Writers in the Field!

I think it was James Herriot who said that a true fanatic is irresistible. It made an impression on me because I have also found that to be true. A fanatical enthusiast can dupe you into being interested in something that never interested you before. Once upon a time, there was a man who actually interested me in trigonometry! (The effect wasn’t permanent, alas.)

I bring that up to give you a frame of reference for the weekend I just experienced. The folks at Writers in the Field managed to assemble a group of experts who also happened to be fanatics about their areas of expertise. So what we had was a group of passionate fanatics teaching classes to a bunch of nerdy, fanatical writers who were eager to learn. The result was (at least for me) an explosion of joy and enthusiasm.

Although there were some writing classes, the focus was on helping writers with research by letting them talk to real-life experts. There were so many options for each time period that I had to make some very hard choices. These are the classes I ended up taking:

Saturday

Introduction to Archery—John Stout

Historical Dances—Caryl Morris

Country Healing and Herbalism—Brittney Volker

History, Customs, and Manners of the Renaissance—William Teel

Archery—Practicing the Basics (observed)—John Stout

Ask Seth Skorkowsky: The Pitfalls of Writing a Series—Seth Skorkowsky

Lockpicking—Nathan Coffield

Historical Archery—John Stout

Japanese Archery Demonstration—John Stout

Concert—Plunk Murray, Irish Blind

 

Sunday

Exotic Bladed Weapons—Bill Riddle

Court Dancing—Caryl Morris & friends

Historical and Fantasy Armor—Bill Riddle, John Stout

Concert—The Returners

Rapier and Court Swords—Bill Riddle

Strange New Worlds—Keith Goodnight

Fight Dirty—Like a Girl (partial)—Jeremy Metcalf

I have included the presenters’ names because they were so outstanding and I want to acknowledge them. I watched quite a bit of archery—the only P.E. class I ever enjoyed when I was in college!

Both dance classes were so full of information and I took copious notes. The lecture on the Renaissance was so excellent I wanted there to be more of it.

The locksmith was amazing, and adapted quickly once he realized his class was going to be a lot more popular than he had expected! He explained the process so well that it took me less than five minutes to successfully pick my first lock. Not that I am planning a life of crime, you understand. But now if I want to write about someone picking a lock I have a clue how to do it.

The swords/weapons guys were so knowledgeable and entertaining I enjoyed every minute of their presentations. They confirmed several facts that I had already picked up elsewhere. So nice to know your information is accurate!

The herbal medicine presentation was also very interesting to me, especially since I’ve been attending that homeopathy class.

I almost didn’t go to the worldbuilding class, because I’ve taken several other classes on that topic and think I’m pretty good at it—but I’m glad I went. He had a different spin on a couple of aspects of worldbuilding and I can use those insights in my writing.

The live music was a huge bonus too. Saturday night we had wonderful Celtic music, and Sunday we had a “Video Game Cover Band,” a genre that I didn’t know existed. They were great! I love listening to live music, especially in an intimate venue where you can really see and hear everything.

There were also firearms and martial arts experts, historical re-enactors, horses and their handlers, and a wine expert!

Oh, and did I mention that all this took place on the grounds of a Steampunk Faire known as Steampunk November? Wall-to-wall chandeliers and other fancy accoutrements. That’s another reason I enjoyed myself so much—the faire environment is so familiar and comfortable for me. And look what else I found there:

20171015_130221

I tried a somewhat new strategy for note-taking “in the field” and am now sold on it. Normally, I take a clipboard filled with unlined computer paper so I can take my “tree and branch” notes. This time, though, knowing I’d be lugging my chair around for two days, plus a bag with a heavy water bottle in it, I decided to be more of a minimalist. I took a little square sketchbook I’d been saving for some mysterious future need.

