Event: John Marsden at The Wheeler Centre

DSC04739‘To be honest is a revolutionary act.’ – John Marsden

One of my all-time favourite formidable female protagonists is Ellie Linton from Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden. She’s loyal, proactive, proud, brave and, importantly, fallible. The more I think about the Tomorrow series, the more I’m tempted to reach over to my bookshelf and start re-reading the first book, but that would make for a slightly non-existent blog post, so the book will stay on the shelf … for now.

Last night I went to The Wheeler Centre to see John and Lefa Singleton-Norton, the Creative Producer of Express Media, launch the 2014 John Marsden/Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers (writers under the age of 25 are eligible to enter. You can read more about the prize here while I lament about my age). Lefa introduced John as an author who has sold over 3 million books and has been short-listed for every children’s and young adult prize in Australia. The Patron of Express Media, John has shown his passion for young writers through his involvement with the organisation, as well as personally funding the prize. This year Hachette Australia are also sponsoring the prize, along with support from Arts Victoria, Australia Council and The Wheeler Centre. Here are a few highlights from the session.

When you wrote the Tomorrow series did you have a sense of the enduring readership?

John originally planned to only write one book, but when he came close to finishing the manuscript he realised there was still a lot more to tell. He started writing the second book the day after he finished the first. He felt a sense of momentum when writing the books, saying ‘it all took a life of its own’. The readership grew beyond young adult – a 78-year old woman came to North Rockhampton Library after he had written the fourth book and told him she wanted to him to finish the series so she could read the whole story before she died.

Are parallels between the political climate when you wrote the series, and now?

While writing the Tomorrow series, John felt Australians gave no thought to national security. Since then, he says there has been an ‘artificial frenzy’ of people depersonalised, de-classed and marketed as a threat to Australia. John ‘lost any feeling of pride’ after the Tampa incident. Now, when he sees an Australian flag flying, he wonders what crime is being committed.

John rejects nationalism, pointing out that Australia is rarely mentioned in the series. He did not want Tomorrow, When the War Began to be a book about Australians resisting foreigners, he wanted it to be a book about young people being tested.

The appeal of the Tomorrow series lies in how teenagers deal with being put in exceptional circumstances

John says war is a really powerful vehicle in literature. It gives ‘licence to add extra intensity to every interchange’. The Tomorrow series was the first time he had put characters through a test of physical courage. He enjoyed writing the action scenes – he wrote them quickly, but felt exhausted afterwards.

John is most proud of Checkers and So Much to Tell You, as while ‘not much happens’, the characters reflect on past events.

How did your collaboration with Shaun Tan, The Rabbits, come about?

John came up with the concept of The Rabbits while he was driving home from the airport and looking out at the landscape. He thought about vast spaces of land getting overrun by humans. ‘It’s kind of like a skin disease, in a way,’ he says. John says ‘rabbits are a good metaphor for how humans have invaded and contaminated Australia’.

The Australian bush is a constant presence/character in your work

John says there are ‘tiny, delightful discourses to be made in the bush’. He is currently writing an adult book, which is due for release later this year. It tells the story of a 12-year old street kid from London who decides to commit a crime so he can become a convict and be sent to Australia. Writing from the perspective of a foreigner allows John to look at the Australian landscape from a different perspective.

Your first book, So Much to Tell You, was released to a very narrow young adult market—

John believes Judy Blume opened up the young adult market in the United States. He enjoys writing from the perspective of a teenager because teenagers allow for a more radical and colloquial voice. John initially found it hard trying to write for adults, as he found it ‘hard to break free from the sense of being judged for every word’. He eventually came to the realisation that ‘we all have poetic licence, if we care to use it’.

There is an ongoing battle about writing the way teenagers talk—

Some of the language John used in So Much to Tell You was censored by his publisher. He was told he wasn’t allowed to have a character say ‘fucking homework’, and despite arguments back and forth with his publisher about it, he eventually conceded. He didn’t realise until after the book was published, that the publisher, rather than just deleting the expletive, replaced it, so the dialogue read ‘damned homework’, which made the dialogue sound more artificial.

The young adult market is huge now—

John has stopped reading young adult for himself. He does, however, read novels to his children. He says the Percy Jackson series is the first series since Harry Potter that his children have been engaged in. John found Harry Potter to be ‘one of the most sublime reading experiences of my life’ and his kids lived and breathed every moment of the series. The best children’s books are the ones that adults can love as much as kids.

