Writing is an activity that, if one harbors aspirations of publishing, is fraught with rejection and disappointment. To be a writer is to cultivate and maintain a tough skin. Behind every poem, essay, or article I’ve had published, stand several dozen orphaned pieces of writing still searching for their publishing home. So why do we keep trying? We keep writing, of course, because we love it or we are compelled to do it or both. But how do we maintain our enthusiasm about publishing anything, with the competition so stiff and the chances so low? The answer is simple: faith.
Behind every poem, essay, or article I’ve had published, stand several dozen orphaned pieces of writing still searching for their publishing home.
Recently, I had three different faith-full experiences that I can draw on during my moments of self-doubt.
The first occurred at a friend’s house over the summer. One of my friends mentioned in passing that I was writing a novel, and her mother, who was visiting from out-of-state, looked at me wide-eyed. “You’re writing a novel?” she said in awe.
Before I could answer, my other friend chimed in. “It’s gonna be so good,” he said, nodding and smiling where he sat on the couch.
That was all I needed–a vote of confidence from friends, even just in passing. Just writing about the memory, the experience of which lasted maybe fifteen seconds, produces a lasting sense of optimism.
“It’s all self-belief. That’s all it is. That’s all it takes.”
Several weeks before the incident at my friend’s house, I shared the first few chapters of my novel with my grandparents, both avid readers. When they called me with their critique, full of constructive criticism, my grandpa said he thought the book could inspire a cult following. Of course, grandparents should always have encouraging words for their grandchildren, but his praise was so specific, and his criticisms so insightful, that I believed in his belief in me–and my writing.
Finally, several instances that have occurred over the last year in my writing class at VisArts have also buoyed my spirits and summoned my muse.
One evening, as the instructor provided feedback on my week’s submission, I noticed he was using phrases like “When you get an agent”–“when,” not “if.” I tend to quantify my aspirations about publishing with “if,” implying I know it might never happen. But to hear someone else–someone who teaches creative writing at the university level–talk about “when” my novel gets published, was extremely reaffirming.
If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you?
Another week, my instructor said, “If I’m an agent, this is the chapter that makes me want your book.” In an even more recent class, our instructor gave the entire class this advice about finishing the first draft of our novels: “It’s all self-belief. That’s all it is. That’s all it takes.” He’s right. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you? Still, it helps when others believe in you, too. Their belief buoys yours, whenever you start to have your doubts.
About two weeks ago, my writing instructor told me I could finish the first draft of my novel before the end of our class next month if I committed to writing 500 words a day from here on out. I told him I could do that, and I told myself the same story.
About two weeks ago, my writing instructor told me I could finish the first draft of my novel before the end of our class next month if I committed to writing 500 words a day from here on out. I told him I could do that, and I told myself the same story. September 27 was Day One of that promise to myself. I wrote 940 words that night. I haven’t missed a day yet, and today will mark Day Twelve.
Because of my attendance at the James River Writers Annual Conference, I have had the opportunity to pitch my novel on two different occasions, to two different agents. I was woefully under-prepared (or perhaps completely unprepared is more accurate) the first time, but this second time I came equipped with a few workshops and practice queries and pitches under my belt, and my pitch went much better. Instead of feeling incurably anxious, I felt hopeful and excited. And those feelings continued when, at the close of my seven minutes with an agent who I had a lot of fun taking with, she asked me to go ahead and send her the first 20 pages of my manuscript. I don’t know where things will go from here, but that was a small step in the right direction, and it would not have been possible without the Annual Conference.
In addition to taking advantage of the chance to talk with an agent one-on-one, I have heard valuable advice from a variety of agents, which can help me improve the marketability of my novel, my writing in general, and my query letter and pitch.
