Byron Writers Festival: Kids and Creative Writing

As the rain poured outside the tent and we shivered in our gumboots, John Marsden (author and educator), Catherine Keenan (executive director Sydney Story Factory) and Tristan Bancks (local author and Byron StoryBoard facilitator) discussed children’s literacy issues, how to get kids to tap into their own skin in order to write something authentic, and slime. Tristan Bancks is a big fan of slime.

‘If you’re afraid of writing, much of your education will be wasted,’ John Marsden proposed. Kids are often so afraid of getting something wrong – of having their work covered in red pen, and made to feel like they’re stupid – that they turn defensive very early on. ‘I hate writing.’ ‘I can’t write.’

As a student himself, John Marsden was bored to death by the in-class writing exercises his teachers prescribed. A topic would be given, such as ‘Scary story’, and students would brainstorm all the words they would expect to find in a scary story, such as ‘dark’, ‘stormy’, ‘ghost’, ‘monster’, ‘haunted’, etc. They would then have to write a story including all those words. The young rebel, John kept himself amused by setting himself the challenge of writing a scary story without using any of those words. This is precisely one of the activities he gets his students to do now. It forces them to be original, but it also teaches them that there’s no ‘correct’ way to write a scary story, for example. They can have fun with it.

Some other fun examples of writing prompts that the panel suggested are below.

  • Write a story set in Fear City where each character has a different weird fear.
  • Go outside and study a little patch of garden or terrain. Write about a journey through that small space as an ant.
  • Brainstorm a list of interesting adjectives and nouns and write them in columns on the board. Then join them in the strangest and least expected combinations.

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Review: Girl Defective


Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

Pan Macmillan, 2013

From the blurb:

In the tradition of High Fidelity and Empire Records, this is the literary soundtrack to Skylark Martin’s strange, mysterious, and extraordinary summer.

This is the story of a wild girl and a ghost girl; a boy who knew nothing and a boy who thought he knew everything.’

These are the words that came to mind while I was reading this book:

Vibrant, alive, quirky, nostalgic, curious, beautiful, sad, lonely, real.

Skylark (Sky) is a fifteen-year-old girl living above her family’s record shop with her melancholy dad who’s stuck in the past (‘Nothing after 1995’) and her ten-year-old brother Gully who has social difficulties and refuses to take off his pig-snout mask.

It’s mostly about Sky finding a sense of belonging in her ‘defective’ life.

One of my favourite aspects of the book was Sky’s relationship with her older, wilder friend Nancy.

She was nineteen and sharp as knives. I was fifteen and fumbling.

Kid, that was what she called me. Or little sister, or girlfriend, or dollbaby, or monkeyface. Sometimes she even used my name – Skylark, Sky – all in that drawl that felt like fingernails on my back lightly scratching itches I didn’t even know I had.

I had a shock of yearning, of wishing I was Nancy. The feeling was sharp and it carried a shadow. I was always on the edge of something that was never going to happen.

‘Is it a date or an assignation?’ I couldn’t remember the difference.
‘It’s a date.’
I tried to act jaded. I stole her stance, her slang, her style. ‘So go, lam, am-scray.’ My smile was unshakeable even as I was being ditched.

‘Yeah, we’re big dykes. We’re so dykey it’s not funny’. Nancy threw her arm around me and went ‘Mwah’ into my neck. I felt a tiny bomb explode inside.

What if I never saw her again? I felt a lump in my throat. Maybe our friendship had always been hollow. I’d needed someone to admire and Nancy needed to be admired. And now that the framework had changed we were all at sea.

The whole book takes place in St Kilda. The suburb is Sky’s world. The place is an intrinsic part, and character, of the book.

Once upon a time in old St Kilda, Victorian ladies would promenade and no one made disparaging remarks about their arses from the open window of an unregistered Ford Falcon. Then came wars and sailors and tramlines and the riff-raff bleeding in: working class, immigrants, refugees. Then it was all punks and junkies and prostitutes and then Money moved in. These days the red light still glowed but only faintly. I could live without the tourists but there were things I loved – like the palm trees and poppy seed kugelhopf; like the monster goldfish at the botanical gardens and the sad song of the marina boats. The wind played their masts like a bow on strings and the sound was eerie and lovely and more lonesome than anything I could imagine.

