Speculative Fiction Festival wrap up

I managed to make it back from a work trip to Melbourne in time to attend most of the NSW Writers’ Centre Speculative Fiction Festival on Saturday. Overall impressions were good. It’s the first writing festival that I’ve attended and I enjoyed listening to the various speakers. Many of the themes discussed are explored in some of the podcasts that I listen to (the rise of the eBook, challenges facing small publishers etc), but it was interesting putting faces to names and hearing a few different voices (Australian spec fic podcasts seem to be dominated by a lot of the same circle of commentators).

I didn’t schmooze the crowd or try to make solid contacts, but I did get a chance to talk with some people and hear about what they were working on. One young woman, Lynda R Young, told me a bit about a story she was working on that sounded very interesting – I hope she gets it along further. I also caught up with a couple of people who attended a workshop with me earlier in the year.

The known authors and publishers tended to travel in packs, but when I bumped into individuals (lining up to get a cup of tea etc) they were unfailingly pleasant and generous with their time and attention. It had the feeling of a real community – not one that I am fully a part of, but not closed off either.

The festival was curated by Kate Forsyth.

Opening Address – Pamela Freeman

I missed the first part of the opening address, but from where I joined proceedings Pamela was discussing the history of speculative fiction, tracing its origins through Biblical fiction through ancient times and into a more modern context (although is fiction speculative if the people of the time actually believed it was a true account of the world?).

She explored the division between superstition and custom, then made an interesting observation about the relatively recent trend towards non-human adversaries (think vampires and aliens). She maintained that there was a competing tension between our recent ascension to the top of the food chain (since the advent of “portable ballistics” i.e. the repeating rifle) and the consequent disquiet we feel as our evolutionary instincts tell us there should be something out there that can eat us, combined with our innate sense that we are are the smartest thing around.

She contended that this has lead us to create external foes to fight – things that are at least as smart as us but even meaner, rather than rely on foes extrapolated from the natural world.

It was an interesting discussion which I quite enjoyed thinking about and made a good opening to the day.

Session 2 – Publishers Talk

Chaired by: Russell B. Farr (Ticonderoga)

Panel: Stephanie Smith (Voyager), Zoe Walton (Random House – children’s publisher), Claire Craig (children’s publisher – Pan Macmillan) and Keith Stevenson (Coeur de Lion Publishing).

Panel discussion, focusing on innovation in the publishing world.

Lot of talk about trends and the “by the time you can recognise a trend it is too late to jump on the bandwagon” syndrome (with the apparent exception of paranormal romance). I tend to think this is right – the timeframes involved in writing something and then getting it published means that even if you immediately started writing something “trendy”, by the time it could possibly be published the market would have moved on. A theme of the conference from both authors and publishers was to write the novel you want to, and accept the fact that you might have to wait for its time to come.

Someone did ask if the publishers didn’t set trends, who did? The general answer seemed to be “no one knows”. There are such a variety of factors that impact on what readers will get enthusiastic about including other media such as television, and sometimes those factors can be fleeting. Stephanie Smith from Voyager talked about writing that pushes and blurs boundaries as a possible trigger for a new trend.

The publishers all spoke about the factors taken into account when deciding on whether to proceed with a manuscript – the portfolio of books the currently have, how the book compares to current offerings, age balance (for young adult), series vs stand alone. I’ve heard similar discussions before, but you can always learn something new listening to different people talk. The take away was the usual one – rejections can be for a number of reasons, and even a good quality manuscript may be rejected if it doesn’t meet other criteria.

Some things I took away from the session included:

  • There seemed to be some agreement that in a world that naturally seemed to produce trilogies, there was some appetite for good quality stand alone novels.
  • There was some general enthusiasm for good quality humorous novels, but a general acceptance that genuinely funny writing is very rare.
  • That a letter from most manuscript assessment services means nothing to the publishers. If authors need to use the service to get an independent perspective that is fine, but it won’t move you up the priority list for consideration.
  • Recent economic turmoil has really squeezed middle tier writers – harder than ever to get started.
  • Social media is seen as an important channel for authors to build brand loyalty with readers, but is not always an indicator of future success.
  • For the young adult market, the new national curriculum specifically mentions speculative fiction which might provide some opportunities.

Session 3 – Different Voices, Different Journeys

Chaired by: Jack Heath

Panel: Paul Garrety, Stuart Daly, Dawn Meredith, Claire Corbett

This panel was made up of authors that have recently had their first novels published. Some interesting insights into their journey to publication, although as always the insights are so specific to the individual author as to not be applicable directly to anyone else. There were the usual differences in opinion about things like detailed plotting vs more free form writing, whether or not to use an agent and whether an agent will even pick up a first novel author (three out of the four panelists didn’t have an agent even after their first publication).

Still it was good to see another (former) public servant (Claire Corbett) make good.