Here is the notebook I took: Square Sketchbook

It was so much easier to handle since I had to write on my lap. The pages are thick and opaque, meaning nothing bled through to the other side. The square shape meant I could arrange information anyway I liked. Depending on the class, one or two square pages were sufficient to record the information I wanted to remember. And instead of loose pages, I have a nice bound book with everything together. I’ll use this one for writing-related stuff, but I’m already planning to order another one to use for other subjects!

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Changing Rules

Over the last couple of years, I have occasionally been chided by critique partners for writing sentences that were too long. The limit, I’ve been told, is two lines. If I write a sentence that is over two lines long, I should split it into two. Sometimes I kind of balk at this, because there are occasions when a three-line sentence is really much more elegant than two or three shorter sentences.

So I had to laugh the other night when I read the following sentence. It was written by Captain Frederick Marryat in 1937 and quoted by Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi:

“Pouring its impetuous waters through wild tracts covered with trees of little value except for firewood, it sweeps down whole forests in its course, which disappear in tumultuous confusion, whirled away by the stream now loaded with the masses of soil which nourished their roots, often blocking up and changing for a time the channel of the river, which, as if in anger at its being opposed, inundates and devastates the whole country round; and as soon as it forces its way through its former channel, plants in every direction the uprooted monarchs of the forest (upon whose branches the bird will never again perch, or the raccoon, the opossum, or the squirrel climb) as traps to the adventurous navigators of its waters by steam, who, borne down by these concealed dangers which pierce through the planks, very often have not time to steer for and gain the shore before they sink to the bottom.”

Eleven lines long! Those Victorians were so verbose. And let’s be real: Marryat was a rank amateur compared to Victor Hugo.

 

When Does the “Law of Diminishing Returns” Kick In?

A couple of days ago, I finished a project I had been working on all summer. I had taken it into my head to revise one of my earlier (unpublished) novels. It had finished going through the critique process but I hadn’t kept up with all the critique suggestions, so that was my first task.

Meanwhile, I believe I have actually increased my writing skills considerably this summer, thanks to a new critique partner who has pushed me hard. As a result, what I thought would be a two or three-week project ended up taking the entire summer. Hours upon hours of scrutinizing every line, every word.

I hardly believe this story is now “perfected,” but it is certainly better-written than it was, and I derive some satisfaction from knowing that, even if it never gets published.

But this experience brings up an interesting point. At the same time I was working on the revisions of my “old” novel, I was and am continuing revisions on my newest novel. This one started off in better shape and this first round of revisions is taking it to a higher level than any of my “old” work.

So, I have started revising another older story. This story has also been through the critique process, yet I am finding plenty of ways to improve the writing. But at what point do you say, “Well, I’m done with this and I’m going to send it out and stop revising it.”

I can easily see this turning into a never-ending process. As my skills increase (assuming they do increase) I just keep subjecting all my novels to another round of revisions and upgrades. Of course, unlike some writers, I do keep producing new material—which just means that each round of revisions would take longer than the one before it!

What I’m asking myself now is this: at what point do further revisions become a bad investment of my time? I’m not changing any of my stories in any substantial way. I believe the stories themselves are pretty good. But I’m going through and eliminating pointless words and passive constructions and “telling” and unnecessary dialog tags. None of these things would bother the average reader if they were interested in the story. However, all of these things are very important to the gatekeepers: agents and editors, and I am much better at finding and fixing them now.

So the conclusion I’ve reached at the moment is that my skills have probably increased enough to make another round of edits worth the time and effort before I start querying again. I still am very anxious to start two new stories, though, so I may have to play a game with myself, where I reward myself with “new” writing for various milestones in my revisions.

The Passive Aggressive Poem Post

When I was fourteen, I wrote a poem. It is not a particularly good poem, even for a fourteen-year-old. However, I have a relative who likes it and who thinks I should have included it in my memoir, because the poem deals primarily with my years at Sakeji School, as does the memoir.

