Month: March 2013

Ode to a Writing Conference: The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley

I’ve only ever been to a few writing seminars or conferences, though I do try to attend readings, discussions with writers, or events like Literary Death Match when I can. I’ve also attended AWP (the Association of Writers & Writing Programs) and always make it out to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. However, writing retreats and multi-day writing conferences like Bread Loaf, the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the New York Summer Writers’ Workshops always intimidated me. It seemed like a large investment in time and energy for an unknown payback from the program.

So although I had opportunities to apply, or invitations to attend, I always decided against it. Until the Community of Writers.

I heard about the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley through one of my professors, Janet Fitch, at USC. She had attended the conference as an aspiring writer, and now was on the Writers Workshop Staff. I ran into her in the hallway one evening as she was headed to class. She gave me one of the handouts she was carrying and told me I should really think about attending the conference. I looked it over that evening, poured over the website, and became increasingly more excited as I read on.

I applied almost immediately and was accepted soon thereafter. It was a seven-day summer conference, so I had to ask for the time off at work. Luckily, I was still in my Master’s program, and had a bit more time than I might have in the working world. I convinced my friend to watch my dog and started researching the weather in Northern California. From my experience as a first-time Community of Writers participant, here are my tips to others:

  1. Bring something to write on. Okay, so this might sound obvious, but in the paperwork, it suggests that you might not need a computer, and you might choose not to bring one in order to better immerse yourself in the conference. That said, most people I spoke with had computers, and several used them to type up notes, do writing exercises, or free write. Nowadays with iPads and Macbook Airs, I say bring your computer if you have room. I did some writing on mine while I was there.
  2. Sign up for the carpool option. If you’re driving up, contact the conference about carpooling. They’ll put you on a list, and then take an active step to contact people in your area. It’s almost an 8 hour drive from Los Angeles, and you don’t want to do it alone. Besides, I had a great time with the women I drove up with – and we didn’t know each other before we met up that morning. It was a great way to break the ice and meet some of the other participants in the conference – and when you arrive, you can all figure it out together.
  3. Apply for the work scholarship, if you need it. Did I mention I was in grad school when I went? Although the conference is reasonably priced considering its length and accommodations, I still wanted a way to cut down on the overall price, and so applied and participated in the Financial Aid program. I worked at the conference and had some of my overall fee reduced. Not only did it help me out financially, but working at the conference also allowed me to meet and get to know the organizers and staff better. It also made me feel more part of the community. It wasn’t back-breaking work nor did it take up a large part of my time – so I still had time for networking, social events, and for myself.
  4. Go to all the events! Or as many as you can. I loved them. One of the staff would talk in front of the audience, or there were writer panels. I saw most of them (because I was working), and I’m glad I did. I believe I took away at least one great tip or nugget of wisdom I hadn’t thought of before from each one.
  5. Take time for yourself and enjoy the surroundings! Squaw Valley is beautiful, especially around the time of the conference. Enjoy the outdoors! There are organized hikes… or you can go off with a few people and explore on your own. It’s a great way to bond, and clear your head. Walking produces wonderful story ideas, right?
  6. On the enrollment form, check that you’d be okay living in a house with other people. My accommodations were excellent. I was put in a large vacation rental house with 7 other people. I shared a room, some people had their own rooms, but we all became close over the week; it was a great environment to be in, and write in! We were all writers from different backgrounds and places, coming together for this conference—everyone was nice, polite (regarding space and cleanliness) and we had a great time. One of the women in particular I still remain good friends with to this day (we drove back down to Los Angeles together and bonded in the car ride).

So now the why. Why did I love this conference so much? Because of the people. I met so many wonderful people at the Community of Writers, from the staff who work there to the writers who come to learn and have their writing workshopped. I’m still in touch with several of the people from the conference, and we all had a similar experience. The workshops are set up well, the writing in each workshop is of commendable quality, and everyone at the conference is looking to be inspired and… well, to write.

