Category Archives: Writing

August 5, 2015

Anatomy of a PhD – the research proposal, part 2

Filed under: Doctorate,PhD,Writing — Tags: , , , , , , — PD Martin @ 1:48 pm

ImFineNow onto the third instalment of my PhD series…also in retrospect! This blog finishes off my look at the research proposal.

In my last blog I compared this first research component to ‘drowning in language’, ‘time for yet another research topic/focus change’ or more simply ‘OMG’. When we left off I was faced with the reality of probably ditching my current research topic completely and starting from scratch. And that’s what I did.

“Literary” crime did seem to represent a good area for further research. What makes a novel “literary” anyway and who decides? You might think a novel either is or isn’t literary (with a capital L), but it’s not that simple. I waded in, and this is where I got to the language issues.  Why does academic language have to be so…academic?!!! At this stage, I started to doubt my ability to get my head around some of the issues. Was I just dumber than I realised?

I read Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogical Imagination and for chunks of it was left with not much more than WTF?  But I kept going, wading deeper and deeper into the abyss of literary theory, the history of literature, aesthetic pleasure, the Frankfurt School and mass culture.  The history of crime fiction, including detailed analysis of more literary-styled crime novels like The Maltese Falcon, Chandler’s novels, Umberto Eco, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. I crammed a lot of research into those few months (like most PhD students!).  In the end, I had a non-exhaustive and historically defined ‘list’ of some of the elements that make up “the literary”. I won’t go into detail here, but I think it’s useful and hopefully interesting to at least mention them:

  1. Readership/audience – popular fiction is read by the masses whereas literary fiction is read by a smaller group of educated people (completely snobby!). Furthermore, readers of popular fiction are passive readers whereas readers of literary fiction are active. Don’t get me started! This topic alone would be enough for an exegesis.
  2. The role of character and narrative form – literary novels are more character-driven and popular fiction is more plot-driven.
  3. Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia and double-voiced discourse – is there a “literary” language and a crime fiction language? How do novels use multiple narrators and dialogue to produce multiple voices?
  4. Uniqueness versus generic conformity – literary novels are unique, whereas popular fiction follows formulas.
  5. Aesthetic pleasure – something that’s often identified as being part of a response to art, and therefore to the more artistic forms of literature.
  6. Socio-political critique/commentary – literary novels try to change society by highlighting society’s shortcomings.
  7. Sales – some people believe if a novel sells well, it’s not literary…but how can a novel’s sales figures change what it is?
  8. Literary novels are harder to read – they’re denser textually, have multi-layered meanings and require deconstruction. They may also require multiple readings.
  9. Voice, language and style differences – literary fiction tends to feature more poetic prose, often treats dialogue differently and uses more interior monologues.
  10. External evaluation – if a novel is reviewed in certain prestigious publications or wins literary awards (e.g. the Man Booker, Miles Franklin, Nobel Prize) it’s definitely literary.

I’m not saying I agree with all of these (far from it), but they are areas for research. Lots of options…too many options. With only 20,000 words for my exegesis (research component) I had to narrow it down. So, I decided to focus on five elements — the role of characterisation compared to narrative form; Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia and double-voiced discourse; socio-political critique; voice, language and style; and external evaluation (e.g. literary prizes).  And to support my analysis of these characteristics, I will be examining four crime novels that have some literary elements Peter Temple’s Truth, Martin Amis’s Night Train, Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.   Still a lot to wrestle into 20,000 words so I may end up cutting it even more down the track.

I presented all this at my school’s postgraduate conference in June and submitted my final proposal (and the other accompanying documentation) two weeks before my 1 August deadline. Yay! And it’s been accepted! Double yay.

So what now? Well, now it’s onto the creative component for the next twelve months. I can sit back and relax…well, it will be relaxed for me because I’m back in the zone I know, writing a novel (novella). However, the writing style will be very different to what I’ve done in the past, so it will be more challenging than my ‘normal’ time-to-write-a-book phase.

