Spring into writing

Spring has sprung and if your spring-cleaning has uncovered your unpublished manuscript, or the warmer weather is simply stirring up your creative side, it’s a great time to get working on your writing.

But what to do with your work once it’s written? There’s plenty of opportunities out there at the moment for aspiring writers, whether it’s making contacts and meeting fellow-minded writers at literary festivals, or going straight for the prize and entering a competition. I’ve rounded up a few interesting possibilities for the budding writers amongst you.

If short and sweet – but very high-profile –  is your thing, the Age short story competition is now accepting entries. Entry is free, and comes with a cash prize to boot: first prize wins $1000; 2nd prize, $800; 3rd prize, $500. Winning stories will be published in Life & Style and at theage.com.au. Entries must be under 3000 words and should not have been previously published. Have an idea but not the completed story? You have a few weeks to get it written – the competition closes on September 28th and winners will be announced in December.

Fancy writing something a little more quirky and criminal? One of the more interesting competitions open at the moment is Australia’s Security Nightmares, a national security short story competition organised by Australian Security Research Centre (ASRC).

Entrants should submit a short story with a security scenario as the plot line or essential backdrop. An Australia context to the story is required, and the story needs to be set between today and 2020. They state that, while the story is to be fictional, “it needs to be grounded in a plausible, coherent and detailed security situation. Rather than just describing on an avalanche of frightening events, writers are encouraged to focus on the consequences and challenges posed by their scenarios, and tease out what the official and public responses would be.”

The ASRC competition also aims to raise community awareness of national security challenges and the first prize winner will be taking home $1,000 for their trouble. New and unpublished writers are encouraged to enter and entries close Sunday 30 September 2012.

If you have a full book on your hands and you want to be picked up by Penguin, their Monthly Catch could be your opportunity. For the first week of every month, the General Publishing team at Penguin Australia throw their doors open to unsolicited manuscripts. As many publishers won’t even look at a manuscript that doesn’t have a literary agent singing its praises, Penguin’s monthly open week is one of the few opportunities to get your work to a publisher with a promise that it will not be tossed straight into the recycling.

Not sure if any of the above are for you? The Australian Writer’s Marketplace prides itself on including every opportunity for aspiring writers and is an indispensable tool if you are looking to get published – although it’s about to undergo a spring-clean itself and we should be seeing the 2013 edition hitting the shelves in the next month or so.

So perhaps while you’re waiting for it to sprout up in the shops, you could get started on getting some writing done.

I Do Like Mondays (Well, This One Monday At Least)

April Fool's DayMondays aren’t normally days one celebrates, but I’m prepared to make an exception in this case. Monday 1 August marks the release of 26 brand-spanking-new Popular Penguins. You know, the cute-as-a-button, budget-priced, iconic-orange titles? Yeah, those ones (I’ve helpfully copied and pasted the list of newbies for you below).

  1. Accidental by Ali Smith
  2. Another Country by James Baldwin
  3. April Fool’s Day by Bryce Courtenay
  4. Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
  5. Boy by Roald Dahl
  6. Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  7. Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
  8. Falconer by John Cheever
  9. Fight by Norman Mailer
  10. Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
  11. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  12. High Window by Raymond Chandler
  13. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
  14. Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines
  15. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
  16. Meditations by Aurelius Marcus
  17. Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell
  18. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  19. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
  20. Passage to India by E.M. Forster
  21. Pearl by John Steinbeck
  22. Prince by Machiavelli
  23. Ragtime by E.L. Doctrow
  24. Spy In The House Of Love by Anais Nin
  25. Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  26. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

A quick skim of the list reveals that I:

  • have read three
  • have sitting on my bookshelf (in non-Popular Penguins formats, of course) but haven’t read two
  • want to read 13
  • want to re-read (and re-buy, because my copies have gone AWOL) two
  • haven’t heard of (but in my defence, have heard of their authors) 11.

BoyHmmm, those aren’t exactly impressive figures given the popularity of these titles and well read-ness with which I like to consider myself. Still, it resolves the issue of my previous blog, which was that I was drawing a blank on which books to buy with my $120 Boomerang Books voucher (Sorry Clayton, you’re going to have to keep writing out the cheques).

First on my list of buying (technically re-buying) will be Bryce Courtenay’s April Fool’s Day and Roald Dahl’s Boy (yes, I’m aware that’s not an orange cover to the left, but I had trouble locating that one, so colourful cover it is).

