Creative Checklist

maya angelou creativity

Consider the following and ensure that you have thought about each and taken these elements into account


  • Time and place: when is this action occurring; between whom?
  • Setting: a sense of place for backdrop purposes; for symbolic purposes; for atmosphere and dramatic purposes
  • Themes: which of these ideas are you exploring: class; power; ownership; spirituality; secrecy; wealth; family; identity; self-worth; grief; conflict; anger; guilt; bitterness etc….(it’s a long list – hone in on one or two to really explore in detail)
  • Premise: exactly why and in what circumstances is the interaction occurring?  How believable is it given all that occurs in the text?
  • Characters: how are your characters portrayed – their relationships with others/the land, their views and values; their identity; their inner conflicts; are they haunted by memories?; do they wonder about the future?; what do they hope for?; what do they fear?
  • Whose “lived experience” are you hoping to shine a light on?
  • Keep it within the realm of possibility – you should be complementing Grenville’s text, not contradicting it.


  • SHOW, DON’T TELL.  You will need to think about what you want to hint at and how you can show the reader enough for them to infer what you are talking about.
  • Opening needs to be strong and engaging and can open ‘in media res’ – in the middle of the action – or can begin with description of setting or people which sets a mood or atmosphere
  • Consider how you build tension by hinting at discord, increasing the intensity subtly and ensuring that your reader is drawn into the conflict (could even be a person’s inner conflict)
  • Consider how you could use PATHOS to create a sense of pity and sympathy for a character and their position in the story
  • Exercise restraint  – you don’t need to write about a punch-on.  The threatened action need not even occur.  Your writing will be more powerful for the tension rather than the action your try to write.


  • KILL YOUR DARLINGS.  Don’t use 12 words where one will do. Be a ruthless editor.
  • Mix up your sentence structures to control the pace and mood of your writing.
  • Sentence fragments.  Use them.
  • Try for immediacy – don’t lapse into the passive voice.  Keep things active (attributing actions to specific people)
  • Dialogue needs to capture accents, class, education, culture.  It should reflect the cadence of speech (often not fully formed sentences and including trailing off….. Or interrup–I mean, interjections)
  • Punctuate your sentences appropriately – particularly dialogue.
  • Intersperse dialogue with description.  A classic mistake is to open with some scene setting and never ever describe (show) anything again.  That would be the equivalent of switching off the visual feed after the first 5 minutes of a screening a film in a cinema and only allowing your audience to hear the sound for the rest of the movie.  You can’t expect your audience to supply all the visual material to accompany the action and dialogue.  Don’t be lazy.  You have to work hard to keep us willing suspending our disbelief.
  • Vocabulary: do your research.  Use the terminology appropriate to the time and place and characters.
  • Be specific with the details – give your writing authenticity.
  • Appeal to the senses.  Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures – these are all things that evoke a response from your reader.
  • Use the symbols or motifs Grenville has provided you with or introduce new ones: roof tile; fire; telescope; book; boat; river; cliffs; oysters; singing; clothing


  • Read your work aloud.  No, really.  Fix any errors that may have crept into your expression (subject/verb agreement; tense control)
  • Listen out for any parts that sound overly wordy or recount-like.  Kill your darlings.
  • Read your work to a critical friend.  Get some feedback.  Listen to their questions and examine their responses.


Ask WWKGD? (what would Kate Grenville do?)

The answer, my friend, is not blowin’ in the wind, nor is it secret.  It’s right there in The Secret River.

And remember: drafting is a process.

cormier writing quote


Pathos and how to use it.

Pathos is a quality of an experience in life or a work of art that stirs up emotions of pity, sympathy and sorrow. Pathos can be expressed through words, pictures or even with gestures of the body.

Read the following extract from the massacre scene and consider how pathos is generated in the text.

The gun went off with a puff of blue smoke and a pop that sounded puny in all this air.  He thought he must have missed, for Whisker Harry was still standing there with that look on his face, as if nothing could touch him.

