A Final January Friday Fictioneers

January is a month which has always dragged for me. I suppose the lead-up to the holidays is always so frantic that the “January let-down” seems prolonged. Add in some of the coldest weather we’ve seen in a while, and this January has felt unending. Yet, here we are, at the last day with the year’s shortest month ready to arrive. I’m telling you, if February ends up being as cold and depressing as January, I’m going someplace warm.

However, the end of February is AWP, that small gathering of 12,000 or so writers, this year in Seattle, WA. I just hope Seattle won’t be having sub-zero temperatures.

The beginning of February is the start of a writing contest I signed up for back in December. It’s the 8th Annual Short Story Challenge, a creative writing competition which could run for weeks, if my story is selected in the first round. There are three rounds, and in the first writers are put in random heats and assigned a genre, subject, and a character. I will have eight days to produce a 2,500-word short story to submit. Judges select the top five stories from each heat to advance to the second round, which is March 27 – 30. Again, you get an assignment but only have three days to produce and submit a 2,000-word story. Judges choose the finalists for the third and final round on May 2-3 where you have twenty-four hours to write and submit a 1,500-word story. Judges select the overall winners from that round.

The interesting aspect of this is every story submitted gets feedback, quite the accomplishment since I’m sure hundreds, if not thousands, of stories get submitted. A writer friend of mine did this last year and made it to the third round but unfortunately didn’t win. So, I’m giving it a try, and it will get me back on track in writing stories longer than 100- or 150-words. Wish me luck.

Skyline2014OSCPrintcoverM.inddAnd in other news, a short story (which is actually a chapter from a novel in progress) of mine, “Meeting the Enemy,” will appear in an anthology entitled Skyline 2014: Prose and Poetry by Central Virginia Writers. This story features one of my pair of globe-trotting spies put in an untenable situation and what she does to address it. I’ll post purchase information as soon as I receive it. The cover is to the left.

The seemingly faded aspect of today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt reminded me of a Friday Fictioneers Logobox of family photos I have in my keeping. There aren’t many of us left on my father’s side, and I’ve often wondered what some distant cousin will make of these photos if he or she gets them some day. And that led to the story, “Family Ties.” As usual if you don’t see the link on the title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

And keep your fingers crossed that Sunday is cloudy so that bloody groundhog won’t see his shadow, and spring will come early.

Friday Fictioneers with a Sting

Friday Fictioneers LogoThe influx of some spring-like (and summerish) weather doesn’t combine well with putting your butt in the chair and writing. The lure of outside is too strong. Yes, yes, I know I can take the laptop outside and enjoy the weather while writing, but what can I say. I’m easily distracted.

And this has been a week where we needed distraction from an all too intense reality. Boston has always been a city after my own heart. I loved the time I’ve spent there for work and for pleasure. I was just there in March for AWP, lamenting the fact the snowfall didn’t allow me to play tourist in Boston’s fine museums and art galleries.

So, take an intriguing photo, twenty-four hour news reporting about terrorists, and you get something pretty dark, even for me. So dark, in fact, I’ve impulsively decided not to post it. If this hadn’t been a week where the face of the inhumanity of terrorism was a smiling, eight-year-old boy, maybe the story would have been appropriate, but today it’s not. And I never censor myself or my writing; however, it’s a matter of sensitivity.

Instead of the first thing that came to mind, you have “Empty Nest Optimism” instead. If you don’t see the link to the story in the title, scroll to the top of this page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

AWP13 – Day Three

I didn’t read the description for the first session I chose for Saturday, “A Room of Their Own: How to Make the Most of (or Create) a Writer’s Workspace.” I thought it would be about how to organize your home office or writing area, but it was far more interesting than that. The unfortunate part about it was half the panel didn’t show up and hadn’t advised the moderator. She didn’t say it outright, but she hinted they were at AWP and just hadn’t bothered to show up. She was embarrassed and apologetic, but she filled in quite ably. I’m omitting the names of all the panel so I don’t further anyone’s embarrassment, but really?

The session was about establishing a space for writers to come have a place to write in peace. The two panelists discussed the virtues of doing this as a business (profit or non-profit), as a profession, or just as a community offering. One thing is for sure, I’ll never question my $52/year membership in Charlottesville’s WriterHouse again. Writer spaces in Boston and New York rent for $300 or more per quarter. Wow!

The “Women in Crime” panel was raucous and entertaining. Moderated by St. Martin’s Press editor Toni Margarita Plummer, the panel of Sophie Littlefield, Linda Rodriguez, and Nicole Peeler explained how they each came up with their unique, “kick-ass” female protagonists. For Littlefield it was divorce and the issue of how aging women are ignored by a society fixated on youth; for Rodriguez it was to highlight the issues of mixed-race native Americans fitting in the caucasian world; and for Peeler urban fantasy was a way to write powerful statements about gender inequality and sexuality using fiction. Very thought-provoking, and the Q&A about gender equality issues in publishing topped off a good session.

