The Emerging Writers Festival Digital Masterclass (and Overage Players)

Boomer and MeI almost didn’t go attend the Emerging Writers Festival (EWF), both because it’s in Melbourne and I’m not and because I’m still a bit puzzled that EWF consider Dave Graney ‘emerging’. My tweet about it probably earnt me a black mark from the festivals’ organisers, but the succinctness of Twitter didn’t allow me to explain myself in full.

It was less a case of sour grapes than despair at the state of the industry. In the interests of transparency, I applied to be a panellist but wasn’t accepted, and I’m pretty cool with that, to be honest. I’m not from Melbourne, my publishing track record is in sport and social and environmental issues so doesn’t often pique the interest of those following a more traditional arts-scene publishing route, and I have plenty to learn before being able to impart some wisdom.

My concern was—and is—that if one of the creative industries’ most established and respected artists is putting their hand up for a festival designed for those who are at the formative stages of their careers, there’s even less money and publication and promotion prospects than we already know there to be.

Graney aside, most of the other writers appearing at the festival write for such top publications as The Monthly, i.e. publications that you tend to have to be fairly established in order to write for. But I’m perhaps heading into the murky debate about what constitutes ‘emerging’ as opposed to ‘emerged’—‘emerging’ really is a contested term.

Graney was switching from writing songs to writing creative non-fiction memoirs, but I’d argue that he’s a writer merely adding additional style and platform strings to his bow (he’s arguably becoming a transmedia storyteller). Moreover, his memoir would already garner interest—and reviews and their related promotion—from major newspapers and independent publishers alike.

I’m not saying EWF shouldn’t have included Graney, but I’d have felt more comfortable if his festival inclusion was the literary festival approach of some youth football (soccer) leagues’. Forgive me this sporting example, but it relates, I promise.

The National Youth League (the soccer league for up-and-coming players) allows for an overage player in each team. These overage players offer a cool head and advice and informal mentorship to these emerging footballers. They also bring fans to games who would not otherwise know about or engage with the youth league.

I would have loved to see Graney brought in for an equivalent role (and it’s arguably what EWF was aiming for, even if it didn’t explicitly say so). Still, my niggles aside, the Digital Masterclass warranted attending. It was, as one of the speakers later said on his podcast, something I’d seen a bunch of times before. But having arrived a bit burnt out, it was refreshing to be in the room talking industry stuff with people at roughly the same stage.

The day was structured logically, with the morning kicking off with goal-setting and strategic planning (I will concede that a one-sentence mission statement is confoundingly difficult to do, especially when you’ve only had one coffee).

Jo Case, who’s just released Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s, and who Benjamin Law recently referred aptly to as one of the lynchpins of the industry, took us through content creation. Her Wheeler Centre examples were interesting, especially how she explained her dual-output strategy: she often obtains transcripts from Soapbox speeches to turn, where possible, into web articles.

GaysiaCase also explained that there are three types of capital: money; fun; and progress (skills you’re learning, people you’re meeting, credibility). All three come into play in careers in the creative industries—arguably more so than in others.

Hearing her speak I was reminded I’ve in recent times lost sight of the fun, which was what had previously given me my bottomless enthusiasm for working for little publication gold or pay. At one stage she posed a question that’s stuck with me ever since: What’s your why?

Thang Ngo took us through capitalising on success, with specific reference to blogging. He commented that he always seems to be the speaker with the onerous task of speaking just before lunch. Random and hilarious GIFs—and Ngo’s own quality content and enthusiasm—staved off the is-it-lunch-yet watch checking.

The afternoon sessions were the most impressive, both because they’re where I’m currently working and because they were a hint of where working as a writer in the digital age is heading. Johannes Jakob (I’m currently working my way through his fantastic podcast, Jo Mad, I Heard You Like Books. In fact, the first one I listened to included Chad Parkhill, a talented writer and editor I know from my undergrad days) walked us through podcasting, showing us that you don’t have to know how to work absolutely every single aspect of technology to start working with it.

He listed the usual suspects with which I’m obsessed: This American Life, Planet Money, and The Moth. But he also introduced me to Slate Culture Gabfest, Back to Work, The Rereaders, and Podmentum, which I’m steadily ploughing into my brain.

