The Yin and Yang of Conferences and Retreats

This past weekend, I went to my Regional SCBWI retreat. Well, I went to part of it as I am still recovery from the surgery. I’m so blessed to have a husband who was willing to drive me two hours away and stay close in case I needed him. And so thankful to belong to a group of writers who were willing to do whatever they could to make things easier as I strolled around with my walker, Daryl.

Writer retreats and conferences are awesome. And scary. And informational. Potentially hopeful. Potentially devastating.  This retreat was that and a whole lot more.

Most importantly I got to spend time with my writer friends. I have some wonderful friends in my life who love me and support my writing. They listen to my ideas, read my manuscripts, give me feedback. I love them dearly and they are so important to me. But they are not writers.

Sometimes I just need to spend time with other writers—people who think like me, know the publishing business, have felt the same immense joy of creation that I have and the same crushing defeat of rejection that I have.  My tribe, so to speak.

So I got to do that and it was the awesome part. I could tell you some stories, but one day I think our little Regional chapter might publish an anthology of the spooky/creepy things that happen to us on retreat, so I’ll save those for the book.  But what a wonderful boost t was to visit with my writer pals, especially right after having spent SO MANY DAYS lying in the bed. I left there feeling so encouraged because of my friends.

Retreats and conferences go beyond the personal connections, though. There are professional connections as well. We were lucky this year in that we had an agent and an editor as guests at this retreat. They both gave us valuable information in their sessions on world building, character, the publishing industry, etc… I came away with a lot of helpful tips.

(The tip that made me go hmmm:  “Look at the last line of every paragraph. You’ll find that you probably don’t need it. –Bethany Strout, Little Brown Editor.  She was right. I didn’t cut EVERY last line, but I found a few that were pretty much summarizing what had already been said in the paragraph! So simple, but so effective.)

Of course, part of the conference/retreat purpose is getting one-on-one feedback with these professionals. We got that from both professionals, so two for the price of one I suppose. As nerve-frying as writing query letters can be, personal pitches can be just as hair raising. We sent our materials ahead of time so they could read and be prepared with comments, so it wasn’t THAT bad, but still there is this element of fear that comes with meeting with them. Will she like my manuscript? Will she like me? Will she tell me I suck at writing and need to give up now? Will she hate my story because it isn’t contemporary? Will she love it and want to offer me rep today?

(So, that last one rarely happens, but writers would be lying if they tell you at least some kind of similar fantasy hasn’t crossed their minds prior to a professional crit session!)

Our retreat is held in an old Monastery that has partially been turned into a retreat facility. There is beautiful artwork and pictures of Jesus everywhere. Believe me when I tell you, I was talking to him before I went into my crit sessions! Have you heard of Schrodinger’s Cat? You know, where there is a cat locked in a box with a vial of poison. Until you open the box there is no way of knowing if the cat is alive or dead, therefore he is both and he is neither.

Going into a crit session is exactly like that. Hopeful that it will go well, fearful that it won’t. Until it happens both are possible.

My sessions went well and I got some advice from both professionals that I will put into my manuscript, some I won’t. I may not have landed MY AGENT FOREVER AND EVER with this retreat, but the perspective I gained is so valuable and I’m so thankful for a professional evaluation of my work. All feedback is good feedback. Remember that kids.

Early on in my writing career I read something that said most writers have this weird condition—at times suffering from crippling self-doubt that anyone will like their work versus times of extreme confidence in your words and ideas that there is NO WAY that this story will not be published.

I suffer from this condition, whatever its name. And now that I’ve experienced these retreats and conferences, written several different manuscripts, spoken to other professionals, I think I understand that this is a necessary part of writing.

Writers have to doubt sometimes. They have to care enough to want to make their stories the best they can be. Without doubt, there would be no growth. Without growth, there would be no improvement. Every writer, even the biggest and baddest among us, should want to improve with every story, every line and every word.

On the flip side of that, writers must believe enough in their stories to finish them, to have the drive to revise them again and again and again if necessary. And they have to have the bravery and the confidence to write that first query, attend that conference, put that manuscript out in the world and KNOW that someone else will “get it.”

It’s like Yin and Yang—can’t have one without the other. No dark without light. No good without bad. No reward without risk.  Retreats and conferences are like that too. Friends and critiques. Tips and rejections. Hope and disappointment.  Without all of those things, I would not be a better writer today than I was on Friday. And I am. And I am thankful for that.  For the retreat and every experience that came with it. (Even the scary one on the elevator.)

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The Amazing Awesomeness of Books

As I am still recovering from my surgery, I’ve got some time on my hands. And by that, I mean some time that I am not sleeping. It turns out that recovering from surgery makes one very tired all the time. I totally forgot that part after my 2 C-sections.

I have managed to catch up on the current seasons of two of my fave tv shows (Haven, and MARVEL’S Agents of Shield). I’ve also gotten almost to the end of the de-dystopianization of EVERGREEN. I’m not going to discuss the travesty that was me attempting to sweep the house yesterday whilst using my walker!.

What I will discuss is the reading I’ve been doing. I typically don’t read two books at one time, but I am doing that right now. My workplace friends sent a magnificent care package to me after surgery. In that box was a book. Some wonderful person at my job knew to get me a book! This book, however, is not something I would have chosen for myself. Why?

A.. It’s adult and not YA.

