The Prodigal Returns

It’s been over a month since my last substantive post here–on the first day of AWP. It’s not that I haven’t been writing; I have. Mostly re-writing. I haven’t been writing my political blog; I haven’t done Friday Fictioneers; I haven’t done Flash! Friday. I’ve not put my finger on quite why, other than the obvious: winter doldrums, lingering nasty weather, and overall write-on-a-self-imposed-deadline burnout.

So, here’s a summary: AWP was great; I had story selected as a finalist in a national contest; the agent loved my writing but decided my novel wasn’t for him; the Virginia Festival of the book was wonderful (though I’ll confess I wish I’d been a panelist instead of in the audience); I had a story rejected for an anthology about a week after an anthology appeared with one of my stories in it; I had an editor solicit a story from me “for consideration;” and we’re about ten days away from the staging of my ten-minute play, “Yo’ Momma,” which was a winner in the Ampersand Arts “Bar Hopping” Contest.

Then, on Sunday, I got tagged in a Facebook post: “Name 15 authors who’ve influenced you and who will always stick with you.” Once I started thinking about that, I began to jot down names and decided this would be a much better blog post than a comment on a Facebook post.

I’m back!

Here are the fifteen authors who’ve influenced me with a brief explanation of how and why, divided into women and men but listed in alphabetical order so as not to give away who is/was the most influential.

Louisa May Alcott – She embodied for me the woman writer’s struggle to be accepted for what you are by society and family.

Margaret Atwood – She shows the world that dystopian fiction can be intelligent and well-wrought, and that makes her worthy of emulation.

Jane Austen – For her time, she wielded a sharp pen of sarcasm, feminism, and egalitarianism, and, damn, but she could turn a phrase.

Charlotte Bronte – She showed me that romance and happy endings aren’t elusive after all.

Ursula K. LeGuin – She is a pioneer in one of my favorite genres, science fiction, and I first heard “write what you want to write” from her.

Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters – She taught me that romantic pairs as protagonists can carry a series (or several series in her case) and that the romance doesn’t detract from a good mystery story.

Sara Paretsky – She showed me your female protagonist can take care of herself and not be dependent upon a man and still be popular (and don’t let editors tell you otherwise) and that plots suffused with liberal politics can be, too.

Kate Wilhelm – She showed that female writers could write “hard” science sci-fi stories and be respected by her male colleagues, even the stodgy ones.

Honorable Mentions: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Octavia Butler, Shirley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Flannery O’Connor,

Isaac Asimov – As well as being one of the most prolific authors of the twentieth century, he showed me you could tell a story and educate people at the same time.

Harlan Ellison – As well as being an ardent admirer of LeGuin, he showed me that you could and should go into the dark areas of the mind and write about them. He also spent fifteen minutes with me once and told me to never, ever give up writing.

William Faulker – He showed me what every writer from the south needs to accept–our history is both full of joy and worthy of embarrassment.

Thomas Hardy – I love this man’s prose. He can take pages to relate a nanosecond of plot, but you don’t mind.

Stephen King – He showed me that when you write about the horrific, at least do it in a way which elevates it.

Boris Pasternak – He showed me how an artist should stand up for the integrity of his or her work and that an epic should truly be an epic.

Kurt Vonnegut – He showed me that a good story is worth spending weeks, months, even years to perfect.

Honorable Mentions: Mikhail Bulgakov, Fredreich Engels, Seamus Heaney, James Joyce, V. I. Lenin, Karl Marx, Vladimir Nabokov, William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy

Now, fifteen of the writers who read this need to do the same. 😉

 

AWP Report – Part 1

Before this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I’d been to Seattle four previous occasions, all for work. I stayed in government-rate hotels near the airport or the Boeing complex. At my agency, if a group went to a locale for the same event, not everyone got approval for a rental car. If you weren’t the one with a car, you had to beg for a ride or rent one on your own. On my first trip, I couldn’t accept that I was so close to Seattle and might not get a chance to go there, so I rented a car on my own and drove downtown. I paid an outrageous price to park the car for the day; then did all the typical tourist things. I continued to blow my personal budget with a dinner at the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant. That was on my bucket list before I ever knew what a bucket list was.

