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All you need to know
– the Emerging Writers’ Festival

If you didn’t make it to the Emerging Writers’ Festival last weekend, I’m afraid to say you missed out. The festival, which is aimed exclusively at writers, attracts a different audience to the major festivals which also court readers.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the ‘Never Surrender’ session when author Sean Condon asked, ‘How many people here want to be published?’ The room transformed into a sea of hands. Then the question, ‘And how many people have already been published?’ This time only three of us raised our hands before someone from the back of the room called out, ‘What do you mean by published?’ A ripple of nervous, doubt-filled laughter spread through the room. (Does a blog count? What about the occasional short story in journals? Or articles published online? Or do you mean a full-length book? And what about self-publishing?) Condon’s disparaging response was, ‘Nothing online.’

And yet many authors at the festival spoke about how their use of the internet has led to opportunities they never imagined possible. Take Max Barry for instance, a self-confessed computer geek who developed an online game that contained messages about his second novel, Jennifer Government. The game, NationStates, attracted two million followers and, unlike his first novel, Jennifer Government sold big numbers. Or Lou Sanz who started a blog, The Problematic World of Lou, to help her through a bad relationship break-up. Her dark humour earned her a dedicated following and the blog has now been adapted for the screen and is currently in production. And then there’s Myke Bartlett, who set himself the challenge of writing a chapter a week and posting it online for reader comments. Previously a professional procrastinator, this accountability to his audience forced him to complete the novel. It has now been picked up for print publication and is in the process of being edited. Although Bartlett says he cringes about the fact that what is essentially a first draft remains recorded and accessible for all time, he admits that without it the book might never have happened. In the meantime, his two podcasted novels have notched up half a million downloads. Not bad.

As you would expect at a festival for emerging writers, the speakers offered plenty of advice, some of it conflicting. In the weekend’s opening session where writers shared seven secrets they wished they’d known when starting out, speakers even contradicted themselves. Natasha Campo, for instance, advised that ‘creativity can’t be forced’ and in the next breath said ‘but sometimes you’ve just got to do it’. She’s right, of course, but it just goes to show that every writer must navigate their own course through the mountains of well-meaning advice available.

My favourite piece of advice during the weekend came from the gregarious and eminently likable South Australian playwright Sean Riley. He was the recipient of a 10-day mentorship with three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee. The first thing Albee said to him was, ‘It’s ridiculous spending 10 days together. I could give it to you in three short lines: ‘No. Absolutely Not. And go fuck yourself.’ It’s all you need to know.’ These words changed Riley’s creative life. ‘You have to defend your work,’ Riley said. ‘You are its only ally. You know what is so special about it … You have to have faith in it.’

During the weekend there were numerous panel sessions, some more engaging than others. To my mind the highlight was ‘You want me to do WHAT?’ where Natasha Compo, Kathy Charles, Declan Fay and Sean M Whelan discussed the art of promoting (or as Charles so aptly put it ‘prostituting’) yourself as a writer. The authors were all highly engaging and offered a plethora of useful information. Charles’ performance was a demonstration in itself of how to market your book without the audience actually feeling like they’re being sold to. I’ll bet people will be seeking out her book, Hollywood Ending, as a result.

While I’m on sales, it was a real shame that the festival didn’t run a bookshop. Festivals are a great opportunity for authors to capitalise on the interest their appearance has generated, and for readers to discover new work. I’m sure some audience members will seek out books they are interested in after the festival, but there will undoubtedly be many others who would have bought a book on the spot but outside of the festival buzz won’t bother to seek it out. Obviously such a venture would require additional manpower but, if the budget allows, it would be well worth having a bookshop in future. My only other criticism is that the program booklet needs serious rethinking next year. Although attractive, it was incredibly difficult to navigate and I heard numerous comments to this effect.

However, overall the festival had so much to offer – inspiration, pertinent advice and a necessary dose of realism. I’d encourage every emerging writer to head there next year. You won’t regret it.

Irma Gold is an award-winning writer and editor. Her short fiction has been widely published in Australian journals and her debut collection of short fiction, Two Steps Forward, was released in September 2011 (Affirm Press). She is also the author of two children’s books and is currently working on her first novel. You can follow her on Facebook.

