What I learned from the Emerging Writers Festival: Structure

So you didn’t make it to the Melbourne Emerging Writers Festival (EWF), huh? Well, fear not! [It’s still on, by the way.] I have my messy hand-written notes all typed up and ready for your perusal.

First up …


Damon Young

Damon Young, Ph.D., author of Distraction; opinion, feature, and review writer for the biggest newspapers and magazines in Australia; poet; and radio personality had this to say:

  • Introduce familiar characters/archetypes

What’s an archetype?

“a universally understood symbol, term, or pattern of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated. — Wikipedia”

This description perfectly shows us writers how to familiarise our readers ASAP.

An example: when was the last time you connected with the busy mother character, fumbling with six bags of groceries as she tries to heave them inside her front door? How about the sweaty, trembling teenage boy who’s waiting inside his new date’s kitchen, with her six foot, five inch father by his side?

These are familiar types of activities and familiar types of people. We don’t connect with alien subjects and concepts. In fact, even a green alien from another planet should have familiar qualities. Perhaps he’s self-conscious because he looks different to all the people on this planet called “Earth”.

  • No jargon

This is especially fantastic advice for genre writers. Cue Fantasy or SciFi writers anyone?

Jargon can be a problem in fiction as well as non-fiction. When you load your manuscript with concepts that you’ve spent years getting to know until they’re as familiar as your right hand, you may be blind to your confusing, complex language.

This is the best time to ask a romance writer to beta read your work. It’ll do wonders for ironing out problems you never thought of. Trust me.

  • Remember readers are strangers from another world; settle them in.

This involves a common mistake: if you start with dialogue make sure you have enough narrative or context in the conversation to let the readers know where they are and what’s going on.


Anita Sethi

Anita Sethi, award-winning journalist, writer for the GuardianObserver, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Independent, and BBC, among others; international speaker, and author in anthologies, had this to say:

  • There are only seven stories in history and these have been re-written over and over. They are:— overcoming the monster;
    — rags to riches;
    — the quest;
    — voyage and return;
    — comedy;
    — tragedy; and
    — rebirth

Surprised? Well apparently Christopher Booker talks about this in his famous book for writers, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. I haven’t read it — yet. It sounds like I should have years ago.

Still, I’ve heard this theory before and I totally believe in it. I know we’d like to think we’re original creative beasts, churning out literary masterpieces, but I think we’re more like copycat thieves learning from the best and doing it better. :D

  • Signpost

What does signposting mean?

At the beginning of a chapter, clue your reader to what happened before and what will happen. The likely direction you’ll be going.

In dialogue remember to remind them of the setting. Perhaps it might be a literal sign or post that indicates to the reader the man and woman are chatting at an intersection (they’re not in a black void chatting away and the world doesn’t exist).

  • [an obvious one] You need a memorable opening sentence.

You’re judged by your first sentence. If you pass, the reader will allow you to have another go. Your second sentence. This happens for a while — heck, I really do this — until they can trust you. Basically for your first several sentences you cannot stuff up.

Fiona Harris


Fiona Harris, who has written for programs such as Spicks & Specks and Skithouse; and appeared on TV shows such as Beaconsfield, Offspring, Rove Live, Neighbours and Blue Heelers, had this to say:

  • How can I structure this story best?
  • Draw up character profiles.

You may not use 90% of what you write, but it’ll help you flesh out your main characters as if they were real people. What are their quirks? Insecurities? Secret/s? (she says each character must have one secret.) etc …

Getting to know your character to this depth helps you know them before you begin writing a manuscript. When you do write, they’ll be unique and realistic. Much less cardboardy.

  • Use colour cards to write scenes and then swap them around to alter structure. Use different colours per character. Which characters appear too little? Too much? Where are the plot holes?

My bet is this would take me a day, or maybe a week. But I certainly wouldn’t be re-writing for years, clawing my way through a blind hole (re-drafting without direction) and never getting to the light (the finished, polished manuscript).

  • Introduce conflict as early as possible.
  • Set up the world as early as possible.
  • Don’t climax the story too soon.

