Thursday, October 28, 2010

Writing Well and the Writing Conference

Writers' conferences, seminars, retreats, workshopsI can't seem to let a year go by without one. But in this tough economy, a conference can be hard to justify. Still, cost doesn't have to be a deterrent. Libraries offer free workshops, and adult education courses are usually great buys; so are those at community colleges. The key points to ponder in deciding depends on what you're looking for:
  • Conferences: Best for a soup-to-nuts approach to the writing world
  • Workshops: Focus on one aspect of writing or the writing life
  • Retreats: Offer a place to write
  • Seminars: More business-oriented, and a how-to focus
One of the best conferences for me was the National Writers Workshop sponsored by the Hartford Courant and the Poynter Institute. I loved it (it's now offered in Florida) for lots of reasons:
  • Proximity: Affordable hotel, within day commuting or a weekend stay, early arrival available
  • Speakers: From the keynote to breakout session leaders, the speakers were topnotch. Examples include David Baldacci, Arthur Golden, Sebastian Junger and Morely Safer.
  • Writing opportunities: We were given assignments onsite and looked them over there, too.
  • Networking: There were tons of opportunities over the weekend to meet the writers and speakers.
Since we're pressed for time and funds, it's key to shop around and select what best fits gaps in your writing experiencecraft, publishing, marketing, the pitch, blogging. Whatever you need, there's a venue for it. One caveat: The venues mentioned here aren't virtual; there's still something to be said for the irreplaceable human dynamic.

This year, I'm attending LWC } NYC, Literary Writers Conference New York City. It's co-sponsored by the New School graduate writing program and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, and partners with lots of places: Sobel Weber Associates, The National Book Foundation, Sterling Lord Literistic and Poets & Writers. It's two days for fiction, poetry and creative-nonfiction writers to meet other expertswriters, editors, agents, publicists and publishers. Participants include Publishers Weekly, Oxford University Press, Scribner, Hachette Book Group, Graywolf, the Poetry Society of America, Bloomsbury, Knopf, the Academy of American Poets and more.

The conference promises a lotlet's see if it delivers. I'll let you know in Novemberand pass along tips and resources.

To make the most of any event—workshop, retreat, conference or seminar—think in three phases: before, during and after:
  • Research the presenters' and sponsors' websites. Consider dropping a simple—and brief—e-mail to those of interest.
  • Meet everyone you can, and bring items that represent you—business cards, bookmarks, brochures—e-versions are fine, but giveaways are great. Tailor what you offer to the type of contact.
  • Follow up with thank-yous, invites to guest post, etc., Don't just go to get; go to give.
Resource: ShawGuides

Monday, October 25, 2010

"A Second Cup of Coffee — and the Ruthless Critique"

Last week we discussed the value of the unsparing writing critique one that's honest, incisive, direct and comes from someone you trust. But what should you look for in a critique partner?
Small critique groups (or one on one) done face to face are like dating. Whom do you know with these qualities:
  • Willing to put time and effort into evaluating and analyzing
  • Is well-read in various genres
  • Has some familiarity and experience in your genre
  • Knows and pays attention to various aspects of a story (plot, tone, voice, characters)
  • Addresses the critique as art and science
  • Has writing and/or editing credits
  • Is trustworthy with your work and has your best interest at heart
A list like this clearly eliminates many options upfront and may not be a peer review or partnership. You may opt to work with someone from whom you receive but don't receive feedback.

Another reason to join a critique group besides getting feedback is learning to give it, because you learn to see the same foibles in your writing that you find in others. Put into practice, this hones your writing skills. For mutual critique sessions and groups, consider these:
  • Are group members generally open to your suggestions?
  • Is there a balance between the members, with different strengths and weaknesses to learn from?
  • Is the group moderated so as to maintain order?
Generally, critique groups, like toddlers, scamper away after a year or two. One way to tell whether your group or mentor is working for you is that your work is better for the effort.

For those wondering about cost there doesn't have to be one. Some peer reviewers don't have as many writing credits, but still offer insights that improve your writing. As to groups, most are free, though mentoring relationships generally aren't. Still, these can be worth it. In choosing a mentor, ask the same questions you would when hiring an editor:
  • How long have you been doing this?
  • Whom have you worked with?
  • What genres do you work in?
  • What's your professional background, and where has your work been published?
  • What's the fee structure?
A resume, bio and list of writing credits should provide this information.

Tip: Meet informally first, maybe with a sample of work to critique, and leave yourself room to opt out.


Friday, October 22, 2010

The Value of Instant Coffee — and a Ruthless Critique

Well, maybe instant coffee isn't worth much (what's with that aftertaste anyway), but an unsparing critique is invaluable.

