Saturday 29th April 2017, was a day to be inspired as authors shared their writing journeys and ideas on the power of words with writers and readers gathered at Bracken Ridge Library. Both sessions were chaired by Sheryl Gwyther (introduced by Adele Moy), an Australian children’s author. She writes novels, chapter books, short stories and school plays for children and short stories for adults. She is the recipient of two Australian Society of Authors’ Mentorships, and two May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust Fellowships as well as a SCBWI International Work-of-Outstanding-Promise award.
Michael Aird, Keeaira Press, began by explaining how he went from working in a factory with a low level of literacy and working out the spelling of words for the lunch order with co-workers to a dawning realisation that his older co-workers were unhappy; he realised this was not the life for him. He obtained a university education, developed a passion for photography and after graduating with anthropology combined his talents. Michael has since created over thirty varied books with Indigenous authors covering, art, history, heritage, fishing, and a manual arts teacher on his life teaching in a remote area, and some of his own works. He has learnt a lot in this process, including that some people are easier to collaborate with than others, artists can often be disorganised, some artists and writers are fantastic at marketing and promoting their books, as well as that larger print runs often give a better quality printed book.
Duncan Richardson took us on his journey of finding a genre that suited him and mentors that told him the truth. He began writing poetry, and still likes to do this, but found that the children and young adults’ literary community provided a more supportive group environment than that of poetry. He works as an ESL teacher and found that sometimes his students were an inspiration for stories, as well as history. He shared his interest in speculative fiction. Duncan shared that he has had mentors along the way who have told him what he needed to hear, not necessarily what he would like to hear. For instance one mentor said he really shouldn’t write drama as he knew nothing about it. Duncan shared some beautiful quotations about inspiration and showed us several of his books. Today Duncan is a highly imaginative storyteller (he still likes writing poetry), who has a real passion for writing YA novels and chapter books. He continues to have an interest in history. He feels like he has found his forte. Later in question time, an audience member asked him for more details about where his ideas came from. They were particularly intrigued by Jason Chen and the Time Banana.
I shared my journey‘ outlining five major influences: my birth family, nature, my family today, writing groups and spirituality of the Baha’i faith. I especially focused on the racism my family endured when living in Tasmania, which in some ways lead to the loss of one of my brothers, and how education, my family and community, played a role in empowering me, to create the poetry book for children and family Magic Fish Dreaming, a subtle celebration the oneness of humanity – which is reflected in its illustrations. I feel compelled to write by the desire for the children of the world to grow up in a world free from prejudice. I shared a moment of celebration where my brother wore a grass skirt and was proud of who he was and was featured on the front of the paper. This was a fairly emotional moment. I shared stories of my family growing up and having my Dad read stories to us and tell us always to work very hard to be treated equally to others in the society we were part of, and later learning more cultural stories from my mum when I began to ask her questions. I read and showed photographs (as I love photography) of these influences and concluded my presentation by reading a poem – River Song. Some of the stories I shared can be found on ABC Open.
(Note: I won a mentorship from the Australian Society of Authors and spent 2017 honing my craft on Picture books. This was during the time of the kickstarter.)
Later in question time to the panel I shared some details about kickstarting and how it is suitable for projects that should happen, have wide community support, but which publishers won’t take on for a number of reasons. One has to have a real passion for what one is creating for crowdfunding.
Then Sheryl warmly introduced the next panel.
Power of Words
Susan Johnson, author of My Hundred Lovers, The Landing, and many others, a novelist and journalist, spoke naturally and informally on her life. She always loved to read, and feels that the majority of writers begin as readers. She spoke about her beginnings in Sydney and the shock of moving to Nambour. From a place where people marched against Vietnam, to a much more conservative place, which as first she resisted.
She shared with us memories as a journalist of meeting Mrs Whitlam (who she found quite shy and awkward) and more recently many other interesting people such as artist and film maker Tracy Moffat, but also that she found journalism quite an easy form to write in (she wanted to assure us she wasn’t putting down journalism as a writing form but it is so different from fiction). Fiction for her personally by contrast to journalism requires immense work (but pays less), and ‘good fiction shows the knots of life and experience,’ and probably one needs life experience before being able to write really good fiction. ‘Most good fiction is written after people turn 30. There are rare exceptions to this rule.’
Susan said today most authors doing well will only receive a $10,000-12,000 advance, whereas in the past they might have received $80,000. On average Australian authors earn $14,000 a year. So the vast majority of writers of fiction, other than say people like Geraldine Brooks (a good friend) have to hold down other jobs, and this is why she works as a journalist and adjunct lecturer, whilst writing fiction, despite having many novels published. Susan was lucky enough to have literature board grants and residencies, and was able to live overseas whilst she was writing one of her novels. These were brilliant experiences.
