Writing retreats and NaNoWriMo

At the end of October, I decided to do my fifth NaNoWriMo as a way to finish this draft of my manuscript. Each night I take a moment to think about what’s on for the next day, and I have added into my list four boxes for half hour blocks of writing. I have shuffled my life around to make those moment happen, even if it has meant staying up late, writing during lunch breaks, leaving the house early to park myself somewhere before I go to work. It’s been a good practice for me to think about how I can fit more writing time in.

I was on track until the last couple of days last week. I attended the Indigenous Place Intensive run through Writers Victoria, which was an incredible couple of days, but it used up every little bit of me.

This week, I’m tucked away in a room of my own with a wonderful view. It’s my writer’s group twice-yearly retreat. I’ve set the bar high for myself. In the five days that I’m here, I’m aiming for 30-40 thousand words redrafted. It’s going well, which may have something to do with the lack of internet (I’ve ducked into town to do this and catch up on some emails and other admin things) and the fact that my mind knows what do to when I’m here.

We come to the same place each time, and we run it with the Varuna rules (be quiet, keep to yourself, work hard, and gather at about 6pm to eat, drink and chat). So far I’ve managed to work through 17,000 words. I think I’m on track to hit my goal (WOOT!) which will mean that I have December and January to let it sit and rest while I work on other things.

Yay to everyone else out there doing NaNoWriMo! I hope you have wonderful views like I do.

Strategies for keeping deadlines

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve talked about dealing with those pesky internal critical voices, and making deadlines for yourself when you don’t have any external deadlines. Today, I’m going to talk about some strategies on how to meet those deadlines.

We all know how it goes. You’ve got a looming deadline yet there are so many other things that you find yourself doing. The toilet suddenly needs a scrub with a toothbrush, the kettle could do with a polish, that nap that you’ve promised yourself for the last year needs to be taken right now. The problem is not that you are scrubbing your toilet with a toothbrush (although, I must confess that I have not yet stooped to that), it is that you are avoiding doing what you have promised yourself you will do.

The difficulty lies in the fact that it seems easier to meet other people’s deadlines or commitments you have made to other people than it is to meet your own deadlines.

So how can you meet your own deadlines, when no one is going to yell at you because you haven’t done it?

It all comes down to thinking about what works best for you; that is, what kind of person you are, and what you best respond to. Are you a list person? Are you a person who needs to stand by something once it has been said out loud? Are you a person who loves to crunch the numbers on things? Are you a person who loves to get rewards once they have completed something? You may well be a mix of all this, and then a number of strategies will work for you.

Give me a list, and I’ll get it done

list-147904_1280If this is you, then the hardest thing for you is trying not to put everything on your list (i.e. 1. Finish manuscript. 2. Send manuscript. 3. Get published) as it can seem unachievable. The best help you can give yourself is to break down what you need to get done, and look at a) what is realistic, and b) when you want to get the overall thing done.

Grab yourself a notebook or your diary and start with a list of things you need to get done in the next month to complete your manuscript. Do you need to do some more reading? How many words can you write over the next month? If you are on the redrafting stage, how far through would you like to be by the end of the month?

Now think about the next week with these things in mind. What is realistic while helping you to get to your month’s goal? Write these down for the week.

Start each day either creating your list for the day on what you are going to do to help you reach your deadline and then at the end of the day, tick them off.

At the end of the week, and then the end of the month, tick off what you have done to work towards your deadline.

Check. Done.

Once I’ve said it out loud, I have to do it or I’ll be too embarrassed

whisper-voice-clipart-1This is easy if you are good at verbalising what you need to get done, and then feel compelled to complete it lest someone asks you. The problem can be that you know this is your modus operandi, so you keep your plans quiet.

Find a buddy. Find someone that is happy to hear from you at least once a week, and will hold you accountable for what you have committed to. This often works best when it is a two-way street. Offer to be their person too. It may be best for it to be someone who understands the creative process, but isn’t essential.

Agree to what you will share each week, and when. A good base is: what I’m planning to do this week, how I did with my goals last week, what was getting in my way last week, and what I’ll put in place to try to meet my goals this week.

