On writing: lessons from the Emerging Writers’ Festival 2016

The Emerging Writers’ Festival is a not-for-profit organisation aimed at supporting emerging writers. I attended this year’s 10-day writing festival for the first time. I didn’t go to every event, but here are some lessons I took away from the ones I went to.

Industry Insiders: Pitch Perfect

With: Jacinda Woodhead (Overland Journal), Cate Blake (Penguin/Random House), Jo Walker (Frankie), Cassidy Knowlton (Crikey)

Pitch Perfect brought together four publishers and editors to give us a behind the scenes perspective on publishing. Here’s what you need to know when pitching.

Know the market and the audience. A magazine about art doesn’t want your analysis on immigration policies. In the case of a book, study what the publisher has released.

Refer to the submission guidelines. It seems obvious, but people fail to do this or they ignore them. Some publications want a pitch. Others want a few paragraphs, the first few chapters, or a complete manuscript. Knowing what they want and delivering that is a good first step.

Be concise and professional. Editors get hundreds of emails each day and Jo Walker said she’s looking for a reason to delete yours. Your email should be grammatically perfect, brief, but comprehensive, polite, and friendly. Explain why readers would be interested in the piece and a little bit about your expertise. Magazine editors don’t need to know much about you. A book editor would be committing to work with you for a lengthy period so they want to know you’d be professional and engaged.

Respect boundaries. Don’t contact editors on social media (unless they contact you first). Use email for professional communications.

Agents are helpful. For writers looking to publish books, agents can be helpful. They know which publishers might be interested in your work, how to approach them, how to pitch to multiple publishers, and how to take care of admin work. They also understand the insider jargon and contracts.

Don’t take rejection personally. That your work isn’t up to scratch isn’t the only reason it might be rejected. There are other reasons having to do more with the publication such as timing, space, and other writers. Keep in mind that magazines and journals are planning their content months out of the release date. A Christmas issue might be finished by September so if you’re pitching your story in October, you’re already too late.

Be confident. This topic came up a lot. If you landed a book deal, then you could find yourself on a book tour, at launches, interviews, conferences, dealing with reviews, and so forth. You’ve got to be able to blow your own trumpet. There’s an aspect of being a writer that is about putting on a performance. You’ve got to be confident.

Masterclass: A Room of One’s Own

This was a day of panels and workshops devoted to women in writing.

In Creating Fearlessly, Courtney Sina Meredith talked about losing her beloved grandmother when she was a child. She’s been working from that wound ever since; her grief is her courage. She added that her work belongs not to her, but to her ancestors. Creating fearlessly is 90% living, she said, and making the practical and conscious choice to live and create.

Emerging Writers' Festival 2016 panel writing
Courtney Sina Meredith, Alison Whittaker, Jessica Hansell, and Jessica Yu on diversity in publishing. Image: @emergingwriters on Instagram

In Diversity in Publishing, Courtney Sina Meredith, Alison Whittaker, Jessica Hansell and Jessica Yu talked about what it means to be a diversity writer and the problem of “diversity” as tokenism.

Because readers will project onto your work, everything becomes political. When people of colour write and put something out there, we’re putting out new territory for someone else to claim and colonise. Autobiographical writing is the only way to resist others’ narratives of us and an important form in which we heal.

In The Radical Act of Writing Women, Emily Bitto, Fiona Wood, Lili Wilkinson, Alice Pung and Alicia Sometimes talked about why it is a radical act for women to create.

Women have been and continue to be viewed as objects. Historically, women have not been deemed capable of producing high art. Our work is viewed as being of interest only to other women (e.g. chick lit), superficial, and trashy. As a woman, it take bravery to stake your claim as a writer.

As characters, females are often tropes, there to help male characters fulfill their own purposes. As one panelist put it, “Why do girls have to die so that boys have feelings?”

Questions of sexuality and race also emerged. When one audience member asked what the panelists thought of leaving sex and race ambiguous, one panelist affirmed that ambiguity is always interpreted as White. As examples, she cited the public outrage to the casting of Black females for the roles of Rue in The Hunger Games films and Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

In Imposter Syndrome: The Internal Glass Ceiling, Bri Lee and A.H. Cayley discussed how to tackle that feeling that any moment everyone is going to find out that you’re not as good as they all think you are. This response is common among high-achieving women. We view our failures as the result of ineptitude and our successes as the result of luck. We are self-deprecating and struggle to own, much less publicly celebrate, our accomplishments. I’m certain that, in Australia, this is further compounded by tall poppy syndrome.

