Writers On Writing / A week at Varuna, by Helen Thurloe

Day 1 A week at Varuna starts on a Monday afternoon. I arrive early so I can have lunch in Katoomba with author James Roy. In 2012 I did his excellent ‘Write a YA novel in A Year’ course at the NSW Writers’ Centre, and even though my one year YA novel is now a […]

Day 1

A week at Varuna starts on a Monday afternoon. I arrive early so I can have lunch in Katoomba with author James Roy. In 2012 I did his excellent ‘Write a YA novel in A Year’ course at the NSW Writers’ Centre, and even though my one year YA novel is now a more than two-year effort, I feel I’m on the home stretch with this week at Varuna ahead of me.

I discuss with James some issues I’m having with my opening chapter, and he kindly offers to critique alternative drafts of the first few pages. Writing them is now my priority for tomorrow!

After checking into Varuna, the rest of the afternoon is spent sorting two large boxes of notes into piles on the floor labelled ‘Current’, ‘Refer again’, ‘Seriously?’ and ‘Recycle’.

At dinner I meet my fellow house-mates for the week, Julie, Lucinda, Hannah and Kirsten, and we discuss our various projects around the fireplace. Yes, even in February you can enjoy a roaring fire at Katoomba.


Day 2

It’s raining. Excellent writing weather. Everyone is squirrelled away in their studios, fiddling with words. No excuses not to.

I put my unsorted scraps of research to the side, and plunge into a stream-of-consciousness rewrite of my opening chapter. It’s easier now I know my main character, Azra, better.

Then I put it aside to mature, while I fiddle with the first six chapters of draft three. It feels like I’ve scrapped a lot, (I’m aiming to cull at least ten percent of the 74,000 words) but by 6:30pm the count tells me I have only lost 143 words. Ah well. I hope the ones that remain have improved.

After dinner I road-test two versions of the opening chapter on my housemates. They make very supportive noises so I read them some more. I find myself editing out the bits I don’t want to read aloud. Now I really know which other bits I need to cut out. Tomorrow.


Day 3

Today I went over my revisions and cut out some more. I’ve almost removed 1,000 unnecessary words from the first 40 pages. It feels about right. I also tightened up the alternative opening chapters and sent them over to James.

On my desk I have a pile of paper about six centimetres high with other people’s comments on the third draft. It’s about time I looked at them. Tomorrow.


Day 4

After taking two full days to revisit 40 pages, I was positively cruising on 30 pages revisited by mid afternoon today! Then I ran into pages and pages of ponderous crud. Sprinkled with tiny bits of useful information for progressing the plot that will need to be extracted and re-planted. Somehow.

To keep up my spirits I go for a walk and have a hot bath. There’s always tomorrow.


Day 5

First thing in the morning, a dense mist covers the garden. It takes a while to lift. I know how it feels.

Eventually I face the disobedient words. Drink tea. Scratch out whole pages. Drink coffee. Write new pages. Go for a swim. Do some more.

The sun heats up. I reread the notes from my readers. Go back and change a few more bits. Fall asleep on the floor.

Decide to change a name throughout the whole document. Fail, technically. Write a sticky note reminder instead.

Move to the lounge room and burn through another twenty pages of edits. Go for a walk.

Drink wine with the housemates. Eat Sheila’s delicious roast chicken and vegetables. Go back to my room and review another fifty pages of corrections. Phew!


Day 6

This is a big day. I burn through nearly 70 pages of my draft, and on a break I walk to the Gully in the midday heat, stopping often to give directions to pained-looking Hash House Harriers with sweaty backpacks. In between, I come up with a plotting solution that fixes three of my problems. Hallelujah!

After dinner I know I’ve done enough today so I decide I won’t go back to it tonight. Until I suddenly work out where I can sprinkle some dialogue about how one might go about acquiring a husband.

From the Varuna library I dip into a hefty tome called ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ by Christopher Booker, which is kind of helpful if a little late.

There is plenty of serendipitous reading here on the shelves of Varuna, but some of these one really shouldn’t touch. Especially when your draft is nearly done.


Day 7

It’s a beautiful sunny day. Somehow, curled on the sofa in the lounge room, with the fragrance of old roses carrying into the house, I finish! Draft four, that is. As well as a list of the bits that I still need to add in. Plus another list of recurring phrases I need to reconsider throughout the document. Like “his eyes widened/narrowed”, “she shrugged”, and “my throat tightened”. Is it true that teenagers have a smaller range of gestures? I doubt it. The problem’s my vocabulary.

Now I only need to put fifty pages of edits into my laptop, and take a look at how well I managed my 10% word cull.

And the verdict is… the manuscript is now five thousand words less, not the seven thousand I was shooting for, but then I have added in a few new twists. An excellent outcome.

Now I will let the manuscript rest for a month before the final polish.

Did someone mention champagne? Yes, one of my kind housemates. It’s been a wonderful week with a diversely talented group of writers. We’ve spent the whole week surprising each other and ourselves.

That’s the magic of Varuna. It pushes you deeper into your work, but saves you from madness at the end of the day with diverting company and excellent food.

Thank you NSW Writers’ Centre and Varuna for a fabulous week. I hope the pudding (novel) is worth the eating!


Helen Thurloe

February 2014


PS: I left this in the guest-book.


Varuna quiet

the discipline of new friends

only words remain.


Helen Thurloe was the winner of the 2013 NSW Writers’ Centre Varuna Fellowship.

The 2014 fellowship is now taking applications until 12 September. Download the application form here.


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