Category Archives: non-fiction

The Truth of the Matter

Heather Sylvawood,

I was thinking about ‘stories’ the other day and how the word itself has the implication that a story contains some element of ‘make believe’.  When we read a newspaper story, however, we believe the story to contain the truth, not make believe.

So are there true stories?

As I followed my fanciful thoughts I came to realise ‘the truth of the matter’ is far from ‘the truth’ because no matter who is writing the account it is seen through their filters.  Even autobiographies (written by the subject person) are filtered remembrances because who wants the world to know about their embarrassing or shameful moments? And if they do want to share them, doesn’t the author skew the account to elevate their part and play down their protagonist’s part?

True C onfessions magazine
True or fiction?

Newspaper stories

I thought back to the time when I was a newspaper reporter and considered how make believe might have sneaked into my writing. Embarrassing confession: it did regularly.

My first filter was which of the leads did I want to spend most time on? You’d expect the answer to be the one of most public interest. The answer, however, was always the story that most appealed to me personally. Subconsciously I’d assume that because it appealed to me, it would also appeal to everyone.

Less important information

When writing the story I would highlight the facts that enhanced my viewpoint and minimise comments or information that didn’t feel quite so important. Even though I reported this ‘less important’ information it would be relegated to the last paragraphs which the sub-editor would cut if space was tight.

My important story would be allowed an accompanying colour picture and would probably be given the largest headline. The reader subconsciously would assume that the picture and large headline meant this was an important story.

News filters the truth

Imagine what is happening in the US at the moment. Picture the differences in reports of President Trumps’ saying and doings. Same story/report of actual facts will be written with different filters and appear in print as if the writers were listening to different events or broadcasts.

The readers, viewers or listeners will hear only what they are expecting to hear. They will apply their own filters and accept or reject the reporter’s bias – their filter. When stories link into emotional issues, as President Trump is doing, the blurring of reported facts becomes catastrophic. Such stories can lead to  hatred, riots and war.

President Donald Trump
It’s merely the way you look at him … or is it?

Editorial versus Reporting

We accept that an editorial contains some element of opinion and therefore ‘make believe’. We don’t expect a news report to contain make believe. However, I would challenge anyone, whatever side of the Trump debates they sit, to say they can eliminate their personal bias or filter from what they write on the issues Trump raises.

And guess what? I don’t think reporters should.  Whatever moral ground, religious filter or belief you have should be applied to any news report, just as you would to an editorial. Public debate is important, dissension is important. These are the tools that define a nation’s moral codes on which are built our judicial system and laws.

The Illusions we live by

By Heather Sylvawood

Authors/writers deal in illusion. Readers accept that they are being drawn into the illusion and for a time enter the unreal world the author has created. Even non-fiction is an illusion because the writer offers the reader ONLY the filtered version of their observation.

So when this image (below) came through Facebook from (artist is J R Slattum) I was jolted into a mind-blowing vision of illusions within illusions within illusions.


‘Your future self is watching you right now through your memories’

My translation of experience today becomes my memory, and influences how I look at things in the future – thereby, at the moment of the experience, I am shaped inevitably into my future-self.  (This is my filter – not necessarily yours. If you see it differently, whose illusion is the ‘truth’?)

As a writer,  I know also that my memories shape the characters I will write into my novels and short stories, and in the writing of them and their imaginary experiences they become another layer of memory. Then, in reading my stories, the reader (perhaps you) absorb the memory of my character and what happens to them, and your filtered memory shapes your future self, your beliefs and even your intentions.

Like a bolt from the blue

The thought made me realise that authors and writers have a huge advantage. We can influence future generations through memory and illusion.

My second thought was – ‘Duh! People have known this for centuries when relating the stories, propaganda, and the half-truths they have told.’

All religions have passed on and added to the stories that influence their believers. Even the ‘truth’ that has been written down is recalled through the reader’s filters. For instance, the stories in the Christian Bible from the apostles, while based on the same experiences as the others, will have been filtered by the previous experiences of the apostle who is relating  what happened.

Who is doing the telling matters

Think about the real-life dramas that are being played out in Court rooms throughout the World. Witness 1’s recall contradicts  Witness 2 and 3 and … We talk about reliable witness statements – but these come from the illusion that people who haven’t had a conviction, or attend church, or run community groups, or public figures, or are talented entertainers are somehow more reliable than the general hoi polloi. We can all point to examples where people in these groups are far from reliable.

