best writing advice, the writers college, let your characters lead

The best advice I ever received about writing came from highly successful Australian children’s author John Heffernan about 25 years ago, when he had just begun his amazing literary journey.

He said, “You will one day be joined by your characters over a cup of tea, and they will tell you what they want to happen to them.”

I kind of dismissed this as fanciful and not at all what I wanted to happen – after all, who was the author anyway – them or me? He also told me that one of my short stories was ‘a little beauty, a kernel of things to come; you must turn this one into a book!’

That’s the information I followed and joined several short stories I’d written about Papua New Guinea in the 1960s into a manuscript. However, I made two very big mistakes – I started with a character I didn’t really like and spent four or five chapters on her (Helen). So, I rewrote the beginning with my better characters introduced early – namely Kim, Albert, Brother Paul, Mariana and Gloria.

The second mistake was that I killed off an exciting character (Jane) halfway through the book. However, I stubbornly left the dead girl dead as planned, but had no idea where to go next.

“Ah!” I thought, “I had better do some research into the political climate on New Britain prior to independence.”

I suggested to my husband that we return there to get a feel for the place and he said, “No way! It’s far too dangerous there now! We wouldn’t be safe!”

Thus, in the days before laptops and iPhones, I gathered some knowledge from microfiche files at UNE, Armidale. This gave me a bit more credence, but at times the story started to take on all the appearance of a shopping list – with no true direction, just a jumble of information from ‘she who was still in charge!’

I had to let go! And I did! Completely! I left the manuscript in a drawer for something like ten years. During this time many things happened – including the death of our middle child in a car accident. I fished out the manuscript and wrote copiously about the aftermath of Jane’s death – very well, if I may say so, and the writing helped to soothe my pathway through life.

However, the story was still lingering in limbo like eternal fruit on a tree – fearing the ripening in case of the falling to follow.

I made copious cups of tea and sat down – defying my characters to come and join me. They never did! I attended several workshops and tried to write Helen out of the story, but that proved impossible due to entanglements.

Suddenly, about five years on – I heard a voice, then two or three of them – tugging at my sensibility and demanding that I sit down at once! I just happened to be preparing a rooibos tea and did as I was told!

I shouldn’t have died!

But you had to so Albert could meet Gillian!

We want to get married on the beach, but there have to be some stuff-ups!

Okay Kim, okay Gloria, I’ll see what I can do!

Do you like Mary as a name for our baby?

Mariana! You can’t have his child! Brother Paul is a missionary!

Oh no he isn’t! Get your pen out woman!

The cacophony of voices stayed with me for ages, and the manuscript that had taken twenty years to germinate grew into a book in just twenty weeks!

Letting my characters tell their story means my story has finally been written.

Jane! Leave me alone!

Albert! Behave yourself!


About Anne (Annabelle) Andrews

After 40 years teaching in PNG and Australia, Anne has decided to devote herself to her lifelong passion of creative writing. She has won several prizes for poetry, short stories and photography and her other creative outlet is landscape gardening. Anne lives with her artist husband John at Waukivory, and has two wonderful children and four gorgeous grandsons.