Tag Archive | Melbourne Writers Festival

More on the Melbourne Writers Festival

The Melbourne Writers Festival recently completed its 30th annual festival, but this year was my first time attending it. I wrote a few of my observations in a previous blog-post, but since I couldn’t do justice to all I had seen and heard in a single post, I saved some of it for this post.

It would have been impossible to attend everything, so I had to select those sessions I really felt strongly about, sometimes foregoing other sessions that looked just as interesting. There was such a wide variety, and in so many venues, that any festival goer was spoilt for choice.

One session which made a deep impression on me was part of a theme entitled Words and War, which was done in conjunction with the Shrine of Remembrance. The education auditorium is a recent addition to this beautiful building which honours the memories of those who have fallen in war. The setting is a striking one, its forecourt paved with simulated trenches, its walls decorated with paper poppies and its roof a red transparent symbolic poppy through which one can see the main Shrine itself.

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The session I attended – Lest We Remember – was a discussion between Liz Byrski and Clare Wright, hosted by Christina Toomie, and was about those who are marginalised in the writing of history.

Liz Byrski has written 12 non-fiction and 8 fiction books, but her latest, In Love and War: Nursing Heroes is about the experiences of a particular group of nurses and patients. During the Second World War, East Grinstead was an English village close to the airfields used by RAF and American fighter pilots, many of whom suffered horrific burn injuries, so it was the ideal place to build a special hospital for the treatment of burns. This hospital ran along different rules from normal hospitals because of the importance of rehabilitating the badly scarred men, and making them feel as normal as possible. Because of this, the nurses were actively encouraged to fraternise with their patients.

The patients, when interviewed decades later, had only good memories of their time spent there, and of the wonderful nurses. However, many of the nurses had a different version of events. At first, Liz couldn’t find any of the nurses because no proper records had been kept. When she did manage to track some of them down, many wanted to remain anonymous and had never even told their families about the part they had played in the war years. Proof that the history of war is generally told by the men, not the women. Liz trod a difficult path in trying to present both sides of a delicate situation.

Clare Wright is a television writer and producer who, in time for the one hundred years commemoration of the First World War, had embarked on a special series of programmes about Australian soldiers, as remembered by the generations that followed them. She found similar problems to Liz during her research, because every family wants to remember their ancestor as a hero and she found that not all soldiers are the heroes that their families have believed for a hundred years.

How does one present the story of a soldier who might have been shot for cowardice, or who died from what, in the record books, is called SIW: Self Inflicted Wounds? SIW can mean anything from a bullet shot at close range through one’s hand, in order to be exempt from further fighting, to more definite and final suicide. (Fans of television’s Downton Abbey will recognise that some of these issues were raised in that excellent series.)

Later that day I attended a session called Older and Bolder, hosted by the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre. All attendees (mostly older women like myself) were treated to a glass of wine before the event. Chaired by Renata Singer of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, the panel comprised international author Simonetta Agnello Hornby from Italy, actress and author Sarah Winman from the UK, and Shobhaa De from India, all of whom gave their theories on how various societies treat aging women.

Society, it seems, embraces aging men with distinguished grey hair and life experience, but tries to pretend that aging women with grey hair and wrinkled skin are invisible. This is not helped by Hollywood and fashion trends, but women who are aging need to embrace their aging process because the alternative – dying young – isn’t desirable for any of us.

This was an inspiring, empowering session, and perhaps the best example came from a woman who stood up during the Q&A to tell us that she was 48, and had a started playing in an all-girl band a year before, at the age of 47. If anyone had told her when she was 46 that she would do such a thing, she wouldn’t have believed it. She urged everyone in the room to follow their dreams and take ownership of whatever they want to do.

One evening during the following week I listened to two astrophysicists – Brian Schmidt and Katie Mack – talk about the universe. I must confess that this made me feel rather small and insignificant since I didn’t understand most of what they were saying, but my sister enjoyed the session. Not really my thing, but it was interesting to hear something a little different even if it was, pardon the pun, way above my head.

The final session I attended was about adapting a particular series of books into a television series. The Phryne Fisher Murder Mystery books, set in 1920s Melbourne, are written by local author Kerry Greenwood, who agreed to the television rights after meeting Deborah Cox, one of the producers and the chief writer of the adaptations.