Again, I needed to read the session descriptions better because a few minutes into “Career Suicide,” I realized it was about switching teaching jobs, tenure vs. non-tenure, so I opted for lunch instead.

The week before the AWP Conference, VIDA–Women in Literary Arts–had released their analysis of work published in major literary and news magazines, an analysis which showed not only were the numbers worse for women this year than last year. Then, there was buzz at the conference that twenty-three of nearly 500 panels focused on women’s literary issues, while only one focused on men’s. One man tweeted, “Don’t we have issues, too?” (Yeah, don’t get me started.)

The VIDA panel offered a detailed breakdown of the statistics from its news release. For example, the numbers of men and women submitting are almost equal, with men having a one-percent advantage. The panel members were from two literary journals and a well-known, left-leaning political magazine that also has a literary section, mostly reviews and poetry. This is another situation where I’m not listing the names of the panel because one of the literary journal editors–a man–stood up and tried to justify that it was all right to pick more men than women because of quality. That got a bit of an uproar, and the gentleman opted to sit down without finishing. He proceeded to sit at the table and not participate in any further discussion. I rest my case.

However, VIDA showed that where the disparity is minor statistically and as an amalgam, specific publications have significant problems with gender equity in submissions and acceptances. One panel member told the women in the audience, “When an editor calls an wants an op-ed piece, don’t make an excuse, e.g., kids, making dinner, etc.; find a way to do it.”

“Master of None: Surviving and Thriving Without an MFA” featured a moderator and a panel of four successful, young authors (Rebecca Makkai, Samuel Park, Ru Freeman, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, and Ida Hattermer-Higgins, respectively) who had not gone the MFA route. In truth, though, all accept one did have a higher degree, usually in English or literature, but not writing. Because I’ve been going back and forth on whether to get an MFA–I’m pretty certain I don’t want to teach Freshman Comp–I opted to attend this session. All five on the panel had leveraged attendance at writer conferences and workshops, and the networking done there, into procuring agents and traditional publishing contracts.

A good panel, a practical discussion, but it didn’t really help me with my decision. That is all up to me.

I decided to skip the panel on Ray Bradbury, mainly because it was another situation where the convention center security had to control how many people could be in the room. That gave me time for a final walk-through of the Bookfair, where deals could be had.

And then it was over. The Bookfair closed, people started saying goodbye, and the convention center grew quiet. A few people began to speak of AWP14 in Seattle, WA. Yes, it’s that positive an experience–you start talking about next year as this year’s conference draws to a close.

Later this week, an interview with me about my AWP experience will appear on writer Jan Bowman’s blog. I’ll post a link to it under the About Me tab at the top of the page.

AWP13 – Day Two

Boston’s snow today (eight to ten inches) was beautiful–from the inside looking out. I was ever so grateful that AWP is all in one building and I can walk to Hynes convention center, about a block and a half away from my hotel, entirely on sky-walks and through shopping malls. There’s something efficient about the states in the northern latitudes–by the time the snow stopped this afternoon, the roads and sidewalks were clear.

I started the morning off with “Purpose and the Practical in Historical Writing,” something of interest to me because I write the historical thriller, or so genre assigning says. The planned moderator Anne Keesey got held up by the bad weather, so Marshall Klimasewiski (Tyrants: Stories) managed the panel of Peter Ho Davies (The Welsh Girl), Emily Barton (Brookland), and Zachary Lazar (Sway). A great discussion of how they became interested in historical fiction, how to define it, and when to stop researching and write.

I slipped from the first session during the audience Q&A to head to a craft panel called “Art of the Ending,” or bringing your work to a successful conclusion. The room was already so full, the fire marshal once again wouldn’t allow anyone inside until some people left. That wasn’t happening, so I moved on to “This is Your Brain on Fiction.” This was an excellent discussion of how the human brain processes fiction. It turns out when a writer has done a good job, the brain reacts as if it’s seen something real. The moderator and panelists (Susan Hubbard, Brock Adams, Hillary Casavant, John Henry Fleming, and John King) gave their opinions on this, and where it was more for the neurologists in the room, it was food for thought. The brain just skips over cliches, for example, but describe something texturally, and it lights up.

As I walked to meet some writer friends for lunch, I passed Seamus Heaney in a hallway. He gave me a nod and a great Irish smile, and I think I kept my composure. I’m sure he nods politely to every middle-aged woman who gawps at him, but I’d like to think he saw the Irish in me. Still, it was the highlight of the day.

