Sunday, 29 June 2014

Event recap: Kids and YA festival

Yesterday I attended the Kids and YA festival at the beautiful and inspiring NSW Writers’ Centre in Sydney. I’ve attended numerous courses, festivals and symposiums at the NSW Writers’ Centre and they have always been enjoyable and worthwhile, but yesterday’s festival has taken the top spot as my favourite event the centre has put on. 

The day began with an intro from the festival’s director, Aleesah Darlison, before the keynote address from engaging Boori Monty Pryor - author of such books as Shake a Leg. Pryor kicked off the festival with a perfect quote: “It’s not what you do. It’s what you leave”. And it was clear from the buzz in the room that the audience was full of aspiring authors determined to do just that.

Festival director and author, Aleesah Darlison 

Culture, Place and Identity in Children's Literature:

The first talk I attended was the topical session on diversity from three authors with very different backgrounds: Boori Monty Pryor, Wai Chim and Sarah Ayoub with Wendy Fitzgerald as the chair. Each author spoke about their background and their desire as children to read about protagonists like themselves. Pryor made the astute comment that people hate things when they don’t understand it; similar to how Pryor hated maths as a child. He said that writing is a great way to deal with anger. All authors hoped that readers would enjoy their novels, regardless of their cultural background.

Wendy Fitzgerald, Boori Monty Pryor, Sarah Ayoub and Wai Chim

From Page to Stage and Screen: 

Next up Wendy Orr, Isobelle Carmody and Felicity Pulman spoke with Meredith JaffĂ© about the process of translating their books to the big screen. This session was of particular interest to me due to my background in film and television, and I could relate to the tangible despair of how agonizingly slow the process of film production can be and how projects can fall through at any stage of the process.

Looks like I caught Wendy's eye!
Meredith Jaffé, Felicity Pulman, Wendy Orr and Isobelle Carmody

All panellists agreed that the process of writing a novel is very different from scriptwriting, in particular, Isobelle Carmody spoke of how structured films are and that plot points must occur within a certain amount of screen time. At this point, author Pamela Freeman - who was in the audience, spoke up and mentioned that this is how she writes novels, due to her television scriptwriting background. I realised then, that this is also how I approach writing a novel.

The inevitable question of how to ensure your book will be ripe for film adaption arose and Felicity Pulman said the key is to have a ripper story that’s visual. That’s easy enough, right? ;) They all agreed that you need to be open to making changes such as: combining characters, removing characters, changing the nationality or age of a character and emphasizing certain elements of the story over others. 

I really enjoyed this panel and look forward to seeing the film adaptations of Ghost Boy (Felicity Pulman), Greylands (Isobelle Carmody) and any further Nim’s Island films (Wendy Orr) in the, hopefully not-to-distant, future.

Publishers: What They're Looking For and How to Impress Them:

After lunch, I returned for the always-popular publishers panel with Zoe Walton (Random House Australia), Nicola Robinson (Walker Books Australia), Suzanne O’Sullivan (Lothian Children’s Books) and Rochelle Manners (Wombat Books). Each panellist let the audience know what they’re currently looking for, but they all agreed that quality is key. Other interesting insights were that manuscript assessment reports and recommendations are rarely read, nor are synopsises! I found this extremely surprising as many publisher submission guidelines ask for a synopsis and distilling your novel down to one or two pages is a panic-inducing process that takes weeks, maybe longer, to perfect. That said, they reiterated that you must follow a publisher’s guidelines, so if the dreaded synopsis needs to be included, then you must do just that. They also implored you know the publisher you’re submitting to and how your work sits amongst their current titles, as well as how it differs.

Creating Worlds and Magic and Wonder:

I was torn between the next two sessions, in one room authors were discussing how to write, pitch and publish a series: something I’m particularly interested in as I’ve written the first of a potential trilogy, but in the other room: Isobelle Carmody, Pamela Freeman and Tonya Alexandra were discussing how they create their fantasy worlds. The fantasy session eventually won out. I was extremely happy with my choice as I frantically wrote down numerous nuggets of wisdom from these powerhouse fantasy authors. Such as:

  • Create a world that you want to return to, and the only way to do that is through your writing – Isobelle Carmody
  • Don’t loose that childhood spark of imagination – Tonya Alexandra
  • If you write a deep enough world, then you will want to keep coming back to it – Isobelle Carmody
  • Reading fantasy is not a way of getting out (escaping the everyday) but of going deeper – Pamela Freeman
  • Your world is a character – Pamela Freeman
  • Your first integrity has to be to the story – Isobelle Carmody’s response as to why she takes years to write her books and not release a book a year as per the standard publishing contracts for trilogies.

And many, many more. This was a fantastic session; I could have listened to their advice all day!

