Sunday, June 28, 2009

Wesleyan Writers Conference One-Day Event, Part Two

For those of you who haven't read the first part of this entry, click here.

Last time, I wrote about the classes I attended at the Wesleyan Writers Conference One-Day Event. In this blog, I'll continue with the two panels I attended, dinner, and the Padraic Colum Evening, which ended the one-day session.

World Music Hall

We had a half-hour break between the poetry class and our next event, held at World Music Hall. That event was a panel entitled "Blogs and Digital Media." The three people on the panel were Ron Hogan, Kit Reed, and Alexander Chee--who had taught the novel-writing class in the morning. The topic was "Authorial Presence Online," though the part that most interested me concerned how to gain readers. As of this writing, I have only three people who have linked to my blog, and while I know of at least one other person who has bookmarked the page, that's not a large total. Then again, I only started this blog a month or so ago, so I hope that by following their advice (send out a mass email--check; put links on facebook every time you write a new entry--check), I'll eventually get more followers.

They also talked a little bit about their blogs (except for Kit, who doesn't have any--though she used to be part of one of the early web communities, and maybe still is) and gave examples of good blogs to check out. Though, as Alex pointed out, you shouldn't read other blogs when creating your own blog. I think he meant that you shouldn't read other blogs looking for ideas on what to do for your blog. Basically, blogs should show the personality of the author and be about something the author is passionate about. That's why I hope to include more writing pieces in this blog, so that I'm not discussing the writing process all the time. Once I start publishing poems in magazines and start looking for an agent, I should also have more to write about. But, since this is an interactive format, feel free to comment on what's in this blog and what you feel should be in this blog. I might tell you to go to hell, or I might tell you that your idea is a good one.

Back to the conference. More advice was to be engaged with other blogs and to link up to blogs you like (asking for permission first, of course). So, I will try to comment more on the blogs I read, too. This also leads into something that was said in the next panel, held at the Center for the Arts Cinema.

Center for the Arts Cinema

That panel was called "Publishing Today and Advice for Writers." On the stage sat Abigail Holstein (editor), Julie Barer (agent), Ravi Shankar (webzine publisher and teacher of the poetry class in the morning), Lexy Bloom (editor), Josh Henkin (writer), and Johnny Temple (publisher). Johnny gave the opening remarks, detailing how he went from Wesleyan graduate to being in a rock and roll band to a small press book publisher (he publishes Akashic Books, whose motto is "Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World"). Since he had to leave in the middle of the discussion that followed, he left brochures for Akashic Books at the table where he sat. Thumbing through mine, I think I am too average to belong in his catalog of eclecticism (and yes, I made up that last word).

This panel included much great information, so I'll try to include the best nuggets here. When giving their introductions, the editors said that they look at voice and characters when deciding whether or not to publish a book. I don't remember if Julie (agent) agreed with them, but I'm guessing she did. Speaking of Julie, she said the best thing we can do to support new writers is to go out and buy hardcover books by them. After all, if we don't buy their books, why should we think that people will buy ours, when the time comes? Just like commenting on other blogs keeps us engaged in that world, buying books keeps us engaged in the literary world.

I should mention that Lexy is Josh's editor, so part of the focus, and what could be seen clearly between them, is the author/editor relationship. Writing may be a difficult business, publishing even more so, but it comforted me to see how well this editor and this author got along. In fact, all of the women on the panel were young and energetic, and if these two editors and one agent are representative of the publishing world as a whole, authors are in very good hands. Once they break through, of course.

Speaking of which, Julie (agent) mentioned that new authors only get one chance to impress an agent, so make sure the book is DONE before sending it out. She also clarified something pointed out in On Writing, which concerns taking a break between the writing of the first and second draft of a novel. She said to take off several weeks or several months between each draft, so that you can return to it fresh. So, when is the book done? According to her, when you've worked on it so much that you're sick of it. I think a better way to think of it is how Josh (writer) alluded to it--when you know your novel inside and out, it's done. At that point, everything in the book that should be in there is in there, and everything that shouldn't be in there, isn't (my opinion).

Since there was so much good advice given, I'll only include one more piece of advice here, given by Josh, and one that is critical. In regards to not sending out your novel too early (before you know it), he said to be open to change, but not to change something just because someone--whether it be an agent or an editor--tells you to. In his case, he changed all but 10 or 15 percent of his latest novel from the proposal to its revised form (following Lexy's letter about what she thought he should change in the novel), but he did it because he felt it needed to be changed. As he pointed out, if you split the word "revision" into its components, it means "to see something anew."

After the panel was over, we had a chance to talk one-on-one with all of the panel guests--minus, Johnny. We also could buy books by Ravi (a poetry book called Instrumentality) and Josh (who has written two books to date, the latest being Matrimony). I looked at Matrimony, but was turned off by discovering that some of it takes place in a writing workshop (the Iowa Writers Workshop, according to No thanks. I don't need to read about struggling writers. Looking at several poems in Instrumentality, however, I was struck at how good the language was. I turned it over. $16. Putting it back on the table, I decided to think about it.

I got to talk to Ravi first, even though I was originally in line to talk to Julie. I introduced myself, he introduced hisself, and we shook hands. He publishes poetry on the webzine Drunken Boat, but since they're working on the annual right now, they're not taking submissions. He told me they would start taking submissions again in August. I showed him my poetry book (I had brought a copy). He looked at the back and saw that I had gone to JMU. He had gone to UVa.

In response to my questions about first books of poetry and themes (I told him what I had in mind for my next collection of poetry), he said the first book of poetry is usually the 50 best poems by the poet. As for themes, they can be loose themes, since poems don't have to be placed in the context of a strict narrative. I told him I might buy his book, then got back in line for Julie.

