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Writing in Hanoi

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Alison Bate in Hanoi, 2013

Author and writing instructor Julie Ferguson asked me to write a guest blog about my experience writing a novel while living overseas. Here’s the article in full:

Hanoi is a surprisingly good place to write a book.

The capital of Vietnam boasts good coffee shops with Wifi, teaching jobs where you don’t have to work too hard to cover rent, and the jostle of 3.5 million other motorbikes that stimulates creativity.

It’s a total contrast to my home on Bowen Island in western Canada, where deer roam the yard and only the whining of chainsaws breaks the peace.

Writing in two very different settings, I’ve realised that wherever I live there are other writers around to help during the long, lonely journey of working on a first draft.

My roommate Tom introduced me to the Hanoi Writers Collective in April 2012, and throughout the next 12 months, the expat group became the lifeline that kept my novel moving along.

We were a mixed bunch, coming from different countries and writing in very different genres. Andy Engelson was writing an epic novel based in the U.S. Pacific Northwest; Diederik Prakke, about Buddhists in love; Mary Croy and Liz Burgess, sci-fi for young adults; Charlotte Adams, poetry; and Linda Mazur, a nonfiction study of the early Vietnamese architects in Hanoi.

And I was (and still am!) writing a novel set in modern Sudan, where I taught in 2007 and re-visited in 2011. Our members also attended Noi Ha Noi, where Vietnamese and English-speaking poets, writers, and storytellers read their work in their native language. The Vietnamese poetry was then translated into English and vice versa. A tough challenge for the translators!

Our main writing group met every two weeks and we took it in turns to bring in a writing prompt, free-write for 20 minutes or so, then read our poetry or prose out loud. Afterward, we critiqued each other’s work, emailed to others in advance. (Ed: not all groups follow this format.)

From these sessions, I learned:

* Even if colleagues write in a very different genre, you can still help each other. Poets helped me appreciate the sounds of words and creative writers encouraged me to use my imagination.

* If at least two people make the same suggestion, it’s a good idea to explore it. For example, my novel was originally written  in third person from one point of view, but is now told from three points of view. It’s much stronger, as a result.

* Meeting regularly encouraged me to write a new chapter each time, and actually finish it – instead of lazily writing “snappy ending goes here”.

* If there isn’t a writing group where you live, you can always start one. I’ve spent the summer back on Bowen Island and a small group of us are now sharing our writing.

I’m heading back to Hanoi shortly, and look forward to reconnecting with the other writers – and keeping the novel moving toward the finish line.

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