The Kill Your Darlings Podcast took a trip to the National Young Writers’ Festival last month – lucky for you we’ve remembered the rules about sharing, and brought back enough for everyone. In this edition, Kylie Maslen (of book–plate) explains why she loves reading and writing about food, Magda Woźniak speaks about screenwriting, scripts and soapies, while Izzy Roberts-Orr tackles working with (and being) a volunteer.
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Meaghan Dew (KYD): Hello and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. We’ve just finished recovering from the National Young Writers’ Festival, so it seemed like a good time to reflect. If you couldn’t make it, catching up with us is the next best thing. So sit back as we chat with some of the writers and programmers involved in the festival. You’ll hear from one of the festival co-directors, Izzy Roberts-Orr, as well as from writer Kylie Maslen, who ran the session on food writing. But first off, we go to Magda Woźniak, who ran the screenwriting workshop this year. Magda has worked on a number of television programs including Neighbours and Home and Away, as well as a few short films. So I asked her, how did she first start out as a screenwriter?
Magda Woźniak: I guess I started with an interest more in film from a critical perspective, so I did like a normal Bachelor of Arts, and I did film studies and I did my Honours in film studies and communications, blah blah blah, and I was encouraged by my supervisor at the time to give screenwriting a go. And it was sort of, really a weird thing on a whim that I tried, and I found out that I really enjoyed, and I ended up applying for a Masters course in screenwriting, and that is how I really, like, got into it. At the time I wasn’t even sure if I was going to focus on screenwriting or directing, but I ended up just sort of falling into it and really enjoying it.
KYD: And what was your first screenwriting job?
MW: So I started working at Southern Star in Sydney. I got a director’s attachment, which is, again, a thing that is funded partly through ScreenWest, where they sort of pay you a little bit so that you can be attached to a production company. And I worked in the script department of the show called Rescue: Special Ops, which was on Channel Nine – it was one of those classic 1-hour rescue dramas, of people, like, rescuing people from clifftops and buildings, and all of the drama of that. And that’s where I worked as an attachment, and then you just sort of get to experience all the different process.
And then from there I ended up getting a script coordinating job on a show called Wild Boys which was also being produced by Southern Star.
KYD: And so working on Neighbours, that must be quite a hectic schedule, because it’s a very regular show, what does a day look like for you working on that?
MW: Well, there are sort of two sides to the job. So you are either going to be doing the editing side, or the story or plotting side. So if you are on the plotting side then your day is sitting in a room, planning out what is going to happen in an episode of Neighbours, and/or communicating that to writers, who then go on and write it. Or then looking at how writers have interpreted that meeting – after that meeting they produce something called a scene breakdown, and you look at the scene breakdown and make sure that they are on the right track, based on what you had planned originally in the room. Or the other side of things is editing, so that’s after the writers have written their script, that comes back to us, and then we edit in blocks of six episodes. And so you sit down and you just work out, we do like a first draft edit, which is just internal in the script department, and then you do a director’s release edit, where you get the input of the director who will be doing that block, and also the producer, and then you go and do more of an edit for, usually production reasons or other issues that come up at that stage.
KYD: So it sounds like it’s quite a team job, that there are a lot of people working on this at once, which is quite different to a lot of other types of writing, where it is just you sitting down and writing one specific thing. So what are some of the pros and cons of working in that sort of environment?
MW: So I guess… I really like collaboration. I think mainly, I think in a way it was why I was drawn to working in television. Because did try to work on my own projects alone, and I do still do that, but I find it – I’m a very social person so I enjoy the aspect of working with other people, and even when I work on my own stuff, I try to have a writing partner, or even just another writer who I really trust to look over my work and talk about it, because I really value that at every step of the process. And I guess there’s not really that culture built in so much for prose writing, they do tend to do that – there’s writers groups and such, I know – but I think in both film and television there is more of a culture of sharing, and doing stuff together and working it out, and really thrashing it out and all that stuff together, which you definitely easy in TV rooms – that’s just how it gets done. I think the pros of that are that you become less precious, more open to other people’s opinions; you develop, I think, more of a critical mind about your own work as well – so I would, like… I’ll read something and I’ll be like ‘No, this could be better’. Back in the day, if I had that feeling, that would mean throwing it out, like it’s not good enough – whereas now I’m like ‘This could be better, I’ll make it better, either with someone or by myself.’ So I think that kind of, if you constantly work with others who are constantly interrogating ideas, you interrogate ideas more yourself, which is really useful. And in cons… I don’t really know if there are any cons, I’m sure there are types of writing for which collaboration wouldn’t be appropriate, and there are times as a scriptwriter when you have you just go off and do it on your own, because there’s no other way to get it done. But generally I really love the collaborative aspects.