The Scenic Railway would have qualified as an old St Kildan. It had been around since 1911. Its white wood lattice lassoed Luna Park and made all the other rides with their Day-Glo and bad murals look crass and eighties. From the highest point I could see St Kilda’s up-down streets, her patches of green, her apartment blocks like computer monitors stacked on top of each other.

Sky is sweet and innocent but wanting more. I liked her quiet rebellions. I liked her anger at her dad for not telling the truth, and her frustration at her brother, and her snarky comments that she posts on her famous mother’s website (who had abandoned the family to follow her art).

Do you ever miss your children?

How does it feel to be such a fake?

How do you sleep?

I think Howell nails the teenage ‘call to wildness’ without sounding like a grown-up trying to be ‘cool’.

However. However.

I felt there were issues with the plot. Spoilers below.

Mainly, the storylines didn’t resolve satisfactorily for me. The dramatic peak of the narrative (the mess, Christmas Eve) didn’t work for me. Something more needed to happen. More than Luke punching Otis and Nancy falling off a ledge. Gully needed to do something more after sneaking in – something that only he could do. Luke needed to get answers from Otis (either here or in the police station after). Sky needed to get her answers from Nancy. The whole set-ups for the mystery about Mia, and the backstories about Ray and Steve Sharp needed resolving. I didn’t buy Sky’s ‘sense of finality’ after this event, because nothing had been resolved except the Bricker and the finding of the snout. For me, it all needed to come together better.

Had Otis told him anything? Did it make a difference? I felt different. When I looked at the picture of Mia I felt sadness but also a sense of finality. I felt lighter. Even when I thought about the shop and the future. Even when I thought about Mum.

Nope. Didn’t accept this. For a whole story based around a mystery of a missing girl, I needed more answers than what was given. And after hating on her mum for so long, what happened to change this?

The music references mainly went over my head too, but I’m sure they’d be an added layer for those that recognise them. But I liked the Almost Famous vibe it gave off – the sense of ‘it’s all happening …’

Here’s a playlist of some of the songs referred to throughout the novel. Excuse me while I go and YouTube them.

Wishing Well by The Millionaires
Spooky by Dusty Springfield
Urge for Going by Tom Rush
Cortez the Killer by Neil Young
She’s Leaving Home by The Beatles
Orange Skies by Love
Gloria by Them
Pocketful of Rainbows by Jan & Dean
The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel

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EWF: YA Is Forever

The first event I went to for the 2015 Emerging Writers’ Festival was a panel called ‘YA Is Forever’, featuring Kirsty Murray, Sulari Gentill and James Phelan.

As a child, Kirsty Murray described herself as a nerdy, pretentious reader. She wanted to be a writer, and believed a familiar idea: ‘to be a writer, I need to have a big adventure in order to write about it’. This thought kept coming back to her as she grew up and progressed through her life, that ‘one day I’ll have something worth writing about’. She never dreamt of being a children’s/ YA writer, but says she stumbled into it because at that stage of her life she was surrounded by 6 children under the age of 14 (not all her own), and that voice is what came naturally. She always gravitates to child protagonists between the ages of 11 and 13 – there’s something special about that age for her. She once wrote a 17-year-old, and that was a stretch!

What’s with YA writers? Are we all suffering arrested development?

Kirsty brought up the question – what even is YA? Is it a readership or is it a genre?

