Tweeting from the 2010 AWP Conference

I am in Denver, CO, attending the annual conference and bookfair for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. When I attended last year’s conference in Chicago, I could hardly believe how many people still support and believe in print as a medium, despite all the hype about print’s impending death.

From Thursday to Sunday, I will be in Denver, CO, attending the annual conference and bookfair for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

When I attended last year’s conference in Chicago, I could hardly believe how many people still support and believe in print as a medium, despite all the hype about print’s impending death.

In my blog entry about last year’s conference, I wrote:

If you have ever worried about the death of print, you should have attended the bookfair, which was a smorgasbord of literary journals and publishing houses dedicated to literary fiction and poetry. The exhibition rooms smelled of glossy covers and freshly printed ink on paper.

This year, I’m curious to see how many publishing houses and literary magazines have recently adopted social media marketing strategies, and I’m also eager to learn about new or interesting ideas regarding publishing and new media.

Will attendees be carrying their iPads? Will exhibitors talk about printing and reading alternatives?

As I observed last year, the literary magazines and publishers that attend this conference cater to writers hungry to be published, win writing contests, and gain exposures. Most writers dream of seeing their names in print, right?

I hope to attend panels about writing for and seeking publishing opportunities in new media, and I’m curious to observe attitudes regarding new alternatives.

I have noticed that writers within academia (major sponsors of this conference include universities and non-profit arts foundations) tend to be slow to adapt technological advances.

I plan to take a lot of notes, and I’ll be tweeting about everything I observe. For your convenience and my own sanity, I’ll be tagging my tweets with #AWP10, the official conference hashtag. If you want general conference updates, follow @awpwriter.

I will report my observations on Monday! I’m also taking requests for souvenirs – leave suggestions in the comments below!

(Photo by janetmck)

5 Ways Social Media Has Made Me a Better Writer

Social networking tools have definitely helped me improve my writing. If you truly want to improve your writing for all media, you will use every opportunity to improve your craft. To provide clear and clever content, you should shake what your momma gave ya (whether that be 140 characters, infinite space of a blog post, or a sexy booty).

More than once, I’ve heard the argument that Twitter can help people improve their writing. When your medium has a 140-character limit, you tweak your message until it’s crystal clear.

However, I’ve seen some very poorly-written tweets from people on a consistent basis, without any signs of improvement. I also know some writers who can tweet but who, when given the opportunity, mentally masturbate all over a page.

If you truly want to improve your writing for all media, you will use every opportunity to improve your craft. To provide clear and clever content, you should shake what your momma gave ya (whether that be 140 characters, infinite space of a blog post, or a sexy booty).

Social media probably won’t help you if you have no interest in craft, but social networking tools have definitely helped me improve my writing in the following ways:

1. Dialogue – I used to be terrified of writing dialogue, and I have great respect and admiration for screenwriters and playwrights. Dialogue is so difficult to write because it can easily sound contrived. We don’t usually think too much before we speak, but we think a lot on the page.

Watching dialogue unfold online has definitely helped me feel more confident using it in fiction. Gchat conversations are a great way to practice safe textual banter. Twitter @ replies are another way to hone dialogue. Even a Facebook status and its subsequent comments mimic a conversation.

If you read my Twitter stream, you probably notice my “OH” (overheard) tweets. You probably think I’m just being silly by posting these bits of conversation, but I actually like paying attention to dialogue and thinking about what makes it work.

2. Precision – Without the benefit of facial expressions and hand gestures, I must be very precise when writing for social media. Generally, I don’t have a lot of space to convey my message.

When I write fiction, I can take my sweet time getting to the point, and I can use fancy tools like figurative language. However, most readers don’t have the patience for these things. Social media allows me to practice on a contemporary audience.

3. Discipline – Blogging and sharing little bits of creative writing with my social media audience has provided me with discipline. I become accustomed to updating my blog and offering new content on a consistent basis.

Because I blog every night, adding creative writing to the blogging mix just makes me feel more obligated to tend to it. Anyway, it’s a treat after writing professionally all day.

