James River Writers Annual Conference 2016

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

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Every October, James River Writers puts on their Annual Conference at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

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 Writers Annual 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:

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

On Revising

Sentence Structure

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.

Tension

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

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Bill Blume moderated the First Page panel Sunday morning. During this session, several writers’ page-ones are read allowed and critiqued by three literary agents.

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.

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.

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

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Master Class “Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market,” led by Natasha Sass, delivered on its promise, living up to its title. 

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.

On Inspiration

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.

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When I returned home from the third and final day of the conference this afternoon, I spent over an hour nestled in my backyard hammock, snuggling with my whippet and reflecting on all I had learned–only the tiniest fraction of which I had the time to relate in this blog post.
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Patience, Persistence, and Pineapples

Maybe you’ve heard you can do anything you put your mind to. Maybe you’ve heard you can be anything you want to be. Maybe you’ve heard you can grow a pineapple by planting the crown of a store-bought fruit in soil. Maybe you’ve believed these things. Maybe you haven’t.

They’re all true.

Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.

Let’s start with the pineapple. When my dad handed me the crown of a fruit he’d just chopped into chunks and told me to plant it–it’d grown, I didn’t believe him. But, to humor him, I went ahead and plunked the “plant” in a pot of dirt. Imagine my surprise when days, weeks, months later, it wasn’t dead. Imagine my further surprise when years later, I had re-potted it several times, until it grew almost too heavy to move, and spread itself out almost four feet in diameter. But I got my biggest surprise from Mr. Pineapple, as

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The freshly-planted crowns of three freshly-chopped pineapple fruits await their delivery to new homes this spring. As of this writing, at least two have grown enough to require new pots.

my husband and I had taken to calling the plant (that’s right–the plant had seen me graduate from college, get married, buy a house, and start my career), when, upon watering him one day, I noticed what looked like a miniature pineapple sprouting from the center of his crown. Mr. Pineapple was pregnant! Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.

 

Since then, I’ve grown nearly a dozen pineapple plants, and enjoyed the homegrown sweetness of their plant-ripened fruit. But the reward is not without its pains. Through growing pineapples, I have learned a lot of things–about pineapples, and about life.

Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.

First, a newly-planted crown will often look sickly for weeks after it has been planted. But don’t give up on it. If even the slightest hint of green remains, it is alive, and silently biding its time, building its resources.  Just when you start to believe it is really dead, a miracle occurs and the plant comes alive, growing so quickly it will require multiple pots before it reaches maturity.

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After a minimum of two years, a pineapple plant is mature, and capable of producing a stunning flower, which sprouts on a stalk from the center of the plant.

Second, a plant will not produce fruit until it is at least two years old. Often, it takes longer. Even when the flower appears, the time from first flower to edible fruit is about six to seven months. But at the end, you will savor the absolute sweetest, juiciest fruit you have ever tasted. It’s better than candy.

 

Third, the creative cycle never ends. After you harvest its fruit, the plant lives on, and while it will not flower or fruit again, it will produce an offshoot capable of producing fruit. In addition, the crown from the harvested fruit contains its own potential to produce fruit. It needs only to be planted, water, and tended to a bit.

Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.

Perhaps you have already guessed where I am going with this: Goals and dreams are like pineapples.

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These three mature pineapples are all growing fruit, shown sprouting from stalks at the center of each plant. All three plants are between two and three years old. A pineapple plant must reach at least the age of two before it can produce fruit.

 

First, you must never give up on them, even when the outlook seems bleak. Remember, the darkest hour precedes the dawn–and the pineapple bursts into life just when it looks like it might die instead. Along those lines: Today, I received a rejection letter from a literary magazine to which I had submitted a short story. That was, to say the least, disappointing. But–today, an article I wrote appeared in the September issue of writeHackr, and an article by a friend of mine appeared in the local paper. Though I will for the course of my literary career assuredly receive more rejections than acceptances, I hold to my acceptances. Those are my “slightest hint of green,” and they mean my writing career is still alive. In addition, no agents have shown even the slightest bit of interest in my novel (yet), but I have not given up. I don’t even feel all that discouraged, actually. Instead, I have decide to revamp my query letter and restructure my novel–a complete overhaul. Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.

 

Second, be patient with the process. Progress might be slow. It might be invisible. Never wearying, you must patiently persevere, nurturing, cherishing, and waiting on success, quietly working in the background. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.

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After a six- to seven-month “incubation” period, from first flower to ripened fruit, the pineapple fruit is ready for consumption. Patience is a virtue in both the cultivation of pineapples, and in working to achieve goals.

What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them.

Third, reach your goal, reap the benefits, savor the fruit of your labor. And then don’t stop. What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them. Much like the crown of a pineapple, so easily discarded and forgotten, can be the start of another succulent fruit, a chapter you had to cut from your novel might prove the jumping-off point for your next big idea.

Just as I didn’t recognize the potential of that first pineapple crown years ago–had no idea what it was capable of–you might not know what stories, poems, novels, or screenplays you have stored up inside of you. Not, at least, until you cultivate them, nourish them, take the necessary steps to bring them to life. No matter what.

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After two to three years’ worth of watering, re-potting, transporting, trimming, and loving my pineapple plants, and six to seven months of watching the flowers bud, blossom, and ripen into fruit, I enjoy the juicy, fragrant fruits of my labor on the rocks of the James River–appropriately enough, on Labor Day.

 

My Ego and Constructive Criticism

Yesterday morning, I attended my final writing critique group meeting of the summer. Next week marks the start of my school year, the demands of which will make attending critique group meetings impossible. I will miss the insightful, honest feedback of my peers, but truth be told, I always left critique meetings feeling discouraged, deflated, and defeated, my writing having been found guilty of a litany of literary sins.

My hawk-eyed fellow writers advised me to use stronger verbs instead of adverbs (a rule of thumb I am of course aware of, but apparently incapable of applying to my own writing–though I am keen to point out the weakness in my students’ work).

In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe.

They accused me of head-hopping, a name for the writerly sin of jumping perspectives at will and seemingly randomly–essentially, inconsistent point of view. I thought I was just writing in third-person omniscient.

They suggested I tighten up my prose, stop overwriting, restructure my plot, and rename a few of my characters.

In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe. In other words: These meetings ground me. They bring me back down to earth and humble me.

And you know what? I need that. I need that, and to grow a thicker skin, as well as to remember my purpose for attending a critique group in the first place.

It wasn’t for accolades. It wasn’t so someone would say my idea was fascinating or the ending of one of my chapters was masterful (thought those moments were nice when they did happen). It wasn’t for my ego. It was for feedback–constructive criticism. A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind. If I am blind to my overuse of adverbs, I need someone to open my eyes. If a particular scene is confusing  or poorly written, I need someone to tell me.

A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind.

At my first critique group meeting, the members communicated at the beginning that every criticism offered had one goal: To help all of us produce the best writing we could. And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard sometimes (all the time) to hear that what I had brought to the group was in fact far more imperfect than I could have ever imagined, that I had not yet produced the best writing I could.

But even as I walked out to my car at the close of a meeting, wondering why I even bother writing at all, feelings of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement always began to bubble up, and my bruised ego started to mend. Within minutes of getting into my car and turning the ignition, I was already eager to get back to my piece and improve it, applying the kind, thoughtful advice I had just minutes ago viewed as a personal affront to my writing ability.

An inflated ego isn’t going to supply that kind of motivation, or propel me any closer to my goals.