When you attend conferences and participate in workshops, you meet fellow writers, editors, and bibliophiles who can help guide you on your writing journey. What we can learn from each other is amazing. I feel so fortunate to have met people like Kris Spisak, Valley Haggard, Judy Witt, and Mary-Chris Escobar, who have helped me with writing activities as diverse as author interviews, workshop experiences, advising the high school literary magazine and creative writing club, and participating in a critique group that has been immeasurably helpful.
In 2014, I attended my first Master Class as part of the James River Writers Annual Conference. I do not recall the name of the two or three classes I attended, but one of them focused on helping writers compose synopses of their novels or memoirs, in preparation for writing query letters or pitching. I am a naturally verbose person, so the task of squeezing something as large as a novel into something as succinct as a synopsis was (is) daunting–made even more daunting by the fact that at the time, I didn’t even have a novel or memoir in the works. The closest thing I had to a novel in the works was a piece I had started (and stopped) writing in a Composition notebook four years prior, in 2010.
After some instruction and examples, the instructor gave us some time to quietly craft our synopses. Because I didn’t have anything about which to write a synopsis, I harkened back to the book I had begun writing four years before, even though I hadn’t added a single word to it in all that time, and truth be told, didn’t even know where the Composition book was.
Because I didn’t have anything about which to write a synopsis, I harkened back to the book I had begun writing four years before, even though I hadn’t added a single word to it in all that time, and truth be told, didn’t even know where the Composition book was.
When most of us were finished–or as finished as we were going to be–the instructor asked for volunteers to read what they had written, opening themselves up for feedback from both her and our fellow writers in the class. I did not volunteer at first, desiring to hear a few examples and learn whether or not I had been on the right track. After listening to maybe three or four volunteers, I raised my hand, and read my synopsis. The response I got was so overwhelmingly positive, that I felt inspired to go home and tear my house apart in search of the Composition book. When, after surprisingly little effort, I found it, I set to typing up what I had already written. From there, I continued the story, and now, two years, three Annual Conferences, and six drafts later, I have something like a finished product.
When we attend a conference, we are surrounded by people who not only share a dream similar to ours, but who also share a love of writing, and who take us seriously as writers. This atmosphere of support and encouragement can remind us first, that we are not alone in our goal, and second, that other people believe in us.
Had I not attended that 2014 Annual Conference, I would never have finished my novel, a source of great pride and pleasure for me.
One more thought on inspiration: We writers (at least, I speak for myself) experience much more rejection of our work than we do acceptance and publication. It can be easy to feel discouraged at times, to ask: Why am I doing this? Am I really good enough? Can I even call myself a writer? But when we attend a conference, we are surrounded by people who not only share a dream similar to ours, but who also share a love of writing, and who take us seriously as writers. This atmosphere of support and encouragement can remind us first, that we are not alone in our goal, and second, that other people believe in us.
In addition to feeling inspired to complete works in progress, attending workshops and conferences often inspires new ideas, potentially leading you to write pieces that later develop into submittable work. For weeks after attending The Poetry Society of Virginia‘s 2016 Annual Poetry Festival and Conference in May, I was composing haiku in my head everywhere I went, dictating them into my phone for transcription later on. I have submitted several to various publications. I had a similar experience with the Life in 10 Minutes workshop I participated in during January and February of this year, though in that case, I was writing short slices of life in the form of somewhat sparse, stream-of-consciousness prose.
I cannot emphasize enough how much information one can take away from a conference or workshop–about craft, about the field, about publishing, about upcoming opportunities, about submissions, about other local writers, and about oneself. I have learned how to hone my vocabulary; how to write a query letter; how to craft a pitch; how to let go and really write, uninhibited–just to name a few valuable lessons. I have also learned about new tools and technologies, like dictation apps, and programs like Scribner (neither of which I use yet–but both of which I now know about, and knowledge is power). In addition, I have picked up little tips about things I never thought to do, but that prove helpful, such as tracking my daily word count (which was just suggested to me last Friday, and which I admittedly have not yet begun to do–but will). Finally, I have learned about valuable, supportive, and helpful Facebook groups, like For Love or Money (as in, do you write for the love of writing, or to make a living–and how does either impact your writing?).