Why are adults drawn to young adult fiction?

John believes adults are drawn to young adult fiction for ‘the worst possible reasons’. He says there is too much immaturity in our society, and too many adults haven’t grown up. Towards the end of the session, John clarified his point by saying he doesn’t believe adults shouldn’t enjoy reading young adult fiction, but they need to make sure they don’t try to appropriate the young adult experience.

The majority of your novels are written from first perspective. What do you find so compelling about writing this way?

Writing from first person allows John to get to the essence of the character. He says ‘voice is everything to me … If I’ve got the voice, then I’ve got the book’. Writing in first person also allows John to step away from his own life and write from their experience.

Selectively mute characters are motifs that appear throughout many of your books. Was this a conscious decision?

John didn’t pick up on this until a few books in. He says he grew up in a conservative family and society that had no room for differing opinions. He ended up in a psychiatric ward when he was 19, due to emotional repression. John describes it as ‘a transformative experience’, as he was given a licence to express his feelings. He was asked how he felt. ‘It was like this language I had to learn’. He also met a 14-year old patient who didn’t speak when they entered the ward, but by the time they left they were speaking again.

Why do you write from the female perspective?

John feels he has ‘licence to express emotion quite openly’ from the perspective of a female protagonist.

Do your ideas come from students?

Conversations are people swapping stories. If someone tells you something, it prompts a memory of your own experience. John says ‘we all have our own personal library of stories’. We all have significant and powerful stories that stay with us forever. Dementia and alzheimer’s patients lose themselves because they lose their stories.

You have a strong affinity with young people—

John quips ‘there are some kids I don’t like at all’, before saying ‘I respect young people, I think (I hope)’. He feels in today’s society it’s perceived as heresy to suggest that not all young people are beautiful and perfect, but the reality is some young people can be damaged from an early age. ‘How would it sound if you said, “I love 40-year olds?”

What is it that you find exciting about young writers?

Young writers are using language in a richer and more sophisticated way than ever before. Their writing is energised, distinctive and idealistic.

What advice to you have for young writers who are struggling with motivation?

John pours it all out on the page, then goes back and edits. He says ‘the more I write, the less fixing I have to do’. He believes a writer who is confident with language will use it almost effortlessly. He urges writers to ‘walk the language tightrope with their eyes shut’.

What advice to you have for writers looking for stories?

‘Everyone has at least one book in them’. Your own story will be interesting, as long as you are honest about it. Honesty is so compelling in writing because it is so rare in our culture. ‘To be honest is a revolutionary act’.

Audience question: have you ever felt like not writing?

John used to panic when he couldn’t write. Candlebark School has been all-consuming for the past 9 years. He wrote The Year My Life Broke after a lengthy break. His adult fiction manuscript is 117,000 words. John says ‘sometimes we have to recharge’.

Audience question: Dear Miffy was a controversial inclusion in school libraries at the time of its release. If you had written the book today, would you have written it differently?

John believes there were two main issues with the book – swearing and the bleak outlook. He believes the expletives wouldn’t be an issue today, but the protagonist with the bleak outlook would still be problematic. John was motivated to write the book after hearing about a boy who was disfigured after a failed suicide attempt. ‘We shouldn’t shy away from (writing about) people who have no hope’, because that would be ignoring the experiences of these individuals.

 Audience question: what is the mission and philosophy behind Candlebark School?

He believes schools weren’t doing enough to engage boys who are restless, physical and don’t want to sit at a desk for more than 2 minutes a day. ‘The idea that children can be resourceful and look after themselves seems to be an idea that’s lost all credibility’.

Audience question: do you have advice for writers dealing with editorial feedback?

John finds editors less intrusive than they used to be. His editor only made around 3,000 suggestions for his 117,000 word manuscript, and he agreed with 95% of the suggestions. He believes writers need to have confidence in their editor.

Audience question: who are your literary heroes? Do your heroic writers influence your own work?

John can see traces of writers he admires in his own work. He has come to recognise that originality is meaningless and it’s a dangerous concept. As a young adult, he was inspired by J.D Salinger’s ‘contemporary voice that breaks all the rules’. He says Charles Dickens has a rich gallery of minor characters. J.K Rowling has created characters that will be memorable for generations to come (Snape is his favourite). Melina Marchetta is another favourite. John credits Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman and Andy Griffiths with reviving the novel for young Australian readers.