I know I’m only six months in, but so far this PhD is the best thing I’ve done in my career. I love it!

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June 10, 2015

Anatomy of a PhD – application process

Filed under: Doctorate,Writing — PD Martin @ 11:48 am

I decided to apply for a PhD back in September 2014, and since I received the fantastic news that I got in (!) I’ve been meaning to blog about the process, especially the key milestones. So, this is a retrospective blog on the application process and I’ll write other blogs to catch up with the process over the coming months.

The application process itself is fairly time-consuming, but the effort is well worth it. The first thing to do is look a universities that fit the bill. Things to consider include the university’s creative writing reputation, the course structure, the supervisors and the location (although not as important with a research PhD in this day and age).

While researching some of my top picks (the universities I knew had strong creative writing departments), I discovered that the creative writing PhD in Australia is either via a Doctorate of Philosophy or a Doctorate of Creative Arts. However, regardless of which PhD you enrol in, the structures can be very different across universities. A research PhD in creative writing consists of:

  1. A creative writing piece (e.g. a collection of short stories or poems, or a novel/novella).
  2. An exegesis (a researched, academic paper that ideally addresses a gap in the current research).

Now, the balance (and word counts) assigned to these elements vary. Some universities require a 50,000 word novel (novella) and a 50,000 word exegesis. I didn’t feel this break up was conducive to producing a viable, publishable novel — plus, to be honest, it wouldn’t play to my strengths. I’ve got a lot more experience as an author/novelist than writing academic papers and theses. So for me, my first point of difference was to look at the structure and investigate universities where the creative-to-exegesis ratio was more like 70:30.

The next (and arguably most important element) to research was each university’s supervisors. Basically, you need to match your writing and potential research field with the academic staff at each university. Some universities have a central application system (you send in your proposal and the co-ordinator discusses it with the staff to see if anyone’s interested) but at most of the universities I investigated the onus was on the applicant to research the academic staff and approach them directly to gauge interest. This probably takes as much time (maybe more) as actually writing the proposal!

Finally, I considered the university’s location, but it wasn’t a deciding factor for me. Again, because for much of the time you’re working autonomously the university doesn’t have to be nearby or even in the same state, Once you’re up and running, you do ‘meet’ with your supervisor fortnightly, but these meetings can be done with a combination of emails, phone calls and in-person meetings.

I was lucky enough to get a couple of offers in the end, but I chose Adelaide University. The things I love the most about Adelaide University are its creative writing reputation and my supervisor Brian Castro (who recently won the Patrick White Literary Award and has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin four times). As I shift my writing focus, I believe Brian will be an invaluable guide along the way.

So here’s to the next three years!


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September 11, 2014

Creative immersion

Filed under: Getting published,Writing — Tags: , , , , — PD Martin @ 9:58 am

This past week has been about creative immersion—not for me, for a group of students!

Covent1[1]I created my new novel writing intensive course so I could have complete ‘control’ over my creative writing course in terms of the length and content. And I’m loving it! Don’t get me wrong, I also love teaching at Writers Victoria and the other state centres around Australia (like my two-day stint in Adelaide at the end of July). However, nothing beats designing the course yourself. In the case of my novel writing intensive, it’s five days in a row, 10am-4pm at the Abbotsford Covent (on the left). By the end of the week, participants really do have everything they need to write a novel or take their current draft to that next level.

And while I’m not actively taking part in the creative immersion, as such, it’s also pretty intense for me. I’m on the journey with my students, and I’ve got to say, nothing beats seeing a writer’s eyes light up when they see/hear something that clicks and their whole novel falls into place. Something that changes their whole world view—of their fictional world, that is.

As I expected, it was the character and plot days that provided the most lightning bolt moments for my students—who ranged in writing backgrounds from writers about to embark on their first novel to a student who’d had two books traditionally published ten years ago and wanted to up her professional development and to ignite her love of writing again. And I’m happy to say, by the end of the week she was raring to go.

