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Takeaways from AWP 2017

—From Cathy

AWP17Thumbnail (1)The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference happened a little over a month ago (February 8-11 in Washington, DC), and in addition to all the books, journals, and souvenirs I dragged home, I also took a ton of notes during the sessions and readings, and finally dug them out. Here are some of the best quotes, overheard remarks, and tips, most of them without attribution. Some are true gems, so please enjoy these takeaways from some great conversations about writing and publishing.

Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir
(Panelists: Abigail Beckel, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Lex Williford, Tyrese Coleman, Tara Laskowski)

“Prioritize clarity over adherence to the form.”

“Flash eliminates all the boring parts.”flashfiction

Try writing flash stories and connecting them together for a novella or novel. This retains the strength of voice and character, and the overall tension of the book will join them and progress the story forward. (Voldemort is the big tension, little problems along the way are the smaller ones.) Tara Laskowski recommends The Desert Places as a great example of a hybrid text novel.

We All Have to Start Somewhere: How Bad Writing Gets Good
(Some raw language in this one. Oh, those bawdy writers.)
(Panelists: Melissa Stein, Richard Bausch, Tayari Jones, Natalie Diaz, Nick Flynn)

Fifty Shades of Gray reads like somebody shat it out.”

“Give yourself the freedom to suck.”

“You cannot fuck it up. You can’t ruin it. You can only make it necessary to do it again.”

“Your writing isn’t bad, it’s just off. Like a sweater buttoned the wrong way. Unbutton it. Rebutton it. It’s a perfectly fine sweater.”

Always read your work aloud.”

Recommended book: The Artist’s Way  by Julia Cameron

Distinguished Editors Panel, featuring Nan Graham, Daniel Halpern, Jonathan Galassi, and Erroll McDonald

“The author/editor relationship is like an arranged marriage.”

“Voice and territory, more than structure, are the criteria by which I judge a book. Structure can be fixed. But you can’t fix writing that’s not fresh, that’s been done before.”

You know a story is done when others you show it to disagree about what needs to be changed. If they’re all telling you a character isn’t strong enough or the pacing is slow, for example, believe them and fix the problems. But if they’re all telling you something different, it’s probably finished.

A Novelist’s Job: The Realities, Joys, and Challenges
(Panelists: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Julia Fierro, Celeste Ng)

Being busy, working, having a job, makes you more productive in your writing.

Do not think about writing a successful book. Just “be true to the work.”

Do social media in an authentic way. Use it as a place of community. If you feed into that world, it will work for you too. Help other writers (with reviews, promotion, comments, etc.) and they’ll help you.61399611

On creating more spaces/avenues for writing to exist: “We’re all fighting hard for a piece of pie, when actually there is no pie. Your job is not to get your piece, but to make more pie.” –Celeste Ng

Also try to post enough to stay connected with people, but don’t make it seem like a sales pitch. Tweet an overheard conversation. Do a daily task, like Ellis Avery who posts a haiku every day. Another writer posts dog pictures (often with a link to his book) every day.

Loose, Faithful, and Literal: Adaptation from Novel to Screen
(Panelists: Christine Vachon, Neal Gabler, Magdalene Brandeis, Melissa Bank)

Screenplays make you focus on the narrative—how to bring character and plot into what can be seen and shown.

images“In a movie, action is always character.”

One panelist says she tells her students not to call themselves “filmmakers” but “storytellers.” Because there are so many different forms (like streaming services) today to bring stories to life.

A movie is a “jolt,” whereas a TV show is a life. Characters grow incrementally, and that’s a “novelistic sense of life in real time.”

NO screenplay should be more than 110 pages!

By the time the Q&A rolled around, it was apparent everyone listening to this panel was there to ask the same question: How do you get your screenplay seen? Sadly, the answers were pretty vague.

“If you’ve written ‘trash’ like The Godfather, you may be lucky enough that someone will turn it into gold.” —Neal Gabler

Write a two-page summary of why this should be made into a film. Send it to a producer you think would be interested. A 20-something intern will likely read it, and will pass it along (or not) to the producer. Melissa Bank, author of Girls Guide to Hunting & Fishing, sent a story to Zoetrope. They put her in touch with Coppola.