It should be an encouraging interaction rather than one where you feel guilty. If you are anything like me, you start the week with great intentions, only to fall too often on the speed bumps that life throws your way. That should be okay with your buddy. If not, find another.

If you can’t find a buddy, or don’t want to, and are feeling brave, you could also throw it out to the world. Say it aloud on social media and then check in at the end of the week. Tell your partner or work colleague. It doesn’t really matter who.

Numbers are my thing; I love to watch them change

pay-1036469_1920.jpgIf numbers are your thing, and you loved my last post, then I recommend that you do a few things as you will feel well chuffed as you see the numbers change. There are so many numbers that you can focus on to complete the work: minutes spent working, words written, words deleted, days worked, days to deadline, etc.

Choose the numbers that will help you to get to thermometer-151236_1280your deadline. Now think about how you want to watch these numbers change. Will a wall chart help? If so, create one that enables you to cross numbers off, or add them in. Maybe you could draw up a target thermometer and colour it in each day. This works well for visual people.

Perhaps you could use Excel to add your numbers after each writing session to see how those numbers are adding up. Microsoft Word also has some great statistics built in for those who love this (look under the File Properties and you will see Statistics).

Toggl is a great tool for measuring time spent. You can use it for free.

Put the carrot on the end of the stick, and I will follow

desktop-1985856_1920Rewards. Who doesn’t love them? The problem can be that left on your own, you might ‘accidentally’ reward yourself before you’re done. Set your milestones, and plan out some ace rewards that you will be thrilled with.

Your rewards could be anything: a massage, a magazine, a lie in the sun, a book, a read of a book, a block of chocolate, a sesh at the gym. Anything that you know will drive you to get your work done. I know folks who aren’t allowed to do anything else until they have done their three hours/500 words/scene/etc. When that it is done, whammo, off to enjoy their days.

Then make sure you give them to yourself when you are done.


And me? I use a mix of the lot. On the days I work at an office, I pop into a cafe and write without interruption for a half hour. I tick it off my list, which I do daily. I crunch numbers. I love them. I fill out my visual goals in my diary. I reward myself when I am done with a milestone. The best thing for me, however, has been finding an accountability buddy. I feel the pressure to work through what I have committed to, even if she is not that tough on me.

How do you tackle your deadlines?

This post is the last in a series about deadlines and shutting out the inner critic. If you enjoyed the posts and found them useful, please consider passing them on to others. I’d also love to hear your thoughts about these posts, or other blockers you have with your writing. 

Making deadlines

Are you good at getting things completed when you don’t have a deadline? Not many people are. If you are working as a freelancer, working on your own projects, or working on a manuscript, you might be familiar with how long these things can sometimes take. It’s always easier when someone else tells you when you need to get the work back to them. I find that if I don’t make a deadline, create lists to get things done, then I can take forever. Give me a deadline, and I’m all over it.

I have loads of friends who are writers; many have complete (and published) manuscripts, and many don’t. There are always things that get in the way of writing—you don’t need me to tell you that. I can procrastinate as well as the next person—but if you really want to finish it, you need to set your own deadlines to make that happen. There is always half an hour in a day that you can find, and sometimes it is just that half hour each day that makes all the difference.

I was thinking about this when chatting with a friend not so long ago who is trying to complete the first draft of his manuscript—with no deadline. He’s ‘onto it’, but the days, weeks, months pass by with few words actually being written. I didn’t bother talking to him about creating to-do lists as he is getting a lot done, just not the manuscript. Instead, I talked to him about making his own deadline for the first draft.

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Making deadlines

This sounds like a no-brainer, but each time I’ve spoken to people about this, it is as though a light has been switched on. If you don’t have a deadline to work to, it can stop you from actually finishing anything. When you have a deadline, and suddenly there is something to work to. But often with writing, you are your own boss with a timeline that stretches out indefinitely—especially with large projects that are not commissioned, or under contract.

I’m going to get a little mathematical here, but please stay with me (I now forgive my  Year 8 Maths teacher Mr Chau for insisting on teaching me algebra even though I couldn’t understand why I would ever need it in ‘real life’, and apologise to him for being such a painful student.).


