T-Minus Three Days and Counting

At some time on Thursday, I’ll learn whether I’ve been accepted at the Sewanee Writers Conference. The conference itself takes place between July 22 – August 2 at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Though the concept is similar to that for Tinker Mountain, for this one I had to submit a writing sample and my publication history to be considered. Meaning that I’m not a shoo-in.

When I filled out the application in early April, I had to pull together what works of mine had been published and what contests I’d won or placed in, and I was pleasantly pleased with the cumulative results of four and a half years of focusing on my writing. But is that and the writing sample enough?

Also at Sewanee are agents and publishers, and you can sign up for opportunities to meet with them and pitch your work. From my writer friends who’ve attended, I’ve learned that you can develop quite a network of fellow writers. I suspect that has something to do with the daily “social hours,” which are part of the schedule. ūüėČ

I’ve also been told that it’s very rare for an applicant to be accepted the first time he or she applies. I’ve been telling myself that like a mantra for the last week. This conference/workshop is the next step in sharpening my skills, and I’m ready to take that step. I hope whoever is assessing the applications sees that as well.

In the meantime, I try not to think about it, but I do, almost constantly. If I don’t get in this time, I’m by no means a failure. (Yeah, I keep telling myself that, too.) I’ll just work harder and apply again next year.

First Writers Conference of 2014 – Part Two

To read Part One of this post, click here.

I’m a person who still reads two print newspapers a day (and a lot more online), so Radford professor Bill Kovarik‘s workshop, “Who Killed the American Newspaper and Where Do We Go From Here?” was something I really wanted to hear. However, Kovarik decided the first half of that title had been done already (He blames corporate media for their own demise, by the way.) and focused instead on the second half. His solution to the fact that corporate media no long meet our needs is a media co-op, or community media, citizen journalists who report on the communities where they live. The press, Kovarik said, has always been “cloistered, told not to join local groups, to keep aloof from the community to further their impartiality.” He believes that more involvement would lead to more honest reporting and not necessarily by trained journalists. He envisions shared equipment and broadcast time, but I’m a bit skeptical. Media co-ops sound great if your only interest is your local community, but I’m a world citizen.

Tiffany Trent, former Virginia Tech creative writing teacher, has found her niche in writing young adult fantasy and sci-fi novels, and her workshop, “SciFi and Fantasy in YA,” offered a great exposition on world-building. YA scifi and fantasy is “where it’s at,” she said. “It’s where the most exciting things in writing are happening right now.” However, to stand out you have to build a credible world, whether right here on earth or elsewhere, which the discerning readership of this genre can grasp. “You can take the usual or universal and give it a slight twist,” she said, “like changing gender stereotypes. For example, make the men the faceless, nameless ones. Or you can create something completely alien.” She encouraged YA writers to watch the love triangles–“that’s become a YA trope, and I’m concerned that it’s been overdone.” There are primal emotions/events–birth, death, fear of the dead–which can be used in fresh and interesting ways, as long as you “ground it in the real.” When describing a world you’ve built, your language has to be specific not general. Using your own experiences with the unusual or the odd in everyday life is a good starting point for creating a new world.

I’m not much of a YA fan, but Trent’s points on world-building were thoughtful and applicable to just about any genre. This was a fresh and engaging workshop with lots of helpful Q&A. I’m certainly going to try one of her books.

My final workshop for the day was “The Rebellious Essay,” presented by Cara Ellen Modisett. This was quite the crash course on the various types of essays–experiential, observation, or recall versus reflective. All essays, Modisett said, “are an attempt at making sense of a subject. The act of writing is an act of thought.” Inexperienced essayists tend to be linear, she said, “they start at A and progress to Z. However, the way people think and perceive may be A to E to L, or M to Z to C. Your essays should reflect that.” And be more interesting, I’m sure. An essay also has to be about more than one thing. “Two subjects equals two-dimensional, three subjects three-dimensional, and so on,” she said. Further, an essay can’t simply be based on our recollections because we often write about what others have also experienced. However, if we’re reflecting on the memory of an event and how that event led to varied other parts of our lives, then we have something new and interesting.

For fiction writers who delve into essays, Modisett emphasized, “Don’t make stuff up! Save that for your fiction.” To structure a good essay, she said, “Use verbs of muscle and adjectives of exactitude.”

For our writing exercise, she used something called the “braided essay,” which is taking multiple, seemingly diverse subjects and weaving them into a connected essay. For part one, we had to write about an object we had with us but couldn’t name it, i.e., we had to use some of those “adjectives of exactitude.” In part two, we were to write about the emotion we felt when we received that object, and for part three we had to take that same emotion and relate another time when we felt it for a different object. The result was pretty amazing, and I can see how these techniques can also aid my fiction.

A one-day writers conference may not seem like much compared to, say, AWP, but I learned new things, caught up with writer friends, made new writer friends, and found out about a group of Doctor Who fans who get together and dissect episodes. They are now doing a retrospective of the earlier, pre-Christopher Eccelston Doctors, and that made me wish Roanoke was just a little closer.