B. It’s a crime thriller, which not a genre I ever thought I would enjoy.

C. It’s from a super-mega-crazy-popular best selling author that EVERYBODY knows.

Granted, there is nothing wrong with being a super-mega-crazy-popular best selling author. I read Stephen King, for Pete’s sake. But when you read someone like that for the first time, there are a lot of expectations and I think I have mentioned in earlier blogs that I tend to go against the grain and reject popular things without giving them much of a chance. (Exceptions: The Walking Dead, Maroon 5, and the Dallas Cowboys under Tom Landry.)

But, since this person was kind enough to get me, the writer, a book, I committed to read it and give it a chance. My reaction to this book goes something like this:

Book: Page 1: Prologue.

Me: What the what? One of the most often heard pieces of writing advice from agents is that you don’t start a book with a prologue. If you do…say it with me other writers… YOU’RE STARTING YOUR BOOK IN THE WRONG PLACE.  *sighs and keeps reading* 

Book: Page 4. A description of two characters that the narrator is watching. It goes on for three paragraphs. {paraphrasing} He had this hair, these eyes,  was wearing this jacket, got out of this kind of car. She had this hair, wore this dress, walked like this, laughed like this, etc…

Me: The description of two characters goes on for three paragraphs in the most boring way possible?! Most writing experts will advise to find creative ways to fit description in and never ever list more than three attributes at one time. Because it gets boring and reminds you that you are reading a story, not being immersed in a world. But…on the other hand, this narrator is stalking this couple, so he would pay attention to details like that, so I’mma give him a pass on this one. *Reluctantly keeps reading.*

Book: Oh, not just a prologue, but three chapters of a prologue.

Me:  Why not just have them be Chapters 1, 2, and 3? *raises eyebrow and keeps reading*

Book:  A few chapters in and we’ve met the world famous detective that will be solving the crimes. (There are two going on in this book.) He is a grumpy curmudgeon who has a bad attitude and opinion about everything, This is the protag we are to root for.

Me: I don’t really like him. In fact, I kind of hate him, but he does love his children so he gets points for that.  More points for consistency of voice and character.  *tells self to overlook it and keep reading. Billions of people can’t be wrong, can they?*

Book: Chapters alternate between the protag POV and then the POV of each of the two killers

Me: That’s a lot of head jumping. Combine that with the fact that I am also reading AFTERWORLDS by Scott Westerfeld in which one chapter is told from the POV of an author, and the next chapter is the story she is writing. So, essentially I am reading 4 stories at once, plus re-writing my story and plotting another. *Takes Tylenol and keeps reading*

Daughter:  *walks into kitchen where I’m reading book* MOM, I can’t believe you’re still reading that book. I thought you said it was terrible and you couldn’t do it.

Me; *Tells her to shut up and keeps reading.*

Book:  I’ve got you now, Michelle. Right where I want you. You want to know how it ends. You feel a twist coming and you want to know if your suspicions are right. Or you want to know if Mr. super-mega-crazy-popular best seller guy can surprise you. *Mwuahahahahaha* You are mine now. All mine.

Me: *Keeps reading.*

I am not pretentious enough to think that I have the right to criticize or would know anything more than a super-mega-crazy-popular best seller. He’s that for a reason. And obviously when you are an SMCPBSA, you can break every rule ever written. What I think is so cool is that even though I was so reluctant to read this, I finally gave in and I know that I will finish it and like it, in spite of the flaws I found/will find in it.

Books are kind of awesome aren’t they?

Speaking of awesomeness. I am excited to tell you about a book that released today! LOOP by Karen Akins. I met this precious lady when she presented at the ArSCBWI conference this summer. She is friends and crit partners with some of my writer friends, so like, I KNOW HER! (Sort of, but it counts.) Go get this book. It’s going to be time-travelly and romancy and full of awesome! Check out her site here: http://www.karenakins.com/

Loop Book

This Is Your Brain On Drugs

I just spent 29 minutes writing this blog only to hit some wrong key somewhere and erase the whole thing. This is what happens when you try to blog under the influence of hydrocodone.

This is your brain.

This is your brain on drugs.

My previous entry was far more eloquent and entertaining, but sadly, that ain’t going to happen again. I only have about 13 minutes left before I’m out cold.

To catch everyone up, on Oct 1, I consulted with a neurosurgeon about the pain, numbness and almost-paralysis I was experiencing. This consultation turned into me being admitted to the hospital that night and surgery the following day. Apparently my spinal cord was being compressed at dangerous levels. Surgery went well. I’m home recovering (and driving my family crazy I am sure.) Still in need of pain meds, etc. Not sure yet if there are future surgeries or permanent damage, so until we know that, I take the meds and do my best impression of a Bluefin tuna after having been caught. Which is to say, lay motionless with glassy eyes.

I miss writing like crazy. Like, it really depresses me. But what is interesting is that even though this scary ordeal, I am writing. I may not be at my laptop, but I have managed to come up with a great idea, a way to tweak my very first story. (You know, the one I wrote when I was learning how to write. The one that is permanently on the shelf.) While in the MRI the 2nd time, trying to remind myself it was not a coffin, I was struck by one of the sounds it made. It caused me to think about the nature of sounds, and vacuums, etc. Now I have an idea.

Then later when the nurse was starting my IV, he said something about the needle and it hit me.  [!!!IDEA!!!] (can’t share it yet because I am going to write it, duh.)

I put those two things together, then add the characters I already love from my first story, tweak the setting and I have a shiny new thing to explore!

Just as soon as I can get off these annoying drugs!

And now, as my words are beginning to blur on the page, I will leave you for now.

Much love and appreciation for all the prayers, well wishes and support while I recover!

Have a great Tuesday full of ideas from unexpected places!