4. Confidence – Sharing writing of any type can be a very daunting task. By now, I am pretty much used to it (harsh but helpful criticism in grad school workshops toughened me up), but I still get nervous when sharing new work. Most of the stuff I write for this blog does not require a lot of my emotion. But creative writing (…wait for the drama…) drains my soul.

Posting short story revisions on LaryssaWrites.com has slowly boosted my confidence and helped me realize that I don’t have to be afraid. The more I share my stories, the more I realize that people can relate to them. I should share what feels emotionally genuine to me.

I’ve also learned to shake off some of my perfectionist tendencies. When my priority is airing out a new piece of writing and letting it see the light, I have to accept that the piece might not be perfect. Trusting the process is the key to confidence.

5. Inspiration and Creative Stimulation – Being active on social networks means that I am constantly in conversation with people. Before Facebook and Twitter, I was mostly inspired by real-life conversations, but the inspiring and profound moments in daily mundane conversation are rare. Online, I have thousands of different perspectives and voices buzzing around me at all times. Any second could be a chance for a new idea.

I love pushing people further, asking questions, picking brains, and getting other people to challenge me. I sometimes like to pose incendiary questions or make daring statements just to see if anyone can shake me. For a creative person, social networks are a great high-energy environment. Pretend you’re playing a game of double-dutch: jump in when you seek inspiration and jump out when you need introspection.

How has social media helped you improve your craft?

(Photo by Glamour Schatz)

Zen and the Art of Blogging

Creative writing demands a different frame of mind than article writing, research paper drafting, and blogging do. But that doesn’t mean someone who does one can’t do the other! The place where you start is just a place to start, and then you work out from that point. The process is not necessarily linear.

Earlier this week, my friend Christine tweeted:

Creative writing is initially hard when all you know is journalism and research papers. Thoughts, @ryssiebee?

I absolutely agree! Creative writing demands a different frame of mind than article writing, research paper drafting, and blogging do. But that doesn’t mean someone who does one can’t do the other!

The first difference between creative writing and more journalistic/research-based writing is that, while doing the latter, you usually know where they want to end. You almost always have a goal in mind.

Of course, the point of writing a newspaper article or research paper is to uncover something new or to synthesize information in a unique way, but you usually has an agenda before he/she starts writing.

While you may discover something new along the way, you are, for the most part, driving a car to a specific destination. You are either vaguely familiar with the route, or you have a GPS with you.

When I’m writing a story or poem, I almost never know where I want to end. In fact, if I know the end before I start to write, I can guarantee that whatever I write will be total crap because it lacks imagination and possibility.

To extend the car metaphor with creative writing, you decide to get in your car (the car of your dreams), you turn the ignition, and you sit there until you’re ready to go. You have no destination, and you drive until you run out of gas. Creative writing is a joy ride.

Breaking a bout of creative writer’s block is not about knowing WHAT you want to write. It’s about knowing where you want to start. You have to start somewhere, and the place you start probably won’t be the beginning, at least not when you get to the end (is that too confusing?).

The place where you start is just a place to start, and then you work out from that point. The process is not necessarily linear; you can go in circles, you can overwrite. Creative writing is a discovery process in more ways than one.

The mental preparation required for creative writing is much different from that when writing a journalistic piece or research paper. With an article or research paper, the collecting of sources is a meditative process. The writers forms the paper in his/her head while gathering sources and then strings them together to create a story.

For creative writing, I have to be in a very specific frame of mind. Nothing else can be bothering me. It’s very much like trying to go to sleep. If I have a lot of things on my mind, I will not be able to start writing, the same way I will not be able to sleep. I usually find myself writing new fiction on the weekends or when I’m on vacation because my mind is clear.

After a long day at work, it’s almost impossible for me to switch from work brain to creative brain.

Which is why I blog. Blogging is as close to my work mindset as I can get, and doing it means I’m still writing everyday, which is so important to me.

My creative writing blog is kind of an illusion. Yes, I’m offering new short story excerpts every day, but what most readers don’t know is that I started writing my collection in the summer of 2007. The stories that I casually post every day are the result of many hours of staring at blank screens, writing, rewriting, deleting, changing narrators, living and breathing my characters, rearranging, copying, pasting, hating, and loving.

