ourselves the story, versus the reader’s draft, in which we tell it to someone else.

Our Varuna Books Editor Charlotte Wood recalls, “Peter said a beautiful thing [during a recent week at Varuna], that the first draft is like having a dream in all its weird illogic and leaps and vivid wildness, but the second draft is how you tell the dream to someone else; i.e. you need to structure and order it to make it make sense.”

In terms of taming and naming that dream, Doughty’s program in A Novel in a Year offers weekly exercises, which may help keep daydreams and other forms of procrastination at bay. It’s at the Week 30 mark that Doughty pauses to reflect on the road ahead. She says, ‘Bit of a mess, eh?’ – which is how I know we’re talking about the same thing – before adding:

Crucially, you will begin to see where there are gaps. Make notes on sheets of paper and put them in the gaps. You might write a note saying something as general as “ship sinks” or “Tom leaves home” – doesn’t matter how vague. Put it in the place where you think that event might occur.

Both Doughty and Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird advocate spreading the first draft all over the floor, section by section. Having never done this (and maybe that’s the problem right there, although who in Sydney has the space?), it’s hard to comment on the benefits of this paper chase, but the accompanying brisk pacing they suggest certainly appeals, as does really staring down the physical object as one marches back and forth, interrogating the tangible article: that pile of papyrus that is your particular manuscript. Because what Lamott and Doughty are doing in this reshuffle is gradually moulding the manuscript, which recalls Alumna Jewelene Barrile’s comment: ”My mantra? Stories do not shape themselves. Writers must shape their stories.”

Thanks to a spreadsheet template, shared by a member of her Varuna tight five, Jewelene has recently learned how to shape while keeping the floor tidy. “If the structure’s complex,” she says, ”scene by scene mapping on a spreadsheet across character, time, mood, symbol, setting and theme is a revelation. Considering where inciting incident, key points and climax best fall is an essential part of that.”

A novel is a spatial form, after all, not simply a verbal one, so whatever your preferred method – Excel, whiteboard or floorboard – mapping its territory is a critical part of successfully navigating your way through it. As Jewelene notes, “Contemplating each character’s arc and its intersection with the main character’s arc brings the ‘architecture’ of the story into sharp focus.”

Helen Barnes-Bulley, the other half of Varuna’s Creative Team, notes that drafts can be more amorphous than that, and that it’s sometimes hard to know where one draft ends and another begins.

The issue of drafting has been made more complicated in the past twenty or so years by advances in computer technology,” she says. “Every time we get up our current project and make a few changes we are in some ways creating a new draft. So how do we know what to discard, and what to keep on the desktop?

The issue for some writers may be an inability or reluctance to approach the second draft as an entirely new proposition. This resistance is something Varuna’s Creative Team often sees. Helen explains:

I think the main danger that we have seen manifest itself at Varuna – and this is why Peter feels as he does about first drafts – is that some writers aren’t able to let go of the first draft and write a new one, even if they are keeping many original sections; what often happens is that writers keep trying to ‘patch up’ the first draft, and keep taking along with them those problems that needed to be solved between the first and second drafts.

In other words, let the bloodshed begin. As King says, ‘kill your darlings, kill your darlings, kill your darlings.’

You have to be ruthless and throw out anything that doesn’t work,” agrees Helen. “You have to be prepared to rethink, and re-imagine. Some writers get lazy; they want to believe they can just do a cut here or there and everything will be all right. But it won’t. What will happen is the work will lose its vitality, and expire.

(Wait a second. Is she talking to me…?)

Helen suggests physically starting a new draft.

Print out the first one, have it beside you so you can use sections that are good, and then create an entirely new file or folder, and rewrite everything else. Don’t just rewrite on the initial draft.

As she says, it’s rare to get the actual structuring of the story right first time round, adding,

I think that’s probably where the major work lies in the second draft; in Draft One you are concentrating on getting the story down and the characters in perspective. When you’ve got that written, you then need to look at the narrative drive, the impetus for the reader to keep going; tension, rhythm, the choice of language, the overall coherence of the story as it unfolds. There has to be something at stake; there has to be suspense, no matter whether it’s an action-driven novel or a quiet domestic one. We need, as readers, to want to know what’s going to happen.

