Sam van Zweden



John Marsden

Flexing the Writing Muscles

It’s been a week since I made my recent writing goals, and that means I’ve done a week’s worth of writing exercises. A lot of people have shown interest in what I’ve been doing… So here’s a list of the last week’s work. I’ve included where the exercises come from, if you notice a heap coming form good sources in future, you might find it worthwhile chasing these books down.

1. Write something you’ve been putting off – imagine you’re telling someone about this article/letter/essay you’ve been meaning to write, but can’t start. Write down what you’d tell them. (from Mark Tredinnick’s “The Little Red Writing Book”)
2. Write a list of 10 things you know to be true. (from Sarah Kay’s TED talk)
3. What are three things that could never be photographed? (From John Marsden’s “Everything I Know About Writing”)
4. Write a letter to yourself to be read in five years. (From John Marsden’s “Everything I Know About Writing”)
5. Write a character sketch of someone you’ve seen on public transport (suggested by Tiggy Johnson)
6. Observe someone’s hands (this can be in memory or imagination. Describe them as fully as possible. Notice shape, skin texture, any jewelry or disfiguration. What clues do these hands give you about the person’s life? (from Meredith Sue Willis’ blog)
7. Today was a mash-up, to create new exercises out of something else. In doing this, I found some really interesting connections. More of this tomorrow. Or Tuesday. One day soon, I promise.

The Facelessness of Writing

Writing is a weird business. The main part of what we do is faceless – we spend time alone, curled over keyboards or notebooks, looking inside ourselves and picking things apart. When we do send things out into the world, it rarely involves live-action relationships with editors and the like. Emails, forums, blogs. So much of what we do happens under layer after layer of facelessness.

I don’t know what many of my favourite authors look like, or how they present in person. I was shocked to find John Marsden is such a confronting mixture of crude and intelligent. I’ll admit that Camus’ theories are more palatable than Sartre’s based on their author pics. Last week at the Emerging Writers’ Festival I was surprised by how much Carmel Bird just looked like someone’s mum. I love Alan Bissett’s writing all the more for his outgoing personality, and I’m reading Death of a Ladies’ Man in his very attractive accent. The way authors look and present themselves in person, face-to-face, can be worlds away from how we imagine them through their writing.

This made the Emerging Writers’ Festival an amusing space to meet and greet. The main thing that struck me over and over again during the two weeks was how weird it is that the two sides of our job are such polar opposites. Absolute isolation versus schmooze-fest. I’m not saying that either is preferable – I love both. But when someone talked about me without knowing I was in the room, or when I had the “a-ha!” moment where I connected someone’s writing projects to that person I’d been talking to for the last hour, it really struck me how singularly bizarre writing is.

Splashin’ Around

Today I spent the day in a room. With. John. Marsden.

…and THEN. Steven. Amsterdam!


Today was the first “Big Splash” at the Wheeler Centre, run by Express Media. The day was a mini-festival featuring a keynote speech from Jessica Au and writing workshops by John Marsden and Steven Amsterdam. And what a day it was – as the first event of its kind, Express Media got it spot-on first go.

Jessica Au’s opening speech was a reflection on her recent reading of Virginia Woolf, who once said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Jessica talked about what a woman today might need in order to write. Money was still a concern – “they say time is money, but for a writer, money is time,” Jessica said. The means to afford time for our writing is important. And not just time for our writing, but time for everything that goes with it – time to get distracted, time for uncertainty, time for re-writing and editing. Also essential are engagement with critical culture, and a good balance between egoism and pessimism. Later in the day Jessica shared her experience in getting published and dealing with publishers – she’s a very well-spoken lady, and while I haven’t read any of her work yet, I’ll be on the lookout for it!

The next part of the day saw the group of 28 attendants split in two, each going with a different writer, which would swap later in the day. The first workshop for me was with John Marsden.

John Marsden‘s importance to me simply cannot be understated. I was part of that generation who chewed hungrily through the “Tomorrow, When The War Began” series, got to the back cover of the last one, then started it all again because I just didn’t want it to end. “So Much To Tell You” is one of the first books I ever remember buying, and “Dear Miffy” the first thing with really explicit material (I remember the sentence too – “squeeze me like a lemon baby, your juice runs down my legs”) that I snuck past my dad out of the library. He’s been with me for about as long as I can remember reading, and now he’s coming with me into my writing life too.

Some notes on Mr Marsden – swears like a trooper. Natural story-teller. Rambles, but in a totally engaging way. Has a natural fascination in people and playing with status in real-life situations. Watches a lot of different movies – Pretty Woman, Terminator, some avant-garde French thing…

John’s been running workshops for about 20 years – and it shows. He does it incredibly well. While the first 45 minutes or so were a ramble about status, he eventually looked down at his watch and said “Shit, this is meant to be a writing workshop, we better do some writing!”.

His exercises were short and to-the-point. We looked at how stories need solutions, and how solutions don’t have to be absolutely unexpected to be good. We talked about how all stories are essentially “What If’s”. The example I came up with for this was, “What if I go home today to find another family living in my house, and find out that that family has been living there for a long time, just when I’m not home, and today I just catch them by chance?”. It certainly got me thinking(/paranoid)… I’ve been keeping an eye out for clues of their whereabouts since I got home.

