The AWP was in Seattle this weekend. AWP stands for Association of Writer’s and Writing Programs.
I was unaware of this conference until about two weeks ago when a bowling buddy of mine (and published poet) asked me if I was going – and that if not I absolutely should as this was a ‘biggie’ as far as writing conferences was concerned and traveled around the US each year. I mentioned it to my classmates and someone discovered we received a significant discount as a student, so we signed up.
The conference ran Thursday through Saturday, and they said over 14k attendees showed up. This was my first non-nerd conference as an attendee – and at first it was odd to see so many professionals w/o Batman or Pokémon costumes on – but quickly I got into the grove and attended 3 days worth of panel talks inbetween conference calls and other work meetings (lots of driving Thursday and Friday!).
In addition to downloading about 50 samples of books from the different speakers (and dropping some coin in the YA section of Barnes and Nobel on the way out each day) here are the tips I picked up:
Topic: It’s Funny Because It’s True
- Nicole Hardy “Confessions of a Latter Day Virgin”
- Suzanne Morrison “Yoga Bitch”
- Claire Dederer “Poser”
All three wrote memoirs (non-fiction), though embellished for laughs. All three read from their memoirs to start the morning. I downloaded samples of the first two. The second one sounded good – but was about mommyhood and that is not my cup o tea.
Tips on writing humor (fiction or non-fiction)
- Humor should ‘sneak’ up on the reader. If they see the joke/comedy coming it won’t be as funny/impactful
- Rule of three – in some cases repeating the funny thing in different ways becomes funnier as it becomes less obtuse
- When you are writing something you think is hilarious be sure to take a step back and look at it from 30k feet to make sure other people will think it is as funny as you do (esp. in non-fiction, because you are writing from memory)
- Sometimes people use humor to avoid writing about other things – dig deep and find out what it is you really want to write about. Be honest with yourself and you’ll find your writing is better.
- With memoir humor when you look critically at yourself (self deprecating) it is easier to make fun of others
- Difference between Wit and Comedy? With a ‘witty voice’ you don’t need comedic scenes. True comedic scenes are hard.
Topic: Commercial Literary Fiction (Not an Oxymoron): The Place of Craft in Writing and Teaching Children’s and Young Adult Literature
Impressive group of ladies – with over 100 titles published among them. I downloaded samples from Micol and Nova. They were all quite complimentary of each other as well. They all recommended Sara Zarr’s podcast, and were impressed with Nova’s invitations to writing fellowships (where apparently you get to hole up on someone’s dime and write for an extended period. COOL!)
They also recommended several other kid-lit authors/books that I might mention throughout that I’ve either downloaded samples or bought (thank you Kindle for immediate gratification!).
Book/Author recco Robert Cormier’s Chocolate War (heard this recco in two other panels so it’s now been downloaded to my Kindle.)
Difference between YA and Middle Grade? YA teens like looking in the mirror and understanding themselves, MG like looking out the window and discovering the world. In BOTH cases the POV is close up whether that be in first person or a very close third person.
Everyone should have a one sentence pitch for their idea/book. Micol started as an editor/publisher so hammered this point home and I think she’s right. It’s your books elevator pitch. Come on people. I know it’s your baby, but getting it down to one sentence is a must. They suggested “XX meets XX” – for instance “Indiana Jones meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide” or something of the like with popular notions that anyone could grasp quickly.
Most of them (outside of Micol) started by writing what they wanted to write, not thinking about what audiences wanted to read. They quickly found though by commercializing a bit (adding a ‘big moment’ – Sara suggested a dead body or a bag of cash as examples) your novel can quickly become more exciting/commercially relevant.
For Commercial YA think about starting you book with something happening, not pages of dialog or setting. YA Commercial doesn’t mean EASY either.
There are no topics off limits anymore (see Friday morning’s panel for more on this – yow). YA is more about the immediacy of the main character and their age than subject matter (hence why The Book Thief is a YA book, even though it’s about Nazi’s and horrible things during the holocaust).
Recommended exercises from Stephanie who teaches at the Hugo House in Seattle:
1) Write four paragraphs about your main character’s hands and what they are doing at that moment. Get into the immediacy of the character.
2) An exercise to help you understand your character is to write down what in their ‘life’ changes them the most. It may not end up in the book but it will help you understand your character better.
Nova recommended that you know while writing your first two paragraphs of your book you know what the ending is and incorporate some clues/hooks in the first page that you’ll come back to in the end. These may be so subtle in the beginning that only you as the author see them, but they will help you stay on track.
