#amlearning and #amsharing

The bathtub at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, otherwise known as my favorite place in the world.  I have not yet figured out how to take a bath in this old clawfoot tub, but I did manage to decorate it with a fluffy towel and a bar of Writer’s Block soap.
The past few months have been slow from a writing perspective, but huge from a learning perspective.  I had my eight week apocalyptic fiction class followed by a two week LitFest: both hosted by Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I am a member.  In one of my workshops, my instructor, Rachel Weaver, gave me words to salve my guilt for not writing much lately when she suggested we think of the writing process as seasonal:  imagining, writing, editing, learning, and (someday) publishing.  If all you do is sit down and write, write, write you actually will never publish anything.  There are other seasons.  So here on the solstice of my learning season I wanted to share with you readers some of the most thought provoking lessons of the past 12 weeks.

Finding Scriptures

Jennifer Haigh taught me to find my writing scriptures.  These are works that address one of the challenges you, as a writer, have with a particular work.  Maybe you’ve never written in first person before and your story is in first person.  Find a book that reflects your desired point of view and really break it down to understand how the author accomplished what you want to do.  Learn from them and let their accomplishment teach you how you can do the same.  You aren’t copying, they are your guideposts.  That said, don’t use paralyzing books as scriptures – you know, the ones that are so good that you want to quit writing and go read under a bridge.

Wowing Agents

The Nelson Agency sat for an hour and showed a room of writers how agents read the slush pile.  Each attendee was invited to bring 1-2 pages from a work and the agents would evaluate manuscripts live.  The two agents, Joanna MacKenzie and Kristen Nelson, were brutally honest in their evaluations.  In the twenty five(ish) manuscripts they reviewed only one would have even received a second look.  Was it mine, you ask?  No.  Because I learned a hard lesson this day.  I only provided one copy of my manuscript, while the instructions distinctly said two copies.  Only one copy equals no evaluation.  As writers we are told again and again to follow submission instructions to a tee, and I’m normally very careful, but this day I was in a rush so I messed up.  Next time, when it really counts, I’ll do better.  However I learned from other’s works as well:

  • For your first novel you really only have 1-2 paragraphs to grab the agent’s attention so do not:
    • Spend the whole opening in narrative or telling
    • Jump into backstory
    • Change point of view
    • Create unnecessary confusion with the reader
    • Tell the reader how they should be feeling
    • Have the character not do anything
  • Do:
    • Create an emotional response
    • Create something interesting
    • Create tension
    • Make the readers want to learn more
    • Have a strong voice
    • Anchor your character in place and time
    • Put your reader with the characters.  Remove the distance.

For those of you who despise the idea of writing to a “formula” for an agent, Rachel Weaver put things into perspective.  She said that you only have two paragraphs to get your first agent, so do everything you can to make your debut novel as readable as possible.  Then have faith in yourself that once you have an established readership you’ll be able to be more creative.

Random other tidbits

  • Sometimes you don’t need to edit.  You need to rewrite.  That involves putting your manuscript aside and actually retyping from scratch the scenes you wrote the first time, or making a new scene, or combining several scenes into one.  Not everything can be fixed by moving words around on a screen  – Vicki Lidner
  • You have to earn emotional scenes in your work, otherwise you risk sounding sappy, trite, or melodramatic, which will make a reader put down an otherwise amazing work.  Make sure the reader is invested in the character before you create scenes of happiness, love, nostalgia, or sentimentality.  Never forget that tension, even in these sentimental scenes, adds power so layer happiness and sadness together.  – Alexander Lumans
  • When editing, there is an arc where your writing becomes better, then just different, then worse.  Stop when you are in the different stage.  – Rachel Weaver
  • If you write something and it just sucks, don’t stop.  Call that section a “placeholder” and go back and fix it later.   Also know that early dialogue is always a placeholder. –  Rachel Weaver
  • Introduce your characters the way you would introduce yourself.  Don’t provide pages of backstory and details the first time you write a character or risk him/her being the person no one wants to talk to or read about.  – Rachel Weaver
  • What is the difference between showing and telling?  Envision this.  You are standing outside of a house where an amazing party is going on.  A man approaches and says, “Wow, there is a great party inside.  There is a world renowned DJ and all these famous people are joyously dancing to his mixes.  The food is the best thing anyone has ever eaten and it is paired with delicious drinks.  Everyone there is having the best time of their lives.”  That is telling.  Showing happens when you get to go to the party.  Let your readers go to the party.  – Rachel Weaver

Now, with all that newfound knowledge I #amwriting and I #amediting, and I’m doing both in a way that feels more productive and inspired.  The seasons are changing in Afthead-land.

