“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,/Gang aft angly*.” –Robert Burns, from “To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”
As you know, I look forward every year to Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. The week-long workshop is the highlight of my writing year. This year, however, was special; the faculty asked if I’d be an alumnae reader. I was thrilled and honored, and because my first novel, A War of Deception, had just come out, it was also serendipitous.
On Sunday evening after everyone’s arrival, we go to dinner, meet with our workshop instructor, meet our fellow work-shoppers, and go over the plan for the week. Because this was my sixth year at Tinker, this has become like a yearly class reunion. A lot of attendees are repeat “offenders.”
I was excited about my workshop, “A Writer’s Retreat,” led by Dan Mueller from the MFA program at the University of New Mexico. Mueller called this a “generative” workshop, meaning we’d read a short story the night before, receive a prompt, and come back the next with something we’d just written to share. It’s certainly a break from the typical workshop where you submit 20-40 pages ahead of time and come prepared to comment in depth on the work of every other person in the workshop.
I left the after-dinner faculty readings with anticipation.
Monday turned out to be a typical Monday. Nothing went right. I’d discovered the night before that I’d neglected to bring enough of a post-operation medication. Annoying and totally my fault for not double-checking or bringing the whole bottle with me instead of filling a pillbox for each day of the week.
A quick call to the doctor’s office, and he called in a prescription to a nearby CVS. After the afternoon craft lecture by Fred Leebron (on using and creating writing prompts; fascinating and erudite as usual), I walked back to the dorm parking lot to get my car and go pick up the medication.
On the drive there, I felt extreme fatigue, in that I wanted to take a serious nap. I attributed it to the fact I’d walked three and a quarter miles that day and I was 10 days post-op for heart surgery.
I got the meds and headed back to Hollins.
Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop used to be the only June event at Hollins. Then, they added a similar workshop for potters. In subsequent years they added a youth music camp and a youth dance camp. The quiet cafeteria became full and boisterous. The parking lots for the main dormitory became overflowing.
As I discovered when I returned from CVS. There was no place to park near the dorm, and by now my fatigue had become acute. After driving around a bit and waiting to see if someone freed up a space, I flagged down a campus security guard, explained my fatigue and its likely cause, and asked for some suggestions. The best he could offer was to park in the fitness center parking lot, close to the dorm but an extra distance to walk. It was all I had.
I took a nap but felt no better. I was still so fatigued, I asked someone to drive me to dinner. Again, I figured I’d pushed myself too hard, post-op. I decided a good night’s rest and driving myself to breakfast the next morning would mean less walking and less of a chance of repeating the fatigue.
A good night’s sleep, and I was ready to go. As the day went on my energy level stayed steady. The workshop was great. I read a piece of flash fiction I’d written the afternoon before and got good feedback. Pinckney Benedict’s craft lecture on “Logos vs Pathos” was intriguing and thought-provoking, again as usual.
I spent the afternoon doing homework in the cafeteria, rather than doing too much walking, had my one-on-one with Dan, and was looking forward to dinner.
As I ate dinner, I felt the fatigue come on again, not as intense as before, but I decided to forego the student readings that evening to make sure I got plenty of sleep.
This time when I got back to the dorm parking lot, there was a parking spot, but by the time I reached the front door of the dorm, I felt as if I’d run a marathon.
In my room, I drank plenty of water and felt better, and I sat down to do a little novel revising. Around eight-thirty, a tickle began at the back of my throat. More water. The tickle became a runny nose, followed by constant coughing, followed by a sore throat and an earache, and sinus pain.
I’ve had hundreds, maybe thousands, of sinus infections in my life, and I knew what this was. Despite that knowledge, I was awake every couple of hours throughout the night coughing.
By morning I knew it was time for Urgent Care, but I also knew I couldn’t drive. One of my writer friends offered to take me. A couple hours later, I was back in my dorm room with new meds and orders to rest.
Rest I was going to do because nothing was going to stop me from that Alumnae Reading on Thursday or so I thought.
And I rested, barely stirring from bed, and thank goodness for Hulu because it’s a dorm room. No television. Friends brought me lunch and dinner, but I only grew worse throughout the day and evening.
Tomorrow I’d be better. I had to be.
I wasn’t better. If anything I was worse, and I should have expected that. I know how my sinus infections go. By now my asthma had become aggravated, and I made the decision to come home.
