Sydney Writers’ Festival 08 Part 1

May 22, Thursday

By the time I had officially woken up, Chichi and Pei Pei had already gone to work in the CBD. I hurriedly slapped some margarine on two slices of Chichi’s raisin bread, gobbled them up, and caught the bus to Queen Victoria Building for another bus to Walsh Bay to attend five seminars there.

1. The first one was From Pen to Reader at the Sydney Philharmonic Choir Studio.

What does it take to win the ear of a publisher? Leading international and Australian publishers discuss international and Australian publishing trends and what it takes to get noticed.

So we had publishers from Random House, Penguin Books, Allen & Unwin, and Faber Books in a panel and each talking for ten to fifteen minutes till the Q&A section. Some paraphrases of quotes (Yes, I did take notes.)

Anton Chekhov said that people aren’t stupid because they can’t write a novel, but because they can’t conceal it when they do.

Never presume you can write to the market. The most successful writers lead, not follow books.

A unique voice is not a wacky one but one that says the same thing with a voice never heard.

There are more writers now than readers.

1. Prepare. 2. Revise. 3. Write the best 50 pages. 4. Get an agent. 5. Don’t copy. 6. Don’t write for the market.

When you submit a cover letter introducing your novel, mention the novels that the house has published, and if you can, compare your work to those novels.

Publishing is a very optimistic business. When we pick up a manuscript, we think, “This could be the one.”

When you’re writing non-fiction, you don’t have to be as engaged. But when you’re writing fiction, you can’t afford to be cynical about what you’re doing.

Publishing is an emotional business; as a writer you have to understand that you have to willing to engage with the editors.

Publishing is about relationships and community; get into them.

Build relationships with agents – success breed success.

Keep both academic rigor and readability when you write non-fiction.

You can give personal information to the publisher. If you (the writer) have a personal “quirk”, God help us, then that could actually be quite useful to marketing your novel.

Then I traipsed off for a lunch break at a McDonald’s at Alfred Street.

2. The next seminar, Tales of Obsession at the Sydney Dance Company Studio 4, wasn’t as engaging, I think, and admittedly I attended it just because they had canceled one I had wanted to go.

From fundamentalist belief to bridge building and compulsive counting, David Davidar, Vicki Hastrich and Toni Jordan consider the thrall of obsession in their novels.

3. The third one was The Future of Reading in the Philharmonic Studio, which won out after a dilemma of deciding whether to attend that one or Cities on Edge, which were both going on at the same time.

E-publishing has been met with equal measure of enthusiasm and dread as publishers, editors and writers grapple with the Web’s ability to connect readers and writers more quickly and intimately. Leading publishers talk about the trends in digital publishing.

I was really excited about this one because I thought it was going to talk about being published online in collections or e-zines, which are places I do submit my stories to, and to discuss the value (or lack of it, if that’s what some people think) of being published online rather than in print. Instead, the panel discussion was about the market of digital publishing (i.e. e-books, e-book readers like Kindle, digitalizing libraries, etc.) so that was rather disappointing.

But I did get a very interesting crash course on the dotcom wave that hit publishers during the 90s, the behavioral changes it takes to adapt to e-books vs to iPods, how the UK market was initially very nervous
about digital publishing (the publisher, Will Atkinson, described it as the madwoman in the attic: it’s here, it’s part of the family, but we just pretend it doesn’t exist), and the speculation that if libraries were digitized, then there would be no need to go to the library to read because everything would be online, but this would also mean that there would be less people who are actually going to buy books. Food for thought there.

4. Next seminar! Grit at one of the Dance Studios.

How do we write a sordid reality? Why are writers so compelled with doom and gloom? Philippe Claudel, Cheri Dimaline, Merlinda Bobis and Rhyll McMaster discuss.

It’s really a bit difficult to keep taking notes when novelists talk because their content is quite subjective and specific to their novels, especially when it’s already 4pm and you’re starting to flag. But a general consensus among the writers was that the world, face it, really is a dark place and it’s our job to show this truth to the rest and maybe find the light at the end of the tunnel.

I met Sir Butch Dalisay after this talk (he was in the audience) and exchanged pleasantries. Afterwards I bought Merlinda Bobis‘ book, The Solemn Lantern-Maker, and got her autograph and introduced myself and my involvement with Salu-Salo. Ma’am Bobis is, as SIr Capili argued a few days later, pretty much the leading figure of Filipino-Australian writers; she’s written novels and is a creative writing professor at the University of Wollongong.

5. Last seminar! It was already 6pm by this time and I was tired and I thought I’d just stick around for half of Screenplays that Sell and zip to the CBD to meet up with Chichi for dinner. I ended up staying the whole seminar. It was very different from the general spirit of the seminars I had already attended.

Story consultant, author and lecturer, Michael Hauge provides tips and techniques for getting your script read by people in power.

To start with, even before the seminar began, a random guy came in and took the stage and started talking about how if we wanted to go to Hollywood, then there was a website where we could hire agents. Not endorsed by the Festival, of course, and he had to be escorted out.

Michael Hauge’s from Hollywood and he’s worked with the big people in Warner Brothers, Paramount, New Line, CBS, etc. and with Morgan Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, and all of that. He really is all that tinsel, and the sort who’s churned out (and plugging) his self-help books and DVDs about making good scripts. And he made it very clear that what he was going to talk about was the Hollywood industry – happy endings and such. All about selling to big production companies. He wasn’t going to talk about indie or artsy movies, though in a way his lecture could still apply. But the Hollywood moviemaking business. All that flash and glamor.

I sat up at this point.

The number one goal, he said, in moviemaking is to elicit emotion. People go to movies to participate, not observe.

I scrambled for my pen and notebook.

If I were to write all my notes down, which I took non-stop and were as much as I would take in an hour of university lecture (awake), this post would never end and I would never get around talking about the launch. So here is everything in bullet points. I’ll probably explain in another post in the future.

The following, according to Michael Hauge, are observable from all successful Hollywood films.

Principles of Storytelling

  • There must be a hero.
  • Create empathy with that character: 1. Make him a victim of an undeserved, unfortunate situation 2. Put him in jeopardy 3. Make him likable 4. Make him funny. 5. Make him powerful.
  • The hero must desperately want to achieve a goal: 1. To win 2. To stop 3. To escape 4. To retrieve
  • There must be some conflict.
  • There must be the need for courage in facing these obstacles.

The Hero’s Journey

  1. Outer journey of achievement
  2. Inner journey of transformation, in essence, from fear to courage

6 Stages and 5 Turning Points

  1. SET UP. By 10% of the script, the hero is given an opportunity to move to Stage 2
  2. NEW SITUATION. By 25%, the hero has to realize his goal
  3. MAKING PROGRESS. By 50%, he is faced with the point of no return.
  4. COMPLICATIONS & HIGHER STAKES. By 75%, he is given a major setback.
  5. FINAL PUSH. At the climax of the film, he resolves his goal.

Hardcore commercialism and playing up to the market, man. All I can say is I wish writing were that simple and formulaic.

Then I caught the bus back to the CBD and had dinner with Chichi at BBQ King in Chinatown.


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