Friday, June 19, 2009

Winning and Losing: A day at the Wesleyan Writers Contest

First I need to take a moment for my writer/blogger friends. I am not prone to mushy behavior, but I want to tell you that I had you all with me throughout the day, in my head and by my side as I took notes. Tess, Lady Glamis, L.T, Sarah, Danyelle, Glynis, Wendy, Scott, Eric, Mandy, Gardenwitch, Willow, Cindy, Joanne,Cassandra, Fran, Joyce, Jaime, Jennifer, Jason, Deborah, JD, Tricia, Elizabeth, T Anne, Nicole, Susan, newcomers ..... All of you! And Students! I was on the other side of the podium today! How I felt your pain....

The Novel:

This class was taught by Alex Chee. That was a thrill. But it was also a wonderful lesson about how we need to leave behind the concept of the "story arc" sometimes and just write organically. We shouldn't force anything. It should flow. He talked about having a "novel wall" where he posted pages from his WIP on the walls and walked around them to see them in a different light. He also spoke of the merit of keeping a "Writing Journal" for each project. That really sparked my interest. He said to write an entry every time you finish a bit of work on your project. That way you can remind yourself of questions you still haven't answered, as well as the page you left off on! You can keep one in an online document, or in a private blog, or even in a notebook.

Alex went on to tell us some really important "Hat Tricks"
  • Make sure every sentence moves the story forward
  • Keep a notebook by your bed for the ideas that come to you when your "internal editor" shuts down and your mind begins to open to all those ideas that you will forget in the morning.
  • Let the characters do what they want to do, don't force them to stay on the path you have for your narrative.
  • Don't think about formula or genre, just write.
  • Remember the small things that happen, the subtle surprises that can thread the story together and create a climactic moment as well as an ending worthy of an ahhhhhh.
This was a wonderful lecture. I will begin using the project journal, and maybe turn my office into a novel wall.
The short story:

This class was interesting, but awkward. We began by reading a short story :The Sock, L. Davis,
and the class was torn between like and dislike of the work. The Instructor was unusually defensive of the story. I was amused. Anyway, then the students were asked to read the assignments they did for the class. (I was only there for one day, as were many of us, so we were unable to participate in this. I don't know how I feel about that.... ) The students began reading their exercises which were about focusing on a moment that a character loves. Four students out of about forty got the chance to read their work aloud, and then the class was invited to critique. There was some good writing! And some not so good writing... the thing that I found most interesting was the rabid critique from the teacher as well as the fellow writers. I am all about giving constructive criticism, but this was insane! The assignment itself was interesting, and I am thinking about recreating it for a series on the girl with a pen site. (What do you think girls?)


Not offensive. No diet coke (or soda of any kind) which kind of bummed me out. But really good cheese cake.


Ravi Shankar was the professor. It was fun. I forgot how much poetry can help us shape fine prose. The careful choice of the perfect word. I decided to write more poetry. Also, a young man read a poem, and it was so powerful that it made me cry. How often does that happen? I wish he could have photocopied it and shared it with us that way. I hope he becomes famous.

Blogging and Twitter:

To be honest, most of us here could have taught this session. It was full of advice on how to blog and how to remain authentic. And then tricks we all know about like linking via twitter and Facebook.

In Depth with Agents and Editors:

Panel: Julie Barer, agent. Two editors, one from Harper Collins and one from Knopf. One author and one Indie Publisher (Akashik press)
Basic points:
  • Buy books from debut authors. How can we expect to be debut authors if we don't buy books from debut authors? The point they were making was "Buy books if you want us to be able to sell your debut novel." This made sense and I think I will make a commitment to buy at least four a year.
  • Be open to the digital world. Paper won't go away, but the digital world may be a new home for short stories and essays, as well as debut fiction.
  • The biggest mistake we make as authors is submitting our work too soon. The entire panel suggested finishing a novel, editing it and revising, having readers read... and THEN...put it in the "freezer" for at least three weeks. Then revise it again.
  • Best way to get published? Write a damn fine story.
After the panel broke we were allowed to ask questions. I asked the agent two questions.
  1. What is the industry standard waiting time for the review of a full manuscript?
  2. If you have a floating query and you are asked to submit a full from another agent, can you re-query letting the agent know you have interest in your novel?
A1. Two months. Then a gentle, professional and polite nudge, then if you hear nothing, expect they are "just not that into you"
A2. Yes. Just be polite about it.

