Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rejuvenated, or Notes on the Conference

Serena and I attended the 2nd annual Conversations and Connections conference, entitled "Practical Advice on Getting Published," over the weekend. Though it meant spending the night away from my husband (who had to work Friday night and attend Little League-related events all day Saturday) and leaving The Girl with Serena's husband to drive him bonkers, it was so worth it.

We started the weekend by attending the pre-conference reading on Friday at the VisArts Center in Rockville, MD. We were under the impression that it was a poetry reading, and I was pleased to learn that we were wrong. Not that I wouldn't have enjoyed poetry, I'd just never attended a reading where authors read excerpts from novels and short stories, and since that's what I'm attempting to write, I was tickled pink.

The event featured Mary Gaitskill, who read from her novel Veronica; Dave Housley, who read "The Combat Photographer" from Ryan Seacrest Is Famous; Nathan Leslie reading a portion of "The Towel" from Madre; Lalita Noronha reading from her collection Where Monsoons Cry; and Susan Muaddi Darraj reading from her collection The Inheritance of Exile.

I enjoyed all of the readings, though Gaitskill's work was a little too poetic for my tastes. At least the segment she read was too poetic, about the main character strolling through the woods or something, when I'd rather hear more of the meat of the story. The best part of the evening was getting a free book (which was included in the conference registration, along with a one-year subscription to one of the literary journals/magazines in attendance) and having it signed by the author. I snagged Darraj's The Inheritance of Exile, while Serena grabbed Leslie's Madre.

The next morning, we headed to the Johns Hopkins University campus in Washington, D.C., for the actual conference. We attended a session led by Amy Holman, author of Wait for Me, I'm Gone. (Reading through the conference materials as I write this, I see that she published an essay in the anthology Knitting Through It: Inspiring Stories for Times of Trouble. I'll have to check that out!) In "Finding a Home for Your Brilliant Work," Holman talked about figuring out which literary magazines, journals, and book publishers are best suited to your writing style. She urged us to keep a separate notebook listing our favorite authors and where they've published, and she discussed how to evaluate the prose, poetry, and creative non-fiction published in a particular literary magazine or journal to see how the works are similar. This gives you an indication of the type of work the publication accepts and the preferred writing style. Most importantly, Holman discussed the importance of having a platform, or a list of published works, readings, radio appearances, etc., that make you more marketable to a publisher.

The second session, "The Long Haul: Writing the Novel," was a panel discussion featuring Fred Leebron, author of Six Figures; Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody; and Carolyn Parkhurst, author of The Dogs of Babel. While the authors' stories of how they got published were interesting, I didn't learn anything new. They discussed whether they start with a plan or just start writing, how long it took them to get published, and the benefits of having an agent, among other things. The only really useful tidbit I took from the panel was Leebron's daily writing routine, which I've begun to implement myself: setting aside at least one hour per day for writing, with the understanding that some days you'll write a sentence and other days 500 words. Until now, all the advice I've heard involves writing a certain number of words or pages every day, and I know I can't commit to that.

After the second session, Serena and I were famished (that's what you get when you skip breakfast). We walked in the opposite direction of the Chinese food we coveted (oops) and ended up at Bertucci's, where I spent the best $12.50 of my life on tri-colored cheese tortellini baked in a cream sauce with diced plum tomatoes, grilled chicken, and cheese. I loved it so much that I had to blog about it. :D (Serena must've known I'd talk about the food!)

We gorged ourselves and waddled back to the conference for the tail-end of speed dating with editors from various literary magazines, journals, and small presses. Speed dating involves shoving you and a handful of others into a room, quickly spotting an editor in your genre, and allowing them to scan a poem or a couple pages of a story or novel in order to give you feedback. I was so nervous I thought I'd pee my pants, but it all happened so quickly, I didn't have much time to protest.

I sat down with Cynthia Reeves, author of Badlands and a representative of Miami University Press. It was nice to know my writing doesn't completely suck (she called it "clean"), and she gave me some good advice on how to improve my story. The same parts I didn't like were the ones she red-flagged. I learned a lot during those 7 minutes (they seriously yell at you to leave), and I'm glad I went through with it.

After the speed dating, Serena and I decided to play hooky and skip the keynote speaker, Mary Gaitskill, justifying our absence by saying we'd heard her read the night before. Instead, we met with a former co-worker who was part of our now defunct lunchtime writing group. It was nice to catch up, learn of the success of his new poetry journal, and discuss plans for an upcoming literary journal launch. We hung out in Dupont Circle, amid the overzealous singer-guitarist, a man in a platinum blonde wig, and a crazy guy singing opera music at the top of his lungs with headphones on.

Later, we headed to the final session, "The Disciplined Writer," which was a panel discussion featuring Kathy Volk Miller, co-editor of the Painted Bride Quarterly; Michelle Brafman, filmaker and Best New American Voices 2009 nominee; Jen Michalski, author of Close Encounters; and Tim Wendel, author of Castro's Curveball. Once again, this was a discussion that didn't teach me anything new. I already know that I have to set aside time for writing wherever I can find it and stick to it. However, I will forever remember Wendel's stories about Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favorite writers. (Apparently, Oates tells people not to be like her because writing has so consumed her time that she has no life. Still, I'd give anything to publish as many books as she has.)

The day ended with a wine reception that was so crowded it made you claustrophobic, so we headed home so tired we waited on the wrong subway platform like we'd never taken the Metro before!

I arrived home feeling energized and motivated. The next day, I cleaned and organized my desk (which unfortunately involved putting away large quantities of yarn, but I had to prioritize), and the following evening, I began my nightly writing routine. I've decided to set aside 8-9pm each weekday evening (playing the weekends by ear) to write. Like Leebron, I might write a few words or a few pages, but at least I'll be writing more frequently. And I set aside time early enough so I'm not exhausted, and I'll have plenty of time to continue writing if I'm on a roll.

Here's to hoping I can make it a habit...


Serena said...

I hope to get my conference post done tomorrow. I know I am slacking off over here.

However, I am cheering you on with this writing routine and I think that puts you on day three or four of the only have about 27 or 26 more days before it becomes a habit. WOOHOO You can do it.

I had a great time at the conference and am now looking forward to the Bethesda Literary Festival. I think April is my favorite month for writing...

Dawn said...

Okay, I couldn't write to save my life but seriously got SUPER hungry when you talked about that food! LOL! Your descriptiveness was spot on! (do you hear my tummy growling?)

Sounds like you have a plan now so that's awesome! If you love doing something with a passion then I can see giving it it's rightful space in your life. Respect your talents and they'll reward you. :)

Anna said...

So far, so good with the writing routine. Fell off the wagon for two days while helping The Girl with a report, but it's going well.

Dawn: You don't know how much I'd give to have that same dish right now. It was soooo delish!

Bethany said...

What a I would not give for a night away. It sounds blissful and to be immersed in such fascinating stuff as well. Now post more of what you have knitted!!