The old man bent slowly forward until he was on his knees, holding his belly.  It seemed the longest time that he stayed like taht, as if by becoming a rock or tree he could eject the thing that had entered him.

A fly was around Thornhill’s face and he brushed it away.  He closed his eyes.  Like the old man on his knees he felt he might become something other than a human, something that did not do things in this sticky clearing that could never be undone.

Now the old man was bending in on himself, holding his middle in that polite way.  He lay on the dust.  Blood came from his mouth, just a trickle like spit, but so red.  He knelt in the dust and kissed it with the blood from his mouth…

…Thornhill could only hear his own ragged breathing. At last he lowered the gun and laid it carefully on the ground.  HE heard a fly buzz past his ear.  The first rays of the sun were slanting in through the trees, laying stripes of colour along the grass.  HE listened for the blacks running through the forest,  but even the humming things in the grass had fallen silent.

Every tree, every leaf, every rock seemed to be watching.

The Secret River p.308

Compare the following descriptions of other participants in the massacre:

‘He heard Ned screaming, high like a girl, that hey had got him in the damn nuts, he would kill them buggers as God was his witness.'(p305-6)

‘Dan went over with the club in his hand.  Thornhill saw his face, absent, like a man mending a piece of harness by lampight.  He struck once, twice, and the cry stopped.'(p.309)

‘Then Whisker Harry, wiry and fragile, calmly stepped out from them.'(p.306)

‘She tripped, almost danced for a moment to stay upright, the child still tight in her arms, across her chest.’ (p.304)


  • Which description demands us to feel sympathy and which ensures we have a lack of sympathy?
  • How is pathos generated?
  • The third person limited perspective enables a slowing of time as each action is couched in terms of Thornhill’s thoughts, feelings or actions.


  • How might you use pathos in your writing?
  • Consider a simile or metaphor that could ‘show’ rather than tell something about a character’s moral compass.
  • Try to ‘slow time’ in your writing by interspersing dialogue with description or with the thoughts or emotions of the protagonist.  Grenville gives attention to the buzzing fly in a moment of high drama, or the stages of Whiskey Harry’s fall to his death.  Pick your own points (like a ballet dancer fixes a point in a pirouette) and describe these mid-action or mid-dialogue.



Peer Assessment: No Limits

No Limits is not just a catchy 90’s dance track from 2Unlimited but great advice about grading.  Take your writing through the false limit of A+ and beyond.


Here are some things to read for and comment on:

  • What key theme from the text is present in this piece?
  • What new understanding do you about an idea or a character?
  • Does the whole thing fit with your understanding of the novel?
  • Can you give any suggestions to improve this piece?


Possible feedback:

  • eliminate irrelevant or implausible content
  • provide additional character details
  • make a character’s moral stance clearer
  • use ‘show, don’t tell’ principle to enable readers to use inference
  • revise understanding of character – go back to the text to ‘hear their voice’to replicate it
  • improve the sense of time and place
  • explore the moral challenge/s and moral courage more
  • cause and effect needs to be clearer
  • language and expression requires proofreading
  • structure needs to be reconsidered

Use the English-Unit 1 Creative Text Response Assessment to give your peer a score for each section and a predicted grade at this stage.

Bloodlines: remembering massacres

On 2 July 2016 the people of the federal seat of McMillan in Victoria’s south east will head to the election polls.  Their electorate takes its name from a Scotsman whose adventuring is well documented in Australian history books.  Angus McMillan was also responsible for leading a ‘highland brigade’ of men who decimated the Gunai(Kurnai) people in the Gippsland massacres.  Despite this bloody history, and despite calls for the the electorate to be renamed from as long ago as 2002, the electorate has not been renamed.


Read Cal Flynn’s article Bloodlines, an extract from her book which traces her journey from Scotland to Gippsland to discover more about the great-great-great-uncle whose actions reverberate through time to the descendants of the indigenous population.