Then I had to go back to Redmond for meetings and a 1 hour publisher meeting turned into 3 so I skipped the rest of the panels I wanted to see. Hopefully my writing buddies took some notes.
This was quite the way to wake up. Yesterday comedy, today brutal topics like abuse, racism, bullying, suicide, sex and yes – the Black Panthers.
There are two types of abuse individual/personal and social/cultural (the way people are treated by society in general). Investigating these topics in writing can be painful and hard – but they are happening to kids today and if you can connect with one kid that is having a similar issue it makes it worth it to these authors who take risks.
In YA and Middle Grade you run into gate keepers; parents, teachers, librarians, media that will try to stop you from telling your story. Once a ‘Extreme Content’ label is slapped on a book it draws both good and bad attention.
Carrie Jones presented the sex portion of the talk and she was hilariously nervous. (need to check out her Need series – she seemed fun). Fun facts about SEX – in 2001 (!!) 47% of teens self reported having sex (to the CDC). Kids find a way to get books with racy content (think back to when we were little Wifey… anyone? Flowers in the Attic?).
Sex, drinking, and drugs are all things that teens deal with whether they read about them or not. But remember that if it is a plot element that it STILL needs to move the story along. Don’t just have sex for sex’s sake. 😉 (as someone in video game marketing I say AMEN to this. Call of Duty doesn’t make killers or deranged teenagers).
They recommended checking out the website Thepiratetree.com for even more info.
Lots of book reccos in this one. Here are a few that I’m considering checking out:
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Cut by Patricia McCormick
Scars by Cheryl Rainfield
Shine by Lauren Myracle (and for something lighter, but still banned: ttyl – done completely in text messages (one I bought at B&N) and yet another – they really liked this Lauren gal The Infinite Moment of Us.
Topic: Magic and Intellect
So far, my panels have been excellent. Funny, great engaging speakers, and they’ve given me at least a couple of nuggets to take away and think about. There were two panels that I wanted to attend during this time slot. Let’s just say on this one I chose poorly (I say this whilst thinking of the poor chap in the third Indiana Jones movie who drank from the wrong chalice and promptly aged himself to dust). I wished I would have gone to the one that had Vampires, Aliens and Fae in the title… sigh. But alas, here is a quick recap. First from the program since I clearly didn’t read this very well:
In her essay “The Deep Zoo” Rikki Ducornet writes: “the work of the writer is to move beyond the simple definitions or descriptions of things… and to bring a dream to life through the alchemy of language; to move from the street—the place of received ideas—into the forest—the place of the unknown.” On this panel five fiction writers intend to describe, depict, illustrate, and otherwise expose this movement from known to unknown in order to ask: what do we mean when we say “magic”?
Okay – interesting right? Well. Each person took a turn at the podium and unfortunately it started off poorly and never recovered. Let me say that they could have had double the size room for this panel. It was PACKED to the gills. Lots of people are interested in magic apparently. There were people standing 3-4 deep against the walls, all of the floor space was covered and nary a seat was empty. I had two ladies sit on either side of me in the front row and have a conversation on top of me. That was weird, but they settled down once the discussion started.
The first person got up to speak and had a stack of papers she was reading from. To this point in my AWP experience I’ve had folks engaging either by reading their own (comedic) books, free speaking in a panel, or presenting a couple of slides with book images on them. This was the first person who had typed pages to read from. And read from them she did. In a monotonous voice. Poor thing. I couldn’t tell if what she was reading was her presentation or someone’s work or some personal thoughts – VERY confused (and I didn’t hear anything about magic, though I was probably expecting Harry Potter fireworks so my bad there), and then it got better/worse as she said, now I’m going to read from a new novel that I’m putting out… DEAR GOD for the next fifteen minutes she talked about different ways to kill babies. Some were the dead baby jokes of a few years ago (Thanks Chenelle for educating me there, I just thought she was twisted). After about 15 minutes with no sign of letting up some dude standing the back of the room yells out “WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH MAGIC AND INTELLECT?” after a shocked pregnant pause from the reader he continued with something about how this was the third panel he’d been to that was misrepresented (he wasn’t reading the descriptions very well either) and she was going on FAR too long about dead babies. A few others murmured their agreement and then some audience members started sticking up for the author talking about how she was evoking emotion from him and the passage was doing it’s job… and then he countered with I’ve waiting 20 years to see Rikki speak and I would just like to see this moving along (fair enough..). Then the other panelists came to her defense, including Rikki and she continued. He and several others left the room (though it was still over fire code limit I’m sure in capacity). She finished her reading a few moments later and then sat at her spot and cried for 15 minutes. AWKWARD. Honestly – I’m not sure what any of the other presenters said because by then the room had become a psychology experiment and I was watching the audience to see their reactions/movements.