While the course only involves me reading the students’ first 10-15 pages and so I’m by no means intimate with their stories and characters, it’s still incredibly satisfying to see students work out new beginnings, identify their problem areas, work out some more plot twists and turns, and head off after day 5 ready to attack their novels. There aren’t many things that beat the passion for a story and your characters. It burns you, consumes you, until all you can do is write.

That’s my job done, I guess. Mission accomplished. Now it’s back to MY work in progress. Man, am I behind.

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August 8, 2014

First draft, first 25,000 words

Filed under: Getting published,Writing — Tags: , , , — PD Martin @ 2:20 pm

I last blogged about writing my new novel in April. That blogged focused on some of the preparation work – plot development and character exercises.

I’ve spent the last four months refining a first draft of the first 60 pages for my agent to submit to publishers. It’s been a long and arduous process, but it also proves something I always tell my students…good writing is about editing, editing and re-editing. This is the twelfth book I’ve written (that figure includes early ones that didn’t get published) and the process is still hard and time-consuming. And, of course, incredibly fun and engaging.

So, what sorts of edits have I been up to:

  1. Character, character, character. It can be a hard thing to edit for, but it’s important to get it right.
  2. Internal monologue. I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to internal monologue (cut, cut, cut) but with this new genre there is space for a little more of the main characters’ thoughts. Problem was I took this ‘freedom’ and went too far. So I’ve been editing those internal monologues down.
  3. Beats. I’m a beat fanatic, but I often have to change my beats. During the first draft I often put place-marker beats in and during editing I work on improving them. Beats and character development go hand-in-hand, so I often use my beats to SHOW character traits.
  4. Tension. I’ve also been upping the ante when it comes to tension, and while I wanted my first pages to show my characters happy (before the bad xxx goes down), my agent still wanted conflict.

And that’s about it for this draft. The four elements above make up part of my Writing Rules to Live By, yet they’re still things I often have to edit for, things that tend to creep into my first draft.

So the motto is: edit, edit, edit!

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July 22, 2014

The ideal creative writing course format

Filed under: Getting published,Uncategorized,Writing — Tags: , , , — PD Martin @ 7:43 pm

What is the ideal creative writing course format? Is there even such a thing? Writing courses come in all shapes and sizes—from a three-hour workshop to a full-time course. What’s best? What course will help you improve your writing the most?

I’ve taught quite a few different course formats –the shortest would be a six-hour workshop and I’d class my longest as being my mentorship role in the tertiary system. What works best?

The truth is, there are advantages and disadvantages of different course formats. One of my favourite courses was the Year of the Novel course I taught at Writers Victoria in 2012. I loved the fact that I could help people improve their writing over time, and I could see their projects taking shape. This course was one Sunday a month for eight months. However, while the eight-month time frame held many advantages, there were also disadvantages. Part of my teaching ethos is to drive my students to write more and finish their novels. Which meant that in my eight-month course I set word counts that I wanted them to achieve before our next session. Problem? I couldn’t possibly fit all the writing craft, character development work and plot development work into the first day of the course. Of course, I’d structured the course to feed the relevant craft info into key points, but still, there are definitely advantages of doing a more intensive course upfront before you start writing the next novel (or while you’re writing it).

I’m now also running intensive, week-long novel writing sessions at the Abbotsford Convent. Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm. These are designed to set up writers with the knowledge and tools to start and finish their novels. Again, there are advantages and disadvantages of this format. On the plus side, after only one week I’m confident that these students will know everything they need to know to make their novel the best it can be. To increase their chances of getting a publishable novel at the end of the day. It’s also handy for my interstate students, who can take the week off work and fly in once and know they have improved their craft exponentially. But it is pretty intensive and there’s no room for workshopping a novel, chapter-by-chapter.