Pamela Freeman showing us the map she made when writing her fantasy series

Pitching Session: Kids and Young Adult Novels:

The last panel for the day was a pitching session with author Greg Bastian, Zoe Walton (Random House) and Nicola Robinson (Walker Books Australia) judging the entries. As someone who has pitched to authors in the past, I could empathise with the gasp of excitement and fear as an audience member’s name was called. It was really interesting to see how other aspiring authors pitch their work and what piques the interest of the publisher. Key comments included:
  • Don’t pitch your book by telling the publisher about what the novel is about, but show that through the telling of the story itself
  • Let your voice shine through the pitch 

The last port of call was a glass of wine to celebrate the end of a fantastic day and successful festival. I loved the excuse to talk books all day and look forward to the next fantastic event at the NSW Writers’ Centre!

Monday, 16 June 2014

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2, like all good sequels, raises the stakes. Everything is bigger and bolder: the scope of the world, the themes and, of course, the dragons. It’s a darker instalment than the original, but it is all the better for it.

When we return to Berk, five years after the events of the first movie, we find Hiccup skirting his duties as the chief’s son and out exploring the world with his best pal, and dragon, Toothless. Hiccup admits he doesn't know who he is yet and shies away from the responsibilities of being the next chief. He’s an explorer, a dragon master, and is more interested in discovering the world than staying in Berk and protecting the clan.

We are reintroduced to the colourful characters of Berk and their beloved dragons through a dragon race: a vibrant and energetic opening scene that is a welcome return to the wit and charm of the first film's thrilling flight sequences. 

But not all is well in the world of Vikings and their pet dragons. There are dragon catchers about: capturing dragons for the dastardly Drago Bludvist, who’s intent on building an unstoppable dragon army. Up until this point, only the mysterious dragon rider—who rivals Hiccup’s control over the species—has managed to foil his plans. But as Drago sets his sights on Berk and their dragons, Hiccup must accept his responsibilities as the chief's son and protect the clan.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a bolder, more mature film than the original, with themes comparable to a Young Adult novel rather than a children’s book. Questions of identity, growing up, facing responsibilities and finding your place in the world are at the heart of this story, which is central to many Young Adult novels.

That’s not to say that this can’t be enjoyed by younger cinema goers, but rather that it can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages—like all great animated films. Children will revel and delight in the broad spectrum of colours and dragons and ooh and ahh at the soaring flight sequences. And older viewers will enjoy the more complex storyline that includes some unexpected, and dark, twists and turns.

Whilst the film is darker, elements of humour are retained from the first film; I particularly enjoyed Berk’s version of a crazy cat lady with her numerous, clingy dragons. And the voice cast including Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera and Kristen Wiig continue to delight in their roles, with Cate Blanchett as a wonderful addition.

The film's visuals are simply spectacular: the quality of animation, textures and effects are outstanding with Stoick’s beard as a standout. The set pieces are more impressive this time around, particularly the semi-transparent ice cave which houses the swirling and swarming colourful dragons. But the real star of the show, as in the original, is Toothless: a catlike black dragon that is so adorable and lovingly rendered that every cinemagoer is bound to want a Toothless of their own.

I thoroughly enjoyed How To Train Your Dragon 2 and look forward to seeing it again, this time in 3D.

I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Manipulation (At The Movies)

Last Tuesday I watched ABC’s At the Movies with Margaret and David—part of my normal Tuesday evening viewing program. And while I don’t always agree with Margaret and David (Margaret, for example, doesn’t like animated films…), I respect their opinions. However, this week David said something that really jarred with me. During his review of The Fault in Our Stars, he claimed the movie was manipulative and proceeded to give it only 1 star. But don’t all films manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way?

The word manipulative can certainly have negative connotations, but it also means to cleverly influence or control—which is what films and other forms of storytelling aim to achieve. From the outset, filmmakers decide how they want the audience to feel about their characters and story, and all decisions are made to persuade—or manipulate—to keep them on this track. Appropriate music is chosen to set the mood, shots are edited for pacing and impact and audio is constructed to convey the desired effect.

Sure, there are many ways to interpret a film, and certain genres leave more room for interpretation, but most of the time the director sets out to dictate exactly what they want the audience to feel. The beginning of a film is carefully constructed so we care for the characters; the script, performances and music all work together to ensure we will follow the rest of the film with interest. Once the audience is captivated, we are putty in the hands of the filmmakers—allowing them to manipulate us and take us wherever they want us to go.

I recently watched 2012’s The Tall Man, which like many thrillers, is a great example of manipulative storytelling. In the beginning, there is a vital piece of information that is absent, but it’s not until the story unravels that you realise your misconception. The director Pascal Laugier cleverly plays on audience’s expectations in those beginning scenes. He pulls us into this story world and then shatters the genre’s conventions. It’s a masterful act of storytelling manipulation.