Both were deeply influential reading during my childhood, and after finishing each, I quickly devoured both authors’ oeuvres (that’s a fancy word for ‘back catalogue’ and some of you reading this blog will get the in joke).

On some level, both books set me on the course of being a writer, and in particular a creative non-fiction writer interested in tackling the issues of the world. So yeah, they’re kind of big on my list of books to read before you die.

Coincidentally, I had been thinking how I’d like to revisit April Fool’s Day after hearing a Conversations with Richard Fidler interview with a woman who comes from the largest haemophiliac family in the world.

Her family’s tale is as tragic as Courtenay’s family’s own, with almost 10 of her uncles first being debilitated by haemophilia and second contracting and dying of AIDS (or AIDS-related illnesses, for those of you semantics out there) after being infected by contaminated blood transfusions. Like Courtenay’s son, they had to deal with not only the ravages of the illness, but of the stigma, assumptions of homosexuality, and subsequent homophobia that accompanied it.

Not perhaps the most uplifting of tales, I know, and this hooray-for-new-books blog has taken a turn for the serious. But these books importantly highlight the injustices of the world and the danger of ignorance and, with the same themes popping up in over and over in our lives in various forms, it’s clear we’re not really learning the lessons.

So, hooray for the release of 26 new Popular Penguin titles that I may or may not yet know but hope to tackle. And hooray for releasing two incredible and seminal books, in particular, that, at this budget price, might find and inspire a whole new readership.

This Isn’t A Blog About Books

This isn’t a blog about books. It’s a blog about ideas. A festival of ideas, to be specific. I spent two days last week at Brisbane’s Ideas Festival and, frankly, my mind is still reeling from all I saw and heard there.

It reminded me that I in some ways can’t wait to be a retiree who can attend all the writers’ and ideas festivals she can possibly fit into her calendar and hours her butt can stand sitting on hard, fold-up seats. I mean, there’s something so incredibly inspiring sitting in a room listening to someone who’s an expert in their field and whose ideas turn my own on their head.

For this reason I’m breaking out of my usual books-focused blog mould and giving you a small sense of what I encountered there. The first session I lobbed into was McMansion to Micro Mansion: How do you challenge the Great Australian Dream? I can’t recount the session’s brilliance in full, but some highlights include:

  • the inverted sentiment that I want my next house to be more modest than my last one (do I hear an environmental sigh of relief?)
  • our new houses are the largest in the world—even larger than the US’s new houses (I actually emitted an audible sound of shame at hearing this one)
  • we have on average houses that allocate a whopping 83 sqm per person (enough to swing more than a few proverbial cats without touching each other or the walls)
  • by 2026, 60% of Queensland households will comprise just one or two people
  • we have given over an inordinate amount of space to roads and freeways
  • we seem to crave big, spacious homes, but when we’re on holidays we happily camp in cosier, more cramped tents, caravans, and the like (does this tell us that we’re actually good in and enjoy small, warm spaces?)
  • we’re having a ‘Katrina moment’ (as in, a rethink of our homes and practices post-natural disaster)
  • many famous writers wrote in really small, modest spaces, including Martin Heidegger, Roald Dahl, and George Bernard Shaw.

The second session saw me go from not knowing who the speaker was to wanting to finding out as much as is humanly possible about him. Anthony Ryan has carved out an impressive (if that’s the most apt description) career working with homeless and marginalised people, and is known particularly for setting up Eddie’s Street Van. His insights?

  • The key to working with the disempowered is presence: making it clear that when you’re with them, there’s no place you’d rather be.
  • Stereotypes are wrong. We need to get past the romanticism of the poor.
  • We need to develop that sense of carpe diem. All of us are going to be dead in the next 100 years. What are we going to leave as our legacy?

There were more points worthy of coverage, but I didn’t write them down—Ryan reduced everyone in the room to tears with some knock-out stories and I, well, I was kind of distracted ferreting around in my bag for tissues and dabbing my eyes.

What followed him were two inspiring sessions with the creative directors of Ideo, a kind of design slash consulting agency that’s doing some pretty mind-blowing work with regards to social change.

One session focused on crowdsourcing (although the Ideao guys said they hated that term—it sounds too much like a one-way transaction, when the reality of this action is that you too give something back). The second was on the theme that small multiplied by many equates something really large.