No Alumnae Reading, and I was pissed. At myself for getting sick; at my body for letting me down.
I’ve several, well, many decades of life under my belt, but in the last several years my usually reliable body has sabotaged me: a foot injury that took months to heal; episodic irregular heart rhythms that left me weak and frightened; a bout with shingles.
This past April in the midst of prepping for A War of Deception‘s release, I had a serious episode of irregular heart rhythm, so much so I had to go to hospital and get shocked back into sinus rhythm, followed a month later by the surgery designed to eliminate the problem.
Then, as I was beginning to feel like the old me again, a sinus infection and bronchitis took from me something I stood to gain validation from.
Now, don’t say I should have prayed harder or been a better person or that it’s God’s plan, because I’m a rationalist. Believe me, if prayer worked, I’d have been healed in a day. And I’m not a bad person; that threat of punishment over trivial matters is what pushed me away from religion.
No, I can’t and won’t accept my age, but I understand my anxiety about the surgery, which kept me from sleeping well for a month, depressed my immune system and helped bring this.
And, no, 20/20 hindsight is not useful nor appreciated.
I’m four and a half days into recovering from bronchitis, but since I have asthma, it takes me weeks rather than days to fully recover. Then, I expect the old me to make a command performance.
Oh, and they asked me to read again at next year’s Alumnae Reading. I’ll be there–one way or another.
The countdown calendar to the right of this post indicates that, as of today, I have seven days to go before the 2015 Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. I find it amazing this is my fourth one! Three years ago about this time, I was having big second thoughts. For one, I’d never had my work critiqued by strangers, much less a well-respected, actual writer who was my workshop instructor. To say I was a nervous Nellie would freshen that cliché.
But 2012 was all positive with the incredible Pinckney Benedict; 2013 was amazing with the insightful Fred Leebron; and 2014 was an eye-opening experience with a master of genre writing, Laura Benedict. So much so, I’m re-taking her workshop this year, and I hope what I’ve submitted embodies everything I learned from her last year.
As critical as the workshop is now to my writing, the making of writer friends is, in some ways, more important. I have a circle of extremely talented writers who’ll beta-read what I’ve done and point out exactly what I need to do to make it better. More importantly, because we have that shared workshop experience, I respect their opinions. There is no sense of competition; just genuine, meaningful critique. What more could you ask for in a writing workshop?
So, today, I’m positively giddy. I can’t wait for Sunday to get here to head the loaded car south to Roanoke, set foot on the absolutely gorgeous campus of Hollins University (an inspiration in and of itself), and see my writing tribe.
Oh, and, I might get a writing themed tattoo while I’m there. Gasp!
I was just like a kid anticipating going to Disney World in the few weeks before Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. I was positively giddy, so excited was I to see old and new writer friends, to workshop my genre MS, to meet the instructors, to conduct the student readings–everything. (Well, everything except perhaps the beds in the freshman dorm at Hollins University where the TMWW attendees are housed.) I mean, my suitcases were in the car two days before I left.
Dinner on Sunday was a big reunion for thirteen of us who were TMWW “alums.” That meant thirty-seven of the attendees were new to the workshop, some new to the concept of workshopping entirely. After dinner, we met with our instructors to go over the schedule for the week; then, we made our way to the student activity center for faculty readings. Emilia Phillips read her poetry, and Laura Benedict, who was my instructor for “Enhancing Your Genre Writing,” read from her new release, Bliss House.
This year, the craft seminars and the workshops exchanged places, meaning we had workshop from 0900 to 1200 in the morning, and the craft lectures from 1300 to 1400 in the afternoon. Now, the good news was three unencumbered hours in the afternoon to read, write, do workshop exercises, or have your post-critique conference. However, because we backed up against lunch in the morning workshop sessions, they felt rushed to me, and we were constantly aware of the clock. In past years, when the craft lecture was from 0900 to 1000, we had two hours of free time before lunch. Afternoon workshops went from 1300 to 1600 (the same number of hours), but if you went a little long, you still had time before dinner to work in a conference or even some free time. At the end of the week, there was an informal poll about having workshop in the morning, and it was overwhelmingly in favor of that. Oh, well.
