Feeding the Beast with Nigel Da Silva

Nigel ‘LJ’ Da Silva, is a freelance scribbler for fun and profit. He grew up in Mooloolabah, Australia where eccentric pursuits like reading and writing were viewed with deep suspicion. As a Captain in the Australian army, he worked in Military Intelligence and would write a book about his experiences (if he thought anyone would believe them). He continues writing commercially as he lacks the skills or talents to get what many would consider a ‘real job’. 

Sated for a while, the beast lies, not asleep … for it never sleeps. Quiescent perhaps?

But not for long … it will soon awaken, its gaping maw hungering for more, always it wants more. Words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs … even entire chapters.

Back in the day, writers were stalked by an ancient terror, the typewriter. Yet it was ponderous and slow, digesting single sheets of cellulose ripped from the living tissue of trees.

But it evolved into something swifter and all but insatiable, this time consuming pixels and the writer’s very life force at a formidable pace. It became the computer.

Feeding the beast can be all consuming, so writing needs to become a habit.

When you’re trying to pen your first great novel or short story during those rare, in-between moments of your busy life, you need to develop a consistent writing habit.

I was once fortunate enough to meet one of my all time favourite authors, Terry Pratchett. Ever the gentleman, he took the time to talk to me about writing, but then he said something really annoying.

“I find writing really easy,” said Sir Terry. “I wrote my first novel, sent it to an agent and then it was published. Then I sat down and wrote my next book and the one after that.”

But for we mere mortals, writing can sometimes be an uphill battle. Those words that flowed like the effects of a bad dose of ‘Deli Belly’ suddenly become cramped in mental constipation.

Or, worse, you can’t be bothered to write. It seems too much effort. You’ll do some writing tomorrow maybe, or after the weekend.

Sometimes I pretend I have ‘writers block’ because it sounds much cooler than admitting I’m lazy and I’m finding writing really hard work.

Re-programme your brain

So can’t you just make writing an essential daily habit the same as any other in your life, like eating, showering, or exercising?

Yes, you can.

You can reprogram your brain just like a computer and install new habits.

Habits lurk in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia (I may have made that up), and they consist of three parts: a trigger; a routine; and a reward.

The trigger is the event that initiates the habit, like the alarm waking you up at the same time each morning, or finishing dinner.

The routine is the ‘core’ of the habit and describes what you do when you wake up: like make a cup of coffee or check your emails (that manuscript acceptance is bound to arrive today).

And the reward is the “what you get out of it” part. I find finishing a chapter deeply rewarding.

But how do you do that when there are so many competing priorities, so many distractions that are constantly vying for your attention and keeping you away from your writing space?

First make a list of your biggest distractions.

Do you like to binge watch TV series on Netflix? Is social media eating up your time? Is there a cat presently sitting on your keyboard? (Why do they do that?)

I find that enjoying a pint at my local under the highly suspect motive of ‘gathering some local colour’ a common distraction.

How to break bad habits and install good ones.

Write for ten minutes when you wake up.

Set your alarm fifteen minutes earlier than normal then write for ten minutes. Repeat this every day and, if you like the process, increase the time you write. Other times of day are acceptable too, as long as you stick with it.

You’re sitting at your desk. The beast gazing balefully at you with it’s single accusing eye. You’re trying to find the motivation to write for an hour or two.

So don’t write for an hour.

Write just twenty words instead.

If you can write twenty words, you can write fifty. If you write fifty, you can write a hundred. If you write … well, you get the idea.

If you tell yourself you’ll be at your desk in an hour, you’re briefing your subconscious to start preparing material.

Writing badly can be good (goodly?)

If writers block is staring you in the face, then describe its shape, colour and texture. I think writers block is when my imaginary friends are sulking and won’t talk to me.

So write something anyway.

Sometimes writing badly can eventually lead to something better; not writing leads to nothing at all.

I call writing badly ‘working out a framework’ or ‘alternative literature’; it’s a little lie I tell myself so I can feel good about my bad writing.

Remember, a professional writer is just an amateur writer who didn’t give up.


