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Just the latest “why don’t I live in New York City?” moment November 17, 2008

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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A British theater company has adapted Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (one of my favorite novels!) into a multimedia stage play.

The Waves is a series of stream-of-consciousness monologues by six different characters. I maintain that the best way to experience the novel is to read the whole darned thing out loud, as I did several years ago. (To be fair, I was marooned in my apartment in Japan at the time, recovering from a running injury. I had nothing but time and headspace to fill.) As the review of this production notes, one might expect a stage play of The Waves to be little more than six different readers dramaticizing the monologues, with moody music played in between. But this one goes far beyond that, and I am jealous jealous jealous of anyone who gets to see it:

While one performer reads from the script, others are occupied in rendering the sights and sounds described in the play’s interior monologues. And surely no ensemble in New York is as multifarious as this one, which works with drill-team precision. Each member appears equally at home in the roles of narrator, silent-movie actor, camera operator, sound-effects maker and on-the-spot dresser and set decorator.

Homemade devices like a bowl filled with water, a fragment of lace or a leafy branch are used to frame faces and body parts, which are then projected in simulcast video to suggest a child peering through foliage, a boy peeking through a window or a terrified girl staring into a puddle. (The performers put on only bits of period costumes — a sleeve or a collar, say — depending on how much is included in the camera frame.) At the same time other performers are shuffling their shoes on stones, perhaps, or flapping sheets or running a finger around the edge of a partly filled glass.

It’s only playing in New York through Saturday. I haven’t checked, but I’d bet you a lot of money that this production ain’t makin’ it to Atlanta.

(I do get to see John Hodgman speak tonight, though. You know, the PC guy from the Mac commercials?)

November Frustrations November 9, 2008

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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Last week, blogging literary agent Jonathan Lyons dared to ask what his readers thought of NaNoWriMo. A lot of vitriol resulted. Man, who knew? The poor, defenseless month of November shrunk away in defeat.

I didn’t want to sully the comment box there with my long-winded, wishy-washy sorta-opinion on NaNoWriMo.The concept of the event is so simple that for years it seemed like it was above criticism. In my mind, in a way, it still is. Fast-drafting is a perfectly normal way for writers – professional or not – to pound out the first draft of a story. Writing between 1500 and 2000 words a day is fairly normal output for most habitual writers. And few people expect to be able to go from idea to polished novel within the span of thirty days. I think most NaNo-novelists are realistic about what the quality of their output will be, and I doubt that NaNo has been solely responsible for the uptick in the amount of dreck in agents’ and editors’ slush piles over the years. Probably the personal computer and the relative accessibility of the publishing industry through the Internet have been the major culprits where the problem of bad novels escaping into the world is concerned.

Of course, one could also argue that a mass writing event can only be as good as its participants. And if said mass writing event is offered to the general denizens of the Internet, you’ll attract a lot of people who have a passing interest in writing, or who like the idea of the 50K challenge, but who do not habitually read and who do not study the craft of writing, and the discussions on the forums tend to be a reflection of this. Questions often fall along the lines of “Has anyone ever written a novel in present-tense?” or “Is it possible to have more than one narrator in a novel?” and it seems like the few people in the “Literary Fiction” subforum who were actually writing literary fiction have been scared off by the masses of newbies who have unwittingly redefined literary fiction as “manuscripts in which plot has been replaced by Livejournalesque rambling.”

And, yeah, I haven’t followed my own advice to stay away from the general forums. It’s just my instinct to jump to the defense of first-person point-of-view or writing a novel in present tense every time I see those techniques maligned. I swear I’m trying to quit.

***

Speaking of NaNoWriMo, I doubt I’m going to hit the 50K this year. This afternoon I wrote about 600 words to bring me up to a little over 7000 total, but that’ll probably be as far as I go with it today. I’ve just got too many other things on my plate to worry about scrambling through a first draft of Rob’s Day Out! And by the way, Rob’s Day Out! has not been a terribly interesting novel so far. I suppose I should have had something more than the title in mind when I began it. Also, the idea that the entire story is going to take place in twenty-four hours was another brilliant way to set up a creative roadblock for myself. So far, the one amusing thing that happened (Rob follows a truck towing a trailer full of llamas, and eventually winds up surrounded by said llamas in the parking lot of a McDonald’s off I-85 in north Georgia) was born from a suggestion made by my writing pal Erin. Rob escaped from the llamas before 7 AM, thus leaving me with many, many more hours of his day out (!) to fill up. And with what? I’m not sure.

