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Hard Lessons from A Rally of Writers

Last weekend, the ladies of the Pigasus Pen attended the 26th annual Rally of Writers in Lansing. It was the first year that the Rally sold out completely ahead of time--writers found themselves excitingly, yet somewhat uncomfortably, packed together with the largest crowd of other writers they had ever seen. Rally founder Linda Peckham welcomed us at the beginning by describing ARoW as the "warmest" writing conference in the nation, and I think she was probably spot-on. (We Michiganders are desperate for warmth in April.) The speakers and workshop leaders were remarkably candid, earnest, and generally hilarious. We had opportunities to meet a fabulous editor and a local agent. I learned some important lessons--some kind of hard--and galvanized some of my preexisting notions about writing and publishing.

The workshops I attended were called "Beginning the Short Story," "Young Adult Fantasy," "Writing for Children," and "Striking the Match." Here I'm sharing with you the best things I learned from each session, in a nutshell!

Beginning the Short Story

Short story author George Dila told the novelists among us, "You can do anything in a novel." He shrugged as if to dismiss the idea that his workshop could translate to a work longer than a short story, but what I took away from it is that novelists have more freedom than short story writers. Novels come with a back cover or dust jacket that explains what the story is about. They are lengthy and complex works that defy a commonly held definition. So the novelist doesn't have quite as much pressure to do quite so much, so strictly in the first paragraph--but that said, I did find that the workshop gave me clear guidance about how to improve the first paragraph of my novel.

George began by explaining that writing technique trumps story in the short story. This, again, is different for novelists. Any written work of any length benefits from a combination of both elegant writing and meaty content, but the balance is shifted toward wordsmithing in a shorter work. The reason? "The story is the hamburger," he said (and was echoed by a later instructor, a novelist, who said, "The story is the kindling."). Every story has been done before; it's how the writer tells it (how the recipe is cooked, how the fire is lit) that makes it special. "Telling a story is like a magic trick," George said. "You make something appear or disappear." At the end, the captivated reader should ask in wonderment, "How'd s/he do that?"

The first two or three sentences of a short story should do three things:
  1. Ground the reader in time, place, and the protagonist's point of view. (Answer the questions: What's going on? Who are we reading about?)
  2. Engage the reader. (Answer the questions: What's at stake? So what? Why should we care?)
  3. NEVER start with dialogue. (Of course, note that with any piece of advice, there are always exceptions to the rules. Starting with dialogue usually sounds stupid and clumsy, however.)

A workshop attendee asked a question about how stories get chosen for publication. George used this moment to highlight the difference between learning how to write well and learning how to get published. He pointed out that stories get published for a variety of reasons, good writing often being among them--and left it at that. This workshop focused on building writing skills, not the business end of publishing.

George did NOT say this, but I drew my own conclusion drawing on what I learned at this workshop and what I've learned all along my writing journey--though a good novel can start with a soft opening, I feel that I have a greater chance of attracting the interest of an agent, editor, and/or publisher--and maybe someday, a distracted book shopper--by applying George's advice for a clean, direct, engaging and informative first paragraph. It seems like a foolproof place to start, in any case. Thus begins the process of revising the first page of my manuscript for the 2,036th time.

YA Fantasy

This workshop was led by a young woman author of a YA paranormal series. I won't mention her name here because I want to spill some of the candid, heartfelt, priceless dirt she dished on the other side of publishing without getting her into more trouble than she's seen so far! This 20-something young talent came across as brilliant, sharp, gracious, humble, a little bit neurotic, refreshingly honest, authentic, and drop-dead hilarious in her delivery. "You guys," she confessed from the podium, "my job sucks!"

She deviated from the official topic of her workshop for a few minutes to follow up on a theme introduced by our keynote speaker, thriller author Karen Dionne, about the importance of--and the difficulty in--finding a supportive community of other writers.

The young YA author explained that although she loves writing, working with her editor, traveling "for research," and many other great aspects of her career, she has felt blindsided by the Mean Girls (and Boys) behavior of fellow writers and frenemies whose fangs have emerged, so to speak, with each of her accomplishments. Without naming names or getting into specifics, she admitted that she no longer makes many public appearances because she has developed so much anxiety over the nastiness she's encountered. She differentiated between receiving a negative review or critique (which can be helpful) and a personal attack based on jealousy or spite. She has learned the hard way how important and hard it is to edit and maintain a circle of true friends and supportive colleagues in a business that focuses on, well, being in touch with emotional darkness and the psyches of teenagers.

As if on cue, a participant walked out of the workshop in a huff.