In the second half of the session, editor turned filmmaker Mark Welker of Commoner Films demonstrated how filmmaking is storytelling with footage. The videos were great, and he’s using the industry-standard 5D, a stills camera that allows for (I think this description is incredibly apt) ‘cinematic intimacy’.

He spoke of how when you start, there’s a gap between what you want your film to look like and what skills you have to do it. That gap never closes, he said, but your skills improve. Like Jakob, he emphasised the importance of throwing yourself in and learning on the job, something writers tend to be shy of doing. I know this, but I needed to hear it again.

Matt Blackwood brought us a keynote speech about locative literature (that is, literature that uses such things as QR codes). It’s not something that works hugely for me, but he almost had me sold.

One of his projects saw him put stickers on chairs in cafes, with patrons coming across and enjoying the stories when they may not otherwise have found his work. My favourite aspect, though, was when Blackwood creating a working QR code from the black and white keys from recycled keyboards.

20-year-old wunderkind Ashley Davies previewed Tablo, ‘the WordPress for ebooks’ start-up he’s masterminding which, if it works, will be groundbreaking. It’s something I plan to explore more in depth in future blogs so will just say: keep an eye out for it.

Rounding out the day with Lord of the Fries chips (I’m vegan and rarely get to enjoy chips without fear) and a trip to check out new social enterprise Shebeen (profits from sales of certain drinks are donated to charities), I was fatty carbed up, mentally full, and feeling equipped to head back and re-fling myself into this crazy career that’s called freelancing in the creative industries. Suffice to say, I’ll be back at the festival next year regardless of who they decide to have as their overage players.

Spellbound

I am wholly obsessed with and terrified by spelling bees in equal measure. Obsessed in that I can’t get enough of watching or puzzling over them, turning the etymology, sounds, and letter combinations over and over in my head like David Bowie juggling the crystal ball in Labyrinth. Except with much less mesmerising skill and slightly less mullet-y hair.

I’m similarly terrified by the thought of getting up on stage and attempting to assemble and utter letters coherently in order to correctly spell something—experience has taught me that I’m an excellent on-paper speller, but a terrible, fumbling, stumbling one out loud.

I truly fear competing in on-stage spelling bees more than public speaking and death combined. But watching them, as long as I know I’m not going to be called upon to get up and participate, is another story altogether.

Spellbound the film (2002) and the annual ESPN coverage of the US national spelling bee brought many of us out of the spelling bee-loving closet and introduced many more to the competition’s magic. ESPN’s coverage, in particular, is stellar—they commentate the event as they would a gridiron or other action-packed sporting match. And who hasn’t uttered the now classic line ‘Can I have the etymology?’ after watching Spellbound?

The Emerging Writers Festival (EWF) was in town with its Digital Writers’ Conference last week. The team closed out the event with a Sunday night spelling bee at the funky, recently opened Jam Jar. Work commitments (and, if I’m honest, a healthy fear of being roped into participating) prevented me from getting down to watch some fellow writers, editors, and spelling afficionados compete, so I chatted to writer and editor Chad Parkhill to find out how it went.

How does a spelling bee work?

The spelling bee I was at—the one at the conclusion of the Brisbane Emerging Writers’ Festival—is really only loosely based on the American-style spelling bees we know from Spellbound and other documentaries/television shows.

Instead of being competitive, it’s a social thing: get a bunch of writers together in a room, add some booze and the challenge of spelling words, and have some fun. Having said that, there was one chap there who had his own spelling bee alias—I’m positive that his real name wasn’t Obadiah—and he seemed to take the whole thing rather seriously.

I can only spell something when I write it down. Is that peculiar to me or if not, how do you manage to overcome that to spell aloud?

That’s not at all peculiar! I noticed lots of the competitors and audience members spelling out the words with their fingers on tabletops and the surface of their jeans in an attempt to get it right. In order to spell aloud, I try to visualise the word printed on a piece of paper, and simply read it out from there.

Have you watched Spellbound/the annual ESPN spelling bee? If so, any pointers you picked up? Did someone ask for the etymology (in an American accent)?

Unfortunately, I haven’t watched Spellbound, but I think that’s because I have a pathological fear of watching small children being intense and dorky. It takes me back to my own days of being an intense and dorky child.