And then we went home. I drove the forty five minutes in silence. I had a lot to think about. I decided that I have rounded a corner. I want to write, so I will. I am going to keep writing this blog and my new project and another after that. I write for pleasure, for escape, for solace, and to hopefully entertain people sometimes ( though as is evident here I am NO journalist... god bless them!)

And when I walked into my home and was greeted with a hot meal and sweet, sticky kisses from my three magical daughters.... I opened the mail. One rejection on one full. The one I was most excited about.

And am I sad? No. Not really. But I would have been if I hadn't gotten a good dose of reality today. I would have been if I hadn't already decided on the drive home that writing is more a part of me than I am a part of the industry. And anyway, I still have two fulls out and a slew of partials. I AM a little irritated that it was a form rejection on a full manuscript that I had to mail out via the post office ($)... but what can I do? Not much.

It boils down to this: If there is one thing I learned today it is this: write to write, not to publish. Write for the journey, for the escape, for the love of the sentence, for the stories that will entertain. For the stories that beg to be told.

Over and Out: Tomorrow is Recipe Day! Any requests?


  1. I love that you asked the agent the second question. I was wondering that myself the other day.
    Thanks for sharing your experience, and keep plugging away at your work. Like you said, it's a personal journey and that's the important thing!

  2. No diet coke?????

    *runs screaming into the night*


    sounds like a fantastic conference - I love a good conference. it centers me.

    And, it was super lousy to get a form rejection on a full, but I got one of those right before getting 'the call' know that good things are right around the corner :)

  3. Thanks for taking us along. :-) After reading this fine post, I feel I was there.
    I love the idea of a novel wall so much I'm going to try it on a revision of a YA fantasy I'm working on. Ditto on the journal for stuff you must remember to address in rewrite.
    I hear you on critique behavior. I've gotten super advice from two crit groups but sometimes people can get worked up. I like to put a positive spin that at least it shows passion for the story.
    Poetry does make each word really count, and so does really good prose. I've been listening to an audio version of Sue Monk Kidd's "The Mermaid's Chair," which I had previously read. The audio made me really notice some fine word choices. Now I want to comb through my own work and see where I might make it fresher.
    So sorry about the form rejection. You'd think a full would get at least a personal scribble of some sort. The best word I've heard for dealing with this and finally finding a champion for your work is tenacity. I hope I can handle multiple rejection and not slink off to the garden to eat worms. *dark side speaks*

  4. That diet coke thing had me frightened too. I once scored a pepsi at a conference. The contest almost didn't matter after that!

    I'm glad you discovered your heart is in writing. That will carry you through all the rest of the rough journey. Once you know that your pen is dipped in the vapor of your soul, you'll never give up. And that is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

  5. Megan: I know! Me too.

    Tess: I surprised at my disappointment. I don't keep soda in the house, so when I am without the girls it is a treat. I didn't realize I was looking forward to it. I was stunned at how attached I am to "simple pleasures." And thanks for the kind words. Funny, right after I read your comment, another agent (one who may not be so afraid of the darkness and horrible things in my book) emailed me for a full! What are you, magic or something?

    Tricia: Thanks for the close read! I am so happy to have shared it with you!

    LT: Thanks. I feel a little more like a pit bull today. One who won't give up that ball, or a leg ;)

  6. Yes, magic. That's way better than moody, tired, referee summer mom :'

  7. hello :)

    This is a pretty interesting looking blog .... i'll be back ..

    and, thanks for following!


  8. I'm not able to go to conferences right now, so I really appreciate you sharing your notes with us. Great notes! And I very much agree with you--the writing is the journey. :D

  9. I'm so glad the conference went well for you! I missed this post earlier, as I was just getting off my Unplugged week. Writing MUST be the journey, otherwise I see no point! So great observations. :D