First, let's define "ruthless." For our purposes, it means momentarily putting pity aside to be honest, incisive, direct. But since text without context is pretext, we should also define "critique." I like Merriam-Webster's slant on this one: "the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature" and "the scientific investigation of literary documents" regarding aspects like "origin, text, composition or history."

What I love about that definition is it takes into account that critique is both art and science, involves analysis, which means it takes time, and encompasses various aspects of a work, meaning it's not superficial. So, for our purposes, "critique" is a knowledgeable, well thought out, accurate and articulate assessment of a writer's work (not the writer). And I'd add that the most valuable critiques have the writer's best long-range interests at heart. Some observations hurt in the short run but are the difference between stuck in endless loop and progress in the long run.

There's another crucial aspect of the truly beneficial critique it's usually delivered directly, face to face. In this way, the personal critique is a world away from a critique group, where mass opinion and a herd mentality can quickly warp even the soundest observation. Besides, it's a lot harder to slog through a ream of comments (and more demoralizing), than to bite the bullet and have a couple of people you care about, and who are qualified, read and comment on your work.

So, go on, have that cup of criticism a spoonful of sugar, or agave nectar, will help it go down.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Conversation: Not Just for Talking Anymore

I could drone on about tweets versus talk, chat versus conversation, but you probably already get the point. What may not be obvious, though, especially if we opt for the sound bite version of life, is how much writers get from real conversation. It may feel like wasted time or maybe more of a luxury but for writers it's essential.

Just think what real conversation yields, especially with people you love spending time with, especially if they're other writers. Story ideas, inspiration for projects, new ways to collaborate, information from people with new skills and expertise, new contacts. Whether we agree or disagree and disagreement, when done well, usually yields more than agreement on the things we discuss, we usually come away from real conversations enriched and energized.

So indulge. That's what it's about conversations about creativity. Have some!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Learning to Think: A Study on Plot

It's amazing the thoughts that come while waiting for the commuter train before dawn. To keep awake and distracted from the chill, I pulled out The Vagrant Mood, essays by Somerset Maugham, the chapter on Kant, whose  goal was to "teach his students to think for themselves" and who didn't like it when "they busied themselves … to write down his every word." And then I thought about plot.

Rather than knowing all that will happen in a story from the get-go, it's more important to consider the story as you go along, to retain a balance between having a plan and knowing that plans changemost often and best because of what happens within and among the people in the story. This is the organic approach.

Road to Milano
As Peter Selgin notes in 179 Ways to Save a Novel, writers often wonder how far head to plot. The query is similar to when a writer states with great authority (and misguided control), "I have to get the character to do this, or that." Here, the control factor is likely too rigid, as Selgin notes, as if plot were "a separate process, an independent act of volitiona verb that we force into our stories, rather than a noun that grows out of the process of writing them." Usually, the real question is how much a writer needs to know about what happens next. The answer, as Selgin notes, is "not that much."

Learning to think while writing is key, to bring a mindfulness to the process, because plot, especially in novel writing, isn't knowing all that will happen in a story from beginning to end, but knowing that things of consequence must happen to make a story a story and that even if nothing of apparent consequence happens, the piece must be written well enough, and usually better, to truly make it a story.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Word for Words — Literally

Last week my writing workshop examined one paragraph in the manuscript of a novel. After we took the paragraph apart, one person asked, "So that means every word counts?" I considered the question for maybe a second. The answer is, yes, every word counts, or should.

Many factors mitigate against this maxim—the plethora of writing venues, lack of time, lack of scrutiny before content is released for consumption, lack of knowledge of what makes for good writing, to name a few. But that last factor can make the biggest difference, not so much in the sense of good grammar and punctuation, though these are essential. But more in the sense of writing as art.

How can you tell when writing is art, and how can you elevate it to that level? One way is to slow down, take one sectiona paragraph is a good place to startand play with the words.

To literally see what I mean, select a paragraphdescription is a great place to beginand consider it word for word. Consider the answers to these questions:
  • Does each word say what you mean; is it precise?
  • What happens when you replace one word or phrase with another, or when you replace a phrase with one appropriately descriptive word?
  • Is the order of words within sentences, and the order of sentences within a paragraph appropriate? Not just in the sense that a door should open (the paranormal aside) before someone can walk through it, but also in the sense of impact?
  • What happens when you switch the order of the phrases in a sentence, or the order of sentences in a paragraph?
Taking the time to hear and see each word, phrase, sentence and paragraph is a great way to learn to write better, because you've slowed down long enough to listen to the words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, theme, motifs, characters, dialogueand how they work together, or don't. And you're teaching yourself. That's a great way to always be learning (the price is right, too).