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.


Effective Online Marketing for Writers – Highlights from Digital Writers’ Masterclass

Connor and Nathan listen as Anne gets all excited about vertical marketing

Connor Tomas O’Brien sat down with Nathan Farrugia and Anne Treasure to chat about effective online marketing for writers, as part of the Digital Writers’ Masterclass session, ‘Vertical Marketing, Online Presence, and Dino-Erotica’.

Anne, former Digital Marketing Executive at Momentum, spoke about how writers can achieve vertical marketing (i.e. marketing to a particular niche). She suggested writers can best market themselves by identifying a community of interest to write into, listing Goodreads and Readsocial as examples of vibrant global literary communities. Anne urged writers to maintain an active presence on social media, and ensure they use a consistent voice across all the various platforms. Anne created a slideshow about vertical marketing, which can be found here.

Nathan is a bestselling techno-thriller author who signed with Momentum after (to quote from his EWF bio) ‘inadvertently stalking his publisher on Twitter’. Nathan believes readers will judge the professionalism and quality your work by the appearance of your website. He said writers need to ask themselves the following two questions when setting up a website and/or blog:

Who are you? 

What are you writing (what is your content)?

Nathan recommended keeping your website photo-centric, clean and uncluttered. He urged writers to carefully consider what appears ‘above the fold’ (before you scroll down your webpage). He listed Chris Allen and Matthew Riley as authors who have effective websites. He also noted that blogs can be just as effective as websites, listing the website of Momentum author Kylie Scott as an example of a strong and clear self-marketer. Nathan created a slideshow to illustrate effective author websites, which can find the slide show here.

‘Start Me Up’ – Sustainable Digital Media Businesses

Connor Thomas O’Brien with Rohan Workman and Steph Harmon

Connor Tomas O’Brien with Rohan Workman and Steph Harmon

This afternoon session of Digital Writers’ Masterclass, hosted by Connor Tomas O’Brien, featured Steph Harmon, Managing Editor of Junkee, and Rohan Workman, Manager of the Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP) in discussion about sustainable digital media businesses.

Rohan observed that television networks are starting to realise how important it is for journalists to have a personal brand, as the majority now have their own Twitter accounts to create an interactive and real-time experiences. Rohan noted that bloggers are powerhouses in their own right, with seventeen-year-old girls with a passion for fashion sitting in the front row of high-end runway shows. ‘If you have a passion for a particular topic, and you can offer better than what’s already out there, then get involved’. Ultimately, the power is now with the consumer, as it is really up to them to see and select what they want.

Steph agreed, adding that major media suppliers are facing audience problems – users used to go to the homepage of a newspaper to look for news, but now newspapers have to find users. She noted, at Junkee “we don’t publish content for our audience, we publish it for our audience’s friends’. Steph offered the following advice for those seeking to set up their own site:

  1. Fill the gap (What is different about what you are creating? How is it new? Junkee aims for quality over quantity.)
  2. Invest in tech
  3. Learn how to internet (Strategize for articles that go viral—milk it! Be aware of what draws users to your site, but be wary of exploiting it too much. ‘The job of an editor is to make sure there’s a balance of click baits and quality articles, otherwise you’ll sabotage your own site’. There needs to be a pay-off for click bait.)
  4. Learn how to money (If you only have one person join you when you start up your company, make sure it’s sales. Junkee had four major advertisers signed up prior to the launch.)

A few highlights from audience question time:

Is curation the end of serendipity?

Rohan said articles will still fall your way, but from a different method (social media).

How much of the Junkee content is researched?

The in-house editorial team capitalise on viral web content. Junkee pay freelancers to research original works.

What funding opportunities are there in Melbourne?

Rohan suggested Lean Startup (http://theleanstartup.com/) and to attend Silicon Beach (http://siliconbeachaustralia.org/) networking events.

Does a particular word length get the most clicks?

Steph found that opinion pieces, around 800 words, do really well.

If you’re just starting out, how can you pay contributors?

Steph recommends giving the writers something back – mentor them to make sure they’re aware of what you’re getting out of their work.

Fear and Loathing – living and writing with depression and anxiety

Every time I rest my fingers on the keyboard, poised to type, a negative rationale tells me that my venture will end in one of the following ways:

Like this:

Used with permission from Microsoft

Used with permission from Microsoft

Or this:

Used with permission from Microsoft

Used with permission from Microsoft

Or, one and then the other.

Inability to put words on a page, or keep them there long enough to turn words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, chapters into manuscript drafts, drafts into redrafts and redrafts into a world-dominating kick-assery of a novel, plagued me for over a year. With no end in sight, I reassured myself that I was merely experiencing a rather extended episode of writer’s block.

I’ve been to various writing seminars over the years, and the Q&A section invariably resulted in panellists being asked how they overcome writer’s block. Responses ranged from ‘I don’t suffer from writer’s block’ (which left me marvelling at their wondrous brains) to ‘there’s no such thing as writer’s block (which…just…let’s move on…) to ‘just write’. Although the irony of the last response had me grinding my teeth, it left me with the only practical option—I had to slug it out. The secret of mastering this mad-capped approach seemed to lie in establishing a ritual, so every night after work I turned on my computer, cleared some desk space, cleaned my room, made a hot chocolate, watched one episode of Buffy (sometimes one and a half episodes, sometimes two), sat back in front of my computer, checked the time, turned off my computer and went to bed feeling excited and assured that a good night’s sleep would result in the following evening being a mind-blowing success. GUESS WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN?!

After coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t immerse myself in my own work, I decided to make it my mission to become immersed in the Melbourne literary scene. Among other things, I attended the 2013 Reading Matters conference, a two-day professional development conference hosted by the State Library of Victoria and RMIT, which focused on ‘crucial and emerging issues and trends in youth literature’ (Want to find out more about the conference? Check out http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/event/reading-matters.). Two things resonated with me long after the conference finished. The first was my awkwardly pathetic conversation with Garth Nix. He asked me whether I was a teacher or a librarian. Searching for a response, I became what I can only describe as disconnected from myself; my critical self stood beside Nix and laughed silently as I tried to explain that I was a YA fiction writer, but that I hadn’t written anything in a while, well, a year, but that I really was a writer, but not a published author. After asking for my name, Garth told me it was great that I was a writer, he was looking to seeing my novel published in the near future, and that I should keep writing. He handed me my signed copy and I hurried away.

Look at it, isn't it glorious? Well, autograph, not my photography skills.

Look at it, isn’t it glorious? Well, the autograph, not my photography skills.

The second thing that struck a chord occurred during one of the Q&A’s. I can’t remember which panel it was, but, as per usual, an audience member asked the panellists how they dealt with writer’s block. One of the panellists made reference to the writer and depression, but said it was separate from writer’s block and the conversation moved on. I was not ready to move on.

I have endured bouts of depression and anxiety since my early teens. For most of my young adult life I assumed that was the way things were—I was and would forever be a paranoid pessimist whose mind was often flooded with so many layers of unending and undecipherable self-loathing thoughts that they became indecipherable, leaving me with nothing but a heavy numbness in my head. Writing allowed me to immerse myself in characters and stories far removed from my own reality. But, in 2010 my mother died and the grief process turned into a bleak and intensely paranoid state of being that endured long after the first anniversary of her death, and in the midst of it all my writing stopped. Completely. I assumed that I was experiencing grief that would pass at some point, but still made an appointment with my GP. She gently pointed out my family history of anxiety and depression (putting a name to what I previously assumed were aspects of my personality) and then she said something that blew my mind—‘you shouldn’t have to feel like this’. I saw a hypnotherapist, counsellor, psychologist and psychiatrist, all of whom helped me realise (well, maybe not the hypnotherapist) that what I had been experiencing all these years, even prior to my mother dying, was not, and did not have to be, a part of my personality. I learned to identify when I was on the verge of a high anxiety episode, or when I was falling into a state of depression. With their assistance, I put tools in place to combat negative thoughts with positive, rational self-talk. This doesn’t mean I always win. I am a work in progress. What it does mean, is that while depression and anxiety do not define who I am, I have accepted that depression and anxiety will always be a part of my life that I need to manage.

So, when the Reading Matters panellist brought up the writer and depression, separating it from writer’s block, I could do nothing but fantasise about racing up onto the stage, hugging the panellist and then shaking them until they validated my state of being by sharing their experiences of writing and depression (On 02 March, 2014, one of the most captivating and engaging panellists from the Reading Matters conference, Libba Bray, blogged about her ongoing battle with depression, which can be found at http://libbabray.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/miles-and-miles-of-no-mans-land/). As weird as this sounds, hearing a writer talking about depression, even though it was only a mere sound bite, was intensely rejuvenating. I walked away from the conference with a renewed sense of hope. Then I procrastinated for a few months. Then I took part in NANOWRIMO 2013 (every novelist should do this. Find out more, and sign up for 2014 at http://nanowrimo.org/), which was much more exhausting than I had prepared for, involved less wine than I expected, and resulted in a re-write of my YA manuscript that was more fulfilling, enjoyable and rewarding than I could have imagined (it also included an insane number of typos and repetitions of phrases like ‘he scratched his head’ and ‘she sighed’, but shut up). More importantly, it was an opportunity for me to be part of the writing community. I shared tales of trials and triumphs with fellow co-workers who were taking part in NANOWRIMO, and I even dipped into discussions in online forums (I didn’t attend any of social events, but aim to work up to it this year). In February I attended The Rag and Bone Man Press ‘What a novel idea’ salon (find out more about their amazing publications at http://www.ragandboneman.org/), where I listened while an eclectic array of artists read their articles or novel excerpts to the group.


Taking it all in at the ‘What a novel idea’ salon. Image reproduced with permission from The Rag and Bone Man Press.

It was inspiring being in a room with creative folks, but the thought of reading my own work was terrifying. Once I finished reading an excerpt from my YA manuscript I celebrated by making a quick exit and, after suppressing the urge to vomit on the train on the way home, met my husband at the train station and promptly burst into tears the second after he asked, ‘So, how was it?’

While not easy, getting actively involved in the writing community is the best thing I can do for my own writing and my ongoing battle with depression and anxiety. Listening to artists talk about their hardships proved equally as inspiring to me as listening to them talk about their successes. Maybe I won’t ever be a published novelist, but I’ve benefited greatly from hearing the ups and downs of other writers, and I hope that blogging about my own journey as a writer fumbling through (and hopefully, at some point, thriving in) the Melbourne literary scene will help other like-minded artists (I promise my posts won’t all be as dreary as this!).


Anyone who is struggling with depression or an anxiety condition can talk to a trained professional at beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.