Overland Master Class – a Wrap-Up (or, Pitching Your Novel at Beer’o’clock is Never a Good Idea)

GraffitispellingThe Overland Master Class for Progressive Writers, conceived and facilitated by Overland Associate Editor, Rjurik Davidson was as inspiring as it was constructive. We were blessed, not only by Rjurik’s witty wisdoms, but those of prominent industry professionals, Tony Birch, Cate Kennedy, and Lucy Sussex.

Let me introduce the nine writers in the class: Alec Patric, Angela Meyer, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ilia Rosli, Warwick Sprawson, Daan Spijer, Koraly Dimitriadis, David Azul, and me.

Day One saw us huddled in the bowels of the Trades Union Hall in Carlton, shivering away under fluorescent light like all good subversive political writers should (I think). We made an eclectic bunch, the nine of us, and any nerves we might have had about criticising each others’ work, soon dissolved as we threw ourselves headlong into the task.

It was a privilege to read and give feedback on nine great stories, all ripe with potential. One of the best things about discussions and workshops on writing is that it’s so damn subjective. What I loved, another person didn’t, and vice versa. And still, there are always elements where the same response holds true for the entire group, and as a writer, these are those cherished moments where you tear up the paper in your hurry to get these criticisms down. They’re the ah-ha moments, where you hear your reader, loud and clear.

Tony Birch spent three generous hours with us on the Friday afternoon, and was bursting with knowledge about developing a set of ethics to guide your writing and taking ownership for what you produce. Tony talked about not being afraid of the obsessions that drive your own writing, and defending the story when you truly believe in it and in the characters you’ve created. You will always offend someone and Tony suggested, in no uncertain terms, you must get over that. He spoke about finding your writing heroes and continually going back to them to ask yourself why you love their work so much.

My own story was critiqued by the group on day one and it was well received by everyone. (At which point I actually started to breathe again. I did wonder why I was turning blue, I mean, it wasn’t that cold in there.) I got some invaluable feedback and will squirrel myself away for the next few weeks, re-drafting it.

Day Two saw us all arriving (in a blisteringly cold wind) with blankets, fingerless gloves and hot coffees (except me, of course, because I’m still on this damn detox and had to bring a nose-bag full of raw veggies – mmm, just what one feels like on a glacial winter day…) We spent the morning critiquing, debating, and deconstructing three more great stories, and were then blessed by a visit from one of my favourite writers, Cate Kennedy. Cate whipped up a sandstorm of creative energy in a little under five seconds and kept the pace up for a solid three hours that felt like five minutes. The ah-ha moments came thick and fast. She was extrememly generous. We discussed and practiced how to put pressure on your characters and how to crack that story open by starting it at the latest possible moment; that place where a character is at the brink of change. We were pushed to look at our work and ask ourselves – why am I showing the reader this? How did it come to this? What is at stake? What event will force the character to make a choice that will reveal something about them? What’s the unarticulated conflict?

The morning of Day Three saw the group in a meaty debate about Post-Modern ficto-criticism (yes, yes, I say I’m dumb… but really I’ve been fooling you all this time…) that got us forgetting about the cold and had us leaning in close and waving our arms about in that progressive writerly kind of way.

We were visited by Age reviewer and writer, Lucy Sussex, on the last afternoon and Lucy challenged us to think about the role of science in political writing. She gave us a Sci Fi writing exercise and 15 minutes to do it, and did I, with my already very vocalised dislike of Sci Fi, freak out? Pfft. Of course I did. I sat there for five minutes in what I like to call my ‘maths head’ – the state of mind I get thrust into immediately someone asks me anything mathematical: blank and terrified. After five minutes of blank and terrified that stern little voice in my head (that sounds awfully like my mother, but that’s a whole other blog post…) popped up and said You’re a writer, aren’t you? So write. So I did, for ten minutes, and you know what, I totally surprised myself by writing something halfway decent. What d’ya know!

Overland Editor, Jeff Sparrow came in as we were wrapping up and declared it beer’o’clock and off we trundled, leaving our strangely comforting cold room behind. You know the only downer of the whole three days? Jeff picked up his beer and asked me what my novel was about. Did I give him a concise, you-have-to-publish-this-masterpiece-sort-of-pitch? Course I didn’t! I gave him a rambling, incoherent description of a book that even I didn’t like the sound of. Sigh.