In his essay “Why Soldiers Won’t Talk,” John Steinbeck surmises that one reason a soldier can return to battle despite the traumas of war, and a woman can bear more than one child despite the ravages of labor and delivery, is simply because neither can
remember what the experience was like, rendering both incapable of experiencing the fear that might prevent them from entering into a similar experience again. “Perhaps,” he writes, “all experience which is beyond bearing is that way–the system provides the shield and removes the memory.” I think there is some validity to Steinbeck’s hypothesis. I see it evidenced in my own life, in at least two areas. The first is my husband’s willingness–eagerness, even–to engage in DIY home projects over and over again, despite the stress and anxiety they inevitably cause him. Not long after completing one painful project, he starts to get antsy for another–to the extent that we just purchased a second home, in part to help satisfy his craving for projects (and he is now completely embroiled in the pangs of a plethora of home projects). The second is my own experience with writing conferences, my favorite and the most accessible one to me being the James River WritersAnnual Conference. I look forward to this three-day event with an enthusiasm approaching that of a young child’s at Christmas. But some years, I leave feeling defeated and discouraged: There are so many writers out there with so many stellar ideas, and we are all in competition for an agent, a publisher, a paycheck. I look around at the sheer number of writers in attendance at the conference and think: How can I possibly stand a chance against so many competitors? Frankly, it’s deflating.
We come together as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community.
But at Friday’s pre-conference Master Class, “How to Hook an Agent–From the Query Letter Through the Opening Pages,” literary agent Michael Carr said something that helped me realize at least one reason (there are many) I look forward to the conference every year: “It’s important to get motivation from events like this.” He went on to explain that so much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together. We are among people who take us seriously as writers. We convene as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community. And it is in that spirit of the writer’s community that I share with you just a handful of highlights and takeaways from this weekend’s James River Writers Annual Conference.
For reference and in an effort to give credit where credit is due, here is a list of the sessions I attended:
Be sure to vary your sentence structure. Reusing the same sentence structure can pull the reader out of your narrative, or, as Michael Carr explains it, can “wake him up from the fictive dream.” Two structures that Carr says are frequently overused, particularly by amateur writers are: 1) “Doing this, she did this” or 2) its inverse: “She did this, doing this.”
So much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together.
Each scene of a novel needs tension to hold a reader’s interest. Some ways to introduce tension can include giving the character a goal–and creating a character who actively engages in reaching this goal, as opposed to passively waiting for things to happen to him. Secondly, there must be some opposition regarding the goal. Something must impede the character’s achieving the goal he has set. Another tool in the writer’s belt is dramatic irony. The reader’s experience of knowing more than the characters about which she is reading is a powerful means of creating tension. Finally, be sure to ask yourself if there is enough at stake. What will the consequences be if the character achieves his goal versus if he does not achieve his goal?
The Opening Lines
At least three different experts at the conference exaggerated the importance of starting in the right place, which could be as simple as deleting the first line or first paragraph, or as complicated as rearranging the order in which your chapters appear–as was the case with my novel. Initially, Goodbye For Now opened with Marissa Donnoway working at The Beanery, serving a difficult customer. Several people mentioned that the book started a bit too slowly. In response, I wrote a new scene, one in which two brothers are looking out over Lake Huron. Still too slow. I deleted that scene, and opened the book with the emergency room scene. That didn’t work logistically, and the book currently begins with Scott Wilder’s suicide.
If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another.