I read this often in self-published books. I read and think omigod this sounds a lot like a climax but wait it can’t be happening this soon but why am I reading on and on and why hasn’t this story finished yet and omigod I give up and I don’t care and I’m putting down this story NOW.

  • Unreliable characters (use them to your own devices)
  • Balance exposition, narrative, dialogue.



But — wait! Yes, there’s more to come! I have personal questions I asked a traditionally published author from a small chat session and future publishing trends and tips from editors and publishers.

You can’t afford to miss what’s coming up.

[What’s that? You might like to FOLLOW Novel Girl‘s blog to stay updated? Great idea! You’re here to get help on being published after all. Wouldn’t want to miss upcoming trends and tips from the people who publish stories!]

Do you already do these things in your fiction? Do you disagree?

28 thoughts on “What I learned from the Emerging Writers Festival: Structure

    • My boyfriend’s handwriting is neater than mine on a usual day. I was rushing during this session, though, so I am proud of my handwriting-deciphering abilities.

  1. I love the way you have formated this post, its very clean and neat! I was at this talk and it was pretty good, but you’ve summed it up nicely.

    • How weird that both of us were there and we’re now chatting here!

      There was one lady I refused to mention at all. She was purely self-promoting without anyyy writing tips. The others were fantastic though and I hope I showed that. Damon even tweeted this post!

      • Yeah I know the lady you’re talking about. I found her interesting though, although it was more about her upbringing and career. But I guess because her background she was trying to explain how it’s different to white person’s way. Have you read Kim Scott? That will challenge your idea of what structure is.

        • The problem with thy lady’s speech is it was all self-promo and none of this lined up with her requirements to talk about in her alloyed speech time. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t care about anything she said. In the end it didn’t give me any writing help!

          Haven’t heard of Kim Scott. What’s his/her genre?

          • fair enough. His style umm, literary fiction. Experimental indigenous writing, but one of the more well-know Aussie indigenous writers.

  2. Great, great, great info to have. I love hearing from “the other side” of writing. Thanks for sharing–and you did well translating your “messy” notes for us, lol :)

    • Phew. I have a high expectation on myself that I need to provide a good service to my readers. Happy to pass along the info! :)

      Thanks for commenting. I appreciate you.

  3. Pingback: Emerging Writers’ Festival: publishing trends and tips | Novel Girl

  4. Thanks for sharing these excellent pointers! I chuckled at the “…omigod I give up and I don’t care and I’m putting down this story NOW” sentence. Haha, it reminds me of me…although my ish is with movies :)

    • With me, movies is only an issue I have to put up with for 1.5-2.5 hours. Mm, putupwithable. A book can take days or weeks to read. That, I cannot hack. Lol

  5. This was good. Damned good. Thanks for doing the legwork for us, Becca. Though as someone who has missed way too many writer’s conferences lately… *envy* ;-)

    • OMG I never go to these things. It doesn’t help that in this tiny city called Melbourne, where I live, there are practically aren’t any. I thought I better do the right thing and go since I’m a struggling writer. Turns out my note-taking was useful ;)

  6. Great tips, Becca. I’m going to bookmark this so I can find it again. I also just posted this to a writer group over on Facebook, because I thought they should all read it. Keep learning and having a great Festival and passing on the pearls from your teachers.

    • Thanks for sharing! You push me one step closer to going viral.

      I feel a sense responsibility so I’ll make sure I make the next post as information-packed. Glad to be a help :)

    • That figure sounds scary, doesn’t it? That we can waste so much time and words. In the end, though, it’s about making a seamless product that looks easy to create.

      Hm, aren’t our writing lives joyful?

  7. Reblogged this on Yorick Magazine and commented:
    Writers, this is so useful, especially if you’re plotting a story or novel or if you’re revising a piece. We all can’t call ourselves marsupials and go to the Melbourne Emerging Writers Festival for this sumptuous know-how. Alas, it comes across the blue on the Internet convenience ship. Enjoy this finding, and follow Novel Girl!

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