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?

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5 lessons from my Nanowrimo win

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My first attempt at Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2014 lasted one day. I had a vague story idea, met the estimated daily word count of 1667 and gave in.

During our visit to Vietnam in July 2016, I had the urge to write a book about our posting. I wrote about 8000 words during Nanowrimo but decided moving and writing was too hard.

This year, I have focused on my writing, doing a couple of Australian Writer’s Centre courses, blogging more, listening to writing podcasts, and joining writing groups on Facebook. I have also read more – 35 books, and with 2 weeks left in the year, I’m fairly confident of hitting my target of 40 books.

All of these things meant that when Nanowrimo discussions started to ramp up, I was determined to win. After abandoning (for now) the idea to write a book about my Dad, I decided to write a romantic historical fiction based here in the Barossa. I set my novel up on my Nanowrimo page and announced it to the world. I even went along to the launch party with a group of other Adelaide writers.

I won, writing 50,000 words in November. I learned a lot about writing, my writing style and routines and the things you need to be a successful writer.

Here are my 5 top lessons

 1. Find your writing tribe

I think this was probably the most important thing for me. I joined the So you want to be a writer podcast Facebook group and the Nanowrimo Adelaide Facebook group and connected with people on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I shared updates on my word counts, encouraged others and was inspired as others shared their success. The encouragement from so many strangers was amazing, and in these groups, I actually felt like I was really a writer.

I also shared updates on my own Facebook page and social media, which was great for accountability. Friends understood it when I said I needed to write and I also appreciated the encouragement.

 2. Just start writing

Even on the days I couldn’t be bothered or thought I didn’t have time, I knew I just needed to start. I would tell myself I would just write 200 words or write for 15 minutes. These were strategies I had learned doing Alison Tait’s Make Time to Write course and they really work. It’s the strategy I’m using as I write this post, which I’ve been meaning to write for almost 3 weeks.

Once I started writing, the ideas started flowing and I would find myself getting completely caught up in the story. While it was annoying to be interrupted to go to work, or take the boys to sport, it meant that the next time I sat down to write, I wasn’t stuck for ideas.

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3. Get the story down

This advice was from my friend Emma Grey. Seeing Emma’s success with her young adult novel Unrequited, which she wrote during Nanowrimo a couple of years ago has been a huge inspiration. One day when I was feeling stuck writing dialogue and descriptions about the characters and landscape, Emma told me to just get the story down because once I had that, I could go back and fill in the gaps. It was great advice and I would find myself getting completely carried away with the story, coming up with ideas and angles I hadn’t expected. Writing a novel that covers a period from the 1840s until now, I will have to fill in some historical gaps, but I knew I couldn’t get caught up in researching or I wouldn’t get 50,000 words written. And if I had started editing my work, I would no doubt have started doubting my ideas and writing ability.

4. Scrivener is amazing

Scrivener is an amazing software program that organises a novel by chapter and scenes. It is very visual, allowing you to see which scenes are finished and which need more work. There are options to tag each scene with things like the year, characters, point of view etc.  I was a bit worried that learning a new software program would distract me from writing but Nanowrimo participants get an extended trial period and I signed up to the Australian Writer’s Centre 2 hour online course with Natasha Lester in October. The course provided loads of great tips on using Scrivener and working through the modules, I was able to plot out my novel ready to start writing on 1 November. I loved the option of being able to set a daily word target and watch my progress.

I was excited that Scrivener 3 was released just as Nanowrimo finished and I was able to  take advantage of the 50 per cent discount for winners. I am definitely a convert and look forward to going back to my Vietnam memoir now I have an easy way to organise that parts I have written.

 

 5. Try to stick to a regular routine

I suspended my gym membership for November because I’d been struggling with injury and illness and I just wanted to give myself a month to get well. It is probably lucky I did, because my strategy to write every day, even for 15 minutes before bed would often result in me getting completely caught up in my story, and going to bed after midnight, where I often couldn’t sleep because my mind was so full of my story and characters. It took me the first week of December to re-set my sleeping habits and get back to the gym. I also ate way more chocolate that I should have. I don’t recommend this strategy and next year, I’ll be fitting my writing in around exercise and sleep.

While I know I could not write at that pace long-term, Nanowrimo was definitely a great opportunity to focus on getting a story written and reaching 50,000 words has given me the confidence to believe that I might one day finish writing a novel (hopefully this one).

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