Maybe if nothing else, I’ve at least learned that Rob worked best as a supporting character in my stories. He’s a more action-oriented character than any of my other main characters have been, and it’s difficult for me to write about characters like that. Rob is low on personal demons, self-doubt, and paranoia. If there are going to be enough conflicts in his life to fill a novel, they have to come from external rather than internal sources. And where’s the fun in that?

***

Also, three points of excitement!

1. I’m typing this on my brand-new MacBook Pro. It’s so light! And bright! And widescreened!

2. After 3.5 years of being a blonde, I am back to being a brunette. And a darker one than before, for that matter. One day soon I’ll share some photographic evidence.

3. I’m going to hear Laurie Halse Anderson speak tomorrow night!

Weekly Bookstore Jamboree – Week 5: Anatomy of a Write-In November 2, 2008

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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There's a dead cat in my current novel. This book's title sometimes haunts me.

Bookstores visited: Borders on Cobb Parkway in Smyrna
What I bought: a chai latte
What other people bought: I didn’t get to observe the checkout area, but I did get to see a lot of other people buying coffee. And by “coffee,” I mean, of course, French vanilla lattes and mochas and cappuccinos and such.

What I looked at: Mostly, I was there for a NaNoWriMo meet-and-greet / unofficial write-in, rather than to look at books. What’s a write-in, you ask? Basically, it’s a NaNoWriMo-invented event wherein a bunch of crazed novelists gather at a particular spot and write fiction in the presence of each other’s tacit support. Occasionally, there’s a word war: everyone tries to write as many words as they can within, say, fifteen minutes. Since this meet-up took place before NaNoWriMo began, no one was doing a frantic first draft, so there was no cause for a word war. I worked (slowly) on a strange flash fiction piece about a dead dentist, as well as a YA short story called “The Understated Unraveling of Mercedes Moreno.”

We did grab a few books from the writing reference section: the obligatory copies of the NaNoWriMo handbook No Plot? No Problem, as well as Robert McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! I mentioned both of those in my last post, didn’t I? They’re about screenwriting, but more specifically, they’re about the plot backbones of stories that work. I generally suck at creating good, working plot backbones. Even in the case of “The Understated Unraveling of Mercedes Moreno,” I’ve got three central characters, an opening conflict, and a foggy idea of the story’s goal. As usual, the characters have come to me fully-formed (which isn’t hard, as I’ve been writing about Mercedes, her sister, and the other people in her life for years and years), but the direction in which the story will go has yet to be determined.

That’s my usual operating mode for writing fiction: the characters come first, and then either a theme or a conflict will emerge. How I go about dramatizing that theme or conflict is dealt with eventually. I’m not ashamed of this method, although it does make for slow going in terms of finishing anything. I think it’s also why I took an unintended break from fiction writing for a long time in college and into my early twenties — when I was younger, I felt it was okay to play around on the page with characters and undramatic situations (e.g., I once wrote an entire “story” composed of scenes of different characters waking up. How did one character’s typical morning differ from another character’s typical morning? I found it fascinating). Years later, I decided I didn’t want to write such aimless fiction anymore, but when I realized I didn’t know how to take my fiction from aimless to, uh, aimful, I just quit. I switched my focus to writing for my website, and didn’t look back for many years.

How I got back to fiction, and how I braved the territory of real plots for the first time, is a post for another day.

For reference about plotting, though, Save The Cat! author (and fellow WordPress user) Blake Snyder has a recent blog post about finding the “spine” of your story.

What other people looked at: A lot of people come to Borders on Sunday morning to sit in the coffee shop area and read magazines. Who knew? Others were doing work on their laptops. Someone was reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

Bookstore notes:

The Cobb Parkway Borders is a very strange place: if you take the first right into the maze of shopping center, as I did, you wind up on the bottom floor of a parking garage, with no way to drive up to the second floor. It looked like a good place to get one’s car broken into. Some bits of glass near the stairway were strong evidence for this theory. I parked anyway, figuring there were enough other people trickling in to divert any thieves’ attention from my wee Nissan. I took the stairs to the Borders entrance, where shoppers are greeted with a bin of bargain books and a tall escalator. Everything else – the non-bargain books, the coffee shop, the checkout – is on the second floor. Like the shopping center as a whole, the second floor is a maze. I gave up looking for the YA section. The coffee shop area is pretty great, though, and it includes an expansive patio.

