The last day of the Brisbane Writers Festival loomed and, bleary-eyed from being up at 4.30am to watch Doctor Who, I staggered along to my busiest day.
10am-11am – Broken Monsters conversations:
A conversation with South African science fiction author Lauren Beukes exploring dystopias, globalism and writing the post-capitalist future.
I hadn’t heard of Lauren Beukes before the Brisbane Writers Festival but the blurb for this event had me interested. I always like to see how people build their dystopian worlds from existing events and possibilities.
Lauren was a great public speaker. She kicked off the promotion for her newest novel, Broken Monsters, with a simple PowerPoint presentation about her research trip to Detroit, the things that she had found and what had intrigued her about the city. She adamantly defended Detroit, saying that it is not a completely ruined place, despite what the media tries to show us.
When asked about how she dances with genres in her writing, Lauren said that she never wanted to write the same book twice. In fact, she had to start Broken Monsters again because it was getting too similar to The Shining Girls. ‘If I’m dancing, it’s with an elephant who stomps on me and says, “This is the way it’s going to be,”’ Lauren said.
I was enthralled by Lauren’s presentation, and I loved hearing her read a scene from Broken Monsters but I was equally interested in her earlier book, The Shining Girls—a novel about a time-travelling serial killer. Lauren described the killer in that novel as a ‘broken, empty, impotent shit of a man’ and said she had a great time beating the crap out of him as a character.
Swayed by her passion for her work, I raced downstairs after the session to grab a copy of The Shining Girls and ended up at the head of the line for book signings. I told Lauren how much I’d enjoyed her presentation and she was happy to take a photo with me for the selfie competition. I think she may have actually been the first person to immediately understand the concept and know what a Pokéball was.
11.30am-12.30pm – So, You want to Get Published seminar:
For those who’ve written a book, Kelly Higgins-Devine introduces you to a panel of Australian and international literary agents and publishers who will explain the process and opportunities for becoming a published author. Panellists: Catherine Drayton, Sophie Hamley, and Peter Ball.
Before the panel started, Kelly Higgins-Devine asked the audience exactly what kind of things they’d like to know from the panel so that she could better direct the flow of conversation. As a result, I think almost everyone got something beneficial out of this panel.
Peter Ball couldn’t make it so Aimée Lindorff, Program and Services Manager at Queensland Writers Centre, stepped in to take his place. Both Sophie Hamly and Catherine Drayton are literary agents (Catherine has a few big-name clients, including Markus Zusak and Becca Fitzpatrick) so most of the session was based around how a literary agent can help you to get your work published.
I think Sophie was the one to point out that, even if every existing published Australian author wanted one, there wouldn’t be enough literary agents in the country to go around. Being a literary agent is a tough job and, until the ball gets rolling, you do need some start-up funds of your own.
It’s important to find a literary agent who deals with your genre. Then you have to send the all-important query letter, which is basically a one-paragraph pitch of your novel, and a paragraph about who you are as a writer, including any published work and awards that you’ve won. According to the panel, you can have a good query letter and a bad manuscript, but you rarely come across a bad query letter and a good manuscript.
If the agent is interested in your work and asks to see a short sample, make sure it’s in the best condition it can be because you’ll only get one shot. Literary agents can replace the need for outside editing so grammar doesn’t need to be perfect but you do need to make sure that your writing isn’t a dog’s breakfast.
A great way to catch an agent or publisher’s eye is to attend pitching sessions at writers festivals (Brisbane Writers Festival ran a cool program this year called 20 Pages in 20 Minutes) and to submit your work to various competitions to gain recognition.
1pm-2pm – Laws of Magic panel:
Trudi Canavan, Kirilee Barker, Rjurik Davidson, and Laini Taylor discuss building mythologies, legends and magic systems in genre fiction.
It was intriguing to hear how systems of magic vary between authors and even between individual worlds constructed by each author. There were a lot of world-specific discussions in this session so I only took some general notes.
Without limitations on magic, there is no challenge that can’t be taken on and defeated. And, since it’s less interesting if heroes don’t have obstacles to overcome, there have to be certain rules and safeguards for characters to adhere to.
Having any kind of telepathic character can make things extremely complicated, since you then have to ensure that there are valid reasons that your telepathic character didn’t find out about some complicated plot 200 pages ago.
Remember to never let the magical system overwhelm the story and don’t weigh it down with too many rules. The character’s limitations will be revealed gradually so you don’t need to dump information on the reader in the first chapter.