Keep in mind that when beta readers, critique partners, critique groups, or other readers offer feedback, you are not obligated to take it–but deciding when and if you should follow someone’s advice can be tricky, and sometimes, so can not getting our feelings hurt. I thought Michael Carr’s comments regarding this issue were an insightful reframing of how to look at criticism. He essentially suggested that when someone responds critically to your work, it simply means he woke up from the fictive dream and didn’t “believe you.” It is not personal. It means you might want to revisit that part of your piece and consider how you can strengthen it. Sometimes, a reader might suggest a specific change to improve a piece–a change you disagree with. It’s important to keep in mind that you do not have to act on specific advice, but you would likely be wise to address the issue in some way, even if it is not the way your critic suggested. Carr also advised, “If the feedback resonates with you, address it. If it doesn’t, don’t.” Specific feedback itself might not be worth following, but reexamining each part about which a reader makes suggestions is worthwhile. In my case, the people who told me my book started too slowly only confirmed what I had suspected all along–so I addressed that issue (many times…).
I also appreciated what Natasha Sass of Busstop Press said about feedback: If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another. More on this, in the context of tropes, below.
On Writing to Market and Finding Your Audience
Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but until attending Friday’s Master Class,
“Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market: Game-Changing Tips for Indie Authors (and Writers who Want to Up Their Game NOW!”, I was unfamiliar with the term “trope.” Now I know a trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre. The tricky part is that tropes change over time, so reading within your genre and subgenre can be an important way to keep up with what tropes are currently desirable in your area.
What does your audience want? What do they expect?
A trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre.
Two important notions occurred to me as I sat in a session today, the final day of this year’s Annual Conference. The first was that this year was quite possibly my favorite Annual Conference thus far (though they have all been wonderful). The second was that I would likely have never finished my novel, Goodbye For Now, had it not been for the 2014 James River Writers Annual Conference. The idea for my novel was born in 2006, when I was studying abroad in Germany–an ocean away from my then-fiance (now, husband). I began actually writing the novel in 2010 (I think) in a black-and-white Composition book. After a few weeks, I got busy and just stopped writing. I even lost the Composition book. Four years later, at a Master Class that was part of the 2014 Annual Conference, I read aloud the synopsis I composed in the workshop that day. The response I got from the instructor and my fellow attendees was so supportive, I came home and dug through my attic space until I found the Composition book. My desire to write the novel was reinvigorated, but it would likely have remained dormant, safely stored away in my mental attic, had I never attended the conference. Now, two years later, the sixth draft of my novel is complete, and I feel equally excited, motivated, inspired, and encouraged. And I already can’t wait until next year’s conference.
Recently I’ve realized that I would get more sleep if I had less ambition and, ironically enough, fewer dreams–at least of the variety that I want to turn into reality. In an attempt to maintain my motivation, and remind myself why I keep trading sleep for writing, here are my writing dreams, no holds barred!
After a long morning walk with my dogs followed by a three-ish mile jog and a hot shower, I settle in under a plush blanket with some loose leaf hot tea. My beagle is snuggled into her lush dog bed on the floor. My whippet’s warm little body leans into my thigh. My laptop whirs quietly on my lap. I open it and log onto my blog, where I spend thirty minutes to an hour responding to the dozens (maybe hundreds!) of comments a handful of my several thousand followers have left on my last few posts. My tea cooling and my legs growing stiff, I ask my dogs if they “wanna go for a walk.” Tails wagging, they are all too eager. We take a brisk stroll through the neighborhood, and return to the couch, where I read and comment on a few of my favorite blogs before checking my social media for a few minutes. Before I have time to see how much revenue my blog has generated this month, my cell phone rings. It’s my agent.
“I’ve got the best news for you since finding a publisher for Goodbye ForNow last year.”
Sitting up a little straighter, I anxiously scratch behind my whippet’s ear. That was pretty good news, and I am not really sure she can top it.
“I’m listening,” I tell her.
“It’s gonna be a movie!” She is practically screaming. I can almost see her now, both hands flailing, smile broad and toothy, eyes squeezed shut, muscles tense with excitement–and I wonder where she is, who can actually see her, and how, with all the hand flailing, she has managed not to drop her cell phone yet.
