Writers' festival deemed a winner

By Ged Cann

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Anna Jackson on the waterfall walk to the Waitonga Falls.
Anna Jackson on the waterfall walk to the Waitonga Falls.

The inaugural Ruapehu Writers Festival took place earlier this month and with talks on everything from working with myth and the importance of writing structure there were plenty of learning opportunities for hopeful authors and poets.

Held at the Powderhorn Chateau in Ohakune, writers were able to mingle in the upstairs bars to discuss work and lectures, breathing life into a town which would usually be silent during the skiing off-season.

Festival co-organiser Helen Rickerby said attendance was higher than the organisers had expected.

"At one count there were at least 120 people in one session, and people came and went."

Helen said a highlight for her was the lack of distinction between writers and the audience.

"The guest writers came to the other sessions as well, and met and talked with the audience members.

I met lots of people, and got to know lots more," she said.

One of the festival highlights was a talk from Kiwi novelists Sue Orr, Bianca Zander and Stacy Gregg exploring the use of place as character.

Stacy Gregg emphasised the importance of physically visiting the locations in question, a principal which has seen the former journalist visit places as far flung as Italy and Jordan.

"You get all the stuff you know about the place and then you dump 90 per cent of it because you're not writing a travel guide," she said.

"Sometimes you fall in love with some aspect of something that wasn't going to be important, but then it starts to flourish," she said.

Bianca Zander, author of The Girl Below and The Predictions, advocated for the use of buildings and local architecture as an entry point and method of grounding a novel, and Sue Orr also had a nugget of wisdom for budding authors - fact check. That goes doubly for local areas.

A separate fiction anthology lecture brought up interesting questions on how genre affects works and how it can be manipulated by an author.

Authors Emily Perkins, Bianca Zander and Nix Whittaker all presented samples of their work and talked about how they deviated from the traditions of their respective genres.

Nix Whittaker, author of the Glyph Warrior series, defined her work as sci fi romances, but said she rejected the cliches of modern romances like Fifty Shades of Grey in which the male is classically a powerful alpha character and the woman meeker.

"There's also no sex in my novels, so although it's romance it's very clean," she said.

She described genres as a device for the likes of Amazon to target audiences, and said for authors they were less relevant.

Emily Perkins spoke about the importance of including the little things that made up everyday life and said a key to her early carrier success was her experience at drama school, which taught her to observe without judgement.

The Friday night saw a poetry slam in which a number of attendees were able to exhibit their work.

A waterfall walk to the Waitonga Falls allowed for a brief reprieve on the Saturday and an opportunity to indulge in some culture and history with a local Maori guide.

Perhaps the most highly attended event was an editors' talk held on the Sunday, in which published and unpublished writers alike were able to hear from five editors from a variety of university and private presses.

Victoria University editor Fregus Barrowman said it was key for writers to study the publishers they are applying to before submitting.

"We are only accepting a small proportion of what's offered and there are many books I struggle emotionally with because I see potential in them but they are not right for us," he said.

Editor of Penguin Random House Harriet Allan had a few words of advise to hopeful fiction writers.

"People shouldn't be scared, we are all on the same side, we're all on the same team. We are not here to judge them, we are here to pick out the ones we think should be published."

She said the ideal submission for her was still a full manuscript print out, accompanied by a brief synopsis and a brief biography of the writer.

"Nowadays people have so much grabbing for their interest. If a book doesn't grab you they aren't going to carry on. It doesn't need to be an action thing, it could be beautiful writing," she said.

Talking on the success of books like Fifty Shades of Grey she said it was nothing to do with the book, but fashions.

"It may be hair style, it may be food, it's just something everyone's talking about. Suddenly you have non readers buying the book, but they're not going to be the people who come and buy a book again."

Organiser Helen Rickerby said there were not any definite plans to repeat the festival, but with such positive feedback she believed something should.

"Many people have said it is the best festival they've ever been to, and they've been to lots! I think something has to happen in the future, though when, what and who is yet to be determined."

- Hamilton News

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