One Story Summer Conference Day 5: Authorial Authority

Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write-up is by Stephanie Santos. Enjoy!–LV

The One Story Summer Conference ended on Friday after a week filled with craft lectures, panels, and workshops. While we’re sad to see it end, we’re happy to have welcomed a new group of writers to the One Story family.

After the final workshops, Hannah Tinti gave a fantastic lecture on how writers can ensure they have authority in their stories. The main question writers should ask themselves when they are considering the amount of authority they have in a story, Tinti told the audience, is “Am I doing this story justice?”

To begin, Tinti asked the audience to close their eyes and recall the first book that sparked their interest in reading or writing fiction. After asking the audience how they felt reading this book, she wrote down some of these descriptions: “entertained,” “invested,” “understood,” “excited,” “alive,” “not alone.”

Hannah then asked the crowd to find words that describe feeling lost. The answers she received included “confused,” “disorientated,” “stupid,” “lonely,” and “angry.” Her main point was that a story written with authority would skillfully guide readers to the first list and inspire them rather than frustrate and confuse them.

Tinti listed some key things that she looks for in a short story while reading unsolicited submissions:

  • Language
  • How quickly she is sucked into the story
  • If the story displays a new idea or something in a new light
  • If the story clearly knows what it’s about
  • How in control the writer is of the story

While at first it may seem overwhelming to juggle so many ideas at once while writing, Tinti dispensed helpful advice to the writers so that they could begin to achieve each of these important elements.

  • Write with clear, confident sentences
  • Immediately set the stage of the story to ground your reader
  • Include just enough specific facts
  • Establish the main character quickly
  • Understand the emotional situation of your story

To demonstrate what all these skills look like in action, Tinti led the group in a close read of Jesse Lee Kercheval’s flash fiction piece “Carpathia,” which manages to employ all these essential elements seamlessly. She pointed out that the effect the story has is only possible with tireless revision and an acute attention to these details.

Tinti then had the audience put her advice to the test with three exercises. The first was to take a flower and invent a botanical encyclopedia entry for it. She had participants describe the flower in terms of specific facts that relate to it as well as how the flower appeals to the five senses. This exercise established false authority and demonstrated its usefulness at making false authority feel believable.

Conference participants prepare to write fictional botanical encyclopedia entries about their flowers.

Tinti also stressed the importance of mapping a scene out to make it clearer to the reader what is happening, where they are, what they are seeing, and what the main character’s feelings about the situation are. The mapping exercise, which was designed to help writers establish a scene, was to describe a situation with a car that the writers were very familiar with and describe exactly everything they see to the right, left, forward, behind them, up, or below them. Then, she had the audience write a scene using this “map” to show how much easier it is to write a scene when the writer has planned it out.

Hannah’s final exercise demonstrated the importance of layering in a scene. Her exercise focused on character. To help the group visualize the layering process, she used a soil diagram that showed the layers of earth: surface litter, topsoil, subsoil, and bedrock. The exercise was to choose a character and state what they are saying out loud, which makes up the surface layer of that character in a specific scene. The next layer (the topsoil) was made up of the character’s physical action while they are speaking. After this topsoil, Tinti asked the participants to write what this character is thinking (subsoil). Finally, as the bedrock, writers provided a memory that this character might be reminded of in this scene.

Tinti’s goal for these exercises is to make each scene easier to access for the reader. Writing with authority is critical to avoiding confusion or frustration from a disoriented reader. A story should be clear and leave all the complexity to its substance.

To conclude the conference, all workshop participants were asked to read a part of their work before dinner. Every writer gave their reading with eloquence and authority, thanks to the reading tips they received on Thursday from Ann Napolitano and Patrick Ryan. Following a dinner catered by Runner & Stone, workshop participants were sad to go but left fulfilled by the week. We at One Story wish these writers great success and cannot wait to see where their talent and hard work will take them next.

One Story Summer Conference Day 4: Lessons on Life-Crafting

Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write-up is by Benjamin Newgard. Enjoy!–LV

After three fun and illuminating days at the One Story Summer Conference, we arrived at the fourth, which began with the writers’ penultimate workshops led by authors Anna Solomon and Will Allison. The focused, creatively charged morning soon segued to delicious sandwiches and a moment to kick back and chat before the next big event: a lecture about organizing—or “crafting”—the writer’s life by our very own Ann Napolitano, associate editor of One Story and author of the books A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach.

Napolitano separated this task of “life-crafting” into three primary components, or “legs of the stool”: paying attention, maintaining the writer’s inner self, and tailoring their practical routines and principals to allow for the most unimpeded dedication to their work. While the first of these—paying attention—may seem like common sense, Napolitano argued that it is anything but. In fact, by learning to “pay attention to what she paid attention to” (an adage borrowed from Amy Krouse Rosenthal), Napolitano gained heightened clarity not only in her writing, but in her life at large.

To help illustrate how she accomplished this, Napolitano urged writers to imagine that a magnetic board rests inside them, one to which their interests and curiosities, whether fleeting or lasting, “stick.” The latter, more persistent of these interests comprise a writer’s “obsessions”—the very foundations, she explained, of an artist’s themes and inner voice. “Leaning into” these obsessions—meditating on them, letting them linger and marinate in the mind—can only make the writer’s unique imagination all the more pronounced, even when the given interest seems like one the writer wouldn’t normally choose. Some everyday methods she recommended for honing “self-attention” included include keeping a journal, making lists, and taking photographs.

