Yesterday I spent a glorious early fall day in the company of writers, writing teachers, editors, and agents at Mount Mary University’s Publishing Institute, a day devoted to getting our writing published (and all the steps along the way). Below are 8 takeaways I brought home with me.
1. Writers (and people in general) can still be attentive and focused.
After arriving early and taking advantage of the breakfast offerings, I found a good people-watching seat in the large room where the keynote address would be held. Before long, I noticed something that, while unremarkable only a few years ago, is unusual in our world today. Hardly anyone was bent over a phone or tablet.
Several attendees were leafing through the conference information packets. Others, like me, were looking around the room. Some sat in pairs, eyes focused on each other, either catching up or getting to know each other. A few (probably parents of small children) basked in rare moments of solitude, eyes unfocused, slowly sipping coffee.
In the sessions I attended and at our lunch table, I saw no one checking email or even taking notes electronically. (I’m sure some people did use electronics, but it wasn’t obvious or prevalent.)
The fact that the experience felt unusual—in a delightful way—shows how much face-to-face interactions have changed in the past decade. It also hints at the positive aspect of peer pressure. Anyone hunched over a device would have seemed out-of-place (not that I was every tempted—ha).
2. Writers—all creatives—need their tribe.
Whatever our creative passion, we all need someone (or a few someones) who will share our excitement and offer unconditional support for our dreams. Here is the sticky and perhaps unexpected part: That someone may not be your otherwise close friends or family. For more on this topic, read Leanne Regalla’s “Become A Successful Writer Despite Your Friends And Family” and Julianna Baggott’s “The Rule and 12 Tips for Writers and Their Family and Their Friends…”
The afternoon session I attended by Kim Suhr, author and director of Red Oak Writing, was titled “Stoking the Fire: Getting and Staying Inspired.” She began by asking us to think about a current writing project and to imagine that it is completed. We have met our biggest goal. It is successful exactly in the way we want it to be. What does it look like? How do we feel? We did some free writing on this, then shared our thoughts with a partner.
My partner and I were hesitant to go as far as we could have with the exercise (vulnerability is scary, after all), but even the small steps we took were empowering. Which brings me to the next point…
3. Your voice and stories matter.
This and the next few takeaways come from the morning keynote talk by author Dean Bakopoulos. He began by talking about the importance of teaching children—all children—that their voices matter. Their stories matter.
We may find it easier to give this message to young people than to apply it to ourselves. Our voices do matter. Our words. Our stories. Regardless of how many readers or followers or fans we have, our backgrounds or education. When we embrace that belief, so much else falls into place.
4. Read other voices and stories to enrich your own.
Being part of a writing community means that, ideally, we read as much as we write. Bakopoulos focused on other writers in his talk (a refreshing change from speakers who use only their own examples), especially Z Z Packer’s short story “Brownies” and Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America.” I look forward to reading more of their works. You can read online Z Z Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” and Moore’s “Referential,” both of which were published in The New Yorker.
He also referenced one of my favorite short stories, James Joyce’s “Araby.”
5. Think “momentum” rather than “pyramid” for plot.
“Momentum is the key to getting published.” ~ Dean BakopoulosTweet This
Many of us are familiar with the standard rising and falling action of the pyramid writing structure:
The problem, according to Dean Bakopoulos, is that good stories (both fiction and non-fiction) don’t always follow this pattern. Instead, he suggests thinking of plot as an escalator.
At the beginning of your story (again, whether fiction or non-fiction), your protagonist steps onto an escalator. The movement has started, the character knows something previously unknown, and there is no going back. The rising action continues, but the protagonist does not know what is at the other end. At some point, the action changes “from passivity to activity” as the protagonist pushes back what is in the way to go forward with greater urgency, arriving at the top with in a “new place” and a “new vantage point.”
Bakopoulos’s explanation was of course much more detailed, but that’s the main idea.
6. Find inspiration in children’s books.
An example Dean Bakopoulos used to illustrate the idea of momentum and escalator plot structure is Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Listen to Carle read his classic picture book, and notice how the action begins, how there seems to be no going back, and how the end offers a new place, a new vantage point:
Indulge in some of your favorite children’s books with a writer’s eye and pay attention to the plot structure. How can you use the same techniques in your own writing?
7. Writers span generations.
This year’s Writing Institute participants included the young (at least one seventh-grader), young adults, middle-aged writers, seniors, and everything in between. When we talk about words and writing, age differences disappear. It’s as though we all are in the same class on the first day of school.
Writing, like so many other creative arts, rewards age and experience. While there are examples of outstanding novels and other works by young writers, it is hard to think of a writing prodigy as Mozart was a musical prodigy. Writing is a domain that is not only open to all ages, but that rewards wisdom gained from a rich life. It truly is never too late to begin.
8. Writers need to say “no.”
Finally, Kim Suhr reminded us that it is not only okay but often necessary to say “no” to volunteer and other requests that we don’t want to do and that make it harder to meet our writing goals. If you have set aside Saturday mornings for writing, keep that time as sacred as if it were a salaried job. After all, as Kim said, saying “I can’t; I’m working” is perfectly acceptable. Writing is your work. Period.
Practice saying, “I am not available Saturday mornings” or “Any time but Saturday morning would be great” or “All of my Saturday morning are already taken.” Do not feel guilty (you will, anyway, but do your best).
If you wait for others to give you permission to value your writing and creative life, the wait may be too long and the price too high.