Ask yourself who’s your dream director? Actress? Work on those connections. “I wrote this for you and here’s why.”

“Great works rise to the top. Books come to our attention through coverage, reviews, agencies, recommendations. It just happens.”

Um, yeah. But how do you get your screenplay seen?

“It’s difficult to get things read, and to work with and without an agent. The only sure way to do it is to make the film yourself.”

Kirkus Reviews was recommended as the primary route for movie companies to see synopses of stories that might intrigue them.

Foremothers: Southern Women Writers
(Panelists: Charlotte Holmes, Cary Holladay, Lisa Parker, Lisa Roney, Adrienne Su)

A panelist talked about her mother, whose family moved from the south when she was young. The kids in her school couldn’t understand her because of her southern accent, so she stopped talking—for a year. She read books out loud, practicing in her bedroom, until she lost her accent.

Read Katherine Stripling Beyer, a writer similar to Lee Smith.

One panelist recalled how Lee Smith studied at the Sorbonne and loved to let people there hear her talk. She could see them taking her IQ down about 20 or 30 points as she spoke. Then she would say something that would “take them out at the knees.”

Live outside the world of your past, but find your background. You have to get away from it to look back and find your voice.

Recommended books:

The Dollmaker, Harriette Arnow

Killers of the Dream and Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith

Trampoline, Robert Gipe, on duality of Appalachia

Panel: Conversation with Ann Patchett and Emma Straub

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Emma Straub, Ann Patchett

“Don’t think, what type of book should I write? Writing is most successful when it sounds the most like you. When the voice is right, it feels alive.” –Straub

“Fiction is a way we can play out an alternate universe. Like in It’s a Wonderful Life. If I’d taken a left instead of a right 20 years ago…” –Patchett

Book lovers want something smart and funny. Where’d  You Go, Bernadette?, Cold Comfort Farm, The Vacationers…things they feel proud for having read. Makes them feel great. –Patchett

Ann Patchett talked about her bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville. Her upcoming picks for best reads:

Lincoln at the Bardo, George Saunders

Chemistry, Weike Wang

Do Not Become Alarmed, Maile Meloy

Sing, Unburied, Sing —“a Beloved for this generation,” by Jesmyn Ward

The Leavers, “depressing but great,” by Lisa Ko

Patchett was asked about the new administration and one thing she’d advise writers and book lovers to do to resist and to make a difference:

“Open a bookstore. People don’t want to be alone. You can’t go to J Crew and come together. At a bookstore, everybody is welcome. And it feels wonderful to have community right now.”

 To the Finish Line: Completing and Promoting the Novel
(Panelists: Melissa X. Golebiowski , Cynthia Bond, J. Ryan Stradal , Katie Freeman, Carmiel Banasky)

“My goal is to get 50 rejections a year.”

Check out the Hot Dish reading series in LA. Maybe start something similar in your town?

The Ten-Year Novel:
On why some novels take so long to write, and what writers can do to sustain themselves. (Panelists: Tova Mirvis, Rachel Cantor, Rachel Kadish, Joanna Rakoff, Sari Wilson)

“It’s the persistence that makes you a writer.”

“My sense is that publishing has changed to the point that, a few years ago, an agent might say this book isn’t quite where I want it to be, but I’ll work with the author a year or so and get it there. No more. Books today need to be as finished and polished as possible before they’re ever sent out.”

cropped-gritlit-logo1Such Mean Stories: Women Writers Get Gritty:
Women writers of the south talk about “grit lit.” (Panelists: Luanne Smith, Jayne Anne Phillips, Vicki Hendricks, Stephanie Powell Watts, Jill McCorkle)
“If we think about the reader as we’re writing, we’re putting blinders on ourselves as writers.” –Jayne Anne Phillips

“There is true fear about the power of women.” –Watts

“In fiction, I love to have that alter ego character who rises up and defends herself.” –Jill McCorkle

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Jill McCorkle

“I’ve probably learned more from my characters than they’ve ever gotten from me.” –Jill McCorkle

On unlikeable characters:

By giving readers the history of unlikeable characters early on, they reveal a life, and it makes the characters human. So even if it doesn’t excuse their actions, it helps readers understand why they are the way they are.