Beyond becoming more familiar with a writer’s own curiosities and attention, Napolitano stressed that a productive creative life also depended in a large part on self-kindness. Pursuing a serious writing career inevitably involves an often staggering variety of trials and travails, whether those pertaining to the writing itself (rejection, self-doubt, artistic slumps), or those exterior to it, such as family, health, and financial needs. Yet however easy it might be to acknowledge such difficulties from a rational standpoint, writers often treat or think of themselves harshly when trouble disrupts their work. On this point, Napolitano offered an encouraging reminder: “Any day you sit down to write is a good day.”

When you approach the writing—and yourself—with kindness, generosity, and dedication, Napolitano said, “it goes better.” More than that, she insisted “the fact you created something on the page” is, in itself, “amazing.” Even if the piece you’re working on seems like a mess, “you created this thing,” and “that’s wonderful.”

Napolitano concluded her lecture by discussing some of the practical lifestyle changes and practices that might help writers approach their craft with all the more focus and persistence. Some of these include:

  • Pursuing a job that the writer doesn’t have to ‘take home’—one with definite, constrained hours.
  • Simplifying everyday routine so the writer arrives at the desk as fresh and energized as possible.
  • Locking in a certain amount of time or part of every day specifically for writing—and doing so consistently. Whether this means writing on the subway every day, or early in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up, this time should be honored and protected fiercely, tenaciously.

No matter what system or routines to which the writer adheres, the essential thing, as Napolitano put it, is that the writer “keep going. If you want the work inside you to grow and deepen, you have to keep writing.”

These sentiments found emphatic echo at the final event of day four: a Q&A with bestselling author Min Jin Lee, hosted by Hannah Tinti at Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore. Much like Ann, Lee emphasized the vitalness of exhaustively exploring a writer’s obsessions and natural, unceasing curiosities. In fact, her recent novel, Pachinko (finalist for the National Book Award), traces its earliest foundations to just such an obsession—a harrowing story she came across as a college student.

Transforming this kernel into Lee’s formidable novel, however, proved a decades-long process, one fraught with countless hours of research, interviews, and work alone at the desk. And as both Lee and Napolitano emphasized in their respective presentations, long and arduous journeys from idea to publication—should this ever be achieved—are overwhelmingly the rule, rather than the exception.

“Writing good fiction is really hard,” Napolitano said. But unless writers “put their heads down and take themselves and their work seriously,” they can never realize the “brilliance” of which they might be capable.

One Story Interns Benjamin Newgard, D.J. Kim, and Stephanie Santos with author Min Jin Lee.

One Story Summer Conference Day 3: Be Authentically You

Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write-up is by Diana (D.J.) Kim. Enjoy!–LV

Today marked the third day and the half-way point of our writers conference at the Old American Can Factory. Irina Reyn, author of The Imperial Wife and the forthcoming novel Mother Country, gave her craft lecture on point-of-view.

Point-of-view determines psychic distance, which the critic John Gardner defines as “the distance a reader feels between himself and the story.” One of the major takeaways from this craft lecture was that the degree of closeness or distance is not directly tied to the narrative point-of-view. Third-person point-of-view can, for example, have a closer psychic distance than a first-person. She pointed out that certain aspects of writing are harder in one voice than another; for instance, descriptions and scene setting is much easier to write in third-person than in first for which the writer needs to weave in the details. Reyn suggested that starting a draft with a level of distance is a good way for a writer to discover the point-of-view that works best for the story.

The second major point in the lecture was to resist merging the role of the character and the role of the narrator in writing. When a writer merges the two separate roles, they let a character run the story. Instead, the narrator should be responsible for describing the external world of the characters and setting the scene while a character is simply an actor on the page. To sum the lesson up, as long as the writer is aware of the existence of a world outside the character’s head, they are less likely to merge the two roles.

Irina then led the group in a writing exercise. Everyone was given a random character name, a job description, a desire, and a conflict—all things we had to account for while practicing writing in different voices with different levels of distance (of course, with the external world of the character in mind).

In the evening session, a group of four successful literary agents—Rebecca Gradinger (Fletcher & Company), Mitch Hoffman (Aaron Priest), Duvall Osteen (Aragi Inc.), and Soumeya Roberts (HSG)—joined us for the very informative and honest agent panel.

The agents made it clear that the route to publishing a book is not singular, and  the process of finding an agent and getting a manuscript out into the world is a unique journey for every author.

They also discussed the oh-so-important query letter. Query letters introduce a writer and their manuscript to the agent, so the writer should take the time to craft a compelling one. Once an agent signs an author, they are dedicating many hours of their lives to the author’s career, so they want to know that the author is super-dedicated to his or her own career in writing.

The things the agents value the most in query letters are as follows:

  1. A concise and clear email simply stating what the book is (similar to the brief description one would find on the back of books—enough about the story and the voice that makes agents want to read it). A good concise and clear description of your own work also demonstrates your handle on your own story.
  2. Professionalism—writers should be thinking about the author/agent relationship as a business deal, which also means the email should be free of spelling errors, crazy fonts, typos, avoiding photos, inspirational quotes, or any unnecessary material .
  3. Research the agent. It’s important to know to whom you’re sending your manuscript, meaning you understand the types of books the agent has taken on in the past.