Like the range of views offered in ‘The Secret River’ it is important not to paint the past with broad and obliterating brushstrokes – by suggesting that McMillan was a ‘man of his time’ and that the extent of the violence was supported by society at the time.  In an article published in The Age in 2002, Andrew Rule presents an opposing view:

Henry Meyrick, an English-born squatter, wrote to relatives in disgust about his neighbours. He estimated that 450 had been killed, and wrote: “Men, women and children are shot down whenever they can be met with. Some excuse might be found for shooting the men by those who are daily getting their cattle speared, but what they can urge in their excuse who shoot the women and children I cannot conceive.”


  • What moral challenges does Thornhill face?
  • Examine the actions of Dick and Blackwood.  What views and values do they represent?  Could you argue that this more sympathetic view of indigenous Australians is over-represented in the novel?
  • Henry Meyrick offers up an alternative moral position: what actions does he see as justified or unjustified?  How does that position sound to our present day ear?


  • Present your characters with a dilemma or a point in which they face a moral challenge or reckoning of some kind.  Ensure that a character’s experience or voice reflects a moral position.  Remember that coming to a decision is not always simple and straightforward and in the wrestling with reality, humans often construct an alternative version of the world in order to find peace with their own actions.  Consider the effect of denial, guilt and shame over time.


What’s Going On? Big Ideas is what.

What’s Going On?’ is not just a valid question posed by Marvin Gaye in his soul classic.


When we ask the question of The Secret River, we’re really looking for the big ideas that Grenville explores in her text.  She uses symbols and motifs and layers the references to these through the text to build a better, clearer picture of the ideas she’s exploring.

Consider what her book suggests about the nature of:

  • colonial settlement in Australia
  • indigenous Australians
  • a sense of belonging and identity
  • class
  • race relations
  • conflict
  • fear and courage
  • secrets and the unknown/unknowable
  • moral choices

She manages to do these things without resorting to her characters outlining their thoughts in protracted speeches.


Take just one of these big ideas present in the text.  You should be able to do a ‘three from three‘ activity.  Find three different examples from the text of the idea in action and then three different perspectives on that idea.  For example:

colonial attitudes to aboriginals: 1. Thornhill’s attempts to keep aboriginals off his property; 2. Smasher’s trophies and violence; 3. Blackwood’s family and his philosophy

Now try to come up with three broader statements from these specific instances: make a statement about each position eg. Smasher represents the view that aboriginals were vermin (less than human) and could be abused and killed at will.  Create a statement to cover Thornhill and Blackwood’s positions.

Notice how you can run with a theme and explore an idea.


In your own writing: take three events or revelations that you are planning to write about in your text.  Do a ‘three from three‘ activity – link the specifics regarding characters or  plot to a single big idea and try to show a range of ways of viewing or responding to that idea.



River + Secret = Secret River

‘Break it down’ is not just a great suggestion put forward by Tone-Loc in his misogynistic yet beguiling 80’s rap classic ‘Funky Cold Medina‘.

It would be remiss to overlook the title of the text: it is deceptive in its simplicity but it draws us to key ideas in this text.  This novel features two rivers: the broad, bustling Thames which is the lifeblood of the city of London and the quiet, meandering Hawkesbury which reveals a little of the landscape at every turn.

The river revealed itself, teasingly, never more than a bend at a time, calm between its walls of rock and bush.  As the Queen rounded one high spur of land, another camein from the other side, so they interlocked as neatly as gear-wheels.  Once reach resembled all the others: cliffs, a fringe of glossy green mangroves, green water.  Even the skyline gave no clues, each bulge of high land like the others, striped with shadows from clouds passing in front of the sun.

The wind was flukey, bringing with it a dry sweet clean fragrance.  The boat was drawn up by the tide as if pulled by a string, lowly, calmly, curve after curve.  The twists of the landscape closed in behind them.  It was not possible to know where they were going, or to see where they had been.

