Some thoughts and impressions on writing and publishing from the Southern California Writers Conference, at which I was privileged to teach three workshops and lead a “read and critique” group over the weekend. Needless to say, sleep has been really hard to come by the past few days. I’m still buzzing from the wealth of ideas, fine writing and commiseration with authors, editors, agents and publishers from throughout the country. Directors Michael Steven Gregory and Wes Albers have built a wonderfully effective formula of hard work mixed with great keynoters and massive servings of … fun.
And when we all reconvene September 23-25 in Newport Beach, sounds like may get the opportunity to facilitate a very cool session — the Rogue Read & Critique, which starts at 9 p.m. and ends whenever the last person finishes reading and we drop. That could be 6 a.m. the next morning, depending on how much writing and caffeine is consumed. I call it writing and workshopping in its purest, most obsessive form, real Anne Rice stuff … the golden key to becoming truly great at our art and craft …
Anyway, I digress. But you get the gist of this conference’s spirit. It is fun, bawdy, lively, diverse, and good. Plus, it took place on Valentine’s weekend, in San Diego, where the temperatures climbed to 75 – making a lot of people very happy who’ve been freezing, moving sandbags or shoveling snow or mud through this real bitch of a winter (my Aunt told me last night that 49 of the 50 states have seen snow this winter).
Three outtakes (with more to certainly pop up in future blogs):
Multiple Platform Publishing: Even though I help out clients with all forms of publishing, I have been quite reluctant to give up the old way in my work — the printed book that you can touch and feel. Not any more. We’re in the midst of the greatest revolution in communications since Gutenberg invented the printing press 520 years ago. Two workshops by Lin Robinson and a keynote speech by Be The Media author David Mathison emphasized the evident: if we don’t start embracing the myriad forms of digital and online publishing now fanning across the land, and use these vehicles to publish and promote our work, we’re going to get swept down an ever-growing river. And it will happen soon. From Web Lit to e-books, podcasts to video book trailers, blogs to wikis and zines, we need to learn and become proficient quickly. I’ll be featuring both Lin Robinson and David Mathison on future blogs.
Monster and the Muse: Writing Scared: When I saw this workshop title, I thought, “This is about writing horror and hanging in there while your own characters are scaring the hell out of you.” Not even close. Esteemed novelist and San Diego City College professor Laurel Corona, the author of The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice, had something else in mind. Of course, I was intrigued because Laurel was teaching and I’m the biggest Venice freak west of the Grand Canal (maybe my Italian heritage has something to do with it). This workshop was all about overcoming writer’s block at all stages of the process. “The idea is not to get over the fear but to write despite it. We have to have pep talks to get ourselves in harmony with the fear,” she said.
Laurel then offered up a way to stop writer’s block before we put down the first sentence of Chapter One, by embracing knowledge and love of language:
• Knowledge Of Subject: You have to really care about your subject. “I care enough to write this, even if nothing happens.”
• Knowledge Of Self: Do you like writing groups? Or solitude? Do you like to write for two hours a day – or all day? Do you need a lot of praise while works are in progress? “You have to have recognition of what your needs are while you’re writing.”
• Knowledge Of Audience: “Do not think you are going to be THE ONE who’s going to appeal to everybody.”
After that, Laurel said something that every writer who ever wants to be an agented, published author and sit on a bookstore shelf should embed in their hearts immediately, and refer to it daily: “You won’t get an agent and the agent won’t get a publisher unless they know where to put it on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. Period. If you want to be published, you have to accept that. You have to know your genre going into the book.”
I had to leave early to conduct a read & review with an attendee, but not before hearing a final gem from this very talented author, who opened her doors writing academic books on foreign countries for a young adult audience and then showed her deeper talent as a novelist: “In the end, we never find the right way to say anything. We find a way to say something that’s acceptable. Writing is really rewriting. It’s amazing how many ways we can say the same thing.”
• Quality of Writing: On Saturday, I had the privilege of conducting a read & critique with about 15 authors. They included fiction writers, a couple of non-fiction authors, a memoirist, and two poets (including 18-year-old Sonoma State University freshman Jake Pruett, perhaps the finest, most refined teen poet I have ever met. I was writing poetry at 18, but my verse was scribble compared to this. Get used to his name, poetry fans; you’re going to see it again). We blew off the 90-minute time allotment and spent a good two hours giving input and feedback on a wide variety of stories; we easily could’ve gone three or more hours. I’ve conducted these types of roundtables before at conferences, but never in 12 years of teaching have I been in a room where all 15 pieces ranged from very good to excellent, as in, ready to publish.
In fact, half the people in the room are now foregoing sleep and busily polishing their works because of editors and agents who saw the same thing I did. Trust me on this: there was a multi-author Facebook and email exchange happening at 1 a.m. this morning; everyone was working. What hit me were two things: their storylines, and their originality of style. They all had strong storylines, and they all had developed voices. None were published book authors – yet.
First point: There is a ton of great writing out there by authors just as hungry to reach their audiences as we are. Often hungrier. The only way to rise above it and see yourself on a bookshelf is to be so original in content and storyline, so resonant in voice, so infectious in the energy of your prose (or poetry) and so polished in your sentence structure and word choices that your book can’t help but sell itself. Do not submit until it’s as perfect as you can make it.
Second point: When the opportunity strikes, seize it and don’t let go. Create the circumstances that form your future as an author. That’s what the 1 a.m. Facebook and email exchange was all about.
Back with more from this magnificent conference …