MWW16: Learning to Lead, Learning to Chill Out

Bear with me here, because this is going to be a long one. My Facebook memories are full of MWWs past and I’m gonna get emotional and nostalgic.

2016 was my fourth year at the Midwest Writers Workshop. I started out in 2013 as a little baby agent assistant intern all excited and nervous and no idea how to talk to anyone, much less my agent, Victoria Marini, so mostly I hung out with my fellow interns and hovered awkwardly. It was amazing. It’s where I met and became friends with Summer Heacock and Roxane Gay. It’s where I solidified my friendships with Jackson Eflin and Brittany Means, who are two of my best friends, and have been with me at every MWW since.

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2014. Jackson and I are the only returning interns, so we start calling ourselves Katniss and Peeta. Brittany moves from attendee to fellow intern. I assist Bridget Smith, and delight in telling one man that he was the first and one of two full manuscripts she asked for the whole weekend. Daniel José Older is there, and to this day, if you mention his name around us, we’ll all sigh dreamily and talk excitedly about how his keynote speech kept everyone on the edge of their seats. I’m more confident. People recognize me. People are excited to see me! I’m excited to see them! This internship is quickly becoming about the community almost more than the professional experience.

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In 2015, I don’t apply for the internship – I get asked to return, and to lead. I take the agent assistant interns, and Jackson takes the social media counselors. We get to go to a few committee meetings, we get to train our crew, we basically run that shit. The interns are a tight-knit group of nerds. I assist Janet Reid and have a damn good time doing it. Between that and leading I don’t have much time for rest but tbh that’s how I like it. I do the after-partying, I’m comfortable talking to faculty and agents, and I don’t know how I’d survive any of it without Summer as one of my best friends.

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You’d think, after all that experience, that I’d go into 2016 all smooth and carefree and ready to take on the day.

Uh, no.

This year, I wasn’t assisting an agent. I was just in charge of a group of interns who were trained in a class taught by MWW’s awesome leader, Jama Kehoe Bigger. I went in thinking I’ll have nothing to do and my interns barely know me at all, what will they think of me? I know how to be a leader, but I felt like now I was seen not as a leader and friend, but a leader and adult and boss and I didn’t know how to be that.

I didn’t know any of the agents. I was nervous as hell to meet Julie Murphy. Brittany and Jackson were going to be there, but for the first time none of us were working in the same area. Summer was going to be there but MWW moved to a much larger space, and I didn’t know how much I’d see her. There was a mix-up with the T-shirt place, and I didn’t get an intern T-shirt – the largest they carried was a 2X and there’s no way that’s fitting me.

My anxiety basically ruled me that first Thursday of MWW16. I didn’t feel in control at all. I didn’t feel like I belonged like I had every other year. The first night, my friends and the 2015 agent assistant interns all get the same frantic message: I think my interns hate me.

To everyone else I probably seemed a-okay, if a little manic. But oh man, I was a mess that first day. 13692626_10157132830700697_5023136383583059040_n

Don’t worry. This isn’t a tragic story. It didn’t stay that way.

It helped, definitely, that while I didn’t have an intern shirt, I did have a tank top that Jackson screensprinted for me. I can’t pretend that having “QUEEN” printed on my back didn’t help the confidence.

Sure, I didn’t see Jackson and Brittany and Summer as much as I wanted – I kind of want to be around them like all the dang time – but I did see them. Any time we all had breaks, we found an empty space and talked and decompressed and had fun.

Maybe, occasionally, too much fun.

I talked to Julie Murphy on multiple occasions and didn’t die at all. I also probably didn’t embarrass myself THAT much! I eventually just calmed down and put the fangirling aside and learned to be a person.

Mostly.

It also didn’t hurt that there was a Pokestop in the Student Center and that, along with Summer, intern Kara Harris, and agent Molly Jaffa, we kept it in lures for most of the weekend. I caught a Scyther on Thursday night and it definitely wasn’t during a time when I should have been paying attention to something else, shut up, it was a SCYTHER, what would YOU have done???

And the interns? They were smart and funny and WAY prepared for their jobs. They handled me emailing them a dozen times each day with pitch requests and schedule changes from attendees, they got to know their agents, they bonded with each other. A few of them have already put up blog posts about their time at MWW and their desire to return.

