Tuesday, June 5, 2012

So You Want To Be A Writer? A QWC session with Christopher Currie, Angela Slatter, and Benjamin Law.

I had the absolute pleasure of attending this Queensland Writers Center ‘Industry IQ’ on Saturday, and I’m just so motivated now. So stoked, and so totally keen. I booked into it about three months ago, totally forgot about it, then lost my shit when I got sent the reminder email about it a week ago. Immediately began doing piles of research on the speakers, which I will abbreviate here for you now:

Christopher Currie
Works at Avid Reader (my favourite indie bookseller in the world, and the place where I did this and saw this) and is wearing a nice check shirt like usual and has recently published his first novel The Ottoman Hotel which has been nominated for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize! Congratulations! He blogs at http://furioushorses.com/ .

Angela Slatter

Is a speculative fiction writer who used to do normal people professions until she was 37, then got super cool and started writing. Her short stories have been published in tons of anthologies and journals, and she has been shortlisted for the Aurealis Award four years in a row. Shazam. She’s currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing, and her website is http://www.angelaslatter.com/ .

Benjamin Law
Is a little bit of a hero of mine. Especially now that he’s wearing a Jurassic Park Tshirt. He contributes regularly to Frankie, The Monthly, and QWeekend. His first book The Family Law might just be beaten in awesomeness by his second one due to be released later this year. His snazzy website is http://www.benjamin-law.com/ .

Also to be mentioned was the interviewer/questioner Aimee Lindorff who was funny and respectful and chaired things very well indeed. I mean, I wouldn’t mention it unless it was good, and I dunno, she just seemed really good at what she was doing. I searched and searched, but couldn’t find a blog or any kind of web presence. But she works for QWC. Duh.

Anyways, the event was held in the State Library, which is always awesome, and there were two guys from QUT recording the whole thing – apparently I’ll get an email about how to watch it, so I’ll let you know about that when I find out. The format of the day was to hear from each of these incredible authors individually and consecutively as they are listed above, and then a short break, and then a question-and-answer session.

For some reason I though the audience would be young. You know, like, under 30. I guess I just presumed that older people would already know if they wanted to be a writer or not. How stupid is that. Ugh, I just get so angry at myself sometimes. What an idiotic presumption. I mean, Angela Slatter didn’t even really start until she was 37 and look how great she is! And as if we all know what we really want to do. Writing is the surest I’ve ever been about wanting to do anything (aside from in primary school when I was SURE I was going to be an Egyptologist) and I’m still wasting my time at uni studying law. ‘You need that piece of paper!’ they say. And in the meantime, which is six years for a Law/Arts degree, you don’t have a lot of hours to do what you love, and you kind of get into the idea that, hey, maybe law IS what I want to do? And then BAM you’re in your deathbed made of money and rubies and you’re eating baked money and you’re like NOOOOOOOOOO I could have been great! Why did I wallow away doing proper things when I should have could have and would have done magical things! Unless you’re a judge, because that’s pretty great. But I don’t think I could get that far. 

I digress.

I’m not going to re-cap the whole thing, mainly because it will be available for you to watch when the recording is finalised, but here are some of the key messages that these professionals (professional at BEING AWESOME, THAT IS) wanted to get through to us wannabes:

Christopher Currie

“Be as realistic as you can.” Don’t expect any great success in the first ten years. That it’s “not going to be like in the movies where you’re a tortured genius with a rusty typewriter hanging around in bars all day,” because the people who work the hardest and are the smartest are the ones that get further.

“If you’re the sort of person who knows they want to be a writer, then you will succeed.” It’s about really knowing it, and the difference between just thinking it and making it your numero uno. A lot of people he went to uni with thought they might like to be a writer – but it’s not enough.

“It’s important to remember that there’s no ONE way to get published,” and that it’s always one step at a time. I think this point is particularly relevant when you hear how each of these three people got to where they are now – extremely different paths of life, all with successful outcomes. So don’t limit your thinking to just what’s been done before you.

