As a high school teacher, I learn as much from my students as I teach them. For example, several weeks ago, when I was teaching my students about the root “therm,” I got an education on thermite, and the fact that it can burn underwater. More recently, I overheard one of my students, who is getting ready to apply for a specialty arts program, say something really simple, but really profound, to a classmate sitting in her little pod of student desks: “I really hope they [the judges/admissions committee] like my art and that I get in, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
“I really hope they like my art, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
This statement resonated with me because, for the last few months, I have been sending query letters for my debut novel, Goodbye for Now, out into the ultra-competitive world of literary agents and publishers in the hopes of following the traditional route to seeing it published. So, far I have queried about fifteen agents (though it feels more like 1500)–some of whom have thanks-but-no-thanksed me the very day they received my query. I won’t lie and tell you that isn’t disheartening, because it is–it really, really is. But not disheartening enough to stop me. Not yet. I intend to query at least one agent a week for the entirety of 2017 before switching my tactic. If December 31, 2017, rolls around, and I still don’t have a single offer of representation, I will either reevaluate my query or attempt a new route altogether.
On those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: At the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer.
And on those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: I really hope agents and publishers and readers like my book, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer. That part of my identity is not reliant on the validation of the mainstream publishing world (though it would be nice, and it is my goal…), nor is it dependent on recognition from critics or reviewers (though that would be nice, too). It relies only on the fact that I continue to do one thing: write. And that, my friends, I most certainly will do.
Your identity as a writer does not rely on the validation of the mainstream publishing world, nor does it depend on recognition from critics or reviewers. It relies only on the fact that you continue to do one thing: write.
After I graduated from Michigan State University and began my teaching career in 2006, I could not imagine a single circumstance that would induce me to go back to school, especially while working full-time, but in 2009, I found myself itching to be a student again. I had noticed that since entering “the real world,” I was significantly less prolific in terms of the writing I was churning out, which had dwindled to the occasional diary entry. Before my entrance into the world of adulthood, I could usually fill an entire diary in a matter of just a few months, and would fill notebook after notebook with essays, poems, and stories. What had happened to me? Could I even call myself a writer anymore? I didn’t know. But I did know this: I missed writing, and I wanted to do it again. So I did what any rational person would: Put together a comprehensive writing portfolio and apply for admission to a master’s program for creative writing. I knew that with my demanding schedule, just wanting to write more would not result in actually writing more. But if I were part of a master’s program, and my grade depended on my carving out time for writing, and my reimbursement (a perk at work) for the costly classes depended on my grade, I would write. No matter how little time I had, I would write.
Before my entrance into the world of adulthood, I could usually fill an entire diary in a matter of just a few months, and would fill notebook after notebook with essays, poems, and stories. What had happened to me? Could I even call myself a writer anymore? I didn’t know. But I did know this: I missed writing, and I wanted to do it again.
My participation in a master’s degree program did indeed increase my writing motivation, inspiration, and productivity. It also benefited me in many other ways. If you are considering earning your MFA (Master of Fine Arts) or MALS (Master of Liberal Studies) in creative writing, I highly recommend it for the reasons that follow.
1. Exposure to Literature
Through the assigned readings in various graduate classes, you will be exposed to writers and literature you might not be inclined to pick up on your own, and you will grow as a writer and a reader from exposure to and study of every single one of them. I was enthralled with and enlightened by Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, for example, and to this day would likely not have read a single page of it had it not been for the capstone project I completed in my degree program, which centered on the emotional truth as evidenced by both O’Brien’s and Ernest Hemingway’s works. I can guarantee I would not have read nearly as much flash fiction or prose poetry, and I certainly wouldn’t have attempted to write any. I owe those experiences and more to my graduate degree program.
Assigned readings in various graduate classes will expose you to writers and literature you might not pick up on your own, and you will grow as a writer and a reader from this exposure.
2. Exploration of Craft
During my time in my degree program, I wrote so many pieces I never would have written in so many genres I never would have tried. A graduate degree in creative writing will require you to write in various genres; utilize a myriad of techniques employed by some of the greats; apply literary devices you might not have thought to use; and study devices, writers, and perspectives. For example, you might have a tendency, however unconscious, to write predominantly in first-person. An assignment in a class might require you to explore writing in second- or third-person. Similarly, you might write mainly personal
narrative essays, but your degree program is inevitably going to expand your grasp of the craft as it demands you experiment with fictional short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, etc. Working towards a master’s degree in creative writing will open you up to types of writing you may not have even considered before–or been aware of.
