Monday, August 18, 2014

A "Conservative" Fly in the Liberal Writer's Group Ointment

I've been struggling with a serious issue in my writers group. There is a man who has been coming for about a month, who introduced himself as a conservative Christian. He is retired. He brought a letter to his church, asking them to become more involved in the politics of their community, namely to speak out against marriage equality. I asked everyone to focus on the writing itself in their feedback, and not the content. Many people were upset, and did not participate, a few of us told him where he went off point, and it wandered.

The next week, he brought an essay meant to be read as a speech, entitled "Religious Freedom is Under Attack." Once again, we were split in our reception, and managed to address the most glaring of problems, in his inability to maintain support for his opening statement. The writing itself isn't bad, but focus seems to be an issue. And, of course, the topic.

Our group is a large one, and there are usually about twelve to fifteen in the room at any given meetup. Many people come back again and again, others come only when they are working on something or need inspiration, and some drop in here and there. While the majority of us are white, we also have members who are Asian, black, hispanic, and others. the gender ratio runs M-F 50%/50% to 80%/20%, depending on the evening. We have several transgender members. We are open to all kinds of writing - fiction, non-fiction, essays, memoir, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, genre, literary fiction, childrens' books, poetry, screenplays, etc. I feel it is important to be exposed to all kinds of writing, and to people of all walks of life, and I do not believe in censorship. We are all adults, and it is no one's responsibility to 'not offend' someone. Yet, there is hate speech, and it's also not fair to force other members to listen to it. The question is, is this hate speech?

This man asked me if it was okay to bring a controversial piece the following week. I told him that everything he had brought had been controversial. It was a legislative proposal concerning abortion rights. I told him that I didn't know how to write legislative proposals, nor did I think anyone else did, in the group, but it was up to him.

He brought it, and was ridiculous. He was proposing a legal requirement for a contract between two (hetero) people having sex, to establish ownership of any ensuing fetus. Yep, you read that right. I'm not even going to go into all the ways this is completely absurd, but I do feel the need to point out that the crux of his argument was to protect men from having to financially support their offspring. Suffice it to say, we were all at a loss for feedback. One member, thank the stars, eloquently explained that he felt that the writer wanted us to engage in debate on the topic, and none of us wante3d to do that. The writing is good, but the content is what-the-hell. We discussed it, except for one member who stormed off in a rage (she came back" and the writer said he liked our group for that reason. He couldn't get useful feedback from those who already thought like he did, so he wanted to see what we thought about it.

The best part was, he read this proposal directly after another member shared a story of domestic violence, pregnancy, and abortion. Perfect timing, but not sure if it had any effect on this writer.

This CC writer usually has good feedback for other members, and seems to participate fully, without pushing his agenda on other writers's work. He seems respectful, although a few people have felt otherwise and labeled him a troll. I certainly do not agree with anything he has said in his work, but I believe he has a right to say it. The next question is: Does he have the right to say it in our group?

I want to uphold my ethics, when it comes to free speech, individual rights, and self-expression, but I don't want to listen to any more of it, either. I certainly don't want to sacrifice the group for this one writer. I'm thinking I should amend the openness policy to include all forms of fiction and creative non-fiction... but do his essays and speeches fall into CNF? It's been a struggle, and a hard call. I hate how much time I've spent thinking about it and talking about it. There is no way we can address these topics in the twenty-minute time period allotted to each writer, and frankly, I don't want to. But a part of me can't help feeling that he must've come into our midst for some reason... whether it's for him to learn from us, or us to learn how to deal with him, or what, I don't know.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

PNWA Conference 2014

It's been a few weeks since the conference, and I have been wanting to write a report about it. I took copious notes, from some great workshops like "Creating Tension and Suspense" with Robert Dugoni, "Unlocking Character Motivation" with Lindsay Schopfer, and "A Moment in Time: Focusing on the Historical Novel" with Candace Robb (A.K.A.Emma Campion).


Being the night owl that I am, I made myself go to bed very early, and was up at 5:30 am, before the alarm even went off. I read in the bathtub, had breakfast, made coffee, and arrived at the Hilton just after 8. I was planning on attending the Agents & Editors Panel, where they introduce themselves, at 8:30 and 10:00. Turns out, that happens on FRIDAY, not Thursday. Well, at least I was early!

The elevator doors opened to the conference floor at 8:14, and I was immediately greeted by a wonderful young writer that I met last year, Halie Fewkes. Halie was a 1st place winner in the PNWA contest in 2013, and now was represented by Katie Reed, with the Andrea Hurst Agency. She had a posse of other writers with her, some returning PNWA attendees, and some who'd become friends at the New York Pitchfest earlier in the year. This little group of writers spanned ages from twenty to fifty, and covered literary fiction, memoir, young adult, new adult, romance, women's fiction, horror (that's me!), and more.