Another major piece of advice the agents all agreed on was to not send your manuscript unless you are ready. They want to see how much a writer can do with their writing on their own before an agent steps in to help. Just as one would not apply to a job you they are not ready for, a writer should not send out manuscripts that are not quite ready yet.

Speaking of query letters, the agents mentioned that they like to see authors who are also readers. One of the agents stated that she is more interested in what the author is reading and who s/he is in conversation with. She said that she will never take on an author who is not a reader. All in all, it is important for a writer to refer to books they are reading that are contemporary and that your manuscript is in conversation with.

The final piece of advice came from Hannah Tinti, the moderator of the panel, who suggested that writers should “lean in” to themselves. The specificity of their stories is also where universality is found.

If you are a writer who is afraid that people might not understand your writing (your voice, creativity, story), take comfort in the fact that many agents are seeking unique, particular voices. As Hannah Tinti concluded, “Be authentically you.”

One Story Summer Conference Day 2 : It’s About the Love

Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write-up is by Benjamin Newgard. Enjoy!–LV

In spite of stormy forecasts, Day 2 of the One Story Summer Conference began with clear skies and sunshine. After morning coffee and tea, conference participants attended another round of workshops led by authors Will Allison and Anna Solomon. Following workshop and a refreshing Mediterranean lunch, conference writers shifted focus from craft and technique to the business side of literature.

One Story co-founder Hannah Tinti, whose own publishing career traces back to such esteemed magazines (in addition to One Story, that is!) as the Boston Review and Atlantic, kicked off the afternoon with her lecture, “Out of the Slush Pile.”

For conference attendees, “Out of the Slush Pile” contained a bevy of crucial tips and guidelines for establishing a professional, compelling presence in the literary world. To begin, Hannah listed the basic features of proper Manuscript Format—what she considers a bare essential before she reads any submission:

  • Always double space (single-spaced work, Hannah cautioned, might be subject to immediate rejection)
  • Use a 12-point, simple font, such as Times New Roman or something similar.
  • Include your contact information on the first page: name, email, phone, and postal address (unless submitting to a publication that reads ‘blind,’ meaning they look at the cover letter and contact information after reading the piece).
  • Place an asterisk in any intended space break, just to ensure these don’t get lost in translation (between file formats, for instance).
  •  If submitting a physical manuscript, print on plain white paper (here Hannah recalled how she once received a submission on scented paper), and print only on one side. This last tip will improve legibility, plus editors often like to take notes on the back.
  • Include page numbers!

These rules, as Hannah noted, often change depending on the publication in question. Many journals, for instance, prefer that writers submit work in a particular file format, such as Word or PDF. In all cases, Hannah stressed the importance of checking the targeted publication’s submission guidelines, as breaking these can often disqualify a piece from the get-go.

Beyond preparing a brilliant, soon-to-be-prize-winning manuscript, there remains the question of where to send it. On this point, Hannah urged writers to do their research and separate potential publishers into tiers, somewhat like applying to college or graduate programs: Which journals, for example, might comprise ‘reaches’ or ideal places for your work? Which seem like safer bets?

To help in the search for potential literary homes, Hannah recommended three indispensable anthologies as resources: The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Best American Short Stories, and the O. Henry Prize Stories. Not only will these provide a sense of the quality writers should strive for in their work, but also an overview of celebrated, widely read outlets that could elevate a writer’s career.

Those hoping to publish not just a story, but a collection or novel are more likely preparing their manuscripts for submission to an agent or agency. In this regard, research proves no less important—Hannah encouraged all writers to find agents who have worked in genres similar to their own, and who have published authors they admire.

Whether submitting work to a magazine or agency, Hannah noted the importance of a strong cover letter. As discovered in her own experience as a writer, editor, and publisher, the most effective cover letters adhere to a simple set of conventions. They should:

  • Be short.
  • Be addressed to a particular editor on the masthead (as in the Fiction Editor, or the Editor in Chief)
  • Mention any previous personal notes or acknowledgements from the editor.
  • Include a (brief) biographical blurb, mentioning the most important past publications, mentors, classes, and other relevant accomplishments.
  • If submitting a short piece or story, say nothing about the content of the work! No synopses or plot information!

To conclude her talk, Hannah focused on the most dreaded, yet all too familiar aspect of publishing: rejection. And while this familiarity might make us bristle and wither (even the most encouraging rejections “still stink”), Hannah reminded the class that many of the most successful, even canonical writers first faced repeated rejection before becoming literary legends (including Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe). Rejection, in other words, is an inevitable part of the process, and as such Hannah encouraged all writers to develop their own rituals for easing the anxieties and pressures therein—for “taking the stones out of your pockets.”

Hannah’s lecture proved an appropriate prelude to the final event of Day 2, a panel of established book editors hosted by One Story Managing Editor Lena Valencia. Here conference attendees gained vital, firsthand insights into the publishing industry from Noah Eaker (Editorial Director at Flatiron Books), Megha Majumdar (Associate Editor at Catapult), Katie Raissian (Editor at Grove Atlantic), and Jessica Williams (Senior Editor at William Morrow).

Among the most heavily emphasized points they discussed was that the editor-writer relationship be understood as a partnership. As Williams put it, the editor’s job is to be the writer’s “toughest critic,” but also their “fiercest advocate.” First and foremost, she said, “It’s about the love, the passion for your book. It’s about finding the right fit for the editor of your book.”

