what makes a good story - reflections from Swinburne Writers Festival

Swinburne Writers Festival opened yesterday with a symposium on Teaching Writing and Editing in collaboration between Swinburne University of Technology and The Wheeler Centre. 

One of the Festival’s largest panels – What Makes a Good Story – brought together Dr Carolyn Beasley, Dr Jacqueline Ross and Larry Schwartz, and was moderated by Nicholas  Brasch. The panel also featured a ‘mystery guest’ volunteer from the audience (this was a nice touch). The panel was gender and genre balanced. 

Nicholas led the discussion before inviting further questions from the audience. 

Here are some insights I took away from the panel – arranged by the questions the panellists were asked.

What film/book would you take with you to an uninhabited island?

Both Carolyn and Larry would take either a ‘How To Build A Boat’ or ‘How To Survive on a Deserted Island’ volume with them, because they do not wish to stay on this island forever. Seriously though, Carolyn would take with her Trainspotting – because of its dialogues, dialects and multiple stories packed into one narrative. Jacqueline would take Goldfinch (at least that’s I heard from the way back where I sat and Tweeted) and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (see below). I missed what the mystery guest from the audience had said because I was busy writing this down.

Core elements of a story?

It must be a character or a story ‘I’ can identify with. There must be some universal elements in the story but it also must take you someplace new and previously hidden and unknown.

Suspense is a must! 

However, slow(er) literary unfolding can also be a way to go… Depends on a genre.

Conflict. Conflict. Conflict.

And not just the obvious conflict which is vital to the plot, but also conflict in the setting, in the dialogue, in the character/s. Internal conflict leads to character paradoxes and informs everything your characters do and say. 

Stare into the abyss.

Your story emerges from the conflict – in that sense the conflict was likened to the ‘abyss’. This may or may not have been a reference to Nietzsche.

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” 

from Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146 (1886)

Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer above the sea of fog. 


Details are great.

Details will help you make your story more believable. 

If I tell you ‘elephants are flying in the sky’, will you believe me? 

How about, ‘1000 elephants are flying in the sky’? 


Does this detail add the cred to my bold statement - that little bit of trust that's necessary for the suspension of belief? Interpret this as you will, but I’m thinking about this along the lines of dichotomy ‘show/tell’ – if you say your protagonist is angry, maybe someone will believe you, but probably not so much. If you show how your character's grinding her teeth and snapping left and right, then you’re more likely to be trusted as the authentic storyteller. Though don’t overdo with showing – I personally prefer the balance between the two. After all there’s only so much of teeth grinding and glaring a character can do.      

Hardest/easiest parts of writing process?

For Jacqueline, the hardest part is the first draft. To get through the first draft, make sure you set your daily word count and keep to those goals… The easiest/favourite part? Redrafting and revising once you’ve got the first draft.

For Carolyn, the first draft is the best part – because it’s about getting ahead with the ideas.

And the hardest? Second draft… as in identifying parts to cut and let go. But what’s been cut is never thrown away – it’s just kept in a different file… (I heard someone else referring to this as the Graveyard – and sometimes things can be resurrected from this place of rejection). 

It is vital to establishing a writing routine and stick to it. (I guess, one can’t really call oneself a writer if one doesn’t write – hey!)

For Larry, whose background is in journalism and non-fiction, interviewing is the best part of the writing process. Transcribing the interview is the worst part. (This is something I can relate to – overall I must have conducted over 60 interviews so far and had to transcribe most of them myself, so definitely, talking to your informant, especially if the interview's going well, can give you such an amazing rush… but most of this rush will disappear when you sit down to transcribe the recording.)

How long does it take you to decide on an idea and develop it fully?

Just start writing! Write whenever you have the time, whether it’s on the bus, on the train, in between others things, like your day job. The key thing is to get the voice right – once that’s in place, the rest comes. It can take anything from 4 months to 8 months to one year to even more than that to get to the final draft of a manuscript. So the trick is really: jump in and go with it!

How do you market your work?

There was some uncertainty whether the author is best positioned to market his/her own work. The question was raised – isn’t it publisher’s job…? (Hmm, I say – in the ideal world, perhaps, but from what I’m observing, writers do a lot of self-promo on social media – some do it much better than others. I think the real trick is to promote yourself without being obvious about what you’re doing – some kind of subtle hidden promotion?)

But one advice that came through was on the importance of simplifying/clarifying your pitch – (I guess, in case you’re stuck with an editor in the proverbial elevator.) Writer must be able to communicate his/her work effectively and clearly. But… clarity is an acquired skill.

Social media, of course, was mentioned a few times. But how to cut through all the noise? One advice I found particularly useful: look up at those who do it well – look for the exemplars of authorial self-promotion and do as they do.  