First Writers Conference of 2014 – Part One

I was really looking forward to the short trip down I-81 to the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference last Friday–mostly because it was six degrees warmer than at my house. Why, it reached a balmy 32 degrees compared to the “low 20’s; feels like teens” at home.

I’m coming to know the Hollins University campus better than my alma mater’s, since this was my fourth trip there in two years, and once again RRWC didn’t disappoint. After a Friday evening networking session, we started the conference with short speeches from several of the instructors.

First was Rod Belcher, whose genre mash-up Sci-fi/Western is intriguing. Entitled “Perseverence,” it was truly inspiring. His description of getting the notification his book had been accepted for publication by Tor (a huge sci-fi publishing house) gave us all some hope. Early on, like me, he received a rejection for a sci-fi story which amounted to “why do you bother writing that crap.” Like me, it put him off writing for some time. His mother broke the impasse by buying him a typewriter. In that way he happened upon his writing process: “put your butt in a chair until you pull it out of thin air.”

Carrie Brown, visiting professor of creative writing at Hollins, spoke on problem-solving. All of writing, she said, “is problem-solving.” The writer as problem-solver comes from the fact “a writer is someone who undertakes a task without knowing what to do.” I found that a very interesting take on the writing life.

The keynote speaker was Sheri Reynolds, and the title of her talk was “Giggling Past the Funeral Home: A Look at What Makes us Laugh.” I’d heard Reynolds speak on a panel about “road trip novels” at last year’s Virginia Festival of the Book. She read from her latest book,¬†The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb, which had us all falling from our chairs. The book tells the story of Myrtle, a teacher fed up with her husband’s teasing about an asymmetrical aspect of her female anatomy. As she’s headed to an appointment to have surgery to fix it, she panics and keeps driving. Somewhere along the way, she finds a black man in the back of her vehicle, which prompts her to drive further, knowing her husband and family would disapprove. Although her other works are described as serious literature, Reynolds indicated she infuses all of her work with some aspect of humor. She also mentioned that this particular book underwent several rewrites and changes of POV, until she finally settled on first person–and that worked.

Saturday was the main day for the conference, and my first session was “Telling Stories: The Greyhound Bus, the Swedish Gal, and the Flophouse in Seattle.” If that title wouldn’t attract you to Dan Casey’s workshop, I don’t know what will. Casey is a local journalist in the Roanoke area who also does a regular column wherein he tells a story of local life. I’d gone to his workshop the year before at RRWC and knew this would be great. It was, though it also was a different kind of workshop: In between telling the story encompassed in the title, he dropped little bon mots about being a storyteller. After the workshop, a woman started chatting with me and said, “Well, that was a waste.”

“How?” I asked.

“All he did was tell his own story. I wanted to learn about how to tell my stories.”

I said, “Well, I took a page and a half of notes.”

“On what?”

“Well, let’s see. Find inspiration in everyday things. Take ordinary events and turn them into hair-raising adventures. Tell a story over and over until you fix the details in mind, and lots more.”

“Oh.” She moved on.

Next, I went to Sheri Reynolds’ workshop, “Dreamwork for Writers: Using your Dreams to Deepen Your Stories.” Reynolds pointed out how some part of her own dreams ended up in every one of her novels. “Just think of your dreams,” she said, “as a new story every night.” She encouraged the use of dream journals and explained that you don’t necessarily use a dream literally. “Take a disturbing or haunting image and explore it in your fiction,” she said. “Use your dreams as dreams for characters to show the characters’ conflict or the things they–and you–can’t face in real life. Use dreams as scenes–or reflect on a dream you’ve never had but wanted to and use that!”

The first writing exercise was to jot down a recurring dream of our own. Then, after a few minutes of that, Reynolds had us identify what in our dream hit the five senses. To conclude the writing exercise, she had us pick a person from the dream, not us, i.e., “I am the other,” and rewrite the dream from the other’s POV. This was probably one of the more useful exercises I’ve experienced.

Reynolds closed by talking about how to write down your dreams–don’t edit as you do so, don’t let your analytical mind step in, and focus on the images which resonate and recur.

To be continued in Part Two.

The Year of Writers Conferences Redux

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.


In Praise of the One-Day Writers Conference

I’m sure when you think of writers conferences the image you have is a multi-day affair like AWP, Writers Digest, or ThrillerFest. They are great places to go and learn and network, but take AWP, for instance. At AWP Boston this past March, you were one among 12,000. How on earth do you network successfully there? Even the time between panels is compressed, when you have to move that many people in a large convention center.¬†I’m not dissing big conferences or suggesting they’re a waste of time. They aren’t, but they can be overwhelming.

One-day conferences are more intimate, and the opportunities for networking, not just with fellow participants but with faculty as well, are better. The mini-workshops are intensive but because you don’t have to rush across a convention center the size of a city block for your next panel, you can actually stay behind and talk to the instructor or have plenty of time to network.

