Learning to Be “Write-Brained”

I posted recently in an on-line writers forum about a class I was taking on how to get published. Someone commented, “Honey, one of these days you need to stop taking classes and just write.”

Well, duh. Except that I can do both at the same time. (And, by the way, a month after finishing that class, one of my short stories got published.)

You can continue to sharpen your writing by writing, but it sometimes helps to get refreshers along the way. I was an editor for eleven years, but I took a grammar or copyediting refresher every couple of years just to sharpen my skills.

So, when I saw The Write-Brained Network’s information on “A One-Stop Workshop for the Serious Writer: A Roadmap from “How-To” through “I Did!” I couldn’t resist. Add in the fact that it was twenty minutes away in my old college town, how could I not go? The deal-sealer was one of my favorite authors, David Robbins, on the bill. His War of the Rats, about the siege of Stalingrad, was so historically accurate and vivid, you felt as if you were there. The End of the War, told from the Russian soldier’s point of view as the Red Army entered Berlin in 1945, was particularly meaningful to me because my Dad was in on that from the American side.

The workshop began with tips on redlining your writing given by Robbins. He’s a very engaging speaker, and the redlining tips he gave are what we’ve heard before but need to remember—watch your POV, “Show, Don’t Tell,” don’t use redundancies, cut the modifiers, etc. He provided his unique perspective, however, and gave specific examples to bring the points home. When he said, “Write what you know is a lie,” he had me. The story and the telling of it, Robbins emphasized, are separate. You can take a great story in your head then ruin it by the poor telling. I think he should have stopped there because he went on to diss several contemporary writers, some in his genre. I think that’s called “biting the hand…” I mean, perhaps at his next conference, David Baldacci or Dan Brown will point out what he dislikes about David Robbins’ writing. Just sayin’.

The next session made me glad I hadn’t sent in a first page to be critiqued. When I saw that offered, I figured you’d send in a page and you’d get it back marked up. Oh, no. The page got read aloud, followed by an instant critique by Robbins and Tiffany Trent, who writes young adult fiction. Granted, the writer’s name wasn’t read aloud, but you could tell by the squirming when someone was on the grill. Critiquing is always a helpful exercise, but I think this could have been improved by separating the first pages by genre, then having someone familiar with the genre provide the critique. A colleague with me at the workshop was braver than I and submitted a first page. This author, who’s sold two books, writes in a genre where the reader expects flowery words and setting a sense of place and time before delving into the story. Of course, the two panelists skewered it, but neither was familiar with the genre. I also think this would have been better one-on-one, rather than in public. Yes, yes, I know others can learn from a colleague’s critique, but the whole exercise left me queasy.

“Getting Noticed, Getting Paid: How to Build a Platform and Freelance Your Way to an Audience,” was a panel consisting of a writer friend of mine, Cliff Garstang, and Bridgid Gallagher, a freelance and young adult writer, who has a web site, Inky Fresh Press, for new writers to learn the business. Both Garstang and Gallagher emphasized the importance of social media in developing your brand and in increasing your sales. Garstang in particular emphasized the importance of separating personal social media and the social media platform for your work. This was a very meaningful panel—showing how Facebook and Twitter friends who aren’t writers can still help in publicizing your work by mentioning it to their followers. Very practical and down to earth.

After lunch we had a “Query Clinic.” Similar to the first page critiques in the morning, you sent in a query letter, which was again read aloud and publically critiqued by two literary agents, Dawn Dowdle of the Blue Ridge Literary Agency and Lauren MacLeod of Strothman Agency. Again, I think this was an exercise better done one-on-one. However, both this and the first page critiques show that getting published and/or getting an agent to represent you is highly subjective. In particular, trying to find the right agent using a reference list is almost impossible. You have to click, as was proved in a later session.

Two authors—Trent and David Kazzie—and two agents—Dowdle and MacLeod—were the panelists for “Traditional Publishing, Self-Publishing, and E-Publishing.” Kazzie self-published an e-book at the same time he got an agent for a traditionally published work. The consensus of this group was a resounding “no” to self-publishing. The exception was Kazzie, who emphasized, quite rightly, that if you are going to self-publish, you need to adapt some of the aspects of traditional publishing—a copy editor, an editor, a good graphics designer. When one of the panelists said, “I don’t really know much about self-publishing,” but then went on to pontificate against it, I wondered why that person was on the panel to begin with. One of the things not covered was the difference between self-publishing and e-publishing, which most of the panel considered the same. Stephen King has e-published—meaning his work is available for reading on a Kindle or a Nook—but that’s different from self-publishing.

The final panel was MacLeod and Jodi Meadows, one of McLeod’s newest clients, talking about the Author/Agent Relationship. This was an excellent panel, demonstrating just how important it is to have the proper representation. MacLeod and Meadows obviously clicked and just as obviously like each other. MacLeod is enthusiastic about Meadows’ work, and they seem to have the perfect agent/author relationship. That alone gives hope and a better understanding of the process of acquiring the right representation.

With the exception of Robbins and Garstang, most of the talent (on the stage or in the audience) at this workshop was from the YA genre. I have nothing against YA, and I know my path is not that way; but a better mixture from other genres would have made an excellent workshop perfect.

I know I may seem critical of some of the elements of this workshop, but I’m, at least, constructive. Overall, it was money and time well-spent. I love being around other writers, people who understand just what it is to be a writer. The Write-Brained Network understands as well and provided a top-notch workshop with a lot to absorb in a day. Kudos to Write-Brained Network Coordinator Ricki Schultz and her team for a worthwhile day.