I’m at the best part, the part where all I have to do is perfect the prose. This part of the creative writing process is more akin to blogging because I’m not actually creating anything earth-shatteringly new.

To be honest, I haven’t written a new story or poem in months. My mind is not in the right place.

That meditative state that’s perfect for creative writing comes and goes. It’s not even worthwhile trying to pursue it until you feel you are so full of thoughts and emotions that, if you don’t write them, you are going to explode.

(Photo by mattimattila)

Fact, Not Fiction, for the First Time in Years

I promised myself that, upon my return from San Francisco, I would throw even more of my heart and my soul into my side projects, which means blogging here every day, reviving Too Shy to Stop (we already have three new articles scheduled for publication!), and tackling the revision process for “The Prescribed Burn”, my fiction manuscript.

The first person who can guess the song lyric reference in the post title gets a free hug (no Googling allowed!).

I promised myself that, upon my return from San Francisco, I would throw even more of my heart and my soul into my side projects, which means blogging here every day, reviving Too Shy to Stop (we already have three new articles scheduled for publication!), and tackling the revision process for “The Prescribed Burn”, my fiction manuscript.

The last thing on this list is probably the most difficult for me, but I am going help myself by taking advantage of two things I already do well: blogging and sharing via social media.

After some thought (not too much), I decided to make use of two domain names that I already own: LaryssaWrites.com and ThePrescribedBurn.com. I set both URLs to point to a WordPress blog where I am going to post revisions/additions of my manuscript, which is currently approx. 60,000 words in length.

Yeah.

I need to get serious about revising this thing. I have already gone through the whole manuscript twice: once because I had to make it decent enough to submit as my grad school thesis and again because I changed the perspective from third to first person. I have also added a lot of content since May 2009, when I graduated.

Though I feel the story is in the right place, I don’t really like the writing. The language and artfulness of the manuscript is not up to my personal standards; this was not a priority during my first few revisions because I wanted to get the structure right before I focused on the details.

On my new blog, which you can follow most weekdays (new content at 10 AM, just like with Comma ‘n Sentence), I will post very small chunks of the manuscript, revised with close attention to detail, language, and syntax.

In grad school, I would write “harder” because I knew that someone was always holding me accountable. Without that extra push, I have difficulty focusing on what I know I need to do. Dear readers, won’t you be my extra push?

I am completely aware that sharing my work in this way may change the way my completed manuscript will be received in the future, but I’m willing to take a risk; I feel the payoff will be much greater in the long run.

In an essay (read it – it’s good!) from The New York Review of Books about the future of book publishing, author Jason Epstein writes:

The difficult, solitary work of literary creation, however, demands rare individual talent and in fiction is almost never collaborative. Social networking may expose readers to this or that book but violates the solitude required to create artificial worlds with real people in them.

I don’t know where this experiment will lead me, and I may terminate it if I feel that the results are detrimental to my creative process. For now, I remain positive and hope you will follow me on my journey to create a work of art. As always, your feedback and constructive criticism is more than welcome. Love.

And Then the Creative Class Spontaneously Combusted

According to science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones, the company as a digital publisher is now getting “…unprecedented access to billions of tiny payments, for product that costs them effectively nothing, at their point of entry. This seems to mean they don’t have to worry about any form of resistance at all…”.

On Tuesday, Guardian writer Alison Flood reported that approximately 6,500 writers opted out of Google’s plans to digitize books. Flood wrote:

“Former children’s laureates Quentin Blake, Anne Fine and Jacqueline Wilson, bestselling authors Jeffrey Archer and Louis de Bernières and critical favourites Thomas Pynchon, Zadie Smith and Jeanette Winterson have all opted out of the controversial Google book settlement, court documents have revealed….

As well as the authors named above, these include the estates of Rudyard Kipling, TH White, James Herriot, Nevil Shute and Roald Dahl, Man Booker prizewinners Graham Swift and Keri Hulme, poets Pam Ayres, Christopher Middleton, Gillian Spraggs and Nick Laird, novelists Bret Easton Ellis, James Frey, Monica Ali, Michael Chabon, Philip Hensher and Patrick Gale, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, biographer Victoria Glendinning and bestselling author of the Northern Lights trilogy Philip Pullman.”