A Tribute to Barbara Large

Festival attendee Geoff Pridmore writes a fitting tribute to Barbara Large MBE, creator of the Winchester Writers’ Festival, who died on 4th March 2019.



Conference Director Barbara Large MBE of the University of Winchester with author Colin Dexter OBE at the Winchester Writers’ Conference 2008 (Photo credit: John Gilbey)

I can’t remember the first year that I attended the Writers’ Conference, in those days held at Southampton University but it must have been sometime in the ‘80s. I hadn’t been published at that point, but was a hopeful novice. The Conference was very big, with workshops in every imaginable discipline from poetry to Sci-Fi, writing for magazines, TV, radio, and much else besides. The big players were in attendance, with BBC Radio 4 and ITV giving workshops in script writing, and scriptwriters such as Vincent McInnerny, among many others, helped to encourage new, emerging talent. Writing for newspapers and magazines were popular workshops and, in my opinion, very important for any writer wanting to get published for the first time.

In the evening, the grand opening gala dinner saw the Mayor of Southampton arriving in full regalia, along with other great movers and shakers from the worlds of publishing, printing, TV, Radio, et al. It was a glamorous, Hollywood-style affair and across the tables people made friendships and connections. Dare I say, not everyone went home to their allocated billet when the festivities were over!

And at the centre of all these movers and shakers was a slightly built, dark-haired, softly-spoken Canadian lady who was the ‘engine’ behind the whole festival. She was the originator, the innovator, who’d brought all these incredible people together from across Southampton, from across Hampshire, from across the South of England, from across the UK and the world. Yes, this was a truly international event.

But she was far more than my ‘description’, in terms of what she achieved each year. She had that very rare ability to make each novice writer feel as if they were the most important person at the conference. How did she do it? I can’t truly answer that. Her eyes, her demeanour, would simply welcome each and every one of us. She took notice of who attended. Some people can do this quite naturally, others can’t, however well-meaning, however much they want and try to. You could never say of Barbara, ‘I don’t think she knew I was there’: she knew. She knew all of us.

I attended the Conference for many, many years. It was inevitable that, come the digital age, the festival format would be adopted by other institutions across the land and that’s been a great development for writers of all ages and stages. There will never be another ‘Southampton’, in respect of the scale and depth the conference was able to achieve in a pre-digital, analogue age, but both Sara Gangai and Judith Heneghan have kept Barbara’s flame alight and for that there are thousands and thousands of writers who will be eternally grateful. We may not always need to attend every year, but there is always something new to learn.

In salute to the inspirational Barbara Large! Thanks, Barbara! And thank you, too, Sara and Judith. Keep up the good work.

If you have a memory of Barbara that you would like to share, please email Sara Gangai (sara.gangai@winchester.ac.uk). Sara will be collecting all tributes to pass on to Barbara’s family. 

Mini-workshop: the character and poetry of ‘place’ in life-writing

Gail Anderson won first prize in both the memoir and poetry competitions at the 2018 Winchester Writers’ Festival. Her life-writing, poetry and short fiction have been widely published in anthologies and journals. She is Head of Communications at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, and spends most of her free time on her boat.


Hitchhiking to Paris. Teaching school in rural Africa. Witnessing the protest at Tiananmen Square. Memoir springs from experience – you were there, and you have a story to tell. So far so good.

But memoir needs to extend beyond the personal. You need to lend the reader your eyes and ears. Let them feel the experience alongside you.

For me, one of the best ways to do this is to make your memoir’s setting – its ‘place’ – into a full-blooded character in your piece. Develop the personality and poetry of your place – and you open doors to your readers.

First, profile your place

Every experience has a place, and every place has a personality. Teaching in rural Africa will be vastly different from teaching in suburban Minneapolis. Quite literally, place grounds experience.

Our very identities are linked with place. Saying I’m a Brummie, a Beijinger, a New Yorker is a form of shorthand for a host of characteristics and allegiances. Giving your memoir a strong sense of place taps into this human tendency for connection.

Start with one of the boatload of character profile templates online. Hair and eyes aside – what physical qualities and quirks does your place have? What is its age? Its colour? What are its political leanings? What sorts of people hang out with it? How is it ‘dressed’?