The only way that these illusions are accepted as ‘truth’ is by having them committed to memory. And most of our memories are based on frequently repeated stories that become ‘beliefs’.

Writers capture readers by beliefs

A book or story that captures reader imagination must be based on some accepted belief or disbelief. So the writer or author needs to understand the common illusions accepted by most people in their culture.

If an author tried to base a story on the belief that the World is flat they would have an uphill battle convincing readers. The best they could hope is that the reader would keep on reading through sheer disbelief. Even fantasy novels are based on some commonly accepted beliefs, e.g. mountains are high and made of rock, or water runs downhill. (Think about it!)

The trick for writers is that they must pick the beliefs/illusions they tamper with. They have to decide how far the reader will go without putting their novel or short story down in disgust.  I also think they need to decide what they are putting into the memories of their readers – violence, cruelty, experience of death, love, kindness or courage.

Reality doesn’t exist unless you see it

If you consider that memory is based only on filtered illusions, news that Australian scientists have discovered that reality is an illusion comes as no surprise.

“According to a well-known theory in quantum physics, a particle’s behaviour changes depending on whether there is an observer or not. It basically suggests that reality is a kind of illusion and exists only when we are looking at it. Numerous quantum experiments were conducted in the past and showed that this indeed might be the case.

“Now, physicists at the Australian National University have found further evidence for the illusory nature of reality. They recreated the John Wheeler’s delayed-choice experiment and confirmed that reality doesn’t exist until it is measured, at least on the atomic scale.”

If you don’t believe me (and why would you?) take a look at this article on the Mind Unleashed website.

Accepted illusions of life

Many of the great novels of the last two centuries have been based on illusions

  • That good always triumphs over evil
  • That the underdog always succeeds by using tenacity
  • That the pursuit of money is a worthy goal
  • That the rich and powerful are involved in a conspiracy against world populations

Or are they illusions?

Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

How It Feels To Be An Author

… at last!

I have just watched a video of Joanna Penn ( talking about publishing her first novel (she had previously published a non-fiction book). The watching of it brought back to me some of my own feelings on self-publishing my first books.

One of my overriding emotions on publishing my first book (non-fiction – Real Estate Rollercoaster) was one of FEAR – fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of a flood of emails pointing out errors in the book. The last two didn’t happen, probably because the first one did. Real Estate Rollercoaster never got climbed the first  loop.

Like many authors I thought the mere publication of my masterpiece was sufficient for the world to recognise the gems I was sharing with the public and it would be an instant best seller. Uh, huh!


Self-publishing is a rollercoaster ride

Far from being an even playing field, self-publishing is a minefield of craters into which the ignorant and naïve will fall unless they are prepared to educate themselves into the new realm of marketing eBooks and publishing on demand. I am a long way from being a master, in fact, I’m probably not even a mistress of the marketing game. I am LEARNING. Which is why I spend time listening to other self-published authors to find out how they do it.

I’ve been snatching moments this week to listen to some podcasts put together by Chandler Bolt, creator of Self-publishing School, as he talks to various other successful authors about ‘How-to’ write, publish and market your book.


In one of the interviews Joanna Penn says that the writing of fiction is hard work and tiring; you gain a sense of achievement at the end but you might have to resort to eating lots of cake in order to get over how tiring writing is. I totally concur. I have had to resort to chewing gum in order to avoid the cake.

Even the act of blogging can be tiring when you’re concentrating on making your blog fun, informative and worthwhile. Every word counts.

Rollercoaster ride of emotions

Monica Marlowe relates a feeling tantamount to depression after publication of her debut novel, Finding Felicity:  “My debut novel had been released in August and the excitement I felt at its release was euphoric. I was so lucky to be published and learning the ropes as a new author was exhilarating. But as summer moved into fall and winter, the fever pitch took on colder pall….. I wondered, could it be post-publication depression?”

In her Blog HERE Monica relates her surprise and disappointments about the way her friends received her foray into novel-writing. I can relate to many of her experiences, as I am sure other newly published authors will.

An acquaintance of mine was worried about how her friends and people who knew her would react after reading her work. I relate to that too. Although most novels are not strictly autobiographical, the ideas in them come out of your brain; the characters often reflect what you think or feel about issues; and if you write sex scenes – of course you will believe the reader will think you ‘do it’ that way. Actually, if you’ve written a quality novel, the reader will be so engrossed in what the CHARACTERS are doing they won’t even be aware of you – the author.