The first craft seminar on Monday was “The Weapon as Character,” given by Pinckney Benedict, my instructor from my first time at TMWW. It was pure Pinckney. He opened the seminar with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition,” followed by an excerpt from “The Walking Dead,” a popular television show about the zombie apocalypse. He used Mussorgsky to illustrate the concept of “ekphrasis,” or using one form of art to describe/define another. Mussorgsky wrote “Pictures at an Exhibition” to be a virtual stroll through an exhibition of paintings by an artist who was a close friend and who had died prematurely, Viktor Hartmann. The ten movements each focus on a specific painting by Hartmann, e.g., Baba Yaga’s hut or the Great Gates of Kiev (my personal favorite). This, according to Pinckney, is the epitome of ekphrasis–a musician describing paintings, paintings which were subsequently lost in a fire so that the music is the only depiction of many of them.
“The Walking Dead” sequence was a scene with the character Michonne, who carries a specific type of sword to fight zombies, a katana (aka a samurai sword, so designed and worn the wielder could draw and attack in a single motion). This in and of itself is already defining the character of Michonne, since the traditional way to kill zombies is a head shot with a gun. She chooses an ancient weapon, one specifically designed for close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat. Yes, it would be easier to grab a gun and fire away, but her way, she has to confront her enemy directly; she has to look into their dead eyes as she kills them. Re-kills them?
At first we see her confronting a zombie who looks remarkably like her and that appears to put her off her game. Then, she draws the katana and begins to fight, conquering an overwhelming number of zombies. The character at that point is the katana, which seems to have a mind of its own while dispatching the walking dead. This, per Pinckney, is the perfect example of a weapon becoming a character itself. “Michonne would not be Michonne without her katana,” he explained. I don’t watch the show because, frankly, my dreams would be full of zombies, and that’s just too unpleasant for me; however, I might have to watch some episodes because I’m now intrigued by Michonne and her choice of weapon.
Pinckney acknowledged the potential controversy in having a weapon as a character, and then dismissed the controversy by saying that if you don’t like weapons, don’t write stories that feature them. Amen. I encounter this myself. I write about spies. Spies on occasion use weapons. I’ve had people declare to me they won’t read my work because my characters carry guns. Okay, that’s fine. I respect that, but respect my personal writing choices in return.
After we tossed about some characters who are so closely associated with their weapons that, if they didn’t have the weapon, they would no longer be that character, we discussed the pros and cons of including weapons in our work–beyond the Chekhov adage that if you show a gun in the beginning it has to be fired before the end. Research, research, research, Pinckney emphasized because if you go on what you assume to be true about a weapon and an expert in that weapon reads your work and finds your knowledge lacking, it will color his or her opinion of the whole work. And, Pinckney says, the weapon has to fit the person and the setting and the time period of your work–unless, of course, you write Steampunk. Then, you can be very inventive.
In a recent piece of historical fiction I wrote, I had a soldier from World War II use a bazooka against a German Tiger Tank. That involved researching not only the types of bazookas used in World War II (and selecting the appropriate one), it also meant researching the Tiger Tank’s vulnerabilities (few though they were), all for a brief mention of the bazooka’s range of effectiveness.
You do that, in the world according to Pinckney, to be authentic, and if you’re authentic, he said, people will read your work and want more.
Next installment: Workshopping genre fiction and additional craft seminars.
A new year brings a new round of writers conferences and workshops. The first for me is the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. I tried this one-day conference last year and was amazed by the depth of the too-short workshops, but I’m back for more this year.
Hollins University is also the site of the week-long writing workshop I attend, Tinker Mountain, but this one-day event is rather like an appetizer for that.
The keynote speaker is Virginia novelist Sheri Reynolds, and among the workshops are ones for non-fiction and fiction, YA, self-publishing, marketing, and getting an agent. Yes, some of these are topics you see at any writers conference, large or small, but sometimes it’s the different perspective on the issue which is most helpful.
I’m looking at attending Dan Casey’s “Telling Stories: The Greyhound Bus, the Swedish Gal, and the Flophouse in Seattle” first thing on Saturday morning. Casey’s workshop last year was hilarious and educational, so I’m looking forward to this presentation.
Next I think I’ll attend Sheri Reynolds’ workshop, “Dreamwork for Writers: Using Your Dreams to Deepen Your Story.” I love incorporating my odd dreams into my writing, so this workshop should be fascinating.