Step 1: Set a date

Give yourself a date for when you would like to have this first draft finished. Sometimes it can be helpful to have an arbitrary date like Christmas or the end of a month. Be realistic. It takes time to write, and everyone writes at a different speed. Taking advantage of events like NaNoWriMo can be great as the communal writing can encourage you to keep up to your commitment. Maybe you can book some time in that is dedicated to writing.


Step 2: Words per week

Work out how many words you need for the whole manuscript (use the general word count for manuscripts as a guide: 80-100 thousand for general fiction, 60-75k for young adult, etc.). Now work out how many weeks there are between now and that date (let’s call it ‘A’), and how many words there are (let’s call it ‘B’).  The number of words you need to write in a week (let’s call this ‘C’) is B divided by A.

B (words left to write) ÷ A (weeks till deadline) = C (words per week)

An example of this is: Bill wants to finish his manuscript by the end of January, which is 15 weeks away (A). He has written 42,000 words, and is writing a general fiction, so still needs to write 58,000 words (B) if he wants to get to 100,000 words:

58,000 words ÷ 15 weeks = 3867 words per week


Step 3: Words per session

Now break this down to how many days a week you can write (D) to see how many words you need to write on each of your writing days.

C (words per week) ÷ D (days you write in a week) = E (words you need to write each day)

Back to that example above, Bill can commit to six writing sessions a week, so: 

3867 ÷ 6 writing days in a week = 645 words per writing session. 


When I went through this with my friend, he said that he can easily write 500 words in a half hour session. I suggested that he think about how often he could write in a week, as if he did this seven days a week (it is only half an hour a day), then he could smash out a massive 3500 words a week, and in a fortnight he’d have 7000 words, and then in four weeks, he’d have 14,000 words (etc.). Light bulb moment!


How do you push yourself to finish your first draft of your manuscript? Do you make your own deadlines? How to you then make it happen?

Thanks for popping by and reading this post. Did you have a look at how to deal with that inner critic? Pop by next week, when I’ll talk about strategies on meeting your deadline

Dealing with critical voices

One thing I love to do is to catch up with other writers and chat with them about their process, any hurdles and how they see their way forward. Recently I caught up with a friend who has taken on a mammoth job of writing his memoir. It’s a tough task as there can be loads of emotional baggage in there, as well as the invisible but powerful critical voice.

He’d just returned from a trip away to a place of major significance for his story and I wanted to know where he was up to. During our chat, I could see there were two huge things standing out: a strong internalised critical voice hanging over him, and a lack of deadlines. It was great to be able to pass on tips that I have picked up from other wonderful writers and I could see him visibly sit up taller and feel more confident with the task ahead.

Critical voices

We all have them. They lurk in the shadows waiting for our most vulnerable moment, then they sneak up behind us and whisper something like, Are you sure you want to say that? Is that the best thing to write? Are you qualified to write this? Then the real kicker, Why are you writing this? 

Ouch. It hurts every time, and it can stop you from creating something beautiful. Rationally you know that these comments may or may not actually be said, but it is like an old sound bite that is stuck in your head, and it can be very strong—and not useful when in the middle of creative work. Sometimes it means that you pare back your writing to be something with less feeling, less colour, less life. Other times it can completely paralyse your writing.

So how can you deal with this pesky and paralysing voice?

Write-like-nobody-is (1)The best advice I have been given, and now give to others, is to write as though no one is ever going to read your work. This sounds easy, but can be hard to put in practice.

One way of doing this is to ask the critical voice to leave the room, that they are welcome when you are at the editing stage. I know a writer who has given the negative and encouraging voices names, let’s say Tom (negative) and Nina (positive). When Tom is yapping away being critical when she is trying to write, she tells Tom to leave and then she only has Nina to encourage her.

Another is to think about that famous quote (that I have no idea where it originated) of ‘Dance like nobody is watching’ and change it to ‘Write like nobody is reading’. Free yourself up to write whatever it is that you need to. Turn your editing voice off, turn the critical voice off, and allow your praising voice to encourage you. This is particularly important with first draft words. Those critical editing voices are very useful when you are at the next stage. Invite them back in once that first draft is done.

How do you deal with that pesky critical voice? Do you make the most of it when you need to? I’d love to hear from you about what techniques you use.

Thanks for popping by and reading this post. Pop by next week, when I’ll explain how to deal with deadlines when you don’t have any, then some strategies so you can meet those deadlines.