Also: push yourself out of your comfort zone to meet/network with editors and publishers… Networking is important. It’s all about finding or creating opportunities for yourself and pursuing them. Pitch your ideas to editors – though it’s easier for non-fiction writers to get commissioned for short work because you can just pitch the idea and your approach and then write the story, if the editor likes it (I blogged about writing an op ed before and recently had my own piece published in the Conversation – I’ll blog about that process later). Make them know your name. (A thought about branding: make people associate certain things with yourself – how do you want to be known?) Blogging was also mentioned in passing.

As a self-promo technique it was suggested to take out publishers/editors to lunch at your expense. Yes, it might set you back financially, but the reward might be greater – like a publication or something (I’d take this with a grain of salt).

Interesting view on social media and self-promotion came from the ‘mystery’ panellist – if you’re on Twitter and you’re Ok with being open about yourself and expose yourself to the world, then be controversial! Would you rather have one vocal supporter or many passive ones (this is rhetorical question). Also, see what other writers are doing in terms of social media: most of their Tweets (…90% - this is not exact stats) are RT – this positions them as not being overly self-centred and interested in promoting others, spreading the word… some food for thought, perhaps? 

Who do you bounce ideas off?

No one really, at least not for a while anyway. Not even, family members… But value your friends who agree to read your work for free and give you their fifty cent… Make friends who are writers so you can barter feedback for feedback. If you’re lucky to be a student studying writing, you get the luxury of getting feedback from your teachers/supervisors – treasure that while it lasts (I had the pressure of experiencing just that during my PhD – I was quite spoilt with feedback.) Build and maintain and treasure your writerly connections – these networks will serve you well in the future. 

For those writing non-fiction or with a journalism background: if you get feedback from pitching your articles/op ed ideas to the editors – take that on board!  

Any advice for young writers?

Get a job.

Keep writing.

Write every day.

Don’t stop writing.

Follow your passion.

Write what moves you.

Keep learning from others, from those who are better than you are.

Read. Read. Read a lot.

What was the driving force that made you start writing?

Mentors and teachers who inspired and gave confidence to write. Finding the ‘music’ in your story – pinning down how the story breathes, how the characters find their language.

In journalism/non-fiction – don’t underestimate the idea of a ‘good yarn’.

The ‘mystery’ panellist spoke of how many were inspired by the JK Rowling story… Whilst he himself initially found inspiration in Oprah and Dr Phil. I guess, whatever rocks your boat!

The question of can you teach/learn writing was touched upon. All panellists are academic staff or staff/student at Swinburne. It was acknowledged that often when students ask their teachers whether the latter has a writing degree, the answer is usually ‘No’. It is true that many professional writers never did a writing course. But as the panellists explained, it is not because they don’t find writing courses useful, but rather because back in the day, there were not that many writing courses available. It was also said that if there was a chance to take a writing course in their formative years, they would have definitely taken one. So there you go – some more morsels of food for thought.

Always embrace your next subject fully – just try, just start writing and then keep writing. If you don’t try it out, how would you know if you’re good at it or if you’re really into this genre. Something that stuck with me: there was always a first try. Every great book had a first draft. And this made me smile: writers are not doctors – if you fail, no one’s life is at stake! First drafts are rough though – don’t let it discourage you.

When do you know you’re done [with a book]?

When you know it’s ready!

When your publisher says time’s up!

When you start making only little changes, not major improvements!

When you haven’t looked at the manuscript for several months and it’s still good!

Overall: your intuition will tell you when it’s enough. You have to stop editing at some point anyway. Don’t pursue perfection to the point of obsession – perfection is subjective and open to interpretation.

Trust your intuition: you know when the manuscript is ready and you know when it’s not – with your gut. Your gut’s always right. In regards to ‘gut vs head’ – head wants to keep bits in but the gut tells you it doesn’t belong… Listen to your gut.

A comment from the audience: there’s no such thing as an emerging writer. You’re either writer or you’re not. Don’t be boggled down by these labels though – just write.

Traditional publisher vs indie

Oh, the debate as old as rhyme.

From the panellists, no one did the indie pub.

Small presses can be amazing. They give a lot of attention to their authors and also more creative control (over the cover etc.). However, whoever signs you up – congrats! Be professional! Develop your relationships with editors – they move between publishers a lot, so it’s great to cultivate these connections.

On labelling your book with specific genre…

Clearer defined genre is an easier sell!

Marketing department will know better how to market your book too if you help them by labelling it yourself. Bookshops will be able to better locate it on the shelves and promote it for the same reason.

Cross-genre elements may make editors uncomfortable. When writing cross-genre works – find the way where the genres overlap – this will help you/your team market your book.

However, believe in what you’re doing. Take risks. Don’t let fear/rules constraint you too much!

In other words, just keep on writing.


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