During my degree program, I wrote so many pieces I never would have written in so many genres I never would have tried.
3. Community Building
One of the most beneficial aspects of a degree program in writing is the supportive network the experience can help create. I began my program in 2009 and completed it in 2013, and now, as many as seven years later, I still communicate with several of my former classmates, even having recently embarked upon the creation of a blogging network with one of them.
4. Teaching Opportunities
Most community colleges, colleges, and universities require their instructors to hold at least a master’s degree. In the world of writing instruction, a master’s degree and published works can sometimes be enough to at least get you noticed.
5. Increased Pay
If you don’t desire to teach at the college level, but do want to teach secondary school, for example, a master’s degree in a field related to your subject area equals a pay raise at most public schools. As an English teacher, I was granted a partial pay increase after I had completed a certain number of credits in my program, and was given the remainder of the increase after I earned the degree, which also qualified me to teach a college level dual enrollment composition class consisting of motivated and intelligent college-bound high school students.
I looked forward to my writing homework each day after work much the way one looks forward to feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s skin after a cold winter. It was a welcomed escape, a peaceful release. And because it was, indeed, also homework, no one–including myself–could argue that it wasn’t important–that I was “only writing.”
6. Resume Building
Although no agent or publishing house is going to require you to hold a master’s degree before they will consider working with you or reading your work, it does lend you credibility on your resume and in your query letter. One element of a query letter is accolades–published works, involvement in writing organizations, writing awards and recognition, etc. A master’s degree in writing is something else that bodes well for you here. It shows you take your craft seriously, are dedicated to your writing, and have a solid background in the field.
7. Craft Improvement
This one is probably a bit obvious: The more you write, the better you write. For this reason, enrolling in a master’s program in creative writing will no doubt help you improve your craft. You will have the benefit of feedback from published authors, fellow students, seasoned writing instructors, etc. Not only will you be writing on a regular basis, but you will be revising and polishing your writing on a regular basis, becoming more self-aware as a writer and as a reader.
The more you write, the better you write–and a master’s program that requires you to write can’t hurt your cause.
8. Mandatory Writing Time
I mentioned above that my initial motivation for applying for admission to a master’s program in creative writing was to make sure I would build time into my schedule to write. It worked. During my four years studying creative writing, I was prolific. How could I not be, with writing assignments due seemingly constantly and reading assignments inspiring me with each page? But the process wasn’t arduous. No, quite the opposite. I looked forward to my writing homework each day after work much the way one looks forward to feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s skin after a cold winter. It was a welcomed escape, a peaceful release. And because it was, indeed, also homework, no one–including myself–could argue that it wasn’t important–that I was “only writing.”
If you don’t have the desire to enroll in a degree program, but still need help finding time to write, check this out.
By day, Luke P. Narlee works for the government, doing transportation security in the intelligence field. By night, he writes and publishes his own novels. His first novel, Guest Bed, explores the complex issues couples face after years of marriage. His second novel, The Appointment, which he hopes to release within the next two months, imagines a future world devoid of all enjoyments and meaning, a world in which depression runs rampant due to a collective sense of hopelessness and purposelessness–until Jacob Johansen agrees to attend a mysterious appointment. Below, read Narlee’s take on the writing life, including indie publishing.
Mind the Dog: Where did you get your inspiration and idea for your first novel, Guest Bed?
Luke P. Narlee: The inspiration for this story stemmed mostly just from being married myself. There are a lot of emotional ups and downs associated with marriage, and it’s no different with the couple in Guest Bed. Of course, being that it is fiction, my first priority was to entertain and keep readers guessing. But I also wanted to explore some of the deeper issues that tend to occur between couples when they’ve been married for several years. For example, when couples are struggling to make the relationship work, what is it that’s truly causing the arguments? What is it they’re yearning for when they decide to separate or commit adultery? I also wanted a lot of the focus to be on communication. In the story, the two central characters, Ron and Kate, have an abundance of communication issues, which is the cause of the majority of their arguments. I think that the characters in the book say what a lot of couples only think or keep internalized. My hope is that people will find their issues to be relatable.