September 11, 2001

My first attempt to acknowledge this significant anniversary of an horrific event was far too self-indulgent to post. However, the emotions I had suppressed from September 11, 2001, began to come to the fore in the past two weeks. I wrote them down and will deal with them. Just not here. That would trivialize the deaths of thousands.

The closest I was to anything that happened on 9/11/01 was three miles–the Pentagon was just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, where I worked for the Federal Aviation Administration. My actions that day and in the weeks after were those of support, and perhaps later I can tell that story.

People often remark that 9/11/01 was such a beautiful day–bright, sunny, cloudless–and that something so horrible shouldn’t have happened on such a glorious day. The fact is, the hijackers kept an eye on the weather; the horrible terror they perpetrated was easier on a visual flight rules day. How might things have changed had that day dawned cloudy and dreary.

The scenario the terrorists opted for could have cost tens of thousands of lives, and some have sighed in relief that it was only 3,000 or so. That is survivor guilt, that is the expostulation of someone relieved they were no where near New York City, Arlington, VA, or Shanksville, PA, that day.

I know the emotion of ten years without a loved one, and it heals; it gets better; but the hole never closes. I was an adult when I lost my parents nearly thirty years ago, so I can’t relate to losing a parent when you’re ten or fifteen or two. The lost opportunities to see school plays, sports events, weddings, births of grandchildren are weights hard to bear.

I hated the fact that religious zealots used as an instrument of destruction the industry I’d given most of my life to preserve, and yet, as I reviewed the pilot records for each of the hijackers, I saw typical men who trained typically as pilots. Nothing jumped off the page to shout “Terrorist!” Life is never that simple.

“Why?” is the question still asked about 9/11/01. As with other acts of terrorism, like, say 4/19/95, we take the easy, un-intellectual route–the perpetrators were evil. We never look beyond, into the black box of the psyche of terrorism so we can stop the next 9/11/01. We react. Restricting the carriage of liquids on board an aircraft, taking your shoes off at the TSA checkpoint, getting groped by perfect strangers doesn’t really prevent anything. It’s a false security. To me it’s a bitter reminder that we gave up freedoms to feel safe. Not be safe. Just to feel as if we are protected. We never once, as a nation, as a government, stopped to reflect on which of our policies or actions contributed to this.

You see, terrorism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We like the neat package of “Oh, they were evil! That’s why they did it.” We know how and who and where. We’ll never know, nor do we want to, why.

If we want to honor those who died ten years ago today–from the people on Flight 93 who took their destinies into their own hands to the first responders who gave full dedication to their duty to those who died merely because they came to work that day–let’s re-dedicate ourselves to public service, to re-creating a nation of the people, by the people, for the people.

Staunton Jams

There are many positives to living in a small city, chiefly you have all the amenities you had in a larger one, just on a more manageable scale. I loved living in Alexandria, VA, where I was minutes away from all the dining and activities in Old Town and, when the traffic wasn’t a bitch, twenty minutes away from work and the Capital of the United States. Washington, DC, always invigorated me–still does–but the years of mismanaging traffic and growth made me seek something less complex for retirement.

Staunton, VA, fit the bill: a relatively stable population, a good local economy, magnificent views of the mountains, farmers markets where the food really is local, and plenty of cultural amenities. Several weeks ago, I decided on a whim one Thursday to go see “Hamlet” at the American Shakespeare Theatre right in downtown Staunton. I got a remarkable seat, within arm’s reach of the stage, which would not have been the case had I attempted the same at the Kennedy Center or even Arena Stage.

The area is also proud of its “roots music,” in fact, music of any kind. Staunton’s “main” street, which is really Beverly St., boasts many restaurants that feature excellent music. One restaurant has an outdoor concert area, which backs on condominiums in the old YMCA building. A few residents have complained, but I say they need to lighten up and enjoy the music. (Interestingly, the people complaining about the music, which is mostly bluegrass or folk, are “immigrants” to the area like myself. The difference is, I like loud music.) In the summer, in an area of the city called “The Wharf” because, I believe, there used to be a somewhat navigable river there, Staunton hosts “Shakin'” on Thursday evenings. These are all local bands or from nearby, and they always draw a crowd. Why, there are even carriage rides around Staunton–just like Old Town.

The unofficial end of the outside music scene in Staunton is “Staunton Jams.” Local officials cordon off a block of Beverly street, and from noon until ten at night bands rock the downtown. They range from headbangers (yes!) to new age to cover bands, and they are all good. Imagine blocking off a similar space in Old Town. When that is done for parades in Alexandria, the gridlock backs up miles on the Capital Beltway. In Staunton, that block was easy to circumnavigate, and there was no gridlock. I was able to park a block away, which wouldn’t have been the case in Old Town or DC.

I love my new city, and I hope I don’t turn into an anti-growth NIMBY, but all the things that appealed to me about living in Alexandria and near DC are here, but I can actually enjoy them without battling traffic and crowds. I’d just like it to stay that way, so if that makes me a NIMBY, I’ll deal.

Here are some pictures from Staunton Jams.

This is the extent of blocking off the street. In Old Town or DC
this would mean saw horses, jersey barriers, police tape,
and SWAT.
The stage is ground level, easy for the acts to move in and
out, but also great for interacting with the bands, who didn’t
mind if you shouted requests at them.
Yes, you could get this close to the stage, and in
this picture you can see some of the great downtown architecture.
The children had fun with sidewalk chalk, in this case,
road chalk. The children had lots of activities, and in
addition to taking a seat on the curb, you could bring your
own chairs to sit on–that would never go over in security-
conscious DC.