My first Muse and the Marketplace conference! I became a Grub Street member last year. Their annual 3-day writers’ conference is right here in downtown Boston. Here are my thoughts on the first day.
Keynote: Luis Alberto Urrea gave an inspiring speech about how everyday moments and small details are sacred — especially ones that we think nobody else would ever know about or that we’re told are shameful. He said that he always brings up his childhood poverty, tuberculosis, and early years in Tijuana, precisely because he was warned not to talk about that stuff. He talked about the importance of breaking down artificial borders between people and how the function of writing is to make us see each other’s humanity. His new book, The House of Broken Angels, is now on my must-read list.
First of all, I loved these women: they exuded power and authority. They were also chock-full of valuable information, breaking down every element of a nonfiction proposal with lots of insider tips. Key takeaways for me:
- Your proposal must answer this question: why does the world need your book?
- Use every opportunity to get your voice across — opt for narrative rather than outlines.
- Your proposal should explain who will buy your book. If you have a platform or any valuable connections that will help with publicity and sales, you should definitely mention them.
- Measures of success from a publisher’s perspective: awards, reviews, and especially sales
Second session: Writing a True Beginning, Middle, and End, Alden Jones
She gave an overview of basic plot structure: conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. She referenced Vivian Gornick’s Situation and the Story and had us read “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes to illustrate, then finished with a writing prompt: 25 minutes to start and finish a story titled “How I Became ___.”
Third session: Navel-Gazing and Other Worthy Pursuits: A Character-Building Game, Angie Chatman and Athena Dixon
Key point: go deep with your characters, beyond obvious characteristics like sex and age and job. The “game” was to fill in a blank 5×5 grid with characteristics, without self-censoring or overthinking. The idea is by the third row, you’re forced to go deeper.
Why do this? Athena Dixon talked about her experience writing about surviving a suicide attempt. She said at first glance, a heterosexual white man might not think he could relate to the book of a black lesbian woman. But if he or one of his loved ones shared this common experience with her — and they both moved beyond their surface differences — then he would see it as a book for him.
I found this exercise easy for my main characters, but it would be useful for side characters — and a key takeaway for me was to apply this technique to settings.
Fourth session: Essentials of Humor, Steve Macone
So many great tips in this session! First he talked about the function of humor — it can come from a disconnect between reality and what a character wants, and the stakes should be low enough to make you think “I don’t want to be that guy” rather than feeling fear or a responsibility to act. He spent a lot of time discussing philosopher Henri Bergson’s theories of humor, then talked about how to structure and analyze humor pieces. My takeaways:
- Getting feedback: Have readers highlight places where they actually laughed
- Reverse engineer a funny passage by making it unfunny — then you’ll see what made it funny
- Distance between a joke and somebody getting it should be enough of a leap so that it’s exciting when they get it, but not so far that they can’t make the leap
Evening session: Spitballing with various panelists
This was my favorite event of the day: the panelists (and audience) were presented with half-finished stories and had 90 seconds to come up with ideas for what happened next. I contributed my half-finished short story about a little boy confronted with a frightening situation, and got lots of interesting ideas involving parental malfeasance, child duplication machines, fights to the death — I’m not going to use any of them, but they did get me unstuck. I had a breakthrough idea on the way home. (And Celeste Ng was on the panel, and I love her, so I was especially excited to get her ideas on my story.)
This session was a lot of fun — it was great to hear writers unleash their creativity and approach each story with completely different perspectives. What surprised me most was how easy it was for me to come up with story ideas for other people, when usually it’s a long and painstaking process for me. The stakes seemed a lot lower when I didn’t have to write the story myself. I know you’re not supposed to self-edit on first drafts, but I find it hard to turn off my self-editor and let the words flow. I didn’t realize how much I self-censor story ideas too. I’ll channel this session next time I feel stuck.