Weekly Bookstore Jamboree – Week 4: John Green Mania October 26, 2008

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The guest of honor caught me snapping a photo from above.

Bookstores visited: Little Shop of Stories in Decatur
What I bought: Nothing, but Adam bought a couple of John Green paperbacks we didn’t own
What other people bought: Lots and lots of John Green books. Paper Towns, mostly, but Let It Snow (the recent novel he co-authored with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle) was also a popular choice.

What I looked at: Adam, who got to the bookstore super early and was milling around the second-story loft when I arrived (“Look up!” he called to me as I walked through the front door). John Green, who spent some time trying to connect to wireless Internet so he could webcast his presentation. He eventually had to give up on the wireless, and he started the book signing early. Well, as Adam and I were the only ones in the loft’s signing area at the time, we unnecessarily rushed John Green’s table and got a few moments to chat with him while he signed our books. Then, my pal M. arrived with a bunch of John Green books in tow. While he signed away, he asked her to call his editor to report the news about the canceled webcast. I watched, openmouthed, as M. used John Green’s iPhone to call the very esteemed senior editor at Dutton Children’s Publishing.

When she came back to her seat, I was like, “M.! Do you have any idea who you just talked to?” I tend to fangirl about YA editors and agents just about as much as I fangirl about YA authors. It’s a problem. It’s probably good that I was first in line at the signing table and not third, because nobody at Dutton Children’s Publishing needed to hear my squeeing over John Green’s iPhone.

Also, I had to observe the crowd. We were not quite the oldest people there. Some of the younger girls had brought their parents, and I noticed a couple of fellow SCBWI’ers sitting near me. Everyone else was pretty much highschool-age, though, and many of them had brought DV cams and were taping the whole thing.

Adam models some books, as well as his delightfully non-partisan "Everyone Poops" t-shirt.

Adam models some books, as well as his fantastic t-shirt.

What other people looked at: I should mention, though, that Adam and I were very much the weirdos of the crowd that eventually gathered in the loft at Little Shop of Stories. Adam with his delightfully non-partisan “Everyone Poops” t-shirt (isn’t he modeling it nicely?), and me with my knee-high-booted work ensemble, and our distinct lack of a camcorder. When the high school girls had their moms take photos of those of us sitting in the first few rows of seats in the loft, I felt kind of strange scooting in and smiling for the camera. They had such a sense of community, and we were clearly the outsiders.

(This is not to say that the crowd was not perfectly nice, though. I caught the girl behind me saying to her seat-neighbor, “Are you here by yourself? I don’t want you to be lonely. It’s hard to come to book signings by yourself.” And everyone else was swapping YouTube usernames and e-mail addresses and proposing future Nerdfighter meetups.)

Anyway, then Mr. Green himself took the stage. He read “the infamous page 23” from Paper Towns. (I connected page 23 with its subject matter immediately. I could have jumped up and said “BLACK SANTAS!” but I wisely stayed quiet and in my seat.) Then he spoke a bit about the themes in the novel and how he’d been exploring those same themes throughout his professional life – namely, ideas about human perception and how we filter our hypotheses about others through our own experiences. Also, he spoke about how he learned to tell stories by sitting on his roommate’s old couch and listening to other people tell stories and trying hard not to bore his friends by telling his own.

Then he took a bunch of questions. I can never come up with good questions to ask at author events or conferences until five hours after the event is over. Anyway, I asked John Green when Will Grayson, Will Grayson, his co-authored book with David Levithan, was coming out. Scintillating, I know. He said he didn’t know; probably sometime next year. Other people had much better questions than mine.

Bookstore (and author) notes:

If you don’t follow young adult literature, then you were probably heretoforth unaware of the existence of one John Green. That’s okay – nearly everyone I know pleads ignorance regarding the author of Looking For Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and Paper Towns. But if you do follow young adult literature, then you’re entirely familiar with the fan cult surrounding the Green brothers, John and Hank, and their video blog and their gigantic Nerdfighters community.

Regarding the bookstore, I realized I needed to spend a lot more time at Little Shop of Stories. And I will! Laurie Halse Anderson is paying a visit there early next month.

