Review: ‘Coming of Age’ at Melbourne Writers Festival

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It was great to be back at Melbourne Writers Festival this year, particularly given there was a series of panels devoted to YA. The panels were grouped under the umbrella of ‘Eye on YA’. I attended ‘YA Superstars’, ‘Coming of Age’ and ‘Fantasy Fiction’. The standout event for me was ‘Coming of Age’.

inbetweendays.jpg‘Coming of Age’, chaired by the champion of Australian YA (and interim chair of the LoveOzYA movement), Danielle Binks, featured Australian authors Claire Zorn and Vikki Wakefield. Danielle began by asking the authors what they were like at 17. Vikki said she failed school, and found she was living an adult life in her teens. It wasn’t until Vikki was in her 20’s that she started to live out her teen years. Claire read an excerpt from a journal she wrote when she was 17. It was both laugh out loud funny and all-too relatable, as her 17 year old self lamented “I just wish someone would love me besides my bloody family”.

Vikki became hyper conscious of her audience when writing her second book, Friday Brown. When she approached her third book, Inbetween Days, she focused hard on what the story was about, rather than the audience. During audience question time, I asked Vikki how she overcame her paralysis while writing Friday Brown. Vikki said she knew if she finished a draft she would have something to work with. Vikki also mentioned during the session that while she had a massive pit of paralysis for a long time, the floodgates are now open and she is working on a horror novel. I was surprised to hear Claire say she wrote The Protected before The Sky So Heavy. At the author signing, I asked her about it and she said she started writing The Protected, but took a break during rewrites to work on The Sky So Heavy. It took Claire 9 years to write The Protected, and 2 years to write The Sky So Heavy.

OneWouldThink.jpgDanielle highlighted that both protagonists in Inbetween Days and One Would Think the Deep feature underdogs, and asked the authors what intrigued them about underdogs. Claire revealed she had a hard time in high school, and felt like a freak show. Vikki said she felt like a chameleon for the longest time, and had no sense of her own identity. She writes about underdogs because she needs to find something in common with her characters. Vikki later said she wasn’t allowed to like the guys who she was attracted to in high school, as her friends determined who she chose. There was one guy in high school who she never told she liked, because her friends wouldn’t allow it.

Danielle asked Claire why she set One Would Think the Deep in 1997. All of Claire’s books are inspired by songs. Claire said she wanted to write about what it was like to lose your idol. She didn’t cope well at school, and felt no one understood her except for Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder. Claire didn’t want to write about the death of Kurt Cobain, because he is still such a prominent figure. She was drawn to Jeff Buckley, as his vulnerable, effeminate persona sat at odds with the hyper-masculine grunge era.

Danielle asked the authors what books they wished they had read as teens. Vikki listed Judy Blume and Robyn Klein. Vikki added that she read The Outsiders by S.E. Hilton as a teen, which was the book she needed. Claire said she wished she read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.

Given Vikki didn’t have journal entry to share like Claire, she instead read to the audience a letter she wrote to her 17 year old self. This letter was immensely moving. It included beautiful and empowering words of encouragement, including “every mistake you’ve made will be nose-rubbing material, but you’re used to the smell” and “finally you’ll say things you could never say out loud”. I hope she publishes this letter somewhere.

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival. I was disappointed when I saw that the ‘Writing Diverse Characters’ and ‘David Levithan: Queer YA’ panels were on at the same time. I was even more frustrated once I realised both panels ran for an hour, and overlapped with ‘Fantasy Fiction’ (the latter I had booked a ticket for). I didn’t want to be disruptive/disrespectful and leave halfway through ‘Writing Diverse Characters’ or ‘David Levithan: Queer YA’ panels, so I missed out. Still, the sessions I attended to were inspiring, not just because of the authors and the way Danielle structured the sessions, but for the passion conveyed by the audience through their questions (I am also immensely relieved that there weren’t any up-and-coming authors in the audience who used question time as an opportunity to promote their work. I’ve seen this happen during question time at so many literature events, and every time I get a whiff of self-promotion guised as a question I slink down into my chair and will myself to dissolve). Danielle Binks opened the YA Superstars panel by declaring ‘we are all living in the second golden age of YA’. The number of panels devoted to YA at this year’s MWF attests to the popularity and importance of YA. I hope there continues to be an increase of YA panels at future Melbourne Writers Festivals in years to come. Or, perhaps, a whole festival for YA.

Event Highlights: The Year Ahead in Youth Literature

Last night the Centre for Youth Literature hosted ‘The Year Ahead in Youth Literature’ (aka YA speed-dating) at the State Library of Victoria. With over 70 titles from 15 publishing houses to be presented in 2 hours, each publisher was allotted 5 minutes to promote and celebrate just a slice of their 2016 YA lists. The sold-out event was heavily tweeted (The Centre for Youth Literature have created a Storify of all the Tweets). Exciting times ahead in YAland, with such a diverse array of titles, featuring ghosts, witches, asylum seekers, mental illness, grief, love and a celebration of Australian YA.