Near the end of their discussion, the editors offered various pieces of advice for emerging writers. Some of these include:

  • Don’t get discouraged! If your debut book, for instance, doesn’t quite take off, there’s always the second, the third…
  • When it comes to finding an agent or publisher, a good way to get your foot in the door is to submit to magazines and journals. These much more frequently accept unsolicited and non-agented submissions, and many agents and editors search quality journals for new writers to work with.
  • Be nice! No matter your chances, unkindness can only make them worse.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Let your work sit, then come back to it. Editors, in other words, want work clearly cared for, work that demonstrates the writer’s effort and faith on the page.

Following the panel, workshop attendees got a chance to mingle with these editors over wine and cheese, which brought day two of the One Story Summer Conference to a pleasant, creatively buzzing close. Further literary exploration and learning await for day three—stay tuned!

One Story Summer Conference Day 1 : Characters Matter

Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write-up is by Stephanie Santos. Enjoy!–LV

One Story’s 2018 Summer Conference is here, and writers arrived at the Old American Can Factory on Sunday night excited to begin their week of workshops and craft lectures. Over wine and cheese, One Story co-founders Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha introduced the Writing Advice Wall: lengths of twine strung between two metal posts where workshop participants could handwrite bits of writing advice they picked up throughout the week on colorful cards and clip them to the twine.

The writers were given a tour of the Can Factory. At the One Story office, Maribeth and Hannah talked about the organization’s origins. The magazine started with just three thousand dollars and grew beyond what the two founders could have dreamed. The Summer Conference, they said, was an especially important milestone. When they held the first Conference in 2010, it was the organization’s first step toward being more than just a print magazine.

The next day, after their morning workshops with Anna Solomon and Will Allison, conference participants gathered to hear Patrick Ryan’s craft lecture entitled “Good Writing About Bad People.” He began by listing steps to approach any character you write, stating that all characters should:

  1. Interest you
  2. Be somewhat unknown to you
  3. Be able to surprise you
  4. Want something

Patrick said following these steps when creating a character is an effective way to separate your writing from typical genre fiction, which often falls flat for him when writers create a character and only go as far as tacking on shallow, meaningless attributes that do not speak to the character’s actions in a complex way. “Genre fiction,” he said, “is great when it comes close to literary fiction: when the characters matter.”

Patrick stressed that your character should be someone you want to spend quality time with, even if they are not someone you necessarily would like. Even if a character is mainly sweet, kind, or generous, finding the part of them that isn’t a good person is still important. He applied this same idea to unlikable characters: “You don’t have to like the character to be engaged in the story and want to learn more about them.” He emphasized the idea that there has to be some mystery about the character, and that overplanning or knowing everything about a character can make them reductive.

Another problem with overplanning connects back to the third step Patrick mentioned: if a writer knows everything about their character, the character can no longer surprise the writer. Patrick stated that too much planning is boring and puts too much pressure on the writer to invent, rather than allowing that character’s decisions to unfold organically. More importantly, he said this room for surprise is where some of the best ideas can come to a writer.

Stories are all about people, Patrick pointed out. Naturally, people see each other as good or bad to some degree. When writing a bad person or a villain, Patrick’s main point of emphasis was this: people are not just good or just evil, so neither should your characters be. “Evil” oversimplifies your character. He added that the same thing goes for labeling a character as “crazy.”

Patrick then outlined the three keys to writing complex villains:

  • Villains do not see themselves as villains.
  • You have to love all your characters the way an attorney loves a client.
  • Get in touch with your character’s internal narrative.

Patrick concluded his craft lecture with a final piece of advice for the writers. In order to write complex villains, writers must be both sympathetic and empathetic. Sympathy is at the base of all compassion and, as Patrick pointed out, it is impossible to not have compassion and be a writer. Empathy is important when writing a villain because it forces you into the perspective of that character and prevents you from selling your villain short. Patrick said that in every villain, there is often a heart, often a regret, often a fear, and something more than just evil. Without any of these, the villain is boring.

After Patrick’s craft lecture, the writers attended a Q&A session with instructors Will Allison and Anna Solomon. Hannah began by asking when Will and Anna first felt comfortable calling themselves writers. Anna felt pressured to take on the title when she was applying to graduate programs and had to explain to her friends and family the seriousness with which she now was approaching the field of writing to validate leaving her job to pursue a fiction-writing career. Will said that he calls himself a reviser. He took on this name long after he started calling himself a writer, eight years after he started writing his short story collection.

One student asked about Will and Anna’s daily writing routines, and both revealed that they schedule writing time early in the morning. Another student asked if they take time away from writing their novels to write short fiction, and both do but in different ways. When Anna submits a manuscript for feedback, she uses that time to write a short story and then puts it away to revise when she has another feedback-waiting period. Will says he often uses that break time to revise a story he has already written.

At the session’s end, they both named something about their writing careers that makes all their hard work worth it. Anna said she finds the act of writing thrilling, especially those moments where she creates something that surprises her. She also gets the chance to hear people discuss her published work and loves seeing how invested the readers were in her characters. Will said that when he was losing a game of softball, one of the players told him he had read his novel. After talking to this fan of his work, he stopped caring about the outcome of the softball game.

When the Q&A finished, writers filed out of the room and headed home to get ready for another busy day of workshops and craft lectures.

