AWP Day 1

Sorry, no Friday Flash Fiction today. 😦

The 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Chicago is exhausting, exciting, stimulating, tiring, fun, overwhelming, and a lot more descriptors than I can’t think of because I’m, well, pooped. But it’s a good kind of tired. Why? I’m surrounded by 10,000 fellow writers and a book fair bigger than any I’ve ever experienced. I may need to buy a second suitcase to get the books I’ve bought back home.

There are dozens of workshops each day, many of them so tempting you need to be three, or five, people to get to them all. Though many of the workshops are geared toward people who teach writing in high school or college, there are plenty for the rest of us.

On Thursday, I started a marathon day with “The Long and Short of It: Navigating the Transitions Between Writing Novels and Short Stories.” The panel was composed of writers who’d either gone from short stories to novels or vice versa. Moderated by Bruce Machart (The Wake of Forgiveness, Men in the Making), the panelists were Hannah Tinti (The Good ThiefAnimal Crackers; Tinti is also the editor of the online literary magazine One Story), Melanie Thon (Sweet Hearts, Girls in the Grass), Erin McGraw (The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, The Good Life), and Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth).

The key thing I took from this excellent seminar was that you can’t think of novels as expanded short stories nor short stories as shrunken novels. I’d always felt that way; I just hadn’t had it articulated so that I grasped it. The panelists were in agreement that they fret over short stories more “because every word is a potential for a mistake.” Writing novels are more “low gear,” and you have the luxury of knowing you can have “extra words” as a cushion. The panelists disagreed on switching between the two. One described himself as linear, having to finish a short story before he can move on to a novel. Another moves between novels and short stories in progress, using each to counter spots in the process where the work has become bogged down.

Another thing I could relate to was starting to write and not really knowing where the story is going–or the flip side, thinking it’s going one way, and it strikes out on its own. My recently published short story, “Trophies,” started out as a fun exercise describing, from a fish’s point of view, what it’s like to be caught. The story then went to a place I’d avoided writing about for many years and was much different from what I’d originally intended. It was nice to know I’m not odd that way.

Next came “Thinking with Your Own Apparatus: Fiction Writers and History.” Joyce Hinnefeld (Stranger Here Below) moderated Eugenia Kim (The Calligrapher’s Daughter), Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Wench), and Nalini Jones (What You Call Winter), all authors of non-contemporary historical fiction.

Kim and Jones write about their mothers’ cultures, Korean and Indian respectively, and they described the issues arising with not being immersed in that culture until they decided to write about it. Perkins-Valdez, who writes about African American slave women in the Civil War era, described an emotional trip to the Museum of the Confederacy for research. All emphasized the need for research and accuracy–because someone, somewhere will find the tiny error in language that slipped past. They also urged writers not to forget the characters amid all the historical detail–historical fiction “captures a feeling” and the reader has to like the history but must care for the characters.

After lunch, I attended “What I Wish I’d Known,” a panel of newly published authors who discussed the process each underwent to become published. One thing is for sure–none of those processes were the same. Rebecca Rasmussen (The Borrower) wished she’d known, since her book was about a librarian, that she should have run it past a librarian. The librarians who have read it, she said, have loved it, but they’ve pointed out all the things librarians don’t do.

Jeffrey Stepakoff (The Orchard) started out as a playwright and screenwriter, and he wished he’d known just how much he had to do to “sell” his book inside the publishing house, i.e., cultivating relationships with the cover designer, the marketer, etc. Nor was he prepared for readers having such direct access to him as a novelist, rather than a screenwriter.

“Don’t listen to conventional wisdom about what you should be writing” was what Elizabeth Stuckey-French wished she’d known. Her three books–Mermaids on the MoonThe First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa, and The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady–afforded her different publishing experiences, but she came away from all three understanding that editors and agents do what they do because they love books. However, writers have to remember those editors and agents are also business people, not your BFFs.

Kim Wright (Love in Mid Air) was surprised at how much promotion she had to do for her first novel, though she enjoyed the process of being the primary advocate for her work. She cited her “writer’s paranoia”–she looked around her publisher and was convinced, as a new author, she wasn’t getting the same support as more established authors. Then, she found out the established authors thought she was getting more attention than they were! She especially wanted to dispel the myth that once you get that first book sold, you’re in like Flint. No, she said, “you keep having to go back through the door, as if it’s the first time.”

All the panelists agreed that hindsight on the publishing process for them was 20/20.

The final workshop of the day for me was “There Will Be Blood: Violence in Fiction.” Because I write espionage fiction, I wanted to make certain I was setting the right balance, i.e., that the violence was critical to the story and not gratuitous. The panelists were Alexi Zentner (Touch), Antonya Nelson (Bound), Benjamin Percy (The Wilding), and Alan Heathcock (Volt), and each emphasized that, often, the “invisible violence” is the most shocking or startling, that you don’t have to go for the blood and guts. Nelson said, “You can be more menaced by what you don’t see.” Holt said that violence in fiction is a lot like a sex scene in fiction: “It can be coy, clinical, or creepy.” Yet, they all emphasized that if the violence is “inauthentic,” it isn’t worth reading–or writing. As long as you don’t use violence as an end, it can be a critical part of the work. Another thing I’m getting right, apparently.

The day wasn’t over yet. That evening was the keynote address of the conference, and if I went to nothing else for the whole conference, I was going to this. Margaret Atwood, the premiere author of dystopian fiction, was the speaker. She began with a greeting to “all my Twitter followers,” which got a big round of applause. There were a lot of us in the audience. Atwood was funny, charming, and informative in a brief re-telling of her writing life. The 73-year old laughed at the recurrent rumor that she had died but emphasized that you have to write to maintain your relevance. In her case she’ll be relevant for a long time. It’s always great when someone you admire lives up to your expectations. As she left the stage to applause, she lifted the arm of the sign language interpreter and had her take a bow with her. A classy lady.

A long, but fulfilling first day. And tomorrow is another one.

I live for your constructive comments.

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