KYD: Does it take time to get into, like – This is often, sort of, working on shows that have a very specific voice and readership really before you get there – does it take time to get into that mode, when you are writing something new?
MW: Definitely. Definitely. Every show you write for is different, even like Neighbours and Home and Away, people often think it is the same, but actually they do have different style, not to mention completely different characters that you have to get to know. And then I have worked on other shows – like, for instance, when you jump from a kids show to, like, an adult drama – you just have to be prepared to think about the different issues that will come up, the different voices of the characters, the differences in rating, that makes a huge difference just in terms of what you can and cannot say, and then individually, the voices of all your characters, which obviously, are unique to every show. So yeah, the type of, the way you tell your story, the way you plot an episode, like, it’s all, you have to jump around a lot and be really flexible.
KYD: Do you watch all your stuff when it’s on TV? What is like seeing that translated onscreen?
MW: Yeah, I do watch it, and it’s really interesting! It’s really funny, especially working on something like Neighbours, because it’s a really, like, organic thing that really evolves. It’s not like you just write your 10 episodes and then they shoot it and then it’s done – as you write you will change the way you write, because you’ll notice that actors read things in a certain way, so you’ll start to adjust your own writing to suit the actor that is playing the character, which is really interesting. And you can keep learning, like it’s really useful to watch it, because you’re just like ‘Oh, that idea that we had worked really well, we should really plot more moments like that between these two actors because they do it really well,’ for example.
KYD: Do you find working in that area gives you a really sort of critical eye when you are watching anything else on screen, that you pick up things where the script could have been tighter as you are watching?
Yep, definitely, definitely. I’m really annoying as well, because I’m like… I think a lot of, this isn’t unique to people who work in television, lots of creative people will also try to pick, like ‘Oh, those two are going to get together,’ or those two, whatever. I definitely do that with a sense of arrogant entitlement of like, ‘I know what they’re doing, blah blah blah’. And so I think that is really annoying to everyone. But I really enjoy doing that. I also – I think it’s useful, I think it is useful for me and for my craft to watch stuff and learn from it and think ‘That was amazing, that was such good writing in that scene.’ And that is definitely new, like, I definitely didn’t used to watch TV like that. Now I really watch it with an eye for, ’that was so clever what they did there,’ or ‘how they twisted that story was really clever.’ Or sometimes I will be like, ‘Oh, that was really lazy’, is something that I will feel when I watch something and I’ll be like ‘Oh, they really should have resolved that in a more smart way,’ but they really chose the easiest possible to resolve that, and the story suffered because they made that choice.
So you mentioned you sort of work on your own projects as well, if you were to just get any random brilliant idea funded, is there anything you could talk about as like, ‘this would be my dream to work on’? Or is that a bit undiplomatic, seeing you do work on other shows at the moment?
MW: I guess everyone has their own dream shows that they would love to work on. That said, I also have realised about myself that I really love working on other people’s ideas, because I love constraints, creatively – like, I really love coming in, being told ‘you have to think of a solution within these parameters,’ I think I really thrive in those circumstances. And I think if someone said to me, ‘blank canvas, you can do whatever you want,’ that would be quite intimidating and scary. I mean, I hope one day I would be good enough to do that, but right now I would be quite intimidated by it, I think.
KYD: Is there anything you’d want to say, like, if people are thinking, ‘Oh, that sounds like something that would suit my writing style’, do you have any tips for people who want to start getting into screenwriting or seeing if that is something that is right for them? Like, do you think a course is the best way to start out?
MW: Yeah, I think a course is a really good way to start out, just because you’ll get a chance, particularly if you find a course we have a chance to make something – because you get the double whammy of, A, you are learning, and B, you are producing something that you can use as a calling card, so that’s really great. Other than that it is just like… Do heaps. Write heaps, make heaps, meet people, do everything, because it is really hard to get work, and if you have ticked more than one box, that’s really great. I think the thing I have learnt is that it’s is just not enough to have just done one thing, it is not enough to just say ‘I have made a short’, you need to be like ‘I have made a short, and I have worked here, and I volunteer here, and I also worked on this project with this person.’ So you just need to gather your experience, that’s my tip.
KYD: That was Magda Woźniak, speaking about how she first discovered screenwriting. You’re listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. And while reading and writing might be our favourite things, food is definitely up there. So it is no surprise we enjoyed Kylie Maslen’s session on food writing. Kylie is a writer whose work focuses on sense of place, identity and feminism. In between that, she also runs the blog book-plate, where she writes about what she is reading and what she’s eating. I asked, what is it that attracts her to writing about food?