The Secret River, p.102

Thornhill’s story is one of a series of revelations and secrets.  Consider what is known and unknown to Thornhill, both about the land, its inhabitants and about himself.  What he chooses to share and what he chooses to keep private are important in this text and the title reminds us that we should be looking for how secrets operate.

Sal tightened her shoulders into herself and leaned towards the fire, not looking at her husband.  They had never disagreed on anything that mattered.  He wished he could explain to her the marvel of that land, the way the sunlight fell so sweet along the grass.

But she should not imagine it, did not want to.  He saw that her dreams had stayed small and cautious, being of nothing grander than the London they had left.  Perhaps it was because she had not felt the rope around her neck.  That changed a man forever.

The Secret River, page 100

Thornhill makes conscious and strategic decisions to keep secrets.  Is his motivation love or self interest or something else altogether?

He would tell her about the fish, even bring her up to see it.  But not yet.  She was content enough in her little round of flattened earth: what was the good of showing her the other world beyond it?

The thing about having things unspoken between two people, he was beginning to see, was that when you had set your foot along that path it was easier to go on than to go back.

The Secret River, p.155

Consider too, the secrets of the indigenous population.  Contrast their ways of knowing and the ways of interpreting a relationship with the land to the Europeans.  Thornhill cannot conceive of another way of knowing and the failure of the communication is clear when he speaks to the elder.  Aboriginal knowledge and understanding remain a mystery to him.

When he spoke again it cut across Thornhill’s humour like water on a flame.  He made a chopping action with the side of his hand, pointing to the square of dug-up dirt and the daisies wilting in a heap.  This time his voice was not so much a running stream.  It was more like stones rolling down a hill.  

Thornhill gestured at the cliffs, the river glinting between the trees.  My place now, he said.  You got all the rest.  He drew a square on the air with his arms, demonstrating where his hundred acres began and ended….The man was not impressed.  He did not look around to follow the sweep of Thornhill’s arm.  He knew what was there.

The Secret River,  p.144



  • How important is the river to the inhabitants of the region?
  • What does a river represent to Thornhill?
  • Which secrets does the river reveal to Thornhill?
  • What secrets does Thornhill keep to himself?
  • Try to draw some conclusions about the nature of secrets: what kind of secrets does the text suggest we have? How do we acquire them? Why do humans keep or share them? In what circumstances do we keep or share secrets? What does this tell us about human nature?


  •   Consider how secrecy will feature in your own writing.  What a character might say out loud, their facial expressions and body language might not match.  This can give some clue to your reader as to what they might be keeping private.
  • Write her own thoughts and impressions of Thornhill’s motives and actions.  How good might he be at keeping secrets?  Sal is arguably a strategic thinker and a reasonable judge of character.  You might consider her to be more shrewd than Thornhill realises. Perhaps Sal can see through the facade…
  • Do not neglect the location in your writing.  Describe the river to set the backdrop of your action or to enhance the mood of your text.


In this novel the land and its vegetation is never referred to as ‘the bush’ despite the fact that Australian culture has embraced this term and all that it conjures up as integral to the myth of the Australian settler experience.  Consider why Grenville describes the environment using the word ‘forest’ instead.

DID YOU KNOW?  Pathetic fallacy is a literary device which involves having a landscape reflect something of the emotional state of a human being.  At times confused with personification, it takes the premise of giving the natural world qualities which relate to the mood of the human characters.  Think how the tumultuous weather in ‘Macbeth’ and the ‘feverous’ earth reflects the darkness at the heart of the regicide.

Read the following account of Thornhill’s Landing as seen from Blackwood’s boat.

‘At low tide the point was lined with mud.  This was not the same as slimy Thames mud, but a rich brown that looked good enough to eat.  Beyond the mud were the rushes, higher than a man, packed as tight as the bristles of a broom, topped with feathery plumage.  They were alive with little round brown birds, something of the order of a robin.  He could hear them in there making their calls: ca chink pee pee pee wheep! Wheep!

