SWF – Secondary School Day of inspiration

Sydney Writers’ Festival’s Secondary School Days program invites students to celebrate the world of literature and ideas. The program is designed to inspire enquiring minds with an ideas-packed day of in-depth discussions about books, writing and creativity.

So I fell for the blurb and booked 20 student tickets, and two teachers, to attend this year. Despite having a creative writing elective, only five students had paid by the deadline! Groan. Wince. Organising an excursion, no matter how interesting it seems, takes time and I sometimes ask: why do we do this to ourselves?

Fortunately, the SWF organisers understood and I negotiated a reduced payment. So it was that five keen young writers and myself caught three trains to arrive at Carriageworks, Redfern for our first Secondary School Day. The following comments are taken from my notes across four different presentations in two blocks, with an hour lunch break. Fortunately, each author presented their ideas in a different format and kept us engaged, even though some suggestions were similar to previous speakers.

Jesse Andrews: how to make funny happen

Jesse’s performed more like a stand-up comedian, which I thought was an interesting choice to open the day. Surely this style would be better at the end of the day to keep people awake?

Admitting that he had not prepared a formal talk or speech, Jesse went on to suggest that he didn’t know how to make ‘funny’ but he had some ideas on how to NOT make funny happen – like things to rule out. After a brief bio about his European travels after finishing college studies in Art History, he returned to California and wrote a book without a plot that no-one wanted to read. Undeterred, he wrote a second book where he relieved characters from ‘the tyranny of plot’ that was ‘magically terrible’ but did contain lots of sex and drugs.

                                      I don't know

After asking his father to read the second book, Jesse commented that his dad thought he might need some time out and asked him to move home. Yet 6 years later, working in a range of different jobs, he asked himself: is this what I want to do if I don’t get published?

Around this time, he heard about the genre of YA (Young Adult) fiction. He hadn’t seen anything like this on library shelves when he was growing up int the 90s, but it gave him a different focus: think about being a writer who entertains kids. He finished by saying that if you want to get funny, you have to find the scary, sad part of yourself and show it to people – a kind of reversal of expectations. Jesse then took questions on:

  • process: first draft – just try to get something real on the page – that will make someone feel. Next day – read and change. Publishing is just like sending your child to kindergarten in that you nervously wait to see if they’ll make friends or end up being bullied or ignored.
  • film adaptations: a book is a story told one way, while a movie is a story told in a different way.
  • inspiration: ‘dumb ass’ friends inspired his comedic style. Why not be a stand up comedian? You have a thousand chances to get it funny on the page, but only one chance when on stage.

Alison Croggon: facing your monsters

Alison began by apologising for not ‘winging it’ like Jesse, and that she had prepared a written speech. I thought this might send the audience to sleep, especially since we had already begun squirming on hard, uncomfortable seats. However, Alison had us mesmerised by her childhood of brutality and economic abuse inflicted on her mum and siblings by their father.

But, there were ways to escape this horrid life, including walking and watching the moon, as well as reading. Books became her friends – she was the shy, brainy girl with glasses and was regularly bullied at school. Having read Lord of the Rings at the age of 10, Alison ‘lived and breathed’ Tolkien and developed an ambition to writer her own LOTR – she actually wrote 100 pages with a black fountain pen.

Alison suggested that escapist, or speculative, fiction can be labelled pejoratively or dismissed, yet imaginative realities are compelling for many as they are a reflection of our own world. She discussed Ursula le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea and outlined how the protagonist’s anger produced the blackest of spells. So, speculative fiction often involves the examination of the darker parts of ourselves, and a struggle to overcome our ‘monsters’. This struggle is exactly why we are worth knowing – moral dramas can help us deal with our own dilemmas (even if we don’t realise it … yet).

After a brief discussion about the content of her most recent books, Alison took questions on:

  • co-writing Fleshers with her husband, Daniel Keene: it was really fun! Have previously collaborated with my playwright husband for theatre. We each create different characters, and plan/write five chapters ahead. What’s really brilliant is we each think it’s the other person’s responsibility to finish the book.
  • creating a character: it often happens out of my subconscious, in that people just ‘turn up’ in the story. Aim to create someone real who people will care about. the character needs to be emotionally real for me, fully rounded – be honest about their emotional reactions in different situations, and aim to create an interesting emotional arc.
  • creating a world: it’s all about character and place. Begin there – a dot of interaction on the page, and fill out the map and allow the character to grow as they move through the landscape. Make laws that support a coherent reality. Real characters moving through the world – detail matters.
  • making an idea fit: my writing is an organic process – I never really plan. Each story is grown as the writing continues. It’s an internal process like a black box: start with a blank page and fill it up …
                   lunch time diversion: cash register poetry

