What I Learned Interning at the Midwest Writers Workshop

This year for the second time, I interned at the Midwest Writers Workshop as an assistant to literary agent Bridget Smith. It was an amazing weekend. I met really cool people, I got to see some great friends that I’d made last year, I met the guy at Midwest that looked like John Green (seriously), and, of course, I bonded with my fellow agent assistants and we all joined Starfleet.

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we regretted this when we realized we were all wearing red shirts

As the workshop drew to a close, there was one question I started getting over and over: “Do you feel like you learned anything?”

I never knew quite how to answer. I certainly felt like I’d learned something, but I didn’t know how to quantify that into a list of facts. I spent two days sitting in as Bridget took pitches and critiqued query letters, and somehow I felt like this should have given me a unique insight into the publishing world and I should have been able to come up with clever answers and guidelines for other writers preparing to pitch. I wanted to be able to show the more experienced, published writers asking me these questions that yes, I had learned quite a bit, and now I was closer to being One of Them.

Except that I didn’t have clever answers or guidelines or proof of my legitimacy. Anytime I was asked, “What did you learn?” I floundered.

But I’ve been thinking about it, because I knew I’d learned something and that I’d keep getting asked and I wanted to be able to have that conversation and blog about it.

So here’s my answer.

I learned the importance of preparation.

One of the questions that Bridget kept asking in the pitches – if they weren’t answered in the pitch itself – was, “Do you have any comp titles?” This question tripped a lot of people up. Some didn’t know what comp titles were (they’re books that your book can be compared to) and many others just said they weren’t very good at comp titles. I’d be the latter. I think it can be hard for writers to come up with comp titles in part because you don’t want to think that your novel can be easily compared to something else. You want to be unique.

Doing something new is great, but having comp titles ready in your pitch or query letter does more than just telling an agent what your book is like. It tells them that you’re reading the other books in your genre. You know what’s out there, you know why yours is different and new. You can say, “Here’s where my book belongs.”

Of course, sometimes you don’t know what to be prepared for, and you totally mess up, and that’s just going to teach you what to be prepared for next time.

This is also the section where I value someone else’s preparation. Last year at Midwest, I discovered that the majority of the chairs in the alumni center are not exactly fat-person-friendly. They’re narrow and painful to sit in. This year, it was my #1 anxiety, especially since I had a brand-new tattoo on my thigh that wouldn’t appreciate the bruising pressure of sitting in too-small chairs for two and a half days.

When I arrived for my first day, fellow intern Jackson Eflin greeted me with, “Oh, and I found a folding chair for you. It’s by the piano.”

tumblr_m29qy29eYO1qj1lh8This simple, thoughtful act of preparation completely changed my conference experience and made me a happier intern.

I learned that it’s worth it to get over my fear. 

Before I started researching the writers that would be at Midwest, I hadn’t heard of Daniel José Older. I found him on Twitter, and followed him, and looked into what kind of stuff he writes. I realized pretty quickly that he was really cool and someone I needed to be listening to and reading (and you should, too). I was thrilled when I got the chance to interview him for the Midwest Writers e-pistle.

I’d actually kind of built that to fangirl proportions by the time Midwest rolled around, and I knew that this was my chance to meet him and talk to him but I was terrified. So terrified, in fact, that I was going to be thrilled if I could just introduce myself to him without sounding like a dumbass. I wasn’t going to get to see any of his sessions because I was too busy being an agent assistant (though I did get to see one and it was amazing) so I figured, okay, an introduction is as much as I’ll get.

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dreams do come true

By the time the workshop and after parties were over, I’d gotten a selfie with him, MFA advice, and pointed him to my much-beloved Alpha workshop.

Meeting Bridget for the first time was also pretty freaking scary. I wasn’t pitching her. I don’t have a completed manuscript. But she’s still a literary agent and she’s still an amazing connection that I could make. What if she didn’t like me? What if she thought I was annoying or had bad taste? What if she found me more annoying than helpful?

Striking up conversations with her was hard, but I did it, and I learned a lot through that. She talked about the frustrations of not being able to place a brilliant book just because it was part of a trend that editors were sick of, about books she really loved, about what she wished she saw more of in books. We had a lot in common and a similar sense of humor, and I, at least, had a great time spending the weekend with her.

I learned not to doubt my contributions in the literary world, however small they may be.

