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New South Wales Writers’ Centre Speculative Fiction Festival 2017

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Content warning: I’m dyslexic, deal with it.

Every second year New South Wales Writers’ Centre hosts a Speculative Fiction Festival to much whooping and wooting from Spec Fic fans. This was its third run and it has sold out every single time.
For those wondering what Spec Fic is our glorious convenor, Cat Sparks, described is as ‘the literature of what the fuck.’ Which sums it up pretty nicely. In a nutshell Spec Fic is an umbrella term that covers Fantasy, Horror and Sci Fi. Wikipedia says-

Speculative fiction is an umbrella genreencompassing narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements.[1] This includes the genres science fiction, fantasy,horror and supernatural fiction, as well as their combinations.[2] The broader usage of the term is attributed to Robert Heinlein, who referenced it in 1947 in an editorial essay, although there are prior mentions of speculative fiction or its variant “speculative literature”.

As you can see it covers quite a bit. All that we fear about the future of technology, politics, and human nature, is crystallised and taken to its extreme in Speculative Fiction.

But you don’t care about dry definitions, you want to know who said what. So I’ll give a quick summary of the panels I saw.

The first panel was New Gods and Monsters. The chair was Robert Hood, and the panelists were MARIA LEWISAlan BaxterJames Bradley and….. dramatic pause….. suspense building….. so much suspense…….. Margo Lanagan. In the warm up Robert Hood says that the origins of superheroes lies in mythology. Maria Lewis adds that the split nature of heroes with one identity by day and another by night lies with the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Margo Lanagan mentions Saints as having super powers and everybody giggles. James Bradley mentions that Sherlock Holmes is a great precursor to superheroes with his almost super human intelligence. And the modern day superhero is essentially Houdini in a circus costume….. Pretty sure he means more like the contortionist than a clown.

James Bradley then takes the excitement down a notch and mentions that comics have a lot to do with the economics of the time. That they are a business and want to make money. Maria Lewis tries to lighten the mood and says it’s also about need. The world is pretty scary right now and we need heroes to step up. 

Robert Hood mentions that in the 80s Stan Lee made the heroes much more relatable to people by being diverse and having real human flaws. James Bradley agrees that MARVEL became more fun and people loved it. Maria Lewis mentions how not only the content was diverse but the writing approach became so. Comic book authors writing movies, authors writing comics. People were becoming format fluid writers. James Bradley says that the diversification is good but to be wary because it is economically motivated. Major corporations own these comics and they’re doing it because it sells and they can get more money from it. So be happy because diversity and representation matters… but hold off on praising these corporations too much because they’re doing it for money not the goodness of their own hearts. 
Onto Urban Fantasy Noir chaired by Marlee Jane Ward with Alan Baxter, Angela Slatter and Maria Lewis. Alan Baxter says he likes Urban Fantasy because he loves genre mashing. He loves mongrel dogs and mongrel genres. He takes themes from big fat epics and puts them into the real world. Maria Lewis says it just makes sense to combine ancient beings with modern days settings because everybody knows a Xerxes. Sure, who hasn’t felt so angry that they’ve ordered the water to be whipped for disobedience?

Angela Slatter says that Urban Fantasy is about tears. Fractures in your life being echoed by tears in the veil between reality and beyond. It is about that point where everything is ripped so it lends itself to crime and the supernatural as the logical two extensions.

Alan Baxter drops that Urban Fantasy is dead. Maria Lewis says not only is Urban Fantasy dead, whatever supernatural creature you are writing about is the wrong one. If you’re writing about werewolves you’ll be told by publishers that it’s Vampire Season. If you’re writing about fairies it’ll be Troll Season. And if you’re writing about mermen, you’ll need to self publish. Maria Lewis will be self publishing From the Deep in September. 