And I guess it didn’t turn out they hated me after all.

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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.

Alpha Interview: Jameyanne Fuller

Here we are, the last Alpha interview. If you missed any, just click around this sentence. For more on Alpha, check out their website and the awesome Alpha blog and feel free to hit up the comments with questions.

The application deadline for Alpha is Sunday, so get going! That’s also when the fundraiser ends, but you can still donate after that.

JameyanneOur final Alphan is Jameyanne Fuller. She’s a junior at Kenyon College in Ohio, and she is majoring in creative writing and minoring in Italian. She works for the Kenyon Review and plays clarinet in the symphonic wind ensemble. As if that’s not enough awesome, she also runs a writing group where they critique each others’ work and hold mini workshop on specific topics. She writes mainly fantasy with some dabbling in scifi, horror, and literary fiction. That adorable dog in the picture is her Seeing Eye dog, Mopsy.

Why did you apply to Alpha?

This is a long and rather complicated story culminating in a mad dash.

First semester of my freshmen year, a biology teacher on campus who also writes science fiction had her editor visiting, and she invited a small group of students who wrote science fiction or fantasy to her house. I got picked because my english teacher knew I wrote fantasy. So lesson number 1: talk to people. For a long time, I found the idea of telling people that I wrote fantasy and that I was working on a novel to be pretentious, but since I’ve come to college, I’ve discovered that talking to people about what I like to do opens a lot of doors, just because they’re aware I might be interested in something.

Anyway, so this editor told us that we should really go to the big famous writing workshops like Clarion or Clarion West or Odyssey. So I applied to Odyssey, because it was closer to home for me. And then I sat back and waited and twitched. On February 28, a friend who was also at this meeting with the editor was still debating whether to apply to Clarion or not, and in his debate, he mentioned something on the website about a young writers SF workshop where Tamora Pierce taught. I know it’s kind of a cliché to say that I applied because Tammy was there, but that was my first impulse. I also knew nothing really about speculative fiction except that I’d read Tammy’s work and Harry Potter, and I was writing a fantasy novel. I’d never written a fantasy short story. I didn’t even know you could write short stories that weren’t literary. Oh how naïve I was in my pre-Alpha days. So I decided that I’d try it and see if I could learn something new. Mad dash to write a story ensued.

What would you say to any young writers that might be nervous about applying?

Like I said above, when I applied, I didn’t have a clue how to write a fantasy short story, but I found that when I sat down and tried to do it, it wasn’t that much different from a novel, just, well, a lot shorter. The thing is, Alpha will change your life, and if you apply, you could get in. But if you don’t apply, you definitely won’t. I think if you’re nervous about applying, you need to ask yourself why you’re nervous. Is it the idea of the applicaion? Or is it because of the workshop? If it’s the application, like I said, you should really just do it. The application itself is easy. If you’re nervous about the workshop itself, you should still apply. You can always back out, but you can also address your concerns before the workshop.

You wrote some great advice for procrastinators applying to Alpha. Any advice for if they get in and have to write a story in a week while surrounded by the awesome distractions of Alpha?

Alpha provides a lot of structured writing time and critique groups to help you get that short story done while you’re there, and that helps a lot. But I think the biggest advice I can give you is to have lots of ideas and have them as fleshed out as possible before you come to Alpha. They’ll probably change over the course of writing and discussing them, but the more clear your ideas are, the faster you’ll be able to write. The other advice I can give is to talk about your story with people while you’re there. Talk about the problems you’re having, the scenes you just loved writing. Listen to what people have to say about their stories and give them some advice. Beyond that, there is a certain amount of winging it that will happen in terms of when you’ll be able to get that writing done, because Alpha is really fun, and you really want to have as much fun as possible.

How does Alpha compare to other writing instruction that you’ve received?

I’ve received a lot of writing instruction, but Alpha was far and away the best. It was the most fun, and it taught me so much about writing. I went into Alpha not having any idea how to write a speculative fiction short story except for the one I wrote for my application, which had since spiraled into a trilogy in my mind, and I came away with a whole ton of ideas and advice. Other writing workshops I’ve taken have been a lot more focused on freewriting or turning out smaller pieces or critiquing, which of course was super valuable, but Alpha has this great mix of lots of fun and great teachers and great advice. Plus author guests, which was totally new to me, and it helped me realize that authors are people too, and if they can publish, so can I. I really feel like Alpha gave me the tools to do that more than any other workshop or class I’ve attended.

