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Afterwards

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What a week that was; Santa Barbara Writers Conference 2018.

In the mornings I tried to reach the room of Matt Pallamary’s Phantastic Fiction before it started. In that session, I knew I’d hear marvels from  writers, each reading about five pages of a work. Novels, flash fiction, short stories, all welcome. Winged creatures and monsters, science and magic, humans in new worlds, with challenges ranging from apocalypse to love. Wonderful material, in so many different voices. I’d half-close my eyes to be transported to another place and time. After each one read would come the entirely different exercise of hearing a critique offered by the group . As I’ve said before, I try to write my comments so that I don’t hold up the process of storytelling, and also because it can be a good thing to put thoughts onto paper and let the author have them to take home and consider at a more relaxed time.

In the afternoons I went to a couple of different sessions, but ended up repeatedly where I was last year, in Monte Schulz’s exploration of voice and style. He has a love of reading which infects, (if you’re not already a hopeless case.) Eclectic, creative reading, not the passive act they drummed into you in public school. Listening to how, considering why and which– leaning in close, to better understand how to hone techniques into a perfect set of tools for powerful individual expression. Moving from craft to art.

Tucked in every day were talks by authors, agents and publishers, a rich array to choose from so long as you could stay awake, because none of us got enough sleep! Friends thronged in all the hallways and out on the steps of the conference center. The main cantina room had transformed into a book store with the registration desk at one side. Imagine clusters of people debating, and happy voices, with exclamations and laughter.

At nine thirty, after the evening talk, I had a choice of pirate sessions. I say a choice, but it was the hardest thing of all, deciding where to be. I wanted to be in both. In fact I had happy fantasies about creating clones of myself who could allow me to attend everything through each day and night and not have to make a choice. Do you suppose though, that the sleep debt would be multiplied as well? Some mornings we didn’t leave the rooms until after two.

You never know what you’ll hear in a pirate session. I had a friend read for me. (You sometimes hear errors and problems in pacing you’d never pick up any other way when someone else reads your work.) One of my short stories entitled Orphans,  told in close third person point of view of a beetle from a very special tribe of Coleoptera, received keen valuable critique. Then we heard a play, showing Shakespearean lovers in a nursing home. Towards the end, a mass murderer revealed secrets.

The first time you attend a conference like this you often feel exposed, concerned that you will not satisfy the requirements, or if you are another type, you will expect people to fall down and worship when they hear the superb prose that you and only you can create. Both are delusional. What a group like this is doing, is trying to make each and every writer better, and to that purpose and labor there is no end.

Listening to fragments of stories, searching for useful input to share, trying to articulate cogently, still have my brain thrumming. Being in such company, with generosity the wine of our shared time, has me yet inebriated.  Now you understand why I picked the photo of my little cat to head this blog post.

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Santa Barbara Writers Conference 2018

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Feel like speed dating? The agents above will be at next week’s conference.

Here it comes again, ’round the corner of summer, and I’m wading through stories on my computer I hope my friends might like, or help me make better, pulling excerpts from a mystery novel that I want to test on critical minds, feeling nervous and definitely behind. Didn’t do my homework in time. Happens every year that I attend.

Last year was possibly the hardest, because I’d not been for nearly ten years, and I felt really out of step. Would anyone even remember me enough to share a drink? But it didn’t matter, I’ve written before, that at an event like this you go through a few days and it all slides back into place, the personal anxiety changes to pride that you are part of this larger effort, and you feel a joy in every person who has dared to come and share their work, expose their weaknesses as writers as well as their strengths. It’s never about me. It is always about us.

We come to learn and also to teach. If you attend, your job isn’t merely to have your stuff read so you can gain ideas about how to hone your own craft. You need to step up and offer your  ideas and insights about your fellow writers’ work. What worked for you, what didn’t and how might it be tweaked to communicate better, more powerfully, more clearly.

