Here are my notes from the National Writers Forum, a conference held at the University of Auckland Business School and organised by The New Zealand Society of Authors. If you also attended the conference and have a different version of events (or if you have something to add) please let me know in the comments.
Keynote: Lani Wendt Young and Anita Heiss
Lani gave a moving speech about the importance of kids reading characters that look like them, and how she’s coped with online abuse. Anita shared a rap / slam poem and talked about how crucial it is that you know what your purpose as a writer is. Both authors were incredibly inspiring and I am currently debating which of Anita’s many books to sink my teeth into.
During this session I was surprised to learn that print runs of novels in New Zealand are really small. Around 1000 will be printed, perhaps up to 3000 for established authors. Makes my 2000 Bruce Finds A Home sales look pretty good I reckon!
Creating 3D Characters
I have been wondering a lot about writing diverse characters lately. I don’t know whether it’s best to present a well-rounded cast of characters or if it’s best to stick to representing the groups I know reasonably well. In this session, Brannavan challenged us to have a go writing from different perspectives.
Brannavan’s advice included:
- Do your research
- Read writers of that particular background
- Get someone to read your work who might offer a good critique (e.g. a member of the community your character is a member of)
- Read about how particular groups have been represented
- Take any resulting criticism on the chin, and learn from it.
I’m listing lunch as a highlight because although the catering was nowhere near as good as last time, I had the good fortune to sit next to the incredible S. C. Green / Stephanie Holmes / Steph Metal. Funnily enough I hadn’t heard of Steph until just the week prior, when her wonderful essay, The Damned Mob Is Coming For Your Words, won the The Big Idea essay competition.
Hearing our footprints – a conversation with Maualaivao Albert Wendt
Maualaivao Albert Wendt in conversation with Victor Rodger
In this lovely session Maualaivao Albert Wendt discussed his writing life. No question was answered lightly – when asked what his greatest fear is, he spoke eloquently about aging, religion and his fear of death. Here are some paraphrased quotes that took my fancy:
- One way to save myself from a crisis is to write about it
- How much do you reveal about yourself in your writing? That is a very delicate problem
- To me, everything is autobiography
- When you grow up in a huge family in a communal society like Samoa you have to be aware of all the relationships – everyone is putting the right face forward
- Teaching literature helped me learn
- My advice to aspiring writers is to sit down and write and keep writing. The physical process of sitting down and writing – you have to do it. The actual physical process will take you where you’re going.
Hybrid memoir and creative non-fiction
With Renée and Lynn Jenner
Renée is a bloody legend and obviously I wasn’t the only one who thought so, as her book These Two Hands sold out from the Time Out book stand (but I’ve got a copy on order). Hearing from Renée made me remember just how much her writing influenced my early stage plays. This session was a conversation between Renée and Lynn, peppered with readings of their work.
Some paraphrased thoughts from Renée:
- I said I’d only do a memoir if it wasn’t linear
- It doesn’t pay for a writer to get too fond of a character
- Call mums and dads by their names – the label ‘mum’ hides the person
- To hell with what’s gone before – this is going to be me
- For the first draft, just do it and then read it afterwards
Later in the session, debate raged between Renée and an audience member as to whether or not family members should be consulted before being included in your work. No consensus was reached.
Bottom up or top town?
In this session we talked about ‘planners’ and ‘pantsters’ and how sometimes taking a ‘seat of your pants’ approach can free up your writing. Sadly I think I already fit more into the panster camp, but here are some tips for you plotters out there:
- Start with some free writing to see what pops up. Follow what’s of interest to you
- Start with an emotionally laden idea in order to get more depth out of it.
- If you go too wide too early you might risk skimming the surface – go down further first
- An audience member suggested reading Tim Winton articles for examples of how to join the inner and the outer in a story
Keynote: John Marsden
Hearing from John Marsden was an absolute privilege. John spoke eloquently about his troubled early life and how he rose above his childhood circumstances. He also spoke about his writing process. Here are some top takeaways:
- The first then we have to do when writing for kids is get rids of the parents – there aren’t parents in YA books
- I decided to write a novel from start to finish without looking back or editing it in a three-week window. I only read the preceding paragraph each day
- The plot can be quite trivial – if the characters are interesting enough and we get immersed in their inner lives. Characters are real and profoundly complex people
- Marry the high-brow with the low-brow – high energy, plot, but also in-depth character and themes
- With characters, the most important thing to me is voice. I can’t write the book until I’ve got the voice of the protagonist. I’m pretty confident that I’ll finish the book once I’ve got that voice. To me, the voice is the essence of the person. I do listen quite avidly to people – the way they talk. The way they use language and what it says about them.
- They should have dreams, body language, unconscious impulses, Freudian slips perhaps. They also need stories. Our stories are what makes us unique.
- Strip away the masks to show the difference between appearance and reality – the truth that lies behind the concealments.
