Brisbane Writers Festival 2022 very brief recap

Bookmarks with suburb names from old estate maps
Suburb bookmarks from the State Library Bookshop

I had a lovely three days at the Brisbane Writers Festival! I had hoped there would be more days, but was miserably unwell during the week, and only just managed to claw myself back to being able to go in on Friday.

Unfortunately, this meant I missed hearing the readings and seeing the announcements of the winner of the Wordplay Microfiction prize on the Thursday, but I was permitted to read all the finalists’ stories after the event, and was enchanted with all the elegant, eloquent, unexpected ways they riffed on the inspiration image.

I can’t find a list of the winners online yet, but congratulations!

Cut paper silhouette swirl with fish, birds, person with paper planes
A particular shout-out to the student who made this image about soft-serve icecream!

On Friday I chaired the “Debuting in a Pandemic Panel”, with Jacqueline Maley, Sophie Overett and Lyndall Clipstone.

The three books were very different: Jacqueline Maley’s The Truth About Her is a novel of guilt, journalism, love and motherhood. Sophie Overett’s The Rabbits depicts of stifling Brisbane summers, and the damage and enchantment that can exist between generations. Lyndall Clipestone’s Lakesedge is a gothic, romantic fantasy, with more than a touch of the fairytale.

And it was lovely to bring together all the experiences which went into bringing these books into being, editing and launching them during the second year of a pandemic, and finding space and peace to write — and books to vanish into!

On Saturday I gave a one hour map illustration workshop.

Mock-ups of a book of map making instructions
Mocking up the handout booklet

It was actually really fun to see if this workshop could work in 1 hour (it did! although of course you can dive much deeper and do a larger map with more time) and to put together this little zine-fold instruction book which I hope to build on for future projects. This, although brief, was a very large and lively workshop between LoveYA events at the Brisbane Square Library.

Photo of whiteboard with very scribbly fairy-tale map on it
Crowd-sourced map of Little Red Riding Hood (the version with the zombie giraffe on a floating island)

After that I was on a panel with Lynette Noni and C. S. Pacat, chaired by Samantha Baldry, called “Sweet, Sweet, Fantasy”.

Book covers: The Gilded Cage, Dark Rise and Flyaway
The Gilded Cage, Dark Rise, Flyaway (although I was there as an illustrator, too)

We got very intense about research and making things up, getting things written, planning, exclaiming over each others’ writing processes, etc.

Sketches of people waiting in a book signing line
The trick at a book signing is to sit near people with long queues and sketch their fans

And on Sunday, I gave a three hour workshop on observation journals, honing skills and pursuing creative fascinations.

It was a smaller group and a long delightful workshop, wide-ranging and intense, and everyone dug thoroughly into the exercises, which was fascinating for all of us, because a lot of the point of this approach is that it will vary as people chase down their own processes. It was lovely to see how many pages of exercise, thoughts, ideas, plans and even drawings everyone left with.

It was lovely to update and expand this from the version I gave for the Queensland Art Teachers Association Conference last year, and bring in more focus on writing.

I have no photos of the session because I was bounding around talking and chatting for three hours and forgot

And around all the presenting and planning there were wonderful conversation with friends new and old, writers and publicists, publishers and agents, readers and fans, librarians, waiters, volunteers and BWF staff and board members, poets and musicians.

I might update this post with some photos if I come across them.

2021 summaries — workshops, lectures, panels

I took a break from regular class tutoring this year in order to meet art and writing deadlines, and also it was, well, 2021, so this was a fairly quiet year on the workshop front. However it is virtually impossible to get me to shut up, and I did have the opportunity to present workshops to some excellent people.

I’ve linked to posts about the workshops. This list is subject to update, because I’m sure there were more panels.

Pen drawings with bits of maps, clouds, compass roses. A sheep on a solitary island with "Map of the Last Lonely Island". A stag running down a beach with a label that leads to "Elsewhere".

Workshops and lectures

Photo: State Library of Queensland

Conferences, panels, readings, sketchings

Concordia Lutheran College residency

The girls’ boarding houses used to be behind the school, so I was not used to seeing the actual front of the school (Redlands House) every day

One of this year’s big projects was the week I spent up at Concordia Lutheran College in Toowoomba as artist and writer in residence.

It was a new experience for all of us, and as a result turned into an extremely intensive but very entertaining week. 11 workshops for students and a talk to parents and teachers was… a lot, but I learned so much by doing it, and had a great time.

The giddy exhaustion was compounded by the surreal quality of being back at my old boarding school, and how little had changed. The uniforms and computers were different, but the Year 12s were still discussing Green Day in the corridors, and the art hallway smelled as it always had — of soapstone powder.

The magic lantern (left) was probably the most useful object I took with me.