Although Susan has had many books published, she still feels like a relatively unknown author. She feels it is the prize winners who become the best known Australian authors.
She shared later in the panel questions that journalism has given her the discipline to write, and so she wakes at 5 am before the other responsibilities in her life as a single parent, and writes fiction and then goes off to her work as a journalist.
Lauren Daniels, an editor who worked for many years for Interactive press, spoke about the rich diversity of books she has edited by Australian authors. She told us stories about the power of words, repeating that phrase throughout her talk to remind us of the theme. She began with her story of how editors are like the mid wives for other books. She loves to edit books with a social message. The books she has edited cover topics like, homeless youth, refugees, black birding, history, death, adoption, the history Tasmanian serial killers and there were many others.
She told us the story of Tilly Brasch, the first person she edited a work for. Tilly came to her with a story about her son’s mental illness and her original intention was not to create a book but a pamphlet, but Lauren saw the potential for this book to have the power to change the situation for other people going through what Tilly was.
Lauren explained the role of an editor. One of their roles is to assist the author to avoided being sued and another is to help them work out their main goal in telling the story. Key components of her editing are honesty, empathy and integrity, and this has meant she sometimes lets go of some editing jobs if the book and or author lacks this. Lauren did work on her own novel, but with her first novel couldn’t find a publisher after 20 attempts, but a friend reminded her she had walked inside many other’s stories and bought their books to fruition and publication and that is a great thing to have done.
(Editors note: The manuscript for her novel, The Serpent’s Wake: A Fairy Tale for the Bitten was shortlisted with the 2016 Half the World Literati Award.)
Lauren told us some engaging anecdotes about her life, working as a volunteer for assisting homeless and displaced people, her father reading her Moby Dick (which she dramatized for us!), her reading a piece of writing to Veterans after winning a writing competition. This moment of reading to the veterans clearly showed the power of words to her, as she saw grown men crying as she read.
She shared her family’s response to her declaration of wanting to be a writer, ‘Oh no, you’ll be an alcoholic’. This came from her grandmother who had known and served Hemmingway. She spoke of how she was teased in her early life for having a stutter. In retrospect this experience of social isolation, plus a love of books, led to her love of writing. Lauren also told us that she once wrote to Stephen King and received an encouraging reply. Lauren is particularly moved by writers who refuse to be ruined by trauma.
Jacqueline Henry, a Bayside Journalist, and now also author of fiction and children’s stories shared her story. She is delighted to not be an ‘ambulance chaser journalist’ but one who interviews remarkable people, or ordinary people doing remarkable things. She decided in her fourties, despite her love of journalism, that she wanted to explore writing fiction. She announced this to her family with great gusto, but nothing came of it for a while. That is until she began to just try to write 1000 words a day (or close to) and rise at 5.30 am in the morning to do so. She treated it just like her job in journalism, and turned up to write her fiction every day. Jacqueline encouraged the audience to accept that whatever they write there will be a diversity of responses, even from people who on the surface all seem the same. One must expect that and celebrate this even.
Jacqueline’s speech was engaging and relaxed. She encouraged the audience to hone their craft, and to learn from the rich diversity of authors talks and how to’s on youtube. You don’t need to go and do a degree to become an author, but you do need to work on your craft.
The audience asked some interesting questions, including Do you need to go to university to become a writer? Writing experience regardless of your education can come through the act of reading, writing and reflecting. It is the time you put into it, and the experiences or story you might share with an audience, and finding your audience that are all part of the journey. Sheryl also asked the panel some questions. One of which was where they saw themselves ten years from now? Susan said she would love to win a literary prize but she wasn’t sure if she would achieve that ten years from now! Everyone wanted to still be writing!
A big thank you to all presenters, organisers, sponsors and special guests to the festival from council, Councillor Amanda Cooper and the Society of Women’s Writers Queensland, Brisbane Libraries, Brisbane City Council,
Images from Sheryl Gwyther, Jo Hoffman, Lauren Elise Daniels, June Perkins, Kara McLeod
More articles on the Festival
Handy tips for Writers From this Festival
- Be a reader
- Try to write 1000 words a day
- Set a regular writing time a day and if you can make it daily
- Connect with a writing community that is supportive and professional organisations, like SCWIBI, Write Links, Australian Society for Authors, Queensland Writing Centre and more!
- Hone your craft; through workshops, writing groups and critique groups; and you tube resources
- Recognise and take the opportunities to use the power of words
- Make sure you have another paying job (or be a journalist); i.e don’t go into it for the money
- Have compassion, integrity and heart
- When you work with a publisher try to be organised and know about marketing and enter and hope you win a literary prize
- When you work with an editor let them advise you on issues to do with being sued as well as trust their skills and have a dialogue with them.
(Please note I didn’t quite make all sessions of the Sandcliffe Writing Festival, but did interview one of the school visits presenters.)