Like a painter who doesn’t believe their painting is worth anything until someone buys it, authors too feel their books are second-rate unless lots of people read them. And that’s where writers come unstuck in their self-belief when they self-publish. They have no way of finding out what people think about the book until they get reviews. And even if they get reviews they might get BAD reviews (or simply reviews that complain that you have your book in the wrong category – as I received).

Writing is only a 1/3 of the rollercoaster ride

You may experience fear, or euphoria, exhaustion or sleeplessness. Chuck Wendig, novelist, screenwriter, and game designer, says in his blog HERE:

“So, you just had your book published. … And you want to know what’s going to happen now. Here is — roughly, potentially, maybe — one scenario.

“For a variable amount of time, let’s call it a week, you’re going to be flying high. Hell, flying high doesn’t even cover it. You’re going to be flitting around the big blue heavens with a pair of magical laser dolphins as shoes. You’re going to be past the moon. You’re going to feel like you’re snorting comet dust and making sweet love to asteroids.

Because you wrote a thing.”

Well, Chuck may be exaggerating a little. For most of us thirsty firsties we’re out there panting for some recognition and the publishing rollercoaster keeps roaring by.

“Excuse me! Here! Did you read my book? Did anyone read my book?”

Surviving the fall

The only way I managed to survive the tiny plop of my first novel was that I was already almost finished my second and had already started on the sequel for novel 1. I’d also read a lot of blogs and viewed many videos on marketing eBooks and self-published novels.

Marketing and promoting your book takes a lot longer than you anticipate if you’re a thirsty firsty. You might even be completely turned off writing more books if you wait around for positive feedback from the amorphous cloud of readers following popular fiction.

I knew that popularity was not going to arrive with novel 1, nor probably with novel 2 … 3 …. 4. It would be only when I had an out-there profile and people accidentally came across my work, read it (in a weak moment), liked it and looked for more, that I would become better known. I also had to wait until friends read it (and they don’t read your novel when, or as quickly as you would like/expect) and then fed back to their friends about the quality of the writing.

It all takes time – and unfortunately that’s time away from writing your next blockbuster. But then … isn’t blogging ‘writing’? Don’t you also develop a personality, a sense of accomplishment AND writing technique from blogging? It’s sometimes harder work than allowing the creative flow to surge words onto the screen or paper.

The Last Word in Self-publishing

I’ll leave Joanna Penn to tell you how it is that even successfully-published writers feel when they finally launch their novel into the sea of new authors.

Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

PS: Only one CAKE was harmed during the writing of this blog.

Think big

Author: Let Readers Read Your Writing

You’ve written a book – a novel. You’ve had friends read it and have received encouraging comments. You could go ahead and publish on Amazon Kindle, Kobo, CreateSpace or Smashwords. (These links take you their publishing pages.)

However, if you’re not quite ready for total exposure you can take advantage of Wattpad – a website that publishes new and old writing a chapter at a time.  You can read another writer’s style and decide whether it is for you, then go look for them in the online book stores. Or you can simply sample and read on – a chapter at a time – the work of authors who appeal.

That sort of dip-in and leave or come-again reading without having to commit any cost is useful in many ways. You can use the talents of others to compare or lift your own writing style.

James Joyce  – masterful writing still

I was able to click into “The Dubliners”, a collection of short stories by James Joyce (now out of copyright). I read Joyce’s story “The Sisters”. It’s written in the style of last century, but what stimulated my writer mind was the subtlety of the revelation of characters. It was not the sisters but the character of the priest which is revealed, hint by hint. Joyce’s use of language, though now apparently old-fashioned, is masterful still.

Wattpad for aspiring authors

Here are a few trending titles on Wattpad right now:


The real benefit of Wattpad for an indie author with a completed book is the option you have of uploading your own works to the website (unpaid, of course) and testing out the response of readers. You could actually write your story online in their text editor, but I would urge you to copy and paste into the editor and follow the instructions to upload your story. It’s a great way of testing out the potential popularity for a serial.

Be careful, though, that you’re not infringing any of the rules of the websites where you may want to publish later, e.g. Amazon has strict rules about how much of a work may be published elsewhere if you choose to enrol in the Kindle Direct program and receive higher percentage royalties.