Discovering what’s at stake returns us to King’s identifying ‘what he meant’ – something put the initial bee in his bonnet. Something propels us all. “Your attachment to the idea, to the story, must underlie everything,” agrees Helen. “That’s where the life and energy of a work come from. To maintain that tension so that the reader wants to keep going is crucial. Writing a book is such a huge and complex task; so many things have to work together to make it successful.

“Some writers will just start getting it right when they have a second draft, and then many more drafts will follow. Not whole rewrites but constant refinement and also constant development of the ideas and issues, and of the characters that embody those.”

Alumna Maryanne Khan knows all about those ‘many more drafts,’ describing her rewriting of Walking to Karachi, a story based on her husband’s life that won a Varuna HarperCollins Manuscript Development Award, as, “Scrap, delete, rewrite, reorder events. Cut 'n' paste.” And repeat.

She says, “I have hundreds of files that have been successive 'drafts,' even before the multiple drafts that were rewritten after three rounds of Varuna attempts, and three sets of feedback until I got the 'last' draft really ready.”

Five years had passed by the time Walking to Karachi won its place on the development program, at which time the editor assigned to the project promptly advised Maryanne to cut the ending.

“Gulp!” she says now. “That meant a 40,000-word chop!”

Such significant changes may seem unthinkable – and in some cases are – but Carol Major returns to “maintaining the integrity of your idea” as the key to managing such major interventions.

”Other people can help you find that integrity by asking questions of your story and why you want to tell it,” she says. “They can also point out issues regarding craft...but in the end it is the writer who establishes the story’s vision. Other people can only guess at it, because part of the vision is wordless. It’s a damned hard thing to pin down. Reading widely and practising writing until tools become skills can help illuminate how that vision might take shape. And then there’s the redrafting, to make sure ‘the how’ delivers ‘the what’!”

Right. So it’s back to the drawing board. Again.

* Carol recommends Jack Hodgins’ book A Passion for Narrative as having a good checklist to help writers review completed work.

Alumni Review: Deb Westbury

by Helen Barnes-Bulley

Deb Westbury The View From Here cover Deb Westbury has long been associated with Varuna. She has worked with poets in residence as well as running workshops and mentoring groups of writers over a number of years; she has also been a teacher, and her work has been set for the HSC English syllabus in New South Wales.

Her most recent work, The View From Here, is a collection from earlier books as well as some new poems, and incorporates work written over a period of twenty years. Readers who know her work will be pleased to find such favourites as ‘The Prince’ and ‘Dapto Dressing Up’ included here. The landscape of the NSW south coast and the industrial city of Wollongong provided inspiration for many of her earlier poems.

Dapto is beautiful tonight
because the trees grow here too
and the sky is turquoise
with silver spangles

While the prince, separated from the “mediterranean sun” in this city of immigrant workers,

is still the prince,
the ornamental figure
on his own magic wedding cake
a multi-tiered miracle
of fondant lace
and marzipan flowers.

As Elizabeth Webby observes on the back cover, Westbury is “a poet of the senses,” but she is also a poet of loss and grief, and writes most eloquently about these emotions. This poem simply bears the name of Luke, the son she lost:

I’m looking at the label on his glasses case.
He wrote it himself –
the first name written bold,
the first syllable of his surname also
but dwindling towards the end,
almost to a dot,
as if it was a name he didn’t expect,
even then,
to live all the way into.

The very simplicity of the poem emphasises the hugeness of its subject. As Mark O’Flynn writes in his review in Famous Reporter, the poet ‘eschews structural formalism, preferring to let tone and image stand alone.’
In Offrenda for Luke, Westbury writes:

What began in my heart
comes out like a nail between my shoulders.

This reaction to Luke’s death is, once more, made all the more powerful by its spareness, and the image of the ‘nail’ with its associations of metallic sharpness, pain and crucifixion. Anne Collins comments in her review of these poems that Westbury ‘brings a mindfulness to the details of everyday experience including death that reveals the spiritual, emotional and psychic layers beneath its surface.’

The collection takes the reader on a journey from the present into the past, and in so doing demonstrates the timelessness of poetry. Appropriately, many of the poems are about travel, particularly by train; in fact as Collins points out, train journeys form the springboard for some of the most recent poems. My favourite, called Bread, is dedicated to the girls of Domremy College. Capturing a dreamy ambiguity between dozing and waking as she leans against the train window, the poet tells us:

I fell into a nest of swans,
each in her best black
and every throat,
wrist and finger
circled with gold.