Recommended story: “Lechery” by Jayne Anne Phillips

Recommended book: No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts, E-Weekly Most Anticipated Book.

Next year’s AWP Conference is in Tampa. Go if you possibly can. You won’t regret it!

A Launch to Remember

From Cathy:

Happy new year to all!

Hope you had a great holiday, did a lot of eating and sleeping and partying—and maybe even got a little writing done in between.

For me, December wasn’t just marked by the arrival of the Big Guy, but also the long-awaited release and launch of my novel A Hundred Weddings. Karen joined me at the launch—devoted friend that she is—and as I said when I took the stage (which is NOT something I ever look forward to doing), it felt like I was at my own wedding. Friends and family and so many people I loved were there at the uber-cool Epicure Cafe, plus a lot of new faces too. It was straight-up fun and cool, and a night I’ll always remember. Here are a few pictures.

Since then I’ve had the amazing experience of hearing from people who’ve read the book. I can’t explain how great it feels to get a call or text or email from someone who just finished it and had to tell me how much they enjoyed it. (Of course, they’re not going to call and tell me they hated it, but you get the point.)

By the way, if you have read A Hundred Weddings and you did enjoy it, would you please pop over to Amazon and leave a quick review for me?

hearthside-booksIf you happen to live in or near Bluefield, Virginia, my hometown, you can grab a copy from lovely Hearthside Books at 1603 Bland Street, which was kind enough to put a couple on the shelves for me. They’ve now announced they’re closing and are having a 25% off storewide sale, so you can snag it for even less. But hurry!

That’s it for now. Hope you all have a year filled with creation and brimming with ideas and fun.

Write well, everyone!

—Cathy

 

 

What’s coming up? Click HERE

From Cathy:

Hi all! Just a quick post with a few updates.

a-hundred-weddings-final-coverMy novel A Hundred Weddings will be released in paperback the day after tomorrow, on December 15. You can pre-order it here. (Kindle version is already available here.)

Goodreads is now sponsoring a giveaway of six free, signed copies. You can enter that here.

Launch party is this Friday, December 16, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Epicure Café in Fairfax, VA. Copies of the book will be available for purchase (free drink ticket if you buy one)! Incidentally, if you plan to attend and haven’t yet RSVP’d, please leave a message in the comments here, or email us at writedespite20@gmail.com.

weddings-release-twitter

I think that’s it for now. As always, thanks so much for your continued interest in and support of my work. Wishing you all a wonderful holiday. Write well, everyone!

—Cathy

Commercial? Upmarket? Literary?

Of course we all know the differences, right?

Maybe.

Way, deep down.

But in case you’re curious to see them explained succinctly, in colorful little infographics with real-world examples no less, take a glance at these little gems.

Originally posted by Women Fiction Writers, who credit agent Carly Watters for their creation. God love them.

commercial fiction

upmarket fiction copy

literary fiction copy

Writerly New Years Resolutions You Ought to Try

Bystanders_SM

As we gear up for a new year, Tara Laskowski, author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons (Matter Press 2012) and the forthcoming Bystanders (Santa Fe Writers Project 2016) is kindly sharing some suggestions that will benefit your craft, as well as your karma.

Happy Writing in the New Year. Make 2016 your most productive—and more importantly, most fulfilling—yet.

Please welcome Tara to Write Despite.

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Yep, it’s that time—to commit to something (or several somethings) that you’ll accomplish over the next year. To change the ways that you’re less proud of. To start over, reset, renew.

Only 8 percent of people are successful in achieving New Years resolutions. Perhaps this is because we dream too big and set ourselves up for failure? Whatever the case, I’m presenting to you some resolutions that I’ve tried in the past or would like to try this year. Some are bigger, and some are tiny—and achievable—I swear! I hope they spark some ideas for you and make your 2016 full of happy reading and successful writing.

