What do we expect from writers' festivals? To learn some valuable writing lessons? To listen to some famous authors sharing their writing views and experiences? To immerse ourselves in a literary arena and network with other writers? Perhaps all of them.
I was reflecting on this question today while attending the inaugural Swinburne Writers' Festival that is part of the ongoing Emerging Writers' Festival in Melbourne, Australia. According to Swinburne University's website, the Swinburne Writers' Festival is "a four-day event that showcases the extraordinary talents of the university's writing-related teachers and students". Indeed, all of the festival's panelists and workshop facilitators teach at the university and have also been successful writers in different fields.
Limited by time, I only attended two sessions: "What Makes a Good Story?" and "Self-Publishing". As I am more inclined to take notes than doing live tweeting, I can only list some of the things I learned today to share with you here.
In terms of what makes a good story, every author, reader and literary critic would obviously have a different answer. The consensus, however, appears to be conflict, i.e. a good story needs to have conflict in its plot, setting, dialogue and character. As U.S. author Joseph Campbell once noted: "It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life." Of course, details are crucial in constructing any kind of literary abyss and treasure.
As for the writing process, some authors find it hard to commence the first draft, while others consider editing and revision the most difficult task. All authors, established and emerging, would agree that finding time to write is a huge task, but in general, it appears to take an average of eight to twelve months for most authors to complete a full-length book and have it ready for publishing. When asked how authors know a manuscript is "done and ready", one advice stands out: "Trust your gut feeling. If you feel something is not quite right but decide to ignore it in order to meet a deadline, then it is guaranteed that your readers will find it out."
One question also stands out: "How do you market your book?" In this day and age when even traditionally published authors are urged to self-promote, it is important to set up a brand (what is commonly seen as "author platform") and pitch/push as hard and widely as you could. While promoting yourself on social media, make sure it is not only about you, but other people as well. Networking and interactivity are crucial. Emerging authors are also encouraged to contact small presses, as they appear to give you more attention and control, and their turnaround time is usually faster when compared to big publishers.
Advice for new authors? Keep writing. Follow your passion. Understand why you need to write. Know your genre. Keep learning from others that are better than you. Keep reading! As Matthew Reilly says, "There is no such thing as an aspiring writer. You are a writer. Period."
The session "Self-Publishing" is a bit of a let-down because one hour only allows the speaker to scratch the surface. Still, gems are found here and there, and one of them is the notion that YOUR EXPERIENCE is important. As that famous African proverb goes, "When an elder dies, a library burns to the ground." In recent years, self-publishing has increasingly transformed from the "last resort" to the "preferred choice" of authors worldwide.
Two other contributing factors to the rise of self-publishing: (1) Only one or two out of a thousand unsolicited manuscripts get published. (2) Literary agents generally are not interested in first-time authors. With that said, make sure you submit to agents and publishers who do publish and promote your type of work. Also keep in mind that when your book does get published, it still may not sell.
Beware of the differences between custom publishers and vanity publishers. The latter often exaggerates not only your market potential but also the price you need to pay to publish your book. Advertisement by vanity publishers often says: "Authors wanted!" "We want your book!" "Publish your book and start making money!" "You can be a famous/awesome author!"
In terms of marketing your self-published book, you may want to start a blog and then release an ebook. These can be followed by producing print-on-demand books and distributing them to brick-and-mortar bookstores. Promotional channels include Goodreads, digital communities such as online groups and forums, giveaways/publishing sample writing, etc. Finally, if you do well and get the media's attention, then and only then can you wait to be bought out by big publishers. The media, of course, generally pay more attention to those books already in brick-and-mortar bookstores than self-published titles.