I do remember another speaker; Anna I think talking about birds as symbols for a really long uncomfortable time.
The ONE thing that I took away from the talk (aside from shock and awe that there are hecklers at book conferences) was that when you are writing about magic think about two symbols; Symbol 1 – your symbol to represent Magic in your mind. Symbol 2 – your symbol to represent intellect. Always be thinking about those and referencing them when writing to keep your writing clean/clear. Or something. honestly, WTF. time for another panel.
Topic: Authors & Editor: The Relationship that Builds a Book
- Jess Walter (writer of the award winning Beautiful Ruins)
- Calvert Morgan (Harper Collins Editor)
- Chuck Palahniuk (you’ve heard of the Fight Club have you not?)
- Monica Drake (author herself and member of Chuck’s writing group – how cool)
This was a refreshingly normal panel in a GIANT (Star Trek Convention Las Vegas Style) ballroom. The moderator posed questions for the authors and the editor and they answered honestly and in Chuck’s case pretty humorously (need to watch Fight Club again, his books are too dark for me but Brad Pitt…). Some of the questions:
1) How do you develop a level of trust with your editor 9or workshop group) when sending him work? Answers: recognize their authority and skill. Articulate what works and what doesn’t up front so everyone’s level set properly. Surround yourself with clever people, who have a memory of your past work to draw from.
Don’t use your editor/agent as a therapist – be a professional they aren’t there to FIX your work (or your problems) – present them with finished work and see where it goes from there.
2) Do you ever get to a point where you don’t think you need an editor? Answer: resounding NO from each.
3) How do you use your workshop process to improve? Answer (Chuck/Monica) they meet WEEKLY (still!) in Portland. It is exciting and fun with not competitive with each other. The push each other to be better. It is a good natural competition (unlike an MFA workshop where everyone is competing for attention).
4) What happens if you have a BAD writer in your workshop/group? Answer (Chuck/Monica) lie and tell them the group is disbanding… No – if you have a good ratio of great writers and bad writers then you can actually learn something from the bad AND possibly help them get better. Answer from Jess – his one workshop only he and another person were really serious about it, most wouldn’t read the pages before group or would fake it and come in w/ lame feedback like “I didn’t understand it…”. He kept the one serious person as a ‘beta reader’ and ditched the rest.
Topic: What I wish I knew before starting Writing for YA and Middle Grade
This was one of the most informative panels from a YA perspective. The writers on the panel were v. knowledgeable about the industry and genre. They all were from Minnesota and knew each other as well which lead to some fun banter. Some notes:
* Open the door immediately to the story. Can’t have four pages of setting/description like an adult novel. The narrator should be in your face/close up. Not an adult looking back on a story of a kid or removed 3rd person POV.
* Start with something happening! ACTION. DIALOG. EXCITEMENT. Get to the story quickly.
* Think about the economy of words – shrink a chapter down to a page, a page down to a paragraph, and a paragraph down to a sentence for younger audiences.
*Writerly writing is NOT impressive to these audiences.
*Read lots of different kid lit. Understand your audience, the toys they’re using, the dialog they’re using, their physical experiences of being a teenager. LOTS of HORMONES – not just kissing scenes – but always raging with emotion. Keep up – these teen experiences are changing all the time (e.g. Facebook is NO longer for kids… only adults use it. Find out what they’re using to be authentic if you’re story is modern). Be around kids (even if you don’t have them – go to malls, movies, schools to see how they interact).
* Immerse yourself in what you want to write. Don’t be afraid to write.
* When you’re done with your book (or have a favorite YA/MG book) underline the sad parts in blue (crayon) and the happy/funny parts in red (crayon) in the end your page should be purple for balance. You want a balance on every page.
* Develop your ‘teen voice’ – they will notice if you sound forced. Watch TV, Movies, and read books that are teen focused (and good) to get a good sense.
*Your audience is teenaged (and sometimes/more times now older) – but you have several gatekeepers who are also reading/commenting on your books: Parents, Editors, Librarians, Teachers, – all with thoughts on what is appropriate.
*YA is VERY fast paced – not a lot of pauses to look around.
* The community likes to participate in your writing – so be a STRONG social media person (example John Green).
*Join SCBWI, go to workshops, conferences, check out their blue boards and forums.