I introduced myself to Julie, but we did not shake hands. Maybe she was waiting for me to put my hand out. Anyway, minor detail, though it did give me pause. My main question for her had to do with advice I had been given years before about working in only one genre or related genres. Since my ideas for stories come in all different genres (though mainly fantasy), I asked her if the advice I had been given was true, and how could I follow it when I don't think in terms of genre first, story second? Well, she disagreed with that assessment. She felt it was good for writers to expand into different genres. For a second novel, as long as it's good, it doesn't matter what genre it's written in, according to her. That led to a different question that I was originally going to ask her, which was, if that's the case, than how does one get an agent, since agents only handle certain genres. She said that my first novel should be most representative of the genre in which I would do the most writing. Then, for the next novel, I could tell my agent, "I'd like to try something a little bit different."

I originally was going to ask her if it were true that poets didn't need agents, but I forgot the question at the time, and so ended our conversation. Instead, I went back to the table where Instrumentality was being sold. The guy selling them, however, was packing up. When I asked him if I could see a copy of the book, however, he took one out for me. He also said that he'd be at the event that night, if I needed more time to decide. He didn't know if Ravi would be there, though (he was), and since my whole purpose was to get him to sign the book for me, I decided to buy it then. I then went back to Ravi and got him to sign it. He also wrote quite a lengthy message on it, since he knew I was a poet, too, basically wishing me luck and hoping to "see you in print."

I had no questions for the editors, so I began heading out. It was at that point that I realized I was no longer carrying my umbrella. I looked in my bag. Not there. I looked under the seats near the row I had sat in (I had sat front and center for the panel, unlike the out-of-the-way places I had sat for my previous classes). Not there. Thinking I might have left it in the bathroom (I went before the panel began), I went there to check. Nothing. I knew that I couldn't go outside without it. What to do? I ended up coming back into the auditorium and looking again. It's a dark umbrella; perhaps I just hadn't seen it.

I had just about given up when, going up the aisle on the righthand side, I saw an umbrella lying across a chair. It was far from where I was sitting, not being among any of the seats near where I had sat, and not even in the same row. In any case, it was my umbrella.

Usdan University Center

While I didn't bite off any plasticware at dinnertime, I did find myself alone--the only one to have a table to himself. Much fewer people ate dinner than had eaten lunch. While waiting for the dinner lines to open (we had a large break between the end of the last panel and dinnertime), I poured myself some tea, letting it cool on the table once I went up to get dinner, since it had almost burned my hands off while transporting it there (they had plastic cups, not styrofoam). I had cold cuts with bread, some tofu stuff, salad, and maybe some other items, as well. I guess Wesleyan is very Asian and health-conscious in their food choices.

Anyway, once I had finished dinner, I debated which table I should join. Since there was about an hour-and-a-half wait between dinnertime and the final event of the evening, it wasn't a question of whether or not I should sit with people at another table, but who I should ask. I finally decided on a table with two guys and two girls, all of whom look to be of college age (though they had looked older from afar). Basically, I filled a gap. There were several college-age students at the conference (and younger?), with the next age group being people in their late thirties/early forties. I saw no one there who looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties, though I might have missed them.

The group I sat with discussed the demerits of Twilight (no plot, vampires "sparkle"), how Twitter should work (not there to tell people about mundane happenings in your life), and other topics. I had a good discussion with the woman sitting next to me about the craft of writing and such. Oh, and to all you Twilight fans out there, I have not read the book or the series--I'm just passing along what I heard. The ones who were criticizing it, however, had read the book, and one of them had seen the movie.

So, onto the last event of the night: The Padraic Colum Event. Still not sure what it means, but all of us went back to the World Music Hall and got to hear Andre Aciman read from his new, still unpublished novel (it will be out on Valentine's Day next year). He said that the book had been unpublished last year when he came to Wesleyan, too.

The book follows a boy and girl who are in between relationships, and the eight days and nights that they spend together. Andre skipped around in his readings from the novel, but I couldn't tell when the skips occurred, and found myself zoning out at times, hypnotized by the words and his delivery. I plan on reading it when it comes it--it sounds very good. Wonder if I should ask for an advance because I'm helping to promote his book ;-) Oh wait, my audience is in single digits. Darn :-(

After the reading, all of the books that had been sold during the conference were out on a table (though I didn't see Matrimony there), right next to a punch bowl, fruit, and some cheese and crackers. I didn't talk much to anyone after the reading, beyond saying, "Excuse me," when I bumped into someone. I looked at Andre's books, but none of them grabbed me as strongly as his soon-to-be-published book had. The one that came the closest was Call Me by Your Name, his only novel for sale (and possibly his only novel). One could also purchase his memoirs and a collection of essays. And, they were all two dollars cheaper than the poetry book I had just bought, and much thicker. But I refrained. I also saw autographed copies of books by authors who had appeared earlier in the week, including some from Amy Bloom. Finally, an author I've heard of...though still haven't read.

What more is there to tell? After I snacked for a little bit, I went back to the parking lot and went home. Unfortunately, the street was one way, which I only discovered upon pulling out of the parking lot. Going the other way would have been so much easier. So, I ended up taking lots of K-turns on dark roads, crossed the border into the next town, pulled into a hotel parking lot to check my map, stopped in the middle of roads with no cars on them to check my map, pulled into yet another parking lot to check my map, got into wrong lanes and had to turn around, went the wrong direction on the right street, and finally, was able to follow my directions to Rte. 9, after which the rest of the ride home was fine, minus the pouring rain I hit upon reaching Hartford. Good thing I put in ten dollars worth of gas; I used up about fifteen.

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