Writing Applications: HARDCOPY 2014 feedback that may help your literary applications

‘Every success I’ve ever had has come wrapped in a gift-box of failure.’ – The Failurist: Marcus Zusak, TEDx Sydney

Growing up, ‘pass the parcel’ was my favourite party game. I don’t ever remember winning it. Maybe I was too busy, crying into the sleeve of my Rainbow Bright t-shirt as another child tore a layer of newspaper away to reveal a tantalising mini Milky Way bar, to learn from failure and form a complex strategy in anticipation of the ever-shrinking parcel coming my way. But, I’ve changed since then. For one thing, my Rainbow Bright t-shirt doesn’t fit me any more. Secondly, I’m determined to learn from failure, rather than wallow in it.

Earlier this year I applied for the 2014 Fiction Edition of Hardcopy, a professional development program run by ACT Writers Centre and funded by the Australia Council. My application was unsuccessful. I could go into more detail about what the PD involves, but that will most likely result in wallowing, and you didn’t come here to get a mental picture as to what my ugly cry looks like, so click here to find out more. Aaaaanyway, I’m going to share with you the general feedback provided to unsuccessful round 1 applicants. I hope this proves helpful with your own work.

The Expression of Interest

    • Closely follow the application instructions, e.g. if you are asked for all materials to be submitted in 12-point Times New Roman, make sure that’s what you submit
    • Your writing skills are on display through all elements of your application – email correspondence, the expression of interest, the manuscript itself
    • Don’t be overly conversational – writing (and publishing) is a serious business
    • eliminate all spelling and typographical errors
    • in terms of describing your work or your work in progress, keep to the facts – we don’t need to know about your personal life (unless you think it is absolutely essential to your application and/or manuscript)
    • in terms of your biographical statement, make sure all the key details are included, e.g. publishing history, award, residencies, courses completed, mentorships – in general, showing that you’ve been steadily working away at your writing is a good thing
    • don’t use any kind of clip-art in an effort to enhance your application – we’re only interested in your skills with words
    • don’t try to be clever, e.g. don’t refer to yourself in the third-person
    • don’t talk yourself up, don’t talk yourself down – just keep all elements of your writing clear and succinct
    • your synopsis – is it coherent and engaging, would it engage an agent/publisher, who is likely to be extremely busy?
    • ask a trusted colleague to read a draft of your application – was everything easily understood?
    • double check your application before submitting – have you provided all that’s requested?
    • overall, be patient with your development as a writer – it can take years, if not decades to achieve your goals, especially in terms of writing fiction
    • you may wish to engage with your local writers centre and attend workshops and master-classes, or seek an assessment of your manuscript

The manuscripts that were judged successful had:

    • a clear and coherent narrative
    • interesting characters that came alive on the page
    • an engaging story that started in the right place
    • a hook – conflict and/or tension – in the early pages to entice readers
    • a strong voice (the ’emotional colour’ of the work)
    • evidence of writing craft – a fine choice of words and an understanding of sentence structure/development
    • excellent grammar and punctuation
    • consistency of point of view and tense
    • evidence of the writer taking care with their work
    • a good sense of the project and evidence of the writer having a close connection to the project
    • an avoidance of cliché
    • originality
    • please note: this feedback is intended as a guide. There are endless ways to write and be published. 


The ACT Writers Centre is supported by the ACT Government. HARDCOPY has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.


HARDCOPY Feedback to round 1 applications’ reproduced with permission from ACT Writers Centre.


The voice, ethics and audience of young adult fiction

Susannah Chambers, Sally Rippin, Penni Russon and Anna Burkey

Susannah Chambers, Sally Rippin, Penni Russon and Anna Burkey

Last night I attended an Editors Victoria dinner meeting, ‘Dark fantasy: Symposium on the future of young adult fiction’. Anna Burkey, ‘Literary Ninja’ and Centre for Youth Literature Manager, chatted with Susannah Chambers, Commissioning Editor of books for children and young adults, Sally Rippin, author and illustrator, and Penni Russon, author and creative writing teacher, about all things YA. The aim of the session was to explore who reads it, who writes it, who edits it and who decides what gets published. Here are a few highlights from the event.

Why Young Adult?

Winner of the 2012 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for her novel, Only Ever Always, Penni Russon never grew out of reading young adult fiction. She was drawn to what she describes as ‘the body, politics and poetry’ of young adult fiction.  Penni writes the books she feels she needs to write.

