Sunday, May 3, 2009

Muse and the Marketplace 2009 -- Recap

Last weekend I attended Grub Street's 8th annual Muse and the Marketplace writer’s conference. This was my third Muse, and my best experience thus far. Which is saying a lot, since the others were wonderful.

For the first time the Muse was held at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel, apparently the only facility in Boston big enough for this year’s conference, proving how unstoppable a force the Muse and Grub Street have become. Also, for the first time I did not participate in the Manuscript Mart part of the conference. This is where a literary agent or editor critiques 20 pages of your writing. It’s an intense experience, and it can feel like the conference becomes a framework on which to drape these agent/editor meetings. This year I wanted to simply go to the conference and not worry about a critique. Also as a first, I volunteered Sunday, coming away with a wholly unique vision of the conference; meeting fellow writers I would not have otherwise and getting new perspectives by sitting in on workshops outside of my interest.


Saturday started with a panel discussion called The State of the Industry. Participants included Hallie Ephron (writer), Jane Rosenman (editor, Algonquin Books), David Langevin (director of electronic markets at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and Joseph Olshan (writer), moderated by Sorche Fairbank (founder of Fairbank Literary Representation). Here we got the inside scoop on topics such as publishing in the digital age, the struggles a working author faces, and trends in fiction. I gleaned some interesting tidbits such as:

- Good writing is always in demand, whether published traditionally or digitally (online, ebooks, etc.).
- There are now fewer editors for agents to send material to.
- Good ideas to garner a bit more attention include: writing a novel in serial format, incorporating non-fiction hooks (social, historical, civil rights, etc.) in your fiction, and publishing online (agents do troll the Internet for talent).
- Alternatives to traditional publishing: ebooks, podcasts, cell phone novels (novels written on a cell phone—huge in Japan).
- Publish in magazines/lit mags to get agents/editors attention.
- Non-fiction sells better than fiction.
- It’s easier to get a published book reviewed than a self-published book.
- Self-publishing success can lead to a publisher.
- There is a genre called narrative. I hadn’t heard of this. It’s a cross between literary fiction and storytelling. Which I take to mean, plot-driven literary fiction (correct me if I’m off base here).

This was neither encouraging nor discouraging, but followed what I already believed about the current state of publishing. It’s always good to hear that good writing doesn't go out of style.

The panel ended with each panel member touting one or more contemporary books that they love (I may have missed one or two):
- The Outlander, Gil Adamson
- Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell
- Dog on It: A Chet and Bernie Mystery, Spencer Quinn (I think I heard this right)
- Invisible Sisters, Jessica Handler
- Story of a Marriage, Andrew Sean Greer
- Mudbound, Hilary Jordan (more than one panelist mentioned this one)
- How Do We Decide, Jonah Lehrer (non-fiction)

Next I attended Lewis Robinson’s workshop, Eternal Rocks Beneath, the Relevance of Setting. Here Lewis handed out four excerpts, samples from novels and stories. We discussed the use of language to convey a sense of setting, and how we can learn about characters from their relation to and with the locations in which they pass. We learned about over-describing setting, where all objects carry the same weight. Or keeping it too generic, where location description is not from a particular character’s point of view.

Lewis equated writing about setting as describing to someone how to get someplace they are unfamiliar with. Imagine leading the way with a lantern that illuminates the reader’s path. By the end of the workshop I realized all the pieces we had discussed (from Revolutionary Road and Brokeback Mountain, to Louis’s own story, Puckheads) used settings not just as locations in which to place characters, but as if they were characters themselves, equally important to the story.

On to…Lunch! I sat at a table with Randy Susan Meyers, Ginny DeLuca, Tara Mantel, Stacey Shipman, and others. We were welcomed by Grub Street’s artistic director Chris Castellani, and development director Whitney Scharer. Then there were readings by Alan Cheuse and Dinty W. Moore. As you can see, every moment of the Muse is crammed with activity. You always get your money’s worth.

My afternoon workshop was Stephen McCauley’s Building Character. He discussed the best ways to introduce your characters, keeping in mind that first impressions stick with readers throughout a book, so you’ve got to write descriptions that count. Stephen read an excerpt from The Great Gatsby, when the character of Tom Buchanan is introduced. It’s a stunner, as Fitzgerald sweeps us across the front grounds of Buchanan’s sprawling house like a movie camera and right up to the man himself, standing with legs apart, surveying his domain. It was a great example of how to use action to help introduce a character.

Stephen then used Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls as an example of bad character description. Lots of vague language, like real and really, and describing a woman simply as beautiful without much elaboration. The woman’s eyes—they weren’t just blue. They were really blue. Sky blue, but glacial. Stephen admitted to loving Valley of the Dolls, even if the writing wasn’t always classic.

Toward the end of the day, it was time for the Hour of Power, five workshops that were open to all, and we were free to roam in and out at will. I wandered into a workshop about writing a non-fiction book proposal. Didn’t take long to figure out that it wasn’t for me, considering I’m all about the fiction. So I skeedaddled over to Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Open Mic. Here writers of every ilk read their pieces before a room of people and then Hank gave a spot critique, offering advice about how to choose a piece (read an excerpt that has a natural arc) and how to read with impact (when to hold a beat, when to raise your voice). These are details I hadn’t really considered. Good to know, as the few readings I’ve given could have used a little HPR guidance.