An Excerpt from Narlee’s Novel, Guest Bed
She narrows her eyes. “You still don’t get it, do you?”
I sit up so that our eyes are level, trying to keep things as even as possible. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“I need more from you, Ron. I want to know what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. You don’t share yourself with me anymore. Yes, we had fun downstairs, catching up on our days and exchanging witty banter. I enjoyed it. But that’s not what I need from you.”
I stare at her, breathing heavily.
“It’s not enough!” she says.
MTD: How long did it take you to write Guest Bed? What was your process like?
LPN: It started out as a short story that I wrote just for fun at least a decade ago. It took me a month or so to write it and set it aside. Then, within the last five years, I found a way to incorporate it into my soon-to-be published novel, The Appointment. Within The Appointment, there are a few chapters that read like short stories, and I thought Guest Bedwould be a perfect fit for that, but eventually my editor at the time convinced me that the story was too good to stay merely a chapter in a novel, and that it should stand on its own, somehow. I had no idea at the time that it would eventually become my first published novel.
Overall, I’d say it took me six months to write Guest Bed, and be fully satisfied with it, and about ten months all together from start to publish.It was relatively quick, considering I’ve been working on the The Appointment for five years.
MTD: Why do you think your progress with The Appointment has been slower in comparison to Guest Bed?
LPN: It’s a much larger book, with a more expansive story. Many more characters and things going on. It has taken me a long time to make sure everything fits together and aligns correctly in order to make a cohesive story.
MTD: How did you find or select your editor? Describe your relationship with your editor.
LPN: I personally have always hired freelance editors to work on my book, the majority of them on Upwork.com. It’s a great website, full of fantastic people who are very enthusiastic about helping people with their stories. I’ve worked with many different editors over the years, some better than others, but this year, in 2016, I’ve definitely found one or two new favorites that I hope I can continue to work with for many years to come.
MTD: What about a specific editor or group of editors appeals to you? What do you look for in an editor?
LPN: For me, it’s all about chemistry. You have to have good chemistry with your editor, meaning they understand your writing and the way you write and are able to help you improve it without ever changing your style. You have to find someone you click with and are comfortable with. It definitely becomes a relationship of sorts because there is so much back and forth communication. You have to have chemistry. It can’t just feel like a forced exchange between two people, where the editor is just doing a job and waiting to get paid. Also, a good editor is very thorough and will go the extra mile to make sure you are fully satisfied with the results.
I personally have always hired freelance editors to work on my book, the majority of them on Upwork.com. It’s a great website, full of fantastic people who are very enthusiastic about helping people with their stories.
MTD: What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to going the traditional route?
LPN: A couple reasons, actually. For one, I don’t generally have a lot of extra money or free time to spend searching for agents, and mailing out my manuscript, and begging publishing companies to accept my book as their own… The whole process felt overwhelming. I’d rather spend that time writing. Also, I don’t really like the idea of being forced to let the editors of the publishing companies have the final say in what is written in my books. I prefer to have full control over the content. Of course, this means more work on my part once it’s actually published, but so far it’s been worth it to me.
MTD: You mention that self-publishing means more work on your part once a book is actually published. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
LPN: When you self-publish a book, promoting it and marketing it are your responsibility. Some people just publish a book themselves and leave it at that, apart from telling close family and friends about it. But I’m definitely motivated to spread the word to as many people as possible because I love talking to people about it and hearing their thoughts on the story after they’ve finished reading it. I’ve been putting a lot of time and effort into marketing it on social media, particularly Instagram, Twitter, and Goodreads. I hope to be able to do more in the near future, as well, such as schedule a book signing at a few local bookstores. The reviews have been wonderful so far. The story has already touched a few people in profound way, and to me, that is more important than anything else. That alone makes all the hard work worth it.