That’s the best thing about the conference, and I’m sure other conferences as well. For me, this was the first time I traveled somewhere with the purpose and focus of working on my writing while surrounded by others with the same goal and purpose. It was different than grad school as well, perhaps for the same reason camp is more intense than school. You know it’s fleeting, and so it’s more cherished. Whatever the reason, it was refreshing to know that everyone around you was a writer. I always felt everyone I met knew what I was going through—that they’d experienced writer’s block and days when the writing flies onto the page. They respect what you do and are supportive of why you do it. The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley was just that – a community of writers – and until I went and experienced it for myself, I didn’t fully understand how important community can be to writers—as much of what we do is solitary.

To end this longer-than-intended post, I highly recommend, if you haven’t before, heading to a writing conference or retreat. Go out of your comfort zone! Pick one that works for your schedule and has a staff of writers you admire and/or want to write like, and go for it! As with everything in life, it is what you make of it, but it is an experience I believe every writer should try, even just once.

What about you? Have you gone to a writing conference before? Loved it? Hated it? Anything in between? Share your thoughts below in the comments section.

Writing Prompt of the Day: March 25

It’s a new week, so let’s start it off with some good writing! If you’re looking for a writing prompt for the day, how about this:

When did you really want to be a writer? What was the moment you knew it was for you? Write about that moment in detail. Where were you? What were you wearing? Can you remember what sounds were around you? Don’t worry about mixing perhaps a bit of fiction with the facts – just write what feels right to you. How old were you? Was it an epiphany or a gradual decision? What do you love about writing? Why do you do it?

This can be spun then, into the motivation and background one of your characters has for writing.

And if you’d like to share your thoughts, please share! I’m going to work on mine tonight!

Dreaming to Write – Keeping A Dream Journal

When I walk the dog (or when I’m on road trips), I enjoy listening to podcasts. It’s a nice break from music, which can be a bit much sometimes. One podcast I enjoy is WNYC’s Radiolab. I enjoy the show so much that I sometimes go back and re-listen to old broadcasts. I find listening to Radiolab helps me develop characters, their backgrounds, and their expertise in areas. I like all my characters to be a layman’s expert in at least one area, and the topics Radiolab covers often help me find what that one area should be.

So I’m listening to the show titled, “Dreams” and the hosts are discussing the reason why we dream. One of the theories is that we use dreams as a way to go over what has happened to us during the day—especially the tricky or confusing moments—and sometimes, dreaming is how we can explore other options for those situations… the “what might have been” or l’esprit de l’escalier (I suffer from this phenomenon often).

I’ve always found dreams fascinating, because I often remember my dreams (albeit briefly) after I wake, and I have also experienced lucid dreaming and dream control. I have skimmed through books on dream interpretation and have always enjoyed sharing dreams and talking about them with friends and loved ones. It’s such an interesting topic to me. Why do people dream? I’ve met people who swear they never remember any of their dreams. I’ve talked to people who say they dream in color, and some who only dream in black & white. I’ve talked to people who believe dreams can be prophetic, and some who take no stock in them at all.

As a writer, I’ve used dreams as a way to come up with fantastical worlds or strange premises that, later (when I’m fully awake) I try to expand. I’ve kept a dream journal, off and on, for years—it’s sat on the dresser next to my bed, and if I wake up with a strong memory of my dream, I immediately begin to write. I always try to be as “honest” to the dream as I can be, even if—as I’m writing—I realize I’m not making much sense. That’s the beauty of the dream, I think.

I also find that if I write down a dream, it stays with me longer because I’ve committed it to paper. There have been times when I wake up with the dream still overpowering my brain, but if I don’t say anything or write it down, it leaks away and often, by the time I get out of bed, it’s gone.

 I would challenge you, if you’ve never tried to keep a dream journal before, to try it for a week. Keep a journal by your bed (or an iPad or even an iPhone works, if you have NOTEPAD readily available and quick fingers). Then when you wake up in the morning, prop yourself up and begin to write what you remember. Keep writing, and try not to censor yourself when your brain begins to wake up and wants to say, “Wait a second, that doesn’t make sense! This is dumb! Stop this at once!”

Yes, after a week you’ll have some nonsense, and you’ll have some bad writing, some run-on sentences, fragments, and chicken scratch—but I think you’ll also have some pure writing, some phrases that you might have never written together before, and at least one inspiring idea for some sort of creative work – even if it’s just a good idea for a writing exercise.

