I headed off to the NSW Writers Centre Speculative Fiction Festival yesterday. It was a chilly morning when we left the Upper Hunter at around 5am, but we made good time, and arrived just before the registration time of 9am. It’s always a bit of a guessing game travelling to Sydney from here. On a good day, we’ll hit Sydney about two and a half hours after we leave home, but you never really know whether there’ll be slow traffic, accidents or some kind of disaster awaiting you along the way that will slow you down.
Yesterday we managed a brekkie stop and a coffee stop and still had heaps of time. Nice.
The day was a smorgasbord of Australian speculative fiction writers and topics. Just lovely. Although speculative fiction is actually mainstream nowadays in terms of movies and television shows (think any superhero movie, Game of Thrones and Dr Who), we writers and readers of spec fic still manage to garner the odd weird look when we confess to reading it, or, even worse, actually write it.
When I told people last year that I was off to a science fiction convention, I scored a pile of slightly worried expressions, usually followed up with “And do you…dress up?” couched in hesitant tones. I’ve become quite hardened to it now, and just smile and say “Not me, actually, it’s not required at all.” But of course I do write those strange stories full of aliens and other weird stuff.
Anyway, back to the important stuff.
I started the day with a lovely panel full of Australian notables (Garth Nix, Trudi Canavan, Kate Forsyth, Isobelle Carmody and James Bradley), which was chaired very efficiently and very entertainingly by Cat Sparks, who also organised the entire event. They talked about their first professionally published pieces, embarrassing moments, and what it’s actually like succeeding as Australian Authors.
It was very heartening to hear the different stories about the rocky road of being a published author. (Even great authors have suffered through multiple rejections.) Their embarrassing stories involved undone flies, falling over in the opera house, losing award cheques, and signing queues of zero.
The take home messages were:
- Finish something. You can’t be published unless you’ve actually got something complete.
- Day jobs and writing work well. It isn’t necessary to be a full time writer to achieve success.
- Quality is essential.
- Read lots and write lots.
- Be brave.
- Don’t compare yourself to others.
- Write another book.
The second panel I attended asked the question about whether science fiction can save the future. There was quite a bit of variability in the panellist’s (Bruce McCabe, Marianne de Pierres, Joanne Anderton, Stephanie Lai and Keith Stevenson) perspectives, and the discussion did get a little sidetracked at times, however there were some really important and pertinent things to consider.
- You never know if something you write might inspire someone to invent/achieve/become something/one.
- Writing a lecture isn’t the same as writing a story. Readers don’t want a moral essay.
- Characters can explore issues by being themselves in the story, and discussing the big questions.
- Science fiction is fiction, but some stuff must be plausible. Do your research.
- Labels help connect the writer to the right audience – not what is and isn’t ‘correct’ Sci-fi.
The short speculative fiction panel was next. It included Cat Sparks, Keith Stevenson, Ian McHugh, Thoraiya Dyer and Tehani Wessely. It was a fascinating look inside short fiction publishing, from both the publisher’s and the writer’s perspectives. This was one of my favourite panels in a day of wonderful panels.
- Short and long form stories require different technique, and they are quite different. (Something I’ve been thinking about this year, because for some reason I’ve been writing short stories interspersed between my novel writing and editing.)
- There are a huge variety of places to find, read and sell short stories to.
- Payment can be very variable. (Or non-existent, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.)
- Short stories can give you a track record for a publisher.
- Short stories allow you to use the power of suggestion for world building – your reader has an imagination.
- It can be harder to write a great short story than a crap novel.
- Being Australian might be a good thing, or might not be. It depends – two authors had very different experiences.
- Torches may not translate to US audiences :) (I snicker every time I think about this – but I suspect it says more about the US reader than the Australian Writer.)
- The Australian voice is important – don’t water it down.
- Australian writers often submit much higher quality work than their international colleagues.
- Don’t forget to submit your published works to competitions (or remind your publisher to do so.)
- There are online tools to help you decide where to submit your short stories. Check out this link, this one and this one.
Lunch provided me with a lovely discussion about the Bechdel Test in the freezing cold wind, and then we all headed back inside for more spec fic goodness.
Everybody Loves YA was the next panel I attended. It was yet another great panel, with such wonderful writers as Isobelle Carmody, Richard Harland, Marianne de Pierres, Garth Nix and Amie Kaufman all contributing words of wisdom.
- Marianne de Pierres: YA has offered me a chance to rewrite events of my (young) life.
- Garth Nix: Story is King. YA is a genre that celebrates storytelling & so it wins readers.
- Isobelle Carmody: no wonder YA is so popular – who wants to be an adult when we see what adults have done to our world.
- YA often has great ideals – something sorely needed in our current world.
- Amie Kaufmann: YA is the literature of transformation. And we’re all going through transformations, all the time.
- Richard Harland: coming-of-age stories are universal & time-honoured. YA fantasy mixes this with tales of the imagination.
- Marianne de Pierres: YA readers have inbuilt bullshit detector so authenticity of voice is crucial.
- Garth Nix: genres are sales tools to help book find its best initial audience – not inescapable ghettos.
- Children’s and YA have an extra level of gatekeepers, which means more restrictions on content (language/sex/violence etc).
- Having a book banned is not a bad thing. In fact enthusiastically banned can be very helpful.
I then moved on to a Kaffeeklatsch with Marianne De Pierres. She’s a writer I’ve only just discovered, and really like. Her advice during the Kaffeeklatsch was excellent.
- The agent pool in Australia is so small, consider looking for one overseas. (But don’t forget sites such as Preditors and Eidtors to vet someone.)
- Sci-fi is currently hard to sell. Consider approaching Sci-fi publishers directly without an agent.
- Writing is a career for stubborn people.
- Treasure a partner who appreciates that writing is a job, and a valid career option. Make sure your loved ones understand how important writing is to you. This can be difficult. (Made me appreciate my husband even more.)
The day was capped off with the last panel: What’s Hot and What’s Not. It featured Joel Naoum (Momentum), Rochelle Fernandez (HarperCollins), Tehani Wessely (FableCroft), Alison Green (Pantera Press), and Liz Gryzb (Ticonderoga Publications). and was once again chaired by Cat Sparks. There were so many great things to take away from this panel.
- There are more opportunities than ever before for writers to be published. BUT this makes for a very crowded marketplace, with new authors struggling to be heard.
- The consensus of the panel was that editing is essential, and that both large and small press offers this. Large publishing offers a machine behind the author, but small press may offer more love.
- Read the Submission Guidelines. (I feel as if I should write this in all caps, it was mentioned so often.)
- A synopsis is not a blurb.
- Don’t forget to attach your manuscript to your submission. (Apparently this is quite common.)
- Don’t submit in bright pink, 60 point font. Or comic sans.
- Momentum takes submissions on Monday, Harper Collins on Wednesdays, Bloomsbury via the UK portal, and Fablecroft has open submissions periods. Panterra likes full manuscripts. Read the submission Guidelines.
- A good hook is essential, as is a great opening page.
- Mention prizes and publications in your covering letter, but don’t make it enormous. Don’t worry about having a less than massive social media following – you don’t actually need to mention it.
- If you have a social media presence think before you post.
- No publisher cares how old you are.
- Don’t submit illustrations with your manuscript. (Unless it’s a picture book and the publisher specifically wants them.) Even if you’re a wonderful artist.
The day finished with wine and more chatting. I met some lovely people, had a great time, and learnt heaps. Thanks to the NSW Writers Centre and Cat Sparks for such a great day.