Thoughts on Writer’s Winter Break

This is where I’m supposed to write you a very long post about everything that happened at Writer’s Winter Break.

The truth is that I’m still processing most of it.

I would say, for starters, that if Catapult and William Morris Endeavor do it again next year — and I am fairly sure they will — you should go. (Understanding that you’ll need to be able to both cover the costs of the retreat and take the time off work, so this advice isn’t applicable to everyone. But if you, like, have the resources/ability and you’re on the fence? Go.)

I got to run into the ocean, which I hadn’t done in… three years? We had dinner at this restaurant by the bay and there was a path down to the beach, and a few of us decided to get up and walk it, and then I took off running — and people told me afterwards that they were impressed by my spontaneity, and then I had to explain that it wasn’t spontaneous at all, I had worn plastic sandals and a white cotton dress so I could do exactly what I’d planned, because I knew the moment was coming and I wanted to run directly into it.

But we can look at that as a metaphor for the writing advice I got during the retreat — which was, essentially, to take advantage of the full abilities of both my head and my heart.

Everyone else before this has just said heart.

I have heard so many times that I need to tone down my intellect and my desire for structure and the secret music and math I tuck into most of my writing even though I know most readers won’t know it’s there.

I have heard so many times that I just need to let go and feel and be messy and all of that.

And I was messy, at that beach dinner. Everything from the knees on down was covered in sand and salt.

But I was able to run into the surf wholeheartedly because I knew there would be a surf for me to run into and dressed for it.

And that’s what I was encouraged to do with my writing. To be as smart and structured and forward-thinking and open-hearted and ambitious and thoughtful as I actually am.

To see the story I want to tell and the way I want to tell it and then to take off running until I hit the waves.

So that’s what I learned, at Writer’s Winter Break.

And yes, I woke up early this morning so I could keep writing. ❤️

Writer’s Winter Break Class Prep

So today I’m going to share with you the short piece I put together for the Writer’s Winter Break retreat/conference I’m attending later this week.

(Assuming the weather doesn’t keep me from flying out on Wednesday. It has been snowing constantly since Friday afternoon.)

Here’s the context: for the class I’ll be taking with Meg Wolitzer, I’ve been asked to bring one page of my own writing, one page of another author’s writing, and up to two pages addressing an issue in my own work.

I’m bringing the first page of The Biographies of Ordinary People, the first page of Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers (which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago), and the following statement:

I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People in 2015 and 2016, with funding support from Patreon; after the novel was finished, I queried it and was told that, while the writing was lovely and the characters compelling, it was too quiet to be marketable. One agent said “I can work with you to develop something that might be more appealing to a large audience, or you can keep what you have as an art book that will appeal to a select few.”

I chose art book, published and marketed and toured it myself, and the people who loved it loved it.

Then I told myself I needed to learn how to write something that might be more appealing to a large audience.

In the past two years, I outlined one speculative fiction novel about Mars that went nowhere, drafted a second speculative fiction novel about parallel universes that I immediately trunked, and got most of the way through the draft of a cozy mystery with a Millennial-aged amateur detective (she’s got student loans and a social media obsession). My writing is no longer as lovely and my characters are no longer as compelling; I’m writing for “the market” and it’s not working.

I don’t think this is necessarily a genre issue; I read avidly and love all genres. One of the reasons I picked Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers as my published-writing sample was because it is either a literary fiction or a science fiction novel (I’ve talked to indie booksellers who didn’t know where to shelve it) and I would love to write something like that.

The other reason I picked The Wanderers is because the opening chapter does what I was trying to do with the opening chapter of Biographies — introduce us to the world of a woman who lives mostly in her head, who has issues being honest with the people in front of her and is about to leave everything she’s ever known — but it’s tighter and more satisfying and plotty in a way that Biographies is not. 

You turn the first page of The Wanderers wondering why Boone has called this meeting, what he’s going to ask Helen to do, and whether she’ll agree to do it. (To be fair, you also turn that first page feeling pretty sure that she’ll agree to do it. This is how stories work, after all.)

You turn the first page of Biographies remembering what it was like to live in a tiny apartment in the Pacific Northwest in 1989. That was actually what I was going for, and why the people who appreciated this book did in fact appreciate it, but… it’s not enough for what I do next. 

And I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I want it to be better than what I’m writing now.

I’ll be back from the retreat next Monday, and I’ll let you know how it goes. ❤️

(also there will still be a guest post on Wednesday)

(don’t miss the guest post)