Sometimes the critique session is so crowded that the best gift you can give other writers is to listen carefully and jot down notes to hand over afterwards, because if you try to hold forth and explain all your reactions to their work out loud, you’ll hold up the process. An advantage of notes is also that if you write your critique, the writer gets to keep your commentary and think it over at leisure, maybe even when at home. When I’ve just read a piece of my own, my ears and nerves are jangling after, and it’s hard to hear every word offered in critique, however kind. And yes, writers and instructors, at least at this conference, are kind. The very definition of constructive criticism starts and ends with thoughtful honesty.

So, I’m planning to engage in a transforming experience, yet again, and my hopes are high. Six days of reading writing, talking, critique, jokes bad and good, laughter and tears. But not much sleep. I told you before about the pirate sessions…not much sleep.

Starts on Sunday in Santa Barbara. See you there?

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2017 Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference

I’m going. It’s been eleven years since I last had the free time to attend the conference in full, because when your husband is the dean of a little college inside a university, you have a lot of responsibilities that come due at the end of the year, and the indulgence of immersing yourself in a seethe of writers just isn’t possible.

 

Well this is 2017. I am looking forward to this. I want to meet writers full of that wild joy of wanting to share their creations, wanting to hone their craft, wanting to spend time in critique and experiencing new adventures in other creators’ writings. I will probably never forget the late night pirate session I attended at my first writers’ conference when an older gentleman rose from his seat with his musical to give us roles. Anne Boleyn was one character, stepping forth with her head tucked under one elbow…that didn’t impair her singing, you may be sure.

Those late night sessions hold some of my best memories of writing. I laughed so hard tears came down inside my nose when one woman read us her story of a skunk with its head trapped in  Peach Yoplait container, and how at the end of a sequence of risible but heart-twisting efforts, she succeeded in freeing it to live a peach-free life. After it sprayed her from purple bathrobe to fluffy pink slippers, that is.

Oh yes, Sunday night imagine me among these wonderful people, drawing a deep breath in anticipation at the table of the first pirate session. Starts at nine, goes to whenever. (Some years I’be managed to stay at it until four AM. I kid you not.) See you there?

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First Book Panel

This was a discussion panel at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference — I’m here in purple answering our wonderful moderator Lorelei Armstrong, author of In the Face (http://www.amazon.com/In-Face-Lorelei-Armstrong/dp/0979372054/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378014170&sr=8-1&keywords=lorelei+armstrong

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September 1, 2013 · 5:43 am

Santa Barbara Writers Conference

            “Why would you want to?” my agent said.

            “You don’t think I need to?”

            “You’re a published author,” she said, giving me that look, the look that says I picked you out and we worked our keyboards off and you got published by a real publisher and that means something look.

            “Well,” I say, “that was your doing.”

            “Humph.”

            “But I’ve gone for years,” I said though she’s still looking at me.

            “You don’t need to go to writers conferences now,” she said, “unless they invite you to be on a panel.”

            So we went on our ways and about three or four days later I called her.

            “They invited me to be on a panel! The First Book Panel!”

            “That’s good. Who invited you?”

            “Santa Barbara Writers Conference.”

            “Good,” she said as though that settled it.

            So I went and I had a grand time even though I’m still learning this public presentation and speaking thing. But I learned something that even my agent didn’t know.  Something that I didn’t know. I used to tell my husband and my non-writing friends that I went to meet up with other writers because the Santa Barbara Writers Conference was easy for me to get to and because the connections and the chance to shop for an agent and the practice in giving and taking crit were all so valuable. No. That’s not it.

            I go because I have friends, old and new ones I haven’t met yet, who’ll be there. I go because the top of my head gets lifted gently off and inspiration blown in. I go to hang out and eat pancakes with some of the most original and funny minds I’ve ever met, and I have surely met a lot. I go to sit up too late and get up too early to hear more wild and wonderful minds and hearts at work. I learn new ways of seeing work, new ways of crafting and finishing. It can never be too much, you can never get too many tools for your personal toolbox.  Maybe a fragment of a comment overheard  will spin your mind into a whole new direction or solve a gnarly problem in one of your plots. Maybe someone responding to your new novel with that crushing phrase “Well, I just can’t believe…” will push you the needed extra ten degrees onto a new course. You simply never know.