I’ll close out the morning with some non-fiction work in Bill Kovarik’s “Who Killed the American Newspaper and Where do we Go from Here?” Since I’ve done freelancing for my local paper, and I’m still enough of an old fogey that I start the day by reading two actual newspapers I can hold in my hands, I think this will be an interesting and topical discussion.
After lunch, and because I’ve never thought of doing a YA novel, I’m going to attend Tiffany Trent’s “Science Fiction and Fantasy in YA.” This is a growing genre, and, who knows? Maybe I’ll get inspired, even though I think with The Hunger Games and Divergent series, we may be reaching the apex of this trend.
I’ll end the day with “The Rebellious Essay,” a workshop hosted by Cara Ellen Modisett. I do some political blogging I consider a bit rebellious, so maybe this will move it to the next level.
A full day of workshops, networking, and connecting with writer friends–I’m looking forward to getting back into the writer conference groove.
Yes, this writers conference was two weeks ago, but when a cold puts you low, low you are. This small, regional conference was such a positive experience, I decided to rise from my sickbed and finally give it its due.
Okay, that was way dramatic–too much Downton Abbey. Being sick meant I watched all three seasons in two days, so I’m overly influenced.
The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference had been planned for the final weekend of January, but a snowpacalypse (which never arrived) forced a one-week postponement. So, we gathered the evening of February 1 for a writer meet-and-greet. You know, this is where you approach, or are approached by, complete strangers with the question, “What do you write?”
An aside here–I was almost the only attendee NOT writing YA paranormal romance. There may or may not be a lesson in that.
After the meet-and-greet and some great writerly conversations, we had the opening session for the Sixth Annual Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, the fifth sell-out in a row. Hollins University, whose writing program has earned it the nickname “Pulitzer U,” was the host, and probably the most encouraging words came from Hollins’ current Writer in Residence, Karen Osborn (author of Centerville), who spoke on “Working in a Changing Publishing Environment.”
Osborn said, “Getting published has always been difficult, but failure to publish is not a marker of your work’s value.” And after that garnered a loud round of applause, she added, “Publishers are most interested in selling books, but they seldom know what will actually sell.” She reminded us that traditional publishers are focused on the bottom line, but she didn’t discourage. “If your agent won’t send out your book, send it out yourself,” she advised and emphasized university and small presses. Osborn believes we have more options than ever before for publication, ones which allow us to take more control of our work, but, she said, “Believing in the work is the most important step.”
The evening’s keynote address came from Kathy Grissom, author of The Kitchen House, and her topic was “Becoming a Writer.” Grissom was a perfect candidate for this topic because, as she admitted, she never intended to become a writer. “Writing,” she said, “was something only extraordinary people could do.” She learned through inspiration that writers are “ordinary people who write extraordinary things.” Grissom outlined her writer’s journey, from poetry and journaling to being inspired by an unusual event in her life. The inspiration led to research, and a chance conversation with her father led her to a “story I knew I had to tell.” The result was The Kitchen House, a novel about a young Irish orphan who finds her real family among the slaves of a southern plantation. Now, Grissom says, “My job is writing.”
We were treated to a song written by Greg Trafidlo especially for the conference, and the chorus said it all, “You have to sit on your butt and write.” We also participated in the presentation of scholarships from Hollins to “non-traditional” students, women who have returned to school after a break for marriage or children. The Horizon scholarships are funded by the faculty for the conference, who forego being paid to endow the scholarships. Applicants have to write an essay on why they want to return to school, and the scholarships are billed as “recognition of writers by writers.” The recipients are students in Hollins’ writing program, and this was an uplifting way to end an evening of writerly discourse.
Next Post – Day Two–Down to the Nitty Gritty
I was so overwhelmed by the AWP Conference last year (just me and 9,999 other writers), I decided I needed a warm-up to get ready for AWP Boston in March. And at least it’s something close to home.
Hollins University, site of Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, hosts the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference this coming weekend: a meet and greet and some speechifying on Friday evening, then a jam-packed Saturday of workshops. And, oh, those workshops. They make you want to defy the laws of physics and be in two–in some cases four–places at the same time.
From book promotion to pitches to writing humor and/or cookbooks to marketing and memoirs to self-publishing to craft to blogging, there is something for everyone. It’ll be a long, but invigorating day.
I’m looking forward to attending workshops by writers I’ve not met as well as one by Jim Minick, who is a Tinker Mountain classmate and previous presenter at my local writing group, SWAG Writers. I look forward to all the pointers and advice I know will be forthcoming from all the presenters.