Imposter syndrome perpetuates gender imbalance. It’s important that we acknowledge that our success if the result of hard work and that we deserve it. Bri and A.H. suggested creating a network of people that will celebrate each other’s successes.

National Writers’ Conference

The centrepiece of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, the National Writers’ Conference is two days of panels on a variety of topics.

In 5 x 5 Rules of Writing, the five Festival Ambassadors – Alice Pung, Chandani Lokuge, First Dog on the Moon, Omar Musa and Adam Liaw – shared their writing tips.

  • Confident writing is clear writing and clear writing is good writing.
  • Writing is a muscle. And being able to write to a deadline and when you don’t feel like it are skills.
  • Your voice is what makes your writing great, but know that your voice may change and you may have different voices throughout your life.
  • Watch out for your own cliches.
  • There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be commercially successful.
  • Get financial independence. Rejection will hurt less and you’ll have more room for creativity. This was a common theme throughout the Emerging Writers’ Festival.
  • Writer’s block – ain’t nobody got time for that. People in other professions do not indulge in anything like writer’s block. Just write even if it’s bad. Omar Muso recommended re-reading a favourite or something inspiring.
  • Put people before politics. Don’t write a book about refugees because you think it’s a hot topic and will sell a book.
  • Turn off social media. Writing isn’t talking; it’s thinking. It is solitude and self-editing.
  • Write in passion and edit in cold blood.
  • Be fearless, reckless even. People will criticise you.
  • It is okay to feel lost. It means you’re mapping new territory.
  • It’s okay to make readers uncomfortable.
  • You are allowed to be the dictator of your art.
  • Be inspired by great art in all its forms.
  • Capture moments. Keep a journal.
  • Invent the real life story.
  • Writers often describe the physical aspects of a character. Search the interior as well. Characters should be flawed. As Leonard Cohen sang, cracks are how the light gets in.
  • Write about what you want to know. Seek wisdom, confusion, and uncertainty.
  • Distrust adjectives.
  • Never give up. Unless you’re actually shit. But be sure to seek the opinion of people who aren’t shit themselves.
  • Enjoy your own voice.  “I think I’m hilarious,” said Andrew Marlton, better known as First Dog on the Moon.

In The Perfect Day, Lorelei Vashti, Anna Spargo-Ryan, Madeleine Dore, Susi Fox, and Dunja Kay discussed their perfect day as a writer. In short, there’s no such thing, and the pursuit of the perfect conditions for writing is procrastination and likely tied to fear of failure.

Writing must be prioritised. Tips included doing at the same time every day, removing distractions, and approaching it with optimism and excitement. Also, fake it til you make it, advice previously shared on the Imposter Syndrome panel.

Omar Musa, Hannie Rayson, Rajith Savanadasa discussed Crafting Dialogue.

  • Let characters speak for themselves. Give up trying to get them to say what you want them to say.
  • Let characters show their flaws.
  • You may be able to reveal more in a few lines of dialogues that in many paragraphs and pages.
  • Dialogue doesn’t have to be binary. It can involve many voices and positions.
  • What’s everyone else doing, thinking, and feeling? Consider the scene from everyone’s perspective.
  • Plays can teach you a lot about dialogue.

In Far From the Tree, Courtney Sina Meredith, Alice Pung, Ruth Clare, Lee Kofman talked about the challenges of writing about loved ones.

On why they chose to write memoirs and when, the authors described writing the books they wanted to read about, unpacking trauma, and writing to work out emotional truths (not to craft a best-seller).

They agreed that the voices of 20 and 35 are different. Ruth Clare said she couldn’t have written her memoir, Enemy, when she was 20. Alice Pung said her memoir, Unpolished Gem (2006), would sound different today.

This isn’t meant to suggest that young women shouldn’t craft memoirs or write autobiographical fiction. Courtney Sina Meredith pointed out that women are often made to feel that they need to be more mature or learn more to write. That’s not generally said of young male writers.

Emerging Writers' Festival 2016 panel writing
Sally Abbott, Lorna Hendry, Michelle Wright, Emma Viskic, and Ruth Clare on Emerging At Any Age. Image: Alan Weedon.