Kylie Maslen: I think what attracts me to food writing by other people, in particular, is that it is a really interesting way to open up about broader issues in a really relatable and accessible way. So food is a way that we can talk about migration, family history, cultural sensitivities, class, how we interact with each other as people, our day-to-day lives – but all in a way that feels like a common experience. So we are not giving these grand social histories, we are just talking about how we eat breakfast, and who we eat breakfast with, and what we eat for breakfast. So I guess some of the themes of my blog are about home and sense of place, and I talk about this with a great sense of nostalgia, I think – because I am homesick all the time. So for me, talking about food gives me a way to talk about that, but offers a bit more of an alternative way of talking about it than just, like, ‘Hey, still homesick, OK bye.’
KYD: You guys were speaking there about the food writing that you do enjoy, and I love that there was such a wide array of food writing – there were books explicitly about food, there were books where food was an aside and just happened to be very descriptive writing about food, or food was tied into it. There was fiction, there were essay pieces – what are some things that people should check out if they really find that they really enjoy reading about food, but they’re not necessarily wanting a restaurant review?
KM: Yeah, I think what I love about food writing is that I think the best writing about food happens outside of restaurant reviews or cookbooks or food blogs – some of the best writing happens sort of happens by accident. So Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer who writes about food and memory and mental health, and she is working on a collection of essays and vignettes about food at the moment, which are really beautiful. I really enjoy a magazine called Lucky Peach, which came from David Chang, who is a really highly regarded restaurateur and chef in New York. And the pieces in that magazine talk about fine food in a really playful and interesting, non-snobby way, and also quite self-aware – so in the session just now, I was referring to the latest edition which is a fine dining focus, where they review 23 different types of butter. And they are just highly aware of how ridiculous something like butter can become when it is about, you know, salt levels and the breed of cow in the French countryside that it has come from, and that sort of ridiculousness. The best writing about food I have read recently is in a novel called Sweetbitter by a US author called Stephanie Danler. It’s essentially, like, a coming-of-age story of a girl who moves to New York from, sort of, a small suburban, bland city, and her life experiences are opened up by working in this quite fancy restaurant. It’s based on the author’s experience, and so you learn a lot about the sort of old-school money of New York. A lot of the clientele work for Conde Nast and up in old school publishing. There is a lot about human interaction, but you see this girl… Feeling more and more comfortable in herself as a person, at the same time that she’s developing her palette for fine food – eating oysters for the first time, and eating really good tomatoes just with salt and nothing else, and you know, there is some really lovely moments about food in there. Danler also uses language in really interesting ways, and there are some vignettes about taste, there are some plays on the way we would format a menu, or talk about recipes that are quite poetic and really interesting – and yeah, I just love this book so much, and I just keep telling everyone to go and read it! It is such a really wonderful combination of my loves in life of, like, travel, home, food, feminism, coming of age, it is just a really wonderful book.
KYD: I love both coming-of-age books and food, so I think that is definitely, you’ve convinced me to read it at least, so that helps. I have also just been asking everyone today, is there anyone whose work you have become familiar with, unrelated to food writing necessarily, over the festival that you think people should check out?
KM: I think rather than trying to pin – this is going to sound a bit cheesy – but rather than sort of pinpointing one person in particular who I have, you know, not heard about up until this point, I think what makes this festival special is the community that it builds. Earlier today I was hosting a panel about what it means to be a writer who is not from the east coast, the sort of barriers you face, and what it means to the literary community to have that sort of real centrality in Melbourne, and what it means then to be from somewhere like Adelaide or Perth or Hobart or Darwin. And from that session I just got this really lovely sense of support for each other, and wanting to give back to our home towns, wanting to support other writers from regional and remote areas, wanting to really kind of stick up for each other and create opportunities for each other, and it made me feel really hopeful, and it was a really lovely thing to happen in a town like Newcastle, rather than, you know, sitting at a cafe in Melbourne.
KYD: That was Kylie Maslen, unpacking the packed lunch that is writing about food. As many of us will know, festivals of all sorts are the result of a huge amount of work, much of it from passionate volunteers. The National Young Writers’ Festival is no exception. Festival co-director Izzy Roberts-Orr has been both a volunteer and manager of them, so she seemed like a good person to ask: what are some of the reasons that people give up their time?