True Happiness

When I am truly happy it’s a warmth that starts in my pelvis and spreads up through my sternum, but never reaches my heart.  My heart does not burst with cliche happiness.  It’s a much more primal emotion, and feels like someone has spread Bengay on my insides and slightly inflated me, but imagine the best possible feeling that could describe, not the torture version of inflated insides coated in Bengay.  Sometimes the happiness builds enough pressure that it seeps out my eyes.  I can describe this emotion today, because I am sitting here feeling it.

Why am I happy?  My life is filled with extraordinary people right now, and those people have caused a confluence of extraordinary experiences over the past two days.

Yesterday I planned a team outing for the amazing people I work with.  We were going out for a late lunch, partially to remember one of our colleagues who died a few years ago, and partially because we just needed to enjoy a good meal together away from the oppressive angst and uncertainty that currently permeates our workplace.  We also needed to celebrate.  An app 18 months in the making was finally approved by legal and went live on the Google Play store.  Funding that I have been fighting to get in the door for almost a year had arrived, and was enough to pay for two of us for a year.  If the looming budget cuts come, that money will save jobs.

Then my team turned the tables on me, morphing the lunch into a celebration of me, complete with a card, gifts, and a heartfelt gratitude for all I do for the team.  I was emotionally wrought and working off of four hours of sleep, so the fact that I did not break out in tears was a remarkable accomplishment.  Compounding the emotion was that because of Tuesday, I finally understood an additional facet of what I provide to the team.

Tuesday was my last Apocalyptic Fiction writing class, and while I never did accomplish my goal of being able to spell apocalyptic without the aid of spell check, I learned so much more.

  • I saw my own struggle in other’s writings, and through reviewing their work learned how I can improve.
  • I learned that I am terrible at identifying if a title is an apocalyptic novel or a death metal band.
  • While reading a book I despise I learned what I value as a reader and a writer
  • I learned that “bestseller” doesn’t mean “everyone likes this book.”  Related, I learned that I respect and value the opinion of people who like books I hate and people who hate books I like.
  • The utter terror I had sharing my work was replaced by the wonder of having people I trust not just enjoy my work, but provide thoughtful criticism on how to make that work better.  I also learned the value of giving and receiving feedback to and from other writers.
  • I learned that my love of maps can enhance my writing capabilities.  Sigh.  I love maps.
  • Through reading my classmates’ work I now understand why tension is important, what it means to have backstory delivered at the right time, how to convey information by both showing and telling, how to see the structure of a story though the mess of a draft, and why a story that has soul can pull readers in even in the early stages.

All of this was made possible, because our instructor Alexander Lumans built a supportive and encouraging environment where risks and experimentation were encouraged.  Couple that with a group of respectful, creative, engaged students and literal magic happened in our classroom for eight weeks.  Time stopped.  Worlds were built and dreams were formulated.  When there wasn’t magic, there was just great conversation.  We debated about the quality of the books we read and learned from our disagreements.  Beverage was not spewed out noses, but there was enough laughter to make that risk very real.

When the last class was over we spilled out of our couch and chair filled stuffy classroom into the real world and discovered that we liked each other as people too, not just writers.  The conversation flowed through writing, reading, television, videos, circuses, clowns, the cat in the hat, jobs, careers, and life’s injustices until the wee hours of the morning.

Walking to my car with one of my classmates I said, “I’m really glad that by the end Lumans became more than just our teacher.”  Those words came back to me at lunch on Wednesday.  I am wickedly horrible at self understanding, but a keen observer.  Often I have to see something in others before I can recognize it in myself.  Sitting at lunch I could understand how my team felt about me, and I could see ways I could make my work relationships richer through implementing what I appreciated from Lumans leadership in our class.

New friends?  A better understanding of how to improve my work relationships?  True excitement about my writing projects?  Hope of my new friends creating a writing group?  What an absolute gift the universe has given me this week in the form of two spectacular groups of people willing to open up and appreciate each other.  I’m filled with joy, trust and hope.  If that isn’t true happiness, I’m not sure what is.