On Saturday (yes, I'm getting rather behind) I dragged along Lorraine, Margaret and Lynette, three of my fellow Western Women Writers to the Buninyong Writers' Festival, south of Ballarat. I wanted to go because one of my friends, and past student, Dennis McIntosh was speaking as an emerging writer. So we left Melbourne at 8.30 am, and got there just on 10.30 for the beginning of the festival, and I must say it was lovely to see some people I knew in the audience: two of my past students, Demet and Dee (who were there independently), Anne, who was in Western Union Writers with me for a while, and Janey, a fellow PWE teacher. Much of the festival seemed centred around Varuna and the masterclasses and fellowships that they offer there.
The first session was emerging writers: Dennis, Asher Leslie and Sylvia Owers. All of the writers spoke about how they got into writing.
Asher spoke about how he found his calculator to be the most useful writing tool -- in terms of how long it would take him to write a novel at a set number of words per day. He said that writing was like having a conversation with no interruptions. Clearly, he hasn't got children! Many of us dream about thinking about writing in this way. Well, not really, but we would if we thought about it. He also talked about how important goals are when you're writing.
Sylvia talked about writing and rewriting to get more into her character's heads. Her first rewrite took her from 80,000 to 150,000 words. This is my problem too. I always want to flesh out characters more, but I can't afford to expand. I have to cut, cut, cut because I started this draft at 191,000 words, and now three-quarters of the way through I'm still at 188.
Dennis talked about having the courage to tell a story in a voice that is not usually seen in literature. He writes about his time as a shearer, and the voice is authentic, strong. In response to a question about what to do when you hit a wall and can't write, he spoke about sitting in the tension and just getting on with it. He was obviously inspirational because other writers were quoting him all day long. One of the things he was quoted on was advice of how to fictionalise real events: keep true to the emotion and then lie as much as you can.
Peter Bishop, who hosted this session, talked about how easy it is for life to move in and take the space carved for reading and writing. How true that is. I still remember what happened to my word counts when I first started teaching. To keep my students writing, I brought writing contracts into my Novel 2 class, and made sure I signed one along with the rest of them, and this still really helps keep me on track. He also said that those with the passion will make the space.
The second session was the industry professionals: Peter Bishop, the creative director at Varuna; Linda Funnell, Publisher at HarperCollins, and Vanessa Radnidge, Publisher at Hachette Livre.
Vanessa began and went through a typical day for her at work, which might involve, among other things, assessing manuscripts and writing reader's reports; structural editing; copyediting; proofreading; applying for permissions; writing blurbs; preparing information sheets for the publicity team; liaising with photographers, agents and authors; putting contracts together; and working with an author to make them feel included as part of the publishing world. As well as the publishing process, she talked about how the editor has to sell the book to the rest of the publishing house at the acquisitions meeting, and how she doesn't take knockbacks personally. I think that it's easy for us writers to forget that an editor loving our books may not be enough. Or rather, that if we get a no, it doesn't necessarily mean that the editor didn't love it. It needs the editor to love it and to be able to convince everyone else in the acquisitions meeting that they should love it too! She reminded us that publishers are competing for a slice of people's entertainment money: why they should buy this book instead of a DVD or CD or going to see a movie. She said, therefore, that writers need to find stories that readers will want to give up time for, stories that will transport people.
Peter talked about what Varuna does for writers. Really, it's best that you check into this yourself because they have many excellent programs. The website is at www.varuna.com.au -- he also said that memoir sells more than fiction because people want to know about writers, but what they don't realise is that a novel will tell just as much about a writer as a memoir will.
Linda talked about HarperCollins's three imprints: Fourth estate (literary), HarperCollins (general) and the one closest to my own heart: Voyager (SF). She said HarperCollins want writers who are going to write more than one book, but when they take on someone new they have to look at what their existing authors are doing and what spaces are available. She said writers need to have a story they're ready to share with a wider audience, and need to be clear about what their motivations for seeking publishing are. HarperCollins don't accept unsolicited manuscripts -- when they did they received over 500 per week. Yes, that's correct. Per week. They only look at manuscripts from agents, through Varuna, or from already published authors. However, you can send them a query letter with a two-paragraph description of your book, and they might then solicit the manuscript if it sounds interesting. Linda says what gets noticed is if you can write really well. She said not to send gimmicky things, but rather to put all your effort into what's on the page: correct all spelling errors, proofread etc. And for editors, she said that every author is different and has something to teach you. How true that is. Every project I've worked on as an editor has taught me something new. And I reckon 75% of them have involved copyright law in some way. Bizarre.
Session three was the published writers: Adib Khan, Robbi Neal and Julie Gittus.
Robbi talked about how life before being published was pretty much the same as life afterwards. (Though one wonders if she was organising great writing festivals beforehand!) She also talked about wrestling with second-book syndrome.
Adib said that his writing was at first accidental and incidental but how creativity can be inspired by desperation. That was reassuring -- I think! He said that we shouldn't "graft ourselves to the imaginative trunk" and that it must be "life over art" -- in other words to take care of ourselves financially and not rely on having written a bestseller. Sage advice, indeed. He spoke about fencing off his writing time and not allowing anyone to breach that fence. Yes, indeed! He also said that when the editing is done a book is finished, and that you must cut the umblical cord as soon as you can and get on with the next book. Here's something else he said that may reassure struggling, published writers: every few years he asks himself whether he has another novel inside him, but he only finds the answer out when he's finished the first draft. He says he starts his novels both in first and third person before he decides which is working best. I've never heard of anyone else doing this all the time. Interesting. He says that when writing your first novel, passion carries you through, but that for subsequent novels you have to rely on discipline.
Julie talked about her road into writing through the freefall writing workshops, recommended by her friend Gina Perry. She quoted Churchill who said, "The good thing about war is that you don't have to write that day".
Peter was hosting this session as well and said that an editor is the closest reader you'll ever have, and that they're looking at whether your writing is fully articulate, and that if they reword something it's one suggestion for how you might fix something.
Finally, there was an excellent performance of Dorothy Porter's The Monkey's Mask. Dorothy answered questions after the performance and said a couple of really interesting things: she thinks poetry is too cramped on the page, and that poets should be aware of other possibilities; and that she has both a poet and a novelist read her verse novels to make sure they are working on both levels.
This festival had a great atmosphere, and I really enjoyed the day. Left me with plenty to think about too.