Then last week when I posted on my personal blog about the fiftieth anniversary of my arrival at Sakeji, I got another reminder that this too would have been a good time to share my mediocre poem with the world. So I’m giving in. Since I wrote it (albeit as a very immature teenager) I am posting it here on my writing blog. I will try to remember to also add it to my website.

Memories of Childhood

by Linda Moran (aged 14)

I like to remember the feel

Of my bare feet in the mud:

Splashing in the oozy mud,

Nice and wet and deep and cool—

Lovely mud, brown mud

On the playground at school.

And I like to remember

The climbing of the trees,

And the swimming in the river,

And the skinning of my knees,

And the riding of my bike,

And the eating of candy,

And the playing of “Adventures—“

Oh, childhood was dandy!

Memories, too, I have

Of sitting in a classroom:

A big white classroom

With small brown desks.

That classroom was a happy place

That smelled of books and ink;

A whitewashed, happy, quiet place

Where one could sit and think.

I remember, childhood, childhood;

Crawling on my hands and knees;

Studying with great intentness

Frogs and snails and ants and bees;

Wading in the shallow river;

Catching tadpoles with my hands;

Picking flowers in the forest;

Reading tales of distant lands;

Sliding down the slimy clay bank;,

Rolling down the grassy hill;

Making mountainous sand-castles;

Throwing away my calcium pill.

I remember, I remember

Spinning roundandroundandround,

Spinning till I got so dizzy

I fell, exhausted, to the ground.

I remember telling stories

To the other girls at night;

I remember playing hopscotch;

Jumping rope with all my might;

Crying over a dead bird’s body;

Laughing at a monkey’s tricks;

Falling, clothed, into the river;

Climbing fences, just for kicks.

I remember lots more things,

Lots more things I’d like to tell;

But now I’m at the end of my paper

Which, I think, is just as well.

 

Note: I think it’s hilarious that at the age of fourteen, I thought I was old enough to “look back” on my childhood!

Revelation & Enlightenment

A few weeks ago, I attended the one-day conference of the East Texas Writers Guild, and after a day focused on writing, I still had writing on my mind during the 45 minute drive home. Driving along, I thought about all the stories I’ve written and about the new one I’m planning.

Then I had one of those light-bulb moments, an insight into my own writing that literally caused me to gasp. (I didn’t go so far as to yell “Eureka!”)

You know how they say all first novels are autobiographical? Well, I’m sure it’s true. I know my first two novels used a lot of details from my own life and background, even though they were very different stories. But as I thought about the other four novels I’ve written, I realized something rather startling: they all share a common theme.

Now please understand, they are all very different stories. Each story has many themes. But there is one  theme that runs through them all and I never recognized it before. All six of my novel-length stories feature a character who must at some point choose between two worlds. All of them.

Huh. How do you suppose that theme managed to sneak into all the stories written by a missionary kid who identified more strongly with her “new” world than she did with her “home” world? And yes, the new story I’m planning, which will have a five-book arc, will also end up with the main character having to make that same choice.

I’m not even sorry. Clearly, this is such an ingrained part of me as a person that I can’t write without referring to it. It’s kind of amusing I never noticed it before now.

The Rule of Three, Addendum

Yesterday got off to a depressing start when I saw that the short story I submitted two days ago has already been rejected. However, a quick rejection is much better than a slow one, and the editor took the time to tell me what he liked about the story and what he thought I could do to improve it. So at least I have some guidance when I put it through another round of revisions. In other words, this was a “good” rejection, as rejections go.

I have some general remarks to make about writers’ conferences, and this seems to be the best place to make them. I have tried to anticipate questions you might ask, and here I will give you my answers, based on the fourteen conferences I have attended.

~If you are an aspiring novelist, should you go to a writer’s conference even if you don’t have a finished novel?  Absolutely. Go to learn and meet some fellow writers. Pick a local conference where you might meet others from your “neighborhood.” You’ll enjoy it so much more without the stress of pitching something at your first conference.