Shaping the Fractured Self review in Southerly Journal

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It is wonderful to see Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain continue to have meaning for so many. This anthology, which was published last year, includes poems and essays written by a number of Australian writers who struggle with some form of chronic pain and/or illness.

Katerina Bryant, nonfiction writer based in South Australia, says in her review in the Southerly Journal, ‘Is it strange that these poems, while often devastating, don’t fill me with sadness? Reading stories of illness, this is what it is to be (un)seen. The collection shows the duality of being cast out and cut free.’

Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain (ed. Heather Taylor Johnson), includes poems and essays by me, Anne M Carson, Stuart Barnes, David Brooks, Beth Spencer, Quinn Eades, Ian Gibbins, Andy Jackson, Rachael Wenona Guy, Rachael Mead and Leah Kaminsky, among others. It is available from UWA Publishing, and bookshops.

England, from what I saw

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The house that we stayed at in Cromer, and my cute car

I have recently returned from an incredible whirlwind trip to England to celebrate my nephew’s wedding and to sneak in a little research for my current work in progress. It was such a privilege to be able to go, and a delight to meet my nephew’s new family. It was also wonderful to catch up with a friend and his family.

I was surprised that England was not all that I thought it would be. Until this trip, I had never been over to England, or Europe, but I watch loads of BBC shows, my ancestors came from England, and I thought I knew this place. Turns out I did, and I didn’t.

1.  Service workers seem to be mostly from a non-English speaking background

I had in my mind that the English were a little stuffy about who lives in England, and who does the work (think Brexit and what seemed to be a strong desire to keep Britain British), but it turns out that the workforce who keep things going seem to be mostly hailing from Eastern Europe. From the Russian receptionist in Bath, to the Polish Uber driver in Portsmouth, to the Czechoslovakian salesperson in London. Everywhere you ask for help, there are strong accents as they struggle to find the correct words to help you.

2. So much fried food and where are the veggies? Just straight, plain veggies. And fruit. Without sugar added.

Oh, my goodness. The fried-ness of the food. I was really surprised at how many things were fried. Then there was the sugar. Everything seemed to be overly sweet and oily and came with a side of fries. The veggies were missing. After three days in London I was gagging for veggies. I’m sure that if you had a kitchen and could cook, things would be different, but eating out all the time meant there was a distinct lack of fresh food. On the whole, I found the food disappointing. On the other hand, the French, Italian and Indian food in England is wonderful. If I see one more English breakfast, I’ll puke.

3. Everything is expensive, nearly double the price it is here in Australia

This is mostly because of the exchange rate, so it’s all okay for people living there, but for us Aussies, it’s pretty expensive—double the cost. On the other hand, if you’re coming from the UK to Aus, then you’ll be living like royalty.

4. Coffee is terrible, just about everywhere, but tea is wonderful (mostly)

I was warned. By many people in fact, but still, I was surprised. Coffee is terrible there. I really don’t know how they make it so that it is not good. I am not a coffee snob, but I do live in Melbourne, so perhaps my expectations are high even for an ‘okay’ one. The coffee was weak, insipid, bland. Even when I asked for a strong flat white (which was confusing to most as flat white generally didn’t feature on any coffee menu), it was still meh at best. In the end I went for a macchiato in the hope of a caffeine hit.

On the other hand, tea was generally pretty good. That is, when it was not a teabag chucked into a pot or a cup. These occasions were disappointing, but the leaf tea was pretty good.

5. People take more care in their dress and appearance

This is a generalisation, but it seemed to me that people had taken more care with their appearance, and dressed with a little more care than the average Australian. Londoners seemed to be mostly wearing shoes that were easy to walk in, which comes in handy with the endless flights of stairs everywhere. Even with these shoes, they looked good. It’s a slightly more crisp look that in Australia. More linen, and cotton. And more fine jumpers.

6. Everyone is very polite, even on the roads when all are doing things wrong

When I drove my gorgeous little Fiat from Bath to Cromer, I was a little petrified about driving the narrow and busy roads that I was so unfamiliar with; however, other drivers were so ridiculously polite when I ended up in the wrong lane and needed to change, or just plainly in the wrong spot. They waited until I fixed where I was going. At one stage I came to a t-intersection to turn right onto a main road, and was ready to wait my turn when a car paused to let me out. It was refreshing.

