The heat wave held steady as we kicked off our 2011 Summer Writers’ Workshop today, right here at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. We’ve doubled the workshop’s size since last summer, bringing twenty talented writers together for a week of intense work, plus a better look at some of the industry ins-and-outs. Over the next five days we’ll be hearing from award-winning authors, agents, editors, MFA directors, and all-around great literary minds, so check back for updates as my fellow interns Rose, Eva and I bring you the highlights of all the panels and discussions.
The morning began with writing workshops, run by One Story editors Marie-Helene Bertino and Will Allison. Later, after lunch, we got to hear from One Story’s very own editor-in-chief Hannah Tinti, who gave us her insight on how to write good beginnings and endings. Incidentally, we also got a basic lesson on romance. “Starting a story follows along the same lines as going on a first date,” she explained. “You don’t cry, you don’t say ‘I love you’, you try not to be boring. You give them some of your history, but not too much–leave a little mystery. You want to charm the reader, you want to get a second date.” She’s right: the connection between readers and books is a sort of relationship. There’s an initial spark, something that makes you want that second date, and so you keep going, investing your time and your trust. The stakes rise, and you hang on, all the way till the end, which hopefully goes as gracefully as possible.
After cocktails, we were lucky to have the chance to hear from a panel of literary agents, one of the most important dates a writer (or story) could hope to score. Jenni Ferrari-Adler (Brick House Literary Agents), Julie Barer (Barer literary) and Renee Zuckerbrot (Renee Zuckerbrot Literary Agency), helped to de-mystify the process of how a writer’s work goes from a manuscript to a true and solid book. Turns out, that process is not as scary as it looks from afar. Literary Agents are far more accessible than the high-school quarterback, and getting on their good side rarely involves eyelash-batting or glossy pouted lips. Though it does, as Hannah said earlier in the day, mean writing a catchy beginning. “Ask yourself,” Barer advised, “is your story interesting to you? Why should a reader care?” Zuckerbrot was also pretty direct: “Limit the number of adjectives you use in the first page.” Ferrari-Adler agreed that the best stories are usually “not so much about fanciness as about clarity. Don’t confuse your reader.”
All of this advice in one day could easily seem daunting. But as it was, in the end everyone seemed to have more or less the same bottom line. When you’re writing, Hannah said, “trust your gut. Just follow your instincts, get it down.” And when you’re editing, take your time. The agents aren’t going anywhere, and neither are the publishers. They want writers on board as much as writers want them. But still, make sure you polish your manuscript before sending it out on its hopeful way. Make sure it doesn’t have spinach in its teeth. Or if it does, hope that it is still charming.