The panel chair Jack Heath was entertaining and kept his own comments minimal and the focus on the panel members (probably one of the better efforts on that front for the day).

Session 4 – Spearheading New Directions in Speculative Fiction

Chaired by: Alan Baxter (author and publisher at Blade Red Press – in hiatus)

Panel: Keith Stevenson (Coeur de Lion), Stuart Mayne, Russell B. Farr (Ticonderoga) and David Henley (Seizure magazine)

Panel consisting of small press publishers and editors. I was interested in this session to see what people are looking at in the small press end of the market.

Engaging discussion about the changes for small press publishers over the last 15 years. Was particularly interested in the discussion on the economics of small press publishing. The improvement in print on demand technologies has been quite dramatic, and it seems like it is making the money side of small press publishing more manageable. Keith Stevenson showed an example of a print on demand version of his latest anthology, which looked really good.

There was some talk about the way authors can generate income streams from stories – looking carefully at print rights, electronic printing, audible printing, magazines and anthologies – Alan Baxter spoke about selling one story four times as a personal record.

Also raised was one of the issues I’ve been giving some thought to. The spread of eBooks has been quite phenomenal, but the increase in self publishing has had me wondering about how a reader goes about finding good quality works (e.g. there are over 35,000 titles in the Kindle store on Amazon in the Science Fiction and Fantasy categories). There was some discussion across the festival about social networks as a form of “word of mouth” recommendations (e.g. goodreads.com) but in this panel there was a lengthy discussion about publishers in general (and small press in particular) as a trusted brand – a way of sending a message about the quality of a particular piece of work.

Session 5 – Speculative Fiction: A Many Headed Monster

Chaired by: Karen Miller

Panel: Richard Harland, Leigh Blackmore, Kaaron Warren and Jack Heath

A panel discussion on the various sub-genres of speculative fiction.

This was an interesting discussion, but it mostly boiled down to:

  1. Classifications are arbitrary
  2. They help readers navigate the labyrinth of speculative fiction
  3. You shouldn’t pay too much attention to them when writing your stories – let the publisher worry about classifying the work after it is complete.

Seemed like sound advice to me.

Session 6 – Q&A – Best Sellers & Prize Winners

Chaired by: Belinda Murrell

Panel: Richard Harland, Margo Lanagan, Karen Miller, D. M. Cornish, Pamela Freeman, Kate Forsyth

Question and answer sessions with a group of experienced Australian speculative fiction authors.

My favourite quote from this session was “publishers don’t exist to make your dreams come true”. What really struck me here was the professionalism and pragmatism of the panel. By contrast, some of the questions from the audience were well meaning, but a little naive. There was some really sensible stuff in this session and an insight into how a “name brand” author approaches their work and relationship with publishers.

A lot of what they had to say made sense to me, in particular the stuff about developing a body of work and holding on to some stories until their time in the sun comes.

There was some questions about how you judge success as an author. Several answers ensued (e.g. sales, awards, the glistening tear on the cheek of a child etc), but I particularly liked Margo Lanagan’s answer where she spoke about the instinctively feeling something was right, then retrospectively applying an intellectual framework to say why it was right. That was sufficiently messy to sound like real life to me.

There was a long discussion about eBooks and the scope for further interactivity with story, especially for younger readers. Kate Forsyth seemed to be doing some very interesting work in that area, in particular covering the issue of providing an extra dimension of entertainment without jarring a reader out of the immersion required to make the main story work.

Launches

There were two launches through the day. One was at lunch time, and was the launch of a new anthology Anywhere But Earth edited by Keith Stevenson of Coeur de Lion Publishing. Three authors (Richard Harland, Alan Baxter and Margo Lanagan) read part of their stories out to the participants. It was very good. RIchard’s reading was very theatrical – I think he must do readings often. I enjoyed Alan’s story and he left it at a good spot to make you want to know more. The lyrical nature of Margo’s prose was quite mesmerising (and a little on the rude side!). All three readings were excellent and I bought a copy (and even got a few signatures in the process). I don’t buy many physical books these days, but I am looking forward to reading this one.

At the end of the day there was the launch on the sci-fi edition of Seizure magazine. Unfortunately I could only stay for 1/2 hour. At the time I left, the launch seemed to consist of a lot of people standing around and drinking bright blue bubbly alcohol. I’m sure it probably had a formal part – perhaps anyone who stuck around can leave a comment. I did buy a copy of the magazine, which I’m sure will make it onto my What is Mark Reading? page sometime soon.

Conclusion

All in all I had a very enjoyable time at the festival. I’d recommend future versions to anyone interested in speculative fiction and if anyone from the NSW Writers’ Centre is reading this, definitely put an extended version on in the future (perhaps with associated writing courses). I’m interested in hearing comments from anyone else who attended this (or other similar) festivals – I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve missed.

Author: mark

A writer of speculative fiction and all round good egg. Well, mostly good. OK, sometimes good.

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