One Story Summer Conference Day 5: The End

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Olivia Liu. Enjoy! –LV

I’m sad to say that the One Story Summer Conference has come to an end. It’s a bittersweet feeling. This week has been jam-packed with excellent workshops, eye-opening craft lectures, engaging panels, and the opportunities to talk to those right in the business, from top agents to whip-smart editors to the incomparable One Story staff itself. In this immersive environment of word-lovers, we’ve made friends, recounted stories, gotten advice, and had an overall blast. Not to be cheesy here, but while I’m sad it’s over, I’m very happy it happened.

We kicked off the morning with our last workshops. I know instructors Will Allison and Patrick Ryan have enjoyed working with our conference attendees so much.

After lunch, we headed to Ann Napolitano’s craft lecture on the life of the writer. The room was impressively set up with quote after helpful quote. In the lecture, Ann broke down the seven steps for having a successful and well-balanced writing life.

Step 1: Make a plan and protect it. Writing time can be so rare and precious, it’s important to dive into it armed and ready. Some plans include waking up at 5am to write before anyone else is up, writing on your commute, binge writing (writing retreats are a great place for devoting huge chunks of time to writing), thinking about your story when you can’t actually sit down and write it (Ann Patchett plotted a book down to each scene while she was waitressing), having a specific place to write (such as your car or the café), and making a rule to write for at least 5 minutes a day. Once you choose your plan . . . tell people! You want others to hold you accountable and to respect your writing time.

Step 2: Plan your life around writing. Ann, for example, juggles only three to four things at a time and doesn’t keep overly demanding jobs.

Step 3: Find readers who care about making your book the best it can be.

Step 4: Exercise—yes, exercise! We are not just “meat sticks with minds on top.” We have to take care of our bodies too. 

Step 5: Meditate. Meditation can help you feel fresh, instead of worn down, when you sit down to write.

Step 6: Pay attention to what you pay attention to and pay attention with intention. Every person has a specifically calibrated magnetic board that pulls certain subjects to you—don’t resist them! Be eccentric! Ann told a story about she became obsessed with Flannery O’Connor but resisted the urge to write about her for a long time, as she was from the North and O’Connor was a Southern literary icon. Eventually she gave in, and O’Connor became the subject of her second book, A Good Hard Look. Ann now does not avoid writing about what interests her.

Step 7: Trust yourself as a writer. Don’t submit something too soon because you’re searching for feedback; put the work in a drawer for a week then look at it again.

All in all, this craft lecture was extremely illuminating and chock-full of practical advice. It was like a TED Talk—but better.

After the lecture, the conference attendees prepared for the evening reading. The weather was lovely, so some sat outside to work on their pieces. When they reconvened at six, they found that the reading space in the Canteen was done up beautifully with a backdrop of writing advice strung up with fairy lights and garlands of One Story issues. The reading went wonderfully. If anyone was nervous, it didn’t show. The writing was captivating, the audience attentive. We couldn’t clap hard enough. The reading was also interspersed with hilarious jokes from the One Story staff—wonderfully punny ones, may I add. We couldn’t stop laughing.

The evening came to a close with a delicious dinner catered by Runner + Stone. Six days ago they’d gathered in the same room as strangers, and now, given the laughter and animated conversation over plates of food and glasses of wine, it was clear workshoppers were leaving as friends.

 

One Story Summer Conference Day 4: Revise, Revise, (Read Aloud), and Revise

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Hannah Johnston. Enjoy! –LV

On the penultimate day of our conference, after another morning of workshops followed by lunch in the Canteen, Julie Buntin, author of the novel Marlena and an editor at Catapult, gave a craft lecture on how to successfully revise and edit as a writer. Buntin discussed her experiences as an editor working with writers and how she’s developed an understanding of the way editors edit and the way writers ought to approach the process of revision.

Buntin began her lecture with a line-edit exercise on a short excerpt from James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans; a passage that was used by editor E.L. Doctorow to make a point about the value of concise writing. She worked with conference participants to find the places in the narration where there was superfluous language. 

Once they shaved the language down to the necessary elements of the excerpt, and made the prose far stronger, Buntin moved beyond line editing to talk about what writers need to do in order to revise their own work effectively. She explained that the most important thing you can do in your revision process is determine the fundamental truths of your story, and to then use those truths to hold your work to.

Buntin had the group read the short story “Spring in Fialta” by Vladimir Nabokov in preparation for the lecture. The story is about a man named Victor and his final meeting with Nina, a woman with whom he’s been on the verge of having an affair as long as they’ve known each other. Buntin acknowledged Nabokov’s ornate and over-the-top prose, but she also said that it all seems necessary to the fundamental truths of the story. For example, Nina herself is never really standing or sitting still in the narrative, and this relates to the fact that she’s never been a still or solid aspect of Victor’s life— she’s always been slightly out of frame.

Buntin also talked about her work as an editor at Catapult, and how the questions about fundamental truths have come into that work. At the beginning of her talk, she had conference participants write down something that they felt was an essential truth about their work, and at the end of the lecture she gave them a related writing exercise: write a paragraph in your story which operates as if that essential truth is no longer true or essential. The writers found this exercise very helpful, and many were able to view their work in a new lens thanks to their letting go of certain assumptions. Buntin left the workshop participants with this idea: By asking what the fundamental truths of the story are, a writer will be able to edit and revise effectively.

After a quick break and opportunity to chat with Buntin, participants made their way down to the Canteen to hear a valuable talk from One Story editors Patrick Ryan and Ann Napolitano on how to give a good public reading. Both Ryan and Napolitano admitted their initial shyness and stage fright in the beginning of their careers. They’ve had to overcome great anxiety in order to give successful readings of their work, and they gave the workshop participants a list of dos and don’ts that they’ve picked up over the years.

