This is the story about what happened after that Writers Conference in 1996 at which I became friends with the brilliant novelists Lucia Orth and Sasha Troyan.
Actually, a lot of things happened, one of them being that I went home and completely rewrote my current novel yet once again. Because we novelists do that. We rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.
You know why?
Because we are practicing a craft that goes on unto infinity, and the joy of the craft lies in practicing it.
Some other things happened too, though, and they’re pertinent to what you’re doing (I’m pretty sure), so I’m going to tell you about them this week.
Step #1 THE WINDMILL
I got my first literary agent
I know—everyone says agents don’t get clients at writers conferences. But she did.
So I did.
It was great.
I had a novel in early draft that she wanted very much to see, but what I had that was really worth something was a book already at the publisher’s, Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, for which unfortunately my co-author and I had prematurely signed the contract.
For the record, I hadn’t wanted to just sign it blind. I wanted to have it vetted by an agent or at least someone who knew anything at all about publishing contracts. For heaven’s sake. But my co-author refused to involve an agent on the grounds that it might annoy our publisher’s editor. The book was riding on his name, so I went along with him.
Later I showed the contract to my new agent.
She said it was a travesty.
I got to know my new literary agent
That agent happens to have a last name that’s extremely well-known in publishing: Caen. As in: Herb Caen. She’s his ex-wife, and her son is Herb’s only child.
She knows everybody in publishing.
She was chock full o’ excellent stories about famous people with whom she had hobnobbed—Jim Morrison of the Doors and the poet Michael McClure, the Black-&-White Ball Truman Capote threw in NYC to which she flew with her mask on her knee—simply great fun to visit with.
I was doing a couple of book-readings for my just-published book around the San Francisco Bay Area, getting excited about being a published author.
Altogether, a pretty thrilling time.
I started writing nonfiction book proposals
My agent was happy to work with me on my fiction—having already read an early draft of the novel I’d brought to the Writers Conference—but she explained that she couldn’t get me any kind of reasonable advance on my next book unless it was in nonfiction, like my first. (My co-author had gotten us $750 apiece as an advance on Children and the Internet to attend some event he said we were going to attend, although he never actually told me the name of it.)
So my agent and I were going to get the nonfiction ball rolling while I developed one of my novels into a polished manuscript.
I was still writing fiction
Because that’s what we fiction writers do: we write it.
Because in those days—1996—the whole zeitgeist of quality and editing and publication had not yet morphed into what it is today. All novelists took years to write their first novels.
Then I stopped doing anything
I got pregnant and, in short order, sick up the wazoo with morning sickness, and I stopped doing book-readings and book proposals and writing of any kind and just lay on the couch a lot thinking about chucking my lunch. I was in love and newly-married and a published author, so that was all still wonderful.
But morning sickness sucked.
Step #2 THE WIND
My agent and I were now spending only as much time talking as it took to deal with the fact that it turned out our publisher’s editor had:
not edited our book before publishing it
not read—or even had proofread by someone else—our final manuscript before publishing it
not sent me galleys to proof before publishing it, with the result that
it came out chock full to the eyeballs with typos
No kidding—if you look on the page facing page 1 (page 0), you find a charming quote attributed to “Irish Murdoch.”
Plus my co-author inserted various cartoons on his own authority, one of them making light of pedophilia, which he inserted into one of my chapters.
This was a book about children, to be marketed to the parents and teachers and educational administrators of children.
Apparently nobody on that project but me knew that pedophilia is not a joke to the people who care for children.
Step #3 THE MILL
So my agent was sending faxes and making phone calls, demanding some accountability from the publisher.
All to no avail.
Our editor ignored my agent. She was the head of her department at that publisher and apparently felt she could afford to. I’d met the editor and not particularly liked her, so I wasn’t surprised, but my agent and I were still both pretty bent.
I wrote a letter to the editor threatening legal action after I found out she’d gone to press without sending me my galleys. That scared her, so she kind of made an effort to act a little more professional after that. . .for about a minute.
Step #4 THE TANGLING
Children and the Internet was published in September, 1996, and sank immediately without a trace.
This was unfortunate and inexplicable in a number of ways:
It was an extremely important book
It was about how to handle the sudden accessibility of the Internet to those who teach children.
Using the Internet for children’s education had never been possible before on anything but the most limited, exclusive scale. . .although now of course there are computers in every classroom.
Also, my co-author had an international cult following as the author of the first easily-understood book for the average amateur on how to access the Internet.
And I had been a Computer Science student for three years at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, California, a highly-technical university where we couldn’t even get an email address unless we could prove we were computer students, much less access the Internet. So I knew a little about the technology we were explaining. Also, I had become a professional tech writer in the computer industry.
I had, in addition, years of experience working with and educating children across the board—from being Art Director at a cutting-edge alternative preschool for pacifist, non-sexist families in the early 1980s, to child advocacy for the abused children at a Battered Women’s Shelter, to Director of the Children’s Room at the Earthling Bookshop when it opened in San Luis Obispo.
It was the first book of its kind
Nobody had yet written a book about this phenomenon of using the Internet to educate children.
This technological advance was so new and so exciting and so obviously going to change the entire future of education around the world forever.
We checked constantly to make sure we weren’t being scooped.
It was timed perfectly for its target market
it came out the week Silicon Valley held their Computer Use in Education Conference—the first-ever conference on using the Internet to teach children.