Alpha Interview: Madeline Stevens

And we’re back with another Alpha interview! Check out Sarah Brand’s last Alpha interview and look for my last interview later this week.

Remember, the Alpha application deadline is March 3rd, so get going and apply! You should also donate if you can! Every little bit helps. If you haven’t been convinced yet, go into the comments and tell me what else you’d like to know about Alpha that could change your mind.

Maddy_alpha_interviewNow, let’s move on to today’s interview. Madeline Stevens attended Alpha in 2010 and 2011, and returned as baby staff in 2012. Her genres of concentration are science fiction and fantasy, and she works hard on queer representation in fiction. When not busy being awesome and having her head eaten by cats, she studies public action at Bennington College. She is also an intern in the Vermont House of Representatives.

What advice would you give to young writers who might be nervous about applying to Alpha?

Don’t be!  I’ve heard from a lot of people that they don’t think they’ll get in, because their writing isn’t good enough, or that they’re not sure they’ll be able to attend if they are admitted.  The latter is something to worry about after the admissions process, and for what it’s worth, we’re working really hard on the scholarship fund to help you out.  For the people with the first concern, I’ve been there.  But I gritted my teeth and submitted a story I wasn’t sure of, and I’m so glad not to have passed Alpha up.  I’ve also had friends who didn’t get in.  That’s hard, but you can apply for as many years as you’re eligible.  I can personally attest to the fact that the people handling the applications are great, and sensitive, and love writing as much as you do.  They also love reading fiction by young writers.  Your hard work will be treated with respect no matter what.

What are your top three Alpha memories?

In no particular order: Ellen Kushner hearing out my shipping theories on her characters, then telling me I was right; staying up all night en masse to finish our first drafts mere hours or minutes before they were due; and participating in a three-hour explanation of relativity, the question of free will, and welfare programs for dolphins.

Alpha is a sf/f/h workshop, so let’s talk time travel. Say you can go back in time to talk to yourself before you go to Alpha for the first time. What advice would you give yourself?

It would definitely be, “Tiny me, do not be afraid to talk to the authors.  You’ve spent your entire childhood idolizing them, sure, but they’re actually really nice, easygoing people.  They want to talk to you at lunch, and do not care that you are tiny, and not at all famous.”

How does Alpha compare to other writing instruction you’ve had?

Alpha stands head and shoulders above.  The format, the instructors, the peers, and the intensity of a live-in writers’ education combine perfectly.  For ten days, you live and breathe fiction alongside thirty others doing the same, and you all flock together to write and discuss genre conventions over lunch and compare notes on the lectures.  If you require an explanation of an advanced scientific concept, or any historical period, to complete the scene you’re working on, chances are someone in the room can help.  You have experienced instructors and industry pros, the two not being mutually exclusive, at your disposal, and everyone is willing to take a little while with you to help you work something through.  And every day, these people get up in front of you and the other students and explain to you, with time for questions, their takes on the fundamentals and finer points of writing quality science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  I came out of the process enormously improved.

How has Alpha continued to impact your life since attending?

Aside from the obvious huge gains in writing skill?  Two things.  The first is access to the world of professional writing; before Alpha, I wrote but didn’t really know anything about getting published.  Now, I know which publishers might take a given story I write, and I have the confidence to send my work to them.  I know contests that take undergraduate fiction, like the annual Dell Awards, which Alphans often sweep.  And through Alpha I’ve made acquaintances and even friends in the business.

The greatest benefit that comes from Alpha long-term, though, is Alphans themselves.  It’s an incredible thing, to walk into a room in Pittsburgh and suddenly find yourself amongst people who click with all your strangenesses, and having had that experience, Alphans tend to hold on to it.  We maintain a pretty big online network of past and present Alphans and staff, with listservs for critiquing each others’ work and encouraging publication, with writing advice, brainstorming, and a chatroom just to hang out in.  Alpha reunions, as writing retreats or as friendly meet-ups at cons, seem to be increasing in frequency.  Personally, I met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known at Alpha, and have had the privilege of becoming friends with a good number of them.  I don’t think my experience is unusual.

