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Week packed with writing

EWF, NWC, workshopping, Writing Disability, Fan Fiction, YA’ll for Brunch. And words on the page!

The writing meet-up started, as normal,  with coffee. The first of many!

The past week – and the weekend especially – has left me both energised and exhausted to the point where I can’t decide whether to get stuck into my MS or lie facedown on the floor with the music up full-bore. Or write a blog about it. Apparently.

A week ago I realised I’d be up to Melbourne and back every second day for almost two weeks – and for the whole weekend – for work, the Emerging Writers Festival and a writing group. I love the energy of Melbourne. The people, movement and atmosphere are the polar opposites of my regional Victorian home. While I was initially excited about having an entire weekend away devoted to writing, alongside the realisation of exactly how much time was involved came that old mate guilt: ‘you could be spending all this time working on your MS’.

That changed when Leanne Hall, the keynote speaker for EWF’s YA Masterclass on Thursday, congratulated us all on dedicating the day to our writing; that this showed commitment to our craft. It was proof our writing was important to us.

The fact is I’ve been circling around my current YA WIP for a while. After rewriting the 96,000-word MS several times (yeah, I know. I’m cutting it back) there are plot issues I’m struggling to resolve; there’s a high level of sexual content – in fact, sexual relationships are a major theme – and I’ve been focusing on its appropriateness for the readership instead of the basics like secondary characters and subplots.

As Leanne spoke my fear began to fall away: “The best asset you have is your self-expression and taste,” she said. “Write what’s most urgent to you; write what sparks your curiosity… If you’re placing a limitation on your writing, remove it. If in your gut you know what you need to do – do it.”

2016 Text Prize winner Claire Christian.

Mark Smith (The Road to Winter) and Text Publishing’s Jane Pearson discussed Mark’s experience as a debut author, which contrasted with that of Text Prize winner Claire Christian (Beautiful Mess, August 2017), who spoke at the end of the day.

Mark was picked up from the slush pile and the process moved fast. Claire won the 2016 Text Prize, nothing happened for several months, then it was steady. Mark worked on The Road to Winter for five years before sending it out; Claire used the Text Prize as her deadline, and wrote 60,000 words in 60 days before refining and entering the manuscript. Both worked closely with editors at Text. The take-home message: the story is ready when it’s ready.

The Hows and Whys panel. From left: Michael Earp, Alison Evans, Demet Divaroren  and Fiona Wood.

Next up was the Hows and Whys panel. Mediator and #LoveOzYA chair Michael Earp, Alison Evans (Ida), Demet Divaroren (Living on Hope Street) and Fiona Wood (Cloudwish, Wildlife) explored writing processes, what they read, the differences between ‘adult’ and ‘YA’, and how they as writers connected with teenagers internally and externally.

Alison starts with the plot then works out the character, Demet starts with the character then works out the plot. Fiona can’t read prose while she’s writing. As a teenager she wrote boarding school/mystery stories. Alison started a stack of stories they didn’t continue with. All three professed to self-doubt. Their approaches to social media ranged from living on Twitter to not being on it.

Fiona pointed out that not everyone was lucky enough to come from a politically progressive household, and exploring social issues in YA enabled readers to access topics they might not otherwise have the opportunity to examine. As someone who grew up in a conservative environment, books were my gateway into new issues and worlds. They widened my field of vision and provided a counterpoint to my own immediate experience. My current WIP is, effectively, the book I wish I’d read when I was a teenager and Fiona’s comment pinpointed why I write.

A character masterclass with Simmone Howell (Girl Defective) and Penni Russon (The Undine Trilogy) started me thinking about what I needed to do – and avoid. In an effort to beef up my secondary characters I’ve decentralised the main story, or, as Simmone said, I’ve made the story wide and not long (yes, I know it’s long too. But you get my drift).

“All characters are interesting,” Simmone said. “You just need to look at them the right way.” And I have some characters who I’ve been looking at sideways? Upside down, maybe? So it’s back to basics: What are their goals, what do they want, what are their stakes, what do they need and want – and how this conflicts with the protagonists.

The Sex and Death inin YA panel. From left: Lili Wilkinson, Nicole Hayes, Vikki Wakefield  and Erin Farrow.

During the final panel of the day, Lili Wilkinson (The Boundless Sublime), Nicole Hayes (A Shadow’s Breath), Vikki Wakefield (Ballad for a Mad Girl) and academic Erin Farrow explored Sex, Death and YA. Again, the opinions varied on how it should be done – and where – in a world in which teenagers can access information from a variety of sources and can often know more than their parents. Books can be an opportunity to open discussions, they said. Perfect, I thought – that’s one of the reasons I’m writing this story.

Then came the specifics; the awareness that while readers self-censor and children and teens can skim over what they don’t understand, there are boundaries. Vikki said she was highly aware that kids read her books: “Do I limit myself? Yes, I do. Do I pull back from the edge? Absolutely.” Readers will disengage when plot points are there purely for shock value, the panel said. Erin spoke about school libraries limiting access to certain books as a form of censorship. Booksellers, parents, librarians are all concerned about sex in YA.