We were in Silicon Valley. We lived and worked there. The schools I visited and profiled for the book are in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and Berkeley. This Computer Use in Education Conference was literally on our doorstep.
But we didn’t know about it until it was too late. We were head-down in writing the book all those months, and our publisher’s marketing department apparently didn’t do a single lick of marketing research.
I heard about the conference from one of the teachers I profiled in our book when he apologized for not being able to attend my book-reading the next night.
“I’ll be at CUE,” he said. “You know about that, right? The big Computer Use in Education Conference the computer companies of Silicon Valley are holding for teachers all about NetDay 96? I’m so sorry.”
I called the publisher’s marketing department in a panic.
“I don’t know,” she said laconically. “If you want to get me the information, I’ll look into it.”
“You can’t get us in now,” I cried. “It’s tomorrow night!”
She was remarkably unconcerned.
It was timed to coincide with a Presidential edict
If that’s not too rich for you.
President Clinton had pronounced 1996 the year to connect all schools in the US to the Internet. He’d declared a single Saturday in July NetDay 96. On this day, President Clinton encouraged parents, educators, and engineers across the country to volunteer to help their local schools connect to the Internet.
So teachers could use the Internet to teach children.
My co-author and I had actually gone out on NetDay 96 to our local schools and spent the day personally helping pull wires and set up computers and, generally, create access to the Internet for the teachers of children. I wrote a chapter about it for the book.
There was a real possibility we could have gotten a statement from the White House supporting us.
The White House.
But our publisher’s editor—yawn—couldn’t be bothered to ask.
So Children and the Internet sank out of sight.
(There are now zillions of books on this subject. The field is flooded. Naturally.)
Step #5 THE AFTERMATH
About a year and a half later, when my son was old enough to walk and I got a chance to go back to work, I finally gave up waiting for my agent to get results about the legal implications of what our publisher had done to our book (and was still doing, refusing to even re-issue an edition without all the typos and the pedophile cartoon.)
I went to the National Writer’s Union, which my agent had advised me to join the minute she met me.
They told me to collect all the information about her communications with the publisher and they’d help me write a letter to the top brass. I asked my agent to send me all her communications with the publisher on my behalf.
“Thank you for everything. Sorry you couldn’t get results. That damn editor. I know you did your best. I’m ending this whole fracas now, so we can go on with our lives.’”
Step #6 THE WHOLE POINT OF MY STORY
So why am I telling you all this? Two reasons:
The publishing industry is brutal
It was brutal then, and it’s brutal now. There is nothing we writers can do about this.
But you know what was worth it all?
The day I gave my new agent my partial manuscript to read, she called me at about six-thirty in the evening.
“I never call anyone after six,” she said. “Ever. But I had to call you. I love this. I love your novel.”
And while I was standing there reeling—thinking of everything you practice saying for just this moment when a literary agent calls you up and says just exactly that—she started quoting me to myself.
She read my own words out loud to me over the phone.
So now I can die happy. I didn’t sell that novel. I didn’t even get the publisher’s editor who screwed us over so badly on Children and the Internet to say, “I’m sorry.” I certainly didn’t get my one traditionally-published book published properly, without too many obvious typos or pedophilic jokes or with some teeny, tiny modicum of marketing by—oh, I don’t know—maybe the publisher’s marketing department.
However, a literary agent with a famous name called me up and quoted me to myself.
And the good things in life have got to be enough.
This is writers conference month here, and actually I’m in San Diego right now taking my son to the San Diego Wild Animal Park and laughing at the bad jokes of my father-in-law and just generally hanging out while my husband gives a presentation at a computer conference. A few weeks ago I taught you guys how to get people all riled up at you at a writers conference and what to watch out for in the way of presenters—the bullshitters and the non-bullshitters, part one and part two.
So now I’ll tell you another writers conference story.
This one is a story of hope:
Once many years ago I had just returned to the San Francisco Bay Area from a thrilling, hair-raising, and actually quite productive six months of adventure and writing in Hawaii and Australia. I’d gotten a job as a tech writer at a small computer start-up in Silicon Valley, so I was recovering a bit from the state of abject poverty into which my adventures had plunged me. And a friend and I were sitting in an Italian restaurant in San Francisco’s Northbeach neighborhood when he pulled out a flyer to show me.
It was an ad for the Writers Community at Squaw Valley.
“Are you going to apply?” I said.
“Maybe,” he said. “Are you?”
I went to my manager at work, who happened to be extremely smart and extremely cool and extremely cute, and asked him what he thought. He had a degree in Creative Writing from the University of California in Santa Cruz. Plus he was extremely cute.
“Well, you know what I think about writers conferences,” he said.
Actually I didn’t, but I was afraid he’d already told me and I’d been spazzed out on his cuteness and not listening, so I didn’t ask.
Instead, I went to the conference.
It was the first writers conference I’d ever been to, and besides that I didn’t know who Oakley Hall was (the guy running the conference), so when I got to the registration desk and the woman announced grandly that she was Mrs. Oakley Hall, I replied without a spark of recognition, “Hi. I’m Victoria Mixon.”
I had signed up to share a house with other attendees, and I wound up with five other women, among whom were two in my writing workshop. We had a great week—we went to lectures by agents and famous authors like Amy Tan, attended our workshop, read each other’s manuscripts, and drank a lot of wine. There was a big party to which we went as a gang and where we accidentally knocked a painting off the wall on the staircase and almost got kicked out by the owner of the house.