After lunch I dropped some things (translation–went shopping in the mall) off in my room and fully intended to head back for “Story Autopsy: How I Wrote a Novel in Three Days and Adapted It into a Movie,” but, well, I fell asleep. I did make it to “Style and Story: Balancing Form and Content in the Short Story.” The planned moderator, Jessica King, was also absent because of weather, but her replacement moderator never introduced himself. However, he did introduce the panel, Ted Sanders, Josh Cohen, and Susan Steinberg, all authors of short story collections and whose style has been deemed “experimental” by critics. The discussion of which comes first–form (chicken) or style (egg)–was lively and provocative, and each author read a bit from their work.

A little more shopping and it was back to the room to prep for tomorrow’s sessions:

0900 – 1015     A Room of Our Own: How to Make the Most of (or Create) a Writer’s Workspace
1030 – 1145     Women in Crime
1200 – 1315     Career Suicide
1330 – 1445     Numbers Trouble: Editors and Writers Speak to VIDA’s Count
1500 – 1615     Master of None: Surviving and Thriving without an MFA
1630 – 1745     Shadow Show: Writers and Teachers on the Influence of Ray Bradbury

AWP13 – Day One

I’m not eccentric enough to be a writer, I’ve decided. I have red hair, but not a bright enough red or magenta or maroon. I no longer have the legs to wear a multi-layered, tulle just-below-the-butt skirt accessorized with the tiger-stripe fish-net stockings and the unlaced combat boots. (Though I will say I’m wearing patterned knee-highs and crocs with my Lee jeans, and I did touch up my roots with a new shade of red with AWP in mind.)

Of course, there are plenty of conventional-looking writers around my age or older. So, I don’t know which is more dismaying–that I’m too old to be the writer who dresses in a way that makes avant-garde seem conventional or too young for the tweed jacket with elbow patches, corduroy slacks, and sensible shoes set.

But, it’s great to be surrounded by writers, to talk writer stuff, and even continuously answer the ubiquitous question, “What do you write?”

The first session of the day, “The Ten-Minute Play: The Essential Ingredients,” was the perfect follow-up to the play-writing workshop a couple of weekends ago put on by SWAG Writers. Panelists Gregory Fletcher, Jean Klein, and L. Elizabeth Powers gave us a lot of dos and don’ts, and I was happy to see that I didn’t commit many of the don’ts on the first draft of my ten-minute play I wrote last week. A sample of ten-minute play formatting and a list of places to submit ten-plays, and AWP13 kicked off perfectly.

And then it went south. The next panel was one of two must-sees on my carefully planned schedule: “Small Worlds–Flash, Sudden, and Other Very Short Fiction Internationally and at Home.” Even though all the sessions take place in the same building, I’ve discovered fifteen minutes to get from the end of one session to the beginning of another is only doable if you don’t have to pee. Even then, it’s touch and go, so when I arrived at the appointed room for “Small Worlds,” not only was every seat taken, but the SRO space was full. However, in the room next door, three times the size of the first, there were plenty of seats for “Being a Good Literary Citizen.”

Rob Spillman moderated authors Alan Heathcock and Matthew Specktor, bookseller Emma Stoub, and agent Julie Barer as they discussed how to get your greater community involved with your writing community and how to be a “mannerly” author during book events and with your agent. Frankly, I found this a little preachy on the book event and agent side, and I was far more interested in how Heathcock got people in Boise, ID, to pay $35 a person to come to his writer group’s readings.

I decided to opt out of “The First Five Pages: Literary Agents and Editors Talk” because I’ve been to many versions of this in the past couple of years. I had lunch instead then went to “Launching the Literary Journal: New Editors Confess.” The editors (Graham Hilliard, John Gosslee, Jarrett Haley, and Patrick Sugrue) of four relatively new literary magazines (Cumberland River Review, Fjords Review, Bull Men’s Fiction, and Bellow, respectively) talked about how their publications got started. Two of the four had nothing better to do (their words), one wanted to showcase his college, and one wanted a publication for a niche market. A very interesting discussion about submissions, and of the four I liked the editor and the concept of Bellow, which is produced through CreateSpace, a highly unique production process for a literary magazine.

“Women Writers in the Contemporary Literary Landscape” was a wonderful discussion among three writers (two prose, one poetry) who don’t write “typical” women’s fiction or poetry. Susan Steinberg, Fiona Maazel, and Mary Jo Bang all discussed the stereotypes women authors encounter even today. A great Q&A session, and for the men at AWP who’ve been complaining on Twitter that there are twenty-three panels on women’s literary issues and only one on men’s issues, let me just remind you you’ve dominated literature for, oh, the past two millennia, so hush.

