A snapshot of my work in progress – Daughter of Hanoi

After posting about my writing goals on Monday (thanks to everyone that has dropped by to read it), I wanted to start sharing some of the stories behind the book I am currently working on. Thew working title is Daughter of Hanoi, although I have no doubt that will change.

About halfway through last year, I had a great idea for another book. (I should say straight up that it feels a little fraudulent to talk about my second book when my first book is still only 90,000 draft words that haven’t even had the first edit.) This was quite exciting as one of the things that had stopped me from writing in the past was the belief that I didn’t have any good ideas. I was still trying to finish the book I had started during Nanowrimo 2017 but this new idea was so tempting. But I listened to the advice from many experienced writers about finishing my first draft first. I wrote down as much as I could about this new idea and then went back to finishing the first draft. I was actually a great motivator to get the first draft done and when Nanowrimo started on 1 November, I was excited to be let loose on my story.

Sarah is 35 and a political journalist in the Canberra press gallery. The book starts with Sarah coming home to Broken Hill after the break-up of her relationship with a married politician. She finds her father collapsed on the lounge clutching a photo of himself, with a young Vietnamese woman and a baby. Tony is actually being treated for cancer, which Sarah did not know. But this is not the biggest shock. Sarah learns that the woman in the picture is her mother and that she was born in Hanoi when Tony was a diplomat.

Sarah has been brought up by Tony in Broken Hill where he reinvented himself as an artist. Growing up as part of the artist community, Sarah has never really wondered about her mother but Tony explains her mother has recently been in contact and Sarah agrees to go to Hanoi to meet her while Tony finishes his treatment in Australia.

The idea for this story came from listening to a colleague in Hanoi talk about courting his wife during the 80s by cycling around Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi. He was one of the first foreigners to be allowed to marry in Hanoi at that time. I liked the idea of Sarah going to Hanoi to uncover more of her father’s story and also learning about Vietnam’s culture and history.

Hoan Kiem lake Hanoi

While my posting to Hanoi from 2011-2014 would ultimately mark the end of my diplomatic career, it was a fantastic opportunity and a very special place to live. I still wonder how we survived that first year though – we arrived with a two-year-old and a three and a half-month-old, and after a few weeks language training (to consolidate the year of training I had in Australia), started a job that often involved 10 hour days and lots of travel.

For me, setting a book in Hanoi is an opportunity to relive some of our 3.5 years there. As I write, I get to ‘visit’ my favourite cafes and restaurants. I hadn’t planned for Sarah to end up in Hoi An but I was struggling as to where the story would go once she realised the guy she was seeing was her half-brother – who is not happy learning about a secret half-sister and all but chases her out of Hanoi. Hoi An, with its beautiful beaches and old town, was our happy place in Vietnam and the place we would escape from the pollution of Hanoi and the stress of my job at the Australian Embassy.

Lane 76 – our home for most of Hanoi posting

I have now been working on it for a bit over two months (although probably only about a month of solid writing) and I am about a third of the way through. Given things are likely to change significantly over the course of writing and editing this book, it is probably not too much of a spoiler to say Sarah travels to Hanoi, visits many of the places Tony and her mother Bich had taken her as a baby (Tony has kept a suitcase hidden of photos and things from Hanoi), meets her mother (who is now a senior government minister) and meets Hai, who she has a brief flirtation with until learning he is her half-brother and escapes Hanoi to Hoi An in the centre of Vietnam with Ben, the much younger son of her father’s old friend Tom. This is where the story is at the moment, with Sarah working at an orphanage, having decided to stay in Vietnam until Tony visits in a few months time.

Riverside in the old town in Hoi An

Unlike my first book, I did not have a plan for how this story would play out. I had an idea and in starting to write, I decided I would write in a more linear fashion (rather than dipping in and out of scenes as I had with my first draft) and I would see where the story went. I am not entirely sure where the story will end up, but I would like her to have a relationship with her mother, without trying to have too much of an ‘everyone lives happily ever after’ type ending.

In 2016, my first Nanowrimo attempt was a memoir of our time in Vietnam, drawing also on a diary I kept during my first visit there in 2003. In telling Sarah’s story, I am drawing on a lot of this information to explore some of the things about Vietnam that I find most interesting – from the role of women and the importance of the extended family unit to the way that Vietnam’s long and often turbulent history informs people’s behaviours. And of course, there is the amazing food, architecture, coffee and landscapes. We were last there for a 10-day visit in mid-2016 and as I write, I am finding myself becoming quite homesick. Of course, one of the key reasons for writing about Vietnam is knowing that if there is a chance of this story ever being published, I will need at least one research visit.

Iced egg coffee at the Hidden Cafe

In the coming weeks, I will update you on the story and I’ll also post about some of my favourite places in Vietnam, my favourite foods and places to shop, the history and holidays and my favourite books about Vietnam.

Have you been to Vietnam? Have you read any good books based in Vietnam?

How Nanowrimo made me a writer.

This time last year, I was eagerly awaiting the start of Nanowrimo 2017. For those not familiar with the acronym it starts for National Novel Writing Month and it was started in the United States by a group of 21 friends in 1999. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a new book during November.

I first heard about it from my friend, author Emma Grey and made my first attempt, on a memoir about our time in Vietnam, in 2016. My enthusiasm was short-lived (we’d just moved house) and so 8,000 words in, I gave up.

But in 2017, I decided that I did want to write a book and to do that, I would have to write the first draft, no matter how bad it was. I had an idea for a dual-timeline family saga set here in the Barossa. The modern story would be about a woman who moved here to start over after the death of her husband, taking up residence in the property left to her by her great-Aunt. In my original plan, the historical timeline spanned five generations, although I soon realised that was overly ambitious.