She thinks that post-Twilight, YA writing developed the tropes of a genre. There’s a structure and type of content that is recognisable. She also joked that looking on the library shelves in the YA section, it would appear that a necessity is a black cover with a single word title: Shiver Embrace Abandon Gone Splintered Fallen Unwanted Sway Unmade Unmarked Panic Conversion …

And what age is a ‘Young Adult’? Just ‘teens’ in general? 12-17 year-olds? Up to 25-year-olds? How come so many adults read YA? Kirsty says it’s a spectrum, and she sits at the bottom end – at the crossover between children’s (or Middle Grade, if being specific) and YA. Someone like Maureen McCarthy sits at the top end of the spectrum, at the crossover between YA and Adult.

On the other hand, Sulari wasn’t aware of YA tropes. She just wrote a story and was as surprised as anyone when her publisher said it was Young Adult because of the age of the protagonists, even though the language was more sophisticated than you might expect for this readership. She believes in staying loyal to the story you want to tell and letting it find its readership.

How much grown-up stuff can YA books handle – in terms of sex, violence, issues to do with mental health and suicide, and swear words?

Kirsty Murray thinks that ‘it might be a good read, and realistic, and find its readership – but it might keep you out of school libraries and off book lists’. There’s a balance between reality and fiction, especially when the book has to get through the adult gatekeepers (parents, teachers, librarians) into the teenagers’ hands.

‘Everyone in the marketing department is an adult, and they are trying to sell the book to anyone with the most disposable income’ – which will usually be the parent. That said, the teen reader does have buyer power – they very successfully market books to each other by word-of mouth, they have a strong pester factor, and they may have some disposable income of their own.

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Review: Night Beach


Night Beach by Kirsty Eagar

Penguin Group Australia, 2012

I borrowed this from the library with zero expectations – or rather, with fairly low expectations – because it looks like the sort of YA paranormal romance that I’d generally turn my nose up at. I picked it up because it had the word ‘beach’ in the title and there’s mention of a surfboard in the first page, and I’m always looking for writing about surfing to inspire my own novel. There’s a lot of bad writing about surfing out there. Like, people getting barrelled on their first lesson. I wish.

But this book – I was hooked. Right from the first page. Kirsty Eagar can clearly write about surfing, and beach life, and oceans.

The sand is crusted over from the rain yesterday and crunches under my feet, and I keep telling myself it’ll be warmer in the water.


A line of surfers is strung out like a necklace, from the point, all the way down to the south bank. The swell is from the east; each wave face held up by the wind for an impossible long time; each crest ripped backwards into long strands of spray.

Yes yes yes.

I quickly flicked to the ‘About the author’ page and saw that she lives on Sydney’s northern beaches and surfs every day, and her first book Raw Blue won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2010. OK, I was looking at the book with new eyes now.

I thought it was brilliant. Not just the surfing scenes (which I loved), but the characterisation, the dialogue, the subplots. I loved the black dog and the kid she babysits. I like that the main character is introverted, obsessed and anxious. The story quite quickly turned dark, and was creepy enough to give me goosebumps in bed and to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck when reading on the train on the way to work. It’s not a paranormal romance at all. It’s a dark and twisted horror – it’s about loneliness, and sexuality, and wanting, and obsessions, and nightmares, and, from the blurb, ‘the dark things that feed the creative process’.

I don’t read horror, at all, (since Goosebumps, at least), but I just went with it. It’s not perfect – it felt a little repetitive sometimes with Abbie looking for Kane, chasing Kane, then running away from Kane, then looking for him again, and I just had to gloss over how many times it seemed Kane would admit to something and then straight after not acknowledge it again (but I guess that was his character). But I have to say I was happy with the *spoiler* fact that she chooses not to hook up with him at the end, and I did like that the surrealist elements weren’t explained away as some sort of stress disorder, like was hinted part way through.

Here are some more beach/surf snippets.

There’s a black dog lying on the [abandoned] couch, guarding a towel and set of keys, staring out at the surf like she’s worried. When she sees me, her tail thumps on the busted vinyl, and she licks her lips and wriggles, but she stays on that couch like she’s been nailed to it.

Give me summer. Give me dry, hot northerlies and green water that’s oily with sunscreen and sweat.

