“To hell with what’s gone before” – and other notes from the National Writers Forum.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Anita’s writing methodology
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:
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:
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:
Picture from PxHere.
The National Writers Forum
17 – 18 September
University of Auckland Business School
I arrived at the inaugural National Writers Forum (NWF) with a sheath of beautifully printed pitch documents and visions of pressing them into the open hands of delighted publishers.
By the end of the first session I knew I would be doing no such thing – but I also knew I was in for an enriching, enlightening two days. The NWF had a practical focus on improving your writing, placing your writing, building your reputation and finding an audience. A collegial tone was set by keynote speaker Chris Cleave (UK), who spoke of the importance of storytelling and supportiveness in our turbulent times. (You can read Chris’s full speech here. It’s well worth your time.)
During most time slots there was a choice of three different sessions. I’m currently finishing the illustrations for a children’s picture book I’ve written, so I choose the sessions that related to publishing. I wanted to find out more about how to pitch to traditional publishers, and how to self-publish. Below are the key messages I took away from the sessions I attended.
The Perfect Pitch
Melanie Laville-Moore (Allen & Unwin), Duncan Greive (The Spinoff), Kevin Chapman (Upstart Press), Harriet Allan (Penguin Random House), Scott Pack (Unbound).
Copyright and Contacts
The Future of Publishing
Scott Pack (Unbound), Dominic Hoey (Boosted)
Publishing 101: Making a book
Kalee Jackson (Kalee Jackson Design), Karen McMillan (Publicity), Malcolm Nell (Kobo), Martin Taylor (digitalpublishing101.com), Jenna Todd (Time Out Bookstore)
Elizabeth Heritage, Publicist
Support, sustain, survive
Siobhan Harvey (Writer), Malcolm Nell (Kobo), Anne O’Brien (Auckland Writers Festival Director), Rachel Jean (South Pacific Pictures)
I wish I knew when I didn’t know…
Patricia Grace, Stephen Daisley, Kate Pullinger, Chris Cleave, Paula Morris
Along with these notes I also took away new ideas, new confidence and new friendships. The NWF was superbly well-organised and well worth the time and money.
2023 Burns fellow Kathryn van Beek has an MA from Victoria University Wellington - Te Herenga Waka’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She is a winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize. Her collection of short stories, Pet, is available as a podcast, and her work has also appeared in Overland, takahē, Newsroom, and the Sunday Star-Times. She lives in UNESCO City of Literature Ōtepoti Dunedin with her two rescue cats.