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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inclinations, limitations, gatekeepers and censors – marketing YA


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.

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.


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.