For any Trudi Canavan fans out there, she said that she pronounces her character Sonea’s name as ‘Sonya’ but thinks that, since everyone brings their own experience to a book, any pronunciation is fine by her. She also said that, as a former illustrator, she sketched designs for some of the characters’ outfits but doesn’t want to put them online in case people ask how to make them because she’d have no advice on that.
2.30pm-3.30pm – Crossing Over: New Adult Fiction panel:
New Adult fiction is on the rise, but is it ‘older YA’ or sexy stories for the College set? Kate Cuthbert, Pauline McLeod, and Kylie Scott discuss the themes and issues of this emerging genre.
This was one of the most interesting panels for me. And not just because of the topic. When I sat down in the lecture theatre, a girl leaned over to me and started saying something. I was so busy trying to place her face (I realised she had been in the Laini Taylor masterclass with me on Friday morning) that I didn’t actually hear what she said so had to ask her to repeat it.
She leaned closer and said, ‘Your writing in the masterclass was amazing. I was going to read mine out and I heard yours and just slowly closed my book.’ I hope I came across as level-headed and sane when I thanked her for the kind comment. I was so surprised and thrilled to hear that someone had liked my work in such a rough draft form but I wished I could have heard what she had written as well. I didn’t catch the girl’s name but her comment gave me a warm, glowing feeling for the rest of the day.
At the moment, NA fiction is filled primarily with romance novels, which isn’t surprising: given that romance is such a popular genre, it’s usually the forerunner in emerging categories. The mantra of the session was ‘NA is YA with consequences’. Since protagonists are usually between about 18 and 30 years old, they no longer have the luxury of being able to skirt issues on the basis that they’re still children.
As I was listening to the staples of New Adult fiction, I realised that I was actually writing a New Adult book. I hadn’t known where my work fit and had just kind of decided it would work as YA but it was definitely in the NA category. Every event that I attended was giving me ideas about my work and teaching me things that I hadn’t even thought to consider.
4pm-5pm – Vixens, Victims, and Femme Fatales panel:
Some clichés of women in crime fiction has been retired and some persist. Authors P.M. Newton, Tara Moss, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir discuss the past and future of archetypal female characters with Meg Vann.
I was well and truly out of snacks by this point and the lines at the State Library and Art Gallery cafés were horrendous. I’d only had 30 minute breaks between each event and I was fading fast. I found that the line at the Museum café wasn’t too long and they had muffins the size of my head. I shovelled the muffin into my mouth and raced back to the State Library for my last ticketed session of the weekend.
This panel was filled with such highly intelligent women and it was bliss just to sit back and soak up the great energy. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir had some brilliant anecdotes about life in Iceland. While it’s the top country in the world for gender equality, Yrsa believes there’s still a way to go.
The panellists pointed out that, while we still talk about strong female characters, you never hear about strong male characters because the men are inherently acknowledged to be strong. Even the femme fatale, who is usually one of the strongest female character tropes that we can imbue in literature, usually ends up dead. As a result, the femme fatale becomes a warning to women as to what awaits you if you try and claim too much agency.
When talking about real women who advocate for gender equality (like Laura Bates, creator of The Everyday Sexism Project), Tara Moss thanked those women for putting up with death threats and abuse in order to highlight these issues. As Tara said, ‘If you get that many sparks, you’re poking in the right fireplace.’
5.30pm-7pm – Glitter and Dust feature event:
Back by popular demand, the best open-mic in Australia! Celebrate the closing of BWF 2014 with an electrifying set of readings by Festival artists before we snuff out the Festival in a cloud of glitter and dust. Hosted by Brisbane’s own David ‘Ghostboy’ Stavanger.
I stuck around to see this event, and took my last photo for the BWF selfie competition (with mandatory selfie duckface) but I didn’t actually get to see any of the readings. It was Father’s Day in Australia and, having been out all day, I was meeting my family for dinner. I stayed as long as I could and it was at about 5.52pm, when I was just walking away, that I heard a voice on the microphone and the crowd started applauding.
I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t stay to see the close of the Brisbane Writers Festival but I’d had an amazing (and exhausting) weekend and I was still hungry even after eating the head-sized muffin. I ended the weekend with a great family dinner at Vapiano (an Italian restaurant) in the city and spent most of the time regaling my parents and brother with the things I’d learned.
I can’t wait to see what Brisbane Writers Festival has in store next year. I’ve vowed to be much more prepared and have copies of books so I can read up on everything well in advance.