7. Well warned

There are notices all over the place reminding people what they need to do. At the top are the words Polite Notice in case the reader might have taken it to be a rude notice. There are constant announcements for people to take care (Mind the gap. Take all of your belongings with you. If you see something, say something; see it, say it, sorted.). The English are well informed, if nothing else.

8. Cyclists are looked after with paths, lock up spaces, covered bike storage—and no helmets

There are incredible bike storage facilities at all train stations apartment buildings. There were covered lockups and multiple storey lockups. There were bike superhighways through London, and protected bike paths. There were bike hire stations dotted around all over the place. There was not a single bike up a tree, or in a river (unlike the failed OBike program in Melbourne). There was also not a single helmet spotted on any of the many cyclists I saw.

9. The parks are aplenty and offer welcome relief

London is a very, very busy city compared to anything we have in Australia, but the saving grace is the pocket parks dotted everywhere. They are well-maintained, locked up at night, but a breath of fresh air in the mayhem. There seemed to many parks in every city we went to, and we made the most of each one by detouring through the parks on our many walks.

10. Everywhere you look, there is something old, very old, next to something new

Yep. Old and new hanging out together, everywhere. Think Sovereign Hill but older with modern stuff all through it. An eight-hundred-year-old castle next to a modern building.  The rich history is so deeply entwined that every footstep is in the same place as Vikings, Normans, Romans, kings, queens, paupers and peasants. There is a sense of walking continually in the footsteps of the famous.

11. It is hot, baby.

All rooms, buildings and public transport are heated, or have residual heat. Wear layers to avoid sweating too much. I was constantly taking layers off to cool down, opening windows, trying to work out how to turn the heater off (note: you can’t). It was autumn, so maybe there was some residual heat left from their very hot summer. I’m not sure that I would like to be there in the middle of their summer.

12. What’s going on with the showers?

Hot and cold taps in showers are rare. Each shower is a new experience in decoding how to get water to come out of the showerhead, at the right temperature. And when the water does finally come out, it is a weak dribble. Note to self and to other contact lens wearers: don’t take contacts out before entering a new shower or you will have no idea which tap does what.

13. Don’t breathe in

Vape, tobacco and dope are everywhere. You cannot avoid breathing in the fumes. Sweet and fragranced from the vaping was mixed with cigarette smoke, and dope fumes outside every entrance to anything, along the streets, in the parks. There were vape shops on just about every block, and the waft of weed was never far away from where we walked around London.

Other things of note: 

The markets are great. We couldn’t get enough of them.

Public transport may not be perfect there, but it seems to be much more effective than ours with trains and buses running so often that we never had to wait more than eight minutes.

You would expect people of England to be very fit with all those stairs. It seems that everything is on the third floor, or on the third floor below ground level.

There were loads of homeless people sleeping rough.

It was much more European than I expected it to be with loads of languages being spoken around us all the time, the variety of foods, and the people there. Sounds silly, because it is part of Europe (for the time being), but I guess I thought it would be more strongly British.

The green is brighter than Australian green.

It’s nice to be home.

Circuit breakers

In front of you is an elephant, a mountain. It is enormous and there is no way you can see around it, or see how you can climb it, but you know that the only way forwards is over the top to get to the other side. The notion of working out how to get to the other side is overwhelming and saps you of all your energies. So instead of tackling this mountain, you crawl back into bed, you cover your head and pretend that this task is not there, that it will deal with itself. When you look back out, it is still there, waiting for you to start. The cycle goes on, and on until you make a decision about how to tackle the mountain.

Sometimes in life there are these moments where I am completely overwhelmed by the number of things that I need to do, and the people who rely on me to get these things done. When I was doing some solo hiking a couple of years ago, walking up those hot and dusty paths that seemed to go on forever became a metaphor on how I needed to approach these things: one step at a time. This is all well and good, and those words are etched in my brain. I have no problem fishing them back out when my list of to-dos is longer than any piece of paper could contain. However, translating this into actually getting on with it can a be another issue.

