7 Writing Revelations

sloth_student_by_funnysloth-d4xmd5hIn the past week, I’ve gone to a panel on grad school for creative writers, a Q&A with essayist Elena Passarello, the In Print reading with authors of recently released first books, and a panel on writing and publishing. If I managed to go to all that and not learn anything, there would be something seriously wrong with me.

I talked yesterday about the experience of helping to promote In Print and the importance of participating in literary events. Today, I’m going to tell you seven things I’ve learned in the last week and hopefully further convince you to go get involved.

1) Ask questions. Answer them. Push farther.

This is something that I did semi-unconsciously already. I don’t know if you can write anything without asking questions of yourself. But in the Q&A with Elena Passarello, she talked about how her essays often come about because she starts asking questions. More importantly, she keeps asking them. She said that her first questions are usually pretty dumb, and it’s not until she keeps pushing for answers and more questions that she gets to the heart of her essay.

It reminded me of a small exercise we did at Alpha, where they gave us a prompt – just a short phrase – and said, “Got your first idea? Okay, now throw it out. Your first idea is the one that everyone else will think of. Keep going. Keep pushing.” I don’t push myself nearly enough sometimes.

2) If you go to grad school for creative writing, don’t take the shortest path. Savor the time.

The panel on grad school for creative writers included five BSU professors that all had at least an MFA in creative writing and, in one case, a PhD. The big lesson that really struck me was that just because there are two-year low residency programs to get your MFA doesn’t mean they’re the best choice. For some people they might be, but the panel made a good point. It’s a time in your life when you’re really getting to just concentrate on your writing and nothing else. That’s not something that exists in the real world. It should be savored. Get a three-year program, or a four-year if you can.

Also, two-year programs don’t generally give out a lot of money to attend them. So that’s something to think about.

3) Stop thinking of your book as a book. Just write it.

The panel at In Print got on the topic of this fantasy that writers get into about their first books. We think about how beautiful it’s going to be and clearly everyone will love us. We conduct interviews with ourselves in our heads. We put ourselves on a schedule – “Have to get published by 25, then this by 30, this by 35…”

Problem is, that can really hinder your writing. You’re seeing your book as this glorious object sitting on the shelves at Barnes & Noble or nestled into an Amazon box. You’re putting a lot of pressure on it, and you’re not really writing. Across the panel, all of the authors said that once they stopped seeing their book as this idea, it was much easier to write. This is a lesson I really need to learn.

4) If you’re always drawn to the same topic, stop fighting it.

At the Q&A, Elena Passarello said that she went into grad school thinking, “I’m going to write about trucker’s wives!” Eugene Cross wanted to write about anything but his hometown of Erie, PA.

That didn’t really work for either of them. Elena kept drifting towards other topics and had to force herself to stay on trucker’s wives. Eugene wrote about other towns, but they all sounded like Erie. Eventually, they stopped fighting it and ended up much happier for it. Sometimes you just have to write about something. Let it happen.

5) Stay in touch with your professors.

This qualifies both for grad school and for writing in general. If you go to grad school five years after you get your undergrad and you need letters of recommendation, will your professors remember you? Did you talk to them at all after graduation?

Professors of creative writing tend to be published and active writers. That means that they aren’t just teaching you about lyric essays and Freitag’s pyramid – they’re a connection. They know the writing world. They’ve been where you are, and they might help you get your foot in if you keep in touch with them.

6) Go to readings, panels, everything.

I talked about this yesterday, but seriously. Go to all of them. Go meet writers that you would never have heard about if you weren’t at a reading in an indie bookstore. Go to panels and learn something new, or go, “I can do better than that,” and get on a panel yourself. Participate. Learn.

7) I really, really want this.

It’s not news to me that I want to be a writer. I’ve known that since I was ten. What In Print and meeting Elena Passarello, Eugene Cross, and Marcus Wicker taught me is just how badly I want it. I want to improve my writing until I’m good enough to captivate an audience with my words. You know that giddy, floaty feeling you get after you finish a really good book? I want to give people that feeling. I want to meet people who have read my book and like it and I want to talk to them. That’s the world I’m meant to be in. I just have to get to work and really make it happen.