Nobody asked for the etymology of words, but many did ask for words to be used in sentences—mostly for comic effect. (Krissy Kneen, who has just published a book of literary pornography, Triptych, was called upon to use the word ‘tumescent’ in a sentence.)

One important difference between the EWF spelling bee and the American-style spelling bees is that you’re not required to start by saying the word, then spell it, then say it again—you just have to spell it. This means you don’t get a chance to correct yourself if you’ve reached the end of the word and you know you’ve stuffed it up.

Can you remember any of the words you were asked to spell (or that others were)?

My own words were ‘chameleon’, ‘vacillate’, ‘finagle’, ‘gauche’, ‘lymphatic’, and ‘plagiarise’, among others. In general, there were lots of words that everyone knows, but hardly anyone can spell—I think ‘rhythm’ is the best example of this kind of word. There were also lots of ‘trick’ words such as ‘inoculate,’ which nearly everyone thinks has two ‘n’s. (I know I would have been stumped by that one!)

Finally, there were also lots of loan words, mostly from French and German, such as ‘ennui’, ‘cliché’, and ‘doppelgänger’. I was a little disappointed that competitors weren’t asked to place the correct diacritical marks in those words—that would have made things more challenging!

What was the word that stumped you?

‘Fahrenheit’, of all things. I am actually capable of spelling it, but I’d had one too many beers—gone beyond ‘the zone’, as pool players might say—and completely forgot to say the second ‘h’. I guess I should have started by spelling it out on my jeans with a finger!

Can you remember the word that won?

The winning word was ‘synecdoche’, which the winning competitor spelled with ease. It’s supposed to be a stumper, but I think Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, New York may have had something to do with its popularisation.

Any notable words/moments worth mentioning?

The bee included ‘caesura’, which I thought was a particularly tough one. Oh, and ‘Fahrenheit’. Curse you, Fahrenheit! Your scale sucks, anyway.

Which dictionary did they use (e.g. Macquarie)? Did anyone try to sneak through with American spellings?

The dictionary was, I believe, the Macquarie. Nobody tried to use American spellings, cleaving to -ise rather than -ize.

Were there any crash study sessions/methods applied?

Certainly not on my part! I was actually a last-minute ring-in—I was there simply to catch up with a friend, but got roped in by the festival organisers. I’m glad they asked.

Any heckling? Controversy? Googling of spellings and definitions?

No, everyone was pretty well-behaved.

Hmm, methinks [read: Fi thinks] that’s very civilised!

Chad Parkhill, who was brave enough to compete, writes for Rave Magazine and The Lifted Brow.

Emerging writers get digital in BrizVegas

I’m rubbing my eyes today after waking at 3am to get ready for an early flight home from Brisbane, where a crowd of emerging writers spent a festive weekend discussing all things digital.

Check out #ewfbris on Twitter and the Emerging Writers Festival’s website for a full run down of the action – I’ll be posting some more on it here soon.

Festival organisers Karen Pickering and Lisa Dempster in Brisbane.

As requested by a couple of attendees, here’s my presentation from Saturday’s Working online event (“Our panellists hash out how they make new technologies work in their writing careers, from finding markets, marketing to making money!”).
Hopefully some of the social media tips will be of use.

Self-marketing via social media to build profile and network with your tribe wherever they are (or you are) in the world

18 months ago I had an argument about Facebook and Twitter with a writer friend who worked for a federal minister.

She couldn’t see any business or government application for Social media, believing it would only ever be a tool for communicating with friends and family.

Try telling that to the makers of hazelnut chocolate spread Nutella now. They have 11 million international Facebook fans.

Or in Australia, to Chux. With posts like “who wears the washing up gloves in your house?” they’ve attracted 14,000 fans – all happy to read about dish cloths alongside updates from friends in their Facebook feed.

Facebook has more than 10 million unique Australian visitors per month. YouTube is not far behind with 9.9 million. Blogspot and WordPress combined receive 6.6 million unique visitors, linked in 1.8 million and Twitter 1.6 million.

Social media marketing expert Tom Voirol, of digital agency Reading Room, told me this month that not being present in social media is like cancelling phone lines or email accounts. He also provided a great analogy: if advertising is like archery, social media is like ping pong”.