A few of weeks ago I had more things to do than I had time. Everything seemed to be pulling at me and it was paralysing me. But I couldn’t afford to be paralysed as people were relying on me (a manuscript needed its copy edit completed, lessons needed to be written, family needed support, words needed to written, words needed to be read, relationships needed to nurtured), so on one of these days when my body had melted into the couch and I just wanted to pull the plug on the phone and on people needing me, I realised that I still had some control of my situation. I just needed some circuit breakers. Past conversations with my psychologist sprang to mind about stopping the spiral down to a very unhealthy place, which is where I was heading. I need to find things to help stop me from any more negative thinking, and to help me see a way out of the depths.

I came up with a list on things that I could do that would pop a little more energy into all these moments – mood changers. I think of them as circuit breakers. They include things like a walk, putting some music on, changing clothes, having something to eat or drink, changing where I’m sitting (or standing), picking some flowers, putting some essential oils in the diffuser or breaking my tasks down to smaller chunks. This has been probably the most useful thing for me. I sit down once a week and make note of what I have achieved over the last week, what’s ahead for the next week, what ‘blockers’ are in my way, and how I will get around them. Then each evening I think about the next day and break the tasks into sizeable chunks trying to keep it realistic. Add a little self compassion in there as well to allow me to not get everything done, and I am in a better place mentally.

There is something wonderful about ticking some things off the list, and reminding myself that I am making my way over the mountain – even if it is slow.

Asking for, giving and receiving feedback

I have started back teaching the creative writing this year in Caroline Springs and have added in a group in Kensington. While the Kensington group is a new for me as a facilitator, it’s not new for me altogether. It was here that I honed my love of writing when I had only two little children before pursuing it more seriously at RMIT.  It was so lovely to see my Caroline Springs writers again to hear about how their summer has gone, and what they’ve been reading and writing. It was equally lovely to reacquaint myself with some familiar faces in Kensington, and to meet new ones and hear about what everyone’s writing plans are.

I started both of the groups with a session on feedback as this is one of the most crucial things as a writer. Asking for, giving and receiving feedback are a crucial part of being a writer. The more you do it, the better your writing becomes. There was a time when I would hear feedback on my writing from others and it would sting so hard. One of the things about doing it more is that I get better at removing myself from the words and take the feedback on as just that – feedback. However, I (like most creative people) suffer from a terrible case of the imposter syndrome).

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you.

—Neil Gaiman, author (Address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012)

There are three sides to feedback:

  • asking for feedback
  • giving feedback
  • receiving feedback.

Reading lists and book club

It’s that time of year again where the Listmaker of our book club receives the list for the year. In December, we all bring our suggestions to our Christmas dinner gathering. The Listmaker carefully writes each one down as we sit in a circle enjoying our sweets after our book-themed Kris Kringle. It’s a tough job for her as she always ends up with a list of over 50 odd books. Some of us come prepared with a basket of books to help influence by the look of the book, others have a paper list that they hand over. We leave having eaten, drunk and talked to our hearts content.

In January, the Listmaker brings a draft list to the annual picnic and over drinks and food in the Women’s Peace Gardens, the titles are debated – sometimes more fiercely than others – until it is too dark. Then before January is done, the list is sent out.

And that’s a wrap

My 2017-2018 summer reading pile

This year is about to end and in some ways I feel like it has only just begun. So much has been packed into the year and time has slipped away. It’s really easy to only focus on the things that haven’t been completed and the things that went wrong, but I need to also remember all the things that went right.

Publishing highlights

This year I had some poetry and an essay published in Shaping the Fractured Self: poetry of chronic illness and pain. I bravely volunteered to read one of my poems at the launch at the DAX Centre in Melbourne. Up until the moment I read it out loud, I wondered how on earth I managed to have words of mine sit alongside such accomplished Australian poets. The feedback I received from the audience, and since from members of the public, was overwhelming. It has been absolutely heartwarming to hear people say that I was telling their story and that I had put their chronic pain into words. My own chronic pain (migraines and neck and shoulder pain) continue, but I refuse to let them take control of my life. Many of the other poems and essays within this anthology remind me that it is important to live life to the full, but to also know when to shut the door, and take some time for self-care. There is a wonderful review of this anthology by Kevin Brophy in The Conversation.