The ideal format? I think a short course of 4-8 days over a shorter time frame (e.g. all the days in a row or weekly) followed by a longer course/program to ensure you’re putting all the craft knowledge into action is the ideal combination. The longer program could be in the form of a detailed manuscript assessment, workshopping group, or a course. Or even giving your manuscript to a good editor. I’ve learnt a lot from seeing the skilful edits of my Aussie, UK and US editors.

It’s also important you choose a ‘good’ course. Of course, choose a teacher who’s a published author, and someone who’s an experienced teacher. One of my students who did one of my Writers Victoria courses (five-day course over five months) said she learnt more in those five days than she did in her one-year, full-time creative writing course. And while that’s incredibly flattering, it also appals me that a full-time course can’t deliver the goods. So choose wisely and research the teachers!!

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June 4, 2014

Matthew Luhn’s story structure workshop

Filed under: Getting published,Writing — Tags: , , — PD Martin @ 9:33 pm

Last week I went to Matthew Luhn’s one-day story workshop in Melbourne. It was part of a three-day event on animation, set up by Pixar. Yup, the big guns!

I was pretty excited. It’s not very often that an author gets to do ‘professional development’ after a certain stage in their career (usually publication). You see, most courses are aimed at emerging writers—fair enough, that’s the students I usually get in my classes too. In fact, it was partly because I’m teaching so much these days that I thought I’d rock up to the event and see what one of Pixar’s Story Supervisors had to say about story structure. It’s always interesting to hear how other story pros approach their work. Matthew’s resume includes all three Toy Story movies, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Cars, Ratatouille, UP, Monsters University and Toy Story of Terror. That’s a pretty good rap sheet :)

The morning focused solely on story, so it was this part that was most relevant to me, and that I thought I’d blog about. I find that often with story and character, it’s not that the content itself is new or provides some revelation, but it’s how it’s expressed.

As an example, I really liked the way he expressed the story structure:
• Exposition
• Inciting incident
• Progressive complications
• Crisis
• Climax
• Resolution

Of course, we often/usually see the words ‘climax’ and ‘resolution’ in story structure theory and the ‘inciting incident’ is part of a couple of plot breakdowns including Blake Snyder’s 15 beat sheet (mentioned in the Catalyst ‘beat’) and film’s eight sequence structure. But still, I like the simplicity of the expression above.

I also wanted to share some of Matthew Luhn’s character approaches and notes. I particularly liked the way he talked about showing your character’s passion and at least one major flaw during the exposition (story set up). The inciting incident is then usually about taking away that character’s passion or them committing to trying to achieve that passion. Nice, huh? I watched The Incredibles the other day with my kids and saw this story-character relationship. The hero’s passion was being a superhero and that was taken away from him when he was sued and the government relocated all superheroes under secret identities. He was no longer allowed to use his powers, in fact, he had to hide his abilities. Matthew’s example in the workshop was UP. Carl’s passion was his wife and their house was an extension of their relationship and all he had left of her. In UP, his house was going to be taken away.

It also got me thinking about my current work in progress. Interestingly, I went the other way around. I could easily identify my inciting incident but I hadn’t traced it back to her ‘passion’. Yes, I’d looked at how it (the inciting incident) would affect her, but not as a direct relationship to a ‘passion’ and therefore needing to set up that passion early on. I’ve just re-written the first chapter, brining her passion to the fore.

The second half of the day did focus more on animation stuff—composing story boards, cinematography in animation (camera angles), etc. Incredibly interesting but probably not that useful in the day-to-day life of an author.

Still, the day was definitely worthwhile and the timing was good, because it got me fired up again for my current work in progress! And Pixar does rock.