The image of the swans is striking; the use of assonance certainly contributes to the sound effect, but also the associations of the word ‘nest’ coupled with ‘swans,’ which evoke elegance, beauty and softness, grace and calm. They also suggest safety, and nurture.

And so she continues:

The train has gathered up
a whole chorus of Greek women.

There is a finely tuned balance between the vernacular and the formal in Westbury’s poetry; [her work] can seem deceptively simple, but the image of a Greek chorus resonates with European history and culture, not least the great tradition of Greek theatre, as well as [telling] us of our own immigrant history. The poem continues to develop in complex and interesting ways.

Mark O’Flynn, in his perceptive review of Westbury’s work, reminds us that not only do the poems about loss contain a profound emotional intensity, but her other poems of observation often contain the promise of joy. He refers to a recent poem, Roundabout at the Family Hotel, in which she observes a figure in the following terms:

His face is shiny with the secret
Joy of one whose wishes
Have all come true.

As O’Flynn concludes, Westbury balances both loss and hope in these poems, and has, he says, ‘one of the purest poetic voices around.’

The Poetry of Deb Westbury: The View From Here (Brandl & Schlesinger 2008)

Alumni thanks Peter Bishop

Peter Bishop
After 17 years, Peter Bishop has stepped aside from his role as Creative Director of Varuna to work with us as a consultant and pursue his own writing and other opportunities. While Peter remains still very much a part of Varuna, his role change represents a big change for him and the organisation. Many Alumni have asked us to mark Peter’s time as creative director with these messages of thanks for his support of Australian writers over the years.

From The 2003 Young Adult Fiction Master class, Mark Macleod – mentor:

Thank you Peter for your outstanding contribution to the development and nurturing of new writers; it has been nothing less than ginormous. I am so pleased to have been one of the many who has benefited from your support, encouragement and enthusiasm. Good luck with your own writing journey.

– Ian Trevaskis

Who would have thought that one delicious autumn in Katoomba in 2003 would lead me to research about the arts, creativity, collaboration and communities in Melbourne, Cambridge and Perth? Thank you, Peter, for helping me start upon this journey as a result of your great work at Varuna. Warmest best wishes,

– Kylie Stevenson

In my email address book is the group: Varuna Mates. When we six first met at Varuna, some had been published while others only dreamed of the possibility. There, with Mark McLeod as tutor and under Peter Bishop’s supervision, we were all treated as - and became - writers. For seven years we have stayed in touch, sharing our successes and despairs, rejoicing in each other’s publishing events and meeting up when we can - from as far afield as Perth, Camperdown, Melbourne and Tallangatta. Thank you Peter for your vision and supervision of that magical place: Varuna.

– Gillian M. Wadds

You kept the bar high and it was up to us ambitious writers to reach it. That’s been the secret. It’s meant not only was my time at Varuna one of the most cherished experiences of my life, but the currency in the name continues. Over the course of that special week (which feels like a wonderful book I once read, but no! that was me there) I loved the way you always seemed to be in the background, allowing Mark to work his magic, but then would step forward into the light to add something of your own. Peter, you have been very generous with your time and energy and so many of us have benefited from it. Thank you.

– Steven O’Connor

Peter Bishop has been the staunchest of champions of Australian writers for so long that I wonder what our literary landscape will look like without him. Lesser for his absence, I'm convinced. Well beyond the reach of the amazing Varuna, Peter's support has been trenchant and unyielding, and I want to take this opportunity to thank him for all that he's done for me as a writer, and for Australian writing, more generally. "Sorely missed" barely touches the sides.

– Nicole Hayes, Melbourne

I first came across Peter Bishop when he added a handwritten note to a letter I received from Varuna. The letter said that I had been shortlisted for a master class. This was good news. But what Peter said was somehow better: It's not up to me, but I loved this. "Don't take that lightly," a colleague said. "He knows things." Three months later, I was at Varuna, discovering she was right. Seven years later, I still carry those words with me, some of the first and best feedback I ever received. Thanks for your words, Peter, and all the best as you set out to make space for many, many more.