What about you guys? What are some things that you’ve learned in the last week? Hit up the comments below.

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.

Alpha Interview: Malina Suity

Have you donated to Alpha yet? For just $5, you get a copy of a short story anthology written and illustrated by Alphans, and trust me, it’s awesome.

If you’re interested in applying, remember that the deadline is coming up on March 3rd. You should probably start your story. (I finished my first submission story an hour before the deadline. I got in, but I really, really don’t recommend that path.)

Interviews with Alpha alumni continue! Yesterday, Sarah Brand posted a great interview with Jill Hardy that you should definitely read.

MalinaFor today’s interview, I talked to Malina Suity. She attended Alpha in 2005 and 2006, and then came back in 2007 as a staffer. She has a BA in English and Medieval Studies and a Masters in Public History. She’s written high and historical fantasy short stories, and is currently researching a historical mystery novel set in the 1930s.

How did you hear about Alpha?

I was a freshman in college, procrastinating on an Art History assignment, when I stumbled on what I thought was a reading Tamora Pierce listed on her website. I had been a fan of hers since middle school, and I was excited to tell my sister about the reading we could attend that summer. I clicked on a link and it brought me to the Alpha website. I had been dabbling in writing since I had started reading Tamora Pierce novels, but I had never really finished a story. So, I decided to give it a try. I talked to my advisor and she read my story when it was finished. I sent it off and was wait-listed until I heard at the last minute that someone had dropped out and I could attend Alpha. Fortunately, I live about 40 minutes away from where the workshop was held, so it wasn’t a very big hassle to change my summer plans.

Why did you decide to be a staff member?

Well, they weren’t going to let me come back for a third year otherwise. But really, I had been the oldest student in the group my first and second year (technically in my second year I was no longer a teenager). I liked helping out the younger writers. I felt that some of the lessons I had been learning (and pointedly NOT learning) in my history literature, and writing courses in college could benefit the new Alphans coming up. And, actually, I felt that I had so much more I could learn from the staff and the new students.

What do you think young writers gain most from Alpha?

I have written most of my body of work at Alpha. This is because of my own work ethic and stress levels – I’ve been in school for most of the time I have not been at Alpha – but I find myself at my most creative when I am around other creative people. By bouncing ideas of of each other formally and informally, sometimes by just being silly, Alphans inspire each other. I’ve seen and experienced first-hand the way these working relationships and friendships last years and span miles.  Alpha provides young writers with the kind of support network every writer should have.

What are your top three favorite Alpha memories?

The Realistic Dialogue Lesson I gave my second year. I was so nervous, but it turned out really fun and helpful for people. It gave me a lot of confidence in my own ability to teach.

Workshopping a story on our own time with two students, out on the grass in front of the dorm during my staff year. It was a great, open dialogue of what worked and what didn’t and how to make it even more awesome than it was already.

I can’t pick one – but all the pop-culture, book, movie, music conversations that led to my recommending all the things I love and find new things to love by listening to other nerds.

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

If you don’t write a good story, you don’t send your story out to publishers, you don’t finish your story, or you never revise your story – even if you never complete anything or never write at all after Alpha – you don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed. One day, when you want to, or you feel you have to, you’ll get back to it. And the Alphans that you knew and many more you didn’t will be there to help you start up again, to inspire you, and to tell you where it’s awesome and where it might need a little work. Seriously, don’t stress about your creative process. It won’t make the piece better and it will make you feel worse.

How has Alpha continued to impact your life in the years since?

Alpha has given me lasting friendships that have trickled into other parts of my life. I lived in New York City with a friend I met at Alpha. I found a friend from grad school a place to live in DC for a few months with a friend I made at Alpha – and now they’re friends! And every year, a bunch of my favorite people come back to my favorite city (Pittsburgh!) and I get to see them.

It’s also given me a sometimes vague, sometimes clear goal of what I want to accomplish with the stories in my head. Even if, after both degrees are done, I still can’t find the time to get my ideas down on paper, I know that one day I will. Then, I will still have the tools and the support to get those ideas into print.