~If you do have a finished novel, should you be ready to pitch it at your first conference? No. Let me say that again. No. I was given this advice over and over before I went to that first big ACFW conference. I ignored it, because I figured I was only going to get to go three times, so I needed to make the most of it, right? That was a huge mistake. It would have been so much better and so much less traumatic if I had just gone to learn and figure out how the system works. All those people who said I shouldn’t pitch at my first conference were right.

~What if “mentoring” or “critique” appointments are offered? I say jump on them, but only if you’ve read a large enough sample of the mentor’s writing to know you’re on the same page when it comes to style and tone. These types of appointments can be very helpful. Or devastating. Or both.

~Are the big expensive conferences worth the extra expense? I can’t answer that for you. If you want access to a bigger choice of agents and editors, then you’ll have to go to big conferences. Generally the quality of the classes is high. If you can afford to spend thousands of dollars a year going to conferences—and many people can—why not go for it and learn as much as you can? It may speed up your journey to publication.

~What if I’m just a terrible writer and that’s why no one has ever wanted to represent or publish my novels? What if I’m truly that bad and can’t see it or don’t want to admit it? Valid question. Sometimes I think maybe I really am that bad. As a writer, I may not be Nobel Prize material—but I’m certainly not terrible either. I have read many books, including some that sold very well, that were crappily written compared to mine. As an avid reader for over 50 years, as an English degree holder and English teacher, I think I have enough experience to know true garbage when I see it, and my stories do not fall into that category. People who have read them seem to love them. So, logically, I have to assume I have been begging at the wrong door all these years. My writing has improved tremendously during that time, but the response from the “gatekeepers” has not. I believe I’ve been knocking on the wrong gates, and it would be stupid to continue doing so.

~Why didn’t I apply for a scholarship to Realm Makers this year? I had several reasons, actually. I feel that asking for a scholarship would be like canceling out my donation of a cloak for the raffle. I feel that there are bound to be young writers who might actually have a chance of making it in the Christian publishing world, whereas I do not. I want them to have that chance. And I also believe I would not qualify for a scholarship. We always seem to fall into that limbo where we can’t afford stuff (like medical care) but are still too “rich” to qualify for assistance. I hope I make it back to Realm Makers someday, but I hate to think that the only way to do it is to be a charity case.

So, I’m still feeling a little sorry for myself, especially as all the photos are pouring into Facebook showing everyone having the time of their lives—but I’ve accepted the fact that it would not have been helpful for me to go this year. I would have loved the classes, but I know I would have struggled with the emotional impact of not being able to pitch my six novels to anyone who might have the remotest interest in them.

The Rule of Three, Part V

I planned the series of posts for this week to distract me from the fact that my favorite writers’ conference is going on without me right now. But, as I prepared to write this post, I realized that I also have some deep-seated ambivalence toward this event.

First, some history. The last time I attended the big ACFW conference, it was in Dallas. I was going through a devastating crisis with one of my kids and almost didn’t go to the conference at all. Then, as it happens, there was a very polarizing incident which occurred during the fancy awards banquet. I had no idea anything had happened until I checked my email after getting home and saw that it had blown up with people weighing in on the incident.

Without rehashing that event in any way, I’ll just say the result was that many of us who write speculative fiction felt disrespected and/or marginalized by the group at large. One person decided to take action. She made the bold decision to start a whole new conference, a conference specifically for Christian writers of speculative fiction. (Note: NOT just writers of Christian speculative fiction.)

When I heard the news, I was thrilled. I was determined to go to that first Realm Makers conference. I knew it was going to grow into something amazing, and I wanted to be in on the ground floor. I loved their commitment to keeping expenses low. The conference was held at a university and we stayed in the dorms for $20 a night. That first year, my total cost for attending the conference was under $400, and that included paying for a room for my daughter Lina who drove me up there in her car.

There were about 80 of us that year, and the contrast with ACFW could not have been more stark. I felt welcomed with open arms. At mealtimes, I would cruise past the various tables before deciding where to sit. Did I want to join a conversation about superheroes, Star Trek, horror movies, or high fantasy? It was nerd heaven.

