Category Archives: Lit events

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lit events

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lit events

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lit events

EWF: Writing for Young Adults

My ears perked up as soon as Penni Russon (Only Ever Always, Undine trilogy) said she did the PWE course at RMIT, through which she got a placement at Allen & Unwin in the Children’s/ YA department, through which she was eventually offered a job as editor. Reading so many manuscripts, she said, “allowed her to pop open the bonnet and have a look at the story-writing engine to see how it worked”. Now she writes YA novels. Sounds like my ideal career path.

“I never grew out of reading YA,” she said. “When I started writing YA fiction I was 24, and I wrote in that voice because I wasn’t very far away from it. I feel like I know the YA voice, and that’s what comes naturally. I don’t feel like I know 20, 30 year old voices!”

“I write stories for grown-ups too, but seeing as I still call them ‘grown-ups’, I think that says something.”

Why does she like writing for YA audiences?

“Teenagers are interested in the world, despite their bad rap for being self-obsessed. They’re often fascinated with dystopian worlds, because they can relate to injustice, and to having no political power. There’s an intensity of feelings in YA. Teens are experiencing all these intense emotions, and they’re experiencing them for the first time. It’s hard for them to imagine that once, their teachers and parents went through these feelings too.”

What about writing sex for YA?

It’s so much more powerful. Sex in adult lives can be mundane, it’s just a part of domestic life. But not for teens. They’ve got all these hormones pumping for the first time, everything is new and meaningful.

What’s the difference between writing for children and young adults? Where’s the line? Is there an age cut off?

“I think in children’s writing, there has to be a higher order. There’s parents, or teachers, protectors. The story is set in a protective space. YA writing deals with the loss of this protection. It’s when their world blows up. They discover there is no higher order, or it’s not as it seemed. There’s divorce, or death, or the truth. It deals with how people can function within this.

“The Harry Potter series becomes YA when Dumbledore dies. And Harry finds out stuff about Dumbledore’s past, which shakes his understanding of the world. I don’t think it could have been a seven book series without this realisation happening.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Lit events

Emerging Writers’ Festival: Seven Enviable Lines

EWF_Web_Banner-fixedEWF Conference. Two packed days of sitting and listening and jotting and tweeting. All that inspiration, it was pretty exhausting.

The Seven Enviable Lines panel was a great way to start the weekend: what writing-related tips would you tell a younger You?

Here are my favourites.

Melinda Harvey:

“A career in writing is not like winning Tetris—you don’t automatically go up to the next level.”

“You’ve got to be at your desk/computer/notepad to write. Inspiration can strike, but like lightning it’s rare. First, you’ve got to produce the right climatic conditions…”

John Safran:

“Here’s what’s wrong with you. You’re lazy, and too in love with your one stupid idea.”

Khairani ‘Okka’ Barokka:

“Take care of yourself, write clearheaded. You might think tortured writing is the best, but usually it’s delusional and self indulgent.”

“Back up your files. Type up your notepads. Go through the archives and tease out the old threads.”

Jennifer Mills:

“Persistence is more important than talent.”

“Being a writer is not an excuse for being an asshole! Be nice to your families, partners, friends. They are the ones that will support you.”

Walter Mason:

“Run, don’t walk. Don’t wait until the time is perfect. Don’t put it off. You can do amazing things by yourself online, and you can do them tonight when you get home.”

“If invited to book/writing/publishing events, never give into the impulse to stay at home.”

“I’ve never once been hired on my skills. Fabulousness has always won out over literary prowess.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Lit events

Editors Vic dinner meeting

59095_409435612461438_158118939_nA few classmates from RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course and I tagged along to last week’s Editors Victoria dinner meeting.

The focus of the evening was Carrie Tiffany and Toni Jordan discussing the process of writing fiction and how they teach creative writing, in conversation with freelance book editor Nadine Davidoff.

Having seen Carrie and Toni around uni (they are both grads of our PWE course, have published novels, and both now teach at RMIT) and having heard Nadine speak in one of our editing classes, I jumped at the chance to hear them all together in one room.

And at the chance to act like a real life editor. We wore nametags and got a free glass of wine and everything.

Here are some paraphrased notes from the conversation.

On why they write:

C.T: I wouldn’t say I enjoy writing… But I do enjoy having written. The most important thing is when you write and find out something that you didn’t know before you wrote it. You surprise yourself.

On following rules and advice for writing a novel:

C.T: I follow Oscar Wilde’s thinking: “It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is fatal”. The ‘novel’ means the ‘new’. If you’re committed to writing the book, you’ll write the book, and you’ll work out how to do it on your own.

T.J: Even when you’ve written a book, the next one is just as hard. I felt like I was getting dumber after each book. I couldn’t remember how I started them. I ended up calling my poor husband and asking things like ‘when I was writing the first book, what did I have for lunch?’ But the most important thing is to keep promises to yourself. Treat yourself like a business associate. Don’t give yourself an untrustworthy reputation by falling through on promises you make, like word counts. Take yourself seriously, and deliver on your promises, as if they were for a business.

On inspiration and the quote of the evening: ‘The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible.”

Ruth Stone. photo source

Ruth Stone. photo source

Nadine tells an anecdote of American poet Ruth Stone who grew up working in the fields in rural Virginia, and who would feel a poem coming at her like a ‘thunderous train of air’. She’d have to run inside and get pen to paper so when the poem ‘barrelled through her’ she could collect it on paper. Sometimes she missed it and she felt the poem thunder across the landscape looking for another poet. And sometimes she’d just catch the tail end of the poem, and pull it backwards, and it would appear on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first…

T.J: Yes! I feel like this. Once I was on a train with only a tiny little handbag and no notepad or pen and I just needed to write, and was trying to memorise all the words going through my head, but of course by the time I got to a newsagent to buy a pen and paper they were gone..

C.T: No. It’s 100% hard work and no magic. Of course I think there are subconscious aspects where you don’t know a character’s name or something about them until it appears on the page, but they are just hidden in your subconscious, they don’t come out of nowhere.

On teaching creative writing:

They both agree writing has everything to do with reading, and you can’t write a good sentence until you’ve read a lot of other sentences first. C.T suggests the first year of any writing degree should be only reading. T.J has students read novels aloud in class to understand rhythm. She also suggests keeping two books on your desk at all times when you’re writing: one inspiration book (if I can write something 1/10th as good as this it will be worthwhile) and one confidence book (if this **** got published… I’ve got a chance!).

Leave a comment

Filed under Lit events