Re-read a book you love. If you’re at all like me, you’ve got a stack of books somewhere that you want to get to, but can’t ever seem to. You can’t really imagine taking the time to go back and read something you’ve already read, even if you love it.

Well, give yourself permission to do it. For every two or three new books you read, re-read something you love. I have started re-reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis again, and it is giving me such pleasure to revisit these characters. Also on my list—Mrs. Dalloway, the Harry Potter series, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Secret History.

Subscribe to a literary journal. Lit magazines are struggling. They get more submitters than subscribers in many cases. Find one that you love, and buy an annual subscription. Then read it. If you find a story you really love, email the writer and let him or her know.

Swap favorite books with a writer friend. Ask your friend to name two books that changed her life (that you haven’t read yet.) Then give her two books that you adore that she hasn’t read. Read them. Discuss over drinks and sweets. Consider your life changed and enriched.

Write something outside your genre, just for fun. Normally write novels? Try flash fiction. Are you a poet, always a poet? Why not write a crime fiction story? Instead of science fiction, ground yourself in reality for a time. Pulling out of your comfort zone can get your brain thinking in different ways. A bonus: it also takes the pressure off and gives you the freedom to just explore for a while.

Several of the stories in my new collection exist only because of this experimentation. The story “The Monitor” was my attempt to write something with supernatural elements in it—a woman who starts to see a ghost in her baby monitor. The story ended up getting taken by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Another story, “Every Now and Then,” was the result of me messing around with writing modular stories—a form I’ve grown to love. If I hadn’t tried to break out of my writing comfort zone, these stories wouldn’t exist.

Review books on Amazon. This is a really easy and cheap way to show love to the writers you know and adore. There are many articles out there about why and how Amazon reviews are good for the writer. Take five minutes and write a thoughtful, honest review of a recent book you read and post it on Amazon—and Goodreads, too! I promise you that you will make that writer’s day.

Finish that one project that’s lurking behind you. Maybe it’s the novel you’ve been writing for seven years, or the story where the concept is great but you can’t get the ending right. Or the collection of short stories that needs three or four more to flesh it out. Whatever the writing project, make 2016 the year to tackle it. And then go for it. You can do it. I’m cheering you on!

"Tara Laskowski"

Tara Laskowski grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania and now navigates traffic in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. She is the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons (Matter Press 2012) and the forthcoming Bystanders (Santa Fe Writers Project 2016). Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Since 2010, she has been the editor of SmokeLong QuarterlyShe and her husband, writer Art Taylor, write the column Long Story Short at the Washington Independent Review of Books. Tara earned a BA in English with a minor in writing from Susquehanna University and an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University.

The Camera Doesn’t Lie

From Karen:

Okay, so these aren’t the most flattering photos, but they are pretty darn funny.

They were shot during my reading and signing at Tolland Public Library in Connecticut last week.  Many thanks to Kate Farrish for organizing.

It was a lovely event, lots of nice readers (phew) and a lively discussion. Those of you contemplating your first reading/signing events should know this: People are really nice at these things. No kidding. They’re there because they’re interested in writing and stories…and in your work! Many know how difficult the process is and admire your persistence and dedication.

The audience also seems to know when you’re bluffing and when you’re speaking from the heart. I received a few comments afterwards on how much audience members appreciated my warm and candid comments. THAT was nice to hear.

Questions I received touched on my writing process, how I got the idea for this book, what I’m working on now (a new novel) and how tough it is to break into publishing today. I answered as best I could, no whitewashing, just telling it like is. And that was the most fun of all.

I’ve added captions to these photos, illustrating a little—just a little—of what was running through my mind…

Will anyone show up?

Will anyone show up?

Hope the hands make me look like I know what I'm talking about.

Hope the hands make me look like I know what I’m talking about.

They're nodding and smiling. Maybe I should say that again.

They’re nodding and smiling. Maybe I should say that again.