Become an educated author

No I’m not advocating that you go out and spend megabucks on books and writing/publishing or marketing courses. The information is out there and ready for the taking if you are prepared to spend time sifting through the dross. Look for blogs by successful writers – those with more than one book on the online shelves. Here are two I suggest you check out:

  • Non-fiction author Tim Ferriss’ How to Write a Bestselling Book This Year blog. This link to Tim’s blog is littered with other links that will take you to more information. Tim is author of the “Four Hour Workweek”, “The Four Hour Body” and several others in the same vein.
  • Well researched fiction author, Joanna Penn writes at The Creative Penn blog and invites in equally talented authors to talk about the processes they use to make them great. Joanna adds podcasts to her blogs which you an download and listen to at a later date.


Of course, I’d like you to check my own WriteGear Facebook page where I post many links to the results of my research, and you can enrol at my website to access the long list of how-to writing and publishing videos.

All of these blogs and websites require you to register, but the pay-back for writers who want to learn and succeed will be tremendous.  And who knows? You might even discover new authors you’d like to follow.

In the creative flow – Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

Farewell Spit whale stranding 2015

A Whale Stranding Begs the Question: “Why?”

Tre and I were involved in an attempt over Valentines Day weekend, February 2015,  to save almost 200 pilot whales stranded on Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, New Zealand, and in retelling our story and what we learned I doubt I can keep my personal anguish from showing through. Forgive me.

I do not know why whales strand at Farewell Spit in Golden Bay. Staff at the Department of Conservation could shed no light on it. Project Jonah’s website has these ideas on the causes of strandings.

The Spit is one of the last pieces of land whales pass on their way north from summers spent feeding around New Zealand. It’s shallow, particularly so to the west, where most strandings occur.

The whales’ sonar and communication simply does not warn them to turn around.  They forge on with tragic consequences.


Anyone who has assisted in keeping alive and/or re-floating whales after a stranding will understand how emotional it is to work beside these helpless mammals. So magnificent and agile in the water, on the sand they are helpless and often in pain.

Pain comes from fragile skin that tears as the whale thrashes around to escape; pain comes from hand-size blisters from sunburn; pain comes from the effect of gravity on a huge body that is usually buoyed by salt water.

Sunburn for whales is excruciating

Giant blister from sunburn received on the first stranding when the sun was shining

Above: The rough area along this whale’s side is caused by palm-size blisters.
Whale skin is seldom exposed to the sun the way it is for long periods during a stranding.
The skin of these whales is dark and absorbs the heat too

Finding a stranding early and applying first aid to the whale’s skin is imperative. The stranding of Friday 13th  was not discovered until after the whales had been stranded for several hours on an extremely hot day.

The side exposed to the sun suffers the greatest damage, they have no way of protecting themselves – they cannot rollover, so they suffer. What we can do is cover them with smooth sheets and keep them wet. Avoid touching the blisters in case you tear them.


Above: Keeping whales cool is paramount in successfully returning them to the  sea.
Smooth sheets, bed covers and table cloths are ideal  – they have to be large to cover mammals of this size

I was particularly shocked at how thin their skin is when I first saw it hanging off some whales like torn wrapping paper – underneath was bloody blubber. Blubber bleeds, just like our flesh bleeds when our skin is torn away. Can you imagine the pain?

How many people to save a whale?

The Department of Conservation (DOC) and Project Jonah (Whale Rescue) estimate that there should be at least three people per whale at every stranding. Friday’s stranding, because it was discovered late, and because it was about seven kilometres up the Spit, meant everyone who attended had to be transported by special vehicles.

Only about 80 people made it to re-float about 70 of the 180 whales on the evening tide. We were spread thinly in the water. And, although many of us assisted several whales out into deeper water many were left behind, or had died earlier in the day without the assistance they needed. It was heart-breaking to stand in the receding tide and see body after body lying dead – bodies of mammals who had been part of a breathing, sociable pod only 12 hours earlier.

At the re-stranding of the 70 survivors, about 500 people turned up. They arrived early, the day was overcast and the rescue effort was finely tuned. The consequence was that 67 live whales were returned to the sea and have not been seen since. Yeehah!

Taking care of yourself


Above: When 500 people turned up on Valentine’s Day, every whale could receive attention. Human carers could be relieved when they got tired and experts were able to work with less stressed whales to re-float them

People need to take breaks, to eat and reflect on what is happening around them. When you’re working with one whale, that whale becomes your total focus. You also need to aware of your own safety. Whales can thresh their tails around and can and do knock people out. That’s also why you’re told not to step over a whale or get between two whales.

