Putting A Dent In My Writer Self-Doubt: A First Timer's Lessons at the Muse & the Marketplace
It's never too early to start mentally prepping for next year's Muse & the Marketplace conference, especially as the Muse is happening earlier next year—April 6-8, 2018, to be precise. Get a jump on your #Muse18 strategy with this advice for first-timers—and anxious young writers in general—from GrubStreet's Program Coordinator, Lauren Smith.
Over time and through dubious Internet searches, I’ve conjured an image of the Publishing Industry as a scary place, where there are infinite storage closets filled with mounds of unread manuscripts piled high, threatening to topple. Writers send their work out into the ether, and hear only the vague sound of crickets emanating from the void.
I arrived at the 2017 Muse & the Marketplace Conference (May 5-7) having graduated from Northeastern University the previous day. Just a few steps into the thousand miles it takes to write a novel, I was utterly terrified not only to be there for the first time, but to think of myself as a “real” writer. It’s hard, at this early stage in my writing career, to imagine anything that originates in my beat-up notebook one day making it onto a bookshelf. I couldn’t accept that I belonged in the same building as those who had already done what I was still struggling to imagine.
The sessions that I attended over the Muse weekend put a dent in that outlook.
In Adam Stumacher’s “Structuring the Novel,” he outlined several different story structures, knowledge of which can help writers begin a project with a solid foundation. “Writing a novel is like building a house,” he said. Don’t start by picking the drapes and the paint colors; the first draft is about cutting down trees. You need a blueprint.
This is encouraging, I thought. I was trying to pick out potholders before I’d even selected a plot of land. The whole house doesn’t pop up perfectly decorated; it must be built.
The Muse’s “Literary Idol” sessions ask attendees to submit (anonymously) the first 500 words of their manuscript. Selected manuscripts are performed aloud before a panel of agents until two raise their hands, indicating that they would have stopped reading and passed on the submission. Then, the agents explain why they would have passed. Whereas usually writers have little to no idea why an agent might not respond positively to their work, this session makes it possible to know what really turns them off and makes them set down your manuscript. When do you ever get to hear directly from an agent?
Although you have no control over what an agent has read before your piece that may affect how yours is received—four consecutive pieces during our session had an opening involving water—there are universal rules you can follow, like the three W’s: Don’t open with the weather, with what your character is wearing, or with your character waking up. It can be subjective, but there are some things that all agents can agree on.
Calvin Hennick’s “More than Making it Work: How to Make Real Money Writing” began with his “Myths About Writers.” One: We’re poor. Two: Writing is not a stable profession, and if we choose it, we’re dooming ourselves to lives of income insecurity. And so on, and so forth.
Sound like the opposite of everything you’ve ever heard, from think piece authors to your unhelpful uncle at a family reunion? Me, too. But Hennick laid out how to market your areas of expertise, find a place to start, and build your way into a sustainable career as a writer. There’s no exam you need to become a successful career writer; Hennick’s “Freelancer Triangle” of three qualities—high-quality, reliable, and easy to work with—lays out what you really need to succeed. And, he says, you can still have a good career, even if you only possess two. It’s about pitching aggressively, selling yourself well, and being persistent.
At “The Relationship Between Bookstores and Authors,” Katie Eelman of Papercuts JP, Mary Cotton of Newtonville Books, and author Randy Susan Meyers talked about what it takes to get your books on the shelves and get offered an author appearance. The conclusions? Cultivate a relationship with your local bookstores. Go to other author events. Remember that, if you’re an author presenting, you’re supposed to give something to the people who come to your event; they don’t owe you anything. Support the bookstores—monetarily. Support the authors.
To boil it down: being a member of, and contributing to, a community will take you everywhere.
I came out of the conference with concrete advice for both the writing process and what comes after, but also with one simple truth: It is possible to do this. Not easily. Not without Malcolm Gladwell’s “ten thousand hours” spent slogging away at my desk—and then another ten thousand making connections and marketing. But there is a community at a conference like the Muse, and GrubStreet at large, that gives a human face to an industry that we’ve been told is daunting, at best, and dying, at worst. It puts you in the same room as agents and editors, in sessions or at the Manuscript Mart (where attendees can meet one-on-one with agents and editors who have read their work in advance). It reinforces that, ultimately, we are all writers or publishers who believe in the power of stories to make an impact on the world—and this is a community that wants other writers to succeed.
A career in writing is not a career battling the publishing giant, but a lifetime of workshops and writing groups and sessions at conferences like the Muse that remind you that none of us really know what we’re doing—at least not at first—we just believe in stories. And that we are not alone.
In Stumacher’s session, he also cited E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” We’re all driving in the fog, but as long as the headlights are working, all that’s left to do is get on the road. So I’m starting up the car. Hopefully I’ll see you at the Manuscript Mart, in a year or two years or five, with a manuscript in the passenger seat.
Ren C. Smith
Lauren Smith is a recent graduate of Northeastern University, where she studied English with a minor in writing. She has been writing since she knew how to read, and her first great work of fiction synthesized Big Bird, a pretty princess, and the Backstreet Boys. Since then, her work has appeared in Spectrum Literary Arts Magazine, 308 Press, and the Fenway News. In her free time, you can find her curled up reading, practicing martial arts or running around the streets of Boston--if you're fast enough to catch her.See other articles by Ren C. Smith