One of my roommates and I went up to an agent after an agents panel and introduced ourselves. My friend already had an agent so their conversation was kind of general, but I didn’t have an agent and I wanted one, so I was quite happy when the agent invited me to lunch the next day. (We had lunch, and after we got home I took her my manuscript, and she became my first agent.)
I had also signed up for my manuscript to be critiqued by Anne Lamott, who was right then becoming famous for Operating Instructions and had just published Bird by Bird. In my excitement and confusion, I had sent her the second chapter of my novel instead of the first, so she was understandably confused about the storyline, but she seemed to like it.
“It has a strange sort of power,” she said. “And you write like a dream.”
Then she waited politely for me to ask her to sign the copy of Bird by Bird that I had in my lap.
But I was too shy.
During that week I became particularly close to the two of my roommates who were in my workshop, whose manuscripts I found extremely beautiful and compelling. They were unpublished, like me—one a professor of Native American law in Kansas and the other a struggling English teacher at a community college in New York City. We traded addresses when the conference ended, but we fell out of touch anyway.
A few years later I thought of them and found an address for the one in New York. Her first novel had been published by the Permanent Press—she’d rewritten it from a different point-of-view and given it a different title—and become a Book Sense Selection. Her second novel was being published by Bloomsbury Publishing, and it too went on to become a Book Sense Selection, translated into several languages.
We were both married and had very young sons by then, so we bonded again.
At some point I also wrote to the professor of Native American law, saying I hoped she was still writing, since if anyone was a writer she was. And she wrote back a beautiful letter saying she had, in fact, just been on the verge of giving up when she received my letter. She was so moved that she read the letter out loud to her family over the dinner table. She was still working on her novel.
That novel was published in 2008 and nominated for the biggest national prizes in the US (which she is too modest to mention), acclaimed by NPR and Kirkus Reviews.
And now, I’m pretty sure you guys know by this time who these writers are. I’ve written about them in my books, and I use quotes from them on my blog to make me look good.
Unpublished, struggling, dedicated craftspeople when I met them
Acclaimed fiction authors today
I want you to know it happens—talent and hard work and dedication to craft do get recognized.
(Also, I married the cute manager.)
We’ve been talking about writers conferences here, in particular how to make friends and enemies at them. And as I promised last Monday, here are the other five things that should set off your bullshit alarm at writers conferences:
A presenter who can’t be bothered to research what they teach
I was at a writers conference once when the presenter sketched a quick triangle on the board.
“Do you all know the plot triangle?” he said. “I think this is from Aristotle.”
And he proceeded to “teach” a sort of vague, truncated, misunderstood version of Freytag’s Triangle.
Now, I’m pretty courteous. I’m not going to raise my hand and say, “Um, excuse me, but don’t you mean you think that’s from Freytag? As in: the nineteenth-century German writer who developed a pyramid structure to describe beginning, middle, and end along the lines of the five-act play? Because that triangle’s really famous. And I don’t think he even knew Aristotle.”
No, I’m not.
I’m going to sit there on my hands, and if necessary I will smile. I will not point out in front of a class full of innocent hopefuls that this presenter hasn’t even looked up this triangle he likes to think he’s teaching before sailing blasely into this room to try to teach it.
Another true story:
I was at a writers conference once where the workshop presenter added nothing at all to the critiques.
She simply sat at the front of the room saying, “And what do you think of what we just heard?”
This presenter had been snickering to me earlier about how she always accepts invitations to present at conferences because it’s freebie food.
I was an attendee in that particular session, but I wound up carrying the ball whenever the attendees didn’t know how to sort out a dilemma because the presenter just sat there smirking and trying to hide the fact that she didn’t know either.
One attendee came up to me later and expressed her disappointment that the presenter hadn’t contributed anything to the workshop. At all.
Several others came up to me later and thanked me for my help and asked me if I was a professional editor. (At the time I was, but I wasn’t freelancing.)
Even worse, another presenter came up to me later—a smart, engaging, professional writer—and told me how sorry he was I hadn’t appeared in his session. . .because I’d been in the lame workshop instead.
Associated with this: the presenter who ignores the demographics of their class
Once I was in a seminar in which certain attendees were local high school students who had won scholarships to the writing conference.
We all had to listen to the presenter announce gleefully, “I love teaching adults because then I can talk about sex all I want,” and proceed to describe fiction techniques in terms of sex, tell stories about sex, and even read sex-related blurbs from their own books. She told us all about how she was raped when she was a teenager.
I wound up coping in scribbled notes with a disclosure of traumatic sexual shame from the teen writer I was there to mentor on the craft of fiction.
We missed a lot of that presenter’s talk.
The thing is that, whether any particular class is made up entirely of adults or not, that presenter had no way of knowing if they were going to trigger PTSD in some of the attendees. Sex is either a painful or quite private topic for many people.
Writing conference attendees do not pay to have their personal issues messed with by a stranger in public.
They pay to learn the craft of writing.
Sex, religion, and politics: these are not appropriate topics for lecture at writers conferences without serious previous warning.
A presenter who can’t be bothered to plan their session so they actually cover everything they promise to cover
How many times have you seen this one happen?