Places might be sleek, smug and athletic (The Balboa Yacht Club), or sad and careworn (Flint, Michigan). Your place might be missing limbs, through war or economic circumstance. It might have put on weight through suburban sprawl. What is it proud of, your place – and what is it trying to hide?

Bring on the senses

What does Tonga smell like? How does Paris sound? What does mid-afternoon along the Ganges feel like?

The senses are powerful engines to drive memoir.

Sensory detail in life-writing works double-time. It pulls your reader deeper into your scene, yes; but equally, the gathering of sensory detail in the prewriting phase can enrich your own memories as a writer. Recalling the smell of eucalyptus, for instance, might make me remember the dusty soil of that schoolyard in rural Africa, the hot handle of the water tap, the coolness of the shade under the schoolhouse eaves.

We’re lucky to live in a golden age for casual research. What was the name of that pink flower that grew along the Annapurna Trail in Nepal? What music was playing on the radio in Los Angeles in 1988? Not only is the answer online, chances are someone has photographed it, recorded it, described it in loving detail.

I’ve begun many memoirs with YouTube or Spotify playlists. Listening to music that connects me to place puts me in its ‘groove’. Venture beyond music – to old radio and TV broadcasts, spoken word, environmental sound.

Build your glossary of ‘place’

Using your character profile and each of the five senses – taste, smell, see, touch, hear – spend some time collecting words and phrases about your place. List both nouns and verbs – and be on the lookout for words that have colour, rhythm or evoke strong imagery.

Taste your place, its foods and spices, its sweets, savories and bitters. Cardamom. Sumac. Your atmosphere may have a taste as well. Dust. Smog. Sea spray. Smell botanical, personal, household and industrial scents alike. Purple sky-pilot. Hot tar. Bleach. Because of the way our brains are wired, scent is the most powerful sense for connecting us to memory and emotion. See colours and patterns that make up the canvas of your place. …the cars mostly 1970s Toyota Corollas… the high-tidemark garlanded with pink scallop shells… stone foundations of river-worn granite…

Think about touch being both tactile (the weight of the brick in your hand) and atmospheric. The first time my mother took me to Hawaii, she told me the air would be ‘soft’ – and she was right. Later, living in Minnesota in the winter, I knew ‘hard’ air – air so cold that the moisture inside my nose turned to crystals the moment I stepped outdoors. Let touch include intangibles. Tension. Joy. Sorrow. Anything that pervades might be considered as touch. And to hear your place, take your laptop or paper to a quiet space, close your eyes and ‘listen’ to your memory. Sleet. Car horns. Ships’ rigging. Cowbell. Ice cream truck. Free-write everything as it occurs, without stopping, for five minutes or for as long as it takes.

Add a dash of poetry

The power of poetry might be its ability to say two different things at once, with richness and economy.

By now you’ve jotted a glossary of words and phrases – and they’re pointing you towards some useful poetic devices, like personification, metaphor, and symbolism. Note the rhythm and sound of your words. Are the vowels short or long? Which words are plosive, which alliterative, which smoothly sibilant?

Your Tiananmen Square memoir wants short words with plosive consonants that mirror the sound of weaponry, the panic. Taut, rather than nervous. Bolted, instead of ran.

For a hippie setting, consider how your colour word ‘paisley’ might describe a convoluted street pattern, or a repetitive daily routine. If your location is a rapidly expanding city, its glossary might include words of motion and transition. Steeples rising, parks unfurling, freeway arteries pumping traffic in and out…

Experiment with lineation. Play around with word order and rhythm before putting it all back into paragraph form.

Place as partner

Close development of place invites narrative parallels. A granite city might reflect the unbending character of the woman who lives in it. The seasonal ebb and flow of a river may mirror the episodic memory you wish to relate. Let a compelling sense of place elevate your story beyond limited ‘me-moir’ and into the realm of meaningful memoir.

Or to paraphrase Henry Miller – let your place be our new way of seeing. 

Find Gail on twitter – @smallgreenberd