Professional Development

by Lynda Davies


It is 5.50pm and I am due at a workshop dinner at 6.30pm. But I am still at my work desk desperately trying to finish a task in ten minutes that I know will take at least five hours. I can do it, I can do it! ... I can't do it! I'll have to come back after the launch.

Time.... There is never enough time! Months ago I had enrolled in EnVision, a five-day manuscript development workshop. With everything going on this week, though, could I successfully juggle professional development, work and family? I had recently done a few all-nighters at work, on top of way too much overtime anyway, and had oversubscribed the stress quotient for weeks on end to meet an immovable deadline. How could I possibly focus on critique, and re-writing and development of my novel while work still loomed?

You know the drill. You get it done - then crash. What was really surprising about that week, however, was how invigorating it was to step out of the work frame and into the writing frame. Full-time writing - what a luxury! What a goal! These serendipitous moments arrive when we least expect them.

Twelve months ago I didn't think I had the time to do professional development activities that ate up my precious hours with my family. A writer friend of mine, however, is a networking genius and he kept hounding me. "Get out there, get your face and name known in the local writing community. It's one of the best ways to get ahead."

Professional development can take many forms and not all of them are right for everybody, or always at the right time. To dip my toe in the water I joined the Queensland Writers' Centre (QWC) and my membership there has proven to be worth its weight in gold. They run a fantastic programme of events that include:

  • Business Industry Seminars
  • Masterclasses
  • Workshops and
  • Editorial Consultancies.

I have found each of these formats to be useful, informative and, you guessed it, invaluable in the networking process.

Uuhh, networking I hear you groan. Guess what though? Events like these and the contacts we make at them can generate work for us. More on that later.

Someone is bound to ask: How do I know if any of these things are what I need? I asked that question a year ago: the answer - plan to meet your needs.

Uuhh: planning? That's worse than networking!

Yup, but it can bring surprising results. I am writing children's and cross-over speculative fiction, children's non-fiction and academic papers. But I know I need to work on my industry knowledge of children's markets, and well, the trade publishing industry in general. So I have focussed my attendance of QWC events and others on these issues. I don't attend, for example, seminars on the romance-writers' market, or improving poetry. I do attend business industry seminars like "Meet the Festival Directors", and "Getting Published - Agents and Assessments".

I submit work for and participate in Masterclasses like Lucy Sussex's "Masterclass for Young Adult Fantasy". I have also attended workshops for "The Summer of Speculative Fiction" sponsored by Fantastic Queensland and the Brisbane City Council. I found out about them in the local newspaper. Their workshop on "Planning your novel" by Kim Wilkins was superb.

Once you start thinking about developing your skills, it is amazing how many opportunities there are for you to do so. Work out the areas you need information on, or experience in, and target activities accordingly.

Reading is also a must for writers. One of Australia's leading authors said recently that as writers, our business is writing. How can we become good writers if we don't read?

Read your own genre, read whatever interests you. But read. Learn what you like and why. Anyone need an excuse to curl up with a good book? There are, too, professional magazines and journals. As a member of QWC, my fee includes a subscription to Writing Queensland, which has sections on upcoming events, opportunities and competitions as well as interviews and editorials. Because of my writing focus I also subscribe to Magpies - a magazine that reviews children's literature.

Remember that comment about knowing your market? Industry practitioners say it over and over. Conferences are something I love... maybe because of my academic background. I recently attended and presented at a national conference for speculative fiction: Conflux. Held in Canberra this year it was the 43rd National Conference for Science Fiction and Fantasy and it was a real blast.

Remember that networking genius friend of mine? He suggested I attend and while I was wavering one of the other organisers asked me to present a paper at the Con. What could I say? To be on the list of presenters with some of the biggest names in our field was an honour.

The panels were informative, practical and inspiring. You can bet I was pleased I went! Why is all this important to my writing? It sounds fun, but what does it do for me? Let me share two recent writing experiences: correcting a point-of-view faux-pas and synopsis writing.

Before submitting my novel manuscript to the EnVision tutor-panel, I thought I had picked up any unnecessary head-hopping. But there was one particular scene I'd missed. My tutor, Tansy Rayner Roberts, pointed it out and I immediately saw what she meant. There were no less than five point-of-view changes between the two characters! She said that unless a point-of-view change can be justified because it gives vital information that can be provided no other way (and that it had been set up properly), then it would be better not to do it. Right.

I re-wrote the scene from the main character's point-of-view. During a conversation her companion's body language and change in speech patterns alert the main character to a potentially dangerous problem. Without head-hopping I was still able to show the other girl's distress. I'm sorry to say that I hadn't picked up the original problem. Without my tutor's sharp eyes, I probably would have sailed past it time and time again. You can be assured that no similar transgression will be allowed to escape in the future!

Oooh the trouble I've had with my synopsis. Here is the opening paragraph of my (pre-workshop) attempt:

Every five hundred years the Svart Alfar, the Dark Elves, challenge the tribes of the Middle Kingdoms. If the tribes fail the tests, they lose their land. The result: stay and become slaves, or leave.

Not good! Where are the characters? It is not a selling tool. It is nothing like the blurb you read on the back of books. It has no verve! These are things that are essential to a good synopsis. A master said so! Compare the above with my new version:

'If I can do magic like this whenever they want, it means they'll send me away to be a Druid. And... I... don't... want... to... do... that!' Rhyssa's clan have abandoned their village and left her behind in the forest. To find them, Rhyssa must search the Star Paths. And that needs real Druid magic!

Better, isn't it? I have ten pages of notes from that workshop on synopsis writing and they'll be notes I refer to over and over again.

Remember I mentioned earlier about getting out there and grabbing (or making) opportunities? At the seminar "Meet the Festival Directors" I proposed a different type of activity for a literature festival. It was outside the norm, but it intrigued the panellists. I contacted one of the festival directors by email later and... guess what? I'm now part of a great Festival and having a ball developing my resources. Would this have happened if I had stayed at home that night?

Decide what you need to do to further your dream of being a good writer and, please, go do it!

(c) copyright Lynda Davies


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