Throughout the conference, I was greeted by many returning writers that I met previously. I had maintained only a handful of connections online, but it was seriously like a big reunion, anyway.

The first event was the Author Success Stories, where PNWA attendees shared their paths to publishing. Lunch break was a packed sammie for me, among a small group of writers sharing tales of writing. Then, off to the Pitch Practice room, for several hours, where dozens of us read our book pitches and gave each other feedback. I was pitching the same novel as the previous year, which is still on the market. I wanted to pitch my new stuff, but it's nowhere near ready, so I stuck with the novel. I planned to change up the pitch, but feedback was that last year's pitch was good, so I quickly re-memorized that.

I forgot that dinner was not included on the first night, only dessert, so I headed over to the hotel restaurant for an expensive dinner and drinks. It was okay. At least I was with friends - two writers I had met last year, Noelle Salazar and Jamie Pacton. It was great catching up and getting to know each other better.

The keynote speaker that night was James Rollins. I have not read anything by him, but he was a very engaging speaker. He shared stories from his childhood, including the tale of how he kept an ongoing prank on his younger brother going that involved a ventriloquist's dummy. He also spoke about his career as a veterinarian and an author, and how that worked. It was entertaining.

Afterwards, several of us met up in the hotel bar, at the invitation of one of the agents. Another agent joined us, and we were asked for pitches, which didn't really work out so well, but was interesting, nonetheless.

Day Two

Friday morning, I did not wake up before the alarm, or even at it. Ended up arriving around 9:30 am, after the Editors Panel. I got to see the Agents Panel, at least, at 10:00. Several writers came up to me between the panels to inform me that local editor and owner of Pink Fish Press, Renda Dodge, had been bemoaning the fact that no one ever pitched her horror. Since I was essentially the only horror writer in attendance, for the second year in a row, I tended to draw attention. There were people telling e about Renda's plea, that I didn't even know! Unfortunately, Renda had to leave the conference early due to health issues. But, I've met her several times in workshops and at the conference, and know how to get a hold of her, should I decide to do that.

I dutifully listened to the row of forty-plus agents as they introduced themselves and told the crowd what they were looking for, what they wanted to know from us, and what not to do. Turns out, no one wants your business card, so take heed! I felt silly for making that mistake last year. Oh, well, lesson learned. I took notes on everyone's lists and preferences, and made my plan for pitching.

An agent the night before had talked to me about the difficulty of pitching a comedic horror novel, because it was, by nature, not really a horror because it was funny, and not really a comedy, since it was horror. So, during the Q&A segment of the panel, I asked them about that. the answers I got basically said, "there is no comedy genre, so it's horror," and disagreed with the previous assessment. That agent then chimed in with, "I told you- it's Shaun of the Dead!" which is true-ish!

I brought my own lunch again, and sat in the commissary area with other writers. One I knew from Halie, a sci-fi-superhero genre writer named Paige Orwin, an older mystery writer named Peter, an older literary writer named Janet, and a teenage writer named Derek. We talked writing, of course, and had great fun discussing funny names of people we both knew in real life and in fiction. Puns were flying.

At 2:00, I attended the workshop on creating suspense. It was very useful. At 4:00, I had my Pitch Block, so I headed down to that area of the hotel. There were a lot fewer agents and editors looking for horror this year than last, so my list was short. A couple were not even in attendance for that block, so I had three agents to see. Two asked me for first chapters, and the the third informed me that while she liked vampires and werewolves, etc. zombies made her nauseous. Okay, then... I spoke with Rita Rosenkrantz after that, since she did have a line, and I wanted to just pick her brain about memoir. I got some good ideas on what I need to do to establish myself as a voice and create a platform for my memoir writing. It's a work-in-progress for me, on all fronts. I thanked her for her time, and left with a few notes.

We were served dinner that evening, and my vegetarian option was ravioli in a heavy tomato-cream sauce, which is what everyone else had, too, along with s chicken filet. The catering staff were rather rude, for some reason, and were really put out that there were not enough tables set up for everyone. The same thing had happened the night before for the dessert event. I don't know if more people attended than expected? I don't know why- I would assume that the majority of attendees would go to all the events they could, but who knows. Robert Dugoni hosted an informal panel of writers. They talked about their careers, their processes, and a lot about drinking. It wasn't my favorite panel, but they can't all be winners.

I was sharing a room with a friend that night, so after the gathering in the bar, I got to go straight to my room, where Laura and I chatted a bit before heading off to Zzz-land.

Day Three

Saturday morning, bright and early- in the shower first, hotel room coffee by my side, then breakfast in the restaurant. 8:00 am, is my favorite panel from last year, The First Page. Since I didn't have a new completed project, I submitted the first page of one of my personal memoir essays. I had three writer friends at the con read five of my first pages that morning, and they all agreed on the same one, "Flying Colors" (title subject to change).