Here are just a few of my favourites from the night.

When We Collided by Emery Lord

WhenWeCollided
Pub: Bloomsbury
Pub date: May 2016
Grief, love and bipolar. 17 year-old Jonah is struggling with his family life – his father died suddenly, and his mother has fallen into a deep depression. Vivi is the new girl in town – unabashed and unfiltered. What Jonah doesn’t know, is Vivi recently stopped taking her bi-polar medication.

The Leaving by Tara Altebrando

TheLeavingPub: Bloomsbury
Pub date: June 2016
Six children disappear from a small town without a trace. 11 years later, five of them return.

Promising Azra by Helen Thurloe

Azra
Pub: Allen & Unwin
Pub date: September 2016
Arranged marriage in Sydney. The impact forced marriages have on both the young men and women.

Between Us by Clare Atkins

Pub: Black Inc
Pub date: 2016
Love. Crossed Wires. Set in Northern Territory, two teenagers fall in love. One doesn’t know the other is otherwise incarcerated in a detention centre.

Untitled #LoveOZYA anthology edited by Danielle Binks

Pub: HarperCollins
Pub date: 2016
An anthology celebrating the talents of 10 Australian YA authors, spearheaded by Danielle Binks. This project was announced at The Year Ahead in Youth Literature. You can read more about the anthology, and what inspired its creation, here.

Book of Lies by Teri Terry

Bookoflies
Pub: Hachette
Pub date: 22 March, 2016
Good witch. Bad witch. One is the hunter. One is the hunted.

Untitled Ampersand Prize winning novel by Calanthe Black

Pub: Hardie Grant Egmont
Pub date: September 2016
a 15 year-old stowaway is kidnapped by an alien race and forced to act as their translator.

The Other Side of Summer by Emily Gale

Pub: Random House
Pub date: 01 June 2016
Loved and lost. Magic and realism. The impossible becomes possible.

The Road to Winter by Mark Smith

Pub: Text Publishing
Pub date: 22 June 2016
Set in the near future, where asylum seekers bought and sold at auction. Explores issues of identity and conflict

One Would Think the Deep by Claire Zorn

Pub: UQP
Pub date: May 2016
17 year-old mourning the sudden death of his mother. Set in 1997. 90’s nostalgia paired with contemporary issues.

Frankie by Shivaun Plozza

Frankie
Pub: Penguin
Pub date: 28 March 2016
Frankie is angry. Then a kid shows up, claiming to be her half brother and opens up a past she would rather forget. Then, he goes missing.

The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis

sidekicks
Pub: Penguin
Pub date: 2016
What happens when 3 boys realise they’re not friends, but have to deal with the death of a mutual friend.

The Things I Didn’t Say by Kylie Fornasier

ThingsIdidnt
Pub: Penguin
Pub date: 27 April 2016
Anxiety. Selective Mutism. Love.

Inclinations, limitations, gatekeepers and censors – marketing YA

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Writing a novel and getting it published is just the beginning. Hosted by Annie Collins (a final year student in the RMIT Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing), the YA Marketing Panel at RMIT University involved Susannah Chambers (Commissioning Editor for Children and YA at Allen & Unwin), Susan La Marca (Head of Library and Information Services at Genazzano FCJ College in Melbourne and Associate Editor of Viewpoint, a journal devoted to YA reviews) and Fay Helfenbaum (Bookseller at Avenue Bookstore and Committee Member at Children’s Book Council of Australia, Victoria) chatting about promotion in schools and bookshops, as well as marketing to, and attempts at censorship by, gatekeepers (including addressing the mind-blowing audience question about what authors should avoid putting in their work, in order to ensure their books make it to the shelves). Here are a few highlights from the session.

Questions for Susannah:
What is the difference between marketing YA and marketing adult works?

When marketing for YA, you are also marketing for the gate-keepers: the librarians, parents and school teachers.

Do authors take the marketing reins at some point?

The level of marketing is determined by the type of book. There is usually a 3-month campaign prior to publication. Marketing is a collaboration, which sees the publisher and author working together.

Would you re-market earlier lesser-received novels, if subsequent novels are successful?

Yes. This may involve a new jacket, or a new pitch. Movie tie-ins are examples of re-marketing.

Are literary agents involved in marketing?

Literary agents stay connected to the authors, but it is not part of their job to market to the public (their job is to market to the publisher).

Do you use the author as the brand, or the book?

Publishers try to build author brands, rather than a single book brand, as they hope to achieve longevity with an author. There are challenges with the author brand, which include a long time between books (2 years), changing age group or genres.