At the beginning of the session, in accordance with popular advice on public speaking, the presenter lists everything they intend to cover before their time is up. If you know anything at all about teaching fiction, it might sound like kind of a lot to cover in one session, but you figure they’re probably going to skim.
Or maybe they’re just way the heck more organized than you would be in their shoes.
So you jot down the list, making little asterisks next to the items that look most interesting to you. If you’re really organized and really OCD (like me) you even leave big spaces in between in which to fill in what you’re going to learn about each item.
Then you spend a good, long time listening to the presenter tell stories about their own experiences with the first few items (probably, “Getting an idea for a novel,” and, “What my agent said about how my novel was the fastest sell in publishing history”), until suddenly it’s five minutes until the end of the session, and they still have half-a-dozen points to make.
So you and the rest of the class sit and watch them riffle through their notes saying loudly, for your benefit and without looking up, “Uh, plot—don’t be boring. Character—ditto. Troubleshooting—come to one of my classes back home, I’ll give you my card. Professionalism—have it. Any questions? Okey-dokey. All out of time. ‘Kay, thanks, bye!”
And then you’re in line waiting politely until everyone else gets a chance to ask their question and get their copies of the presenter’s book autographed and make personal friends with the presenter, until the attendees for the next session flood into the room and appropriate the chairs, and the presenter picks up their things and heads out the door, still chatting vivaciously with someone about three people ahead of you in line.
A presenter who teachers misinformation
And this is the one that really makes smoke come out my ears.
Because you guys can’t necessarily tell.
If you already knew this stuff, you wouldn’t be here to learn it, now, would you?
Did Aristotle invent Freytag’s Triangle?
No, he did not.
Aristostle invented the Six Elements of Drama, which any presenter worth their salt can discover in two minutes by googling Aristotle. Or Aristostle’s Triangle.
Did Syd Field invent three-act structure?
No, he did not.
Syd Field wrote a terrific book called Screenplay in which he describes three-act structure and explores the ways and means behind why it works.
Our current understanding of three-act structure, according to some sources, actually dates back to (are you ready?) Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama. It has been immortalized in our lifetime in books on screenplay by Syd Field, Robert McKee, and Yves Lavandier.
Should aspiring writers plot?
Hell, yes, they should.
Otherwise Freytag’s Triangle and three-act structure are no use to them whatsoever.
Oh, I could go on and on and on about this one. So many of you innocents come to me asking about the misinformation you’ve been taught, and I’m here banging my head on my desk thinking, Who is doing this to these poor people?
And then I go to writers conferences, and I find out: academics who earned degrees or aspiring writers who got lucky with publication without actually learning the craft.
A presenter who indulges in snark, bad manners, or irritability
This one makes smoke come out of everyone’s ears.
Or it ought to. Only too often conference attendees assume that, because they’ve paid to be taught by these pillars of the publishing industry, any snark or bad manners or irritability that falls on their heads they brought on themselves.
You know what professionalism is?
Professionalism is being friendly and polite and encouraging to everyone you meet, regardless of how silly or ignorant or ill-informed you find their questions and comments. Because they’re human beings. And they’ve paid you to treat them professionally.
If a presenter has trouble with an attendee who’s sincerely a problem, they go to the conference organizers. That’s what they’re there for.
A presenter who makes no bones about being there solely for the party with the other presenters
“Oooh, look,” these presenters say to other presenters at the presenter/attendee social mixers. “They have square dancing in this town.”
“How’s the room they gave you?” these presenters say to other presenters five minutes later. “Have you been to the beach yet?”
“Oh, my god, you’re wearing the orange plaid!” these presenters cry from the podium when another presenter sidles into the room in the middle of their lecture. “I put the dishes in the dishwasher—your turn next time!”
“Are you a local?” these presenters say to random attendees without even pretending to be interested in them. “How do I get home from here?”
When I was the editor of my high school newspaper, I once got my butt kicked by our teacher for running a gag front-page article about how to set up a “directions booth” downtown in our lovely vacation town to tell rude tourists right where they can go.
What these presenters who ask me for directions don’t know is that I’m a fiction writer because I like to lie.
Folks, these people are trouble not just for you, the attendees, but also for those presenters who really are prepared, who really did come to make themselves available to aspiring writers, who really do take these conferences and their function in the world of fiction seriously.
Those presenters can’t blow the whistle on such shenanigans without sounding petty, competitive, and unprofessional. So they walk away smiling politely and shaking everyone’s hand, while inside seething on behalf of the paying attendees they’ve just spent several days watching being duped.
But you can.
You can blow that whistle loud and clear.
LAST WEEK: The First 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences
I know—I’m in the middle of our August writers conference month, including 3 Ways to Make Friends & Enemies at Writers Conferences and 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences (with its up-coming sequel next week).
But I have to take a minute here to report on a conversation I just had on Twitter here and here with writer & blogger Anne R. Allen, whom I know you all know.
Anne R. Allen: California Coast Writers Conference
Anne is involved with the California Coast Writers Conference in my old hometown of San Luis Obispo, California—actually held on the Cuesta Community College Campus, where I earned my AA degree.
I’ve never been to that particular conference, but I know the campus pretty darn well and I know Anne! And I do still know English professors at Cal Poly.
In fact, my professor Kevin Clark gave me a fabulous blurb for The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practioner’s Manual.
