Sunday, August 26, 2007

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Day One

Yesterday, I attended five sessions. Might seem like a lot, but when there are two things at opposite ends of the day you want to see, you tend then to fill in the rest of the time with other bookings. This year, the festival organisers have changed the session times, overlapping them in the various theatres so that there is no longer the sardine can crush that can drive people to distraction. Also they have moved the bookshop out to an outside marquee - having a hundred people in a bookshop on the mezzanine at a time led to elbow jabs, foot stamping and bad tempers. Nothing like a festival goer who can't get a decent look at the books.
They've said that many of the sessions are booked out, but maybe everyone saved their ticket buying for the second weekend. It seemed to me that most things were well-attended but not overflowing.

Session 1 - Jeffrey Deaver
JD was entertaining and had plenty of good advice for aspiring writers, such as "Look at rejection as a speed hump, not a brick wall". Considering his first two novels were so bad he shredded them to destroy all evidence of their existence, the third was rejected by everyone in existence and then the fourth finally made it, he's had some experience of this. He likes to visualise his books, play them in his head like a movie, and says you should get right into the heads of all of your characters, good and bad, so you know how they're thinking and how they will behave.
For each book, he spends eight months outlining (150 page outline!), two months writing and two months rewriting. Rewriting might mean 30 or more drafts. To help the outline process, he uses Post-it notes and cards pinned to the wall, and it allows him to write scenes out of order if he wants to. His favourite philosopher is Clint Eastwood, especially Dirty Harry who said "A wise man knows his limitations." (My favourite CE quote is: I tried being reasonable - I didn't like it.) He also quoted Mickey Spillane, who said "People don't read books to get to the middle, they read to get to the end."
Deaver doesn't put a lot of specific gore in his stories. He believes his job is to entertain, not to repulse readers, and he doesn't write for himself, he writes for the fans. Hence the new book with a new main character, Kathryn Dance - reader response to her appearance in another novel was so great that she now has a series of her own.

Session 2 - Vendela Vida
I had not heard of this writer before, but the program guide said she was going to talk about how a writer edits their own novels (as in, when you get up the next morning and everything you wrote the day before is horrible). This blurb attracted a good audience, but the interviewer didn't seem to realise that was what people were waiting to hear, so there were plenty of questions about that aspect afterwards.
Vida is a co-editor of The Believer magazine, and also a fiction writer. Her first novel was And Now You Can Go, about a girl who is nearly shot by a man in a park one afternoon. This originally started out as 450 pages, but when she re-read it after finishing it, only the first 10 pages were any good, so she threw out the rest and started again. She writes literary fiction, but believes that plot involves consequences; if there are no consequences to characters' actions, there is no story.
She also talked about how, after making such a mess of her first novel, she then joined a writers' group as she realised she needed good feedback to make sure she didn't mess up again. Other points of interest - she wrote a lot more before she had a baby (big surprise!), but since then her and her husband have thrown out their TV, and two months ago they gave up the internet. Both things were consuming reading and writing time, and now they're gone.
She talked about writing 1000 words every day (which means getting up at 4.30am), and it was interesting how many people in the audience were amazed/stunned by this. In question time, three different people came back to the 1000 words thing, but the stark truth is - if you want to write novels, that's what you do. A page or two now and then when you feel like it is not going to get you a novel, not anytime soon at least. (Deaver said if you want to write for a living, you have to produce books regularly, at least one a year.)

Session 3 - Clive James talking about his poetry
This was a wide-ranging session about poetry writing (a poem consists of phrases joined together), influences (AD Hope, Larkin, Yeats), comic poetry (which he says has ruined his chances of being accepted as a serious poet), reviews and criticism (if you live long enough, you'll bury your critics) and melancholy (he suffers from it but stays busy). He also said "If you're not depressed, you don't know what's going on."
There was a lot of reciting of poems he knew by heart, plus more readings from his collected works. However, he did not read "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered", which he says was his breakthrough poem.