Some general notes

  • I ran the workshops at a fairly high level — trying to keep them accessible and useful, yes, but also giving students a crash course in what I do for a job.
    The students were absolutely up for this — the year 10 and 11 fine art students bravely went through a compressed illustration process (with demanding art director), the year ten English students (while in some cases physically climbing onto each others shoulders) got deep into the guts of the gothic, and the year 4s broke down the phrase “rust-scumbled silos rapunzeled by vines” like nobody’s business.
  • I did learn quite a bit about running school workshops vs more self-selected sessions, and also the approaches needed for over 30 participants (better suited to a talk than a workshop, because there isn’t time to interact the way I like to) and under 10 (which allows more tailoring around what the individual students want to learn). The students and teachers were universally engaged and involved (and the librarian marvellous!).
  • It is SO NICE having mixed ages in workshops, whether combined year levels or having a teacher sit in as a participant — it shakes everyone’s self-consciousness out a little bit AND it means I have someone not a student I can call on for the first example, which gratifies the students. (Thank you to the teachers who walked into that trap.)
  • The observation journal provided some incredibly useful activities and material for workshops, and the short stories I send out to some patrons were the perfect length for examples and demonstrations — another benefit of doing lots of small things regularly.

Monday and Tuesday

Dragon-powered magic lantern

On Monday and Tuesday I was on the primary-school campuses. I gave two 2-hour workshops each day: year 5s in the morning and year 6s (with a couple of very dignified 4s mixed in) in the afternoon. The student drawings with this post are from the year 5s on the first day.

This workshop was on “Making the Mechanical Fascinating” and included:

  • Terrible speed drawing
  • What is machinery?
  • What is the fantastical?
  • Finding (and swapping) the best examples
  • Recombining objects
  • Why is a bulldozer like a dandelion?
  • Creating poems
  • Terrible and Wonderful inventions.

There were so many fabulous ideas and a LOT of energy, and a surprising willingness to break down a sentence or two I’d prepared earlier (Travelogues does a lot of what we did in this workshop, so I mined it for examples). 

My sketch based on an idea by one of the Year 5s: A ghost with a clock where its face should be

Wednesday

On Wednesday I did Narrative Recombination with Year 11 English for nearly 2 hours. This included:

  • Choosing stories with personal “mythic resonance”
  • Close-reading of some paragraphs and pictures from my work (where I do this)
  • Breaking scenes down
  • Building scenes and stories back up again (in groups)
  • Identifying the mood-movement of a story (to hack beginning/middle/end)
A ballpoint pen lying on a very tiny 6x6 grid of drawings of map elements

I also took ALL the year 7s through Small Drawings, Big Ideas, a reworking of the workshop I did for Words Out West. It involved:

  • What is a story (an extremely broad definition that included sports matches and building a house — necessary with a group of people who haven’t chosen to be at a creative workshop, but also useful for the rest of us)
  • Your favourite things (vs other people’s)
  • How to draw small and fast
  • Coming up with new favourite things
  • Creating stories you like
April-calendar-Art-LowRes

Then in the afternoon I gave the year 11 art students a Gothic Birds Accordion Book workshop. This was based on the “Book of Marvellous Birds” workshop I’ve given before, but targeted to people who should know how to draw, and also very genre-specific.

While many of the other workshops incorporated free ideas and mixed up art and writing, this workshop was an introduction to working as an illustrator of other people’s stories.

Topics covered included:

  • Drawing fast and bad
  • What is Gothic imagery, and how to tweak it
  • Kathleen ad-libs a short Gothic story, and an art brief
  • Identifying scenes to illustrate
  • Thumbnailing
  • Rolling an image between genres
  • Adding more story to an image
  • A quick art show (such fun)
All the activities were versions of approaches I use on projects

Thursday

In the morning, I did an Australian Gothic Birds writing workshop with the year 10 English students. This had a lot of elements (‘sustaining cultural context’, the Gothic, Australian Gothic, birds, writing…), and it was the workshop I worried most about. Fortunately (given the principal sat in on the whole workshop!) the kids took it and ran, and it went very well. It featured:

  • Identifying the Gothic (and your favourite bits of it)
  • Involving Australian birds (there was a surprisingly strong anti-emu contingent)
  • Combining elements (with examples)
  • How to cheat at writing setting (i.e. close-readings of paintings)
  • Rolling a scene between genres
  • Story patterns
  • How to quickly build up a story from your idea (there were some lovely ideas, but the most memorable one involved the Prime Minister turning out to be a murderous kookaburra sleeper agent)

The year 8s, a smaller group, got a slightly calmer reprise of the ideas workshop I did with the year 7s the day before.

Then, with the year 10 art students, I did a slightly more intense version of the Gothic Bird Book I’d done with the year 11s — the year 10s having already had a crash-course on the Gothic that morning.

Then on Thursday evening I gave a presentation and Q&A over wine and cheese to a group of teachers and parents, who were lovely, welcoming and very interested in the possibilities for children who want to get into the arts (me: it’s hard work, sure, but I can’t say it’s harder than law).

Friday

Glimpse of observation journal — I was colour-shifting steampunk approaches

Finally on Friday I had a very small session with some self-selected year 9s. It was a lovely casual session, combining mechanical and fantastic elements.

Sketches from the quad

Then I had a smidgen of time to sketch students over lunch in the quadrangle, before going back to my motel and falling deeply asleep.