– Meg McKinlay

Who needed to have the power of your work demonstrated, Peter? But there it is. A Varuna master class who, so many years later, keep in touch, read, advise one another, attend launches and celebrations. The energy you have put into all that you have done at The Writers' House - so unobtrusively and yet astutely - keeps on supporting so many of us. For myself, I feel a personal sense of loss. You have been such a wonderful mentor and friend since we first met by a window, taking a breather from a crowded literary function at the Rocks. I always smile when I think of the many times you have said, 'We need to talk and it will probably take about an hour' - and then it turns into two or more memorable hours that range over so many interests. For you, though, I feel excitement and anticipation and maybe a sigh of relief, because at last you are going to have time to spend on your own writing. Go well, Peter. Thank you for everything. Your friend and admirer always,

– Mark Macleod

Dear Peter,

You were my introduction to Varuna many years ago, my mentor and the person who made me believe that when a person sits down to write a book, anything is possible. Even finishing. I remember lunches at the Spanish cafe in Glebe Point Road, talking about books and writing, talking talking, and many times laughing....mountain climbing my way through the creative chaos of your office..... and later, hearing about all those new writers you had birthed - there's no such thing as painless childbirth you said, but kindly (you were and are always kindly) and as this isn't an obituary but it’s your very own birthing -or re-birthing, I want to praise and thank the brilliance of your enthusiasm, your wisdom, and your help…AND NOW, WRITE, MAN, WRITE!

– Anne Deveson

For some reason I feel moved to a cheerleader chant:

Peter, Peter you are the best!
Peter, Peter, better than all the rest!

Seriously, you really saw what I was doing and supported it. What more could a creative person ever, ever want? Thank you so much! All the best to you and whatever you do next. I hope that includes lots of writing! And of course, see you again around the Varuna traps.

– Tracy Sorensen, Bathurst

Peter Bishop has made a huge contribution as Creative Director at Varuna. Peter is a uniquely generous and insightful reader of manuscripts. He has the rare gift of being able to see beyond the clunks and fumbles of an early draft to what the work could become if it grew into the best possible version of itself. I am so grateful to have taken part in these conversations of discovery. A recent Alumni week at Varuna reminded me how distinctive Peter’s input is. Sitting around the fire we had valuable discussions about form and craft. He listened to individual work and drew out its preoccupations, helping to identify what sort of creature it was, drawing on a wide frame of reference - literature, music, and life experience. All this done lightly, kindly, with wit and fellow feeling. Such a lovely man, full of enthusiasm, thought and delight. I am so pleased to know Peter and wish him all the very best in his new role, including his own writing.

– Julie Bail

Well, dear Peter, Varuna was certainly transformed into the House of Weeping Women the week we first met - I'll never forget sitting at my desk in the Ladder Room really howling after our first meeting... Your encouragement overwhelmed me, and it sustains me still. I'm so excited about your new directions and the conversations they'll inspire - meanwhile thanks, always, for everything.

– Diana Jenkins

Peter Bishop is that rare and wonderful thing, a writer's magic friend. An audience with him is a unique and special experience. I recall so many words of wisdom from him, and they come in such unexpected ways. He sits down with you and umms and ahhs along in a perfectly delightful way and you think you are having such a nice chat, and then you begin to wonder with a very slight unease if he's ever going to say something to help your writing, and then gradually the revelation dawns - everything he is saying is going to help your writing, even if you don't realise it at first. It seems almost impossible to imagine Varuna without him, but at the same time it is because of him that Varuna will go on with a magic life of its own.

- Jane Sullivan

Dear Peter, thank you for the constant support you have given me through Varuna. Your future plans sound so exciting and promising. I'll stay tuned!

- Nicole Pluiss

Peter Bishop has been an extraordinary support to me. Since we met at Varuna in 2007 he has been a midwife present at the birth of so much of my writing. He has stood by me, believed in my work, been a shoulder to cry on and a beacon of light in the dark, often understanding what I am doing well before I do. He held my trembling novel in his hands from its conception and helped me to grow as a writer in ways that I had never dreamt of before. I owe him so much for sharing his vision and giving me the courage to dare, as well as teaching me to laugh in the face of despair.

- Leah Kaminsky

Peter, the first time I applied to Varuna and wasn’t successful, you wrote me a tiny note: keep going – and so I did. I’m about to publish my fifth book, and none of them would have happened without your sensitive reading and encouragement of my early work. I’m more grateful than I can say, and wish you all good things for your new life with Varuna and beyond.