Author of over fifty children’s books, Sally Rippin loves the ‘heightened experience of adolescence’. She believes the life of a child or young adult is experienced ‘in a more severe way’. She recalls when her publisher gave her a copy of Looking for Allibrandi by Melina Marchetta and Sleeping Dogs by Sonya Hartnett to showcase some of the best of Australian YA.

Recipient of the 2014 Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship, Susannah Chambers started working in YA completely by accident. After completing her Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University of Melbourne, Susannah became the office manager at the Allen & Unwin Melbourne office. She has never stopped reading Young Adult fiction. She loves the intensity of YA voices, and believes YA offers closer focus on story than adult fiction. Susannah points out that YA is not a genre, but a marketing signpost to show where any given title belongs on the bookshelf.

Would the Australian industry benefit from not going down the blockbuster path?

Susannah travelled to New York as part of the 2014 Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship to see how the Australian YA market differed in the US. She believes the downside to the blockbuster success of Twilight and The Hunger Games is that authors will think they have failed if their work doesn’t reach the same heights.

Penni believes the Australian Young Adult market experienced blockbuster YA success prior to the US, citing  Looking for Allibrandi by Melina Marchetta. She finds that books seem to be getting lost in the current market. However, she also feels that blockbusters do get kids reading. Penni urged authors against writing for mainstream, or trying to write for a mass-market, as ‘it’s not a reader-maker’.

Sally says literary awards help to draw attention to complex, accomplished works. Awards are increasingly important, as publishers have been taking less risks with YA titles since the fervour of the Harry Potter series subsided.

Do gatekeepers help or hinder young adult fiction?

Penni believes teachers and librarians get a bad rap as gatekeepers. As a parent, she is wary of being a ‘nostalgic threat’ to her children. Penni has to resist the urge to force her childhood favourites onto her children – while certain books were influential during her childhood, her children may find them to be outdated.

Is there room for more research on the kinds of things young adults want to read?

Penni is writing a website for teenagers with psychosis and depression as part of her involvement with a mental health research project for Orygen Youth Health. She believes anyone involved in the creation or publication of YA titles need to consider the ethics, by asking what is healthy for young adult readers, and what is important to them.

Sally has found the voice of young adults is more present because of the internet. Young adults are visibly more active in the online writing community.

Susannah believes the best stories come from authors telling stories they want to tell.

How do you achieve an authentic young adult voice?

Sally started writing when she was 19 years old. She has written for young adult, but finds that lower/upper primary is the most natural space for her.

Penni said ‘I’m 39, and I don’t know what it’s like to be 39’. She has insight into the adolescent experience.

What responsibility do young adult authors/publishers/gatekeepers have to young adult readers?

Sally feels responsible to the readership. She notes that ‘children will only bring their own comprehension to their reading’.

Susannah believes you cannot work closely with a book without feeling a sense of responsibility. She says 50% of young adult novels are purchased by adults for adults. She points out that YA is marketing category, not a genre. Older people are drawn to YA for the voice, character and because story is given preference. Jasper Jones ,by Craig Silvey, and Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan, have been published under different categories in different countries.

Penni never has what she describes as an ‘enjoy it while it lasts’ sentiment in her YA titles. She is a hope-filled optimist.

Audience question: What is ‘New Young Adult’?

Susannah says the term was coined by an American publisher, St. Martin’s Press, as part of a competition (click here for more info). Young adult and new young adult are not fixed categories. Holier than Thou,  by Laura Buzo was published as YA, but described as new young adult. She quips that the term new young adult ‘has come to mean soft-core porn’.

Penni believes the term has failed because St Martin’s Press created it to try and target a demographic.

Audience question: Is there still a murky space between YA and adult?

Susannah says there is a murky space, but it’s okay.

Penni suggests that genre fiction can help transition from YA to adult fiction.

Sally believes gatekeepers can help break down the barrier between YA and adult.

Audience question: What advice do you have for YA authors?

Penni asks authors to ‘find that authentic voice’. You can edit out bad grammar or spelling, but ‘you can’t edit in the voice’. She says authors need to ‘write a story that’s true to you’.

Sally says authors should ask themselves what part of your life gives you the most detailed memories.