Press53, an independent press in Winston-Salem, NC, sponsored the second annual “A Gathering of Writers” this past Saturday in Winston-Salem (or “Winston” as the locals call it). The faculty consisted of Press53 authors and/or teachers of writing from universities up and down the east of the country. Press53 limits the number of attendees to 53 on a first-come, first-served basis. As much as I enjoyed A Gathering of Writers last year, somehow Press53 managed to improve upon it. Last year and this year, I came away with more writer-friend connections, and kernels of information on how to enhance my writing. And the cost (under $200) is reasonable. It’s not a case of getting what you pay for but, rather, getting a lot for a little.

A Gathering of Writers offered six workshops then repeated them in the afternoon, and the most you could work into the day was four. It was difficult to choose because all six sounded great. Here are the offerings with the ones I attended in red:

How to Haunt Your Readers, given by Mary Akers
The First Five Pages, given by Marjorie Hudson
The Compelling Story, given by Michael Kardos
Sandbox Game: Writing as Discovery, given by Steve Mitchell
Inhabiting Story Through Images of Place, given by Darlin’ Neal
Picking Your Perspective, given by Henriette Lazaridis Power

After the workshops ended, the faculty each read from their current, published works or works in progress. Throughout A Gathering of Writers, two West Virginia writers, Natalie Sypolt and Renee Nicholson, did live interviews and live-Tweeted for their great podcast, summerbooks. They even interviewed me, and it was one of the most fun interviews I’ve done–sitting around chatting about writing and reading with two other writers and voracious readers.

Later this week, I’ll post about the workshops I attended and why they were so successful–even given my momentary and embarrassing case of writers block.

Navigating Your Writing Life – 2013

I wasn’t supposed to be home this past weekend. I was supposed to be at my great niece’s first birthday party in Preston, CT. My cold had other ideas, so cancelled airline reservations, rental car, and hotel later, I sat at home with a box of tissues at hand. By Saturday, I woke feeling at about sixty percent of normal and thought a trip “over the mountain” to Charlottesville might be in order.

Last year I wrote about the Virginia Writers Club‘s Navigating Your 2012 Writing Life, and when I saw that my weekend in Connecticut coincided with this year’s symposium, I was dismayed. The one-day symposium provided some excellent information, and this year’s promised to build on that. However, the choice was easy–cute, adorable one-year-old wins out over a writers conference every time.

After a day or so of bemoaning the inconvenience of a cold’s preventing me from attending a significant family event, I learned someone sicker than I had cancelled for the 2013 conference, so I had an opening. Off I went.

In three time slots, the symposium offered nine workshops, and choosing was particularly difficult: (The ones in red are the ones I attended.)

Publishing Modes
Websites, Blogs, and Social Media
Poetry and Its Markets

Nuts and Bolts of E-Booking
Placing Nonfiction in Newspapers, Magazines, and on Radio
Join the Cool Crowd: Write Young Adult Fiction

Self-Review and Preparing Submissions
Publishing Scams to Avoid
Contests and Submissions: Getting Your Work Out There

Kathleen Grissom, author of¬†The Kitchen House, was the keynote speaker. I’ve heard her speak about how she came to write her New York Times best-seller on several other occasions, but I learn something new about the writing process every time.

In our social media era, an Internet presence is essential for an emerging author, and “Websites, Blogs, and Social Media” provided practical tips for improving your Internet footprint–or establishing it. The format for workshops this year was excellent–the moderator asked the panel a few (a very few) pre-arranged (but good) questions, which the panel discussed, then the workshop opened to questions from the floor. I’ve long had a web presence, but I learned some things to improve it and make it reflect my writing better. For example, the name I use for writing appears nowhere on my home page. Duh. Had to fix that.

The same was true of “Nuts and Bolts of E-Booking.” I’ve published three e-books, but this was a good review of the various ways to publish your work independently. However, I would have liked to have heard the panelists emphasize pre-publication preparation (editing, proofreading, good grammar, etc.) more than they did. The panel was a good mix of an established, traditionally published author who switched to independent publishing, an author who tried the agent route and didn’t get one then went indie, and an author who went directly for independent publishing.

Since I’ve entered several contests this year, I wanted to see what I could learn in terms of improving my chances of winning or placing from “Contests and Submissions.” Again, a well-staffed panel of contest managers, judges, and winners provided timely and cogent information. However, my afternoon coughing jag started up and escalated to the point where I had to leave.

That meant I missed the networking session that afternoon. Networking with other writers, editors, and publishers is often the best part of a conference, and I was sorry to miss it. However, I’d spread enough germs.

Last year’s symposium was good. This year’s was excellent–very professional and well-organized. One great change from last year is that each participant got a symposium notebook, filled with presentations, handouts, and additional information for each panel–so I can benefit from the ones I was unable to attend. Betsy Ashton, author of Mad Max: Unintended Consequences¬†and¬†President of the Virginia Writers Club, told me, “We want this symposium to be the premier event for Virginia Writers Club–and for Virginia writers.” It’s well on its way to being just that.

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.