Session 4 - J.S. Harry
Harry is a well-known Australian poet, and I like her poetry. Her new book is a series of poems about a rabbit who travels around the world. The poems are accessible and interesting - I haven't read the book yet, although I did buy it.
However, I was sitting to one side in the seating, and Harry faced the other side with her head down for much of the first half of the session, so that all I could see was hair. A bit weird, as if her voice was coming out of somewhere else. She read a lot of poems, and the interviewer didn't seem to have many useful questions to ask. Maybe I was tiring by then, but it was a disappointing session as there was no discussion of poetry much at all, and the question time went off into a whole lot of stuff about Iraq (there is a session on poetry and Iraq on Sunday).

Session 5 - The Death of the Short Story
Everyone must be sick to death of this topic by now! They wheel it out every year, and Cate Kennedy, one of the panellists, said she'd now been asked to speak about it at three different festivals this year. So it was no surprise that no one had anything new to say about it. The first speaker, Rjurik Davidson, seemed unprepared and rambled on about nothing much, and had little to contribute. A pity, as his background is speculative fiction and he could have talked about short fiction in that area and given everyone a good insight into what was happening. Instead he mentioned it briefly and then waffled a bit more. (I get annoyed with panellists who are paid to be there but don't do the work.)
Nam Le's writing of short stories is US-focused, so he talked about the differences between there and here: the MFA programs in the US are geared to short stories through the workshop process and connected journals; they have a strong base of high quality journals as markets (the New Yorker gets a 1000 stories a week); there is a sense in the US that short fiction is a good training ground for new writers and is worth supporting.
Cate Kennedy was great, as always. She played with the metaphor of the short story as "endangered", so we had: space for short fiction these days is "poached" by real life stories; the combination of shrinking markets (in Australia) and more people writing and making publishing more competitive means a "loss of habitat"; we also suffer from "predation by other species" such as TV, internet, etc. She was succinct and funny, but also optimistic that the short story will continue. As always, the big question is how to get people to read more of them.
One person in the audience mentioned a series of readings of short fiction by well-known actors at the Wattle Cafe near Eltham - he said they have been incredibly popular and the actors are going to be taking the show on the road.


Tracey said...

Hmm, I'll have to do separate comments because it won't let me view the post as I'm writing them.

The Deaver session comments: I really like his metaphor for rejection.

Re his outlining process. I wonder if he uses the Ken Follett method where he writes what I'd think about as a "normal type" outline, then expands it, then expands it again etc until it's almost a full novel. You can see that this is a great way of getting plot happening, because essentially he's spent four times longer on the planning stages than he has on the actual writing.

Tracey said...

Vida's session -- yes, consequences should be a given, but it's amazing how many students don't get this. So they'll have a huge storm and then afterwards the sun's shining and all that roof tin and uprooted trees that were blowing around have magically disappeared. I'll bet the New Orleans council would like to know how to make it all go away like that. And apart from the fact that it's totally ludicrous, it's such a wasted opportunity for conveying extraordinary setting.

However, it must have been frustrating to go to a session that was supposedly about one thing and then have it be about something else!

Clive James also sounds like it was worthwhile. Insightful.

Tracey said...

The Harry session sounds a bit disappointing. I'll never book to go to a reading unless the author is known to be a fantastic reader, and even then... I go along for the insights to writing. I'd rather read the work at my own leisure. Plus there's the problem of the poor reader who massacres great work, or the fantastic reader who's able to make stodgy stuff sound enticing.

The death of the short story -- yes, I've definitely been to sessions on this before. I suppose the US is able to be more supportive of the form in general because the reading audience is so much larger. They should have room for everything. I was interested when David Hartwell came to Clarion South and gave us his insights on the differences in the spec fic market, and how over there the distinctions between science fiction and fantasy are much more closely adhered to, whereas we have a lot more that crosses boundaries in ways that wouldn't be accepted over there. It was an eye-opener for a lot of people -- especially on why they couldn't get stories that were celebrated here through the door. Very interesting, and surprising, because again I thought they'd have more room for this, not less.