As a gesture of good faith, I wanted to provide a few examples from my dream journal here…

 

I was talking to a rat. I couldn’t remember her name, but she seemed nice.

 

The avocado green boxers lay crumpled in a pile on the floor. A shoe, tipped on its side, held inside it one lonely white sock.

 

 Inventory: In the beginning, I have a harness for Lyra, her leather leash and one woven one, her collar that IDs her to me, my blue daypack with one dozen packs of WATER ‘N GROW food, her travel bowl, $500 in cash… mostly ones and fives, a photo of him, me and Lyra together, 10 Luna bars, and an old red circle sled…

 

Now it’s your turn! Do you keep a dream journal? What do you think dreams tell us? Have you ever taken an idea from a dream and used it in your writing?

How Quotes Have Helped Me Write

On a recent project, I was proofing about 30 short profiles, each submitted by the individual. Many of the profiles ended with an area where the individual could put a motivating quote or saying, and many of the profiles included such quotes. What was distressing to me was the fact that only about 5 out of the 30 attributed the quote – and while I doubt any were trying to pass themselves off as being the creators of said quotes… it still bothered me.

I love quotes, and have several quotation books on my bookshelves. I admit I have probably in my life truncated quotes before to fit my needs, and I understand that paraphrasing and unintentional revisions are the nature of the beast with quotations, but I still feel like you should make an effort to show (when you can) attribution to the quote’s creator.

For me, especially as a writer, quotes have always been an inspiration. Some have inspired short stories, some have been the beginning of a writing exercise or thought experiment, and some I just love because of the words, the wordplay, or the structure. Quotes for me have also helped me in my day-to-day, especially during those down writing times. A good quote works like a jolt of afternoon caffeine or as a friendly mental nudge, giving me a bit of perspective to help me recenter myself and refocus.

So I thought today I’d share some of my favorite quotes – from the inspirational, the quirky, the thought-provoking… and if you have any of your favorites, please share!

“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” ~ Aristotle

“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” ~ Douglas Adams

“I say, if your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life.” ~ Calvin, from Calvin & Hobbes

“For every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I am too much of a skeptic to deny the possibility of anything.” ~ T.H. Huxley

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” ~ William Shedd

“The only reason for being a professional writer is that you can’t help it.” ~ Leo Rosten

“I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” ~ Blaise Pascal

Do quotes inspire you in your writing? Share you thoughts in the comment section!

Fish Short Memoir Update

So this morning they announced the short and long lists for the Fish Publishing contest prizes. I was happy to see that I was one of the nominations for the Fish Short Memoir Prize LONGLIST, though I did not make the SHORTLIST, which was 81 memoirs.

This contest was one of my first back in the submission saddle, and the piece I submitted (formally known as “The Fraud”) has since been greatly revised and I’m looking forward to submitting it out there again.

Big, Small, or Self-Publishing – The Pros and Cons

A friend of mine recently took a position working for a small, independent publisher and so I was asking around for potential leads. I knew a few people who had completed works that fit the genre he was looking for, so I contacted them. Turns out, a few had already published their books on their own. This struck me as surprising, because throughout my Master’s program, self-publishing had a stigma attached to it. We were told it was a risk – it could potentially ruin any chance your book had at getting published by the Top Dogs (Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, etc.), and it was difficult to make money as your own publisher.

So what are the pros and cons of publishing in these ways?

The Pros:

  • Big presses can help you market your book, and can actually place your book within stores. They will negotiate with you and often negotiate (and follow through on) an advance… because yes, writers still should get paid for their work. You also have your name now attached to a large, recognizable publisher—and you have a foot in the door for anything else you might write.
  • Small presses can be more hands-on. You’re working with someone who might believe in your book as much as you do – and who is willing to work hard to get the book to where you want it to be – because they are committing their limited time, energy, and resources on your book.
  • Self-publishing is immediate. You want to be able to hold your book in your hands, or send it to your grandmother? Your book can be on sale and online almost immediately. You have total control over the editing process, and also the revenue you make from your book.

