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.