The List O’ Happiness October 21, 2008

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All items to be expounded upon later. But for now:

1. The Center of Gravity won first place in the middle grade and YA novels contest at the SCBWI conference!

2. An editor at a major YA imprint judged the contest. The whole thing was done anonymously, so she has no idea whether a nerdy girl, an old man, or a monkey with a typewriter wrote a novel called The Center of Gravity, but apparently she attached her business card to her comments on my work, and the contest coordinator is mailing it to me.

2a. (This item is an orphan from The List O’ Major Freakouts.) So now I need to get the full, polished manuscript ready to send to her. You may recall that I walked away frustrated from what I’d intended to be the final draft of the novel. Yeah. I need to get back to that, get my character arc in place, and come up with a way to end the whole thing that doesn’t leave my characters furious with me.

3. I think I comported myself fairly well at the conference. Only one or two babbly outbursts, and perhaps two or three conversations that went on too long and devolved into uncomfortable hmms and head-bobbing. Probably having M. there was good for me, as she’s the type to walk up to anyone she sees and say, “Hi! Who are you? What do you write?” I wound up meeting some local folks who are around the same point I’m at on my novel, including the other girl who was bestowed with The Business Card. I hope it’ll work out for us to get together.

Just in case you ever needed proof that I'm a dork. ("You look kind of crazed." -- Adam)

Just in case you ever needed proof that I'm a dork. (Adam: "Uh, you look kind of crazed.")

4. Tonight was the ever-important day known as JOHN GREEN (briefly!) Visits Atlanta Day. Hurrah! He wasn’t able to broadcast the show via webcam to New York as he’d hoped, and he had to rush out just after 7 to make his flight to Melbourne, Florida, but he was able to give a short talk, read a few pages from Paper Towns (including the hilarious description of Radar’s parents’ collection of 1200 Black Santas), take a bunch of questions, and sign books. Who was first in the signing line? Yep, that weirdo pictured on the right.

Conference checklist October 17, 2008

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This afternoon, my friend M. and I are heading out to Birmingham, Alabama for SCBWI Southern Breeze’s fall conference. Will my first chapter from The Center of Gravity place in the writing contest? Will I meet my critique partner soulmate? Will I get more than ten seconds of face time with any of the visiting editors? We shall see. What I do know is that a couple weeks ago I had a vision of attending this conference in a purple dress, and after a couple of fruitless shopping trips, I did finally manage to procure a purple (I mean, “eggplant”) dress earlier this week. The dress I tried on after it nearly got stuck on me. I had the first two minutes of an anxiety attack in the dressing room as I contemplated grabbing a pair of scissors and slicing the dress off.

But never fear. I’m a survivor. A good pull over the elbow freed me from the dress (which was ugly, to tell you the truth. I was drawn in by the woodland-creature-print that adorned it. I don’t have a squirrel-print dress, do you?). So at least I’m 100% sartorially prepared for this conference, if only about 70% mentally prepared.

See ya later. Updates on Sunday or Monday.

Weekly Bookstore Jamboree – Week 2: B&N-ing with the best of ’em October 10, 2008

Posted by LHK in Atlanta, bookstores, Uncategorized.
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grammatically-incorrect trash can

Bookstores visited: Barnes and Noble — Peachtree Rd. in Buckhead
What I bought: I didn’t buy anything, but Adam bought Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots, the third Thursday Next novel.
What other people bought: I never made it to the register, so I’m not sure. One lady was really adamant about finding those “Klutz” books and games that had apparently once been displayed on a table near the kids’ section.

What I looked at: A new Garrison Keillor novel. The latest Best American Short Stories anthology (looks pretty unastounding. Mostly stuff from the New Yorker, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly). The latest Best American Non-Required Reading anthology (the introduction by Judy Blume puts it ahead of its Rushdie-edited, required-reading counterpart. Stuff from Pindeldyboz, Virginia Quarterly Review, etc. pushes it even further ahead). The new edition of David Sedaris’s Holidays On Ice. In the YA section: Bliss, by Lauren Myracle, Hard Love, by Ellen Wittlinger, and Impossible, by Nancy Werlin.