Seattle is a gorgeous, bustling, clean, artsy city, which now is one of the greenest in the country. Gas cars are being phased out as cabs, replaced by hybrids; many city buses are also hybrids; and every place you enter has recycling and composting bins–even the hotel rooms have a recycle bin for plastics. Seattle has a decent literary history and several top-notch MFA programs, but it has long been a refuge for artists. It’s famous for its blown glass artists and sculptors, but this week it’s hosting probably more authors in a single place than anywhere else in the world. I hadn’t been in Seattle for six years, but the city’s vibe and energy were still there, and I arrived a whole day early to reacquaint myself with the only other city in the U.S. I could imagine myself living and working.

Unfortunately, Pike Place Market seemed a little seedier than it used to be, and there are a lot more street people than I remember, which could mean the city government isn’t dealing will with some people’s needs; but this isn’t the political blog. Seattle also now has one of those ubiquitous, over-sized, ugly Ferris wheels on its waterfront, but, overall, though, it’s the same lively place which got me hooked on Starbucks twenty-plus years ago.

I started Thursday, the first “official” day of the conference with a panel called “Structuring the Novel,” moderated by Summer Wood and featuring Melissa Remark, Jennie Shortridge, and Tara Conklin. This was a standing-room only event, and I was glad to have arrived early enough to get a seat.

This is my third AWP, and at each one I’ve heard the discussions that it’s getting too big to fulfill attendees’ needs. Indeed, the panels are being held among three buildings, all within two blocks, but, still, with only fifteen minutes between panels, getting from the far end of one building to the far end of another is problematic. But I digress.

All the members of the novel structure panel described how they personally structured their works. Conklin’s novel The House Girl has, what Conklin herself calls, an innovative structure–two timelines alternating every fifteen to twenty pages and incorporating sections other than narrative. Conklin advises, though, if you use an innovative structure, “you have to have a reason, it has to draw out or fit the themes in your novel.”

Shortridge indicated her structure issues are pretty typical of most of us–she gets a strong beginning and a catchy ending, but the middle “is a muddle, is soft, and needs structure.” She shifted her thinking and writes the middle with the end in mind. She also advocates the “four-act” structure: setting up, seeking, engaging, denouement. Sometimes, she says, she borrows from other genres; e.g., “If I’m writing an action sequence I model it after a thriller.”

Melissa Remark, a recent MFA graduate who has a background in script writing for film and television suggests we find the “present” thread in any uniquely structured novel and start with that. Pacing can also develop structure; e.g., a fast-paced middle and a lagging ending can thwart any attempt at structure, innovative or otherwise.

Long indicated that once you find the “deep structure or soul” of your story, the structure comes naturally. The soul is a set of connections which matter but they have to be intertwined, revealing the story beneath the story, or what you intended to write in the first place. Long also indicated that we should trust our instincts, that our “subconscious communicates our values to our conscious mind,” but if we don’t pay attention to it, it becomes writer’s block.

After that panel, I spent some time in the book fair, where I once again got the itch for an MFA, even though I’ve been told I don’t need one. I probably don’t. I don’t want to teach, but it would be nice to have a bigger writing community. Considering the expense, I really don’t think one is in my future. However, I discovered there are a lot of literary journals I can submit to, and I spent quite a bit of time at the Sewanee table, discussing the workshop I’m going to apply for.

The next panel was the key one for the day for me–“Writing Unsympathetic Characters.” My female protagonist evokes diametrically opposite opinions in people. Some like her as a strong, no-nonsense woman who has a deep sense of justice. Others find her brash and profane. At a critique group session recently, one person said, “Does she have to curse?” (Well, yes, she does; when you’re kicking ass you don’t watch your language.) I was hoping this panel would give me some insight on how to keep her as is but make her more universally appealing.

But when moderator Irina Reyn opened by saying, “Often readers don’t want to spend time characters they couldn’t be friends with. Well, I say, if you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”

Panelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz said, “Unpleasant characters are the most memorable, but the writer has to care about what that character is doing. Only then will the reader read on to see how the character ends up. If the writing is good, the reader will finish regardless of the character’s likability.”