DON’T’S

  1. Don’t go over your time— never, never, never. Everyone, the audience and the the other writers set to give readings, will love you for it. It leaves the audience wanting more, which is way better than leaving them wanting less.
  2. Don’t read too fast. Napolitano explained that this is the most common mistake a reader can make, because people speak more quickly when they’re nervous. Reading your work too quickly prevents your audience from being able to settle into the narrative.
  3. Don’t read too quietly. One of the worst things that can happen at a reading is for an audience member to yell, “LOUDER!”
  4. Don’t choose a section that requires a lot of exposition. If you need to describe the Civil War in order to set up the passage you’re reading aloud, people will be overwhelmed with information and won’t be able to properly follow along. It should only take one sentence (or less) to set up your passage.
  5. Don’t choose a section that contains dialect, foreign language, or anything else you won’t be able to pronounce correctly or speak fluidly. Ryan went for a large portion of his life believing that chasm was pronounced with a soft ‘ch’, like the sound in cheese. In reality, chasm is pronounced with a hard ‘k’ sound, and he was once mortified after a reading when a friend told him he was pronouncing the word incorrectly.

DO’S

  1. Stay within your time. Both Napolitano and Ryan re-emphasized that this is VERY IMPORTANT.
  2. Read more slowly than you think is normal. Often, we feel like we’re speaking way too slowly when we’re actually speaking at the perfect speed to keep the audience engaged. Try to take deep breaths and beats between words and sentences in order to keep yourself from speeding up.
  3. Read at a good volume. Again, it stinks to have someone yell “louder!”
  4. Maybe, if you can, try to choose a selection that will garner a reaction from the audience. Ryan likes to select something funny or shocking, and this way he is able to tell that the audience is engaged. He also mentioned that it’s okay to go with something sad or solemn as long as you prepare yourself for deadly silence from the audience.
  5. Pretend to be a great writer. At the start of her career, Hannah Tinti, One Story co-founder, used to pretend she was the excellent public speaker Elizabeth Gilbert when she went onstage. Now, Napolitano often thinks about how Hannah herself would give a reading!
  6. Look up every once in a while. It can be awkward to make eye-contact with a specific audience member, but it always helps to look up, perhaps just above the heads of the crowd, in order to give the impression that you’re engaged with your audience.
  7. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! Before the first reading she had to give since she’d bombed a public speaking gig in high school, Napolitano read aloud the passage she had prepared to her husband every day for a month. By practicing your reading, it can almost become muscle memory, and it will make it so much easier to fight your nerves when the time comes.

While Napolitano and Ryan gave this talk in anticipation of the readings that will be given by the conference attendees themselves tomorrow, they explained that these rules can and will apply to any readings that the talented writers will be giving in the future.

After a break for writing and dinner, it was time for a panel of editors to come and answer questions with Lena Valencia, One Story’s managing editor. The panel included: Katie Raissian, editor and publisher of print magazine Stonecutter Journal and an editor for Grove Atlantic; Jenny Jackson, a senior editor for Knopf and Doubleday (imprints under Penguin Random House); Brinda Ayer, managing editor for Restless Books; and Margaux Weisman, who works as an editor for Vintage Anchor and Knopf Doubleday.

The four editors discussed they look for in the manuscripts. Jackson said that debut books are especially exciting, and that the voice in the writing is most often what gets her antenna up. Weisman expanded on this, adding that even if the plot doesn’t work as well, a good style in writing will always catch her eye.

Valencia then asked the editors what they think writers can expect the differences between publishing a book with a large publishing house and a small publisher might be. As an editor at a small publisher, Grove Atlantic, Raissian was enthusiastic in explaining the benefits of her house’s size. Writers get a ton of personal attention, and the staff works very closely with them to make sure their works are published carefully. Every writer at Grove Atlantic is given the same amount of time and effort because Grove editors only buy books they’re very passionate about. Grove was the only publisher that wanted The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and now it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Passion is what drives them, and it usually pays off.

Knopf is different from other large publishers in the sense that it’s a relatively independent imprint of Penguin Random House, but they still garner big house benefits. Jackson talked about how beneficial it can be to have a large corporate connection, as they have larger budgets for advertising as well as a great deal of research on what works best in selling a book. She also felt, however, that Knopf has been able to successfully retain its identity despite its corporate parent, and that passion plays a great role in her book decisions as well.

All four of the editors went on to explain that chemistry between editors, writers, and agents is usually the biggest predictor of success. Many of them had stories about losing books that they loved because of a much larger advance offered by a competing publisher or a disagreement over an edit. While it stings to provide edits to someone only to have them work with another house, they ultimately want there to be as many great books out there as possible, and if they can contribute something positive to a good writer’s work, it’s a job well-done.

After the panel was over, conference attendees enjoyed a wine and cheese reception with the editors, and were able to ask more questions and get to know the industry better. After a long day of activity, everyone was happy to get back to their homes and hotels in order to recharge in preparation for the final day of the One Story Summer Writer’s Conference.

One Story Summer Conference Day 3: Keep Writing

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Miche Hu. Enjoy! –LV

The third day of One Story’s Summer Writers Conference began with another round of morning workshops led by Patrick Ryan and Will Allison. The afternoon craft lecture, which focused on the process of submitting work and getting out of the slush pile, was led by Hannah Tinti, One Story cofounder and author of the new novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley.

