A Writer’s Gift: Community

The Christmas season is upon us, and while I recommend checking out my gift guide for the writerly types (and dog lovers) in your life, I want to take a moment to acknowledge one of the most meaningful gifts we writers can give to each other: the gift of community. I think we can all agree that a certain amount of solitude is necessary to craft an effective, satisfying piece of writing, but just as important as the gift of quiet time to write, is the gift of time spent with our fellow writers.

Gifts from Fellow Writers

I owe a lot to some of my fellow writers. Below is a list of just a few of the many gifts they have given me.

Mind the Dog Writing Blog

Believe it or not, this blog would not exist at all if it weren’t for Charlene Jimenez, a fellow blogger, writer, and writing instructor. Several years ago, Charlene and I were enrolled in a few graduate level writing courses together, and after we finished our degree programs, kept in touch. If she hadn’t suggested the idea of a blogging network, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. My gift to her: I invite you to pay her (excellent!) blog a visit.

Life in 10 Minutes Workshops and 9 Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology

Without my friend Lauren Brown, who you’ve read about in this blog before, I wouldn’t have participated in the three or four Life in 10 Minutes Workshops I have loved. These workshops are not only therapeutic and encouraging, but also productive, supportive, enjoyable, and inspiring.

Participation in this workshop has resulted not only in a sense of accomplishment and an exercise of creativity for me, but has also fostered a sense of community and resulted in a few of my works being published.

Vitality Float Spa

Like Life in 10 Minutes, Lauren told me about the Writing Program at Vitality Float Spa in Richmond. In addition to a program for writers, the spa offers programs for chefs and artists. I don’t know much about the programs for chefs and artists, but the program for writers entails two free, 90-minute float sessions in exchange for one original piece of writing. The idea is that the float is so inspiring and freeing, the experience enables you to create a brand new piece of writing, work of art, or recipe (respectively). In my case, the gift of the spa experience resulted in another gift: the satisfaction of composing a poem inspired by the experience. Ultimately, Vitality plans to compile all the writing they receive into a book.

Freelance Work

My sister, Anne, a freelance writer and blogger, has provided me with numerous opportunities to turn my talent and passion into lucrative projects. Without her, much of my published work would not exist at all, much less be published.

Contently

As with freelance work, it was my younger sister who introduced me to Contently, a platform that allows writers to create and maintain an online portfolio, as well as to look for freelance opportunities.

Feedback

Many kindhearted writers have invited me to be part of their critique groups, which have provided me with helpful feedback and the ability to better accept constructive criticism. In fact, the idea to restructure my novel-in-the-works was the result of a critique group discussion.

Gifts for Fellow Writers

While getting the gift of community is rewarding, giving it to others is just as heart-warming. I love the feeling I experience when I know I have helped another writer succeed.

Publication in The Richmond Times-Dispatch

Lauren has given me much in the way of both friendship and writing, but I have also returned the gift, telling her about the My Life and In My Shoes columns of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and encouraging her to submit work. She did, and her work often appears in the newspaper. Similarly, I encouraged a man with whom I attend church, Frank Wentzel, to submit work. He met with similar success, his work having appeared at least twice already.

Writing Jobs

Shortly after I began regularly writing articles for ScoutKnows.com, a website tailored to pet parents (like me!), the then-editor asked me if I knew anyone else who might be a good fit for the site. I immediately sent her the names of three or four of my best writer friends, some of whom now also write for the site.

An Outlet for Stories

Recently, my sister sent me information about an anthology looking for stories about women’s ability to rise above challenges and obstacles in their lives. Her initial thought was that I might want to submit; instead, I passed the information along to three of my friends, two of whom told me it was perfect timing; they had been looking for either a reason to tell their story, or an audience for it. The latter two, I know, were accepted for publication in the anthology.

James River Writers Annual Conference

For the last several years, I have enjoyed attending the James River Writers Annual Conference. When I learned a colleague new to my school also loved writing, I encouraged him to attend. He attended every year until moving out of state, and each year, we both looked forward to the event.

While writing can sometimes feel a solitary activity, we writers are our greatest resources. This holiday season, make a point to give the gift of community to the writers you know.

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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.