I really do admire the fact that these well-known, well-respected authors and their representatives have chosen to take a stand against Google. They took the time to research the company’s plan, and they decided that they did not want to be a part of it.

When an author’s work is published, he or she can decide in what form the work can be published. The author can restrict publication in other mediums. Google is violating that right.

According to science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones, the company as a digital publisher is now getting “…unprecedented access to billions of tiny payments, for product that costs them effectively nothing, at their point of entry. This seems to mean they don’t have to worry about any form of resistance at all. I don’t like the sound of that, not from anybody’s point of view.”

Despite my support of these authors, I have my qualms; it’s easy to argue about publishing rights when you have a good reputation and an impressive publishing history (easier to obtain in the past, when print was still the only option).

As someone who is working on a collection of short fiction and who one day hopes to be published in some way, shape, or form (I just want my work to be read, honestly), I am fully aware of how difficult it will be for me to get my work noticed once I am finally ready to distribute it to the world.

I’m not the only one writing books.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “More than 10 times the number of colleges and universities offer the M.F.A. today in creative writing than when Associated Writing Programs was founded in 1967. Thousands of graduates now receive such degrees each year.” And that doesn’t include the people without writing degrees who are crafting books!

Oh. my. goodness.

All these people are hungry to be published. Wouldn’t you be too if you spent years of your life working on something that you believed was good? Most of these people would be thrilled if Google decided to publish their work.

Yes, Google only “publishes” authors who have been previously published. But I can almost guarantee you that Google will seek new ways to act as a publishing company in the future.

I’m actually really surprised that twriters are the only ones speaking out against Google. The publishers should be angrier – shouldn’t they? The major houses need to rethink their business models if they don’t want to lose out to Google.

I don’t really have a solution because, to me, the whole thing seems like an unstoppable train. Writers are HUNGRY to be published. One day, the beloved authors cited above and their estate holders will no longer exist. They can only fight Google for so long.

Where are you, publishers? Why aren’t you fighting the good fight?! The best insights/ideas I’ve seen are contained in this essay about the revenge of print from The Brooklyn Rail:

“In a flagrant attempt to compete with Internet culture, to crash books into the marketplace on hot button topics from steroids to celebrities, from political scandal to political ascension, corporate publishers aim now to meet immediate demand. If a book about teenage vampires becomes a bestseller, then the hustle is on to find and market a series about pre-teen vampires. And because of this constant rush to the market with books that have the shelf-life of a bruised tomato—in hardcover, with supplemental cardboard cut-outs that stand in chain store windows and usher customers down narrow sales aisles—this ideology has influenced the ebb and flow of the industry…

The goal for book publishers, most simply put, should not be to undertake a virtual arms race of developing technology with both the Internet and media, or to try to compete on a bloated scale with music and film, or even to translate a work to conform to an undetermined potential future model. The mission for book publishers and print media at large should be to create a product that is irreplaceable and indispensible.”

People are writing irreplaceable, indispensable things, and they are trying, waiting. Their desperation will enable companies like Google to take advantage of them, the creative individuals, ultimately helping themselves destroy their own value.

And then the creative class spontaneously combusted. The end.

(Photo by joguldi)

Instant Books for Hungry Readers

This new thing called the Internet allows anyone to publish anything instantly. Slam your head on your keyboard, examine (or don’t examine) the results, and publish online! Only on the Internet could something like this go viral – heck, people might even call your head-banging efforts art.

Some people still aspire to publish their writing in printed and bound books.

Despite the fact that more and more writing is digitized, a print book is the gold standard of achievement and success for many aspiring (and even established) writers.

The problem with printed books is that they take a long time to write and a sometimes equally long time to produce.

First, the author needs to secure a contract with a publisher, which can be one of the most daunting and difficult tasks. Next, the manuscript must be edited, and the publishers must decide how they want to market the book. Then, the book goes into production (copy-editing, layout, binding, etc.). Finally, the book is released and finds its way to a bookstore near you!