‘When others around us rise up, we rise up.’ Lessons learnt and inspiration gained from The Emerging Writers’ Festival


‘It’s easier to write a bad first draft and make it better than to face a blank page.’  Krissy Kneen, The 5×5 Rules of Writing

Getting retrenched from my job could have been a soul-destroying experience, but instead I viewed it as an opportunity to become active in the Melbourne literary scene again. I joined Twitter. I started a blog. I got tickets for some of the free Emerging Writers’ Festival events. A friend recommended I answer the call-out for the EWF blogging partners. I was only new to the blogging scene, but I applied anyway. I’m sure the EWF crew would have known a bunch of bloggers who they could have called upon to write blogs for the festival, but they took a chance on me, and I’m thankful.

‘You’re only going to do better if you write.’  Martin McKenzie-Murray, Emerging Q&A

The Opening Night Extravaganza blew my mind. Maxine Beneba Clarke told everyone that it took her 7-10 years to write Foreign Soil, Miles Allinson revealed that it took him 6 years to write his manuscript, and The Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, paid tribute to the ‘agonising endeavour of writing’. The fact that it took years for these authors to finish their work wasn’t surprising. That they were open and honest about it was. Some writers may have found these sentiments confronting, but it gave me a sense of relief. The Emerging Writers’ Festival completely dispelled the notion of the effortless ‘overnight success’. These writers work hard.

‘The only way you can surprise a reader is to surprise yourself.’ – Alec Patric, The Art of the Short Story

It was inspiring to watch the ‘You Are Here’ panel, as audience members flung their hands up and took to the stage to praise the ‘beautiful love-in’ environment of the festival, share the grief of letting go of a manuscript, celebrate the success of being the ‘pick of the week’ in The Age, or give a shout-out to their literary crushes. Before I had the chance to assemble the eleventy-million dot-points as to why it wasn’t a good idea, I took to the stage to be part of the last panel. My introduction as one of the four blogging partners was met with loud cheers from the ridiculously supportive audience. So, what did I do to capitalise on this rare opportunity? I announced that I had an intense fear of public speaking.

‘Write from the soul.’ – Hannah Kent, The 5×5 Rules of Writing

I returned to my seat and shakily packed my things. I looked up to see someone approach me. She introduced herself as Meghan Brewster, one of the official blogging partners. It was really nice to meet her. We bumped into each other again at the Emerging Q&A session, and headed to Night of the Living Novellas together. It was just as inspiring to talk with other emerging artists, as it was to listen to the panellists. It was pretty amazing to be in the same room as other emerging artists.

‘There is no supporter as strong as you. You are the festival and this festival is you … we’re just here to get you going.’ – Sam Twyford-Moore, Opening Night Extravaganza

I learned a lot from The Emerging Writers’ Festival. I am more determined to get my novel-length manuscript where I want it to be, but this time I will make a point to celebrate the achievements at the end of each day, and to accept the difficulties as part of, rather than an inhibitor of, the process. I spent breaks in between panels jotting down (somewhat illegible) notes of short story ideas. Sam Twyford-Moore passionately conveyed the importance of The Emerging Writers’ Festival as an event for emerging writers ‘at a point when they are likely to give up, to stop them from giving up’.

When others around us rise up, we rise up.’  Maxine Beneba Clarke, The 5×5 Rules of Writing

I’m not giving up. I have the EWF crew and my fellow emerging artists to thank for that.

Emerging Writers’ Festival Highlights – Emerging Q&A

Dion Kagan, Celeste Liddle, Bhakthi Puvanethiran, Abe Nouk and Martin McKenzie-Murray

What are the moral responsibilities of writers? Should they self-promote on social media? How do you know if you’re any good at writing? Chaired by Bhakthi Puvanethiran, the Emerging Writers’ Festival Emerging Q&A panel, which included Dion KaganCeleste LiddleMartin McKenzie-Murray and Abe Nouk, answered all the questions thrown at them by the audience. Here are a few highlights.

What are your thoughts on ‘trigger warnings’?

Indigenous politics and women’s rights forms the basis of Celestes’ work. She started her website in order to create a safe space for people to share their trauma. Celeste believes trigger warnings can end up silencing these people.

Dion believes trigger warnings can be stifling, and that confrontational narratives and images are part of the discourse.

Martin says he writes about sensitive issues as eloquently and truthfully as possible. He believes trigger warnings conflate writing with political advocacy.

How do you deal with the pressure to earn an income as a writer, while growing your craft?