Miraculously, mine was again chosen to be read for the panel. Even as I was hearing it, I could tell two paragraphs needed to be cut! Hands went up, and I got nearly an entire page of feedback form the four women on the panel. Everyone loved my first line, but there is no real scene, and it rambles too much. I get it. Points taken! Great notes.

This year's panel was less dynamic than last year's, for The First Page. I was slightly disappointed that all four agents represent a lot of the same type of work: women's fiction, YA, MG, (Young Adult, Middle Grade), mystery, memoir, and mainstream fiction. I think last year's panel had more diversity. A lot of sci-fi, fantasy, and other kinds of pages did not get much feedback. Luckily, mine was memoir, this year, and not horror. Several of my friends in attendance also got feedback, some better than others.

Next up was the Unlocking Character Motivation workshop. Lindsay Schopfer is a smart guy. I met him briefly last year, but this was the first workshop I've taken with him. He works as a writer and a writer coach in Olympia, WA. I plan on working with him soon! I got mass help and good ideas from this hour-and-a-half.

I had to buy lunch on this day, since I had stayed at the hotel and not been able to pack one.

At 2:00, I attended "Exploring Point-of-View", with Terry Persun. Terry is a prolific sci-fi writer that I had heard good things about as a presenter the previous year. I was eager to check it out. Unfortunately, the crux of this workshop was "You can do whatever you want," LOL. It was interesting, exploring different examples of POV and discussing tactics for writing POV, but it wasn't as structured as I would have liked, and some attendees hammered  the points on which they remained confused. Terry's daughter, Nicole Persun, has begun a successful writing career of her own, and seems to bring a lot of focus to the group discussions and her father's presentations.

Since I have an historical novel in mind for a future project, I decided to attend Candace Robb's workshop on HF. She writes primarily in the fourteenth century, and a number of attendees also had eras spanning the eleventh century to the eighteenth. A few Civil War era writers, and me, who's looking at the Roaring Twenties. There may have been others, but those are the ones I heard. Ms. Robb told me that she was jealous of my era, because there was such a plethora of research materials available to me, and hers was such a labor. I enjoyed listening to her, and the other attendees, and got some answers to a few questions I had. She also highly recommended a book on writing called Wired For Story, by Lisa Cron (2012).

Next was a bit of a break, where I engaged in several discussions with other writers, and then the dinner and awards presentation. My vegetarian dinner was delicious - a portobello mushroom version of a beef wellington, which I'd remembered fondly from the previous year, actually, and was glad to have again- and we had managed to snake a table this time. I sat amongst a number of Literary Contest Finalists, and, wonderfully, everyone nominated at our table won! A few Second Places, and a lot of First Places. Well done!

I was tired, but still went for drinks in the bar until midnight. Had some great conversations with some great writers, and drove home by one.

Day Four

By this time last year, I was wiped. This year wasn't quite so manic, and I was tired, but still managed to arrive at the Hilton by 9:30 am, missing only the first hour of contest winners's readings. Unfortunately, I also missed the continental breakfast offerings, which were wheeled away by 10:00 a, for some reason, but opted for a nice cuppa tea, instead of the coffee which had been tearing me up all weekend. Be warned.

"Today I Write" was the title of the Sunday Keynote Speaker event, given by Robert Dugoni. Did I mention, yet, how absolutely engaging, entertaining, and informative this author is? I don't read crime fiction, but I did buy one of his books that day, and will let you know what I think once I get around to reading it. I can't imagine it's not a complete page-turner. I had to borrow paper from my friend, Morgan, to take down all the wonderful thoughts Robert gave us that morning. I filled an entire page, front- and back-side, with notes. I learned a ton in two hours of him talking. And, he gave us a list of books to include in our writer's library, that he found essential.*

It was all over by noon, and many writers had already left town early that morning, or had simply chosen not to come to the Sunday Brunch. Their loss. A group of half a dozen writers have made a tradition of going out to 13 Coins for a post-PNWA brunch of their own, and I joined in, for the second year. It's great to talk to people that I had not seen much of during the conference, and decompress, share notes, and laugh about the crazy last four days.

*Robert Dugoni's List of Suggested Books For Writers:

  • The Writer's Journey - Chris Vogler
  • Stein on Writing - Sol Stein
  • Self-Education For Fiction Writers - Renni Browne, Dave King
  • Writing Genre Fiction: A Guide To The Craft - H. Thomas Milhorn
  • Sell Your Novel Tool Kit - Elizabeth Lyon
  • The Elements of Fiction Writing - A Series published by Writer's Digest Books, including:
    • Plot 
    • Conflict, Action, & Suspense
    • Scene & Structure
    • Beginnings, Middles, & Ends
Other books on Writing that were recommended by various writers (I haven't read any, as of yet):
  • Wired For Story - Lisa Cron
  • The Weekend Novelist - Robert J. Ray
  • Writing For Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction - Jon Franklin
  • Writing Fiction: A Guide To Narrative Craft - Janet Burroway