Tinti discussed what to do and not to do and what to believe and not believe when putting work out into the world. She outlined some important, often overlooked details of submission formatting while also highlighting the importance of heart and honesty when writing stories. Examples from her own experiences reading slush for The Boston Review and The Atlantic Monthly, as well as transcripts of rejection letters she had received for her own work helped writers to understand some of the challenges associated with submitting work. Particularly helpful were the different resources and anthologies to read and to use as resources for finding the places to submit.

Three trusted sources for Tinti are The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and The O’Henry Prize Stories.

Tinti’s discussion of rejection letters, and their various forms, resonated with workshop writers. She broke down the differences between form rejections and more personalized rejections, and stressed that any letter that expressed interest seeing more of a writer’s work was cause for celebration. “You’re a writer if you’re writing, not if you’re published,” Hannah reminded us, echoing earlier advice from craft lecturer Myla Goldberg and the previous night’s agent panel. After the lecture, all were invited to peruse the many different literary magazines on display at the back of the room and take any home, with the knowledge that the work inside was borne out of both rejection and tenacity.

After a short break for writing and dinner, workshop writers reconvened at Community Bookstore for a reading of Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers. A One Story Debutante, Lisa Ko published “Proper Girls” in One Teen Story in 2013 (when her newly published novel was still being written—and rewritten). The novel follows the double narrative of Deming Guo and his mother, Polly. Having just returned from a week-long meditation retreat, Lisa Ko read an excerpt from the novel about last time Deming sees his mother, just before her disappearance. Deming’s observations of his mother reveal his own character traits—he remembers his mother’s hands rubbed raw and wishes for a super lotion that can grow her new skin, how she says motherfucker and he walks in step to the syllables as he practices the word.

During the Q&A, Ko and Patrick Ryan discussed how she used point-of-view to discover her characters, and her little celebrations after winning the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Both writers shared the various ways they disposed of unused pieces of their stories. Ryan does not delete anything, though he rarely revisits. Ko admitted that she will often remember certain sentences or descriptions and “pluck it from the graveyard”—the graveyard being the file where she stores her unused writing. Lisa also talked about how she perseveres through the difficult, stagnant moments by setting daily goals for herself: fifty rejections a day. “I like to aim for rejection,” she said. As the crowd listened to her novel excerpt and the tales of her struggles with the publication process, they were reminded of what often seems hidden from writers: publication is the outcome of a lot of “no.” But, as Tinti had stressed in her lecture earlier in the day, it’s not publication that makes a writer a writer—it’s the act of writing. The lesson learned on Day 3 of the Conference was simple, but not necessarily easy: keep writing.

One Story Summer Conference Day 2: No Tricks

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Olivia Liu. Enjoy!–LV

Tuesday was a stellar second day of the One Story Summer Conference. The featured Craft Lecturer was One Story Contributing Editor Karen Friedman, who gave a useful talk on how to edit your own story. The lecture was structured around four main story aspects—beginnings, characters, plot, and endings—and the lessons we can learn from soap operas. You read that right: soap operas! Sure, soap operas are not exactly high-brow literature but they do have a way of pulling you in and never letting go, something that a story should certainly do.

To edit beginnings, Karen advised writers to take a page out of Yoda’s book (yes, that Yoda). Unclear writing can make a reader angry, and, according to the Grand Master of the Jedi Order, “Anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.” To avoid angering readers, writers should make clear what the setting, characters, and conflict in their work are by page 2.

As a template for character, Friedman used Jason, the golden-boy-turned-crime-boss-protégé from the soap opera General Hospital. As soon as we re-meet Jason after his amnesia, we immediately learn his appearance, actions, voice, motivation, backstory and, perhaps most intriguing of all, we learn the concept of reusing a character. General Hospital could have made the crime boss protégé a new character entirely, but Friedman pointed out that Jason would lose the layer of emotional depth the viewers gained from knowing this new villain was once a beloved son.

“Make your characters want something right away, even if it’s a glass of water.” Friedman used this bit of advice from Kurt Vonnegut to frame her segment on editing plot. She outlined the basic narrative arc of set up, escalation, climax, and resolution and emphasized that every scene should feature a narrative arc, no matter how small. One example of a scene arc she used was a clip from Guiding Light in which Reva Shayne baptizes herself as the “Slut of Springfield.”

Friedman discussed her two major “don’ts” for endings—NO TRICKS (don’t make the story “all a dream”) and Death ≠ Answer (a character’s death does not count as a story ending). Endings, she said, should resonate with readers. The reader should be thinking about the story long after it’s over. One technique to create resonant endings, Friedman said, was to slow down and focus on an object that has had some significance in the narrative. As an example, she used the ending of Jodi Angel’s “Snuff” (OS #179), which is structured around a pocketknife, and the final scene of As the World Turns, which prominently features the newly-retired Robert Hughes (Dr. Bob) slipping his nameplate into his briefcase as he leaves his office for the final time.

The lecture ended with a fun writing exercise. We each wrote two characters on two different yellow cards and one setting on a blue card. Everyone switched cards and had to craft a beginning of a story from those characters and that setting. This resulted in some fun and unexpected stories, which Friedman stressed was the point of the generative exercise: to get writers out of their comfort zone.