Martin believes writing is not capital intensive. ‘If you have the desire, you’ll do it’. Martin rattled off jobs he has taken to supplement his income, including McDonald’s, back-packers and the Premiers Office. He said, ‘I wrote all the time and I improved all the time’. It took him at least 10 years to hone his skills.

Celeste was picked up by Fairfax 6 weeks after starting her blog. She still doesn’t know where she will end up, but this is all part of growing as a writer.

Abe urged everyone to keep writing and nurturing their craft. ‘Writing will eventually reward you’.

What do you wish Australian writers would stop doing?

Dion wishes writers would stop writing opinion pieces where they present themselves as editorial in knee-jerk positions.

Martin prefaced his response by saying no one should not do anything – ‘you’re only going to do better if you write’. He dislikes ‘cookie cutter columns’ and believes there is an aggregate fixated on pop culture. He urged writers to ‘write something a little more deeply than what’s on HBO this week’.

Abe believes artists can be caught up with trying to have a perfect voice. He said ‘do your sanity justice. Do your life justice. Be you’ and accept that imperfections make your story.

Celeste wished writers would stop being concerned with self-preservation. ‘Don’t feel you have to be answerable to everyone for everything you write’.

Bhakthi pointed out that it took Miles Allinson, winner of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, 6-7 years to complete his manuscript. ‘There’s nothing wrong with crafting’.

Would you still write if you knew no one would ever read your work?

Abe said he comes from a tribe where stories are recited verbally. He believes ‘when you write, you’ve written into infinity’.

For Dion, writing is about having a conversation, so he writes with the intent to be read.

Martin finds writing to be a ‘deeply infallible compulsion’.

Celeste wants people to read her blog. She wants to claim a space for feminist indigenous thought.

Should social media play a major part in emerging authors? Is there more of an onus on the writer to promote themselves?

Abe believes blogs allows readers to get a sense of who the writer is and what the writer likes. All writers should ask themselves who they write for, so they can clearly communicate their message.

Martin feels pressure to self-promote. He only created a blog and joined Twitter two years ago. In online publishing, content is king. Martin urged writers to practice and refine their writing – ‘you’ll find an audience if you’re good’.

Dion warned writers against getting lost in the vortex of social media and self-promotion, and to put their work first.

How do you know if you’re getting better?

Martin said ‘if you read a lot, you’ll internalise the rhythms that work’.

Celeste knew she was getting better when indigenous women who read her blog started to write and get their opinions out there.

Dion proclaimed that he is deeply stuck in the prestige of performance. He lives and breathes for the praise of other people. He knows he’s getting better when he makes readers feel something. He said the ‘cringe test’ is also a good indicator.


Emerging Writers’ Festival Highlights – ‘Me-Me-Me + My Memoir’

‘A very weird thing happened when I wrote this book – I forgot that anybody would read it.’ – Liam Pieper

Memoir is not a comprehensive story of a life, but a collection of memories that have had a significant impact on the writer. So, how does one go about crafting a memoir? As part of the National Writers’ Conference at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Benjamin Law sat down with Liam Pieper, Luke Ryan and Lorelei Vashti to chat about crafting and publishing their memoirs, The Feelgood Hit of the YearA Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo and Dress Memory. Here are a few highlights from the session.

How do you frame a memoir?

Liam describes his book as ‘a family trying to survive my adventures’. Liam found crafting his memoir was akin to looking at a magic eye trick – ‘you stare at it long enough and see the thread’.

Lorelei’s stories came from the dresses she picked. She found the process easy, ‘because I carry these memories with me every day’. Each garment triggered flashes of powerful and emotional memories of her life.

Did Luke feel it was inevitable that he’d write about cancer?

‘Say what you will about cancer, but it offers a very clear editorial structure’, Luke joked. After handing his manuscript in to his editor, he received feedback that the manuscript needed ‘more cancer’. He responded by including ‘way too much cancer’ in the second draft. The editorial process helped Luke come to terms with ‘the fact that this is the story I have to tell’. He grew to appreciate the universality of his story, that ‘so much of your life is common’ that other people can relate to.

How did you get a book deal?

Lorelei originally wrote one short story every Friday for six months on her blog, Dress Memory. Her blog caught the attention of her publisher.

Liam described securing a publishing deal with Penguin as ‘an accident’. He went to the launch of Penguin Specials and met the editor.