“What? What is?” Surely she isn’t telling me my debut novel, Goodbye For Now, published roughly one year ago, is going to appear on the big screen.
But she is. That is exactly what she’s telling me.
“And there’s more,” she breathes.
What could be more? My blog has gone viral. My recreational writing classes are always well-attended. My novel is published. My novel is going to become a movie. And there’s more?
It takes an inhuman effort for me to control myself, and I can’t wait to get off the phone so I can stop trying, and start dancing around the family room and kitchen, both dogs hovering around my feet, the sound of their little talons on the hardwood and tile floors musical and festive.
(Note: I have no idea how long making a movie actually takes…)
Yesterday was my 36th birthday. Today, I will walk down the red carpet, my husband and dogs (I insisted they be allowed to come–family, after all) by my side, to see the movie premier of the book I wrote. I don’t know how to confirm this is my reality–this is my life. For so long it was a sometimes elusive-seeming dream. But it was a dream I never stopped believing in, never stopped working for, never stopped loving to dream. And maybe all that is what has made today–has made this life of mine–possible.
And the best part? It’s not over. I have a new novel in the works; an anthology of poetry due out in the spring, when I will spend several weeks in Florida with my sister’s family; a collection of personal narratives about to come out; a few articles set to run in The New York Times and The Atlantic, along with some other, smaller publications; and book signings, writing conferences, and lectures at schools and libraries pepper my calendar. And of course there will be those quiet days of peaceful writing, the dogs cuddling beside me, the candles burning, and maybe, on a really special day, a few flakes of snow drifting down in a sort of choreographed chaos outside my window.
Come summer, I will take a break from formal appearances and teaching classes I designed to take my writing on the road, spending a few weeks writing on the shores of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, taking sunrise and sunset strolls on the breakwater with my dogs. Then, we’ll head to the sound side of the Outer Banks, where I will read and write from the screened porch overlooking the sound, the sun dipping into its waters just before disappearing, the frogs and bugs ushering in the moonlight. And of course I will spend countless days indulging my literary habits on my back deck at home in the sunshine, and in the rural Northern Neck of Virginia, home to farmers and fishermen alike.
My niece sits on a train somewhere in Europe, a few weeks into her study abroad adventure. Across the train car from her, a woman is reading a novel, Auf Wiedersehen fuer jetzt. My niece smiles, the homesickness she had been feeling just a few minutes before assuaged, at least for now. The woman glances up and their eyes meet. My niece smiles warmly, and the woman smiles back, over the top of her book.
“My aunt wrote that book,” my niece tells her over the clamor of the train, the landscape outside the window behind the woman a blur of green fields and gray skies, just brush strokes of color speeding by.
The woman sets the book down on her lap, keeping her place with a finger.
“Wirklich? Deine Tante?” Her eyes glimmer with star-struck disbelief.
“Ja. Meine Tante.” My niece nods, the warmth of pride and a sense of never being alone swelling up in her chest.
A great grandnephew I have never met browses a used bookstore in downtown Richmond. He and his girlfriend pull books off the shelf, smelling the pages and flipping curiously through them. His girlfriend pulls a book off the shelf, its pages yellowed, its cover well worn. She flips the pages with her thumb, holds the book in front of her face, and takes a deep breath. The cover catches my great grandnephew’s eyes.
“Hey,” he says, gently taking the book from her hands. He turns the front cover towards her. “Look at this.” He points to the name of the author at the bottom.
“Amanda Sue Creasey,” his girlfriend slowly reads. “Creasey like you. Do you know her?”
“No. She died right before I was born, but she’s my great aunt.”
“Wow…” His girlfriend takes the book back. “That’s really cool.”
“It was made into a movie and everything.”
“Really? We need to buy this book–and we should watch that movie tonight.”
My great grandnephew smiles.
“Okay,” he says.
As they wait in the checkout line, the book held tightly against my great grandnephew’s chest, his girlfriend turns to him.