And just so February won’t feel left out, that same SWAG Writers is sponsoring a playwriting workshop on February 23. The location is yet to be determined, so stay tuned for the details. If you find yourself in the Shenandoah Valley that weekend, consider giving it a try. I’ve taken a “writing for movies” workshop before, but I’m eager to stretch my boundaries a little–or a lot.
March will be a two-fer: AWP then the Virginia Festival of the Book. In May I’m attending my first writing retreat, and I’ll write more about that later. June will be a return to Tinker Mountain, so right now I have April open. Suggestions, anyone?
I’ll report on each workshop after it happens, and I hope to see some of my writer friends at each.
I haven’t been this excited to sleep in a dorm room since the summer of 1970 when I left to attend Madison College in Harrisonburg, VA (aka James Madison University). And it’s funny how the prep list is similar: bring your own bed linens, towels, soap, shampoo, etc., and something to carry them to and from the bathroom; bring a desk lamp; and bring money for the laundry. It’s nice to see some things have immutability.
A few things are different: There’s free wi-fi in the dorms, and the course of study lasts just one week.
What I’m talking about is Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. From Monday through Friday next week, I’ll be in craft workshops and one, intense five-day workshop on stretching my fiction, taught by Pinckney Benedict, author of an amazing book entitled Miracle Boy and Other Stories. There are eight other writers in the class as students, and we’ll each critique the others’ work.
We had to submit 5,000 to 7,000 words of a current work, which both the instructor and the other students will review. The instructor’s comments are one-on-one, so the humiliation factor is low. There is an evening where the students sign-up to do a reading. I’m not so certain about that. It was a lot to push my comfort level by reading at SWAG Writers, but I managed to do that and look forward to it. However, I know most of the people in SWAG, and this will be baring your soul in front of strangers.
Yes, I can be a drama queen.
Still, I’m so looking forward to this adventure that my writer friends are likely sick and tired of hearing about it. I have attended small, one-day or half-day workshops and attended several writing conferences in the past two years, but this is my first intensive workshop where my writing is up on the sacrificial altar. Daunting, yes, but I know I’m coming out of it a better writer.
So, my notebook is ready; the bed linens and towels are ready; the desk lamp is ready; I’m ready. But I have to wait until Sunday. 😦
I’ll try to blog from there periodically, but I think my schedule will be full. And my readers will probably tire of hearing about it, too. Hey, I’m as excited as a college freshman. Indulge me!
When you see this week’s Friday Fictioneers’ inspiration photo, expect some creepy, “dark and stormy night” stories. It’s that kind of picture. I resisted the temptation, though, and opted for a little sci-fi. To read my story, click here. (If you don’t see the link on your computer, hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers tab above, and select “In Moonlight and Peace.”) To read other Friday Fictioneers’ stories, visit Madison Woods’ page and dig in. I know I’m looking forward to them all.
Enjoy my story, and, please, leave a comment. I love your comments. They heal an occasionally bruised writer’s ego. If you’re participating in Friday Fictioneers, leave the link to your story also, so I can read it. I definitely make the effort to read the stories of people who have read and commented on mine. Friday Fictioneers has become quite the writing community and with a global reach. In fact, go to Facebook and “Like” the Friday Fictioneers’ Facebook Page.
My story last week, Amontillado, has generated something completely unexpected: It has become the inspiration for a longer work, as yet untitled, about why that baby was inside the wall of an old house. I talked more about it in an earlier post this week, and I’m very excited about starting a new, novel-length work without NaNoWriMo being the impetus.
In other news, in about a month, I’m looking forward to the week-long Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. My workshop will be “Stretching Your Fiction,” and the instructor will be Pinckney Benedict, author of Miracle Boy and Other Stories. The description of this workshop was what led me to apply for it:
Writerly evolution most frequently takes place as a series of great evolutionary leaps: writers – often inspired by some profound challenge or undertaking – find themselves suddenly, swiftly, and significantly advanced in their art. This workshop, through challenging writing exercises, far-ranging discussion, and intense scrutiny of participants’ manuscripts, will endeavor to induce just such an evolutionary leap. Prepare to leave the class both exhausted and changed.
Scary, but I’m definitely looking forward to it. [Rubs hands together in anticipation]
Now, off to read some great Friday Fictioneers stories!