I just smiled, because I've heard all of this before from other authors--especially Young Adult authors--outside of the public sphere where a writer can get into a lot of trouble for complaining about a publishing house or a colleague. I talked to this particular author after the workshop, and she assured me that going into the business with a realistic view of what to expect would be enormously helpful in protecting against disillusionment and hurt feelings.

She also gave me some encouragement, affirming that despite agents' and publishers' overflowing slushpiles in today's market, those of us who have been passionate writers and storytellers since early childhood "are the ones who make it."

Her personal story was inspiring; although she is clearly a very intelligent person, she struggled with severe dyslexia in school and dropped out of college. She highlighted that in this line of work, innate talent and the urge to write are what matter; a successful writing career doesn't need any degree or credential.

So given a talented and driven author, here's the magic recipe for a successful YA novel!
  1. Solid world-building. YA novels, unlike high fantasy novels for adults, move quickly and focus on character development and relationships. "Less is more" in the world of a YA story; young people are smart but get bored by long passages of exposition. The setting should be based on one that is recognizable, and the details that make it special and magical should unfold organically as the plot moves along. Think smooth and simple, not dumbed-down.
  2. The right tropes and trends. All successful genre books use tropes and sync with trends. The trick is to pick the right ones--the tropes that best tell your story and the trends that haven't hit yet. What? Yes, that's right. It's impossible to follow the trends; by the time books, films, and shows on a trendy theme have hit the media, agents and publishers are looking for the next big thing. Don't follow trends, try to predict or even start the next one. Instead of looking at what's hot now, ask yourself, "What hasn't been done yet?" And always, always follow your heart. Write the story you would like to read, and your fascination will shine through.
  3. A relatable protagonist. The best protagonists start out very normal and flawed, like a typical teenager. The author must be in touch with the emotional lives of high schoolers right now (not in the '90s, not in the '00s, but right now--this stuff changes in subtle but important ways all the time). Character growth is key; the main character must go through a process of self-discovery and change by the end of the book. To get this right, it helps to be an adult who has been through all of that in the past and who is also in contact with teens on a regular basis, whether through family life, volunteer work, a day job, or a hobby--for example, the author teaching this workshop rides horses along with gaggles of gossipy teen girls. Most of the time, "relatable protagonist" in YA means a teenage girl with dark hair and average characteristics, plus a little something that makes her special. That sounds like a limited template, and it is. Currently (and in the foreseeable future), the YA genre is read almost entirely by teen girls and women. This readership, in general, likes to self-insert into a main character who is a lot like themselves--or the girls they used to be. The right protagonist, "hot guy" romantic interest (or set of them), and antagonist can make or break a story. The writing doesn't have to be that great as long as the reader wants to step into the main character's shoes. (Think Twilight.) If this sounds cynical, it is--a little bit. There's nothing wrong with relating to your reader on a deeply personal level. And there are YA novels that deviate from this model. Right now YA books featuring a male protagonist are in the minority (with notable exceptions such as the later Harry Potter books), and many authors and publishers are working on reaching out to a broader YA audience. The norm right now is for male readers to jump right from children's or middle grade books to adult fantasy and sci-fi because YA is dominated by romance-centered books appealing to girls and women. But this is one of those tides that could change with the next big trend.
  4. A compelling antagonist. The best villains have complex personalities. Their actions are driven by strong convictions, and they will go to any ends to fulfill their desires. Many antagonists are male; some good ones are female, but this YA author cautioned about letting female characters, villains included, fall into the cliched virgin/whore dichotomy. It's okay for female characters, good or evil, to be attractive and in control of their sexuality. But it's tiresome to see so many female villains use sexed-up powers for evil deeds. It sends an uncomfortable message that female sexuality = evil. For those authors who are concerned about the value judgments young readers draw from stories, be aware of how female sexuality comes with a lot of baggage in our culture. The stock slut is likely to be upgraded with more interesting female characters in the near future, as young readers and writers develop a taste for the many flavors of empowered femininity.
The topic of presenting uncomfortable topics to young readers appropriately leads nicely into my summary of the next workshop.

Writing for Children

Groovy children's author/illustrator Matt Faulkner gave us a tour of his creative journey, which has led him to release a series of children's books on frightening, dark places in our nation's history. His stories deal with violence, misogyny, and racism in powerful but astutely age-appropriate ways, accompanied by lush and whimsical images in ink and watercolor.

He began his workshop by nervously admitting his adherence to an ancient Celtic belief that stories are offered to us in dreams by spirits. These are stories that need to be told, and if we do not accept them, they are taken away--forgotten--and given to someone else to tell. 