This signalled trouble for my MS. Big trouble. Then came a point the panel – and most of the audience – agreed with: reading about healthy sexual relationships in YA is important in a world where many teenagers are getting their information about sex from avenues such as porn – and most of it is male-centric.

So I’m now torn between writing a story based around a healthy sexual relationship and fear that it could be read as gratuitous. The section of work I’d put up for my writing group included a bad sexual encounter. Part of the feedback I was seeking was whether it was too explicit for YA.

Writing group workshopping

This group has come out of the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY program, in which we all participated last year. We caught up a few months ago with the wonderful editor Nadine Davidoff to go through our work, and it looks like it’ll be a regular thing now. The six other writers are all incredibly talented and working on a vast range of projects. We set a timer for an hour each, and over nibbles and coffee pulled apart and reassembled our writing and our egos. From 9.30am to 6pm we were completely immersed in one another’s stories and writing. We argued. We disagreed. The swooned. There were a few tears and many ‘lightbulb’ moments. There was much swearing. There was more laughter. And a lot of tough love.

So the feedback on my MS? There are still problems with two secondary characters, confirming what I’d realised at the YA Masterclass two days earlier, and there was much love for the good guy love interest. And THAT scene? Creepy. Horrible. Utterly believable. Realistic. And “I’d give that to my children to read.” Phew.

After we went out for dinner I went back to my motel room and wrote, restructured and planned for three hours.

YA’ll for Brunch

My room overlooked a road that spent most of the night as an urban drag strip and I managed only two hours sleep. I drove into the city and headed to the YA’ll for Brunch catch-up, sneaking in another hour of writing before the others arrived.

This monthly brunch is a chance for anyone interested in YA – writers, readers, bloggers, agents, librarians, booksellers – to catch up and chat, and it’s a testament to organiser Michael Earp that he’s created warm welcoming group. It was a small gathering on Sunday, with a few regulars overseas and at EWF events. But books were swapped, opinions and updates on WIPs given, and I caught up with a couple of friends I hadn’t seen for a while. I had two coffees and a lemongrass tea, which boosted the energy levels but didn’t clear my sleep-deprived brain’s fog.

National Writers Conference

I attended the afternoon sessions of the conference, which is held as part of the EWF.

The Writing Disability panel of Jax Jacki Brown, Carly Findlay, Michelle Roger and Writers Victoria Write-ability Mentor-in-Residence Fiona Tuomy (who I work with in my capacity as Write-ability Local Mentor for Central Highlands and Write-ability Project Assistant) could’ve gone for twice as long.

Topics covered included language (see Jax’s Daily Life article for an excellent explanation of disabled person v person with disability), attitudes, labelling, and giving disabled writers the opportunity to tell their own stories.

The Writing Disability panel. From left: Jax Jacki Brown, Carly Findlay, Michelle Roger and Fiona Tuomy.

Jax said as queer, disabled person growing up in a regional area she saw representations of herself, and that it was important how she told and shaped her own story. “I had no idea who I was or who I could become because I didn't see representations of queer, disabled people anywhere,” she said.

The panellists spoke about frustrations dealing with the media, including arguing terminology with journalists or explaining why ‘wheelchair user’ over ‘wheelchair-bound’ was preferable, only to have that ignored. Lack of access, lack of opportunity and lack of visibility were covered, alongside positives such as Jax’s work with student doctors to help them see disabled people as patients with a full life and not just as a diagnosis, and the effect telling their individual stories has had in encouraging others to tell even family members about their conditions.

Fan Fiction was not a topic I was familiar with, and Danielle Binks, Jes Layton and CB Mako broke it down, exploring the unwarranted stigma from some sections of the literary world, and ‘modernising’ and ‘adapting’ through streams such as Hogarth Shakespeare and the Jane Austen Project which is, in fact, fan fiction under a different name. “Fan fiction has always existed,” Danielle said. “It doesn’t need to be legitimised. It’s already legitimate.”

The most interesting element for me was how fanfic can change the original story. Cubbie talked about the impact of fanfic on Voltron, which took the princess – the only female member of the team who always needed saving – and gave her agency and power. Cubbie said the latest Voltron reboot included racially diverse, gender diverse and disabled characters, reflecting the fanfic. The panel spoke about how fanfic is an opportunity to critically explore a medium or story we love regarding the inclusion of minority groups. I came away from the panel wanting to look into it more!

That was, unfortunately, the end of my writing weekend. Facing a two-hour drive home, I decided to pike on the last session before exhaustion kicked in. It turned out to be a good move.

As I write this blog post – which is re-triggering all the ideas I had on Thursday and Saturday – while following #EWF17 on Twitter, emailing back and forth about work and belting out Birds of Tokyo, I’m reminded about what Leanne Hall said in her opening address: it’s all about what works for you as an individual writer. This past extended weekend worked for me.

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