Patrick Ness: stories are wild creatures

When we returned after lunch, the stage was set with two blue chairs and we knew that Patrick would be interviewed by our host, Will Kostakis. It seemed there wouldn’t be many questions for students to ask at the ned, but that thought was proved to be wrong. Patrick began by saying that when he was younger, he thought it would be embarrassing to admit his ambition of wanting to be a writer: he thought only famous people wrote books. He decided to write anyway. Spite and defiance are good motivators for writing.

After discussing his childhood with an father who served in the army, and a deeply religious family, Patrick learned the rules of obedience and also learned how he could do as how he could do as he chose. His parents would drop him at the library, but never bothered to check what he was reading, so he was able to ‘read up’, to read inappropriately, to read way beyond his age expectations. He recommends young people do the same.

He refuses to listen to anyone’s advice about writing by limiting genre or audience – write what you want to write. Patrick believes that a good story can take place anywhere. Write the book you would love to read. Books are personal and private things, so stick to your convictions.

When writing screenplays, the current rend is to do ‘re-shoots’, a sort of write-as-you-go. shoot a scene and see what works. Both film and prose are storytelling, and the opportunity to write screenplays allows Patrick to keep growing and learning more about writing.

Questions from the audience included:

  • process: never do an outline. when writing a novel, he likes to know two or three big things, and the story develops from a series of short journeys that explain how the character/s get there. He stated that no-one needs to know your process, but he prefers to work to a goal rather than a time limit eg. a set word count rather than a number of hours per day.
  • writer’s block: do something different. Patrick is a distance runner, and finds it liberating to get outside and away from the page. sometimes, he has just written about the block itself, free writing about the ‘big stuck’ and this can sometimes solve the situation.
  • inspirational authors: Susan Cooper and read widely – had limited access to books at home, but did read all The Little House on the Prairie books. Read The Color Purple at 14.
  • advice: write a whole book finish it, not just a few chapters and then try to find an agent.
  • characters: there’s no right way to do this. Try starting with one character and get them talking: who would they be friends with?

Kirsty Eager: keeping it real

Kirsty’s presentation was an emoji inspired powerpoint in pink and white. This might not sound so good, but it was actually quite engaging. She had a series of question prompts and answers that flowed throughout her hour long session.

  • why am I a writer? 1. I’m a massive reader 2. I love to daydream, and work hard at going over my daydreams and finessing them 3. I quite enjoy telling lies.
  • on writing: read Stephen King’s book On Writing at the age of 15, and found a quote near the end – what are you waiting for? – to be a huge risk, but secretly inspiring. When she began writing as an adult while living in London and working in the world of finance, she thought that real feelings aren’t always comfortable, so she’d write what would get published. So she wrote a financial thriller with a strong female lead. She found an agent, but the manuscript failed to attract a publisher. So she wrote another book, but a strange magical story cam out and she was dropped by her agent. A friend consoled her with ‘at least you’ve tried’ and ‘I just want you to be happy’. But this disturbed Kirsty, and she wrote another book that was published.

Kirsty also discussed the plan and process of overcoming plot points in her latest novel Summer Skin. She started with the setting of uni and college life, thinking about her own experiences as a young adult and the males she met who were living in college. Characters were developed, but did she really want to write a romance? Stereotypical romance makes Kirsty want to vomit, so she thought she would change things and was intrigued by Julian Short’s book An Intelligent Life: a practical guide to relationships, intimacy and self-esteem, which was recommended by a friend. This has led her to attempt working with Short’s suggested emotional ‘monkey brain’ where people are primarily driven by two innate (and prehistorical) urges:

  1. a sense of belonging to the tribe
  2. whether we feel we have the power to hold our own territory

for her female and male protagonists. We’ll all have to read her book to see if this works.


Professional Images (all other photographs are mine)

– Sydney Writers Festival logo: official webiste

– Jesse Andrews: Getty Images

-Alison Croggon: https://www.readings.com.au/news/the-story-of-my-book-black-spring-by-alison-croggon

– Patrick Ness: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/childrens-book-of-the-week-release-by-patrick-ness-d2r9cf0n9

– Kirsty Eager: http://bookedout.com.au/find-a-speaker/author/kirsty-eagar/


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