The Lifted Brow asked Luke to write a non-fiction article. He later featured the article on his blog. This caught the attention of his publisher.

As much as memoirs are about ourselves, they involve respecting other people as well. What are the ground rules for writing a memoir?

Luke wanted to use the real names of people from his childhood. In the end, he only changed the names of two people, both of whom were sexual encounters.

All of names of people were changed by the final draft of Liam’s memoir, except for three. Penguin did a legal check prior to publication. However, Fairfax requested additional clearance before publishing an excerpt. Liam had to get a note from his mother that confirmed she smoked marijuana.

Lorelei described the process as ‘mental gymnastics’. She respected the fact that ‘these people didn’t ask to be in a book’. Lorelei was so concerned with ensuring the privacy of people in her memoir was respected, that she even changed the door colour of a share-house.

What was most difficult about writing a memoir?

Luke said ‘finding the angle that will resonate with people beyond you is very hard’. It has been two years since he first signed the publishing contract.

Lorelei thought it would only take six months to write her memoir, but in the end it took three years. She said ‘the structure was all important’. Once the structure clicked, after two years, the writing flowed. She urged anyone in the midst of writing their memoir not to be hard on themselves.

Liam found the biggest challenge was to not be boring. ‘Everyone will feel lonely or lost – the trick is to find the universal in the idiosyncratic experience’.

Did you find writing your memoirs difficult, or was it therapeutic?

Luke had already been telling his story on stage as part of his stand-up comedy routines. He found writing was a way of taking control of the narrative.

Liam found the research therapeutic, as he had difficult conversations with people from his past.

Lorelei found framing past relationships in a way that tells the story, even if it wasn’t the full story, difficult.

‘Trilogies, Trilogies, Trilogies’ at the Emerging Writers’ Festival

Resisting the urge to devote  the session to talking about Back to the Future, this trio chatted enthusiastically about trilogies

Resisting the urge to devote the session to Back to the Future, this trio of authors chatted enthusiastically about trilogies

‘Even if you evolve the story, you can leave the character imperfect.’ – Nicholas J. Johnson.

Nicholas J. Johnson chatted with Aime Kaufman and  David Henley about their love of trilogies, and what they think makes for a captivating trilogy, as part of the National Writers’ Conference at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Here are a few highlights.

How do you plan a trilogy?

Aime and Meagan Spooner co-authored The Starbound Trilogy.  All three books have different stories, but none could happen without the other. Thorough world-building helped with planning the series. Aime lists the Legend series by Marie Lu as her favourite trilogy, as ‘it answers all the questions it poses’.

Nicholas wrote Chasing The Ace as a stand-alone novel. He signed a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster, with an option for a third. The second book will be stand-alone, with a character from Chasing The Ace appearing in both books.

David said the secret to creating a successful subsequent book is to save events that happen to the world after the story ends. He described his Pierre Jnr trilogy as ‘a celtic knot’.

How do you avoid middle-book syndrome?

Nicholas listed The Matrix and The Hunger Games as examples of titles that suffered middle-book syndrome, as he said no one cared what happened by the time The Matrix Reloaded ended, and Catching Fire was not distinguishable from The Hunger Games.

Aime believes all writers should ask themselves what the absolute climax of the series is, and to relentlessly question themselves. Aime created a whole new set of characters and conflicts in her second book.

David said writers should raise the stakes with each book.

What do you do if your publisher is only interested in one book, and not the whole trilogy?

Aime recommends telling your agent at the outset if you are planning a trilogy, so that you have the right to publish sequels elsewhere if the publisher is only interested in one book. You can consider self-publishing, but must be mindful about how difficult self-publishing in. Importantly, set up a website and keep in contact with your readership.

David suggested authors need to carefully consider their story arch.

Nicholas recommended asking yourself if your work is really suitable for a trilogy, or whether it is better off as a standalone novel.

How do you prevent subsequent books from sounding too similar?

While Nicholas’ trilogy have the same characters, each book is narrated by a different character and set in a different city.

David avoids the general hero structure and keeps the plot unravelling.

Nicholas suggested if your character ends up back at the same place at the end, then you will end up repeating yourself in the subsequent book.

How do you make sure your character keeps developing in subsequent books?

Aime noted that each time you develop the characters and plot, the scale of the story should evolve.

Nicholas advised against putting a bow on the character at the end of the first book. ‘Even if you evolve the story, you can leave the character imperfect’.