On to the cocktail hour. I’m not a big schmoozer, so I wasn’t prepared to bully some unsuspecting agent into representing me or an editor into a book contract. It was just relaxing to talk about the day with fellow writers and compare Muse stories. I also got the skinny on a few Manuscript Mart experiences while enjoying an exotic imported beer.


I had initially planned to attend only Saturday, so when I heard they were looking for volunteers, I threw my hat in the ring for Sunday. I arrived around 7:45 A.M., and was introduced to Kim. Kim showed me and another volunteer, Kathleen, around and told us how to manage the workshops to which we were assigned. Then I was stationed by the elevators to answer questions and guide participants to appropriate workshops or the Manuscript Mart.

By mid morning I had a few extra minutes so I sat in on Jenna Blum’s Extreme Research workshop. Jenna was a great speaker, as were many of the writers and instructors appearing at the Muse. She was generous and concise, quick on her feet, and funny as hell. When answering questions about how she approached interviewing Holocaust survivors, she explained how she put her subjects at ease and didn’t push too hard for details from those reticent to talk.

My first workshop as a volunteer was for Carlo Rotella’s Nonfiction Storytelling. Again, I’m a fiction writer. So I expected this session to be a little dry and off-topic. But Carlo is another great speaker, and he’s had so many interesting experiences as a journalist that he was a pleasure to listen to. And I found many of his comments about research (how to handle too much, how to get more), organizing, and editing really refreshing. He was happy to discuss his techniques and the problems he encountered whenever he wrote a magazine piece. How it’s easier for him to revise and finish an article than it is to start one.

Lunch time. Another great meal from the staff at the Park Plaza. Have I mentioned how this place ran like a precision watch, and the food and service were excellent? As a volunteer I wasn’t sure where to eat, and walked into the huge Georgian Ballroom looking for anyone with this year’s Muse t-shirt (the uniform for volunteers). Randy flagged me down and so I sat with her and other writers like Cecile Corona, Stephanie Ebbert, Christiane Alsop, and Jennifer McInerney. It’s great to talk to like-minded writers. Whether or not they’ve got an agent, a book deal, published stories, writers can always find common ground for discussion.

Anyway, it was time for keynote speaker Ann Patchett, (Bel Canto, Run). She bounded onstage and spoke for over an hour with fierce conviction and wry, candid observations. The first thing she said was, “The muse is bullshit,” and spent about 30 minutes explaining how creativity isn’t something you wait for, it’s something you earn by sitting your butt in the chair and writing. Then she said, “The marketplace is bullshit,” and spent 30 minutes explaining how mercurial the writing business can be. How you may have to throw away your first novel and set to work on the second if you ever want to get published. How you can’t get caught up worrying about trends and advances or you’ll never write a true word (I’m paraphrasing here, or maybe I’m writing my own keynote speech). She took a few questions from the avid audience, and then she left as quickly as she had come, back onto a plane and home to Nashville. She was a hell of an entertaining speaker and I didn’t want it to end.

My afternoon workshop was run by writer Richard Hoffman, called Starting From Solitude: Interiority and the First-Person Narrator. Again, I was able to apply a non-fiction perspective to my experience as a fiction writer. Much of the workshop consisted of Richard feeding his small audience (these rooms held no more than 50 people I’m guessing) writing prompts. I followed along with the exercise. He had everyone choose a particularly emotional time in their lives, reminding us that adolescence is usually a good place to start. And indeed, there I was scribbling away to prompts like, where are you? (Walking on the beach.) What have you just come from doing? (Going to church youth group.) Who are you with? (My dog). What advice do you have for this version of yourself. (Don't take everything so damn seriously, and to give himself a break.) Richard called on participants to read, and it was pretty amazing to hear these micro memoirs put together on the spot.

When Richard’s session ended, I went down to the registration desk. It was pretty quiet, so I spent some time looking over the selection of books brought by Porter Square Books. Many, if not all, of the authors who participated over the weekend were represented. I decided to take a chance on an author I’d never heard of, and found The Missing Person, a novel by Alix Ohlin, who was around Saturday giving a workshop on time travel in fiction. Then I talked to fellow volunteer Kathleen about writing and publishing. It was a great way to end the conference; just talking to another writer about writing.

If there’s a takeaway from the conference, it’s the knowledge that all writers, no matter their level of success, confidence, or technique, share a common task. Ann Patchett said, If you’re good, you’ll get published. The panel on the state of publishing echoed, If you’re good, you’ll get published. And the only way that’s going to happen is for any writer to take all this advice, go home, sit down, and get to it.


Liz's Mom said...

I am so glad you got to it. This description of your weekend at the well organized, well run Grub Street Event...brilliant ! It gives the flavor and atmosphere of two days of intense involvement with writing and writers.

jessica handler said...

Dell, thanks for the mention of Invisible Sisters! I'd heard it was recommended in that session, and am thrilled.

All in all, an impressive and fun conference, and way cool for me to be back in Boston, if only for a weekend.

Dell Smith said...

Hi Liz's mom, thanks for letting me bounce ideas about the post off you.
Thanks for reading, Jessica. Yeah, I'd say the conference was a big success all around. Everybody I talked to had a great time.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful time at a fabulous event. And what a great group of authors!

Can't wait to hear more about it in person. :)

Christopher said...

Thank you for this wonderfully generous and thorough recap, Dell! It was great to have you at the conference again. We really appreciated your help before, during and after the event, and look forward to seeing you around again soon - and, of course, at Park Plaza in 2010.

Dell Smith said...

Hey Cindy, can't wait to see you.

Thanks Chris!