Topic: The Middle Matters: How Fiction Writers Approach the Middle of their Stories
Again I must start with the description from the AWP site: With so much attention to the beginning and ending of stories, this panel will focus on the neglected middle. By examining a variety of works of fiction by acclaimed writers, we will explore interesting and innovative choices writers have made in the middle of their work. What can a writer accomplish in the middle? What formal choices have writers made in the middle? Hinges, turns, crucial scenes, character growth, and other means of developing a work of fiction will be discussed.
I thought this would be a great capper to the day as this is what we’re currently studying at the UW (Saggy Middles). It was a pretty long day with few breaks and my coffee had worn off hours before. The time was spent reading different well written excerpts from short and longer stories from famed authors like James Joyce, Milton, and Dante… My challenge though was that we didn’t really talk or dissect why those middles were so strong. It made me appreciate my class that much more. We may have some wacky assignments that don’t make a lot of sense, but paired with the readings you understand as a writer that you need to make the middle strong to carry your reader to the climax.
Saturday Recap – I only attended one panel today but it was probably my favorite of the lot. So I’m glad I hauled myself over to Seattle.
Topic: Never Grow Up: Building a Life in Children’s and Young Adult Fiction
Loved this panel. Impressive ladies, with great stories and energy. Most of them got their start after college (all studying English in some form it seemed, Robin was a Harvard grad…whoa) in publishing or working with publishers. Sarah who was deeeelightful – started at Harlequin up in Canada – started writing ‘New Adult’ when there wasn’t a category like that and she and her editor/publisher/agent built a career around it. (promptly bought a compilation of her Magic in Manhattan book at B&N after the show). Robin started at Scholastic editing the bottom of the barrel stuff (since she was newbie on the totem) and after doing that for a while felt she COULD absolutely do better. (want to read her stuff as well – need to check amazon).
Sarah asked a few questions and the panel each took a turn answering. The first was how did they get their start (above), the second was whether they experienced a Sophomore Slump.
RW: After finishing her first series (7 Deadly Sins – 7 books which she really counts as one) she tried her hand at a more serious topic “Hacking Harvard” – at the suggestion of her publisher. She thought the idea of the book was perfect for her – but in reality it was the hardest thing she ever tried to write (I downloaded the sample).
AG: After her first book about fairytales/fables went well she started in on her second, and it fizzled for her. She had to do some reexamining on whether or not she really was an author (and she remained an author!). By her third book she had really done some personal digging and it shows in the writing. It is more honest and true to her.
EL: Her first publication was a picture book that was met successfully. Afterwards she thought she could do no wrong and went to pitch her next idea to her publisher – who promptly turned her down outright. This lead her to do some thinking about picture books and that she really didn’t understand what they were but got v. lucky with the first one.
SM: Her first book was quazi memoir-like and she was afraid that after writing it she had used up all of her funny jokes and wouldn’t have anything else to write about. Her next book she took a stab at writing a book about 3 roommates, from each of their 1st person point of view (which at the time hadn’t been done before). She found that she really had to work at making each voice sound unique and different, and in a voice that was but wasn’t hers.
Recommended to follow Holly Black (several times throughout the panel). Recommended Gordon Korman – former child prodigy (published at age 12) prolific writer of YA/MG. Recommended a site called Wattpad – for real feedback from readers.
Question to panel: Who do you model your career after? (must have 10 years more experience…)
Answers weren’t so much who, but how they thought about this process and how different the answers are. Some wanted to be superstars (a la Cassandra Clare), others wanted to have an impact (a la Robert Cormier) and still others wanted to teach and mentor and put out a title every 10 years or so.
Question to panel: How do you handle review/reviewers?
- EL: Look for the trades ‘star’ or ‘no star’ and check the box. Never reads Good Reads. You need to be able to block out the noise and ‘keep on swimming’ (my words not hers).
- RW: wants the ‘star’ to check the box, as the publishers will do more if you get stars. DOES look at Goodreads (et. al) because she wants to look for themes in bad reviews.
- SM: reads goodreads but only to improve the next version in a series, because by the time goodreads reviews come out there isn’t anything you can do about the book – it’s done and published. you can only impact future writing.
- All reviewers are customers/audience – tune out the idiots.
Question to Panel: When did you get an agent?
- RW – sadly two books into a seven book series – had a horrific agent experience and was shy about getting one after, but ended up finding a great one that she’s stuck with since.
- SM – was able to interview potentials f2f because she had a two book deal from Harlequin.
- AG – an agent should bring something to the relationship that you don’t have (a strength that you’re missing)
- EL – when you start earning money you should have an agent
Okay – what a fun time that was. Next up the SCBWI conference here in Seattle. Now back to the saggy middle for me!