Izzy Roberts-Orr: I think generally with the arts, often people need to, or want to get experience. There’s kind of, there is a little bit of a fucked culture, to be honest, around arts work, where you need to have, you know, years of experience before you can get even an entry-level paid job within the arts. Often people in the arts are also certainly not paid what they are worth, and there is an expectation of working incredibly long hours outside of kind of the remit of what you’re being paid for. So you sort of have to, you have to volunteer in order to get the experience to get the paid work, or to continue working in the arts. So I think a lot of people start off volunteering or interning in order to get the experience, to get where they want to be a bit further along. But the other reason, that is a bit more positive, is also that people volunteer because they want to be a part of something, they want to see something that they love come to fruition. So we have a really incredible batch of volunteers at National Young Writers’ Festival, we’ve got these people who are capable, engaged, interested in literary culture, and friendly and willing to do whatever needs to happen to make the festival run. I think it’s also important to note that there are kind of different levels of volunteering, often – so with a writers’ festival, and this is true of Melbourne Writers’ Festival, the Emerging Writers Festival and all the bigger ones as well – they all have volunteers, kind of doing front-of-house type things, so people who are meeting and greeting audiences and getting them in and getting them seated, and that sort of ‘face of the festival’, having people on the ground, offering assistance and giving out programs and that sort of thing – to my knowledge, all writers’ festivals seem to have volunteers doing that kind of work. But then there is an additional level up, a lot of the time as well, which can be a bit more responsibility. So having, you know, volunteers who are doing anything from producing to helping out with creative decisions, or jumping on board to be a bit more engaged with the artistic side of the festivals as well. I guess, yeah, in short, most of the time people volunteer because they want to be part of something, and it is something that they’re interested in and they are looking to gain more experience, and perhaps make social connections. I think ‘networking’ is a bit of a gross word – generally, what tends to be more the case for volunteers, in my experience anyway, is actually friendships.
KYD: I’m sure there are a lot of people who would have been at the festival this weekend who would be going away thinking ‘Oh, this sounds great, I definitely want to come back next year, I wouldn’t mind volunteering. ‘What are some really simple dos and don’ts, or things that people should keep in mind if they haven’t volunteered before, but they are keen to?
IRO: It’s worth looking at the role description before you apply, just knowing what you getting yourself in for. Sometimes that can mean pushing yourself out of your comfort zone a little bit. In my time both as co-volunteers and managing volunteers, I have often seen it be an experience that can particularly bring people out their shell, and kind of, through some slightly uncomfortable social interactions to a certain degree, but can really, I don’t know, teach very introverted people or very shy people in particular, to kind of reach out and start to talk to strangers, and you know, have that feeling of being a representative and using that as kind of a way to start to learn how to interact with people in a different way. And that’s a really amazing thing to see, seeing people kind of come out of their shell and shine in this representative role is really incredible. Or even something, and I suppose this is true of both the volunteers and the festival artists at National Young Writers’ Festival – I have kind of been on the sidelines or in the middle of conversations where so many people, I’ve watched them make a connection or meet someone that they know off the internet, or whose work they know, and watching these people connect with each other, and have a moment of being like ‘Oh my god, you’re real!’ And like, ‘Hi, I really love your Twitter feed!’ is just incredible. So that real-world connection, I think, is something that hopefully you should be seeking out if you are looking to volunteer. In terms of dos and don’ts – I don’t know, I actually feel like volunteering is something that is, in my opinion, when done best, allows room for the volunteer to be themselves. And when volunteers are managed well, they should be doing things that they are interested in, that they want to learn more about – so that’s more about managing volunteers. A really big do is listening to your volunteers, checking in with them, ensuring that they are happy, that they have something to be doing, that they are kind of engaged with, and trying as much as possible to tailor the experience to the individual. Because when someone is giving you their free labour, what you need to be ensuring is that they’re getting something back in return for that. Don’t be afraid to articulate your boundaries. You don’t want to be doing things that are uncomfortable, or that you, you know, feel you are not capable of, it is OK to ask for help, it is OK to say to someone ‘I can’t, or I won’t do that.’ Do talk to people as much as possible, and as much as you feel comfortable with. So often you will be standing there in your, like, Emerging Writers’ Festival T-shirt with a couple of other people around you, and you are like ‘oh, how was your day today?’ Or, ‘what do you get up to when you’re not volunteering at a festival?’ And that person is like ‘Oh, you know, I just won the Australian Slam Championship!’ Whatever it is, that person next to you is an entire universe of something that you’re probably going to find interesting. Speaking and communicating and connecting is one of the best things that you get as a volunteer, I think.
KYD: That was poet, podcast producer and National Young Writers’ Festival c-director Izzy Roberts-Orr, speaking about volunteering and about managing volunteers. I’m Meaghan Dew, and this has been the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. We’d like to thank Izzy, Magda and Kylie for their time, as well as the whole of the National Young Writers’ Festival for ignoring my sticking my mike in the air on a regular basis. We will be back to a regularly scheduled programming next month – until then, Issue 27 of the journal is available now. And a reminder, the October Kill Your Darlings First Book Club event is 6:30 this Thursday at Readings Carlton. The October book is the anthology Rebellious Daughters, out now from Ventura Press, and even if you haven’t read it yet you can still RSVP and come join the fun. If you can’t make it, reading the book solo is always an option, or you can always get a head start on next month’s pick, which is Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink. That’s all we have time for today – if you couldn’t make it to the festival, we hope you enjoyed this taste. See you next time!