Other birds, as bright as soldiers, stalked across the mud on long hinged legs.  He watched, not two yards away, as one of them broke off a reed with its claws, holding it so its beak could strip off the outer sheath and eat the pale stalk within, one bite at a time, like a lady with a finger of asparagus.

The reeds protected the point on one side, dense mangroves on the other.  Beyond the slope of the gentlemen’s park, the land tilted and became a wall of jumbled rocks and scrubby woods.  But between the river and the ridge there was plenty of good flat land.  A hundred acres? Two hundred?

Whatever it was, it was enough.

Each time they passed the place he looked for the thing he was dreading: the dug-over patch of ground where some other man’s corn was growing, the square of some other man’s hut.  Each time there was a moment’s relief, but then the dread returned.

The thought of that point of land became a private thing, a bead of warmth in his heart.

The Secret River, p.100


  • Thornhill does not know the names of the flora and fauna of this new world.  Seen from his perspective, how do his observations suggest that he sees the world through a European lens?
  • What does Thornhill feel as he views Thornhill’s Reach?  How is his mood reflected in the description of the landscape?
  • Grenville writes that Thornhill associates the preachers’ idea of the Promised Land’ with a ‘world that was just for gentry.  Nothing had ever been promised to him….That point of land was by way of being promised: not by God, but by himself, to himself.‘(p.108)  What does this suggest about settlers’ ideas of themselves and how the experience of being in Australia changed that?



  • How will your own writing reflect something of place and time?
  • What details of the natural environment will help you set a mood or atmosphere?
  • Will your character have an affinity with the landscape?  Consider how they might view the Australian landscape.


In the shadows of ‘The Secret River’


Detail from The Leichhardt Diaries: Travels Through the Australian Bush 1842-44

Shine a Light is not just one of the greatest rock films about one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

If we consider Kate Grenville to be shining a light on the early relations between indigenous and European people in Australia, then we see that she does this through on the character – his nature and his actions – William Thornhill via her choice of the third person limited narrative point of view.  The challenges he faces and the decisions he makes are presented in contrast with those with characters like Smasher or Blackwood.

Through his story, she also shines light for readers on key issues and themes: shame, brutality, secrecy, guilt.  The novel captures the lived experience of a convicted felon whose ambitions to own land and acquire status are realised.

Now consider who is left in the shadows in this text.  How much do we learn of Sal’s lived experience: her fears, desires, ambitions?  How much of the indigenous characters’ experiences do we understand?  How authentically human are the characters in the shadows of the text?  Remember that they are not without some shape – Grenville has provided you with the outline.  Your task is to shine a light on this part of the story and, in so doing, on the big ideas in the text.

You will need to immerse yourself in the world of your chosen character/s.  It is worth spending time mulling over what ideas and themes you want to shine a light on to reveal a lived experience that Grenville’s novel doesn’t.  Your character/s will have a range of influences that shape them and you will need to think yourself into the full spectrum of these (planning stage) and then step back to provide your readers with the clues to reveal the character’s experience, removing the shadow from their story (creating other shadows for your reader to wonder about).



  • power
  • morality, values and attitudes
  • relationships
  • actions and reactions
  • voice and language
  • providing a sense of time, place and custom








Aboriginal Communities Facing Closure

The Huffington Post has published an opinion piece signed by a group of French academics and cultural commentators, arguing against the closure of remote Aboriginal communities.  They argue: ‘…invasion is not a historical event, but a structure…it is this structure that continues to determine the relationships between Australian – state and federal – governments and the first peoples of the continent.’  Read the full article here.


Revisiting The Secret River

Read Jenny Stewart’s Quadrant article here.


  1. How does ‘The Secret River’s version of history differ to that recounted by historians?
  2. How does the Jewish word ‘midrash’ apply to the writing of ‘The Secret River’?
  3. Stewart argues that guilt may be a stage.  If so, what comes next?
  4. Do you agree with Stewart’s view that ‘Multicultural Australia’ knows little of indigenous Australians’?    What implications does this have for Australia and our Australian identity?