They all look the same to me, hands in pockets, legs astride, hoodies and beanies pulled on, hunkered down for winter. Faarkin’ this and faarkin’ that.

Smash the lip, gash the face, carve, cutback, ripping – it’s all about leaving your mark, being a man, dominating the wave.

And here are the artworks that are referred to throughout.


Brett Whiteley, ‘Henri’s Armchair’


Brett Whiteley, ‘Thebes’ Revenge’


Georgio de Chirico, ‘The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’


Dorothea Tanning, ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’

Dawn after the Wreck c.1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Courtauld Institute Gallery, London

Dawn after the Wreck c.1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Courtauld Institute Gallery, London

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Review: Lockie Leonard Human Torpedo

9780141307305Lockie Leonard Human Torpedo by Tim Winton

Penguin Books Australia, 1990

Yep, it’s summer and I’m on a middle grade/ YA surf reading spree. I actually loved this book. I really appreciated it but I don’t think teenage boys quite would:  it’s a bit… almost literary? A bit old-fashioned. I love the voice — snappy and masculine — but to me it sounds more like Tim Winton’s childhood than a modern day one.

Lockie Leonard, hot surf-rat, is in love. The human torpedo is barely settled into his new school, and already he’s got a girl on his mind. And not just any girl: it has to be Vicki Streeton, the smartest, prettiest, richest girl in the class. What chance have you got when your dad’s a cop, your mum’s a frighteningly understanding parent, your brother wets the bed and the teachers take an instant dislike to you and then you fall in love at twelve-and-three-quarter years old? It can only mean trouble, worry, mega-embarrassment and some wild, wild times.

Sentences I found funny

“The Leonards called Lockie the Human Torpedo because he took so long to get out of bed in the morning. Actually Lockie was slow at almost everything…”

“Lockie’s method of eating Weetbix was truly, awesomely foul. Let me just say that it involved a lot of milk, an overripe banana, and a spud masher.”

“Lockie’s mum was the serious sort. She liked to be involved; she was concerned, conscientious. She’d even been to Parent Effectiveness Training and for a few weeks after that she was just a flaming nuisance.”

“He went to school with a great daggy smile on his face like he’d come half-stoned from the dentist.”

[Trying to get his wetsuit off] “He pulled up from the front and got his arms pinned to his chest. No good. He pulled the vest down again and tried reaching back behind him and he ended up looking like a dumb 13-year-old pashing on with himself inside a bag.”

“I’m nuts,” he told himself. “I am a flamin’ fruitcake.”

Surf stuff:

“Genuine surf rat, grommet extraordinaire.”

“He picks off the second without any trouble. He took the drop loose-kneed and casual, taking out a wide, leaning bottom turn before hammering back up at the lip. As he swung round off the top again, he saw the hairy kid dropping in from the shoulder. You rotten mongrel, he thought.”

“It was a foul day, no argument. Southerly wind, no surf, and school tomorrow.”

“The air was colder than the water and his teeth were doing First Year Typing like they’d never heard of liquid paper.”

“The sun was almost down as he caught his last wave, leaning and cutting across its orange glistening surface as it rolled towards the beach like the twist in a great monster’s tail. His hand trailed in the smooth wall; he tossed his head back and hooted as the pitching funnel of its insides shot him down the line. He wasn’t thinking of anything. He didn’t need to.”

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Review: Blue Water High

blue-water-highBlue Water High by Shelley Birse

Pan Australia, 2008

This was a TV show first, and following its success the screenwriter adapted the episodes to make a novel. Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It’s a bit old for what I’m doing (the characters are 15-16), and I found the narration jumped around a bit, but the stakes were high and the characters were likeable.

For me the best bits were the surfing descriptions, and all descriptions of the beach and water:

“Watching the currents sucking in and out, like some huge water-breathing dragon was snoozing just off the coast.”

“She cruised down the back of the first wave and found herself with front row tickets for the Stacey Jervis show.”

“It didn’t matter how many times Fly did it, this was the moment, this frozen crystal in time, where nature and physics and gravity were in charge. It never failed to make her beam.”