What other people looked at: The aforementioned Klutz books. The rather unnecessary display of Wicked-related paraphernalia (Wicked puzzles! Wicked journals! Wicked playing cards! The musical is coming back to Atlanta sometime this fall, hence the tie-in. Basically, there was a table of prime book real estate taken up with Everything But Books). Magazines. The Starbucks menu.

Bookstore notes: This is my oh-so-local B&N. It’s right across the street from home, and it’s an easy pit stop before Sunday afternoon grocery shopping. Generally, this is the place I visit every week or two to check out the YA new releases. I start to get the shakes if I haven’t physically been in front of a YA new releases shelf for a while. You are now glad you don’t know me, yes?

That trash can above is what sits right in front of the store. Until just a week or two ago, there was a whole host of them surrounding the building and leading down to the Publix supermarket. Someone seems to have decided to phase them out, at last. I’m sure the B&N employees heard their share of complaints about the grammatically-incorrect trash cans.

Bookshelf-O-Rama October 6, 2008

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After putting our books through many years of suffering, we’ve finally given them a proper home. I admit there was something fun about having books all over the house (a stack on the coffee table, a couple on the dresser, a few on the mail table), but the state of our literary disorganization was getting ridiculous. We had one short and rickety bookshelf in our bedroom, and then, in the home office, one tall bookshelf with bowed shelves and one squatter bookshelf with non-bowed shelves. Nothing was in any sort of order. You’d find an old paperback of The Time Machine next to a David Sedaris book next to a Shakespeare anthology next to The Book Thief.

No more. We bought three tall shelves from IKEA and set them up in the office. Now everything has a designated shelf – poetry, YA, anthologies, memoirs, classics, cookbooks, SF and fantasy, contemporary fiction, all my blasted books about writing… and on and on. You can see a bit of it here: two shelves of contemporary fiction (plus a red robot, and the temporary home of my library books), plus my all-John-Updike-all-the-time shelf. I have hardback first editions of all the Rabbit books except Rabbit, Run. You can also see a bit of my YA shelf to the bottom left.

(As I’ve been organizing the books, I’ve had to face that some shelves don’t accurately reflect my literary taste. I mean, if you got a look at the whole YA shelf, you’d think I was a huge fan of Harry Potter and Edward Cullen, with only minor dalliances for Markus Zusak, Rob Thomas, and Nancy Werlin.)

Also, I finally got the chance to rescue a bunch of my old books from my parents’ house. I feared that a lot of them were still in the basement, but at least that wasn’t the case. Most were on the bookshelves in what used to be my bedroom. My mom was thankful that I freed up enough space for her to start buying books again.

But look what I did find in the basement! A copy of The Best Short Stories of 1918 (a bit sooty and dusty, but fine to read once you get past the initial sneezing fit), as well as Big Zachary*, the stuffed monkey that sat on my bed all throughout college. Here they are getting acquainted on the reading chair.


* = Big Zachary was missing for so long that Adam and I began verbally creating his Captivity Journal. “Day 678 in captivity. Still very dark and cardboard in here. Will continue to wait for rescue.”

Decatur Book Festival, Day 2 – Excuses to be logorrheic September 5, 2008

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I took the train again, read Junot Diaz again, got motion sick again, and had to book it from the train station again. At least the Decatur Library wasn’t as far from the station as Agnes Scott. Still, by the time I reached the conference room in the library’s basement, there was standing room only for Roy Blount, Jr.’s presentation. I did manage to get a seat before Mr. Blount took the stage, but it was not without luck, guilt, and blood. We’ll leave it at that.

I could feasibly see every single person in that audience as someone who would camp outside the theater in a Chicago for a chance to see a taping of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. And why would it be any other way? I had seen Roy Blount, Jr. recently on a Wait Wait segment on my favorite weekly lesson in nerdishness, CBS Sunday Morning, and it struck me then, as it struck me again on Saturday morning, that his voice sounds like it belongs to someone fifteen years older and fifty pounds heavier than he.

His theme for the presentation was chicken, and certainly he had written enough about chicken, and the eating of it, to fill up the forty minutes. (And I’m not terribly familiar with the Blount, Jr. canon, but my guess is he could have filled several forty-minute presentations with readings of his chicken-related writings.) He also took a moment to reflect on John McCain’s selection of Gov. Palin for VP – “It’s like your dad coming home and saying ‘Meet your new stepmom!’ And you didn’t even know he was dating anyone.”