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
As I recall, the year I was with them at Cal Poly, Kevin Clark and my English mentor Robert Inchausti nominated me for the Student of the Year Award in the School of Liberal Arts, but I was disqualified because I was only zipping through the English Department in two semesters—taking 23 credits per semester, whee, doggies!—and would therefore not be there for the full required Year.
I’d already earned most of my degree (and then some) in the Computer Science Department.
By the time I hit the English Department, I was like Wiley Coyote, my legs just a circular blur.
Linnaea’s Cafe, SLO
And during that last, hectic summer before my final non-year year in the English Department, I worked at those two bastions of downtown SLO culture (whom everyone remembers): Linnaea’s Cafe and the Earthling Bookshop.
I’d been bouncing in and out of Linnaea’s Cafe for a few years, and we were all family down there. (In fact, I just looked it up, and it’s still around. Apparently I was working there only a few years after it opened. Now it’s been 26 years, and it appears the tradition of staff as family that we started—actually behind Linnaea’s back—continues to flourish.)
I used to work all day Saturdays and our hoppin’ Saturday nights at Linnaea’s, serving the weekend crowds that peaked at midnight when the brewery across the street closed their doors, and everyone surged into Linnaea’s like a tide of lemmings.
The Trees of Mystery (with an addendum re: Burning Man)
in fact, my close friends, the local-sensation rock band The Trees of Mystery, lived directly upstairs and used us as their family kitchen—which makes me glad now I sneaked Paul Robert Dubois II all those freebie desserts, since years later he married Harley Bierman, one of the owners of Burning Man, and now I have an unending supply of fabulous behind-the-scenes Burning Man stories in exchange. . .
There was a dance joint at the far end of the alley from Linnaea’s, and our manager would give the three of us on-duty permission to take our break all at the same time on Saturday nights because we were friends.
We’d run whooping and a-hollering down that long alley in the dark toward the bright neon lights in the distance. We’d slip in at the head of the line waving our Linnaea’s aprons as proof we wouldn’t be there long, and then dance like crazed primates while The Trees of Mystery blasted their weird mix of Jim Morrison/noir jazz/punk rock from the stage.
Rob would lean over with his microphone and cry with delight, “You’re here!” and then laugh his manic laugh while we threw our aprons on the floor and stomped hysterically around them in a circle.
Then we’d toss back a quick beer, kiss the boys, and run up the alley again, shrieking at the tops of our lungs, to find our manager exhausted but smiling as he tried to handle orders from dozens of customers at once.
Wonderful summer nights.
Earthling Bookstore, Children’s Room Director
I happened to live in a tiny studio apartment in downtown SLO then—a lovely town, a lovely time in which to live downtown!—so I’d wake up Sunday early, reeling and groggy and sometimes still in the dress I’d been wearing the night before—and dash blearily around the corner to my Sunday job at the Earthling Bookshop.
I worked there other days of the week, too, but Sunday was the real challenge. . .as you might imagine.
I was the Director of the Children’s Room, a large room in the basement with two entrances, where I went in every morning and turned on the lights over the bookcases one-by-one, as though lighting up a stage. I loved that moment so.
The magic of books coming alive!
During the week I’d spend my days zooming on my bike to the town Hobby Shop for flannel and ink pens, and then I’d cut out flannel-board stories on the Children’s Room floor for my Sunday morning Story Time. On particular days, I was also working at the local alternative newspaper right up the street, so I’d be dashing up to their office to drop off the instructions for the Earthling ads that I’d have to typeset and paste-up later for both sets of bosses.
I also had a wildly busy weekday nightlife.
It was a splendid era.
So by Sunday mornings, there I’d be with my big stand-up flannel board and box of flannel-board stories, barefoot, still in my party dress from Saturday night, and looking just a teeny bit over-the-edge—face to face with a whole crowd of eager cross-legged children ready to get into some serious storytelling.
My friend Lorelei would be in the back with a couple of boxes of cookies and a jug of apple juice that we’d acquired, sitting on a table and swinging her legs merrily. She was my official Story Hour ‘assistant.’ Lorelei used to hang around with me all week as I went through my frantic slapstick routine of mixed jobs—being very funny and amusing.
And I’d tell flannel-board stories to the kids. . .long, involved, highly dramatic stories of a Bunny who changes costume every few seconds in its endless, inventive efforts to become a Runaway Bunny, of King Bidgood taking a bath as his friends one-by-one decide to join him, of a little boy and a yellow ducky who discover in their bath a whole ocean of strange and wonderful creatures. . .
Then at the end I’d stand up and sing a capella a very lovely Nancy Griffin song of love and hope and tolerance that I’d just learned, “From a Distance.” And the children would clap and dance. And afterward Lorelei and I would serve them all cookies and apple juice with much gaiety and wit.
Then I’d go upstairs and collapse on a stool behind the front counter.
And my pal Jerry—a wise, fatherly type in his fifties—would let me spend the rest of the day being the person who sat down ringing up sales while he walked the aisles directing customers to books. Because Jerry knew I couldn’t stand up anymore.
Lorelei and I once took a drive to Santa Barbara in her mother’s convertible on a sunny summer day, pausing at random spots to take photos of ourselves horsing around. I stood on the hood of the car and threw my arms wide to an audience of rather bemused cattle. She posed comedically in front of downtown window displays. I jumped straight at her off a flight of steps—flapping behind me the 1940s herringbone jacket I’d ‘borrowed’ from Rob Dubois, who is about twice as big as me in all directions—and she caught me on film in mid-air.