You're going to give me money?

You’re going to give me money?

Author, Author!

From Cathy

Last week I had the pleasure of attending two literary events celebrating new books by people I’m proud to call friends. They are both exceptional writers, and I was honored to have been asked to review at least parts of both of their books while they were being written. I’m even mentioned in their acknowledgements, which is so very sweet. (Although when I pointed this out to my teenage son, his only comment was, “But you realize the goal is to get your name on the front of the book, Mom, not in the back.” Alas, as they say, always an editor, never an author.)

Jenny Jackson, editor at Knopf and Doubleday, and author Katherine Heiny

Jenny Jackson, editor at Knopf and Doubleday, and author Katherine Heiny

In any case, Sunday, February 8 was the launch of Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC.

Katherine read from the story that hurled her into the literary world, “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” which was published in the New Yorker when she was only 25. After the reading, her editor, Jenny Jackson from Knopf/Doubleday, interviewed Katherine, asking all the key questions about her journey to publication, her work habits, her inspirations and roadblocks. It was an exciting, enlightening evening, and I was so glad to be a part of it.

book group

Book group loves Bright Coin Moon! That’s Kirsten on the far right.

Monday night I met with my beloved book group of a dozen years to gush over author Kirsten Lopresti’s young adult novel, Bright Coin Moon. We all agreed we were more than impressed by this gem of a book–lost in it to the point that we forgot it was written by one who actually walks among us, who lives close enough and is accessible enough to join us for salads and tequila chicken fettuccine at California Pizza Kitchen, and sign our books and answer our questions.

So add to these two books Karen Guzman’s lovely Homing Instincts, and you could say people are getting published all around me.

Am I happy for them?

Thrilled beyond words.

Am I jealous?

Yeah. A bit at least.

Am I feeling like I should throw in the towel because I haven’t accomplished this yet?

Quite the opposite.

Seeing that this can–and does–happen to wonderful, talented, deserving people is nothing short of…well, I would say, miraculous. But it’s more like a push from behind–or a grasp of the hand and a yank forward.

I’m not saying I’m as good a writer as them. I’m saying if I work hard I can be deserving of publication. I’m saying I shouldn’t expect it to not happen, but to just be bold enough to believe it might.

Scratch that.

Believe it will.

I’m trying. I hope one day to get there. I hope that for all of us.

Write well, everyone, and know that the promise of your words finding their way into the world is more than conceivable. If you’re putting in the work–every day–I have to believe it’s even pretty damned possible.

Guest Blog: Writing Tips from Author Kirsten Lopresti

Transparent_Christmas_Mistletoe_ClipartKirsten Lopresti, having just released her fab-tastic debut novel, Bright Coin Moon, offers up some tips for fitting writing into your holiday craziness. Please check out her website, and order a copy of Bright Coin Moon for yourself or any YA readers on your gift list. It’s a smart, funny, moving tale of a teenager caught up in her mother’s fake fortunetelling business, and her plan to become a Hollywood “Psychic to the Stars.”

Happy holidays, everyone!

How to Find Time to Write This Holiday Season

Kirsten Lopresti

Kirsten Lopresti

The holiday season is upon us, and if you are like me, your to-do list is sky high. So how do you find time to write? Here are five suggestions that might help you squeeze in a little more time.

