Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Muse and the Marketplace

THINGS I LEARNED at the Grub Street literary conference last weekend:
  1. Writers, as a whole, are not the snappiest dressers. We try. But most of us fall a bit short. (Surely there must be equally-comfortable-yet-less-ugly shoes out there for us.) It's okay, though, because we ooze enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity.
  2. I will need to pay for a VIP table or pitch session next year if I want to chat with agents or editors. I just don't have enough chutzpah to randomly approach people with the "special guest" badges and start chatting them up. I didn't even really want to pitch any of these people, but I would have liked to ask a few questions about genre trends and the market, and I didn't see a single agent or editor all weekend unless they were on a panel.
INSPIRING WRITERS I MET other than Chuck Palahniuk:
  1. Thomas Mallon, who spoke about "Faking the Real": basing fictional characters on real people. (Turns out he taught English at my college for 12 years, but left the year I got there. Argh!) He argued that every novel is a roman à clef, because all characters are composites, refractions, or appropriations of the people we meet in real life. He also said that there tend to be very few situations in which we need be concerned with the legal repercussions of using real people in our work, and instead we should consider the moral implications (who might be hurt) on a case-by-case basis.
  2. Pablo Medina (faculty bio above, poetry & an interview linked here), who talked about WILDNESS in fiction. My husband tried to get me to articulate what I found so inspiring and affecting about this lecture, and I was at a bit of a loss. He spoke about writing like dancing: too little form, and you're stepping on your partner's feet, bouncing off the walls and ceiling -- too much form, and you approach the machine. The key is to keep the wildness without losing the structure of the dance. He said that the only story worth writing is the necessary one, where the demonic impulse of the writer can be transformed into a sense of urgency in the reader. He said that the word perfect comes from the Latin perfectus, meaning finished, and that only dead things are truly finished. Hence, there is no perfection in writing, there is only the pursuit of literature. I've been struggling to make my writing less "safe", so this all resonated very deeply with me. (Also, Pablo has the stage presence of Mikhail Baryshnikov mixed with Anthony Hopkins, only Cuban. It works. Just sayin'.)
THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT WRITING from a panel of contest judges:
  1. Make your story bigger than the narrator
  2. Make the reader fall in love on the first page
  3. It's a bad sign if your reader starts checking what page number they're on ("how much more do I have to read?") or has to check the flyleaf of the novel to remind him/herself what the story is about
  4. The story should have passionate urgency
  5. Things need to happen ("...even if it's just the protagonist standing up in that café and saying I'M BORED AND FILLED WITH EXISTENTIAL ENNUI, then at least he'd be moving and talking...")
  6. The story should have ease of writing: let the reader become so engrossed that s/he forgets the language
  7. The story should have elements of surprise instead of telling the readers all the things they could just as easily assume/infer
  8. "Just cut out the boring bits"
  9. Humor is good
  10. Emotional resonance is great
  11. The judges on the panel vastly preferred contests where pages are submitted anonymously
  12. The judges on the panel said their job was not to figure out "what do I like" but rather "how well did the writer accomplish what s/he set out to do?"
  13. Don't resubmit the same work to the same judges for the same prize
  14. Contest entries are down this year, perhaps because of the economy
  15. It's better to apply to contests with more than one award (you have a better shot at winning something if there are 2nd and 3rd places, honorable mentions, etc.)
CONCLUSION: It was a blast, and I will absolutely return next year, and I may look into attending other conferences hosted by other groups.

Have you been to a writing conference? What were the best parts? What did you learn there?


  1. No, have never been to a writing conference, but might like to, especially after hearing your account. And knowing the trends in dress is nice because it sounds like frumpy me would fit in appearance wise. I agree with what Mallon said. The things you learned are good things to keep in mind.

    Tossing It Out

  2. I've never been to a writing conference but have been thinking about it lately. I loved your list of things you learned from the writing contest panel of judges! I might stick "just cut out the boring pits" onto a notecard and pin it to the wall above my monitor!

  3. Yes! Love your points, esp. what Pablo Medina said. Writers should confront the hardest things, not the easy things. We should write what's BLEEDING out of us.

  4. Carrie--
    People are playing tag on my site so I thought I'd tag you. Check it out at Tossing It Out. If you want to play then have fun with it.

  5. Writers, in general, did not become writers because they have awesome social skills. Probably a lot of those writers would be thrilled for someone to break the ice. May I suggest, "Hey, want to see my tattoo?" That's always a good one.

    I keep debating the go vs. don't go thing with re: conferences. I figure I'll get to one eventually. But for now, I'll just keep my awkward self at home and drink by myself. As usual.

  6. "Make your story bigger than your narrator"? That's beautiful. And a great trigger for talking about stakes. Thanks, Carrie.