I’m an undergrad college student with one story published in my college’s lit mag. I do this blog, but I don’t really update it enough. I’m working on being someone in the literary world, but right now I barely make a blip.

But those blips still mean something.

When my friends want YA recommendations, they come to me. They trust me to point them towards something good. The agent I assisted at Midwest last year, Victoria Marini, trusted my taste enough that she hired me as a remote reader for the manuscripts she receives. I don’t read loads, but I read what she sends me, and I give her my opinions, and sometimes those opinions make a difference.

This weekend at Midwest, I had writers telling me how much I helped them when I didn’t even realize I was helping. They told me that I provided a positive and supportive atmosphere going into their pitches. Pitching an agent can be seriously scary, and I helped some of those writers feel a little more at ease.

Maybe in the big scheme of things, that’s not a lot. I didn’t get anyone signed. I didn’t get signed myself. I don’t have a book out. But I’m still immensely proud of the small things I’ve done and I need to stop underestimating myself.

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This was my second year at Midwest Writers. Last year, it convinced me that the literary community is where I belong. This year, it convinced me that not only is this where I belong, but I can make a difference here, if I can work past the anxiety and self-doubt and the fear.

Here’s hoping they let me do it again next year.

Sarah Reads: “Don’t Think About That”

This past year, I’ve participated in a lot of readings with other writers, mainly my fellow Ball State students. I discovered that I really love getting up in front of a crowd and reading my work and, even better, that I’m not half bad at it.

So here’s my new feature for the blog: Sarah Reads.

Once or twice a month (I’ll set a better schedule as I get comfortable), I’ll be posting audio of me reading original fiction. Currently I’m not going to post the text along with it, but I’d love to hear from my readers on whether or not you’d like to have that text.

This first edition of Sarah Reads features a flash fiction about space: “Don’t Think About That”.

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Last Year, I Lost Faith in NaNoWriMo. This Year, I’m Getting it Back

2013-Participant-Facebook-ProfileLast year was my seventh time participating in National Novel Writing Month, the mad, worldwide dash to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Last year was also my second time not completing NaNoWriMo.

When mentioning that I was doing NaNo for the seventh time, I kept getting similar questions and comments that all boiled down to: In six years, how many novels have you completed?

The answer was one. One draft, which has been entirely trashed and restarted half a dozen times. It certainly never made it to anything like a final draft or publication. I had never been ashamed of that before, but suddenly I was. I looked back on six years of half-finished (if that) drafts of novels, ones I’d never gone back to, that were just sitting on my computer. I started to wonder if I had been wasting my time and if this was some sign of being an amateur.

I made the choice not to finish NaNo last year, in part because I was busy with school, but in even larger part because, after years of loving the pursuit of those 50,000 words, my excitement had given way to fear and shame.

I wasn’t going to do NaNo this year. As November approached and the NaNo tweets and Facebook statuses started appearing, I scrolled on past and thought, “No. Not this year. Maybe next.” I was still scared. I was still wondering if it was worth it.

But I was also feeling the desire to jump back in. There’s this buzz that comes with NaNo, this joy and excitement. One of my favorite parts of NaNo is knowing that I’m making this attempt with tens of thousands of other people all around the world. I love competing with my friends, obsessively checking their word counts as I up mine, texting them late at night to say, “Hey, my word count is down. Wanna do a word war?” Everyone was gearing up for that without me.

With a few hours to go until the start of NaNo, I decided to take the plunge again. I remembered a novel that had barely gone anywhere yet – just some ideas, characters, a couple thousand words – and decided it would be the my NaNovel this year. I watched the seconds count down to midnight EST.

It’s day 6, I’m at 9202 words, and I could not be happier.

Because here’s the thing: It’s true that I’ve only produced one completed draft out of NaNoWriMo, and it wasn’t even viable. It’s true that I have written some truly shitty words in November.

But you know what else I’ve done? I’ve learned. I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t. I’ve learned that I can write 2000 words in 20 minutes if I use Write or Die on kamikaze mode. I’ve learned the kind of novelist I am. I know that I like having outlines, but I often hate writing them and I kind of love it when the story just comes to me. I’ve learned that novel writing does not come easily to me, not like short stories do, and I have to work three times as hard to make the plots and characters make sense. I’ve learned that I can write quality pieces quickly. I’ve learned that I can write shitty pieces quickly, too.