The next event I attended was a panel of science fiction and horror writers – John Scalzi, Cherie Priest, Tobias Bucknell, and Kevin J. Anderson. Scalzi talked a bit about his decade-old blog, The Whatever, and how it had evolved from a personal project to an extension of his writing career. He even mentioned how he used to call it an online journal! That got a giggle out of the crowd – no, seriously, not a laugh, not a snicker. Really, a giggle. I distinctly remember reading The Whatever using the dial-up modem in my dorm room in late 1998 and early 1999.

Cherie Priest noted that you’ve got better chances of winning a lottery jackpot than having your blog writing noticed by an agent or publisher. I believe that, mostly.*

This segued into a discussion about how to break in to the publishing world. One of the panelists said something along the lines of, “If you do manage to get a contract, it’s probably without an agent, and if you do get your first contract with an agent, then it’s probably not an agent worth having.” I know I don’t have a lot of room to protest this statement, but, seriously – I PROTEST. As a rather obsessive reader of blogs written by agents, editors, authors, and aspiring authors (you see about 10% of them on the right side of the page), as well as a little-noticed well-wisher on a number of writing forums, I can say that many, if not most, new writers breaking in these days do so with an agent – quite often a well-established agent, or a new agent working with the support of a well-established agency — already working for them. And a good number of those agented authors, at least in the world of kidlit / YA lit, aren’t armed with a list of publishing credits – short stories and articles and so forth. If you want to write novels, write novels. And if you do indeed find yourself creating a good manuscript, I think it’s better to go ahead and take your shot with agents rather than a.) sitting on it for three years while you try to build up a list of short fiction credits, or b.) sending it to the few publishers who accept unsolicited submissions.

*= Every time I start to believe it fully, some other blogger with three whole months of archives and that polka-dot Blogspot background winds up with an agent and a two-book deal.

***

I spent part of the afternoon volunteering at the Emerging Writers Stage, which happened in the refreshingly breezy space inside the gazebo on Decatur Square. There were authors of all kinds and books of all kinds — self-published books, vanity press books, and micropress books, that is. Publish America books with curling covers. A small stack of handmade, hand-sewn picture books, each individually wrapped in a printed plastic bag. Mystery novels printed through a writer’s own small publishing company. Horror novels and religious tomes and poetry books and books about the untold stories of the 14th Amendment, the Atlanta Courthouse shootings, and identity theft.

What I had to do was:

  • Find the next author who’d be presenting.
  • Find his or her book on the display tables.
  • Quickly gather some information on the book and the author.
  • Run up to the microphone and introduce the author and book.
  • Watch author’s presentation and give him or her a warning when time’s almost up.
  • During the presentation, run around and find the next author and the next book so that I could be ready to introduce them when the onstage author was finished.

Once the onstage author finished, he or she went to the signing table at the back of the gazebo. Some authors had a bunch of family members and friends come to listen and buy books and have them signed. Other authors sold a few books to strangers who wandered into the gazebo. And still others stood at the signing table for fifteen minutes, pen in hand, only to slink out of the gazebo without having sold or signed a single book.

I didn’t have much time to get to know the books or the authors, but afterwards, when I flopped into a chair at the children’s books tent and remained there, sweaty and tired, for the next hour and a half, I wondered about the Emerging Authors. Some of them, like the courthouse shootings book author, had a legitimate reason to go with a micropress and try to sell their books locally. Others, like the crafter of the hand-sewn picture books, and the guy who wrote and published all of his own mystery novels, really seemed to enjoy the work that went into building their own cottage industry. But others really shouldn’t have given their novels over to AuthorHouse or iUniverse; I suppose there’s a chance they really only wanted their friends and family to read their books, but since they bought time and space at the Emerging Authors Stage, I’m assuming that they wanted their work to reach a larger sphere than that. Your write a general-interest novel, you (generally) want the general public to have access to it. I think there’s a mistaken notion among some writers that you have to work your way up through various publishing houses before you can get that first big contract — like you have to do a couple of vanity press or micropress books before you can move up to a small press and then, maybe, to one of the major New York houses. That’s about as true as the notion that you can’t get an agent until you’re published.

After listening to Sarah Prineas read from The Magic Thief, and watching Cheryl Klein’s Harry Potter trivia quiz, I resisted the temptation to spend the rest of my cash on a frozen lemonade, and instead went home to face down my most recent next-to-last-chapter writer’s block.