Another film genre that relies heavily on viewer manipulation is horror. Everything is manipulated to create tension and generate suspicion and doubt over who the killer/villain is. What is not shown is almost more important than what is shown on screen. Without manipulation, the audience wouldn’t twist and turn in their seats with anticipation and horror, and the film would be deemed a failure.

Similarly, the success of a film with romance as a key element, like The Fault in Our Stars, relies on the audience caring for the characters and believing in their connection. This is achieved through the manipulation of the audience’s emotions; we need to care for Hazel and Augustus for their story to hold resonance. But I don’t believe there are nefarious reasons behind the manipulation at work here.

Perhaps David’s issue with the manipulation in The Fault in Our Stars is due to the characters’ young age and the injustice of their circumstances, but David’s passionate reaction actually shows the film’s success in generating real empathy for these characters and their plight. If he didn't care for Hazel, Augustus and their families—then his reaction would have been tepid and indifferent.

I believe all successful films are manipulative on some level. What do you think? Have you seen The Fault in Our Stars? Did you find it manipulative in a negative sense? Please let me know in the comments.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Review: Don't Even Think About It

Title: Don't Even Think About It
Author: Sarah Mlynowski
Pages: 304
Published: July 2014 by Hachette Children's Books
Source: Publisher (via NetGalley)

Synopsis (from Publisher)

Imagine if EVERYONE could hear your thoughts: your best friend, your worst enemy, your secret crush...
This is the story of how we became freaks. It's how a group of I's became a we.
When Class 10B got their flu shots, they expected some side effects. Maybe a sore arm. Maybe a headache. They definitely didn't expect to get telepathy. But suddenly they could hear what everyone was thinking. Their friends. Their teachers. Their parents. Now they all know that Tess has a crush on her best friend, Teddy. That Mackenzie cheated on Cooper. That Nurse Carmichael used to be a stripper. Some of them will thrive. Some of them will break. None of them will ever be the same.
A smart and funny story about friendship, first love and surviving high school from the bestselling author of Ten Things We Shouldn't Have Done.


There’s no denying that Sarah Mlynowski’s Don’t Even Think About has an interesting premise: a flu shot transforms a group of high school students into telepaths, or Epsies, as they’re called in the novel. But rather than focusing on the hows and the whys, we follow six main characters from the homeroom class who received the faulty inoculation and how they deal with their new abilities and the secrets they uncover.

The novel isn’t written from the perspective of one character, or a few characters, but rather all the characters. This is a neat narrative technique that allows you to travel between the character’s minds seamlessly, cleverly emulating the abilities of a telepath. I was hooked from the first few pages, imagining all the interesting paths the novel could take. Sadly, the book didn’t fulfil this potential, but went in another direction that I found less satisfying.

The all-knowing, almost omniscient, narration grates quite quickly. We never stay long with a character’s perspective, flitting between the characters' thoughts, which makes it difficult to connect with them. I felt this scattered perspective was at the expense of the reader’s enjoyment and experience of the story. It becomes a rather fretful and headache inducing read—which, coincidentally, is a side effect that the Espies suffer.

The main question that this book centres around is not what you would do with these abilities, but rather the dirty secrets and thoughts everyone else keeps. I couldn’t help but worry about the future of society: Do we all really think such horrible things about each other, all the time? Are we all liars and cheaters? There were only two characters in the book that I found empathetic.

I'll admit that my difficulty with this novel was mostly due to my expectations. From reading the blurb, I assumed this group of telepathic teens were going to do something with their abilities, or do something about them. Perhaps I’ve read too much dystopian YA, but I expected some uprising against a government conspiracy, or some search for answers to their condition. However, it was all about who liked whom, who was hiding secrets and who had cheated on who. I felt the concept had much more potential then was tapped into here, which was unfortunate.

Whilst I am older than the intended target audience, I do read a lot of YA and rarely feel too old for the book. However, reading Don’t Even Think About It made me feel ancient. The tone leaned more towards middle grade than YA, although the secrets and lies all focused on more PG-13 related issues. It was a confusing mix.

Even though this novel is marketed more for lovers of contemporary YA rather than speculative fiction, I felt there still needed to be a touch of science—something to explain the kids new found ESP. My main concern was that I couldn't suspend my disbelief: the rules and logic to the powers didn't gel for me, like their eyes turning purple. I wanted to know how this was related to ESP and the faulty inoculation.

I really tried to enjoy Don’t Even Think About It for what it was: a light and entertaining read, but I was unable to avoid feeling disappointed with the direction the story took. I think if I had started reading the novel with different expectations then perhaps I could have enjoyed it more.

*Many thanks to Hachette Children's Books for the advanced reader copy.