Notes from the travelling writers festival

Posted on 22 November 2010


A couple of weeks ago I went to Sydney for a day trip. The impetus was the Emerging Writers Festival Roadshow that I posted about a little while ago. The first session was a panel of writers with books out who were asked to talk about the seven things they wish they had known before they got published. I pounded out some notes during the session and they’re below.

The panel was beautifully moderated by EWF Director Lisa Dempster and the panellists were Mark Mordue, Emily Maguire and Fiona McGregor.

Mark Mordue

Mark started off by saying that even if someone had told him these things, he wouldn’t have followed their advice anyway so it was a case of ‘do as I say not as I do’, as the best advice usually is.

1. Avoid pretention. Get back to truth.

You and your writing are involved with each other: you’re in there somewhere. Your voice is being true to the way you express yourself. Your writing voice may literally sound like the way you talk.

As a test read your work out loud to yourself. Some words will taste odd on your tongue. Someone’s true voice will often be colloquial and punchy. Some work is more page oriented and more rich in language, but your page voice will still be akin to your speaking voice.

2. All writing is drama

You are performing on the page for an audience of readers. There needs to be a musicality to your sentences. A good writer persuades or seduces a reader.

A tip: it may be better to cut off your last sentence, or even paragraph, and end your story earlier than you think you need to. In earlier drafts, we tend to overstate our conclusions because you are often explaining the story to yourself then. Removing your original end, you may add some subtlety, giving the reader room to reflect and interpret, to have a hand in the creation of the story.

3. Mystery

A lot of stories are mysteries to you as a writer. You may not know what they’re about until well after you’re done.

4. You don’t need a masterpiece idea or genius concept

Just begin with whatever fragment, image or thought has come to mind and see what happens. To quote WH Auden ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’

Real writing begins once the notes are down on the page.

5. Allow joy to be a part of the process

Reflection seems to bring weightiness to a person. It is important to lift yourself out of that reflective heaviness. You need lightness to accentuate darkness. Avoid/be aware of wallowing.

7. Don’t give up your day job

Life and day jobs have value in educating you in what you want to write about. Our own world is a source for stories. Your work and the things you love are potent things to begin with, then if you trust yourself and your angle on the world, you will have something unique.

A good way to do this is to keep a journal. Write your mind and heart down as honestly as you can. Don’t censor yourself. Process and analyse even the ugliest things that come out. Watch out that you don’t construct an image of yourself for yourself in your journal.

When you are journaling, there are two streams of observation going on: conscious and unconscious. A journal can be a place where you let your unconscious eye rove without the critical conscious mind colouring its perception.

Emily Maguire

Emily is the author of three novels and countless articles. When she was writing her first novel, she was a high school dropout in subsistence employment. These are the most surprising and helpful things she wished she knew when she was writing and once she got published.

1. Make friends with other writers. Be a good writer friend.

To begin, Emily quoted a publisher: ‘Writers as a breed are self-obsessed and novelists in particular are bitchy and jealous.’ She said she has not found this to be true. Her writer friends have supportive, helpful and delightful. It’s important to have people in your life who know what you’re going through.

2. A great editor is a gift. Her first novel received just a light edit, but she now knows that was due to budget constraints rather than any particular shininess of her manuscript. When her second book was edited properly, she felt like her book had been shredded by a complete stranger. She didn’t think the editor was on her side. She now acknowledges that pointing out flaws pre-publication is a very ‘on my side’ thing to do, rather than letting it through and to be gutted in public by a reviewer.

3. people will confuse you with your characters.

There is an assumption that first novels by writers under 30 must be thinly disguised memoirs. The fact that Emily’s first novel is about a self-distructve, promiscuous young woman created some embarrassing moments.

Next, Emily said, people think that your characters are mouthpieces for your own ideas. These assumptions are always about the person not the author. All you can do is write the story the best way you can and the rest is up to your readers.

4. Don’t believe any of your reviews.

Eventually she realised that some people really hate what she writes and how she writes it; some people love it. All that is OK, and trying to please everybody is crazy. She has learned that only something in a review that sparks of her own inner literary critic has any real insight.

5. Don’t bother writing a book you’re not passionate about.

There was a book that took Emily years to get to. She began it and gave it up as too hard. She wrote a whole other book, travelled, but the book kept nagging at her. She started it again, rewrote it completely twice, and rewrote parts of it another five or six times. She was genuinely fascinated with the characters that presented themselves. She had such strong sense of them that she had to get them onto the page.

6. Writing full time will not make you a better writer and might make you a worse one.

Emily lived the dream of writing full-time from home. Within a year of doing it, things were not good. There was financial strain–she was freelancing a lot to pay the bills rather than writing for love. And, like most writers, she loves to retreat, but needs to stay in touch with the world. She writes about people so she needs to know about them.

7. There is no one true path.

This was something that came up a lot over the day. Emily pointed out that all the advice we were getting and will continue to get will be conflicting. She advises accumulating as much knowledge as you can so you can sift through it for yourself.

Fiona McGregor

1. Sit up straight.

A bad back is the curse of the writer. Actually the curse of the modern world. Get a desk that’s the right height. Stay healthy. Drink lots of water. You need a lot of stamina and focus to stay with each draft as it goes along and each draft might take a year and you need to save on chiropractic bills.

2. Don’t stop partying. Don’t be a recluse. Find a balance. Opens writers block, crack into your world view, get your own insights, stay fresh.

3. Have fun with it.

This is like the sense of joy that Mark talked about. Craft your technique, yes, but also have a sense of play. This is important in work and in the rest of your life to leaven all the stuff you’re thinking abot all the time.

4. Experiment.

Don’t be restricted by word counts and other strictures set out by others. Write each thing to the length it wants to be written at. This applies also to things like voice, structure, and form. Go with your instinct. Instinct is the determining factor. Break deadlines, negotiate deadlines to allow yourself to get your work into shape.

5. Don’t write so much.

Fiona is not into those 500 words a day style edicts. That’s 150,000 words a year which is crazy. You’ll just make too much work for yourself. Don’t be afraid to throw things out.

6. Maintain your other interests. Keep out of the cloister.

7. Don’t go to writers festivals.

Time is precious. You have families, jobs, and so on. Do your work, and do it on your own terms. Ignore us.