I read my first Phryne Fisher book during one of my previous visits to Melbourne, and four books later I have become a firm fan. I have never seen any of the television episodes, so I was eager to find out a little more about it. While I would have loved to hear Kerry Greenwood herself speak, she was not scheduled to be at the session. However, producer Deborah Cox was joined on stage by Ashleigh Cummings, the actress who plays Dot, and the two of them were not only entertaining, but provided plenty of information on why certain stories or books are adapted in ways that differ from the original.

As a fitting footnote to this last story, I visited the historic Melbourne home called Rippon Lea a few days ago, to see an exhibition of the costumes used in the television series. The house itself has on occasion been used as a location for some of the filming, as have parts of the extensive grounds. This beautiful estate is part of the National Trust of Australia, and is very much a working museum which often houses exhibitions of this kind. The ballroom in the grounds of the estate is also a popular wedding venue.

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Romantic Mysteries and the Melbourne Writers Festival

I have to admit that I’m confused. Again. Uploading books to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is not for the faint-hearted. I might have been fearless when I uploaded my first novel four years ago, but I’ve learned to be wary of my biggest stumbling block: Categories.

As an author, you are allowed to choose two categories (genres) to describe your book to would-be purchasers. In each category, there are sub-categories which narrow down the choices so that readers who might enjoy your book can actually find it in a niche which appeals to them. For example, for a novel you would select Fiction, then narrow it down within that by choosing Action & Adventure, further narrow it down to Mystery, Thriller & Suspense and then narrow it down again to Mystery.

Fantastic, you think – you’re now listed amongst your peers! Many peers. Too many peers.

Unfortunately, with around 4,000 titles for readers to choose from in that Mystery category, your book is probably going to be listed on page 390 out of 400 pages. This means that no one is going to find it because no one is going to have the patience to wade through 390 pages to find yours. Likewise with the second category you choose.

Beware, the author who misjudges her initial broad category! I received a less than favourable review from someone who thought that my mystery should have had more action and adventure, and less soppy romance. My romantic mysteries are more about the romance than the mystery, unlike Dan Brown who writes fast-paced, action-filled mysteries.

The trick is to select the category that is most predominant in your book. So I considered re-categorising mine as Romance, followed by Action/Adventure. Fortunately I browsed first and what did I see?  Erotica, sexy adventure, action sex, and so on. Neither the action nor the adventure that I had written about! Clearly a major re-think was needed.

Back in the 1960s, the great Mary Stewart pioneered the genre of Romantic Suspense, or Romantic Mystery. On Amazon, if you choose Romance first and then look for Mystery within that it doesn’t exist, but Suspense does. However, if you browse Amazon using keywords, Romantic Suspense brings up what others call Paranormal Romance – relationships involving werewolves, vampires or other supernatural phenomena. Mary Stewart’s Romantic Suspense novels are not about those things, and neither are mine.

As a confused writer, I attended the Melbourne Writers Festival, thinking that a little insight into current writing trends might help me. I chose my sessions carefully, hopped on a train and opened my mind. Opened it a little too wide, maybe. Shades of Pandora and her troublesome box, perhaps, but I really enjoyed my time at the festival.

The first session I attended was about romance writing, comparing the treatments between the Young Adult and traditional Romance genres, and was entitled Losing It. With a title like that, I should have guessed – but didn’t – that this session was all about losing one’s virginity. YA literature is almost exclusively about this topic, according to one of the panel members, Fiona Wood.

Well, I wouldn’t know, would I? I don’t write YA, and it didn’t exist as a category when I was in that target age group. For the modern YA reader, loss of virginity is more often non-consensual than consensual.

Romance novelist Melanie Milburne agreed that the Romance genre usually follows the same pattern, albeit aimed at a slightly older age group. Even in Historical Romance, the traditional “bodice-rippers” seem to imply that sex is non-consensual. In other words: rape. Well, imagine my shock and horror! I always thought that Romance was supposed to be about… you know, Romantic Stuff.