Question for Nicole:

Can you talk about your experience with marketing your novel?

Nicole received a 12-page document which contained general expectations about her involvement in the marketing process. She met with her publicist 3 months before her book came out, which gave her publicist the opportunity to sound Nicole out regarding what contacts she had in the media (she had none), time limitations and what she felt comfortable doing. The information pack Nicole received was helpful, but other things came up along the way, including the importance of finding a marketing hook (her work came out in the middle of the football season, but Nicole pushed for publicity during the finals and the women’s round).

Susannah mentioned that Allen & Unwin have a marketing guide freely available via the author resources page of their site.

Can you talk about your experience at school events?

Nicole found the process tricky at first, as it was hard for her to get into an agency. Nicole has a background teaching workshops, so her favourite part of marketing is taking part in interactive events. She is passionate about discussions on building and developing strong female YA characters. Nicole recommended that authors should be prepared to listen to what the students talk about, to make their presentation interactive, and to get the students to do something in order to make them feel more engaged.

Questions for Fay:

Do you encourage authors to host book launches and author signings at your store?

An independent store, Avenue Bookstore supports local authors. Author signings and book launches can have a positive impact on the author, as the store staff may be more inclined to recommend the author’s book to customers.

Do authors or agents approach you for in-store launches?

Both. It depends on the size of the book. Well-known authors are usually represented by the publicist, but lesser-known authors tend to approach directly. Lesser-known authors also tend to be more flexible with time.

Questions for Susan:
How effective are school library author visits?

An author visit to a library won’t result in hundreds of sales, but it will gain interest. Genazzano FCJ College author visits are usually structured around an event (a literary festival or a book club event).

How would an author secure a school event?

Securing an event at Genazzano FCJ College is difficult, because Susan normally sources authors through speaker agencies. She does not have time to research authors, so she contacts people and organisations she trusts. If a book has become popular, she will seek out the author. Generally, she won’t put a new speaker at a large event until they’ve done a smaller group, such as a book club. Susan looks for authors who do more than just talk and promote their book.

How can authors get their books on the shelf?

Write a good one. Genazzano FCJ College aims to have a collection with a broad representation. Susan reads reviews and talks to people in the industry to gain recommendations.

How can authors get their book on the school reading list?

This is dependent on the needs of the year level. The selected books are usually ‘meaty’ literary texts that can be heavily dissected. Often a book is selected to maintain balance with other books across year levels, to ensure there is balance between Australian/international titles, history, or sad/uplifting titles. Teachers do have a say with what goes on the booklist, but the head of the curriculum can override any decisions. As part of her role, Susan makes booklist recommendations.

Faye remarked that some schools, particularly public schools with low budgets, often call the bookstore to ask for recommendations for their booklists.

Audience questions

What is the role of parents in marketing?

Nicole’s readership is primarily 13-15 year olds. As they don’t have their own discretionary money, Nicole is primarily marketing towards the parents. Nicole pointed out that marketing was not on her mind when she wrote the book.

Susan said that parents don’t influence the choices made at the beginning of book selections, but they have, on occasion had books challenged by parents. The spectrum of conservative to liberal parents is broad.

Are authors paid for school appearances?

Nicole makes more money from school appearances than she has so far from the publication of her book. Promoting her book has been hard work. She has donated her time to lower-end schools.

Can Susan give an example of a challenged text, so I know what to avoid including in my own work?

Susan described a recent example of a parent who protested the portrayal of a homosexual relationship in a positive light (the parent had said they wouldn’t have had a problem with the text if the relationship was portrayed negatively). Susan is amazed that parents don’t complain about violence, but will complain about sex or bad language. Susan said if it is a good book, then she will stand up for it and fight for it.
Susannah urged authors not to self-sensor, as you’ll never be able to please everyone, and you’ll make your book worse.
Nicole said you have to be free to write the book you want to write.

‘Men Overboard: Blokes, Wimps and Mates’ at The Wheeler Centre

Clementine Ford, Benjamin Law, Jennifer Granger and Ben Birchall discuss masculinity.

Clementine Ford, Benjamin Law, Jennifer Granger and Ben Birchall discuss masculinity

Last night I went to ‘Men Overboard: Blokes, Wimps and Mates’ at The Wheeler Centre. The focus of the panel was to ask what it means to be a male in the 21st century. Clementine Ford chaired the panel. She opened the evening by suggesting that masculinity in today’s society equates once again with physical strength. She invited her fellow panellists to discuss what they perceive to be the current ideals of masculinity and whether today’s society has taken a step forwards or backwards. Clementine ended her brief introduction by quipping about her position as emcee by paraphrasing Tony Abbot – ‘there are at least three men in my family so I am qualified to lead them’.

