6 Reasons Why I Love The Muse…

Yesterday, I went to Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace writing conference 2011. It runs for both Saturday and Sunday, but this year I only went for only one. Conferences are expensive and they can be somewhat intimidating, especially if you are shy. But they are so worth it. I have actually never been to any other conference besides the Muse, and this was only my second year going, but I hope to go to more in the coming year. There is Write Angles conference that happens right here in the Pioneer Valley and it is affordable. I want to go to more because going to conferences is the best way to exercise your writer muscles, beyond writing itself that is. Yesterday, I had an amazing time. So here are 6 reasons why I love this conference, and why I think all writers should find away to go to at least 1 writing conference a year.

1) You meet other writers. You have all heard before, and know first hand, that writing is often a solitary endeavor, that can in fact be lonely if we don’t reach out. The writing group is an important remedy to this, as is social networking on line. But at a conference, you get to meet folks who write in other genres, who share your hopes, dreams, and frustrations, and who are just as excited as you to learn more and stretch their writing skills. I met some really great people yesterday, and I admit I was a bit shameless with the business card thing. Anyone who uttered more than a sentence in my direction got a card. Hey – why not? It’s a great way to get people to remember you and check you out. So if you are here because of that card – THANKS for stopping by!

2) You meet published authors. One of the best events for me this year was meeting one of  my writing idols: Alice Hoffman. She was lovely. She led a seminar of brainstorming for a linked story collection and it was so fun just to hang out with her. And, being the Lisa Simpson that I am, when she needed someone to write on the board and take notes, my hand shot up. So, I got to be her assistant. Yay! What fun. She was great.

3) You learn things. The Muse and the Marketplace is great because it does exactly what it’s name says, it presents opportunities to spark the muse, and to explore the marketplace – two different aspects of the writing life, but each equally important, depending on where you are in the process and what your current goals are as a writer.

Last year, I was getting ready to query DISTILLATION for the first time, so I focused a lot on the Marketplace aspect. I went to seminars with “agents on the hot seat” talking about what they do, what they like, don’t like, and how they view the industry right now. I also went to query sessions and met with an agent for the purpose of getting feedback on my query. It was so helpful all around. This year, I am working on revamping my story a bit, and so I focused more on the Muse aspect. I learned about the elements of thrillers and mysteries, and I got some insight into the essentials of structure.

4) You get outside your comfort zone. This may seem like the most terrifying part of the conference, and it fits into a number of the other reasons for going to the conference. You can’t meet people if you sit on your phone checking your email the whole time, or if you won’t strike up a conversation. But when you do go out on a limb, it is rewarding.

One risk I took was submitting my first page (anonymously as required) to the “Author Idol” seminar, in which a panel of 4 established writers listen to a professional “reader” read first pages one at a time from the submission box. If they hear something they don’t like, they raise their hand. At two hands, the reader stops reading. SCARY. The conference also offers a version of this with Agents, which I watched last year, but did not submit too. That is even scarier, because they have much more critical ears, as is expected.

When the reader get to yours you tense up and stop breathing, hoping your face is not turning red, and that it’s not obvious they are reading your piece. The anonymity is important because the agents or authors can be more open about their reactions. This may make you think: “No Way! Why would I put myself through that?” And yes, it even says in the brochure this exercise is not for the thin skinned. But it is great. You get so much insight into your writing. Which brings me to #5.

5) You get honest feedback on your work. This, for me, is the most important aspect of going to a conference. Whereas some conferences do the speed dating style pitch sessions, The Muse allows you to sign up (at an extra, but tax deductible, cost – it does not go to the agents – it supports Grub Street programs) for a one on one, twenty minute session with an agent or editor of your choice. Here is a reason why The Muse and the Marketplace is such a high caliber conference. Amazing authors and agents volunteer their time to this event. Of course, authors do get to sell books, and agents may just find a submission they are interested in, but overall it is so generous of them to do this.

6) You feel like a professional. Last week I wrote about having a business card, and about how they help boost your sense of self as a writer. Going to a conference does the same thing. The Muse is at the Park Plaza Hotel is Boston. It is really nice. They serve a fabulous lunch. The presenters are top shelf. The attendees are serious, just as serious as you. What a great way to affirm: I am a writer. I am willing to work (and perhaps invest a few Benjamins) to further my career as a writer, and this is because I am serious about my craft and want to learn, network, and invigorate my writing practice. Going to a conference validates your goals as a writer – whatever they may be, whether you want to write your family memoir, get your work accepted in a literary magazine, publish a novel, or just express yourself.

I’d love to hear about other conferences out there that people think are great and anyone who did go to The Muse and the Marketplace (some of you are there right now!) tell me what you loved.

Hello out there

I sent out my first twenty pages to Muse yesterday and it left me feeling a little insecure. On Friday night I spent a lot of time thinking about this process and how stunned I am that I am even at the point of putting it out there – and how exhausting this editing process has been. But, I am about to be knocking at the door of the writer’s club and hoping I will be let in so to speak.
After the conference – no matter what happens there, in terms of feed back or reception, I will begin the Summer of the Slush Pile. I cringe at the thought of it -but what else can be done? I do have some finish work to do on the rest of the ms – which I think I will get done over April vacation. After that – it is time to brace for rejection – and hope for a little luck. I also plan to work on my next story over the summer – which I am tumbling in my brain now.