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  1. I totally agree about the program — it was so hard to work out who was on where and when. But the festival itself was so refreshing and inspiring. Missed that session with Kathy Charles though. Bummer.

  2. It was a great festival. My favourite session was ‘Writing for a dark place.’

    The no-bookshop thing occurred to me too after the festival. I wonder why. But they did have Page Parlour and a zine fair.

    • That was a great session. Nathan Curnow was so compelling — I can’t wait to get hold of his poetry collection. And Jeff was great too. Lots of food for thought there.

      The bookshop thing is puzzling. I would have bought Nathan’s and Kathy’s books for sure. Benjamin Law’s too. And probably others!

      • Irma, Page Parlour is pretty fabulous. Worth getting along to compare with the garden variety middle class writers festival workshop sometime, if you haven’t already.
        And may I just say that the web program was an enormous improvement on last year’s. And that I’m wondering if Gig Ryan’s incredible speech at the Overland Poetry Prize is going to be online anytime soon – talk about a shot in the arm!

      • Thanks for the EWF update Irma, sounds better than ever. I’ve only been once, two years ago, before the Wheeler Centre so it was mostly at the Town Hall which made it very intimate. I had so many fantastic conversations.

        And unlike most writers’ fests it was very focused on writers and writing, the audiences were full of writers (who read), rather than mostly readers (which is good too but very different in my experience). So although I was initially surprised to find there wasn’t a bookshop I ended up liking the idea that I wasn’t there to sell books but to talk, about writing, editing, getting published, etc. Quite liberating.

  3. The question of what constitutes “being published” is an interesting one. I don’t agree with Condon that online “doesn’t count” – if my work was published on, say, Salon or The Daily Beast or Jezebel, I’d be a lot more excited (in terms of the people I could reach and the impact it would have on my future publishing opportunities) than I would be about quite a lot of print publications.

    I guess, like with any publishing venue really, it depends on how much the online publication values its writers, content and space – something that can arguably be measured by the quality of work it publishes, who contributes, how it sits in relation to the print arm, if there is one, and yes – if they pay.

    There can be joys in unpaid online writing though, too, as you point out. My blog allows me to connect with and build an audience in a far more effective and intimate way than my paid, MSM writing does. And I love republishing my stuff on other blogs I enjoy, too – and consider it something of an honour to be included amongst their good work.

    • I agree Rachael. On the issue of pay, Mel Campbell was fabulous and fiery in the ‘Taking it Online’ session. She was championing the rights of online writers and the ‘culture of exploitation of emerging writers’. She apologised for getting ‘a bit bolshy’ but we need more like her, I say. With New Matilda recently folding the comment was made that they could have survived if they didn’t pay their writers so well! Not the way we should be thinking in my view. As Mel said, everyone in the industry needs to ‘respect our craft’.

  4. I am chuffed to hear that ‘Going to a Dark Place’ was so well received. I was blessed with fantastic writers on the panel.

    I agree with the point made above about the joys of unpaid writing: A blog space can be a playground to write honestly without the pressure for content to be timely or for a particular audience. There need not be the same degree of censorship as one might place on ones writing elsewhere. That blog space, I find, keeps my writing utterly honest and pleasurable indeed: a constant reminder of WHY I write.

  5. I liked that there wasn’t a bookshop, to be honest. Too often festivals simply become sales pitches, with the program determined by publishing schedules and then the text of every talk essentially running, ‘blah, blah, blah — now buy my book’.
    The EWF has quite a different vibe. It’s less celebrity driven and much less commercial, and that’s kinda good, I reckon.
    I also found the experiments with Twitter, both at the EWF and the SWF, to be really interesting. The #ewfchat tag provided a new way to foster discussions (albeit fairly trivial ones). It was weird (in a good way) to speak at a panel and then see almost instantaneously responses to what you said.

    • I take your point Jeff, but I think there was a lot of that ‘buy my book’ talk anyway. Some of it does get really tedious, but I think it’s probably inescapable.

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