“Consume media at a crazy rate.” I remember Stephen King also said once, that if you don’t have the time to read, then you don’t have the time to write. Later on the three of them were talking about how to tell when what you’re working on is finally done or still needs more work – and the answer was, that at the beginning you don’t know, but you read others’ work more and more to get a better idea of what yours should eventually feel like.

“Remove your ego. Don’t get too precious about the sanctity of your art.” Let people edit your work, because they’ll make it better. Always be willing to adapt and learn.

“When you start out, take every opportunity possible.” Christopher did student newspapers, RSL newsletters, and websites that never got made. You build your skills bit by bit and no experience is ever a waste. Be prepared to write things you might not have normally chosen.

“There’s a lot of competition, but at the same time, a lot of people don’t have the talent to put words together in a pleasing way, and people will need your talents.”

“At this stage, be prepared to work for free.” All three writers mentioned their volunteer experiences with street press, the QWC, and other things. It gives you knowledge that sets you apart from the masses, and also gets you contacts. “At this stage, it’s like free writing practice.” Lol. True.

“Writing is what you’re doing, not who you are.”

And finally, Christopher finished up with a list of ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ that he wished he knew:

·      DO follow the guidelines that the publishers/journals give out. Then you’re halfway there.
·      DON’T enter expensive competitions, you can’t afford to. Also, don’t buy all of their back issues when they tell you to. Make sure you’re familiar with their publication, but go online or to the library. Be smart with your money.
·      DO take every opportunity, even if it’s a little different than what you’d expect.
·      DO treat writing like a profession if you want to be a professional writer.
·      DO read as much and as widely as you can.
·      DO let the success of other writers spur you on. They’ll always get better before you, so be envious, but then figure out how they did it and do it too.
·      DON’T buy into the ‘failure fetish’ a lot of writers’ advice has (when you make a pinboard/shrine out of your rejection letters and ‘harness your rejection’ or whatever) because it’s bullshit. Get rejected and then MOVE ON – don’t obsess about it.
·      DO be nice to other writers, but
·      DON’T put up with dickheads and posers.
·      DO be good at public speaking. If you’re scared of it, get unscared quickly. It helps to read your work out loud even to yourself, and it helps with events like this.

Next to speak was Angela Slatter.

Angela was living in Sydney and miserable at 37, and decided she wanted to try writing before 40 – so she quit her job and just wrote for six months, then realised she needed some personal/proper/professional training, and so went to QUT. From there she did her masters and her fist collections came from that. In fact, she published ALL of the stories from her masters in various magazines and journals. Then she started her PhD, which she is currently continuing, and she’s also had two collections of her short stories published. She’s also funny. I thought she was really funny. And chilled out, too.

“Don’t restrict your thinking to Australia.” She got published overseas quite early on in her literary career, and sometimes the market for what you do can be better or bigger in another country too. Keep thinking outside of the box.

“The submission guidelines aren’t guidelines – they are God’s law.” Don’t argue with them. When it comes to font and practical layout and format, don’t try to be different or creative, you just need to give them exactly what they want.

“Behave professionally. Don’t be crazy! Or at least keep the crazy pushed deep down inside.” Apparently there are tons of insane people in this industry who are just unreliable and instable, and it goes a long way if you can just appear relatively normal.

“Quarantine your writing time. Be Nazi-like about it.” I think this point adds to the professionalism thing Christopher talked about. If you want to be a professional, treat writing as your profession. Quarantine your writing time.

“If you end up on lists, you’re lucky and people will notice you – but having said that, awards don’t make you a better writer.” You can get your name on that list, but if you don’t publish afterwards or if you publish crap stuff afterwards, the list don’t matter.

“Don’t compare yourself to other writers, because that way leads madness. And a lot of writers’ block.” Every writer has such a different process, and led such a different life to get to where they are now. Don’t dwell on what they’re doing otherwise you’ll stifle yourself and block your own good process/practice.

Last to speak was Benjamin Law.

Benjamin’s main difference from Christopher and Angela, is that he ONLY does freelance work, and ONLY non-fiction. He led us through his life as a writer chronologically, from the time when he was young and just wanted to be a logie-winning soap actor, to now when he is a full-time writer. (As Aimee put it, a “Writer” with a capital ‘W’.)