Decatur Book Festival, Day 1: Old Faces and Pygmy Goats September 2, 2008

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The Decatur Book Festival’s writers conference happened at Agnes Scott College on Friday afternoon. I took the train there from work, and got motion sick while trying to read Junot Diaz’s short story “Aguantando.” Then the eastbound train was late and I really had to book it across Decatur to get to the keynote speech on time. I blustered past two girls carrying their dirty laundry in purple mesh bags, and I may have stopped for a second to properly react with a little “aww!” – which loosely translates to, “While there are still about seven or ten sort of cute and nostalgic things about college life, I am so, so thankful that I never have to do that again.”

Anyway, I made it to the keynote in time. When I walked into the conference room and surveyed the place, I thought of that part in “Goodbye To All That” where the twenty-three-year-old Joan Didion’s male friend chokes with laughter at the idea that any New York party would have “new faces.” And indeed, he arrived at the party to find that he’d slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. Now, I didn’t have that sort of close personal relationship with anyone at the DBF writers conference keynote address by Georgia Review editor Stephen Corey, but there was a definite shortage of new faces. Half the people there were from Atlanta Writers Club. There were others I recognized from SCBWI. I sat behind a row of Agnes Scott girls who had come to the get-together I organized for the end of National Novel Writing Month. (One of them had read her novel excerpt in a wavering British accent.) I couldn’t tell if people were recognizing me in the same way I was recognizing them. (If I take stock of the empirical evidence, it seems I really should be recognized — I’m always one of the youngest-looking people at these writing events, and nearly always the shortest in height, and I usually wear a dress and heels and carry my Japanese tote bag that displays a poorly-edited recipe for cherry pie. Surely I am at least a little bit memorable.) Of course, I’m cursed with the ability to remember everything about everyone, while usually being met in return with little more than an eye-squint of hazy familiarity.

After the keynote, the group separated for the individual workshops. I was scheduled for Doug Crandell’s Ye Olde Thyme Writing Workshop and Petting Zoo. It was easy to find – on the quad behind the student center, there were two tents, under which sat two pygmy goats, a cat, and a couple of chickens. Doug himself was wearing a straw hat, denim overalls, and a sleeveless plaid shirt that allowed him to display the numerical tattoo on his shoulder. It was the ISBN of his first published book.

Oh, and there were a few New Faces there, so that was exciting. The main part of the workshop was focused on writing a short piece based around one of the thrift-store trinkets Doug had set out on a table. There were wigs, hats, cassette tapes, porcelain shelf decorations, a bowling ball, and a coffee Thermos that had not been entirely washed out. No one picked that one. I grabbed a cassette on which was recorded a sermon by “the Rev. Dr. Michael Beckwith.” The full title of the recording and Rev. Dr. Beckwith’s religious organization was far more interesting than his name, but… I can’t recall them right now. This is probably why I’m not a published author but rather just a weird quiet girl who can remember everybody who comes to Atlanta-area writing events.

I wrote a page and a half about an unnamed mother and son who were listening to Rev. Dr. Beckwith’s sermon while on a late-night car trip to South Carolina. That mother and son were, in my mind, Mitchell and Caroline Waterson, but since we only had fifteen or twenty minutes to write our pieces, I didn’t have time to be tempted by backstory. This was good. I should make a point to give myself timed writing assignments, even on days when I’m not writing in the company of pygmy goats.

Then, most of us read our pieces out loud to the rest of the group. I’m not usually very charitable when it comes to handing out praise about other people’s writing, so when I say that the other pieces were freaking fantastic samples of twenty-minute writing, I really mean it.

Doug Crandell said some things about short fiction publishing and narrative arc creation that I really need to remember, but I’ll save those for another post — perhaps the one in which I finally post photos of the Plot Board of DOOM (which Adam recently moved across the room. I think this was a strategic move, because now I have to stare at said Plot Board whenever I’m sitting at my computer desk. Ack!). The end of the afternoon at the writers conference found me eating too many cookies and brownies at the reception as I chatted with some of the New Faces and waited for the rest of the conference-goers and instructors to arrive. When it was clear they were taking their time, I intelligently noted my woozy sugarhighishness and decided it was time to head back to the train station.