And throwaway metaphors/similes:

“She stared at the computer … until her eyes were red and square and had their own screensaver.”


“She’d packed half-heartedly, almost embarrassed to pretend it might come true.”

“She was a world champion blusher. She could cook up twelve shades of beetroot in under 5 seconds.”

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George R R Martin in conversation

I have a confession to make. I haven’t read any of the books. I have the first one sitting on my bookshelf, and have flicked through it enough to know how the characters’ names are spelt, but that’s about it. My entire understanding of the phenomenon that is Game of Thrones comes from the HBO series, and comments from learned friends and family who have toiled through the books. But I went to see George R R Martin speak anyway (well, I mostly wanted hear Peter Dinklage talk, but that’s another story).

The author came out on stage to thunderous rock-star applause. I didn’t see anyone dressed up, but judging by the level of detail in some of the questions, it’s safe to say there were some hardcore fans there. Reclined on the couch with his gut hanging over his knees, his suspenders reflecting like daggers under the stage lights, and his distinctive cap and beard, he was a confident, thoughtful, and humorous speaker.

I remember one of the first things I ever heard about the books, before the show came out, was my cousin saying “I like those books. Normally you know the main characters will always live, but in these ones you don’t.” This is what Martin’s known for: killing his darlings. Killing off the characters we learn to love and care for. And this topic took up a lot of the conversation tonight.

Martin recalled being extremely moved by reading Lord of the Rings when he was at a formative age, around 11 or 12. He said the death of Boromir, and then of Gandalf, affected him greatly “and if it was me, Gandalf would have stayed dead, it’s more powerful that way”. The deaths of these important characters were game-changers, for both the other characters and the readers, and certainly influenced the way the pre-pubescent Martin thought about adventure novels. At one point in LOTR he was led to believe Frodo was dead, when he was stung by Shelob, and Sam took the ring and moved on. This was also huge for Martin, having identified with Frodo as the protagonist for so long, but it struck him as realistic and powerful that the story could continue.

Despite the fantasy setting, the realism of war is what he’s after. Martin said one of the things he’s learnt about war is that anyone can die. Everyone thinks they’re the hero of the story, right up until the moment they are killed, and it’s this idea that he’s respecting and emulating. Something that drives him mad is books or films set in a war where a group of friends battle through and emerge barely scathed. Not realistic. His books are art imitating life, and he’ll settle for nothing less.

Does what he’s doing work in novel format? Do readers need to trust that our beloved characters are going to make it, to hold our interest? I know I hated him after I watched the RW episode, and swore I wasn’t going to watch any more. And I hadn’t even tackled the massive books to get that far.

But I respect what he’s doing here.

The other interesting points in conversation were his metaphor about writers being architects or gardeners – either planning things meticulously before writing the first word, or sowing a few seeds and seeing what comes up. He says he knows where all his major characters will end up, but that lots of things appear in the writing, for example the character of Bronn (who fought for Tyrion in the Eyrie) was just going to be used to get Tyrion through the forest, but kept making himself useful and ended up being a major game-player.

Martin was also accused of being a masochist: of taking the things away from characters that they cherished and relied on the most. Little Arya was finally in spitting distance from the rest of her family just before they were massacred. Jaime Lannister’s whole character was formed around his skill with a sword, and then his right hand was chopped off. But Martin said he’s just playing out what needs to happen to the character for their arc to develop. Narratives are about things happening to people, not people having a happy old time. Drama is when characters have to deal with what happens to them.

Of the writing process, he said he needs to shut himself away from the world and tell everyone to leave him alone. And some days he’ll write ten pages, and some days he’ll struggle on one. But in those times, he’s in Westeros. He’s not thinking about the fan forums abusing the slowness of his writing (“I was always a slow writer, I just didn’t used to have people waiting for me”), he’s not thinking about who’s going to be cast as this character for the series, he’s in the character’s mind, wrestling with the words that they would say.

And I think we should leave him to it.

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