            So it’s settled. I go because it’s fun, and yeah, you bet; God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be back….

           

            

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Have a look

I’m delighted to tell you all that I’m a guest this week on author John Daniel’s Blog: http://johnmdaniel.blogspot.com/

Please go and have a look. John is author of many novels, Behind the Redwood Door, The Poet’s Funeral, Vanity Fire and more, with an impressive line-up of stories and articles. I love his character Guy Mallon, a delightfully imperfect man caught up in a medley of distractions and dilemmas. Guy doesn’t seek out trouble but murder pops up in his life, as embarrassing as an old drunken college buddy who unfortunately never forgot his telephone number.

 

 

 

I first met John at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in one of the late night Pirate sessions. He was our Pirate leader, his eyes twinkling under ferocious brows. I’d never before read my own work aloud to a group, I shook in my shoes and the pages rustled with tension and panic, but the comments were kind and insightful. My husband and I made John a wooden sword to keep the hearties in line. That critique and the ones that followed in the Pirate sessions over the years, set me on the road to publication.

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I had barely two days at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference because of all the other commitments that came due in my life at this time in the year. I met up with old friends, made new friends, had all kinds of lovely and provocative interactions. Heard some fine writing, and many times said to myself — wish I’d written that!

I wrote in my previous post that I found this conference a delight and I’ll try to say why. You might think that since I have an agent, and I have a contract for my first novel (planned for publication this coming September) I have no need to be haunting the halls of the Hyatt-on-the-beach and staying up until the wee hours in the company of a lot of odd characters.

First of all I’d argue that a good writer will never stop studying the craft. Just as no novel is ever so honed that it that couldn’t be better for another tweak or another jostle, so too,  no writer ever hits a static perfection until death.

Hearing excellent work humbles me, makes me try harder. How wonderful and varied the work of all these other writers! Critiquing makes me think hard about where I’ve made similar errors in my own work, or where I may have stumbled on other wonders as they have, and I realize anew that of all sins, I cannot afford to be lazy. I return to self-editing with new violence.

Yesterday I hesitated in the science fiction/horror class over whether I wanted to read my own piece aloud, a rough draft of a chapter around page 80 in my new horror manuscript I Haven’t Seen Him. Fortunately I opted to have another student read it. He read it superbly, made it sound better than it was, but what I heard convinced me of where I needed to cut, and where I needed to shift the focus. You simply can’t hear your own work the same way if you are trying to juggle your voice and intonation, project, and not stumble….  So one opportunity in a conference is the chance to hear your own words in someone else’s voice, in the company of strangers.

In the critique, various other students and the teacher all gave me advice that I’m going to take far beyond that short chapter. The principles apply. They saw things I didn’t, both strong and weak. Living people have more of an impact on a writer than do all the fine books about writing. We’re still animals, mammals, warm blooded furry creatures that care about our community, so this community of learning from other breathing beings remains important through all our lives. I have favorite books on writing, Browne and King, Stein, Wheat, and Thomas McCormack. They are necessary, not simply valuable, but there is this different thing that happens when you are nervous and excited, (think adrenaline and pulse racing,) when you’re in the company of writers you respect and they are all focused on the product of your labor, all intent on making it even more of what you want it to be. It’s a rush, it’s sometimes acutely embarassing, mortifying, humbling, painful, but nothing else will fast forward you as effectively on the way to become a better writer.

More than this, you will make friends who know what you are talking about when you agonize over issues of violating point of view. On-line writers groups can be arranged. Your best supporters can be discovered, and then they fan back across the world like ambassadors. In the end even writing books comes back to the personal, the relationships we make.

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June 15, 2012 · 8:07 pm