For musical entertainment, we brought a tape I’d found in the glovebox of a used car I’d bought a couple of years before, although I’d never listened to it. We popped it in and bobbed our heads to the music, singing along with the lyrics, all of which—it turned out—we knew by heart.
“Heart of Glass,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Le Sheik,” “Voulez-vou Coucher Avec Moi?” “She Works Hard for the Money,” and Peaches & Herb singing their impossibly treacly but entirely familiar, “Reunited”. . .which we belted out with some real enthusiasm, I’m telling you.
We hadn’t been able to read the scribbled writing on the tape, but we realized none of these songs had come out any later than 1979 (we knew all the release dates, you see, and in many cases the seasons), and we could tell they had been taken off the radio. When we double-checked we realized it said, “Hits of ‘79.”
So fabulous to be young and zany and completely, totally out of our ever-lovin’ minds.
Anne R. Allen: Reprise
Which means you’ll all appreciate the enormous significance of it when Anne informed me this morning that she still knows Lorelei!
How I would love to see Lorelei again, after all these years.
Is life not a wonderful, convoluted, inexplicable, and extraordinary thing?
And won’t it be wonderful when Anne puts me in touch with Lorelei, and we can all appear together as Patti Labelle and her back-up singers here on this blog. . .thereby proving once & for all that history is beautiful and coucher-ing with abandon in three-part harmony is just one of those great, hilarious hobbies the 1970s left to all of us as their eternal legacy?
‘Tis the season for writers conferences. And last week I told you a story about something that happened at a conference once.
Now this week and next I’m going to re-run these two posts I wrote a couple of years ago about writers conferences for all of you out there (or heading out) into the trenches this month.
Because I think it’s really important that you get your money’s worth.
All over the country, hopeful aspiring writers are breaking open their piggy banks and digging their savings out of tin boxes under their mattresses and hieing themselves off to invest in their commitment to their craft.
I salute you people.
You bet I do.
You finance all those writers conferences.
However, I’m here to tell you those conferences—while often brilliant, thrilling, and enormously helpful—are not always all they’re cracked up to be.
I’ve been to my share, and I’ve also taught plenty of fiction myself. So when I show up at a writers conference these days and find myself rubbing shoulders with authors/teachers/presenters who are only there for the free doughnuts and expensed party out of town, with little or no concern for the people who actually paid to be there. . .I get a little irritable.
I get especially irritable because 99.9% of the people who pay to attend writers conferences give these authors/teachers the utmost in polite, respectful, student-like attention, whether they deserve it or not.
And because writers conferences themselves are billed as opportunities to meet and connect with professionals in the writing industry.
So while you’re out there attending (and evaluating!) writers conferences, folks, be aware that you’ve paid for something, and if you’re not getting it you have the right to complain.
Things that should set off your bullshit alarm:
A presenter who can’t teach anything but themself
Say you show up for a seminar called Make Your Novel Happen!
You’re ready, by god. You’ve got a novel (or at least a bunch of pages you think of fondly as a sort of misshapen favorite manuscript). You’ve got love of the craft. You’ve got a basic understanding of the enormous amount of sweat and dedication it takes to produce a really good work, and you’re under no delusions about how much of that you might not yet know.
You’re here to learn.
And you spend two hours sitting in a hard, uncomfortable chair in a room full of strangers listening to someone possibly quite animated and charming talk about. . .how they made their novel happen.
Huh, you’re thinking. I didn’t know I signed up for a seminar on their novel. I thought I signed up for a seminar on mine.
But you imagine the publishing industry as made up of professionals who approach the work professionally, and you’re willing to approach this work professionally.
So you’re willing to listen to a presenter talk only through the lens of their own work as much as you possibly can.
Hey, you’re thinking. Everyone’s style is different. This is this presenter’s style.
And you’re a good sport.
They’re enthusiastic about their novel. Oh, boy! Maybe they’re even entertaining about enthusing over it. So when they burn up a certain amount of class time trying to find someone with copies of their books and, when they do, jump up and run over to see if what they’re thinking about is in the copy somebody pulls out, you’re willing to roll with it. Maybe there’s something important in that book they want to read to you, and they somehow simply managed to forget to bring a copy from home.
But when they hand the book back, saying, “Yeah, this copy has it,” and go on with their talk about themself without relating either that book or the class time they took asking around for a copy or what they found in it to what they’re saying in any way. . .
Yeah. You’re a teeny bit disgruntled.
A presenter who doesn’t know any writing techniques or standards but those they, personally, accidentally stumbled upon writing their own novel(s)
All over out there I hear about “pantsing,” as in, “I never plot. I don’t have to.”
And I find this extremely bizarre, because writing a novel is not filling out the crossword puzzle on the back of a cereal box. It takes an enormous amount of foresight and planning and note-taking and delving.
(“‘When is he going to delve?’ I was asking myself.”—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.)
And I walk around scratching my head, wondering where on earth aspiring amateurs got the idea they could write an entire salable novel without paying any attention to how they’re doing it.
Because, let’s face it, none of us is as brilliant as E.L. Doctorow. Even John Steinbeck planned out his novels for years before he sat down to write them.
So when I see a presenter at a writers conference stand up and say, “Don’t plot. It sucks the creative juices out of your story. It doesn’t take into account the life on the page,” a lightbulb goes on over my head, and bells ring in my ears, and suddenly I know exactly where aspiring writers get that idea: from ignorant presenters at writers conferences.