So it’s not about broadcasting to your followers or fans, but engaging with them, by starting and joining conversations, by sharing compelling, useful, original and relevant content, and by being an authentic online voice.

So, how does an emerging writer get started with social media?

I’d recommend you do some online research. Check out Wikipedia definitions of platforms, and blogs about social media like Mashable, ProBlogger, Digital Buzz and Social Media News Australia.

Looking at how others are using digital communications tools is a vital and ongoing part of the process.

Where are the conversations you’d be interested in taking place? Who are the influencers? What are they talking about? When?

The members of today’s panels would be a great place to start. I’d also recommend you follow Bookseller & Publisher, this very festival and ifBook along with your state writers centre.

Once you’ve sussed it all out, you can join in, either as an individual, or by creating a brand as I did.

Either way, choose a niche you’re passionate about and in which you have some expertise, and build your persona around that. It might be corgis or chick lit or cottage gardens. For me it was vegetarian Italian food and, separately, ebooks, digital publishing and related technology.

Lock that brand in for yourself across the major social media platforms and Register domain names.

I recommend WordPress for blogging, Crazy Domains for registering a domain name and JustHost for web hosting.

Set up a LinkedIn profile for professional networking, Facebook page (not a straight profile – for business purposes you need a page so that you can attract everyone rather than just those who actually know you to like your work), Twitter account (to follow anyone in the world who might be talking about an area of interest), Google + profile (it’s the newest of the major platforms, and allows you to divide your networks into categories called circles) and a YouTube channel for video or slideshow content sharing.

Take lots of photos and videos to share. The iPhone 4 and the DropBox app changed my life on this front.

Get some business cards printed. Include details of your social media accounts (make sure you get vanity URLs first).

Start commenting on your blog on everything that happens in your chosen field.

Attend every relevant launch, conference or jam jar opening and post on it.

Pitch opinion pieces, reviews and features to relevant newspapers, magazines or websites.

Comment on similar blogs and related stories on mainstream media sites.

Retweet links to blog posts or articles by fellow bloggers and writers.

Set up a list of your most useful Twitter contacts and check it religiously.

Make sure you monitor all your channels regularly and respond quickly to direct messages and often to mentions. You’ll need to set aside time to do this just as you would for any other tasks that are essential to a business, like paying bills or responding to emails or phone calls.

Share information and knowledge freely and generously … But advisedly. You want to be recognized as a trusted source.

Be a good digital citizen. Respect the copyright of others. Credit and link back when possible. Don’t vilify or defame anyone (and that includes Andrew Bolt).

Post as often as you can, without setting precedents or creating expectations you can’t live up to.

People will ignore you if you just log on once a month to tweet out a link to a blog post, or tell them where to buy your new ebook.

Consider establishing yourself as an influencer on specialist platforms like social reading site Goodreads.com.

Once you’re established, you can think about campaigns to build follower numbers or promote particular events or publications. Tom Voirol suggests building a campaign around a core idea that is easy to grasp for the public, aligned with your overall goals, measurements and success criteria, and, most importantly, has social interaction at its core.

Speaking of measurement, it is important to track your success. Facebook offers great analytics to users of its pages. There are plenty of standalone free and paid tools you can use to assess the reach of your blog posts. Stats like these can help you decide when to post, and which topics have the most traction.

Will any of this work? Like anything, it’ll depend how much you put into it.

For me, the vegetarian blog, vegeterranean.com.au, fulfilled my desire to write restaurant reviews and cookbook reviews, and led to my recipe creator mother having a meeting at Penguin about a possible cookbook.

I’ve devoted more time and energy to ebookish.com.au, which solved my problem of being a former literary editor and tech writer who would love to be more involved in the book industry but is stuck in Canberra. It’s helped me to make friends and build a network of contacts in the publishing hubs of Sydney and Melbourne and further afield.

It led to a paid blogging gig for online bookseller Booku.com [Yay Booku!] which I love, board membership of the ACT Writers Centre, a series of teaching and training gigs in social media, and an invitation to look at doing a PhD on a related topic.

The biggest surprise for me has been discovering that there are plenty of completely like-minded ebook and social media geek friends in Canberra after all. I just needed to get onto global forums to find them.