With digitization, the writing process can take a long time too. However, production cost and time are slashed.

This new thing called the Internet allows anyone to publish anything instantly. Slam your head on your keyboard, examine (or don’t examine) the results, and publish online! Only on the Internet could something like this go viral – heck, people might even call your head-banging efforts art.

Kidding aside, a lot of writing on the Internet can actually be very good. Out-of-work journalists share writing on their blogs, fiction writers share chapters from their works-in-progress, and comedy writers test jokes on their Twitter followers. Many of these people could care less about the print publishing process and its obstacles. Instead, they value making their work visible and accessible to a hungry audience. The online audience, constantly devouring the next-new-thing, is always seeking fresh work.

I have this theory that, in an effort to compete with online publishers and writers who primarily promote their work online, writers who still aspire to be print rockstars have to rush through the process. Often times, printed work can become quickly irrelevant, especially when so much new content is being produced online.

Why wait to publish an entire book when you can release each chapter as it’s completed?

Why rely on a publisher to do your marketing when you have endless free marketing tools and tactics online?

Have all the good in-print novels been written already?

Shouldn’t critics turn their attention to work being produced online as well as in print?

Is the best new work stewing like primordial matter on the Internet?

(Photo by Hieropenen)

A First Person with Purpose

Can you rewrite your narrator? Not exactly sure how to present yourself? Doubting your identity, values, or beliefs? You will probably require a third person narrator. Desirous and outspoken? Diving headfirst into a goal or mission? You will have to flex your first person. Feeling like you only matter in relation to another person? In rare cases, you will want a second person narrator.

Last night, I picked up my grad school thesis for the first time since May.

I am not exaggerating. I was so sick of writing and revising it that I couldn’t even reread my work for six months.

Looking at it now, I realize how much a person can grow and change in half a year. Just think about all the things that have happened to you since May. Are you a different person now?

I am beginning to remember the ideas and emotions that consumed me while I was writing these short stories, and I am suddenly not sure if I want to continue where I stopped. I have greater insight and a better grasp on friendships/relationships.

Regardless, I feel ready to revise and add to it. But now I want to use the first-person (“I”) voice.

I wrote my original manuscript with a third person narrator, and my advisers frequently suggested that I experiment with the first person. At the time, I didn’t feel ready to explore the first person voice.

However, I think I understand my main character better. I can speak for her now. I plan to spend the next few weeks retyping the original manuscript with a first person voice.

While considering my own work, I am also starting to wonder: how I can apply shifts in narration to real-life situations?

Do you allow someone else to speak on your behalf? Could you find your own voice? Should you find your own voice?

For my fictional character, first person will mean that she will have to be more of who she is. She will be funnier, bolder, and more creative. She will make stronger decisions and assert herself in antagonistic situations.

Can you rewrite your narrator?

Not exactly sure how to present yourself? Doubting your identity, values, or beliefs? You will probably require a third person narrator. Desirous and outspoken? Diving headfirst into a goal or mission? You will have to flex your first person. Feeling like you only matter in relation to another person? In rare cases, you will want a second person narrator.

Trust that you will know which narrator to recruit. Pay attention during the quiet moments, and you will be ready to speak during the loud times.

(Photo by pedrosimoes7)

Should I Pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA)?

Think of all the students that pursue visual arts, language arts, and performing arts. No, you don’t need a degree to write, draw, paint, act, read, or communicate. You also don’t need a degree to do science experiments in your garage – but students still pursue degrees in biology and chemistry.

Dear Laryssa,

Are you glad you got your MFA in Creative Writing? The reason I ask is because I almost applied for programs last year. On one hand, it’s a passion, and I know I’d get a lot out of it. On the other, I have a couple of friends who got their MFA, and it has not helped them in the job market at all. My mentor even goes so far as to call it an “art degree.” She says, “If you want to write, just write! You don’t need to go to college for that.”

If you could do it all over again, would you still get your MFA?