- Charlotte Wood

I read with sadness that Peter has resigned from being Varuna’s Creative Director! And then my heart leapt up as I read that he will continue his many good efforts with the emerging writers. That’s great! And certainly also very reassuring! I don’t think I have ever met anybody who knew so much about writing and writers, and who could so coherently and systematically present all the various points, issues and basic drives of a manuscript! I certainly owe Peter the benefit of getting much better insight into my own writing, and I acknowledge the multitudes of ideas, suggestions and related literary products to which he referred me, with the suggestion that perhaps I might find them of use. I join everybody in wishing Peter the very best! He certainly deserves to have some time to himself – he has his family, his friends, and also his own writing. And I further wish him a most fruitful association with Varuna as a Consultant.

- Wilhelmina Philipoom

Best wishes, Peter, for your next ventures. Even if I never find a publisher who can get their head around what I'm trying to do with my first novel, it means a lot to me that someone of your calibre demonstrated that you got it and nudged me toward completion. That was a tremendous relief/encouragement to this fledgling. I hope to see you around the literary traps.

- Esther Rockett

Peter, it was a phone conversation with you in early 2006 that enabled me to see the possibilities in my convoluted mess of a manuscript - a mess that eventually became my first novel, Addition. I'm incredibly fortunate to have had the benefit of your generosity and insight.

- Toni Jordan

Peter, I wish you much health, happiness and creativity in your new life. If it hadn't been for you encouraging me to apply for a mentorship at Varuna with Dorothy Porter, I don't think I would ever have taken that leap of faith into first writing a verse novel and then a prose novel. Part of me is wondering, selfishly, how the yawning gap you'll leave behind can possibly be filled. But mostly I know you deserve to have your own creativity nurtured now, in the way mine was, and many others, with you at the helm.

- Judy Johnson

Dear Peter, what a beautiful and rare gift you gave me - the faith, insight and confidence in myself as a writer to create the book I had always longed to write. I never would have begun, let alone completed, that monumental final draft of Saltwater Moons without your ongoing encouragement. In a secret compartment of my shoulder bag is the email you sent me in response to that manuscript. The email is a bit tattered now but I still pull it out to read sometimes - on the train, at work, while I'm sitting on a seat in the park. It's one of the most precious gifts for me as a writer, knowing that you have recognised on the deepest level what I am trying to express through my words and stories. Thank you - how flimsy that sounds in comparison to the gratitude I am trying to convey! I wish you all the very best things for the next stage in your writing life.

- Julie Gittus

Peter, You can't imagine how much your tireless hard work has meant to all of us. My first book is now sitting on the shelves and it's precious hours I spent at Varuna I have to thank for it. Good luck - with everything!

- Van Badham

Once when I was at Varuna, Peter set fire to the chimney. Since we were all in the process of having our writing brains set alight, it seemed like an apt metaphor.

- Paddy O’Reilly

I think of Peter as the writer’s midwife. He helps us make that, often difficult, birth to our life as a writer. Importantly he inspires confidence and courage. He gives us to understand that going forward we can become our own best guide and teacher. Wherever my writing career takes me it will owe much to Peter’s skill and guidance at the critical moment of its launch.

- Gillian Turner

I'm so grateful for all the help, support, encouragement and insights you've given me since I came into the Varuna 'family'. My first visit to Varuna for the master class was a turning point for me in that I started to believe I was a writer and that is entirely down to you. Since then I've seen Varuna grow and vastly increase the ways it offers help and support to writers and again, that's largely thanks to your efforts. You've done a fabulous job and I hope you're very proud of yourself! I look forward to working with you in the future in your new role at Varuna will be and I'm very happy that you'll now have some time to do more of your own writing.

- Louise D'Arcy

I believe that some people in this world are irreplaceable and Peter is one of those. He's not your typical, ubiquitous creative writing teacher who is at a constant war on adverbs and adjectives and can fill you in on how to compose a (kind of decent) publishing proposal, but a literature enthusiast in the rare, grand sense of this word, a person who can recite poetry and prose by heart, a person whose life is not enhanced, but consistently informed by literature, a nd this is contagious. For me, Peter embodies the ideal person to work with writers, the kind of person we must have around. He's the soul of Varuna a nd I hope to see him there for much longer in whatever capacity he'll be interested in being there.

- Lee Kofman

Dear Peter, There is no one I know who can see so perfectly into the 'heart' of a book. I am eternally grateful for your guidance, questions and conversations about writing in general and my writing in particular. Best wishes for your next adventure.

