Centers of Wisdom, images and text by Olivia Wildenstein
Conferences are hubs of knowledge and talent. They fuel the imagination and broaden social networks. They are important for every trade, but especially for writers, since writing is such a solitary job.
In Geneva, on the weekend of the 19th of March, a large group of authors and agents came together at Webster University to discuss writing and publishing. It was an exciting weekend, jam-packed with workshops and Q&As that shed light on how to transform your manuscript into a gripping masterpiece, and land that coveted publishing contract or self-publish it with success.
The first time I put a book out into the world, Ghostboy, Chameleon & the Duke of Graffiti, I did it without a master plan. I just wanted to publish my story, because I loved my characters and thought they deserved better than being locked up inside my computer, along with all the others I’d made up over the years. Also, I wanted to be able to say ‘yes’ when people asked if I’d published anything. I wanted to feel like a real author. Now, after the conference and the months of work I put into the launch of my second novel, The Masterpiecers, I realize that I should have had a master plan. Not because Ghostboy wasn’t received well—it was—but because it took me a year to slip it into the hands of more or less five hundred readers.
At the conference, I gleaned new strategies from other self-published writers like Jill Marsh, who emphasized the importance of finding your tribe, because they are the people whose criticism will be the most constructive and whose encouragements will be the most sincere. Where do you find your tribe? In targeted Facebook groups, at conferences, in writing groups. In today’s ultra-connected world, the possibilities are endless. Even if you live in the most remote town in Switzerland, you can join websites dedicated to people who write in the same genre as you do.
Liz Jensen’s workshop was not to be missed. Her novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, is currently being turned into a film. She wasn’t exuberant in her way of ‘teaching’, and she didn’t throw around big smiles to charm us, but she explained the mechanics of storytelling in a way that made you want to pick up a pen and write the best book of your life. She used examples like Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment, where children were all given a marshmallow and told that if they waited, they would get a second one. Some ate it, some waited. Forty years later, the people organizing the study looked up these children. The ones who’d waited had been more successful in life than the others. Jensen used the example to demonstrate that giving your character a desire, but not fulfilling it on page one, will create greater gratification for the reader at the end.
Then we played around with different plot techniques to raise the stakes in a story. Your character needs to get from point A to point B, but things keep happening that hinder his journey. Here’s the example Jensen used: you need to go to the hospital because your mother is ill. There’s a traffic jam. Then you find yourself involved in a car accident where you’ve hit a person. A mother and her child. The mother dies. When you search for papers to phone the baby’s next of kin, you realize she was an immigrant, and therefore carries no papers. There’s no one around. This will create a great dilemma for your character, and dilemma is essential to a terrific character arc. “Put your protagonist through hell,” advises Jensen.
The other author whose workshop I attended was a prodigious show-woman and storyteller: Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle. Unlike Jensen, she used her workshop hour to explore a selection of short stories, such as Raymond Carver’s Popular Mechanics and Alice Walker’s The Flowers. Studying writing is essential to writing, which made the time well spent. We analyzed how writers can create tension and satisfaction using very few words. The other memorable moment of Hood’s workshop was when she shared with us something she’d heard from author Grace Paley: “No story is one story. There’s the one on the surface and the one bubbling beneath. And the climax is when they collide.”
So once you have that great story written down in a neatly edited pile of words, what do you do with it? Enter the agent. You hook one, they champion your work and sell it to a major publishing house, and then you’re gold. Although part of this is true, it’s a simplistic view of the publishing system. There is still a lot of work involved on the author’s part: social networking, building a mailing list, accumulating reviews and entering competitions. An agent will help with some of this, but they won’t do your job for you. And that mammoth publishing house won’t either. Very few books are even allotted a marketing budget. But you do have a team to assist you with cover design, manuscript edits and placing your book in brick-and-mortar shops and libraries. Those are not trivial parts of the publishing process, but in a way, for having done it twice now, they’re the easiest part.
Conferences will challenge you, unlock new prospects and instigate key relationships. But most importantly, they will make you a wiser writer, and wisdom is tantamount to success.
Olivia Wildenstein lives with her husband and three children in Geneva, Switzerland, where she’s an active member of the writing community.