LPN: The Appointment is quite a bit different from Guest Bed, which is a much smaller, personal mystery involving only two or three characters. The story in The Appointment affects an entire country and is more dystopian in nature. It involves a government that has become overly controlling due to recent terrorist attacks, and they’ve been forced to put the whole country on lockdown for a year. Nobody in and nobody out. Meanwhile, unexpectedly, all the citizens of the country begin to lose both their memories, and their ability to feel emotions. The main character, Jacob, is one of the last remaining people who still feels something, and is able to conjure little bits from his memory here and there. Then one day he gets invited to a secret facility to act as a guinea pig for a few experiments that may or may not fix everyone. If he agrees, he will be given the ability to relive old memories, enter parallel universes, and also live the lives of other people for a day, all in hopes of fully regaining his emotions. But the real question is… is that truly what he wants? Or is life easier when you don’t have to feel anything? To say that I’m very excited to publish this book would be an understatement.
MTD: How do you make time in your day to write?
LPN: I basically write whenever I have a chance. I don’t have a good, consistent schedule for writing yet, so if I have time between work at my office, I will do some quick writing. And when I’m home, particularly on the weekends, I make a habit of trying to carve an hour or two out of my day to sit with my laptop and write. But I don’t have a specific location or room that I do all my writing. Someday, I hope…
MTD: What do you enjoy most about writing?
LPN: I love the process of creating an entirely new world in my head and putting it down on paper for others to read and enjoy. The characters have a way of taking on a life of their own once you get into a groove. The story and the dialogue will just flow out of my brain without any forethought. Sometimes I’ll be typing, and the characters will surprise me with what they’re saying, like they’ve come alive and I’m just translating for them. That may sound weird, but most writers have experienced this at one point or another. It’s a beautiful thing.
The characters have a way of taking on a life of their own once you get into a groove. Sometimes I’ll be typing, and the characters will surprise me with what they’re saying, like they’ve come alive and I’m just translating for them.
I’m also a big fan of writing stories that are not only entertaining, but also make you think about your own life as well. I want my books to linger in people’s heads for a while after they’re done. There’s almost always a bit of ambiguity to my writing because I don’t like to make things too easy for people. I believe in leaving certain things open for interpretation, so the reader can decide certain elements for themselves. I think that makes for a more interactive experience between the reader and the book.
MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
LPN: First, write for yourself. If you want writing to be a truly meaningful experience, write a story that you love and want to exist in the world. Next, don’t ever give up on your dream of becoming an author if that’s what you want to do. If I can do it, then so can you. It can feel impossible at times because it’s so time consuming, but it isn’t. You just have to set realistic goals for yourself and stick with them, such as scheduling blocks of time to accomplish each step along the way and planning how long it will take you to accomplish each of these steps. For example, maybe you need a few months to write a first draft. Then another month to do your first round of self-edits. Then eventually you hire a professional editor to go through it for you. Then you have to do more rewrites. You can’t expect any of it to happen too fast. If you want to write something that looks professional, and will stand out amongst the millions of other authors in the world, it takes a lot of time and patience. But it’s worth it. Whenever I hear someone on social media comment that they are losing hope on finishing their first novel, I immediately try to motivate them to think differently. I believe anyone can do it if they set their mind to it and plan accordingly.
If you want writing to be a truly meaningful experience, write a story that you love and want to exist in the world. Next, don’t ever give up on your dream of becoming an author if that’s what you want to do. If I can do it, then so can you.
It also helps to know the ins and outs of the process and when and how to make wise choices, particularly when it comes to publishing. I’m currently trying to get a list together of everything I’ve learned about writing and publishing in the last few years, so I can help others reach their dream of being a published author without breaking the bank or their minds. I haven’t had time to set up an official website or a blog yet, but I plant to, and in the meantime, I may self-publish a small self-help book about indie publishing as well. I’m all about helping people with this. In the world of writing, I feel that it’s absolutely essential that writers look out for one another, share their experiences with others, and act as mentors for those who are just starting out. It’s a team effort, for sure. Writing is a gift–your book is a gift, but it’s a gift that no one will want to open if you don’t do your homework and make smart choices.
Writing is a gift–your book is a gift, but it’s a gift that no one will want to open if you don’t do your homework and make smart choices.
I am (still) reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and during my sofa session Friday afternoon, came across this sentence on page 323:
“The oneiric wind whipped grains of sand that stuck to their faces.”