For example, my novels – my romantic mysteries – centre on the exploration of a mutual quest, in which two people start off on opposing sides and gradually change as the story evolves. The female protagonist gets to know another side of the male hero slowly over the first 100 pages, and their budding relationship is advanced by the mystery they both need to solve.

Along the way, diversions include the occasional picnic or shared bottle of wine, followed by an unexpected awakening of emotions, culminating in a midpoint consummation behind closed doors, heralded by that most diplomatic of writer devices: the chapter break.

In the second half of the novel, the tension notches up as the Bad Guy closes in. The romantic couple cling together through increasing danger, during which they respectively realise that they have each found their life partner through the most extraordinary circumstances, only to possibly lose that person due to the misdeeds of the Bad Guy. When all hope seems lost, the indomitable lovers gain the upper hand, solve the mystery, save each other and restore a new balance before the final Happy Ending.

Just your average falling in love, bells ringing, music and flowers Romance.

That’s certainly how I would like to fall in love and find my life partner. Reality check: maybe that’s why I haven’t found him yet! Second reality check: maybe that’s why the stuff I write is primarily categorised as fiction…

Does this mean I don’t write Romance after all? Should I try a new approach and re-classify my novels as something else?

The words in my novels are not just thrown together in some random order to tell a mediocre story quickly and earn me a fast buck. A lot of thought, planning and research goes into my plots, so they are more than just romances and have a strong historical or artistic theme. They delve back into the history of a particular era or movement, with the emphasis on archaeology, art, lost loves of a previous generation, and so on. Thought provoking stuff, so perhaps what I write could be considered Literary Fiction?

This led me to attend a discussion on Literary versus Genre Fiction. Once again my eyes were shocked into the surprised open position as I learned from writer Krissy Kneen that generally, Literary Fiction seems to be another term for Erotica. Harrison Young, an American-born writer, set out to write what he thought was Literary Fiction, but his novel was re-classified by his publisher as a Thriller. He felt this was unfair because some readers of traditional thrillers thought that his book was too different from the norm, and not to their usual thriller tastes.

Writer Honey Brown confessed that she didn’t think about genre at all when writing, because that was for her publisher to sort out. I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of jealousy for both these two writers – lucky them for having publishers to take on the task of deciding on categories!

As a last resort, I attended a session on Women’s Fiction. It came as no surprise that Women’s Fiction is all about politics: the politics of domestic abuse, the politics of the glass ceiling for women in a so-called “man’s world” and the politics of women fighting against any ingrained, immovable system. This is very noble stuff, and I have the deepest respect for the people who write it. It is obviously extremely popular, judging from the queues of people (mainly women) waiting to get in the door at this session.

Unfortunately my writing is far too frivolous to be this noble, this edgy. I don’t write about politics – the single biggest reason why I was unable to find a publisher in South Africa. Some do, some don’t write Women’s Fiction. I happen to fall into the latter group.

Towards the end of the session, a woman in her 70s stood up at the back and asked: “Why is no one mentioning Chick-Lit? Surely that falls under Women’s Fiction too?” Despite the fact that the floor was carpeted, you could’ve heard a pin crashing onto it if someone had dared to drop one in the ensuing silence. The bemused expressions on the faces of the panel members made me want to laugh out loud.

The term Chick-Lit doesn’t seem to be used anymore – it’s now called Romantic Comedy – but regardless of the label, its writers have a knack for comic timing that I can only dream about. While what I write is light and frothy, fairly clean and thought by at least one reviewer to be “more Hallmark channel than cable,” I cannot claim to be a writer of Chick-Lit, but I do enjoy reading it.

One theory remained constant through all the eye-opening which I experienced at this festival. Cross-genre writers definitely need to first choose the category which reflects the main genre of the book. As explained by Harrison Young (whose Literary Fiction novel became a Thriller), writers cannot afford to disappoint habitual readers of any genre. We must give readers what they expect, plus something extra that they didn’t realise they wanted. Maybe it will expand their reading horizons, and they will come back for more. I took his words to heart and made my decision on my Amazon categories based on them.

So, after all that, what did I choose? Romance and Mystery, of course. In Romance I have chosen the sub-category of Suspense, and in Mystery I have chosen the sub-category of Cozy. Let’s see how that works out. Watch this space…

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