The next year, I was unable to attend Realm Makers as it was held much farther away and it conflicted with another event that was non-negotiable. However, I was determined to make it to year #3, when it would again be in St. Louis. That was my first lengthy solo road trip—in our non-air-conditioned Suburban, which passed the 300,000 mile mark that week!

To time my arrival correctly, I ended up paying for a night in a hotel on the way, but still my overall costs came to less than $500. A bargain! The conference had already grown to 150 people and now there were multiple classes offered in each time slot. There also was an impressive selection of editors and agents with whom you could schedule appointments.

A couple of my dear friends were there that year, which greatly added to my enjoyment of the conference. The classes were excellent. At long last, I had found “my people.” I thought for sure I’d be attending Realm Makers every year for the foreseeable future.

Then came last year. The cost of the conference increased, and it was held in Pennsylvania, 1500 miles away. Acting in faith, I registered early for the conference, hoping I’d have enough summer class students to pay for my transportation.

No one wanted to take my classes. Still, I had a backup plan which I mentioned in yesterday’s post. I was speaking at a local conference, and they paid me $300. If I stayed with relatives and friends on the way, and if I didn’t eat out at all, I could just cover my gas money with my conference pay. It took me three days to drive each way (I am so not a long-distance driver!).

Just a few weeks before I left for the conference, we received the devastating news that my husband was losing one of his regular contracts, which meant a serious loss of income for us—income that has not been replaced. So I knew even before I began my epic solo road trip that it might be my last trip to Realm Makers, or to any other conference for that matter.

It was a difficult few days for me. On the one hand, of course it was great to attend classes and to see some of my writer friends. On the other hand, I felt more strongly than ever that I was on the “outside” when it came to being published, and that I would never figure out how to get “in.” I came to realize that the path I’d been on for seven years was not leading to publication. In short, I gave up on the Christian publishing industry. I don’t believe I will ever write something that Christian publishers or agents can like.

At the banquet last year, they announced that this year’s conference would be held at a resort hotel in Reno, and I knew in that moment I would probably never be able to go to Realm Makers again. Still, a part of me hoped it would somehow work out, and I kept this weekend free “just in case.” Now, so many of my friends are in Reno enjoying the excitement of being together and learning together. Realm Makers is no longer the “scrappy little conference that could.” It’s now a full-blown top-notch professional conference with a big-name keynote speaker. I knew this would happen eventually, but I thought it would take a little longer! If I had gone this year, it would have cost me well in excess of $1000 for the conference, hotel, and airfare. That is now way out of my league. The Rule of Three seems to have stopped me in my tracks this time, even when I didn’t want it to.

But, I hear some of you asking, why did you make a cloak for the raffle then? Because I still believe in what Realm Makers is doing, that’s why. I want other aspiring writers to get the chance to go and soak in the all-encompassing nerdulence and take the classes and cosplay for the awards banquet. The raffle raises money for scholarships, and as long as I can still afford to make a cloak each year, I probably will.

Does that mean I have given up on pursuing publication? No. I only gave up on being published or represented by anyone in the Christian publishing industry. Since that approach did not work, I am casting a wider net. Over the next few weeks and months, I will be querying agents in the general market. I still believe there is an agent out there who will love my work and want to see it in print. I don’t believe that agent works for a Christian agency or works with Christian publishers. I have zero hopes or expectations in that direction.

Does that mean I wouldn’t attend Realm Makers again if it became financially feasible? Not at all. I would give my proverbial eyeteeth to be there right now. If I ever go again, though, it will be for the classes and the fellowship and the wall-to-wall nerdiness—and that would be worth it. I can’t imagine I’d even consider setting up any appointments, because I can’t imagine the outcome will ever change.

Tomorrow: a follow-up post wherein I try to answer some of the questions that I know my posts this week have raised.