Speculative Fiction Festival at Writing NSW

Saturday 29th June 2019, Writing NSW, Callan Park, Lilyfield

So how was Spec Fic 19?

In a word, enthralling. This was my first time at this one-day festival about all things writing, and I absolutely loved it. I was so absorbed that I didn’t even take any photos, so this post is going to be text only. But if you’d like to see some pictures, you’ll find lots if you search for the hashtag #SpecFic19 on Twitter.

The day began with early morning mist shrouding the old buildings. Very atmospheric and appropriate, especially for the horror writers. There was coffee ready on the verandah, hot and very strong. I was going to need that caffeine. I filled my keep cup and headed inside.

Session 1: That was then, this is now

Sam Hawke (chair) , Robert Hood, Kaaron Warren, Shankari Chandran

The first session was for all participants. The panellists discussed the books that first got them into speculative fiction and how those books stacked up now on re-reading. There was a consensus that The Shining was still worth reading, for King’s tight style, characterisation and pacing. Robert maintained that HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds was timeless, whereas Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while it had timeless themes, was less accessible now simply due to the language and structure which is very different to the modern novel. Kaaron, while championing King, also mentioned Agatha Christie, who despite the presence of problematic elements in her novels, is still an author she reads for her mastery of place, pacing and mystery plotting. Shankari reluctantly showed us David Eddings’ Pawn of Prophecy, saying that she was heartbroken that it hadn’t held up to re-reading and was reluctant even now to criticise it. Nevertheless, she forced herself to tell us that the characters were one-dimensional and there was a very problematic West vs East theme running through it. This was also one of my favourite series as a teenager and young adult. I’m definitely not re-reading it now. I’ll spare myself the disappointment and just enjoy my memories.

A nice, cruisy first session, with a few laughs, not too taxing on the early morning brain. After this, we had to choose between different topics for the next 3 sessions. So here are my thoughts on the sessions I chose.

Session 2: World Building 101

Keith Stevenson (chair), Mitchell Hogan, Catherine McKinnon, Mykaela Saunders

This was a blast, as we were introduced to worlds as diverse as they come, and various techniques for writing them. From Keith’s planet peopled by empathic alien crabs and Mitchell’s struggles with creating religions to Catherine’s amazing time-spanning Storyland built on massive amounts of historical research, and Mykaela’s multi-genre short story cycle based on the past, present and imagined future of her people in the Tweed, it was a fascinating discussion that highlighted there is no right way to do world building. Keith said that while you might write a very detailed description of everything about your imagined world for your own reference, you only need to add a few key details here and there in your story in order for readers to be able to fill in the blanks themselves. This resonated with me because it’s the way I’ve been working. I need to know everything to make sure it’s all consistent, but I’m not interested in writing long descriptions of every location, political system or social practice into my actual novels. One thing I took away from this session is that I can’t wait to read Mykaela’s story cycle when she finishes it. It sounds unique and wonderful.

After this session, we had “Kaffeeklatches”, where we gathered in smaller groups led by one of the panellists. I joined Kaaron Warrren’s. Even though I don’t write horror, it seemed like an interesting group, and it was, made up of several well-known, established writers and a few of us newbies. Kaaron told us about her current work in progress, featuring a prison break, a home invasion and an old lady who may not be as helpless as she first seems. It sounds gory, frightening and possibly a lot of fun. Kaaron herself is neither gory nor frightening, but is definitely fun and very encouraging, as were the others. Australian horror writers are a friendly bunch, it seems. The time flew and all too soon we broke for lunch.

Session 3: Don’t Worry! Self-publishing doesn’t mean ‘Do it Yourself’.

Keith Stevenson (chair), Abigail Nathan, Dionne Lister, Mitchell Hogan

This was the session I scribbled the most notes for: extemely practical advice from people who know what they’re talking about. It was good to hear Abigail speak from the point of view of an editor, compared to the writers’ experiences shared by the other three. Dionne talked a lot about the business end and the importance of publicity and advertising, and she and Mitchell both recommended Facebook writing groups for advice and (very) honest critiques. I’m not sure I can cope with Goodreads, Twitter, this blog and Facebook too, but maybe down the track. I also now have a few websites to check out:

https://www.bookbub.com https://booktastic.com https://davidgaughran.com

https://www.thecreativepenn was also mentioned, and I’m familiar with that. It’s already helped me a lot.

A very useful session with lots of information I’ve tucked away for when I’m ready to publish.

Session 4: Science Fiction Now

Cat Sparks (chair), Shankari Chandran, Margaret Morgan, Shauna O’Meara,

I didn’t make any notes during this session, but the conversation was diverse and interesting. Cat, Margaret and Shauna talked about the links between their science backgrounds and their fiction, while Shankari explained that she almost became buried under research and was struggling to grasp all of it until someone pointed out that she was writing fiction and she could depart form the science if she needed to. This sparked a discussion about whether all “science” in science fiction needs to be completely factual, with varying viewpoints expressed, all of which I have some sympathy for. As I don’t write in this genre, I suppose I don’t have to make up my mind. The panel touched on genetics, neurology, climate change and other topical themes. A thoroughly enjoyable session, more applicable to me as a reader than a writer.

Session 5: Ideas Generator

Margaret Morgan (chair), James Bradley, Michael Gillings, Elise Bohan

I have a confession to make: I wasn’t looking forward to this session. Not because I didn’t think it would be interesting, but simply that, after a whole day of listening and thinking, and with a three-hour trip home at the end of it, I was all festivaled-out. Especially as this was another joint session, meaning the room would be packed with people. I didn’t want any more people just then, thank you very much. I went out onto the verandah during the short break before this began, gazed at the trees and contemplated just not going back inside. But it was cold out there, so in I went. Perhaps I could just sit in a corner and tune out.

That attitude lasted about two minutes. These four super-smart, articulate and opinionated panellists caught my attention and didn’t let go for an entire hour. Where were we headed in the future? Was that a good thing or a bad thing? What might destroy us? What might save us? How might humanity change?

Elise was both optimistically encouraging and frankly terrifying, with her visions of benign AI control and humanity uploading out of our bodies into the cloud. James was far more pessimistic, saying we might destroy ourselves long before any of that happened. Michael talked about human nature and the struggle between our instinctive hind brain responses, leading us towards tribalism and aggression, and our front brain trying to make us into better people. Margaret was a knowledgeable and sparkling moderator. Everyone was both passionate and courteous, in itself a practical demonstration of front-brain thinking. It ended too soon, to thunderous applause.

Afterwards, there was wine and socialising on the verandah, but I was more than ready to head home. I left with my head buzzing, knowing that it would take a few days to process everything.

It was an excellent day and incredible value for money. If you have a chance to attend the next one, I highly recommend it.

4 thoughts on “Speculative Fiction Festival at Writing NSW

  1. Rebecca Bowyer

    Thanks so much for this wrap up.

    My husband made a similar comment about noticing the racism when re-reading an Eddings book recently.

    I think it’s a really positive sign of how far we’ve come in the past few decades, that we now notice it and reject it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s