This weekend was the big Muse and the Marketplace conference at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. Last year I focused more on the marketing end of things, since I had polished my manuscript to a high shine (more on this later), so this year I attended sessions focusing on the craft. Here are some of my thoughts on the workshops:
• Creativity and a Sense of Place, with Brunonia Barry — This was a terrific workshop focused on treating the setting as a main character of the story, and recognizing that the manuscript can benefit from understanding the environment as intimately as you understand your protagonist.
• From Circumstance to Plot: Creating Narrative Drive, with Jessica Shattuck — The workshop was a hands-on session where random characters and settings were combined in an introductory paragraph. Several “What if?” questions illicited creative responses. It was a good brainstorming tool to find the story.
• The Art of the Query Letter, with Sorcha Fairbank — Sorcha gave a great candid talk about what she and other agents want to see in a query letter, and what they most definitely don’t want to see.
• The 10 Worst Legal Mistakes That a Writer Can Make, with Zick Rubin and Brenda Ulrich — The focus was on overall pitfalls, as opposed to contract-related problems, and in addition to contractual problems, also addressed problems and issues surrounding copyright and trademark laws, and collaboration and collaborative contracts.
• Writing Suspense: You Know It When You Feel It, with Hallie Ephron — Hallie is the author of “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead WIth Style” (as well as several mystery novels) and brought her knowledge to bear on dissecting the structure and tension in specific examples of suspense fiction.
• Ten Elements of a Great Thriller, with Joseph Finder — Finder, a former Harvard English professor, shared ten tips that define, and can improve a thriller.
• The Dreaded Synopsis, with Joanna Stampfel-Volpe — The best workshop I’ve ever been to about boiling a manuscript down to a synopsis. Joanna illustrated with an exercise where Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was quickly dissected to discover the central characters and plot to create a very brief synopsis that she, as an agent, would be interested in.
• Write the Great Beginning, with Michael Lowenthal, Scott Heim, and Kim McLarin — This ended up not being as useful as I’d hoped. After the session covered one basic tenet about writing the beginning of a story, it deteriorated into disparaging comments about genre fiction writers and readers, although McLarin did say that there was much that could be learned by literary writers from genre fiction, since it sells better that literary fiction. My thought on the matter is this: while it’s admirable to want to raise the bar of quality for the reading public, one can only attract converts to the philosophy through positive example, and not through cajoling. After all, with limited spending money, why would the consumer want to read something that talks down to them?
In addition to the sessions, I had my manuscript evaluated again. This time, the query letter would have enticed the agent, but the manuscript, she felt, needed additional polishing. THe specific comments were small things I had heard before, but discounted as a matter of preference, such as my characters’ cursing. Previously, since the story was narrated by my main character, curses of the four-letter variety peppered my narrative. I subsequently removed them, but now those curses in the dialogue, which was not removed, triggered a comment that while it was probably true to the characters, it had the appearance of being lazy writing. She also felt that my dialogue, which I felt was my strong point, was the weakest part of the manuscript because it didn’t sound realistic. I think it may be due to some artifacts of previous drafts that I skimmed over during the last revision — the section I provided for review was one of the first scenes I wrote way back when, and I’ve been a little too married to the dialogue.
So, what does this mean for the completed manuscript and where I go from here?
Well, I’m still plotting out the new novel, so that hasn’t changed. But I feel the need to do a bit more hands-on work before I revise the completed novel again. So, now is the time for a few short stories. These will probably be literary fiction, or perhaps fall in the category of Magical Realism. We’ll see.
As for conferences, I’m burnt out. Although I said the same thing to myself last year. Unless and until something really inexpensive comes along. Instead I’ll focus on writing groups and critiquing groups. Maybe I’ll take a class or two at Grub Street, or some other place.
But for now it’s time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write.