John also came out with something really comforting – someone said something about a plot they’d come up with, then undermined it by saying “I know it’s just like (some popular thing) but…”. To this, John said: “Sometimes people are apologetic about their work being derivative, but you shouldn’t be, because everything is. You should only be apologetic if your writing lacks energy.”

Speaking to Express Media’s artistic director later, Bel Schenk, she said that John told her we were the best workshop group he’d ever had. It may have been hyperbole, but I’m claiming it. That’s right, folks, I was part of the best writing workshop John Marsden has ever run. YAH!

 The next part of the day was with Steven Amsterdam. Recently, Steven Amsterdam has wow-ed me with “Things We Didn’t See Coming”, which I picked up at the EWF, and was thankful for every page of. The man writes well. Really ridiculously well. You should pick up a copy.

Steven’s workshop had a lot more “heads-down” kind of writing, but was no less enjoyable for it. We used visual prompts to produce a pretty sizable body of story starters. Steven kept one guiding principle in our minds as a way to always push our work forward – “What’s the core value of your story?” he’d ask. And for the most part, by identifying what that is, there was a logical way forward.

This piece of advice is pretty priceless for me. I so often get stuck with a story, with a beginning and most of a middle – I know where it needs to end, but I’m not so sure how to make everything reach that point. Often I’ve been spending time writing really detailed character sketches outside of the story in order to figure out what would logically happen. This idea of keeping focussed on the core value of a story really helps with this process.

Steven also said something great about making story ideas original. With our visual prompts, we were mashing together seemingly unrelated ideas. Steven likened this to googlewhacking… I very much like this idea.

The day wound up with what was called an “informal panel session” but which was executed in a circle, with people throwing questions to the three writers, who chewed on them for a bit. It was incredibly relaxed, and felt so much better and completely different to any other author/writer event I’ve been to.

Both Steven Amsterdam and John Marsden are so incredibly friendly and approachable that I managed to have a chat with both outside of alloted time. Both were lovely enough to sign their books for me…

"Sam, Best Wishes, John Marsden"
"Sam, Keep it strange, Good luck! Steven Amsterdam"

…and John Marsden signed his using MY PEN… I absolutely loved my pen before, but it’s just taken on a whole new element. John Marsden wrote with my pen!

Beloved Pen, now graced by the hand of Marsden!

Best day I’ve had in quite some time, by far. Thanks Express Media, can’t wait for the next one!

“Everything I Know About Writing” Review

So, number 2 book in my 100+ Book Challenge for 2010 was John Marsden’s “Everything I Know About Writing”…

This is a guide to writing, written by a top-selling and much-loved (particularly by me!) Australian author.

The blurb claims that “Everything I Know About Writing” is “as readable as a novel”…and it really is.

Throughout, Marsden gives tips about what makes good and bad writing, using his deep and wide knowledge of literature and language. He doesn’t just list tips on what’s good or bad – he uses a range of really apt examples to drive these points home. While a lot of what is covered in this book is either common writing sense, or something I’ve learned before, Marsden still presents these points in entertaining and clear ways, and I appreciate having so many useful things written in one place as a handy future reference.

Although this book was first originally published in 1993, the examples used in it are so timeless and sound that the book has aged very little in 17 years. Using a mixture of timeless texts taught in most high schools, and great Australian writing, Marsden’s crossover between teaching and writing is obviously one he’s been making the most of for some time now.

As someone who mainly writes young adult fiction, Marsden’s writing guide is an insightful guide for teenagers, simply and clearly spoken – however, it still stands as a helpful and fun guide for writers of all ages. Even if you know most of the stuff that’s being covered, it’s presented in such an entertaining and simple way that it’s still interesting.

A wide range of conventions and problems are dealt with here – how it’s essential to deal with sex and death in writing, how psychology affects characters as much as writers, the rules of reality and how they must apply to writing… One particularly interesting chapter deals with “banality”, where Marsden challenges the connections we automatically make between certain words, particularly in similes and metaphors (eg, “feather” and “light”).

In the “new and revised edition” (which I believe happened around ’98), a new chapter has been included – “600 Writing Ideas”… these range from ideas for personal stories, starters for short stories, “quickies” (“What is your favorite kitchen appliance, and why?”)… These are perhaps one of the most helpful things about this book. If ever there’s a day where I have nowhere to start, these ideas give me a starting point, which then usually leads on to something else and turns into a story I love… or hate.

The most resounding advice Mr Marsden leaves us with is this; “You’re God when you’re writing: you can do anything. The only unforgivable sin is to be boring”…
“Everything I Know About Writing” is a clear and helpful bundle of tricks to stop your writing from becoming boring.


Last week, while I was eating lunch at a cafe, I thought I saw John Marsden. I couldn’t stop looking at him, trying to figure out if it was him or not.

Since my mind was in “famous-person” mode, when a portly white-bearded older gentleman sat down nearby, my mind screamed “SANTA!”

My logic then kicked in and said “no, no Santa,” directing my attention back to Mr Marsden. He scowled at me, looking generally unapproachable, while Santa smiled and winked and looked particularly jolly.

This isn’t right!, I thought. But there’s no denying it – while my John Marsden was questionable, my Santa was definately real!

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