During his teenage years he stopped reading books and got really into magazines, with subscriptions to Rolling Stone and Juice and Spin and otcetera. Obviously with a focus on music journalism, he also loved the hard-hitting pieces that RS published in each issue about “politics and gender identity. Being exposed to that level of journalism as a teenager was eye-opening.” He started writing letters to the editor, and when one of them was chosen as the letter of the month he got sent a stereo, and that was the best he got paid as a writer for a long time. LOL.

So then he was graduating highschool, and had planned to enroll in journalism, but at the last minute he changed to creative writing – and that’s exactly what happened with Christopher! They both just kind of flipped at the last minute. Benjamin didn’t like the idea that in hard-hitting news journalism you have to be absent from the written story. He wanted to make things emotive and creative. So the three of them were pretty much in the same intake at QUT!

While at university, he saw the older students scrambling around realising that “no editor cares about your GPA.” And so he started work experience at Rave and gradually got himself a nice collection of bylines. Whilst there he also learnt a super great deal of valuable information about the industry. What editors like, and what the layout guys like, and when to submit things, and when to pitch things etc etc. The other thing he learnt from uni and work experience was how nice Brisbane is for new authors on the block. He said: “don’t get into the mindset where other writers are competition,” they are community, and we should “form an ecosystem where we help each other out.”

Then he graduated from the undergrad program, began his honours (or was it masters? Sorry!) and started working at the Courier Mail. By this stage he had also written for various other magazines and publications, and so he had a few notches in his belt. He knew what was involved in editing and writing.

Around this time he made his own magazine. And it ran for three issues. And again, we all laughed.

He tells the story about being drunk at a Belle & Sebastian concert where he met a friend from uni who was now in the publishing industry and asked Benjamin if he would be interested in a little magazine they were starting up called ‘Frankie’. Of course he was interested, so he took a train to the coast to meet the woman setting it all up, and they talked about what magazines they liked and what magazines they didn’t like, and that’s how the Frankie chapter of his life began.

He finished his honours (that’s what I have in my notes, so it must be honours, not masters, right?) and got a scholarship for his PhD that gave him a financial security blanket. He was also working at Avid Reader (Damn, they’re good!) for five years, and he tutored at uni. And this is where my notes stop. Oh hang on, one last quote: “If you stop writing you get really really bad really quickly. It’s not like riding a bike.”

So there you go!

The question and answer section had some interesting stuff, but you can watch that when it comes out, because trying to transcribe it was a bit of a nightmare, and my notes are a mishmash of who said what when.

I suppose the general message that I took away from the session, was that you CAN do it, you just have to get up and DO IT. I’m not going to try and be cool and detached and say that I wasn’t moved. I’m not going to lie, this session really inspired me. To see people sitting just metres away from me, people from Brisbane, people who were writers with a capital ‘W’, and that they’re human beings, made from essentially the same marrow and cells as me (especially Christopher because we’re both gingers),  it just made me feel like the idea of doing what I love for a living is really possible.

I’m typing this up at 6:45 am (THAT MEANS IN THE MORNING) in the UQ Law Library, with a seriously intense load of exams speeding up towards me, and this idea is like the light at the end of the tunnel. Come holiday time, I’ll be planning my exhibition and writing (hopefully for Rave, it’s in the works) and writing for myself. My brother and I are going to play Diablo 3 together, and watch Prometheus approximately one trillion times, and he’s finally going to teach me how to ride his motorbike. I’m going to spend some time in the countryside reading, and I’m going to try and get a holiday job to pay for some new subscriptions. Right now, I’m reading for exactly 2 hours each day, and writing a little bit in the library in the mornings before I study, and I would love to do both of those things a lot lot more.

I suppose that was really too much information. Ummmmm I’m going to go now. BUT I have some exciting news to share with you as soon as I’m allowed. And some cool pictures of fire I want to upload. They’re cool. You’re cool. Especially if you got this far. Thanks.

1 comment:

  1. Also, this was very interesting and I wrote it all down to my notebook, unsurprisingly.


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