In the lead up to November 2017, I downloaded a trial of Scrivener (a fabulous writing platform that allows you to organise scenes, chapters, notes etc) and I plotted out my story. I printed out a calendar to record my daily word count and I even went along to a meet-up of other writers in Adelaide. I made some new writing buddies and I announced my plans over social media.

Throughout November, I wrote most days. Some days I wrote well above the targeted 1667 words required to meet the 50,000-word goal. Other days I hit a wall. My exercise regime went out the window and I ate too much chocolate. There were a few wine-fueled writing sessions, but by 30 November 2017, I could say I had ‘won’ Nanowrimo as I’d written 50,000 words. It was a huge confidence boost, especially realising that once I started writing, the ideas flowed. I held tight to the idea that the first draft is just about getting the story down (thanks again Emma Grey) and that you can’t edit a blank page.

Fast-forward to a few months ago and I still only had about 60,000 words. I’d reworked the opening 10 pages to enter a competition and I’d decided to focus the historical timeline on the Great-Aunt (and not five generations). Even when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about the book, and it was great having friends ask me about my writing.

Then another idea came nipping at my heels and I was tempted to abandon my half-finished first draft and work on the new idea. Fortunately, some wise counsel from authors in several writing groups talked me out of this, explaining the importance of finishing the first draft. I took a couple of hours and wrote the new ideas down, hoping that when I did come back to it, the excitement would still be there.

I am the first to admit I suffer from ‘shiny new object’ syndrome and I love trying new things – a new magazine, a new cookbook, a new training course. In mid-August, with only 58,326 words written, I realised that this couldn’t be the case here and I set my goal to get to 100,000 words by 31 October. I would finish my first draft, then put it away while I played with my new idea during Nanowrimo 2018. I would come back to it, probably over the summer, and start the second draft.

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After a huge writing session on Saturday afternoon, my word count was at 91,263. Since then I have been thinking about whether I will add the 8737 words to hit my magic 100,000 word count but with two days left, I have decided to call time on the first draft.

In part, this is because I now feel like any words I add will be just for the sake of adding words. As I wrote on Facebook on Sunday night, I am confident that I have a fairly complete first draft. The story is there – although I keep changing how it ends. I think what is missing is the description, some dialogue and character development. I feel like now is the right time to put it away. I’ll come back to it in the summer and we’ll see where it goes.

Will the second draft bear any resemblance to the first?

Probably not.

Does that mean the last year of writing has been a waste?

Definitely not.

Every word I have written in the last 11 months is proof that I can write, that I can come up with creative story ideas and most importantly, that I want to write.

So, if you’re sitting on the fence about doing Nanowrimo, my advice is – just do it!

You can sign up here and if like me, you also need a calendar on the wall to cross off, I highly recommend this one.

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Nanowrimo 2018 calendar from David Seah

All the best and happy writing! See you in December.

Finding my writing mojo with a road trip and a pen

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Editing on the beach – I could get use to that

Despite my good intentions at the start of the year, I haven’t had nearly enough time to write and when I have sat down, I’ve struggled with writer’s block. I’ve only added 5000 words to the 50,000 I wrote during Nanowrimo and for once, the strategy to just write and let the words flow hasn’t worked.

I was feeling frustrated that I had lost my novel writing mojo. Part of the problem was the fact I just didn’t know where my novel was up to. I’d half plotted the novel out in Scrivener, and then during Nanowrimo worked on particular scenes, so when I came back to it months later, I wasn’t sure where to start.

I might have continued to flounder had it not been for the push to enter a couple of really exciting writing competitions for beginners. This was just the incentive I needed to re-focus on my writing – but I wasn’t sure how to do it.

As we were packing for a two-week, 5000km road trip last month, I decided to print out the 190 pages of my manuscript and start editing. Now, I should say now, as someone who 12 months ago didn’t think she could write a novel, I feel like a fraud describing what I have written as a manuscript – but, that is what it is – even if it is a work in progress.

Turns out that printing out these pages, and picking up a pen has had a really positive effect. Editing the words I’d written, I rediscovered my writing mojo and I rediscovered my enthusiasm and excitement for the story I am trying to tell. There were definitely moments of “this is rubbish” but these were outweighed by moments of “I love this story and I want to finish it”.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that is was easier to edit this way because I have always been a “pen to paper” editor. But the other thing I found was having the pile of papers that make up this very rough first draft sitting beside me in the car or beside my bed, has prompted me to pick it up to read, edit and write – even if I only had 5 or 10 minutes to focus on it.

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Gertrude the cat is making sure I edit a few pages before picking up my book

I might have deleted more words than I have added but I have realised that is not a problem. While Nanowrimo is great for setting up a good writing discipline and for getting the bones of a story down, it does set up some slightly unrealistic expectations about how much you can write. I’ve learned in the last few weeks that it is just as important to delete the words that don’t add to your story as it is to add words.

While I only got through about 50 or 60 pages, just having those physical pages around has helped me think more about my book in the last few weeks than I have since Nanowrimo. I have had more ideas about how to structure my story better, and I’ve plotted out the story. I feel like I have become engaged in my story all over again, I know where I can take it and it’s so exciting.

Early on in the year, I’d set some lofty goals to enter a couple of competitions that required a completed manuscript, and that certainly did help with the feeling of being overwhelmed. So I have dialled things back and am now working on refining just the first few chapters for a couple of competitions really aimed at beginners. This is just the push I needed, and it’s been great to realise that sometimes, going back to the basics is really all you need.

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On the road from Cobar to Bourke – I fell in love with the colours of the outback