- Kim Bear

Dear Peter, If it's alright with you, I'll just keep pretending you're still at Varuna. Of course I wish you all the freedom you need to do your own writing and share your talents more broadly, but I can't imagine the place minus you. Your conversations about books and creativity, your genius insights; what would I and so many of my writer friends have done without them? Bon voyage. All of us, I'm sure, look forward to seeing what next comes out of that beautiful mind.

- Vicki Hastrich

Being selected by Peter Bishop to go to Varuna was considered a privilege in any writer's book. If a supported book was published, Varuna and Peter's assistance was proudly acknowledged and every participant wanted his/her work to grace Varuna's bookshelves. Peter Bishop had huge input in making Varuna so high-profile and well-known as a backer of writers. I wish him the best for his own writing and future position as consultant.

- Helen C Irvine

I remember once years ago at Varuna there was an installation of words made of twigs hanging precariously in the maples and gums and rhodos. You (or I) would be walking innocently enough in the gardens and look up and there would be 'quiver' hanging in the air between two slim branches, or 'edge' or 'tremble', each making a delicate spiderly (I meant to write spidery, but I like the accident) tracing against the sky. It was such a pleasurable shock the first time I saw the twig words, so unexpected and original and a delight. Words made manifest, a beautiful, necessary part of existence. Just like Peter. Thanks Peter.

- Patti Miller

Peter Bishop's warmth, welcome and generous advice was part of my fellowship at Varuna at the start of my career. I remember. Thank you.

- Susanne Gervay

I have been staying and writing at Varuna for 16 years and during that time I have never ceased to be amazed by Peter’s incredible passion for the art of writing. He has this unique ability to be able to wade his way through the muddle of our manuscripts and find out, not just where the problems lie, but more importantly show us what our work is really about when we don’t even know ourselves. Intelligence and insight like this does not grow on trees. I can’t help thinking of the all the writing works-in-progress that have benefited from Peter’s guiding hand over the last 17 years and wonder just where Australian literature would be at this point in time without him. My guess is very more poorer than it is today. Thank you Peter, for all your generosity. We are all so relieved you will still be around to guide us lost souls. I have absolute faith you will be a resounding success in this new path you have chosen.

- Eileen Naseby

Peter has a subtle magic which takes you by surprise. He waves his arms and speaks softly about things which seem, at first oddly and even frustratingly, to have little to do with the writing project you sat down to talk about. He talks and talks, and you talk, and you find yourself having a truly fascinating conversation, enjoying it very much, but still in the back of your mind you're wondering: And when will we come to my book? And my plot problem? And my characters? Has he even read it? Oh, Peter, can't you focus for a moment? We've only got an hour! And then, he's saying something and you're saying something in reply, and you realise: All along you've been talking about--above, below, beside--your book. And he has just lead you towards a solution so lucid and relaxed you might always have known it. Indeed you have. He's just brought you around, around, around, and there you are, saying out loud, in tones of surprise and revelation, the solution you held all along. Plus, Peter is a man of many thoughts and has always also been generous with the wine and chips. Peter, I will miss your help and your incredible circumlocutory conversations and the quite excellent practical advice you have about publishing. But I wish you the best, best of delights with your own work and the new future. Well done Peter, you've been a treasure. There is a character in one of my novels who wears your jumper, and your cords, just for you.

- Kate Holden

My sincerest good wishes for your future direction. The little I had to do with you - a phone mentorship in 2005 - I found you delightfully honest and still wonderfully encouraging in your advice. And I haven't given up on my books either. Good luck.

- Mary Rose O’Connor

Peter, many thanks for the advice, support and conversations—especially the conversations. Every good wish for life post-Varuna, and happy writing.

- Noëlle Janaczewska

As one of the lucky winners of 2010 HarperCollins Varuna Awards for Manuscript Development I am happy to have the opportunity to express my gratitude to Mr Peter Bishop for his amazing ability to help writers bring out the best of their talent. He is a great personality of many dimensions, of profound wisdom and culture. Knowing him is knowing humanity at its best.