I have too many notes on these ones to include them all, but here’s a wee snapshot:

  • Netflix crowdsourced an improvement to their ‘you might like this’ algorithm by offering $1 million to the person who could improve it by just 10%. The entry that won merged everyone else’s suggestions, effectively.
  • Microsoft thought they had the market sewn up with Encarta ’97. Then came Wikipedia, a crowdsourced site that doesn’t pay its contributors. The result is that Microsoft went from being the cat who got the cream to the company plagued by the blank response: ‘Encarta who?’
  • Crowdsourcing and social media recently helped create a revolution in Iran.
  • Companies have historically used a sort of one-way monologue to communicate with fans and users. These days it’s a two-way conversation.
  • Valuing the journey is as important as valuing the destination—sounds guffy, I know, but their point was that they learnt as much during their research as at the end of it.
  • Everyone has access to ideas—the value is in the execution (said in response to the thousandth ‘Oh I had that idea’).
  • Don’t worry about the world ending today—it’s already tomorrow in Australia (teehee, especially in light of the supposed rapture).
  • Never waste a crisis (might have been espoused by Winston Churchill).
  • The future can’t be designed in Excel. In short: spreadsheets are the enemy.
  • Small x many = big/(simple + tomorrow) = answer.
  • The key is: how small and how quickly can you start?
  • People need simple ways to engage. This could be as small and straightforward as applying a sticker that says ‘fix this’ in their neighbourhood.
  • Connect the littles to become bigs.
  • Somebody has to start leading a different conversation so everyone can point at it and say: ‘That’s what I want’.
  • We’re too often sticking together feathers and hoping to get a duck—you need to have a strategy; you need to know what the answer is.
  • If you care about the solution, you don’t care who comes up with it.

This wasn’t a blog about books, but it was a randomly assembled blog about ideas that inspire books. The Ideas Festival has definitely given me plenty to think about in recent days as well as next year’s festival to look forward to. I think this warrants attending as many festivals in the interim as possible, and commencing my hard-seat-sitting training now…

The ‘Just Right’ Festival

Fatima BhuttoIt’s held annually less than three hours’ drive from my doorstep, but for some reason I hadn’t made a pilgrimage to the Byron Bay Writers Festival. Until this year, when I bit the bullet and signed on for a three-day pass. Admittedly the carrots of Fatima ‘I don’t believe in birthright politics. I don’t think, nor have I ever thought, that my name qualifies me for anything’ Bhutto, whose writing, familial, and political connections intrigue me, and Bret Easton Ellis, he of Less Than Zero, Glamorama, and American Psycho fame had a lot to do with it. But, just one day into the fest, I’m so incredibly glad that I finally made it down and so incredibly mad at myself for not making it before.

Writers’ festivals both soothe and inspire me. I feel at home surrounded by like-minded people and love that I have an excuse to discuss nothing but books, reading, and writing for hours or days on end. Sometimes, though, I can find the crowd sizes, crush, and sheer logistics of getting from tent to tent overwhelming.

Less Than ZeroBut like Goldilocks trying on writers’ festivals for size, I think I’ve found the one for me. With four main tents and a smattering of food venues within a contained area and distance that enables you to duck between them as you try to catch sessions running concurrently, I think the Byron Bay Writers Festival size is just right. The location and set-up is quaint and intimate, the crowds not too large, and the food, which includes spinach and ricotta ‘snake’ pastries and eggplant and feta balls with parsley mayonnaise, is heavenly.

There’s also writing-related artwork in the form of a kind of tower of books and a chair made from letters, both of which I officially want for my house. And even though I’ve come down by myself with little planning and no broadcasting of the fact, I’ve run into and caught up with lots of people I know. Couple that with some random conversations struck up with strangers over a shared interest in an author or session and plans to get to the lighthouse and the beach tomorrow and I’m wondering what’s to date kept me away.

GlamoramaOf course, topping the list of perks is that I’ve caught one of my favourite ever authors (Bret Easton Ellis) and discovered two whom I think might quickly become one (Susan Maushart and one whose name I didn’t catch but who replaced the last-minute drop-out Bhutto)—both of which I’ll be blogging about in coming days. If you’re in Byron, near Byron, or can get to Byron at short notice, there are two days left of the festival. I wholly recommend coming on down and trying it on for size.