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  • Nikky Lee

Writing to live, living to write: tips and takeaways from the NZ Writers Forum

Feature image of a lecturn

On Saturday I had the joy of attending the second New Zealand National Writers Forum—a hive of established and emerging authors who congregated in the lobby of the University of Auckland Business School. The theme: writing to live and living to write.

I can’t begin to capture everything I took away from this conference, that would be like trying to hold water in a sieve; an impossible task. But I’ll do my best to cover the overarching themes that emerged over the day (with a few useful tips I discovered along the way).


Diverse voices

Publishers are hungry for diverse voices, but ironically, many are still reluctant to take on authors who represent minority voices. There are a number of reasons why, some valid (we don’t know how to market to the author's audience) and some not (there is no audience).

Note, a valid reason is not always an acceptable reason. And after listening to a panel on the state of publishing in New Zealand, which featured five local publishers, it’s clear that Oceania as a whole is making strides forward. Indie publishers especially, such as Huia and Little Island Press, are showing the region that there is a demand for these voices, particularly from Pasifika, Māori and Aboriginal peoples.

And as a reader (who is, disclosure, very white) it is refreshing to discover new voices to offset the echo-chamber of western whiteness.

However, overall, there’s still more work to be done.

As one of our keynote speakers, author of the Pasifika YA Telesa series, Lani Wendt Young, said:

“Toni Morrison tells us, ‘if there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it’. But what happens when you write the book of your heart and mind and no one wants to publish it?”

Which leads to my next point.


Self publishing is not inferior

I’ll preface this with: self publishing is not inferior—when the author puts in the hours. That means having the book edited, choosing a good cover, typeface and paper stock if its getting printed.

When a writer does these things, a self-published title will appear no different to a traditionally published book.

However, the key difference between traditional and self-published books is marketing. While traditionally published authors also need to market their work, the consensus from the conference was that self-published authors need to work twice as hard to promote their book. That includes social media promotion, schools and community centre visits, radio, television interviews, magazine and newspaper interviews, reviews—the list is extensive.

Which is where a publicist becomes a real asset.

“The old adage that people need to see something promoted three times before they’ll buy it rings true,” publicist Penny Hartill advised at the Forum. “For a self published novel to overcome the media bias against them, the book needs to be as good as you can make it.”

Three tips from Penny

  • Engage a publicist at least three months before you launch your book. The week of is not enough time for them.

  • October and November are when most people buy books (for Christmas), however, it is also the most competitive time to launch a book. It is worth considering other times of the year, especially if it’s your debut.

  • If you sell a lot of books at your launch party, it can boost you on to that week’s best sellers list—a powerful bit of promotion you can use going forward.

  • Look for ways to get yourself on the lists of major distributors: Amazon, Book Depository and BookBub for example.

While self publishing might seem daunting—to me it certainly does—I do believe it is part of the answer for introducing more diverse writers, diverse stories, to the world, which is something we need right now.


Embrace digital

This has been reiterated to me before (several times), but the NZ Writer’s Forum hammered home the importance of building an author brand. A website and social media presence are essential for that—much to the dismay of several members of the audience.

Gone are the days when authors could write in isolation and then let their publisher take over the marketing and promotion. Now, regardless of whether you self publish or not, authors are expected to promote their work. And social media plays a crucial role in that.

For writers new to social mediums (Facebook and Twitter especially), there is good news. The writing communities on these platforms are some of the most, supportive, welcoming people I’ve encountered online. In a nutshell, social media is your friend, don’t shy away from it. If need be, find someone digitally savvy to teach you.

If you’re looking for a place to start, here are two:

As for what to post on these mediums, here are a few more tips from Penny Hartill:

  • Draw out the themes of your fiction and write out them.

  • Don’t post about the content of your book. Tempting with tidbits is fine, but don’t give away the game.

  • Post about you, your interests, the issues you write about and why you write what you write.

  • If you’re working toward a book launch, build up momentum on your social accounts too. Increase the number of posts you put out each week and for a few weeks after the event.

  • If your audience is young adult and under, consider targeting their influencers—the people they look up to—and asking them to endorse you. Influencers can include parents, teachers, other well-known authors and public figures.


Spend time honing your style

John Marsden quote: "To break the rules, to go outside the box, successfully, you need to know what's in the box first."

I was lucky enough to spend ninety minutes in a workshop on language and editing with John Marsden. Much of it revolved around style and Marsden’s “war” on stale language.

Style is your choice of words, rhythm and structure in a sentence and across the page. However, through our formative years, we’re all taught that certain words go together in predictable combinations. Blue sky, sparkling ocean, tall skyscrapers and so on.

According to Marsden, these words are stale. And he’s right. At best, they’re uninspiring, and at worst they’re cliche. How many times have we heard the ocean described as sparking? Or the sky as blue and cloudless? As writers we can choose to challenge this. And in challenging it, experimenting with expression and style, we find and develop our voices as writers.

Reducing modifiers, namely adverbs (-ly words), can help us improve our style. Adjectives too, Marsden says, and if you’re using one per sentence, you’re probably pushing it; two or three and you need to be very careful.

His parting piece of advice: edit with the reader’s comfort in mind. No reader wants to have to backtrack or hesitate over a clunky sentence.


Final thoughts

Even though I was only able to attend one day or the two and a half day conference, the NZ Writers Forum provided ample food for thought (as well as morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and evening canapes—much to my delight). And while much of the forum focused on issues specific to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island Nations, many, if not all, are relevant beyond our Oceania borders.

The industry is changing on a global scale, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the future might hold. For me, at least, it will be another ticket to the next forum.

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