A similar sentiment was echoed in Emerging At Any Age. Sally Abbott, Lorna Hendry, Michelle Wright, Emma Viskic, and Ruth Clare talked about feeling self-protective in their 20s, but their first books are the books they’ve been writing all their lives. This panel tackled the broader issue of “emerging” often being confused with “young”.

In I Have an Idea, Damon Young and Rose Press talked about pitching. They reiterated points made during Pitch Perfect: know the publication and its audience, treat the pitch as you would the piece – with professionalism, enthusiasm, and engagement. Damon used “smart casual” to describe the balance of neat and conventional with relative informality that we should aim to capture in our emails to an editor.

Rose reminded the audience to keep readers at the forefront. A pitch should tell an editor why the publication’s readers would be interested in the story and why you’re the best person to tell it. If you don’t have much of a portfolio, don’t be discouraged, she added; pitch to smaller organisations. She and Damon both agreed that blogs are also great for practice and exposure. Damon added that part of this process is also knowing when not to pitch, when a piece of writing is just for you.

In The Long and Short of It, Robert Watkins, Sally Abbott, Jane Harper, Sarah Vincent, and Kate Mildenhall discussed the steps towards publishing books. They found their way to a publisher via professional writing courses and winning competitions.

Jane Harper praised courses on professional writing, which help demystify writing and helps writers learn more about the industry as well as build their confidence. She recommends courses that give students the opportunity to pitch their work.

Jane also agreed that agents are worth it. Not only are they better at understanding contracts, their ability to negotiate can help maintain a positive relationship between a writer and publisher. They can also pitch the work to overseas publishers.

When is the right time to pitch? How do you get an agent? Robert Watkins said it’s best to pitch a manuscript when it’s ready to be shown, but submitting an unsolicited manuscript is not the easiest way to go. The smoothest road is winning prizes. Competition winners draw the attention of publishers and agents.

In How to Write about Other Forms, Anwen Crawford, Penny Modra, Neha Kale discussed cultural criticism. Approaches to criticism haven’t changed much in the past 20 years, but the Internet has changed the game.

On the Internet, anyone can have a voice and opinion is confused with criticism. Good criticism involves research, knowledge, nuance, is analytical, and presents complicated ideas in uncomplicated ways.

With the Internet, we’ve gone from scarcity to abundance.  The fast pace puts enormous pressures on writers and editors, and there’s a pervasive sense that writing and culture are, or should be, free.

Also, as an artist, never respond to criticism online. My version of this is “never read the comments”.

Emerging Writers' Festival 2016 panel writing
Sophie Allan and Clementine Ford on Literary Entrepreneurs. Image: Alan Weedon.

In Literary Entrepreneurs, Emilie Zoey Baker, Sophie Allan, Bri Lee, A.H. Cayley, and Clementine Ford were meant to talk about how they established successful literary projects, but there is no single path to success. Even after achieving success, it isn’t always clear how they got there (other than hard work and perseverance).

Success is something which we need to define for ourselves. For instance, A.H. Cayley said that whilst her ABC Radio series Confession Booth was objectively successful, it was not financially successful. It’s her baby and she loves it and it helped her build her brand, but she admitted to burning out a lot and doing other jobs to pay the bills.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that writers should work for free when it’s clear that someone is making money off our effort. We all have passion projects and some things that we’re willing to do for little or no money or that we view as investing in our careers. This is an area of constant negotiation.  All the panelists agreed that having a steady job can free you to becoming the writer you want to be.

When it comes to the topics of invoicing and taxes, everyone was pretty much terrified.

The Early Words: Who Tells Our Stories?

With: Neha Kale and Jasmeet Sahi

This panel explored what it’s like to be a writer of colour in Australia. Neha and Jasmeet are both Indian-Australians. I observed two conflicting themes.

The first theme is that writers of colours are encouraged to write about their identity and culture. Both Neha and Jasmeet, as well as a young woman in the audience, expressed having felt pressured to write about India. This is despite the fact that, as immigrants or children of immigrants, we may not have many ties to the countries of our ancestors. It demonstrates how people of colour are always perceived as being Other. It’s no surprise then to discover that when it comes to writers of colours, what publishers want are memoirs. Jasmeet advised against writing a memoir, calling it a trap.

The second theme is that when people of colour write a story set in Australia (or England) and include an Indian character, they are faced with having to defend that choice. This goes back to my point about the Other. An Indian character in a story set in England or Australia shouldn’t need explaining.

