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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!

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Writing Conference Takeaways

conferenceFrom Cathy

I recently attended a great writing conference in Washington, DC and swore I’d go straight home and compile all the information for Write Despite and post it ASAP.

That was in April.

But hey, I’ve finally done it.

At the Conversations and Connections: Practical Advice on Writing conference, I took pages of notes, and I highly recommend you do this too if you attend a conference yourself. I can’t believe what great little gems were included in my notebook and in the handouts from the sessions, all of which I would have forgotten about if I hadn’t re-read them, and then re-keyed them for all of you. So thank you. And you’re welcome.

From the panel Cross Genre: Tricks Fiction Can Steal from Nonfiction (And Vice-Versa)

This was a panel discussion with writers Roy Kesey, Tom Bligh, Kathleen Wheaton, and Eric Boyd. I took down some cool, inspiring quotes. Sorry I didn’t also take down who said them.

  • “Use truth in your story, and something will happen.”
  • “Pretend you’re in a bar, and write like you’re talking to the person next to you.”
  • “Believe that you’re writing the news of the world. Whatever you’re writing is universally shared. Believe it, and your writing will be richer.”Just Believe
  • “You can’t spell authority without ‘author.’ The reader must believe what’s happening. Do your best; let life do the rest.”

From Publishing: The Editor’s Panel

Editors included Rae Bryant, TJ Eckleberg Review, Sarah Boyle, The Fourth River and Pank, Mark Drew, Gettsyburg Review, Nate Brown, American Short Fiction, and J.W. Wang, Juked and Potomac Review

The panel was asked to tell us a bit about the nuts and bolts of submissions.

Brown: American Short Fiction gets about 8,500 submissions a year, 250 a month. Three editors decide on the stories, and all must agree on what they choose to publish.

Boyle: Pank reads July 1 to September 1 and in December. If a story gets two likes from our student editors, it goes to the genre editors, and they decide.

Drew: At Gettysburg Review, two editors make all the decisions, but interns pass them along first.

Wang: Initial readers look at stories, but I choose all of them, and therefore the editorial focus is very tight and distinctive.

What exactly are you looking for?

Drew: Openings are important, but the writing must be sustained. Language is the most important thing. It can’t be clichéd, and no grammatical errors. Interesting characters and compelling motivation are also big factors.

Brown: The sentence matters most. String enough good ones together, and the story will be published. I can’t care more about the piece than the writer does.

Wang: Voice. Must be confident and assured, so I can trust it to take me somewhere.

All agreed they want authority of narrative.

What if things in a story put you off, say an unlikable character or upsetting event?

WarningDrew: If it’s authoritative, I’ll stay with it. But it must be earned. Things like animals being killed in stories has been way overused.

Wang: Like it or not, every story is political.

Brown: The higher the moral stake, the better the writer must be.

Boyle: I won’t publish certain stories, such as those that contain violence against women, animals, or children. But it’s selectivity, not censorship.

From Scene-by-Scene: Writing the Irresistible Story

Panel discussion with writers Laura Ellen Scott, Jen Michalski, Lauren Foss Goodman, and Catherine Belle

The most important person to have in a scene is the reader. Bring them there. You want them to experience it, not just read about it, by:

  • Using their physical senses
  • Giving them a position, a point of view
  • Giving them some attitude
  • Not telling them everything; leaving something out, and leaving it up to them, so they have to make an investment

Quick notes on scene building:

Consider the large structure and the relationship of the scenes within it. Use the “Scene plus Sequel” pattern, which is:

  • Each scene includes a goal, conflict, and disaster.
  • Each sequel includes reaction, dilemma, and decision.

The job of a scene is to:

  • Advance the story
  • Show conflict
  • Introduce or develop a character
  • Create suspense
  • Create atmosphere
  • Provide information
  • Develop theme

Remember that:

A scene should start with action. Use it to differentiate your characters. They should each move and speak differently.

If you’ve set a scene somewhere unusual, really describe what it’s like. But if you’re at McDonald’s, leave out lots of description, because it’s unnecessary.

A character wants something to happen. Your job is to never allow this to happen until the end. The story is the struggle to get there.

Go paragraph by paragraph through your work and ask, What work is this paragraph doing for the story? If nothing, toss it. If something, refine it or maybe move it, based on the task it’s completing.

Tips for organization:index cards

  • Write and write a shitty first draft, then go back and craft it into something. Get organized by using index cards. Not only do they force you to be succinct, but you can color code them by theme, time, and character. Use them for a “reverse outline” (where you start from something instead of nothing). Then turn them around and shuffle them up to mix up the plot.
  • Use a word processing program like Scrivener. This solves organization problems. It gives you a binder, chapters, bulletin board of notecards, pictures that inspire your work, an archive for your research, tutorials, a note taking tool, etc., all for $40. Or you can try WriteWay Pro, WriteItNow, or yWriter5 (which is free!).
  • Try flow charts: Draw the structure to re-see your work off the screen and think about it differently. Use Google drawings, or mind mapping apps like Scapple and Scrivener.
  • Use a spreadsheet to create a scene list, or a “God’s eye view” of a story. Color code it.
  • Get project management apps like Workflowy and Trello.
  • Or use content curation apps like Pinterest, Scoop It!, Flipboard, etc., and social bookmarking apps.
  • Google Apps Suite is cloud-based and free, and lets you work from anywhere.
  • Try the snowflake method for designing a novel.
  • Stuck? Bored? Come up with new ways of seeing your story: Print it. Draw it out. Change the font. Read it out loud. Record it. Carry it around and touch it. And don’t forget to share it when you’re ready.

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