Day 5 of the Workshop: All Good Things Must End

Yesterday tied together everything we have learned so far at the One Story Workshop. In the morning, writers had their final group workshops with Marie-Helene Bertino and Will Allison. Then, in the afternoon, we met for a craft lecture by Editor-In-Chief Hannah Tinti.

Hannah’s talk was on the business side of publishing. She discussed launching our writing careers by finding agents and submitting to literary magazines. The way to tell a piece is ready for the world, according to her? You have gone through a few drafts to get pitch-perfect prose, workshopped it, showed it to all your friends, teachers, and your pet turtle, taken their suggestions (if you feel they are right). When you get to a point where nobody you show it to agrees on what’s actually wrong with the piece, that means it’s pretty good. Obviously, no matter what, somebody somewhere is always going to find something they don’t like about it. It’s when all of the glaring, objective errors that everyone notices are gone that you have gotten it to a point where it is publishable. You can’t please everyone.

At that point, Hannah told us to send our piece to the top 10 literary magazines we’d like to see our piece published in, accepting probable rejection as inevitable as death and taxes. Good resources for literary magazines are duotrope.com or Poets & Writers magazine. When those rejections come in (or maybe you will get accepted at one! Yay!), send it to the next 10. And the next 10. And the next 10. Keep trying, and don’t take rejection personally. Hannah told us she sent in a story to 50 magazines until it got accepted, and the story ended up being one of the best in her collection Animal Crackers. In the case of acceptance, celebrate! Don’t just shrug it off – congratulate yourself for the accomplishment.

Hannah told us industry standards for submissions: 12-point, double-spaced format on one side each of plain white copy paper with a normal font, your name and contact information on the first page, and page numbers included. The cover letter (the purpose of which is to demonstrate that you are not crazy and show some writing experience, whether MFA programs, previous publications, or otherwise) should be on a separate page or the “Notes” section often included in online submission websites. She also told us of ways to continue our writing education with conferences, fellowships, literary volunteer gigs, and writing buddies.

After the lecture, we took a break and the workshoppers got dressed up to read their work. The writing presented ranged from shocking to hilarious to heartbreaking, and the styles were as varied as the personalities there. It was exciting to see it all coming to a close: after a week of hard work, the writers and staff were able to kick back and listen to some great stories.

We said a sad goodbye to the beautiful Center for Fiction and then headed over to Tricolore Trattoria, passing the diamond district on our way and giving the out-of-towners a chance to check out Times Square. At dinner we watched a slideshow that showcased the friends made, professional connections established, and lectures given over the course of the week. Then we all raised a glass and cheered. The One Story Summer Workshop is over, but hopefully, all the attendants will keep in touch with us and extend their new knowledge and relationships far into the future. We will miss you all!

Day 2 of the One Story Workshop: To MFA or Not to MFA? That is the question.

Yesterday was the second day of the week all of us at One Story have been waiting for. My internship thus far has been two months of craziness, love, and a lot of hard work, and whispers of the workshop at the end of the summer have been filling me with anticipation since I found out about it back in October. The week is finally here and it feels surreal – writers, agents, educators, and editors have been swarming the Center for Fiction like book-lovers at a library.

After a catered breakfast, students broke down into their individual workshops, taught by One Story contributing editor Will Allison and former contributing editor Marie Helene-Bertino. Then, after lunch, we all gathered on the 6th floor to listen to Simon Van Booy talk about character, point of view, and more character. A fine British gentleman and the author of The Secret Lives of People in Love and Everything Beautiful Began After, Simon charmed us all with his quips and his accent. He told us creating a character in the first person point of view is so involved that it becomes like method acting. In every real life situation you encounter, you must ask: what would Polly or Victor or Leo the Leopard do? As Simon says, get your feet wet!

Simon also told us about the importance of flat characters to offset round characters and provide humor. “Flat characters are the unsung heroes of characterization,” he said, and discussed how Shakespeare was a master of flat characters. The drunken gatekeeper in Macbeth provided comic relief when Duncan was dying upstairs. In Camus’s The Stranger, Mersault’s overly violent neighbor Raymond allows him to give his own life philosophy without just plopping it in the book.

Later, at the evening cocktail hour and panel, we had the opportunity to hear about MFA programs. Representatives from Sarah Lawrence, Warren Wilson, Vermont College, and Manhattanville College told us what we get out of an MFA, how to choose one, how to get into one, and how to pay for it. Some MFA advice from the pros:

  1. There’s no rush to do an MFA at a certain time of your life – right after college, for example. Go when you have time for it and are burning to write, as they say.
  2. When choosing writing samples, send those that reflect the style of writing you wish to develop, not necessarily what you think they want to see. That way you will end up in a program that will encourage your personal voice.
  3. Writing sample advice #2: Pick two or three different pieces. If one is absolutely terrible, maybe the second will redeem you.
  4. Tenacity and persistence is impressive, as long as every reapplication demonstrates some growth.
  5. When in the MFA program, get the most out of it by putting your writing before your part-time job, volunteer work, or internships.
  6. But still involve yourself in those things. They will help you make connections you might need to find a job in the publishing world or get your own work out there.
  7. When faced with a should-I-or-should-I-not situation, remember that whether or not you choose to do an MFA, the agony and joy of the writing life is available to you whenever you decide to pick up the pen and paper.