Hannah Tinti, the editor of “One Story,” used markers and a sheet of paper tacked to the wall to illustrate her point that we should approach unsympathetic characters as if they were super-villains in a graphic novel:

  • a costume (the physicality of the character)
  • a superpower (what the character is good at)
  • the kryptonite (the character’s weakness)
  • the back story (the character’s past)
  • a quest (the diabolical plan, i.e., what does the character want, what motivates everything he/she does?)

Erin Harris added that an unsympathetic character who has no motive is a problem. “The reader wants to know the psychology,” she said, and that makes the character three-dimensional.

Publisher Richard Nash indicated we shouldn’t be afraid of a negative reaction to a character. What we should worry about is “no reaction at all.”

There were a lot of great points from this panel, and they gave me confidence that the way my protagonist is, is the right way.

After another swing through the book fair, I got ready for at event at a local Irish pub called Kells. I had entered my story “The Dragon Who Breathed no Fire,” retitled as “Man on Fire,” in the Press 53 Flash Fiction “Visions and Apparitions” Contest. I love this story, and I had a good feeling about its chances. So, when they read my name as one of the finalists, I was thrilled beyond belief. It didn’t win, but this was rather like the Academy Awards–you’re honored to be nominated. What was even better was meeting the judges afterwards and hearing how much they loved the story. “Get that story out there and get it published,” one judge said. I’ll do just that.

Continued in Part Two

 

 

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

Sunrise east of Mystic, CT.

Boston

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.

Like a Lion, After All

It’s snowmageddon time on the east coast again. Starting Tuesday night through Wednesday night, we should expect five-plus inches, twelve inches, or “substantial accumulation” of snow, depending upon which weather prognosticator you hear. Normally, I’d just hunker down with my DVDs and books and MacBook and shelter-in-place until it’s all over. And frankly, we’ve had these predictions several times this winter, and in my section of the Shenandoah Valley we’ve had a total of maybe two inches of snow.

Which could mean we’ll get walloped on Tuesday night.

Here’s the rub. I’m due to hop on a train Wednesday night to go to Boston for AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference). The “snow event” should be over by the time my train leaves, but getting to Union Station in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, during the day’s snowpacalypse, could be the issue. I have a four-wheel drive vehicle, but when VADOT urges you three days before the storm to stay off the roads, you get a little worried.

I already know of several writer friends who have moved up their arrival to Boston–traveling on Tuesday instead of Wednesday–and that’s probably what I’ll do.

The non-writer might ask, why go to all the trouble? Stay home. Hunker down. Watch the pretty snowfall. Don’t risk it. Don’t disrupt your schedule.

In my previous blog posts after attending a writers conference or workshop, I’ve tried to convey just how motivating they can be. You learn something (a lot, actually), you network with other writers, you get exposed to publications and publishers, and you’re immersed twenty-four hours a day in all things literary. Writers conferences are like a Star Trek convention for book nerds, minus the filk sing and the costumes of your favorite Klingon. (Oh, yes, that collective, horrified gasp you heard was the literati expressing dismay at a pop-culture comparison.)

So, pardon me for the shortness of this post. I need to go stop the newspapers, change reservations, pay bills, and pack–and probably several other things I’ll forget until I’m in Boston. But then, the fun begins.

The Year of Conferencing Writerly

At the beginning of 2012, I vowed to make regular attendance at writers conferences and workshops part of my writing life for the new year. So far, I’m on a roll.

March was AWP in Chicago, IL. Very intimate. Just me and 10,000 other writers. But it was an energizing experience, and I got to hear Margaret Atwood speak–one of my inspirations. I went to amazing panels and heard amazing writers read from their works. I came away thrilled that I was a minor character in such a life-affirming play.

March also brought the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, VA. It’s a bit disingenuous to call this a local conference because, though it highlights Virginia writers, the reach goes beyond the Commonwealth. The panels here are not entirely craft-focused, but they are practical. Where else would I have learned how to use Pinterest to market books?

