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.