The Cons:

  • Working with big presses can be difficult, even if you have an agent on your side and you feel like you have a good relationship with your editor. You are one of their many writers, and if you don’t produce, than you might get dropped like a hot potato or forgotten – your work buried on the desk of some junior level editor.
  • Will you get paid? With small presses, it can be a risk. Your advance might not pay for a decent lunch, or might not exist at all. Unless you bring your own connections, your marketing process will be tougher – no book reviews and no stock of your book at the larger booksellers, or perhaps even in brick & mortar bookstores at all. You put yourself into the hands of your editor and his/her connections and network… and sometimes, that network is slim.
  • If you’ve ever wanted to know what it was like to be a writer, editor, agent, publisher, publicist, and distributor, self-publishing is the way for you. If you do want your book to sell (and by sell I mean people actually pay for it – stop giving away that book to your family & friends!) – you need to do some major marketing and distribution. You won’t even have the dedication of the small press team, and so this is all on you. And yes, you might run into those who give you “that look” or tighten their lips when you tell them that you’ve self-published. So there’s that to overcome as well.

What are your thoughts? Do you think that the stigma against self-publishing is fading with the new digital and social media age? Do you disagree that there ever was one to begin with? Have you ever published with a small imprint, a large publisher, or on your own? What pros and cons did you discover?

Writing Prompt of the Day: March 12

I came across this writing prompt and it stuck with me, so I want to share it here.

[Elvis still gets 100 Valentines each year. Tell about one of the people who sent one.]

Who could the writer be? Go beyond solely the doddering, confused old lady or the whimsical musician thanking his inspiration. What type of world is it? What is the motivation behind the letter? Who, really, is the writer? What does your writer hope to achieve with her letter?

Deciding When To Write: Morning or Night?

I am a working writer and have been one for a while. Even when I was working more freelance jobs, I rarely had days where I could devote a solid eight hours to solely writing. Unlike in college, when I could go on writing binges and shut myself away for two days and write up a storm, these days I have to plan when I write, and stick to the schedule.

I believe that you can train your brain to recognize when it’s time to write, and then – when it’s that time – it’s easier to sit down and flip that mental switch. We are habitual creatures, in the end, and so in my mind, setting up a consistent writing schedule makes sense. (This blogger agrees with me, and has some helpful writing tips as well).

I also love agendas and time management activities.

So writing for me has become something I sit down and do, not every night, but many nights, for the same amount of time – around the same time during those nights. But why nights? Well, for one – my mornings are pretty full. I exercise in the mornings, take care of the dog, get ready for work – and honestly – I don’t want to get up at dawn.

And I’m familiar with staying up later – I’ve always been more of a night owl, and writing in the evening helps me relax from a long day and reminds me daily of why I do what I do. I also feel like stories, anecdotes, and ideas that I’ve picked up throughout the day (subconsciously or not) are more readily available to me in the evening.

However, as this blog argues, writing in the morning can also be helpful as a way to calm your mind and help ease into the day. I have a friend who writes in the morning because by the time evening rolls around, she says she’s “exhausted” and often finds herself unable or unwilling to write. However, she’s also the type of person who – if you met her for coffee on the way to work – would be peppy and energetic. I am not either of those things first thing in the morning.

So evening writing it is for me. What about you? When do you write best? Or write at all? Do you work on a consistent schedule, or do you write whenever you find the time or inspiration?

Record Your Thoughts

Recorder_300We were driving up to a hike, and one of my friends opened the glove compartment to stash his keys and wallet and pulled out my MP3 recorder.

“Wow. What do you use this for?” He waved it in my face.

I wanted to post my response here, since I’d like to give some advice on writing out when I can. You can, of course, take it or leave it, or discuss your own ideas with me. The recorder was an idea I took from one of my writing professors.

We spend an estimated 100 hours or more commuting to and from work, which can be a great time to work through a particularly difficult writing passage you’ve been working on, or think through character motivation or history. But if texting has been deemed dangerous while driving, grabbing a pen and pad and writing thoughts down is equally as distracting.

But picking up a recorder and pressing record? That’s easy, and you can talk through whatever you are thinking about and save it for later.

I opted for a recorder that allows you to create MP3s, so I can save any files I want onto my computer. It’s an easy and convenient way to utilize the time spent alone in your vehicle towards your writing; and hey – the recorder is also good for grocery lists and “Don’t forget” moments too.

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