Alpha Interview: Lara Donnelly

Hopefully, the other interviews have helped you realize that Alpha is the best thing ever. But just in case you haven’t been convinced to apply or donate, I have another interview for you. This one gave me all sorts of warm and fuzzy missing-Alpha feelings.

LaraLara Donnelly is a 2007/2008 alum of Alpha and attended the Clarion USCD workshop in 2012. She is the latest of many Alphans to win the Dell Award (go tweet a congrats at her!). Her genres of interest are historical fantasy, fantasy of manners, urban fantasy, dark fairy tales, and there was this one time she wrote a sci-fi story.

Why did you decide to apply to Alpha?

I decided to apply to Alpha when Holly Black mentioned it on her LiveJournal. I was and still am a massive, slobbering Holly Black fangirl (she taught at Clarion USCD last year, which is why I applied).

I can’t remember exactly, but I think I had just missed the 2006 application date. I decided I would work all summer to pay for the workshop if I got in the next summer. And I did, and had an incredible time. I was asked back in 2008 to teach as a beta, a peer instructor.

Can you give potential future Alphans an idea of what they should expect at Alpha?

At Alpha, do not expect to sleep. But DO expect to get into the best and weirdest conversations you’ve ever had, with people who meet you right on your nerdy, book-loving level. You will not have to explain to these people the anatomy of a hippogriff, or the concept of the singularity. You can get right down to arguing about whether androids do or do not dream of electric sheep.

Expect to work hard. You have a week to write a polished story, and to read and critique four or five other stories, while you attend lectures (and, in the case of betas, GIVE lectures), travel to readings, and chat with staff and visiting writers. One week is NOT enough time, and you still have to cram it all in. Remember what I said about not sleeping?

But expect, most of all, to sink into a warm, welcoming community of people just like you. With your classmates around you, I can guarantee you will actually ENJOY sinking into the insanity.

How does Alpha compare to other writing instruction that you’ve had?

Alpha taught me more about writing and workshopping than four years of college classes, and I think it had a lot to do with the community at the workshop. I had some wonderful professors in college, but at Alpha, every student is driven and enthusiastic. They are all incredibly well-read, and they are already coming into their own as writers. I read stories in senior-level creative writing classes that would not have passed muster as Alpha application stories. These students are pros.

It was at Alpha that I first heard about Clarion, from staff member Thomas Seay. I heard more about it from alumna Sarah Miller, who studied at Clarion with Neil Gaiman. Clarion is widely regarded as a proving ground for speculative fiction authors, one of the best and oldest speculative writing workshops in the country. And having attended it, I can say Alpha is on a level with Clarion in terms of the workshop intensity and the enthusiasm, and focus of the students. If you sliced a week out of Clarion, you’d have Alpha.

If you could give any advice to young writers going into Alpha, what would it be?

If I could give any advice to Alpha-bound writers, I’d say brush up on your frisbee skills. I’d also say, this workshop is incredibly important, if you plan to pursue writing. Keep in contact with the people you meet at Alpha. They are the beginning of a network that you will absolutely need and use as you move through the writing world.

There’s a rich Alpha alumni community doing amazing things: signing with agents, publishing novels, winning awards…not to mention giving each other some stringent, constructive critique on all sorts of manuscripts. Alphans don’t pull punches when they read your stories.

How has Alpha continued to impact your life since attending?

Alpha got me to my first con: Confluence, in Pittsburgh. And it got me to come back to that con even when I wasn’t a student. And it helped me place in the Dell Magazine Awards four times, and finally win a fifth. And those awards got me to the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (along with a pretty astonishing number of other Alphans who have placed and won over the years), where I met authors and editors and academics who I now consider friends and nodes in that all-important network. Alpha is the reason I applied to Clarion, which was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

The Alpha alumni community is a constant source of support, both for writing endeavors and personal difficulties. Problem with a plot hole? Email an Alphan. Problem with a relationship? Kumquat (kumquat, by the way, is the Alphan way of saying “ditto”).

Alpha is like the big bang: a short, intense experience, from which an observer can trace every aspect of my writing career.