Next I saw Myth, Legend and Fairy Tale chaired by Thoraiya Dyer with Cathy CraigieRebecca-Anne Do Rozario, Margo Lanagan and Garth Nix. Cathy Craigie opens by talking about oral story traditions and how they’re organic and moving like their own growing being. They can change depending on the storyteller and the place. Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario says that with the European folk tales they veer from oral to written to oral and back again. Snaking back and fourth as they develop.

Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario says she loves research and does research for its own sake. Margo Lanagan says she can get lost in research. Cathy Craigie says research allows her to expand on stories…. Garth Nix says he doesn’t so much actively research as passively. He just naturally reads widely to be inspired and learns ew things. He rarely comes up with an idea and has to go research it. He doesn’t go looking for stuff, stuff comes and finds him.

Thoraiya Dyer asks the panelists if when recasting old tales should authors stick to the now accepted happy endings if they want commercial success. Margo Lanagan says if they wanted commercial success they shouldn’t become writers so just give it the ending it needs. 
And then we had lunch. I got a couple of books signed.

Weird Fiction chaired by Kaaron Warren with Julie KohJane Rawson, and Rose Michael is what I attended next. Full disclosure, I spent much of this session watching Julie Koh’s hand movements. They were hypnotic. At one stage she ran her fingers over the arm of her white leather chair so softly and so serenely that I could almost feel it raise tingling goosebumps up my neck and into my hair line.

Julie Koh opened up the dialogue by stating that she always felt that she was normal but people kept saying that she was not. And being placed in Weird Fiction has simply reinforced this message. She considered herself literary. Rose Michael says that she too believed that she was a straight literary writer and only found out that she was not when her first rejection indicated that the publisher wasn’t taking on literary fiction with speculative elements. Now she has embraced the weird and uses speculative elements to resolve impasses in her literary manuscripts. It has given her another bag of tricks to use.

Jane Rawson just wanted to write stuff people loved and people seemed to love literary. But she can’t help but write Weird Fiction because life is weird. Julie Koh casually mentions that people in her family have the third eye and can see ghosts and gods. No big D. So it’s not really weird it’s just stuff some people can’t see. Mebe the literary people are the weird ones because they can only see part of the world?

Rose Michael says – Reality is a conspiracy theory that we’ve all signed up for.

Jane Rawson says that there is a definite market for Weird Fiction in Australia but there might not be so many publishers that will commission it. Julie Koh admits she’s weirded out by how narrow the definition is of what Australians read because they really read much wider.

As for advice on craft, Kaaron Warren recommends a little nap in the afternoon to awaken the ideas. Jane Rawson says fall out of bed in the morning and start writing while your brain is still floating between awake and asleep. I knew napping was important.

Also, Jane Rawson and Julie Koh are part of a collective known as Kanganoulipo that are shaking up Australian literature. I’m quietly confident that they meet in an underground lair and have a secret handshake. So keep your eyes open for their work.

For the Kaffeeklatsches I saw Margo Lanagan. 

She is also a fan of writing in the morning, but that’s because she likes to write before her inner critic wakes up and judges her. 

Deadlines don’t work for her. They don’t motivate her to work better and quicker. It comes when it comes.

She doesn’t write and edit beginning to end, more so in chunks.

Margo Lanagan recommends that you get your words to the point that even if they’re read in a monotone they still have power.
The final session of the day was The Road to Publication chaired by Rose Michael with Alison GreenLex HirstJoel Naoum, Garth Nix and Angela Slatter. The main takeaways for me were that Garth Nix believes that hybrid authors are the way of the future. Alison Green says the writing is a craft but publishing is a business. Lex Hirst says that she loves Dystopian Fiction because they are the perfect balance of escapism and instruction manual. Angela Slatter urges everyone to write to the publishers guidelines and not write a cover letter explaining why you haven’t. Penguin is currently running a Literary Prize that has a $20k advance for the winner. Competition closes October 20.
And that was the formal part over. It was followed by wine and chatting. I shall now leave you with some quotes from the day that I have imgflipped onto pictures. Enjoy.

Read up about being a dyslexic writer here.