The toll can be high on your emotions. If whales have already died or are badly injured, be prepared to feel similar emotions to what you might feel at a tragic death or bad accident. You want to make everyone better. You want to roll back the tide/time, you worry your head with ‘what ifs’ and ‘why didn’t they’ speculation. Just remember that without your support more whales could have died. You’re a legend just by being brave enough to get in there to try.

Terrible choices

When you first arrive on the beach with a large stranding, you don’t know where to start. Often the bodies are clumped together and there is no way you’re going to be able to separate one out from the group in order to give them whale first aid. You have to look for whales who are breathing and who are not threshing about (often an indication they’re about to die). If you arrive after trained help listen to their advice on which whale to work with and how to do it.

You have to work with the most likely to survive. While it may seem inhumane not to you may be expending wasted energy to save a calf, if the calf’s mother has died. Whale calves, like human babies survive on mother’s milk. Work to save them both or move on to another whale who is in a better position to survive. A grim choice you must make if there are few of you around.

Connecting with ‘your’ whale

If you spend eight or more hours working to keep a whale alive accept that you’re going to feel a huge bond with that mammal. When it’s returned to the ocean you will feel a deep loss. Project Jonah people actually advise you to make a connection – a bond with the whale – to keep them alive.

Stranded whales often close their eyes (who would blame them when they’re in that much pain?), but talking to them and encouraging them to look at you increases their chances of survival.  Tre spent a couple of hours kneeling in the mud, talking about our ‘calves’ and family connections and for a long part of that time the whale looked at her.


Above: Tre talks to ‘her’ whale. The whale’s eye is closed in this picture, but she opened it many times and looked directly at Tre. Could you ever forget such connection?

When you are attempting to re-float a whale you expend a lot of energy. On the beach they are more comfortable upright with their dorsal fin pointing to the sky; when you’re helping to move them forward in shallow water it’s easier to do so with them on their side. On Friday, I and the woman I was working with had to stop every few seconds to wait for the next tidal surge to lift the weight of the whale and then push forward again until the whale was in deep enough water.

When on its side the whale still needs to breath and you have to remember to stop and let them lift their head a little. Once the whale is swimming the optimum action is for you and your group to keep guiding it to deeper water, but if there’s only one or two of you, remember that the whale is an independent being and may resist all attempts by you to get it to comply, turning instead to the shore. Respect that. Who knows what the whale is searching for? Let it make its choices and accept you have done your best.

A few things we learned

Whales on sand may have stranded with their flippers at uncomfortable angles. Dig trenches and fill them with water so that they can flex their flippers down to a more comfortable angle.


Above: The water-filled trench allows the whale to rest her flippers at a natural angle.

  • The main areas to keep wet and cool are: dorsal fin (don’t touch it if you can avoid it), flippers and tail flukes.
  • Avoid moving around the whale suddenly but be prepared to get out of the way if it starts struggling.
  • Talk calmly and quietly. Tre noticed that even though people were constantly fetching buckets of clean sea water they kept the noise level low.
  • From time to time bathe the whale’s eyes with clean seawater to stop them getting irritated by sand.
  • Wear only gear you’re prepared to get wet in. During Friday’s re-float we personally were unprepared for what was needed. Tre had to discard her padded jacket – it weighed her down, whereas my windbreaker turned out to be great, in and out of the water.
  • Wet suits are ideal for whale re-floating and Project Jonah and DOC manage re-floats mainly with people in wet suits. On the Friday they didn’t have enough volunteers to be choosey.


Stranded dead whales are not a novelty. They are equivalent to a drowned person – a mammal out of its natural environment. Yet there is an attraction to see and marvel at the hugeness of these mammals, and we couldn’t help but go back to the scene on Sunday to be sure that the remaining dead whales were not ‘Tre’s whale’.

As we drove home we were struck by how unseemly it felt to be glad that the dead whales weren’t ‘our whale’, and somewhere, out in the ocean she was swimming and healing. We decided it must be similar to the relief people feel that their loved ones have survived a terrible tragedy where others have died. That’s the depth of the emotional attachment you feel when you participant in a whale rescue.

Heather Sylvawood with photos by Tre Sylvawood.