Maybe I won’t complete NaNoWriMo this year. Maybe I’ll hit week three and burn out. Maybe I’ll finish by week three! That would be cool, but I’d also kind of miss that frantic, last-minute “oh god let the NaNo site not crash so I can confirm my win” panic. It’s part of the fun.

Maybe I’ll really complete this draft and it will go to amazing places.

Maybe I won’t.

That’s not what matters. That’s not why I love National Novel Writing Month. I love it for the experience, for the writing, and for what it has taught me and will continue to teach me about myself.

I may not publish any of these novels, but I’m happy, I’m learning, and I’m writing.

What else do I need?

#mww13

All hail the interns. Photo courtesy of Cathy Day.

All hail the interns. Photo courtesy of Cathy Day.

It has taken me a week to figure out how to blog about the Midwest Writers Workshop. I just didn’t know where to start. Do I talk about my awesome fellow interns/ninjas/redshirts? Or a few of the really awesome people who put it together? Or the visiting literary agents and faculty, with a clear bias on the one I was assisting?

Real talk time: I still have no idea where to start or what to concentrate on.

Maybe there just isn’t a single bead of awesome for me to focus on. Because here’s the thing – there was just too much that was unbelievably beautiful. I met too many amazing people – faculty and guests alike – and was too immersed in too many freaking crazy opportunities.

I got to assist Victoria Marini, a kickass literary agent that made my potentially stressful job really fun. I met Roxane Gay, who I also interviewed before MWW and did a (fingerling) presentation on in my literary citizenship class. I convinced her to join OkCupid. She convinced me that I belong at the University of Alabama creative writing grad program. I got to hang out with a lot of really cool writers and agents. Yeah, the chairs were crazy uncomfortable for fat people but I took some advice from body positivity goddess Ragen Chastain and said, “Hey, maybe we should change that.”

And then I broke down and had a panic attack but even that led me to meeting a beautiful and amazing woman who worked me through it and then ranted with me about how much Moffat sucks.

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Also, I touched Brooks Sherman’s hair.

Like you don't want to touch it. This photo also courtesy of Cathy Day.

Like you don’t want to touch it. This photo also courtesy of Cathy Day.

There was a lot about #mww13 that was the coolest ever. I believe the faculty and agents who say that it’s one of the best writing conferences in the country. If you ever get a chance to register and come, DO IT.

In the meantime, there have been many blog posts about the conference, some of which are linked in this sentence. The super cool Cathy Day also made a Storify for each day of the conference, featuring tweets that exemplified each day. If you want even more, you can still check out the #mww13 hashtag on Twitter. A lot of people were way more informative and less gushy than I was in this post. Go check them out. If you were there, share your experiences!

Because here’s what I took away from #mww13: I am meant to be in this community. I’m working to be a writer and maybe that’s what I’ll be or maybe I’ll be an agent or editor or just an eternal conference attendee. I can’t tell the future. What I can tell you is that last weekend left me feeling the way Alpha always left me feeling – so exhausted and energized and at peace.

It felt like home.

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Short Story Month

A short story is like a short sloth: Fucking awesome.

A short story is like a short sloth: Fucking awesome.c

Now that school is over and I’m getting used to my new job, I can dive back into blogging and writing. Maybe you’ve been in a bit of a rut, too. What better to get us all back on the writing wagon than a month-long writing challenge?

You know about NaNoWriMo, right? 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s difficult and exhilarating and if you even think it might be your type of thing, you should try it. But that’s not until November (barring Camp NaNoWriMo), so what do you do if you just have a lot of trouble writing without those pre-set goals? Or maybe you just aren’t so great in the novel format.

I have some pretty cool news for you. Turns out, May is Short Story Month, sponsored by Story A Day. The idea is to write a short story every day in May. Honestly, that kind of makes me squeak in terror – oh god EVERY DAY? – but it also sounds amazing. It’s not about writing and polishing and editing a story every day, it’s about just writing it. Get that story out there. As someone who sometimes thinks way, way too much during first drafts, this is the kind of kick I enjoy.

I know it’s already May 10th, but that’s no reason not to get in there! Go check out their daily writing prompts to get yourself going. Or if you’re more of a short story reader, go check out their recommendations. Get to know the short story a little better.

What do you guys think? Are you gonna give it a go? I think I am.