BLawBenjamin Law referred to his collection of personal essays, The Family Law, to discuss his experience of masculinity anxieties he had growing up, which he said were primarily about his physicality. He jokingly referred to himself as an ‘Asian hybrid man-child thingy’, as he has full lips and developed a deep voice and a complete lack of forearm hair. Benjamin commented that ‘Gay Australia’ is ‘incredibly white and ‘people would never suspect you could be a racial minority and gay’. He argued that the problem with any questions of masculinity is that ‘how we present as masculine or feminine is always someone else’s business’.

Granger

Jennifer Granger referred to her book Feminine Lost – Why Most Women are Male to argue that men and women are made up of both masculine and feminine qualities, and the combination of masculine and feminine features determines how we interact with the world. She believes what happens to women will have a corresponding effect on men, and vice versa. She described the emergence of what she sees as a ‘highly feminine man’, who doesn’t enjoy confrontation, has difficulty facing decisions and is receptive (but does not initiate). Jennifer believes there is a masculine and feminine role in every heterosexual relationship and a ‘butch’ and ‘feminine’ role in every homosexual relationship.  She also categorised the ‘macho man’ as ‘almost Neanderthal’, and the ‘pseudo-masculine’ as a man nursing wounds from unfairness of loss of privilege after the rise of the powerful woman.

Ben Birchall used a slideshow in his presentation, which he titled ‘masculinity 2.0’.

Ben's slide show featured a photograph of his son wearing a dress, which he used to illustrate the need for children to be free to explore their own identity

Ben’s slide show featured a photograph of his son wearing a dress, which he used to illustrate the need for children to be free to explore their own identity

He quipped that he is part of the problem, as he identifies as ‘a masculine man’. Ben believes there currently is a nostalgic view of masculinity, of 1970’s moustached, beer-swigging Dennis Lilly to compensate for the previously idealised super-buffed and preened David Beckham world. Mateship is paramount in this nostalgic masculinity, which involves sport and a ‘fetishism’ of ‘male time’ away from women.  Ben suggests this type of masculinity is just as rigid as its predecessor. Fatherhood ‘allows you to play a masculine role’, prompting Ben to explore what masculinity means to him and to ask himself how he can raise a good son. Ben believes masculinity is an impossible archetype. He said 1 in 8 men suffer depression, men are twice as likely to self-medicate, and 80 percent of suicides are men. Ben believes ‘manhood is too hard to define’, and if men were ‘concentrating less on being better men, it might free them to be better people’.

PEggyClementine suggested the unforeseen side effects of feminism is the perceived sense of emasculation and resulting blame on women. Referring to School Girls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap by Peggy Orenstein as a reference point, Clementine argued that some men perceive equality as a loss, as legislation that empowered men and restricted women has been removed. Ben Birchall acknowledged the many inequalities that women still face, but also argued that men are disadvantaged in health services. Jennifer commented that we have lived in a patriarchy for over 4,000 years, so any change will be gradual.

Clementine questioned Jennifer’s binaries of masculine and feminine. Clementine argued that notions of masculine and feminine are socially created, saying ‘I don’t think those things are gendered’. Jennifer argued that masculine and feminine are internal in all of us. Ben Birchall commented that masculine and feminine binaries are alive and well on social media (and sell products to consumers). He later commented that Unilever owns Dove (who have the highly successful ‘Real Beauty’ campaign) and Lynx (with campaigns where masses of scantily clad women are drawn to a male after he sprays the deodorant). Also countering Jennifer’s belief that men possess both masculine and feminine qualities, Benjamin Law argued that grizzly, macho guys resent being told they can’t be what they are. An audience member later asked Jennifer what research methodology she used to support her masculine/feminine theory, particularly in relation to the butch/feminine in homosexuality, and Jennifer responded by referencing biblical archetypes.

Raising concerns about the nostalgic masculine man of Ben Birchall’s presentation, Clementine said celebrating ideals of masculinity with the mythology of mateship between men only, freezes women out. Benjamin Law commented on his upbringing in Queensland, which he described as a ‘concentrated version of Australia’. He said growing up ‘you have to decide what sort of man you want to be’, and he was fortunate enough to know he was gay at a young age (he came out at 17). Benjamin Law argued that Jennifer’s categorisations of ‘butch’ and ‘feminine’ homosexuals is heteronormative, and that any notions of feminine or masculine roles are constantly negotiated and changing internally, regardless of sexuality.

An audience member commented that there are numerous campaigns on raising young girls to challenge stereotypes (the Always #LikeAGirl campaign is a brilliant example).

She asked whether there are similar campaigns for men. Clementine mentioned an up-coming documentary, The Mask You Live In, which explores how the phrase “man up” is the worst two words you can say to a male, as it asks them to sacrifice their emotional side. More info on the documentary can be found here.

 

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. 

Acknowledgements

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.