One goal I do have for Alice in the next book is for her to discover her family history.

I created Alice Towne’s family name from my husband’s paternal grandmother’s line – the Townes. This is taken from my own family’s interests in the subject as well as that the Townes actually are descended from Rebecca (Towne) Nurse of the Salem witch trials. We were told a while back – but just recently we actually saw the genealogy ourselves- and it is her brother Jacob they are descended from. (Thanks for that btw). With this view of the genelogy we also discovered some bizarre coincidences that I had no idea of before – there was an Ariel Towne (male) and his great grand daughter was named Alice Towne.

I have a whole ficitional genealogy I wrote at the start of the novel tht shows Alice’s line. In my story, Alice is the rationalist who doesn’t believe in the family lore and her mother left the life behind for what she thought was security – and I ended up focusing on Alice coming to terms with her supernatural inclinations (through the ghost story element) and accepting her mother for who she is – but due to editing – did not end up including the genealogy. The two women, as far as Distillation is concerned, are removed from other family members and when a letter comes from an aunt at the end… well… we have a transition point and an opportunity to find out more about the family, find out things Josephine has either stopped talking about, never knew, or never told.

For the record, I am not actually writing about the real life people in my husband’s family. And my mother recently asked me if I were going to ever write about Italian witches too – the strega. I don’t know where it will go yet – but I have it all rattling around in my brain, and I also want to remain true to the “New England magic realism” genre I intended to write from the beginning.
By this I mean, unlike some other stories with “real” magic in them – my stories also leave room for doubt. There is more than one kind of magic in the world.

I have also been working on the glimpses into the history Alice uncovers in Distillation. This is the finish work I need to do over April vacation. They are not historically detailed chapters, but rather 500 word glimpses into specific moments adding context to what she uncovers – but with an ear toward fairy tales and poetry. The plan is to intersperse them throughout the novel’s 30 odd chapters and combine each glimpse with one of the seven stages of the alchemical process of transmutation.

The plan, the plan, on with the plan.

How many licks does it take?

I have been revising and revising and revising. Writing group met last Saturday and I spent the rest of the day reworking my first three chapters – again. I have to confess – I try to be a good workshopee – I try to take criticism well – but it is so hard sometimes when you have spent so much brain power to do it one way and then it is suggested to do it another way. But this is the name of the game and any writer needs to be able to take it – and enjoy it. Which is easier said than done of course. After initial frustration and denial that removing altogether the second chapter which gives the back story of why Alice is heading to Ashfield – I realized it was what I should have done long ago. I always hated that chapter and I had said many times before. And now – with a little outside wisdom to help me – I can see that there was never any reason to show that argument. Maybe I needed to write it so I knew what happened – but my readers don’t need to read it. I have taken the advice of my writing group and a number of writing web sites and have now sprinkled in the back story in small doses in other places. At least that was what I set out to do – but soon I realized that most of it was already in there in some form or another and that I didn’t even need to add more in. What a liberating feeling to delete much of the Steven scene. I am happy to have done it. In the same stroke though I had to move much of the initial view of Josephine – which I did find ways to sprinkle in. And I think it works better now.

Having done all of this – I was then able to pull forward yet another chapter into the first three. Now all of the main characters are introduced in those first three chapters and the stage is fully set. I have erased all time shifts – even if that means Evelyn leaves the day Alice moves in – which I hated the idea of originally when I combined the two coming to Ashfield chapters. But now it doesn’t seem so bad. I kind of just let it be .

I am intending to send my manuscript to the MUSE on Monday. I have a little tweaking to do on the letter and the synopsis – now that I have taken out the Steven chapter – but that shouldn’t be hard to do. Famous last words.

In other news. I checked out of the library a short novel by Stephen King that I had never heard of until I was doing a recent google search on the subject of what is planned to be my next novel. In an article on the subject – the murder of a girl on an island off the coast of Maine – it said that Stephen King had written about the incident in the afterward to his story The Colorado Kid. So I checked it out and sure enough he beat me to the punch -sort of. I have not read his story yet – but it is the story of a boy who is found dead on a beach on an island off the coast of Maine. As far as I can tell he did not use the original circumstances as much as I plan to.

So I don’t know if this is a good thing or not – but at least I am picking ideas that Stephen King also thinks are good. And I think my story though inspired by the same event – will not be the same story at all. But I still have to read the rest of the book. So we’ll see.

Otherwise – grading papers is on going – but I use my writing as a reward. Once I have met my quota of papers for the day I can work a little on the ms. That is where I am at now – so onward.

Last thought – it is utterly flabbergasting how much I have edited this novel in the last two months. From the 7,000 word cut – the count is now 96,500 – down from 103,000 – to the trimming of the first three chapters . I can liken it to pruning a rose. Prune more than you think you should and it will blossom into something beautiful. (I hope)