Now, have I ever pantsed a novel?
Of course I have! I’ve pantsed five novels. Then I learned how to plot, and that’s how I found out which way produces a marketable work.
How about that.
Does plotting”suck the creative juices” out of a story?
Not if it’s done properly. If it’s done properly, plotting itself draws the creative juices from you, until you’re sitting in a veritable puddle of them and it’s all you can do to scribble it all down as fast as humanly possible.
Plotting is all about taking into account the life on the page, so you can bridge the abyss between how it looks to you and how it looks to your reader.
Then plotting continues to take that into account, drawing your creative juices in a controllable flow throughout the process of writing your novel, which is what you need in order to make it all the way through 72,000 words of storytelling.
Practicing any technique improperly is likely to confuse you and steer you wrong to the extent that you conclude it’s the technique itself that’s causing your problems.
It’s not the technique.
It’s not being taught how to use that technique properly. And authors/teachers who haven’t happened to stumble across how to use a technique properly in their own work are the ones telling you not to use it at all.
A presenter who can’t answer straight-forward questions on the topic of the session
Because, it turns out, they don’t know the craft of fiction.
They only know themself.
You’ve figured out that they’re mostly only going to talk about their own novel. You got that after the first forty-five minutes. So you’re listening politely, taking notes, thinking as intelligently as you can about how to apply what they’re saying to what you’re doing with your novel.
And when you simply can’t find the connection, you raise your hand and courteously ask for clarification on a particular technique.
But you don’t get an answer on that particular technique. Or, rather, you get an answer on that technique as that author happened to use it in their novel.
Of course, since you just spent the last hour listening to how that author wrote their novel, you’re already pretty conversant with that.
So you ask again, still courteously, how to apply such a technique to your own work. (You’re not going to take up class time describing your beloved manuscript, but you do want to know how to apply such a thing in generic terms.)
“Hey!” says the presenter excitedly. “Something shiny!”
And the next thing you know, they’re off answering someone else’s question, which—if it’s about that presenter’s novel—turns out to have an answer it takes the rest of the session to fully explore.
Now, this is quite a delicate situation for me personally, because I kind of want those aspiring writers to get the answers to their questions. But I don’t want to appear to be rudely taking over someone else’s class.
So I wind up trying to remember what that aspiring writer looks like and finding them later to say, “Here’s my website. I answer these questions free on my advice column. There are real answers. Please—ask.”
A presenter who relies almost entirely on advice out of a famous book on writing by someone else
This one’s a no-brainer: Anne Lamott and John Gardner.
For the record, Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird, which she says right up front is basically just stories about her own experiences teaching fiction and writing her books.
John Gardner wrote a whole slew of intellectual, rather academic books on the craft of fiction, but the one everyone talks about is On Becoming a Novelist. I refer to his books a lot too, along with lots of other canonical writers who also wrote some very perceptive and charming books on the craft indeed.
Even worse is the presenter who relies on writing advice by someone whose name they can’t recall. And of course they didn’t plan ahead and write it down.
So I have to tell them.
This has literally happened to me: the presenter looks to me (because they know I’m there as a tutor, not a student) and says, “Who said that?” And I say the expert’s name politely and clearly so everyone can hear. And they all write it down.
Then the presenter nods and goes quickly back to talking about themself.
Yes, it was Donald Maass who said, “Tension on every page,” and he said it in Writing the Breakout Novel.
A presenter who dispenses their advice from on high and avoids any meaningful human contact outside the classroom
I don’t know how many times I’ve watched aspiring writers show up full of hope over the promise of meeting and talking with professionals in the industry—because, after all, that’s one of the promises writers conferences hold out as an enticement.
And then I watch them get dismissed time and time again by presenters who are too Big And Important to be seen on the quad talking in all human connection with some plebeian who isn’t even published yet.
I watch these presenters get caught answering questions outside the classroom as quickly and unhelpfully as possible, refuse to make eye contact, and disappear without saying good-bye.
Then I run after them into the private presenters’ lounge, and I kick them in the shins.
UPDATE: The Other 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences
I know—I’ve been the featured editorial advice columnist Ask Victoria on Writer Unboxed for months now, they’ve got my books on their beautiful site, and they even have me on their regular contributor list because I’m going to become a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed this coming January.
And I am only now getting the time to combine our two logos into one so I can post it here on my sidebar. I know! Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware has already chastised me on Twitter (for something completely unrelated, but she was funny, and she would’ve been right if it had been about this).
Part of this is because I am always swamped with work, and part of it is because my husband maintains my site and he has—ahem—a boss who expects him to spend his time on his real job, and part if it is because my son is learning computer graphics and I had to come up with a delectable-enough trade for his work on the logos.
But then I did. So now I have.
And here it is!
You can see it right there in the place of honor on my left sidebar.
Did you realize I write the monthly editorial advice column Ask Victoria for the Writer Unboxed newsletter? Opposite the agent advice column Ask Chuck by Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest?
That you can submit any question you want about writing, and I’ll answer it?
That we’ve got Donald Maass, literary agent extraordinaire, the adorable citrus-ist Jan O’Hara, and community manager Vaughn Croft in the newsletter with us?