In June there was Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop in Roanoke, VA. I blogged a great deal about that week, so I won’t belabor any points previously made. I’ll just say I’m still aloft on that cloud of euphoria. And I’ll be back for more next year and not just for the strength of the workshops and the quality of the instructors but also for the friends I made there.

Upcoming is the Virginia Writers Club’s “Navigating the Writing Life” on August 4 in Charlottesville, VA. This is a one-day conference packed with useful workshops, and if you’re within a few states of Virginia, I encourage you to make the trip.

Also in August on the 18th, is a one-day “Gathering of Writers” sponsored by Press 53 and held in Winston-Salem, NC. I’m making a weekend of it and am looking forward to a packed day of craft workshops and meeting great writers.

And last, thus far, and certainly not least is the James River Writers Conference in Richmond, VA. Last year I only went for the day and missed out on a lot. This year because the conference has grown in attendance, it’s moving to the Richmond Civic Center. Friday will be two intensive workshops, then Saturday and Sunday craft panels and readings by Virginia writers. I haven’t yet worked up the nerve for First Pages or the five-minute agent pitches. There’s always next year.

Has it been worth it? Oh, yes. There’s always something more to learn about writing, about yourself as a writer, and the writing life. And writers network, too. There’s nothing like shared experiences to bond people, and it’s always great to know you’re not the only one being rejected by publications.

The only problem is, once you starting going to writing conferences, you keep going back! In this case, that’s a good thing.

 

Rainy Saturdays and Literary Pursuits

A rainy Saturday is perhaps best for staying in bed, for rolling over and burrowing under the covers to forget that April in your area has had freeze warnings and snow flurries. Rising from that warm bed would require something far more stimulating than a morning cup of coffee. Fortunately, the prospect of meeting and listening to best-selling author Dolen Perkins-Valdez was well worth dodging raindrops this past Saturday in Staunton, VA.

Dr. Dolen Perkins-Valdez, speaking at Mary Baldwin College's Spencer Center. Her appearance was jointly sponsored by Mary Baldwin College and the Staunton/Waynesboro/Augusta Group of Writers (SWAG Writers).

Perkins-Valdez, a professor of writing at several east and west coast universities, became intrigued by a snippet of information she discovered about Xenia, OH. For a few years in the 1850’s, Xenia was home to the Tawawa Resort, a place where southern slaveowners could come for the summer and bring their slave mistresses, living with them in near openness.

As she began to research to confirm this information, she had an epiphany. She could write a scholarly article about this, but her heart was telling her to do something else. As she imagined what those few weeks of near-freedom must have been like for slave women, she decided she could only tell their story in a novel.

Perkins-Valdez spoke of how “protective” she was of her first novel. “I knew I needed an agent, but this was my baby. How could I send it out into the unknown?” That someone might steal her book wasn’t her concern; rather, she feared someone might not understand or appreciate the intent of her work.

That was certainly refreshing to hear from a New York Times Best-selling author–that she could have the same fears as any of us who submit our work into that limbo of acceptance and rejection.

It turns out, she had nothing to worry about. Her agent was able to sell the novel to Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins. Wench is the story of four women who are slaves and the complex relations among them and with their masters, who are their lovers, rapists, and owners.

Perkins-Valdez’s down-to-earth presentation and openness to questions from the audience was refreshing. She told the story of being at a joint book signing with Terry McMillian, who wouldn’t sign her own books for people unless they bought Wench, too. But it wasn’t a boast. It was the “oh my god, oh my god” reaction any of us gets when someone we admire acknowledges us.

When I asked a question about her presentation at AWP, which I had attended, she asked me what I wrote and asked me to follow her on Twitter, “so I can keep track of your writing.” She was just as generous to every writer and aspiring writer in the audience and at her later book-signing, where she posed for pictures with young, African-American women from Mary Baldwin. For each person who was a writer, she made certain to ask about his or her writing.

I’m in the process of reading Wench, and so far it falls into the “hate to put it down” category. It’s very engaging and authentic, and having met Perkins-Valdez and heard her speak twice now, it is a far more meaningful read. Even without having finished it, I can recommend it.

Perkins-Valdez is working on her second novel, about African-American women in the Civil War. I’m sure that will be on my to-read list as well.