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April 3, 2014

Chapter 1

Filed under: Writing — Tags: , , , , — PD Martin @ 2:19 pm

I’m about to start a new novel and I thought it might be interesting (especially for aspiring writers!) for me to blog about the process.  For a start, while I’ve titled this post ‘Chapter 1′ that’s not the first thing I’ve done.  I very rarely start a book by sitting down and writing the first chapter without some preparation. And this new novel is no exception.  I’m moving into a new genre (again!) and so my first step was to read some of the books selling in this space. What do I like about these novels? What do I LOVE about these novels? And what were the things I didn’t like so much?

Next I came up with about five ideas that would work as novels and wrote a paragraph or two about each one. Then it was decision time – I selected one idea to be the first in this new direction.

For this novel, my next step was to plot the novel out. While I don’t want to reveal the specific genre/style (yet) I will say that the most important element in the genre is to have a multitude of layers.  So, in this case it made sense to look at plot first. I decided to keep it simple. Rather than using a plot tool like Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, or even the three-act structure I simply wrote out each chapter/scene in bullet points. This is different to the plot tools and techniques I’ve used before, but somehow it seemed right. There are two viewpoint characters that I’m alternating between, so it was literally the person’s name, then a few bullet points on what happened and/or how they felt in that scene.

Next (and this is where I’m at now) is character development. I’ve started with my female viewpoint character and I’m on looking at images that look like the girl I’ve got in my head. I’ve set up a lightbox called ‘Jodi’ (yes, that’s my main character’s name) and I’m filling it with photos. Soon I’ll narrow it down to 3-10 photos that capture the character or her mood. Maybe it will be the hair of this woman, with the sense of carefree attitude in this pic, but with the ability to stare into your soul in her calmer moments. We all have different faces, so no ONE photo will be the one. My character is going to experience highs and lows in the novel, so I like to have visual reminders of how she looks happy, thoughtful, sad, etc. These pics come together with the image I already have of her to form MY Jodi. It’s visual, but it’s also more than that.

This is my current lightbox (still working on it though!). It gives a good idea of the visual element of my character development process.

New Picture (1)

Next stop: My character questionnaire!

And here’s a summary for the cheats/time-poor writers out there :)

1. Research genre.

2. Come up with several ideas in that space and select the one that’s calling to you the most. (Note: 1 & 2 are often/usually done in the opposite order to my example…the  idea comes first, then you research genre).

3. Use a plot technique that works for you to plot your novel (if you want to do it before you start writing).

4. Work on your characters – I recommend choosing photos that look like your projected image of him/her and also completing a character questionnaire to drill deep into the character’s personality and psyche.

I’ll let you know how I’m going on 1 May.

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December 9, 2013

NaNoWriMo round up

Filed under: Events/appearances,Writing — Tags: , , — PD Martin @ 1:51 pm

It’s official…NaNoWriMo is done for 2013. This was my second time attempting NaNoWriMo and I’m afraid that once again I fell short.

Instead of meeting the 50,000 word target (or my personal target of 30,000-40,000 words), this year I managed only 20,212  words.

I have excuses, of course. Who doesn’t? But the truth is there were two days I had put aside for intensive writing sessions (two full days, the only full days I get each week) and instead of putting my foot on the accelerator I went for the brake. I’m still not sure why. Yes, it’s a crazy busy time of year for me. My daughter’s birthday is on 6 December so there are always celebrations to organise. I also went to the Clare Writers’ Festival from 29 November – 1 December and was busy preparing for that in the last week of November. (The Festival was fantastic, by the way!)

Also, the writing didn’t seem to flow as easily for this book (book 2 in a YA series) as it did for the first and I even wondered if the fact that I actually did some plot planning BEFORE writing made things worse. Instead of writing free-form, I was writing the scene I had designated as the next scene in Scrivener. But surely plotting should help move my writing forward, not hinder it.

The bottom line is I hit the brakes for some reason. But the good news is I got 20,000 words done of my next novel and if I hadn’t been pushing myself with NaNoWriMo perhaps it would have been a much less productive month.