- Ilinda Markov

What I treasure most about Peter is his affection and respect for the natural world. During a LongLines residency last year, an Eastern Brown snake was living in the garden at Varuna. Each morning, from my upstairs window, I watched Peter poking around behind the office, on the lookout for this magnificent snake. There was never any question of removing it. “We should get along with other creatures,” he said. “After all, snakes were here first.” To a writer of conservation fiction, it was a thrill to hear this. Peter is a great champion of non-human centric writing. “You’re doing a chapter from the point of view of a tree? Try first person.” I don’t feel loony at all around Peter. May his reverence for the earth and his wise spirit forever inhabit the Varuna landscape.

- Jennifer Scoullar

Thanks, Peter for your generosity of spirit, time and energy. You have changed many writers' lives with the work you do at Varuna, paving the way to publication and beyond. Looking forward to staying in touch and to hearing about your own writing endeavours.

- Katherine Johnson

Dear Peter,

Your warmth, generosity and encouragement have been a significant factor in my developing confidence as a writer. You should be immensely proud of the work you have done with writers and your contribution to the Australian literary community. I hope that you receive similar support for your own writing, and very much look forward to reading it in the future! All the best,

- Georgina Luck

Please be encouraged to comment on this feature.

NEXT MONTH: Making Space.

‘A Room of One’s Own: claiming space in a shrinking universe.’ You’re the envy of all your writer friends. You have a shed, an attic, a tree house, an office, all to yourself: wherever it is, you have a dedicated place in which to write. Or not. Maybe you’ve moved house, had a baby, taken in a lodger to help make ends meet, or maybe you never had a writing room to lose in the first place. Whatever your particular situation, we’d love to hear from you! Tell us about where you write and what that site means to you. Tell us your fantasies about where you’d like to write, or send reminiscences of that perfect place that, for whatever reason, is no longer yours. Tell us about the impact your spatial reality has on your writing practice, what helps or hinders your creativity in your writing environment, and any tips you may have on making the most of what you’ve got.


Siobhan McHugh Alumna Siobhan McHugh has won a gold medal at the prestigious New York Festival of Radio for a series about sectarianism and family conflict in Australia.

Marrying Out explores 'mixed marriages' between Catholics and Protestants in a pre-multicultural Australia, when a virtual social apartheid operated between these two groups, fed by ancient colonial bitterness between Ireland and England.

Broadcast on ABC Radio National in 2009, it has also aired in Ireland and will soon go to air in New Zealand. ‘Marrying Out’ was also shortlisted for the United Nations Media Peace Prize (Australian branch).

Siobhan scripted some of the series from Eleanor Dark's studio at Varuna, fortified by forays to the Echo Point chocolate shop. She describes her work as a 'doc-OH-feature' – a hybrid form where art, history and journalism meet. Siobhan is a passionate believer in the power and intimacy of radio, particularly as a vehicle for oral history.

The two-hour series uses music and dramatisations to enhance and heighten the emotional truth of the meticulous oral history research that underpins the work.

info icon Siobhan is giving a seminar at the State Library of New South Wales on Saturday 6 November, 10.00 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., about the art and craft of oral history on radio. Enquiries (02) 92731591 or

Catherine Therese
After recent short-listings in the National Biography and ABIA Best New Writer Awards for her memoir The Weight of Silence, Alumna Catherine Therese has been named as a guest speaker at Iowa University’s ‘Nonfiction Now’ Conference this month.

With one of the oldest and most well-regarded graduate writing programs in the world, Iowa University boasts 17 Pulitzer Prize winning alumni as well as numerous National Book Award winners and other major literary honourees. Robin Hemley, the University’s Director of Nonfiction, who invited Therese after reading her debut memoir, says of her book:

Of the many things I love about The Weight Of Silence, foremost is the pitch-perfect voice of the memoir and the author’s ability to punch through to the core of childhood experience and deliver a narrative that resounds with a kind of visceral wisdom that’s by turns poetic, darkly funny, and frightening.

‘ Catherine is thrilled to accept the invitation and hopes her inclusion gives encouragement to other writers whose genesis is outside of the literary and academic establishments. The Sydney-based mother of three is currently mentoring young and emerging writers and working on her next book: a novel of fiction, essay, memoir and prose poems.

Alumna Maryanne Khan's anthology fourW Magazine will be released in November.

Alumna Toni Jordan’s eagerly awaited second novel Fall Girl (Text) is out now.

Alumnus Peter Lach Newinsky’s first collection of poetry, The Post-Man Letters & Other Poems has just been published by Picaro (you may also follow Peter’s poetic progress on his blog).

Read all about these exciting new release Alumni titles at Varuna Books.

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