In summary, it was a great week, with fantastic and supportive students and teachers and librarians. I was able to test and develop a number of ideas and workshop approaches, and it was lovely to go back to a place that had once been, for a few years, home.

I used to be library monitor here and water the plants with a hook-topped watering jug, so this was cool.

A few more uses for the observation journal

Just a few pages

The original purpose of the observation journal was to demonstrate a feasible approach for students who’d been set observation journals for assessment (the early days). It turned into a place to consider, reflect on, adjust, tinker with and riff on written and drawn stories, and other aspects of how I work. (NB: Words in bold throughout are a list of journal uses, so that I can easily find them again.)

From there it became a source of ideas for articles and material for blog posts. It’s served as a very handy set of tools for fixing problems on other big projects. Something I continue to like about this approach is how it evolves and adjusts to my needs and interests at any point in time.

Over the last few weeks I’ve given a number of workshops to writers and illustrators (at the Queensland Writers Centre), to art teachers (at the Queensland Art Teachers Association conference), and to English and art students (from grades 4 to 11 at Concordia Lutheran College). I’ll post more about those soon.

A few of the workshops

The observation journal has been invaluable for preparing all of those workshops.

Indirectly, it has been the place I worked out how to explain my own techniques and working theories. More directly, exercises I refined for my own uses have turned into workshop activities (see writing/art — either tag will bring up most of the same posts).

Other pages have taught me what sort of questions to ask after doing an activity — a little mental stockpile of approaches and variations. And the physical pages themselves have become a voluminous stock of material to serve as references, examples, illustrations, and ornaments for slides.

This wasn’t particularly planned. Largely, it’s a demonstration of the (occasionally unexpected) usefulness of simply tinkering away at something, adding to it little by little and bit by bit. One of the other benefits of small things.

But I’ve learned, now, that (a) keeping on learning and thinking about how I work and (b) remembering to go back and sift through those thoughts for material, is a very useful way to develop workshops that are on topics I want to talk about!

Wild Things map workshop

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Photo courtesy of Where the Wild Things Are

Some overdue photos from my map workshop — these are from the first instance of it, held at the wonderful Brisbane YA and children’s book store Where The Wild Things Are who ordinarily give marvellous workshops, and still give excellent advice. Like all bookstores, they could use some return support at this time (see also parent store: Avid Reader).

Here we all are on the back deck of Avid Reader. It was billed as an older kids workshop, and we ended up with a mixture of ages which I’ve always found delightful. Everyone gets both so light and so serious.

2020-03-13-MapWorkshop3-WTWTA

Courtesy of Where The Wild Things Are.

At one stage in the workshop, we build a world, to make sure everything is connected and water (absent serious provocation) flows downhill (the two most important cartographic principles), and that hills and forests are where they ought to be for the tale. (My dad, an infantry officer and grazier, used to do this with us to explain tactics or cattle movements).

2020-03-13-MapWorkshop4-WTWTA

Below, a cartographer contemplates the sea, which can be identified in the photo above by a very small lighthouse.

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It’s the most delightful workshop. We start with the same base story-shape to illustrate, and build it out with adaptations, themes, techniques, variations…

2020-03-18-MapWorkshop1

I walk them through the process of illustrating a map, including a lot of my actual work for Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy (I think only the Cruel Prince was out at this point).

2020-03-18-MapWorkshop4

(Above is a glimpse of notes I took on trees from many maps in books and old atlases when I was working out the style of The Cruel Prince).

And then everyone gets so busy (I love this picture of hands).

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Some versions end up in space. Others appear to have swords stuck through them (this class wanted to know how to pin art to the wall with virtual daggers — I think this was because of the City of Bones 10th anniversary illustrations).

2020-03-18-MapWorkshop2

(Spot the little house lurking under a wrist, there).

Art/writing activities:

(This is a variation on the activities in the Old Maps post).

  • Build a landscape to fit a story (a fairy tale, your own story, a movie...). On a grand scale, cushions, chairs, odd-shaped objects, and a blanket to throw over them will give you the basic layout. Then you can drape them with shawls and belts and toy houses, potplants, dinosaurs, etc to give watercourses, trees, and habitations. On a smaller scale, an assortment of cups and books with a light scarf draped over will give you a bijou universe. I’ve more than once built a small city out of thermoses, for reference.
  • For illustrators: convert this into a map (or a perspective landscape painting, if that’s your style).
  • For writers: consider how the terrain affects the story — often it can be the story. What can you see from a particular point (consider To Kill A Mockingbird)? What can’t you see from a particular point (consider “The Charge of the Light Brigade”)? What reasons might make one take the low road in preference to the high road? What (literally, but why not throw figuratively in there and make a family epic of it) stops a person getting from one side of the blanket to the other? If you move the lamp, how much of the land does the light touch? How much of the story could you tell in a glimpse from one hilltop (and who would be there to look?) — Michael Innes does this brilliantly in the opening of his (beautifully written although not unproblematic, in the ways one might expect from a country house murder mystery from the 1930s) Hamlet, Revenge!