Matt came across as a deeply intuitive, spirit-driven artist who tempers his convictions with careful study. His wife is a child development expert, so his intuitions about childhood are constantly measured against scientific research on the way children process information. (Spoiler alert: It's not all that different from the way adults do it. Schoolchildren can smell moralizing, condescension, and whitewashing from miles away.)

He starts with the assumption that his young audience is already aware of the horrors of the outside world to some extent, through the media and observation of adults. School-age children already have nightmares and fears. They already have a strong sense of right and wrong, pain and injustice. They have caught on that the world is not always fair, and the adults in their life can't fix everything.

The trick in telling a story to children about police brutality or concentration camps is to simplify. (As our Young Adult workshop leader explained, simplify without dumbing down.) You don't need to show or tell much to hint at the terror of a riot or the threat of a war. Matt discussed the difficulty of letting go of his own personal shock and rage about the historical events he researches before he completes a book for the eyes of children. There is no need to beat a child over the head, so to speak, with the author's own anger and disgust about an issue. Showing the child an artful sketch of the situation is enough, and it is quietly powerful.

Presenting a moment in history also reads as more authentic when everything doesn't get tidied up perfectly at the end--just like in real life. A work that raises profound questions without providing pat answers is a work that provokes its audience to think, discuss, and feel--in an open and safe construct of art and critical thinking.

In a nutshell ('cause that's what I do here), the lessons I extrapolated from this workshop that apply to writing fiction for all ages are:
  1. Step right, left. First, engage your right brain and go buckwild. Reach out and take that story that the muse is dangling above you. Scribble, scrawl, and let it all out. Then isolate the muscle of your left brain to organize, revise, edit, and ultimately market. In the middle, keep those hemispheres in communication so you don't stunt your creativity or lose your message in chaos.
  2. Develop an authentic voice. Tell that story the way only you, personally, can tell it. Show how and why this story resonates in your own frame of reference. Don't try to tell someone else's story or be who you think you should be. Authenticity rings clear for the reader of any age.
  3. Question, don't preach. If you ask the right questions, the reader will be inspired to do the heavy lifting of analysis and imagination, creating a rich, dynamic experience. If you try to give away all the answers like the teacher's guide to some textbook, the reader will be bored--at best. If you frame the questions just right, the message you intend to get across will not be lost in ambiguity; it will come alive and spin off valuable conversations and flights of fancy.

I bought one of Matt's books for my daughter, Nux Gallica, and I hope it leads to meaningful conversations with her someday. Magical children's books (and grownups' books too) help facilitate conversations, not replace them with dry lessons to memorize.

However, it's great to start out with a pile of dry, historical facts. As my final workshop leader stated, "The story is the kindling."

Striking the Match

Author Karen Simpson writes fiction for adults about deeply disturbing racial conflicts in American history, so her workshop was a great counterpart to Matt Faulkner's. She started in an eerily similar way, by explaining a cultural pan-African belief that the spirits of the ancestors bring us stories from the past that need to be told for humanity to heal and grow.

For Karen, this was a story of racial violence, mercy, and compassion. Though she conceded that she does believe it is possible to come up with your own good story, sometimes it feels as though a story is pressed upon us from a source that is greater than our own psyche.

Karen further developed the idea Matt introduced, that inspiring fiction doesn't hand over neatly packaged answers. The stories that haunt us, the conflicts that we can't reconcile--those hold the most potential to inspire readers and change lives through storytelling. "The story is the kindling," Karen told us. And that gritty, chafing, harsh reality that we cannot justify or accept--that is the surface where we can strike the match.

Karen struck the match for her novel Act of Grace on the rough fact of racial injustice. Each writer has a different issue that is most personally disturbing, a different paradox that can't be solved, a different thorn in the side, a different grain of sand in the oyster. It is difficult but powerful to engage with our deepest fears and hopes. The editing process for such a work is as much about revising our very souls as revising our work. It is frustrating when the answers to our itchiest questions cannot be found in the past or in the harsh reality of the present, when the facts show us what should not be true but stubbornly is. But it's those barren facts piled together and those messy, empty spaces between them that produce the brightest, hottest flame when we find out where to strike the match.

Despair falls just as flat as a too-perfect happy ending. Despair and perfection are both a way of giving up on a story, a way to leave it behind and forget about it. The tricky business of creating inspiring fiction is to acknowledge the most terrible outrages that we cannot solve completely--while opening the way for hope and redemption.

Since attending this workshop, I've been practicing the dual meditations of looking outward--asking myself, "What story am I meant to tell? What new voice can I bring to the world?"--and reflecting inward--asking myself, "What are my deepest fear and hope that cannot be reconciled?"

As always, A Rally of Writers has left me buzzing with questions and insights that I can't wait to explore. I've added a little more magic to my nutshell, and I'm ready to write!


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