My Experiences at the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2011

Yesterday I posted a few observations that I made over a beer between sessions. Today I’m going to go through the highlights and lowlights of the festival. It really was a good event so I feel the need to mention some of the writers and sessions and what I got out of them. Besides, I didn’t take my note pad and netbook in a backpack to every session just for my health – although it could be argued I carried the backpack around to seem more important and to knock drinks out of peoples’ hands in the bookstore.

Some of my signed books from the festival.
Thursday 18th

This is Thriller
The first session I attended was a discussion between LA Larkin and John M. Green about how to make a thrill filled thrilling thriller. Surprisingly this was more a discussion about plot and character rather than explosions and body counts. LA Larkin also seems to go the extra mile for research, having just arrived back from a journey to the end of the earth – 6 months in Antarctica – for her latest book. Worth a look.

Climate Whiplash
Curt Stager is a paleoclimatologist, reformed climate sceptic, and a very interesting and engaging speaker. He described what the two scenarios for our next 100,000 years on planet Earth will be like. It was fascinating to hear how much we have disturbed our natural climate cycles and how big and long ranging our impacts upon the atmosphere are. Seeing the response curve of greenhouse gases, temperature and rectification having impacts out to half a million years really opens the eyes to the staggering the affect we are having upon climate. On the plus side, we’ve eliminated the next ice age due in 50,000 years (Sarcasm warning: it isn’t such a good thing).

Bits and Bytes
This talk should have absolutely fascinated me. It was all about technology, where we have come from and where we are going, and how our view of life/sentience has changed from memory to creativity. Ultimately, though, I found James Gleick boring. The only interesting part for me was the discussion of Ada Lovelace, a mind centuries before its time. Who’d have thought a talk about computers could put you to sleep?

Cracking the Code: The Art of Editing
This session on editing was proof that budding writers – like myself – are hungry for information and are willing to queue for a half hour to attend. Bill Scott-Kerr (he edited the DaVinci Code) and Tom Mayer (thankfully not related to John Mayer, or any other pop musicians) were there to lay out the importance and role of an editor. I liked the summary:

Author = speaks to the audience
Editor = helps to sell the book (to sales directors, industry, etc)

It was great to have two professionals stand up and say that editing wasn’t just about typos and grammar, but about crafting a story. This is a point that I think a lot of people miss. Although as a newsletter editor myself, I really would appreciate if authors actually ran a spell check and read their work before submitting it, as it helps to remove the purple monkey dishwasher.

An aside to this section: apparently professional editors have the same reading cut-off points that I do for reading. Bill stated that his cut-offs for a bad manuscript/novel are page 10 (foreboding) and page 100 (dread).

Criminal Agency
Sydney has an interesting public transport system. Replace the word interesting with rubbish. On the surface it looks decent: plenty of buses and trains departing regularly; plenty of stops; bus lanes; etc. Of course once I was on a bus travelling to this session at Ashfield Library, I realised that it would have been easier to harness up some Husky’s to a sled and find some icy tundra in our Aussie deserts. A 15 minute trip was turned into an hour of watching bored people texting and listening to their iPods. On the plus side, once I arrived Shamini Flint and Garry Disher were into their discussions about crime fiction. Garry served up sex and violence, Shamini pointed out that her mother edits out her books’ sex and violence and we would have to make do with humour.

Friday 19th

Book Design Uncovered
It is really hard to sum up a session that revolved around looking at various covers the designers and artists had produced. So here is the session described in interpretive dance:

But What I Really Want to do is Write Fiction
For some reason most people think they have a novel in them. Personally I blame shoddy surgery practices. It was interesting to hear from former journalists, academics and advertising executives (guess which one was able to plug their book the most) on how they had this career thing interrupt their dream of writing a novel or two. The take home point for me was that spending all day writing for your job helps when you want to take fiction writing seriously. Something about being used to hours of rewriting, editing, and tetris.

Merchants of Doubt
Naomi Oreskes is reasonably well known amongst the scientific and wider community, especially since her book, Merchants of Doubt, hit the promotional circuit. I’m a big fan of her work as she shines a light on the dirty little secret that is media misinformation (Hint: climate change is happening and is our fault; smoking does increase the risk of cancer; a duck’s quack does echo). As a scientist I am always amazed at the nonsense that is thrown around in the media. While this book discussed climate change, it was just the latest example in a long line of doubt-mongering by interest groups that she discusses. Her interview in this session covered a lot of points, so I just advise reading her book.

Daddy, Daddy, I………
Finally a session about being a stay at home writer and Dad.

You’ve Been Warned
Curt Stager and Naomi Oreskes were back for another session on climate change, this time joined by Paul Gilding. I really enjoyed this discussion panel, which primarily revolved around the “where to from here” in regards to climate change and dealing with it. Curt pointed out that this next decade is probably the most important decade in the next 100,000 years. Right now we can decide the future of the Earth’s climate by either listening to science and doing something or sitting in the corner with fingers in our ears yelling “la-la-la-la”. Naomi pointed out that scientists have been their own worst enemy, they publish journal papers that only scientists read, so the rest of the world can make stuff up with impunity. Paul pointed out that the free market is terrible at doing anything until the last possible second, and climate change is an issue that requires action much sooner due to its complexity and impact. As Naomi quoted:

Scientist in 1970s “Climate change is a real problem we need to deal with.”
Politician “When will it start having an impact?”
Scientist “Oh, in about 40 years.”
Politician “Get back to me in 39 years.”