Not sure yet if I’ll sign up in 2014, but I’m determined that one of these days I will do NaNoWriMo and actually finish it. Perhaps not when I’ve got a 2yro at home though       :)

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November 1, 2013

NaNoWriMo – take 2

Filed under: Writing — Tags: , , , , — PD Martin @ 1:38 pm

This year I’m trying NaNoWriMo again. For those of you who don’t know, it stands for National Novel Writing Month and it’s basically a whole community of writers (both published and aspiring) getting together with the goal of writing 50,000 words in the month of November.

I tried it for the first time in 2011 and unfortunately only made it half-way. This year, I hope to get a bit closer to the 50,000 word target, however I am trying to fit it in around fairly limited chunks of writing time.

This year, I’m working on book 2 in a new YA series. I recently finished the first book and am doing the agent/publisher rounds but I thought in the meantime I’d spend November to get a chunk of book 2 written. It’s especially important for this series, because book 1 does end on a cliff hanger. Yes, there’s some resolution, but I know if I was reading it I’d want to pick up book 2 pretty much straight away because while the lead character just avert disaster in book 1, the novel ends with her ‘going into the lion’s den’ shall we say.

In the lead up, I’ve been doing a bit of planning. I tend to be more of a plot-as-you-go writer, but I thought in honour of NaNoWriMo (and because I had no idea where the plot would go!) I might actually do a basic structure before putting pen to paper. And I’m using a new-to-me theory…I’m trying the Blake Snyder beat sheet, which includes 15 ‘beats’ in a story. It’s made for screenplays, and some beats only last one page (e.g. the Opening Image) while other beats might last 25 pages (e.g. Fun and Games).


I’m also using Scrivener (which I use for all my writing now) and so I’ve written up scenes on index cards in Scrivener and I’ve customised the ‘Status’ section so it says which type of beat the scene (index card) is. This is what part of my structure looks like.

First time using this method and obviously first time using it with Scrivener so we’ll see how I go!

So, that’s my November. I did miss last month’s blog (naughty me) but I’ll check back in with a blog on 1 December to tell you all about my NaNoWriMo progress. Or you can see it in real-time at

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September 5, 2013

A celebratory month

Filed under: Getting published,Writing — Tags: , , , , — PD Martin @ 9:21 am

September is already a month of celebrations for me…and we’re only five days in! And maybe that’s why this blog is a little late, going up on 5 September instead of 1 September.


The first celebration was literally on the first of the month, when a large group of people gathered in the Yarra Valley to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday. It was a fabulous day and Dad had people from all different aspects of his life there.  We had a lot of speakers – yet everyone was so unique with wonderful insights that the day didn’t feel ‘heavy’ with speakers. In fact, it was fascinating. We had 14 people all up!

And 1 September was also Father’s Day, so we started the day with breakfast for my husband and presents from the kids.

everybreath01September is also another big celebration for me. As some of you know, in 2010 I started teaching at Writers Victoria. This month marks a huge milestone in my role as a writing teacher, with one of my students entering the ranks of  ‘published author’.   Congratulations to Ellie Marney on the release of her debut young adult (YA) novel, Every Breath – the novel she was working on in my 2010 class!

I have to say, it’s extremely rewarding to see one of my students’ manuscripts come to life not only on the page, but then on the bookshelf. The official launch is next week, but it is in bookstores now. Congratulations to Ellie, and I hope she’s the first of many of my students to break into this crazy world!

About Every Breath (from the back of the book)

What if Sherlock Holmes was the boy next door?

Rachel Watts is an unwilling new arrival to Melbourne from the country. James Mycroft is her neighbour, an intriguingly troubled seventeen-year-old genius with a passion for forensics. Despite her misgivings, Rachel finds herself unable to resist when Mycroft wants her help investigating a murder.

And when Watts and Mycroft follow a trail to the cold-blooded killer, they find themselves in the lion’s den – literally. A night at the zoo will never have quite the same meaning again…

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