The word “oneiric” (oh-ny-rick) was a new one for me. The “Look Up” feature on my nook told me it is an adjective that means “of or relating to dreams; dreamy.” Merriam-Webster confirmed the definition, and informed me that the word rests in the bottom 50% of word popularity (what a shame). What a whimsical word to add to my vocabulary.
In addition to its inherent whimsy, the word applies to my own writing experience: The oneiric state I find myself in just before sleeping or just before waking seems to generate my best writing ideas. The only problem? Whereas I often remember my dreams, I only rarely remember the words I wrote during the course of them.
Other contexts in which I can imagine this word:
She waited impatiently for the oneiric effects of the medication to wear off.
He thought about the oneiric nature of his earliest memories, which might be memories, but might just as likely be imaginings based on stories he’d heard from his parents and grandparents and siblings hundreds of times, his imagination indistinguishable from reality.
The sight of the couple walking arm-in-arm down the cobblestone street summoned an oneiric sense of a life he felt he had never lived, though the photographs he had not yet removed from his walls told him otherwise.
She stepped off the plane and into the oneiric landscape of paradise.
Lastly, I am quite sure that the male protagonist of my current writing project, a novel in its seventh draft titled Goodbye For Now, feels an oneiric sensation at waking up in a stranger’s body, and viewing his life as an outsider.
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.
I found Romance author and loving mom Brandi Kennedy on Instagram, her posts about nearing the final draft of a book intriguing to me. Upon contacting her, I learned she is actually approaching the end of three different series, not just a single book. According to Kennedy, The Kingsley Series, made up of four books so far and destined to consist of six, is a Classic Contemporary Romance. The Selkie Series touches the Fantasy realm. The third series, The Freedom Series, Kennedy defines as Contemporary-Romance-meets-Women’s Fiction. The first book in that series, Fighting For Freedom, is live now, and the second book is underway. Without further adieu, here is my interview with author Brandi Kennedy.
Mind the Dog: How long have you known you wanted to be an author? Is this how you are able to make your living?
Brandi Kennedy: I’ve wanted to be an author since I was a kid. I even had a bet with a classmate in fifth grade; I swore I’d be published by the end of the summer. Obviously I lost that bet, but it was the seed of my determination to do it, and I’m proud of where I am now as an author. As for making a living with it – I make a regular small income, so I’m happy with my progress. I still want to keep going, though, so I’m just focusing on following the advice of those who came before me. Liliana Hart says, “The best way to sell the last book is to write the next one,” and I’ve found that to be true.
MTD: Do you work with an agent, publishing the traditional way, or do you self-publish?
BK: I’m independently published. I like that it gives me creative control over my work, my hours, my deadlines, my covers. I get to retain full rights over what goes on the covers, as well as what stays between them. I also like that as I learn more about this business and the best ways to do certain things, I’m free to tweak or adjust what I no longer feel is working – and the only approval I need is my own.
Liliana Hart says, “The best way to sell the last book is to write the next one,” and I’ve found that to be true.
MTD: Are most of your books online?
BK: All of my currently released books are available for Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo. Each book page on my website is complete with blurbs, cover images, and market links.
MTD: How long did each one take you to write?
BK: They varied. My shortest book (to write) was either Courageous or Fat Chance (Kingsley Series, book 1). Both took around a month. The longest (to write) is probably More Than Friends. Something held me back from that one for a long time, and the words just wouldn’t come. I started and stopped that book twice, throwing everything out before it finally just seemed to click on that third try. In all, that book took me a little over two years to write.
MTD: On Instagram, you sometimes post how many parts you have left to write before you have finished with The Selkie Series. Would you consider yourself a planner or a pantster (or a planster!), and why?
BK: Ooh, I love the term planster! I’m a hybrid, honestly. With Selkie, I literally just sat down and wrote it. I had a general idea of where I was going in the next few scenes, but that was it. Fat Chance and most of the other Kingsley books were the same. I sat down and just let the words pour out. I generally keep notes as I go, including at least a small outline of where the next few scenes are probably going. I think Selkie II is my most planned/plotted book – I’ve had a beginning to end outline the entire time, with certain main ideas lined out and various scenes being added or planned as I wrote to get me from point to point. That has been by far the most relaxing way to write a book, in that I already knew where I was going. I never got writer’s block (once I had the outline done), because literally all I had to do was write from Point A to Point B. But do I like that better than when the story just bleeds out unplanned? I can’t say. Both sides have great value and both points of action impact the writing process in different ways.