I wanted to close the regular day with “Bending Genres,” my other “must see” panel, but it was another SRO event, so I prowled the AWP Bookfair and talked to a couple of MFA programs because that still comes to the forefront of my brain on occasion; then, dinner and a bit of a rest before the keynote speakers, not one but two Nobel Laureates.

I’m aware of the poet Derek Walcott, who won the Nobel in Literature in 1992, but not to the extent that I know Seamus Heaney, a Nobelist in 1995. Both read two of their poems, which was a delight, but to see Heaney in person, to hear his voice in person, transported me. All too soon it was over. Walcott and Heaney wanted to take questions, but the moderator pointed out, with 12,000 of us, there were “too many people.”

Tomorrow the plan is this:

0900 – 1015     Purpose and the Practical in Historical Writing
1030 – 1145      Art of the Ending
Lunch with some writer friends, plus attending a friend’s book signing
1500 – 1615      Story Autopsy: How I Wrote a Novel in Three Days and Then Adapted It into a Movie
1630 – 1545     Style and Story: Balancing Form and Content in the Short Story

Let’s hope the best laid plans of mice and writers don’t gang awry.

AWP – Arrival

My arrival at AWP began about 1400 yesterday afternoon when I pointed my trusty Jeep northeastward and headed for Washington, DC’s Union Station. I made a brief detour into my old neighborhood to “my” Barnes and Noble for a chai and a snack. And to get in practice for AWP’s Bookfair, I bought two books. Around six I discovered I can still deal with DC’s rush hour traffic and made it to Union Station in about a half-hour.

Which meant a three and a half hour wait for the train to depart, but Union Station is primo for people watching. And apparently I must look like a nice person. Every beggar in the place asked me for money.

The snow-apocalypse hadn’t yet started when the train pulled out at 2210, and I had already finished one of the books I bought at B&N. I settled in to catch a nap–not so easy when the conductor announces every stop along the way–but I managed to get about five hours of sleep overnight in a series of naps. I woke to a beautiful sunrise near Mystic, CT, and I got a little artistic with the photo I snapped in Instagram (below, left).


Sunrise east of Mystic, CT.


Boston, MA

The train arrived in Boston a bit early, there was a cab waiting right away, and, lo and behold, there was actually a room ready for me with a great view of Boston (right).


My regular Politics Wednesday blog post, lunch (chowdah, my absolute fave!), and a nap later, and I was ready to pick up my registration materials for the conference. Just me and a couple hundred others.

Now, the good news is a sky-walk connects the hotel and the Hynes Convention Center, the location of the AWP Conference–no treks through Boston’s notoriously chilly and windy weather. The bad news? You go through a really, really great shopping mall to get there. (I have my eye on a set of Russian matryoshka dolls, and there’s a Vera Bradley store.) Very tempting.

I’d already looked at the conference schedule on-line, and, as usual, AWP offers a bounty of panels and reading, and I spent at least an hour figuring out my schedule for the next three days, only to discover I’d left no time for lunch. Oh, well.

Here’s what’s up for tomorrow:

0900 – 1015     The Ten-Minute Play: The Essential Ingredients
1030 – 1145      Small Worlds–Flash, Sudden, & Other Very Short Fiction Internationally and at Home
1200 – 1315     The First Five Pages: Literary Agents & Editors Talk
1330 – 1445     Launching the Literary Journal: New Editors Confess
1500 – 1615     Women Writers in the Contemporary Literary Landscape
1630 – 1745     Bending Genre
2030 – 2200   Keynote Presentation: A Conversation Between Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott

A full day–but I can’t wait.

Friday Fictioneers – In Like a Lion?

Friday Fictioneers LogoIt’s the first day of March, which is the first day of meteorological spring, and at least in my part of the world, it hasn’t come in like a lion. However, there were snow flurries last night. Welcome to the world of climate change.

But coming in like a lion is today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt. As you’ll see it’s unusual, but certainly thought-provoking. I can’t wait to read other Friday Fictioneers’ creations.

Early March does mean the AWP Conference. (AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.) This year it’s in Boston, MA, one of my favorite U.S. cities, and, like Chicago last year, I’ll be among 10,000 other writers. Since I’ve made a nice group of writer friends on-line, from conferences and workshops, and from AWP last year, it’ll be a great time for a reunion, not to mention some chowdah!

Next Friday will be the peak of the conference, so I hope I can find some time for Friday Fictioneers. It’s a tradition now, and who likes change anyway?

Today’s story is “Eye of the Beholder,” and if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the title from the drop-down menu.

Oh, and back to the stretching yourself as a writer I posted about on Monday? Today’s offering is another first for me–young adult.

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.