Saturday 21st

Sex Up Your Writing
Linda Jaivin‘s workshop was a completely different kind of session at the festival. I would really have liked to have had her on the Porn Wars panel later in the day. Linda had a very simple message, write so that you get hot and steamy. If it works for you then it will work for someone else. That’s a good sex scene or erotica. Due to the topics discussed we were sworn to secrecy so I’ll let you imagine what the 14 women and two men did in the session.

Porn Wars
It was odd to leave a workshop on writing erotica to enter a panel discussion on porn in society. Catherine Lumby, a social scientist, Kate Holden, a former sex worker turned author, and Gail Dines, a fan of talking over the top of everyone including the moderator, were the experts called upon to discuss what should have been a fascinating topic. Unfortunately Gail decided to throw out unsubstantiated claims as facts, reject any other opinions and evidence, and provide scant evidence of her own. I especially liked her claim that the best selling porn movies were all misogynistic gonzo DVDs. Odd. I could have sworn that the big budget porn movies were couples erotica and that they dominated the market. This session was a waste of time. I have to say that as a male I love being blamed for all societal faults by sexists. Catherine and Kate needed a session without Gail, and, as one audience member pointed out, a male panellist.

Cities of the Dead
This was the session that I had come for. Crime fiction authors discussing their work and how the location of their novels influences them. Shamini Flint was the ‘contributing’ chair for the panel of Michael Connelly, Garry Disher and Michael Duffy. Shamini proved to be a great chair – maybe she could have chaired the Porn Wars session….. – and had everyone interested, discussing and laughing. Connelly could be described as taciturn, but Shamini had him telling jokes before long. I think all four authors sold a lot of books from this session, especially Shamini. At the book signing after she had a lot of people queued with her first Inspector Singh novel under their arms. Also Connelly revealed to me that he didn’t write the dialogue he utters on Castle, yet he loved doing the show and the stuff they give him to say.

The Chaser
I was in the queue for the queue to see The Chaser. Needless to say, I didn’t get in. Pity. They are always funny, despite what the BBC, Channel 7, Channel 9, and the Queen of England think.

Sunday 22nd

Growing Pains
When I was an undergraduate I picked a lot of economics units to pad out my science degree – yes I am a nerd, no I will not let you kick sand in my face. I remember very clearly the day that my economics professor explained the market model to us and my resulting question:

Me “If we have a finite resource base, how can we have infinite growth?”
Professor “Technology will be invented to change the resource base.”

Since then I have had this cartoon on my office wall:

Ross Gittins and Paul Gilding were the first economics commentators to say what I have been saying for, literally, decades: the current economic model is fatally flawed. Yes technology could save us, but how long are you willing to wait for it to save you?

As an aside: don’t you think it fitting/ironic that the stock exchange was founded by a chronic gambler?

Lawyers, Guns and Money
I finished my Sydney Writers’ Festival as I began it, with genre. Michael Connelly was back to discuss his books, his writing, his film adaptations and how much his daughter influences Harry Bosch’s daughter. This was a really interesting session and very well attended. I think this session underlined Connelly as one of the modern masters of crime fiction.

I’d also like to say “Hi” to all of the lovely people who I had a chat with in the queues for various sessions. We had some great discussions and were definitely a big part of what made this festival great.

Book review: Dexter is Delicious – Jeff Lindsay

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Do I really need to review this book? Or did I just want to say that I got Jeff to sign my copy of the book at the Perth Writers Festival? Or is it that adding Jeff Lindsay to my tags will raise my search profile? Who can really tell.

The reality is that all I need to say about this book is that is was very good and is a worthy edition to the Dexter series. Jeff continues to be one of my favourite authors, it may be time he became one of yours too (if he isn’t already). Also if the reading that Jeff delivered from his next book at the Perth Writers Festival – tentatively titled Double Dexter – is any indication of what Dexter fans can look forward to in September this year, then the series will continue strongly.

Now it would appear that I never have anything negative to say about the books that I read. I must love everything I read. I bloody wish!

The reality is that I have a very strict set of rules that I abide by in order to read a book.

  1. The book must be interesting enough for me to pick it up and start reading it.
  2. The book must maintain my interest enough to continue reading it.

Thus many books never make the grade to get to the review stage. It would be pretty strange to offer up a review of a book that I’ve never really read. It really isn’t the author’s fault that their books sucked so much that I never finished them. They can’t help if they spent so much time with mindless exposition that I’ve stuck my thumb in a meat slicer to prevent myself falling asleep. The author isn’t really responsible for spending so much time talking about the protagonist’s relationship with their cat and other meaningless crap. Thus when I fail to get more than 10-50 pages into a novel it is clearly my fault and denies me the right to reviewing the offending book. Which brings me to expanding my second rule:

  1. The book has ten pages to impress upon me the need to read further or else the book is mulching my fruit trees.
  2. The book then has until page 50 to convince me that the book isn’t mulch material with a passable first 10 pages.
  3. A third of the way through I’d better have been convinced to finish the book.

You see there is nothing worse than “sticking with a book” through sheer bloodymindedness. If the reward for ~400 pages of boredom is finishing the book and feeling that little tingle of accomplishment then really we could all do better. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t have time to waste on finishing mediocre books (yes Stieg Larsson, I am talking about your incorporeal ass).