Some of my readers have become personal friends, and I find that many of them have enriched my life in ways that go much deeper than even my love of books.
MTD: What have been some of your career highs and lows?
BK: It’s always a high to have someone reach out to me and tell me that my books touched them in some way. When Fat Chance went live, I received a slew of emails and messages from people who read and related to Cassaundra’s struggles, and one woman told me that reading how real and relatable Cass was would change the way she allowed herself to see her own body for rest of her life. As for the lows, truly the only thing I can think of as a low or a downside to writing as a career is how over-saturated the market is. Success in such a popular market is truly hard to come by, so it can be a little discouraging at times.
MTD: What do you love about writing?
BK: Everything. Writing is art for me, it’s sculpting and painting with words and imagery. I love the intricacies of the English language, the powerful use of analogy and narrative prose, the flow of one word into the next. It makes me think, makes me grow, makes me feel. I can only hope my own writing lives up to what I love so much in the writing of others.
MTD: What is your favorite work of literature and why?
BK: Hard question! Old literature – the lasting kind? Maybe it’s A Little Princess. Such a beautiful story of resilience and determination, kindness and heart. It’s inspiring, it’s poetic. But I also still love several of my other childhood favorites, like Black Beauty, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and To Kill a Mockingbird. New literature, though – the kind that you just know will last forever? Harry Potter, hands down. Also, I am a pretty rabid Outlander fan.
MTD: Who is your favorite writer and why?
BK: I usually answer this question easily, and it’s almost always Diana Gabaldon, the author behind the Outlander Series. Now and then it’s JK Rowling. Both have an amazing power of molding the smallest detail into something incredibly meaningful. They both have beautiful, flowing prose, and neither is afraid to touch on the darker issues of the world we live in, regardless of what time period they’re using. Their character development is strong, their plots are intricate. I must include Johanna Lindsey, as well, whose embossed name on a drugstore romance cover was the first seed of a dream I’ve been nurturing almost all my life.
MTD: Describe your average work day.
BK: It’s busy and often interrupted. I work from home, so writing is interspersed between the rigors of laundry and dish washing, bathroom cleaning, floor vacuuming, and animal care. I get distracted easily, too, so I rarely work more than an hour or two at a time without breaking to accomplish other, non-writing tasks. This pays off, though, in that it allows my ideas to simmer a bit, while giving my hands a break from the keyboard. And then in the after-school hours, there are my daughters to care for, and they take precedent even over writing – most of the time.
MTD: You mentioned you have two daughters. Do they ever read your work, or do you ever read it to them?
BK: They have read very small bits of some of my work, and are both generally upset with me on some level because they aren’t allowed to read my novels. My girls are currently twelve and seven, and my books do have adult content in them, so I don’t let them read that yet. They have begged me for a long time to write something they can read, but I haven’t been able to do it just yet. However, they have been allowed to peek at certain novel’s scenes/passages or bits of poetry now and then, and I suppose if my oldest took an interest in reading my blog, she’d be allowed.
MTD: In a recent Instagram post, you mentioned that you are proud of how you interact with your readers. Can you tell me more about that?
BK: Well, it’s just like this, what we’re doing in this interview. I’m on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter several days a week. I blog once a week, and that blog autofeeds to a newsletter – I like that this allows my readers the freedom of not having to remember to check my site. I love interviews, guest spots, and guest posts, and I rarely ever turn down opportunities to appear anywhere in that way. Beyond those things, and on a much more interactive level, I try to answer every message, email, and/or comment when I can, and I always make sure I’m putting myself out there. Actually, some of my readers have become personal friends through this level of interaction, and I find that many of them have enriched my life in ways that go much deeper than even my love of books.
Mind the Dog would like to thank Brandi Kennedy for taking the time to participate in this interview.
Real Characters. Honest Love. Brandi Kennedy Books.