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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!

Retro Writing: Hello Pen & Paper

Technology is your friend. Except, of course, when it isn’t. Who among us hasn’t succumbed to the seductive whisper of Facebook or Twitter when we’re supposed to be writing? The Internet is an incalculably valuable resource in all sorts of ways, but it can also be a hugely wasteful time-suck.

Author Alex M. Pruteanu ran into a different problem when he was writing his early books. Now working on a new novel, Alex has sworn off technology and reverted to pen-and-paper while he cranks out the first draft. The benefits have been surprising.

Please welcome Alex to Write Despite.

PruteanuProfileWhy have you opted for a low-tech approach in writing your new novel?

My new book (which is being read currently by—my unscientific count here—12 publishers, with at least 30+ rejections already in the bag) is called The Sun Eaters, and it would be considered “literary fiction.” It’s not a big book at all—only about 60K words—but I wrote it around my day job and life in general (dad, husband, cook, mixologist, part-time jazz drummer, thief, liar, etc.), so it took nearly two years of fairly consistent work. It’s been making the rounds (read: rejected) with both literary agents and publishers (indie and “biggies”) since June of 2014.

The Sun Eaters is a simple story set just-post WW II in an Eastern European country. The story follows two brothers (14 and 9) as they struggle to survive shortages of food, the brutal winter, and a new politically repressive ideology (communism.) It’s a happy-go-lucky book, as you can tell. But it does have a happy ending. Well, sort of.

After having written and published a novella and a collection of published short stories using all available technology at those times, I thought I’d do the same with The Sun Eaters. By the time I started writing it in 2012, “the cloud” was available as a storage option, so I decided to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, between constantly saving my in-progress manuscript in the cloud, on various laptops, thumb drives, and on a regular ol’ desktop, all to ensure the security of not losing my work, the novel became an additionally huge pain (outside of the regular ol’ pain of just writing it.)

Many times I’d forget to save the newest version on some device or other, so I’d end up with outdated versions on some devices and up-to-date versions on others. Keeping track of things like that cut into my available brainpower, all of which I needed to write my book. When I finished in 2014, I swore I would never ever use a computer for my writing, even short stories or flash.

I am now in the process of writing my second novel, which is tentatively called The Long, Oil-Stained Life of Rosetti. For this go-round, I’ve opted to write it all out by hand, with a #2 pencil, on lined legal pads. Writing by hand slows me down enough to allow me to truly cogitate about the material I’m committing to the paper and not just dump ideas that will later be cut. Now I don’t have to save ongoing manuscript drafts every day onto a dozen different devices. And what I also like about the “old-school” method of writing is that there exists a natural extra editing step when transfer the work, typing it onto a laptop.

How is the process of writing a second novel different than writing a debut?

I think every novel has its own life, its own path, and its own destiny. I think each book dictates to a writer how it should be written. My approach to writing the second one is much different from the first. Besides the whole paper-pencil thing, I’m more loose about working on it and don’t beat myself up at all if I don’t write for sometimes long periods (days or weeks even).

Also for this second book I’m doing something I’ve never done before: I’m writing down notes when I’m not working on it. Because the scope of this one is much greater than the first, I’m finding that I need to jot down on sticky notes ideas as they occur to me throughout the day. I’ve got a folder full of stickies that I often consult before sitting down at a writing session.

I’ve also learned a ton from having written a first novel. The most important thing has been: how to be in the thick of it, as I’m writing it, and still keep a general, subjective eye on the scope of the book. It’s hard for me to convey that—I’m not a teacher or professor and never have wanted to be one—but it’s just something that I can feel. I can feel myself being buried in the minutia of the words and individual ideas, yet somehow able to act like a deity of sorts—a god, really—and keep focus on the scope of the overall novel, as it’s coming together… as I’m weaving it. Does any of this make sense? If it doesn’t just know it’s not you, it’s me. But also know that I know what I’m doing, so buy the damn thing when (if it ever?) comes out. Ha.

Finally, something else that I’m doing differently on the second one: I am reading literature concurrently. With The Sun Eaters, I basically stopped reading anything literary or any type of fiction whatsoever. I found that I didn’t have the time or energy to devote to anything other than my daily life duties and writing the book (usually during very early mornings.)

But now with Rosetti, I’m not just finding that I’m inspired by reading fiction concurrent with my writing, I’m finding that I need to indeed read “big books” with “big themes.” So I’ve been gorging on novels like Bolano’s 2666 and Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost and Melville’s Moby Dick and Dostoevsky’s Demons and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

There is something truly inspiring to me about books such as these. They are all huge projects with huge scope and huge reputations, and I find that comforting to my own work. These books offer different worlds for me to enter and spend time in, and when I come out of them, I’m ready to create my own, in my own novel. It’s quite inspiring to read this sort of work.

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

 I started writing around age 14 (horribly) and the first thing I ever had published was a very short prose piece called Center St. 2B. It was published in a literary journal (now defunct) out of California, Penn., called Peer-Amid. I was 26 years old. Since then, I’ve been lucky to have some pretty decent success. I’ve published short stories in literary journals such as [PANK], Guernica Magazine, The Stockholm Literary Review of Literature, The Prague Revue, and many others.

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

Yes: work. Work, work, work. Don’t get online and say you’re working (#amwriting is the most preposterous hashtag, imo; the epitome of cognitive dissonance for a writer on Twitter using it), or lament you’re not working. Don’t surf through Facebook photos or Twitter feeds because you’re “blocked.” Work. (I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” That’s the biggest load of garbage.)

And stay persistent and focused. Looking at my overall acceptance-to-rejection numbers throughout my career, I’d say about 7% of my stories have been accepted by magazines or journals. That is HUGE. I am lucky. I’d be happy with 2%. I believe 2% is the “standard” acceptance rate for a writer. I’ve been very lucky.

As of now, The Sun Eaters has received at least two dozen literary agents’ rejections and at least 30+ publishers’ rejections. I will never give up trying to find a home for it. Every time a rejection comes in, my mission the next day is to research and find at least two potential publishers to send the book to. Currently I’m looking at foreign houses that tend to publish in the English language. The research is exhausting, but I have no other choice.

Learn more about Alex on Amazon.

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?

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