Filed under Art, Australia, Cate Kennedy, Criticism, Detox, Fiction, Flash fiction, Inspirational, Lucy Sussex, My Book, Overland, Political Writing, Reading, Review, Short Stories, Submission, Tony Birch, Writing

27 responses to “Overland Master Class – a Wrap-Up (or, Pitching Your Novel at Beer’o’clock is Never a Good Idea)

  1. It’s so hard to get it right (your novel synopsis) when you’re asked out of the blue! I’ve only ever got it down pat once.

    So great to hear your take on things. I’ve been far too tired and busy to write anything worthwhile about it. But I plan on introducing the other writers in the group on the blog once I’ve got all their emails 🙂

    It was so fantastic, and I enjoyed getting to know you better in person!

    x Ange


  2. adairjones

    Wow, Simonne! It sounds like a wonderful and enriching experience. Thanks for the account-in-miniature; some really good tips there.

    On the consise synopsis problem: someone told me to write out a pitch that is the length of a short elevator ride–and memorise it! Get so that you are reciting it in your sleep. When the question is asked, you’ll be ready.



  3. Sigh, never mind. Jeff is very cool (he must be, he put up with me bothering him in his blog for a long time) and will forgive you. It sounds like a wonderful and vaulauble experience. And you got to meet Maxine!


    • Your chorus of ‘and you get to meet Maxine!’ cracked us both up, Paul! YES, we had a great time together, and yes, we raised our glasses to you at the pub! 😉


  4. Simonne, a wonderful snapshot of a fabulous three ‘pressure-cooker’ days.

    When it came to my turn to have my story dissected, it felt like watching my child on the operating table with eight surgeons who don’t quite agree on what is wrong and what should be done about it. And then they leave me to carry out the operation and sew my dear one up again. Arrrgghh!

    Such a rich environment in which to look at what makes a story and what makes it work. It is not enough to have a story that needs telling — you have to be able to tell it so ‘they’ get it. I knew exactly what the story was about and what its message was, yet I knew that it was a sick kid — not enough life in it to survive on its own. The combined insights of the eight surgeons gives me hope that I can save it, to grow robust and fiesty and take its place in the world.

    Now to my private lab to do the necessary work.

    I now feel less alone in the world, having experienced the generosity and care of other writers. And I learned how precious I can be about my creations.


    • He he, we can get rather precious about our babies, can’t we? – but then, you did the brave thing of bringing in an early draft where the baby always does seem somehow more precious. I guess once you’ve hacked into it a few times already, the blood and gore seem less, you know, bloody?!
      Your story is great Daan. I hope I get to read the next version!


      • The masterclass has helped me sharpen my scalpel and taught me new ways to use it — along with all the other tools of writerly surgery.

        It’s not just the cutting, however; it’s also knowing how to sew it all back together again, and I feel I have more and better tools for that now.

        I’m toying with the suggestion, made in the group, of putting the story into the first person. And, yes, Korad will have to confront horrible things, both external and internal.


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  6. Sounds fantastic Simonne. I wonder if it will become an annual event…?


  7. I bet your deer-in-the-headlights pitch wasn’t nearly as bad as you think, honey, especially because I suspect this happens to absolutely everyone, and that Jeff’s heard a real shocker or two in his time. But I love that elevator suggestion above. That’s a good idea. I am still ignoring my synopsis (at least, I am currently ignoring the 11th draft of it), but now I’m going to time *and* memorise version # 12…

    The class sounds great, lucky you!


    • Simonne

      Yeah, I think it was!

      Don’t you just love the synopsis?! My first ever attempt at a novel some years back – my disaster under the bed that is apparently obligatory – has a brilliant synopsis that took me three months to perfect sitting there with it!


  8. sandybarker

    How brave you are to put your work out there, and to seek guidance. I am enjoying the vicarious journey of your re-write. Thanks for keeping us ‘posted’.


  9. Hi Simonne. We met! And your novel description didn’t sound as much in shambles as you seem to think. In fact, I can actually remember exactly what it is about, the redrafting stage you’re at and what you said the problems were, which is very rare. Also, criticising yourself shows humility and the ability to grow as a writer and, most importantly, be edited – which is, of course, what editors want to do. Looking forward to swapping in a month or so. x


    • We met! We met! 🙂 And thanks for sticking up for my ram-shackle pitch! I forgot you heard it too! I’m looking forward to the swap too. I hope the rewrites are going well xx


  10. Kim

    we are never as good or bad as we think we are. well, rarely.

    drop by my new place if you have time…


  11. great to stumble on your blog, chock full of information.


  12. Where’s she gone?!


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