I was struck by one young Indian-Australian woman who said she likes to write historical fiction set in England during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. People ask her why she doesn’t write about India. We all agreed that we should be able to write about what we want to, but I couldn’t help but wonder why she isn’t interested in India. Is she convinced by the colonial narrative that places like India don’t have a history, its own periods of social, cultural, intellectual, and artistic movements, or stories worth telling?

The Early Words: Public Writers, Private Lives

With: Damon Young, Ruth Quibell, Alison Croggon

Damon Young and Ruth Quibell interviewed writers about aspects of their writing lives. Most writers don’t earn a living from writing. They have other jobs (e.g. journalism, law) and write around them. If you opt to write full-time, you have to accept that you’ll never have stability.

How does that affect relationships? They panelists identified three models.

  1. The White male model perhaps best captured by Ernest Hemingway that follows, “You have to get used to the fact that I’m a writer, busy and unavailable”, kind of an asshole who leaves all the mundane work to others, mainly the wives.
  2. The female model that puts her writing last, writing around the edges of her husband and her children, or who places her writing on hold until the children are grown.
  3. Alison Croggon’s model in which you learn to switch writing on and off and work through distractions.

Writers work when they can. Some writers write every day, some don’t. Some write in the early morning, some at night, some throughout the day. Writers write when they can.

Damon Young spoke about the aura and mystery that surrounds writers. It’s when a person interrupts you as your scribbling in a notebook or typing on your laptop in a cafe.

“Excuse me, are you a writer?”


“What have you written.” The writer explains.

“Oh, no, I haven’t read that. You should write a bestseller.”

And you wonder if they ever interrupt others.

“Excuse me, are you a doctor? Who have you operated on?”

Writing isn’t a mystery; it’s a job, a skill, a muscle. And the compensation doesn’t add up to the work. Writers write because they have to, but it’s worth asking how valuable is it to you. Don’t think of your writing as a fluffy thing you do on the side.

The Early Words: Money, Money, Money

With: Brodie Lancaster, Jeremy Wortsman, Amy Gray, Sam Ryan

This panel was about the business side of writing and was full of good, practical advice.

Sam Ryan said you need to think about three things: having an ABN, whether you need to register for the GST (only if you earn over $75k a year), and a separate bank account. Have an invoicing and bookkeeping system, and find a good accountant that understands the arts.

Amy Gray shared her system for keeping track of submissions and invoicing. Based on Agile methodology, she uses a white board with columns marked Back Log, In Progress, Delivered, Invoiced, and Paid. She writes the project on a sticky  note and moves it across as the work progresses.

On rates, Amy and Jeremy Wortsman talked about the pros and cons of having a flat rate versus an hourly rate. An hourly rate is not good if you work quick whilst a flat rate is not good if you work slow. There’s also the issue of usage. If a publication will reuse your work over the years, how will that affect your rate? One method is to use a percentage on top of a flat rate. Amy advised getting to know other writers. They will share what editors pay. Jeremy added that professional societies can be helpful with rate surveys as well as contracts.

All the panelists talked about how slow editors can be to pay writers. It is not uncommon to wait weeks, even a couple of months, to get paid. Ask what the terms are and don’t be afraid to follow up. The first time, chase your contact is the most polite way. Escalate your tone slightly the second time, and so forth. Amy said not to be afraid to take other work in the meantime.


Here’s the tl;dr version.

  • Writing is not mysterious. It is a skill that gets better the more you work at it.
  • There’s no such thing as the perfect writing conditions.The pursuit of the perfect conditions for writing is procrastination and likely tied to fear of failure.
  • Writers write when they can.
  • Writer’s block – ain’t nobody got time for that.
  • Writing doesn’t pay much. Most writers don’t earn a living from writing alone and have other jobs. Being financially stable can create the space for you to become the writer you want to be.
  • Be confident. You have to sell yourself. You have to cope with public criticism.
  • Publishers say they want more diversity, but people of colour say they struggle to get their work picked up by publishers.
  • When pitching, know the publication and its audience, its submissions guidelines, and treat the pitch as you would the piece – with professionalism, enthusiasm, and engagement.
  • Agents and professional societies are helpful. Agents know which publishers might be interested in your work, how to approach them, how to pitch to many publishers, and how to take care of admin work. They also understand the insider jargon and contracts. Professional societies can help with rates and contracts also.
  • Finding an agent can be harder than finding a publisher.
  • Winning competitions is a good way to get noticed by a publisher or agent.