- To me the worthwhile novel is the one that searches for the truth, even though the truth will never be found
- The writer who thinks they know the truth is heading for disaster. Generally it should be a writer searching for truth and inching closer.
So you want to write a story
Anita is not a pantster. Anita is a plotter, which I think explains how she’s managed to write so many books. Here are some of Anita’s tips:
- You need to know what your purpose is for writing – it will motivate you to finish
- Why are you writing it, what’s it about and who are you writing it for? Answer these questions as a first step to writing your synopsis
- Whatever genre you are writing in – read widely in that genre. See who’s publishing those books.
- What’s your point of difference with your story? How will your story contribute to a global conversation?
- I cannot emphasise the importance enough of getting a structural edit
- In your cover letter to publishers, you can then say “I’ve had a structural edit done by so-and-so”
- What research do you need to do? Do you need to interview anyone?
- Nailing your synopsis will help you get to the end
- The first thing I do when I read a book about indigenous people by a non-indigenous person is to read the acknowledgements section to see who they’ve checked in with
Anita’s writing methodology
- Character profiles
- Chapter breakdowns
- Feedback – structural edit
- Australian protocols for writing – Australian Council for the Arts
- There is a code of ethics checklist on the Australian Society for Authors website
- Structural editors – Nicola Shea, Janet Hutchinson
Here is my first attempt at a synopsis of my project:
Pet is a collection of short stories that explores the relationships we have with animals – and the relationships animals have with us. Following in the footsteps of authors such as Miranda July and Jo Randerson, and appealing to New Zealanders who like to think about things other than rugby, Pet explores domesticity, pack mentality, selective breeding, emotional support animals and best-dressed possum competitions.
Making it in the international market
Paula Morris, David Ling, Tracy Farr
This session focused more on traditional publishing than indie or self-publishing, but nuggets of wisdom included:
- There are some small imprints set up with the express focus of publishing books from small English-speaking markets such as NZ
- Make international connections with other writers who are working in similar areas
- Speaking at writers festivals is invaluable
- Get your work out there and get yourself out there
- Can you get yourself to a residency in Australia?
- When you’re going on holiday anywhere – research writers etc and get in touch with them. Can be useful for research and connections. Can you offer to teach a writing workshop?
- If a book is principally aimed at an overseas market, that’s where you should be looking to find a publisher
- Set your book in a specific place, “don’t make it blurry crap”
Writing series: challenges and considerations
Mandy Hager, Kyle Mewburn, Vanda Symon, Anna Mackenzie
I chose this session because I’m working on a second Bruce the Cat book. These tips don’t necessarily relate to picture books, but they’re interesting nevertheless:
- You can build up a loyal following because people become very invested in the characters
- You need an interesting enough main character to be able to carry a series
- Mandy said if she did a trilogy again she’d write them all at once. She would release them together at three month intervals
- For kids, it needs to be re-readable. Jokes, action, different themes, subtle social commentary, puns…
- Leave the book in such a way that it ties up that story problem but lets you know that there is more that can happen
- Keep a cheat sheet for characters – specify all their physical details, key events, little details. Names, ages, when they were born.
- It’s hard to maintain a first person narrative across a large number of books.
- Plan an arc for each book and across the three books. Know how it ends to you can work towards it
- Spontaneity in junior fiction is important. Have a big, strong concept.
Where to from here
Panel discussion with industry leaders
After an invigorating two days I found this last session a bit depressing. The session was focused on what the industry hopes to achieve over the next ten or so years, whereas I think it would have been more inspiring to focus on what we the writers can hope to achieve – how we can put what we learnt from the conference into practice. Still, that and the catering were the only non-amazing aspects of the forum – overall it gets an A++ from me.
On a somewhat related note, I’ve been reading issue 231 of Overland, which has an education theme. An article prompted me to come up with my own “MFA reading list” of 20 books to assist me in writing Pet. Here’s a first draft of what my list might look like. Perhaps I’ll finish this list and challenge myself to read everything on it within a certain timeframe. (Let’s hope some of these titles are available as audiobooks or I won’t have a hope.) I’d love to hear your suggestions for other books to read – specifically, short story collections, stories with animal themes, and the weird and wonderful in general.
Kathryn’s MFA book list:
- Everything We Hoped For, Pip Adam
- These Two Hands, Renée
- Sodden Downstream, Brannavan Gnanalingam
- No one belongs here more than you, Miranda July
- Tail of the Taniwha, Meredith Courtney Sina
- Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yōko Tawada
- Certain American States, Catherine Lacey
- A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin
- The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Yukiko Motoya
- My Cat Yugoslavia, Pajtim Statovci
- The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender
- Open Secrets, Alice Munro
- Steps, Jerzy Kosinski
- Kiss Kiss, Roald Dahl
- Collected Stories, Grace Paley
- The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
- The Secret Self: A Century Of Short Stories By Women, Hermione Lee
- The Essential Tales of Chekhov, Anton Chekhov
- Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
- When Elephants Weep, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Susan McCarthy
Picture from PxHere.