The group reconvened in the evening for a panel with some of the industry’s top agents: Mitch Hoffman, Dana Murphy, Duvall Osteen, and Renée Zuckerbrot, moderated by One Story Co-founder and Executive Editor Hannah Tinti. They opened the discussion by discussing an agent’s role in the life of a writer, a role that, according to Murphy, ranges from best friend to therapist. All four agents agreed that it is ultimately a business relationship, and stressed the importance of professionalism.

Because the relationship with their agent might be the most important relationship an author will forge in their career, the panelists advised conference attendees to choose carefully, with patience and deliberation. Finding agents and editors can be a lot like matchmaking, and jumping the gun on these relationships is akin to marrying the first person you meet on Tinder.

The four agents also shared projects that they were proud of. Murphy talked about her very first project, Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka, which will be published next week, and Osteen told a story about hope: her client who had a book she absolutely loved got rejected multiple times but finally got a deal after waiting and more revising.

When asked about the best way to approach an agent, they discussed the importance of doing your homework. Know who you’re talking to, they said, and be sure to follow the specific submission requirements the agents have.

After the panel, conference attendees enjoyed wine and cheese and a chance to talk to the agents one-on-one. Despite a long day of workshops, lectures, and panels, the writers were all buzzing with energy as they chatted with the agents and with one another. The crowd didn’t begin to thin until well after 9pm. “I’m tired but happy,” proclaimed one attendee, as she left for the evening with a grin on her face.

 

 

One Story Summer Conference Day 1: Write What You Know; Write What You Don’t Know

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Hannah Johnston. Enjoy!–LV

One Story’s eighth annual Summer Writers Conference is officially underway here in Brooklyn at the Old American Can Factory! Twenty-one talented writers from all over the country joined the One Story staff and interns on Sunday night to celebrate the start of the workshop for a cocktail reception in the OACF Canteen. The group made eager conversation over drinks and snacks, pausing for One Story cofounders Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha’s brief introduction to the workshop. The cofounders also introduced the Writing Advice Wall, where participants are can make note of great writing advice they hear from speakers and in workshops throughout the week, write it down on colorful slips of paper, and clip them onto the wall. Once the remarks concluded, Hannah and Maribeth led the group on a short tour of the Can Factory, and the group returned to the Canteen to mingle for the duration of the evening.

Over the course of the coming week, Patrick Ryan and Will Allison will each lead a group of attendees in intensive workshops, where each writer will have their piece discussed by their instructor and fellow writers. In addition to the workshops, there will also be readings,craft lectures, panels, and more from authors, publishing professionals, and the editorial staff of One Story.

The first official day of the conference began on Monday with a two-and-a-half-hour workshop period. Workshops often become sacred spaces, and throughout the week it won’t be surprising to see camaraderie built among writers from the same groups.

After lunch, workshop participants attended an illuminating craft lecture from Myla Goldberg, acclaimed author of the novel Bee Season. The lecture addressed the idea of “writing what you know,” for which she had workshop writers read the short story “What You Left in the Ditch” by Aimee Bender. The story is about a brief time in the life of Mary, a woman whose husband has come home from an unnamed war after losing his lips in battle.

Goldberg made a point of encouraging writers to write about things they’re afraid to write about; to write about the unfamiliar. To do this, she explained, a writer must figure out a way to relate some aspect of the unfamiliar situation to their own emotional experience. Goldberg used Bender’s story as an example, explaining that it was unlikely that Aimee Bender has ever had such a specific experience with war or trauma resulting from war, but she most likely understands what it’s like when two people are in a relationship and one of them changes while the other remains the same.

Goldberg went on to discuss the power of empathy in writing and how it is different from sympathy. In order to engender empathy, she explained, neither writer nor reader need to have have actually experienced what the characters are experiencing, but the writer needs to find a way to make that experience real and familiar. Goldberg, an excellent lecturer with engaging energy, gave workshop attendees many tidbits of useful writing advice. She talked about “telegraphing”: how authors reveal character traits to a reader using visual clues rather than explicitly spelling them out. For example, Bender’s description of Mary’s husband’s favorite chair as “neatly dusted” signals to the reader that Mary has been taking care of his things while he was away at war, and clearly cares about his wellbeing (despite acting as if she doesn’t). In analyzing Bender’s story, the group determined that Bender was able to create familiarity and universality through her lack of time- or place-specific details, and to create empathy by showing Mary’s external and internal selves through close-third-person POV.

After Myla’s energizing talk, writers made their way back to the Canteen to conclude the day with casual social time over sweets and drinks. After some relaxing chat, the group gathered together to listen to Maribeth facilitate a “getting to know the instructors” talk with Will and Patrick, who discussed their first published works and the experiences that eventually led them to become editors for One Story.

Patrick made an interesting point about balancing his work as a writer and an editor. Early in his career, he’d been worried that reading good writing would discourage him from creating his own work. The opposite proved true. “Reading really good writing doesn’t make me not want to write,” said Patrick, “it makes me want to write even more.” It often seems daunting to both write your own work and read the excellent writing of others, but Patrick and Will each said they’ve come to the conclusion that it’s beneficial to their writing to read others’ work. Will even noted that he’ll occasionally use a “kick starter book” to take a break from writing in order to reinvigorate his creative flow. As the day came to an end, a handful of useful tips hung from the Writing Advice Wall, and many workshop attendees headed out to enjoy a nice evening in Brooklyn. Stay tuned for the low-down on day two of the One Story Summer Writers Conference!