And that we all get together around the piano while we’re producing the newsletter every month and drink margaritas and sing old show tunes and Motown and (of course) “Bohemian Rhapsody” while Chuck plays?
(I can hear Therese and Kathleen in chorus already: “WE WISH.”)
I don’t really attend writers conferences anymore, because it’s much more comfortable to stay home in my cozy attic office editing the books of the coolest writers on the entire planet—but I have attended a few.
And I want to tell you a story today about something that happened at a writers conference once:
Step #1: Saying what you shouldn’t
This was a number of years ago, before I became an independent editor. We were in a workshop led by the very popular creative writing teacher at the local community college. This teacher was at the board doodling graphs and calling out for contributions and scribbling them down as fast as she could, and it was all quite exciting and loud and creative. Everyone was thrilled, and the energy ran high.
Then things calmed down while we all thought about what we’d created together.
And after a few minutes a small, shy woman directly in front of me raised her hand.
“I have a question,” she said tentatively. “I’ve written a novel that was published and even favorably received, and I’m working on my second now. But it’s not coming along so well. In fact, I’m kind of paralyzed. What if I only had that one good book in me? What if I’ve lost it?”
There was some murmuring, and the teacher said brightly and with great confidence, “Oh, don’t let it get you down. I’m sure you’re fine!”
A woman in the back cried loudly, “I’m not just saying this because you’re my friend, but you haven’t lost it. You’re a great writer!”
The other attendees chimed in with their encouragement and positive opinions and exhortations to ignore her anxieties. . .
And the woman tried very hard to smile and accept their diagnosis.
But I was close enough to see the fear growing in her eyes. So I turned to her.
“You know,” I said, “maybe you have. Maybe you have lost it. It’s probably wherever mine is.”
The silence that fell was instantaneous and deadly.
Step #2: Facing what you haven’t
“I don’t like what you’re saying,” called the woman in the back aggressively after a minute. “How can you tell her she’s lost it? You don’t even know her. She’s my friend!”
“Victoria, don’t you mean maybe she’s lost her confidence?” said the teacher helpfully. “Not that she’s lost her talent?”
“No, I mean her talent,” I said. “I mean maybe it’s gone. Maybe she can’t rely on it anymore.”
I glanced around, and the entire hostile room looked back at me. “Isn’t that our big fear?” I said. “The terrible shadow under which we work all day long every day, year in and year out? That we’re relying on a talent that could go away? That one day we’ll wake up and we’ll have lost it?”
The woman was looking at me as though I were her lifeline.
Step #3: Doing what you can’t
I turned back to her. “So we keep on working without it. Whether we’ve lost it or not. We just keep writing. . .because we’re writers.”
Yeah, that was kind of the end of that particular class.
The teacher wouldn’t smile at me as I walked out.
However, that woman came up to me in the parking lot later and flagged me down. “I want to thank you,” she said, “for what you said in there. I feel so much better now. Nobody else seemed to get it. I’ve been really frightened.”
“I know,” I said, and we held hands for just a second. “This work can be really frightening.”
Last week my husband made me my own custom mug. Then we discovered you could also get them as all kinds of different drinking vessels like frosted glasses and travel mugs and a cup that looks black when it’s cold but shows the design as it heats up. Then he ventured into the land of beer steins and mousepads and flip-flops.
And the world was no longer safe.
Now author M. Terry Green—who’s sold over 45,000 copies of her books on tattooing Ink: The Not-Just-Skin-Deep Guide to Getting a Tattoo, published by NAL Trade, and The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo, published by Fireside, and is self-publishing her sci-fi/fantasy series on Olivia Lawson, Techno-Shaman—just sent me a picture of herself in her new T-shirt.
Is she a goddess or what?
UPDATE: And this is a photo-montage that Stu Wakefield, author of the Kindle #1 Best Selling Body of Water, gave me of himself not wearing one of my blog T-shirts:
My god, I love you both.
UPDATE UPDATE: Some people are very small.
UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: Some people are middling.
UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: And some people prefer a pure, angelic white. (Although my cat couldn’t pull it off.)
In March 2011, I was asked to speak to the Mendocino Writers Club. And I was so struck by the similarity of the questions I was asked to those I’m asked every day by clients and blog-readers and commenters that I compiled the top four most-frequently questions into a series of posts:
Wordcount, Genre, Dumbing-Down: Do You Have to Do It?, in which I discuss a number of rather eye-popping fads going on these days among new agents and whether you need to listen to them or give them the raspberry.
Identifying the Best Independent Editors, in which I tell you how to tell a shyster from a real editor. This one has actually turned into a huge problem even in the year since I wrote it, as the lemmings have begun flocking to the shores of independent editing in hopes of making big bucks off you innocent aspiring writers. Every week I hear from a new aspiring writer who’s been burned by a fake who took their money and gave them either nothing useful at all or—worse—gave them exactly the wrong advice and destroyed all their hope in their novel. Know the difference, you guys!
Line Editing in the Twenty-First Century, in which I explain exactly what Line Editing is and why people who tell you not to worry about it are, um, idiots.
Publishing, POD, eBooks, Self-Publishing, in which I give you a detailed illumination of what the heck is going on and show you your options in the field. This one never stops being a hot topic, as it’s based on both technological advances and the collapse of the traditional publishing industry, both of which are escalating at a whirlwind rate. Yes, it’s changing even as I write this—everything is getting even more so.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.