Sincerely,

Andy
Campbell, CA

– – –

Dear Andy,

I get this question a lot so I figured I would share the answer with my online audience. My response is not very simple, and it probably won’t make the decision any easier for you.

First of all, your mentor is correct. The Master of Fine Arts is an arts degree, but I don’t necessarily think “arts degree” is a bad thing. A lot of people study the arts for various reasons; think of all the students that pursue visual arts, language arts, and performing arts. No, you don’t need a degree to write, draw, paint, act, read, or communicate.

You also don’t need a degree to do science experiments in your garage – but students still pursue degrees in biology and chemistry.

“If you want to write, just write!” Let’s be real here. The benefit of attending a Master of Fine Arts program is that you are forced to write. Professors hold you accountable for writing, and your first priority every day should be to write. In the real world, sometimes the desire to write and the efforts made to write have epic wars with things like daily responsibilities.

That being said, the pressure to write every day is not always a good thing. How much do you love to write? Are you prepared to write even when you don’t feel like you have anything great to say? Are you prepared for grueling workshop sessions? For your peers and professor to criticize your work?

If you’re completely in love with writing, so in love you would marry writing if it were a person, then another thing to consider is cost. If you have the money to attend the program, or the program offers you money, my advice to you is DO IT, GO!

However, you should be very realistic about the monetary value of your degree. You wrote, “I have a couple of friends how got their MFA, and it has not helped them in the job market at all.” The MFA is a terminal, non-professional degree. Unlike a law degree, which has a specific purpose, a Master of Fine Arts is a chance for the student to fully immerse herself in her craft and to practice writing.

If you’re thinking about pursuing the MFA simply because you think it will help you in the job market, DON’T DO IT! Now, many people would ask: why would you go to school if it won’t necessarily help you in the job market? Hundreds of years ago, curious and interested young people pursued an education simply for the pleasure and joy of it. Think about that.

Let me tell you a little story, Andy. In July, I went to a job interview at a well-respected publishing company. After spending about a half hour with the interviewer, the last thing she asked me was about my MFA. “Oh, you like to write?” She asked. “That’s nice, a lot of our employees have hobbies, and we encourage them.”

Be prepared to get that kind of response. Frequently.

If you want to be a writing teacher or professor, the MFA will help you in the job market. However, the degree alone will not be enough to secure you a job as a teacher. While you are in grad school, you are going to have to work hard to build your teaching experience and your relationships with your professors. Sometimes, these tasks get in the way of the WRITING, which is the main reason why you decided to go to school, right? Think about grading papers for hours when you have a short story to write.

You also have to consider the program itself. Some schools place a greater emphasis on craft, and other schools place a greater emphasis on the study of literature. At the University of Maryland, I had to take required English courses with the English M.A. and PhD students. I never took an English literature course in college; I’m a writer, not a literature scholar. If you don’t like analyzing books to death, you will have to consider this element.

Nowadays, universities have a few different program options: part-time, full-time, and low residency. These options affect more than just the time you spend on campus; they affect how much time you spend in the writing community at the school. Being involved in the writing community is one of the most potentially fulfilling aspects of a Master of Fine Arts degree. If you find yourself at a school where many of your classmates have busy lives outside of the classroom, you probably won’t see them very often.

At the University of Maryland, the writing community was not very close. Because I didn’t teach, I was on campus 2-3 days/week for class. What did I do during the rest of the week? I worked part-time jobs and internships to keep myself busy. My classmates came from Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, and many had other jobs, responsibilities, and families. At a school like Iowa, for example, the writing community is overwhelmingly vibrant.

If I could do it all over again, I would go. However, I would apply to more schools (I think I applied to 13)/research the programs/spend some time talking to the students in these programs and asking them about their experiences.

During my time in grad school, I learned a lot about myself, mostly because I felt like I had to invent a daily purpose. Writing fiction on a near-daily basis is an emotionally-trying process. All too often, I felt caught up in my imagination. But if you can handle the intensity, I think pursuing the MFA is a noble task.

Also, I now have a 200-page work-in-progress collection of short stories that I probably wouldn’t have written otherwise.

Good luck!

Laryssa