  1. Make a plan. If you leave it up to chance that you will find some time to write each day, you probably won’t. Take a close look at your schedule. Can you write after dinner? During your lunch break? At your daughter’s dance class while you are waiting for her to come out? How do mornings work for you? Evenings? How do you realistically function with less sleep? Decide how much time you can give to your writing and exactly when you will do it. Try to stick to the same time each day if you can. If you make it a habit, it will become easier to sit down and begin.
  2. Give yourself permission to cut some corners with your holiday preparations. Shop online. Buy some cookies from the grocery store and attempt to pass them off as homemade. Splurge for a house cleaner if you have company coming. Do whatever it takes. You deserve some time to enjoy the season, too.
  3. Cut corners with your writing, too. It’s not an all or nothing thing. If you usually have an hour to devote to writing, during the holiday season you may only have half an hour. Accept this and go on.
  4. writing_letter_1207Don’t compete with others. This goes for your writing as well as for your holiday preparations. If your neighbor’s Elf on the Shelf gives surprise presents and bakes cookies and yours can’t manage to hang upside down from a new place each morning, try not to think too much about it. There are no set rules for holiday preparations. Make a priority list and write at the top, “Priority number 1: keeping my sanity.” All other priorities from two on down should bow to that one.
  5. If you’ve made a plan and a priority list and you still can’t find time to write right now, don’t beat yourself up. If you’ve seen the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you may remember the scene where Walter meets the photographer. He’s sitting on the hill, waiting for his opportunity to film the snow leopard, but when it finally appears, he doesn’t take the shot. When Walter asks him why, he replies, “Sometimes I don’t.” He then goes on to explain that he’d rather be in the moment sometimes, even if it means missing a really great picture. So if you need a few weeks off, take it. It could be that enjoying the holiday season is exactly what you need to be doing right now.

Networks and Breakthroughs

Nancy Young, author of Seeing Things, has published a variety of work in a range of genres. She was kind nice enough to share her publishing secrets with us. Please welcome Nancy to Write Despite!Seeing Things 200x300

Learn more about Nancy’s work

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Please tell us about your “breakthrough” publication—that first publication that felt really significant to you. (of course, goodness knows, they’re all significant!)

I’ve published in many genres over the years, but I think that having my novel Seeing Things accepted for publication made me feel that I’d arrived as a writer. I wrote the kind of book I want to read and can rarely find—one that has rounded characters, suspense, romance, humor, and a plot that I haven’t read before. The book goes beyond plot to explore the idea that we choose what we see—not just in the paranormal realm, but in all the realms of our lives. I spent a year crafting and polishing Seeing Things, tweaking chapter after chapter, incorporating suggestions from a dream team of writers. By the time I was ready to send that baby out into the world, it felt like I was sending a kid off to college.

How long had you been writing before you published a piece?

My first piece published in print was a short story that appeared in a junior high literary magazine! I think I was twelve.

What was you reaction upon learning your piece was accepted? Disbelief? Joy?

When I learned that Seeing Things had been accepted, I jumped up and down screaming, then ran around the house, totally alarming the family.  Our cat didn’t recover for days.

How do you go about trying to place your work? How do you choose markets?

That depends on what I’m writing. If I have a new poem or short story, I send it to an editor whose taste runs to what I’ve written. For instance, one editor might like political satire, while another publishes nature poetry. If I have a newspaper article about an author, I send it to local papers and to publishers for posting on their sites. If I have a play, I submit it to whatever group I’m aligned with at the moment. For this novel, I surveyed the requirements of various publishers, read articles on publishing, found publishers and imprints that matched the novel I’d written, and submitted the manuscript to two or three houses before the last one accepted it. I don’t think I consciously chose a market, but I now realize how vital knowing your market is.

Any advice for writers still working for their “breakthroughs?”

First, network. You can meet other writers and editors at various readings. Sometimes editors will hear a piece at an open mic and request it. Small presses are easier to break into that large ones. If you write romance, joining a chapter of the Romance Writers of America can prove very helpful.  Finally, pick an editor who deals with books like yours and learn to write the query letter, since an unsolicited manuscript generally winds up in a publisher’s slush pile.

 

A Goodreads page and everything? Oh my!

Well, my novel is up on Goodreads. You can order it, review it, “add” it, so this must really being happening, after all.

And as if that weren’t enough, I also have a couple of readings and book signings scheduled at Connecticut bookshops in mid-November:

Breakwater Books — November 15
81 Whitfield Street
Guilford, CT
2 pm reading/signing

Bank Square Books — November 22
53 West Main Street
Mystic, CT
1 pm reading/signing

Local folks, please come out! Non-local folks, please find me online. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support, and all the kind wishes I’ve received.

Hope to see or hear from you soon!

— Karen

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