One Story Summer Writers Conference 2019 Recap

Last week, we hosted twenty writers at The Old American Can Factory for a week of workshops with instructors Lisa Ko or Will Allison, craft lectures, readings, and panels. Our intrepid interns—Evy Constant, Carly Frederickson, Jacob Maren, and Andrea K. Oh—spent the week documenting the events. Here are their recaps!

Day 1: Welcome

As temperatures climbed into the triple digits outside, we welcomed twenty writers into our home at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, Brooklyn to kick off the 2019 One Story Summer Writers Conference. Students were introduced to the entire team and got to know each other during an hour filled with cocktails and conversations with fellow writers. The classes only last a week at One Story, but many came to realize that the friendships made this week can last a lifetime. —Jacob

Day 2: It’s About Time!

During the first craft lecture of this year’s Summer Writers Conference, One Story’s editor-in-chief Patrick Ryan discussed the importance of economy and time management in writing. Ryan explained that, although writers often attempt to illuminate their character’s experiences by extending scenes and trailing their actions very closely, this can sometimes lead to stagnation in the story’s action—the dreaded “boredom” all writers fear their readers feeling.

Rather than attempting to control everything in every moment of a story, Ryan pointed out that writers must avoid over-choreographing: you must determine what your story is really about, then use that knowledge to figure out which scenes should take up time and which you should compress. Essentially, Ryan explained that “it’s about keeping the reader’s attention where you want the reader’s attention to be.”

Ryan emphasized that this is something all writers do; we all tend to expand scenes unnecessarily because “nobody’s got it figured out. It’s not about trying to be an expert when you’re writing.” Instead of trying to get it perfect the first time, writers should work to incorporate narrative compression into their revision processes. To this point, Ryan shared that his ideal reader—and perhaps to some extent, all of our ideal readers—should be one who suffers from extreme impatience; one who urges us to “spit it out. Get to it!”—Evy 

Day 3: How Does She Do That?

How does she do that? This the question Myla Goldberg posed at the start of yesterday’s craft lecture, a discussion of Lauren Groff’s short story, “L. DeBard and Aliette” from her short story collection Delicate Edible Birds.

During this craft talk, Myla went into a deep analysis of the short story and covered a lot of ground, discussing everything from time to suspense to POV to character building to sex. One of the overarching lessons that Myla presented was how Lauren Groff builds worlds through different perspectives. Groff’s ability to alternate point of views seamlessly, going from a God’s eye view to different close character perspectives, draws us into the world of the story.

In a short Q&A following the talk, Myla addressed the crowd’s questions about her own personal experiences in the literary world. She ended with this piece of advice: “Take ten minutes a day to read over what you’ve been working on.” Our lives might be too busy for us to write every day, but we always have time to interact with and think about our writing despite all the distractions inhabiting the space around us.—Jacob

Day 4: The Vampiric Research Method

During the third craft lecture of this year’s Summer Writers Conference, One Story co-founder Hannah Tinti provided listeners with an abundance of practical tips for getting one’s work out of the slush pile. Her talk guided conference participants through various aspects of the publishing process, such as how to prepare your work for submission, how to decide which magazines or agents to send your work to, and how to handle rejections and acceptances.

She stressed the importance of submitting a manuscript that conforms to industry standards (double-spaced, 12 pt. Times New Roman font) and went over how to write a professional, informative cover letter. She also introduced conference attendees to a variety of anthologies such as Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, all of which can be used as tools for becoming acquainted with different literary magazines and discovering which ones best fit your work. Tinti shared her method of creating different tiers of magazines to send work to as well, making sure you have a variety of different options.

Tinti reminded us that along with submissions often come rejections, but also that many extremely successful books faced a large number of rejections before they were published and praised. She concluded her talk with an important piece of advice: Publication is not what makes you a writer; writing is what makes you a writer.—Evy 

On Wednesday night, One Story co-founder Hannah Tinti talked with Irina Reyn at Community Bookstore about Reyn’s incredible new novel, Mother Country. Their conversation was filled with writing tips and tricks, anecdotes about the creative process, and laughter, ending with an audience Q&A that (surprisingly) included vampires!

“I operate on what I call ‘vampiric research,’” Reyn told the crowd, “which is that I’m only sucking the blood that I need. You’re only using what you need, and you’re not getting distracted by things you don’t need. So, in other words, you’re only using the things in service of the story you want to tell.” —Andrea

Day 5: Writerly Self-Compassion

On Thursday’s craft lecture, Rakesh Satyal drew on anecdotes from his vibrant literary career to advise our summer conference participants as both a fellow writer and as an editor. Above all was his desire to see them—to see all writers, really—develop their writing lives. Satyal emphasized that one needs to be intentional about one’s writing life, highlighting the importance of dedicating time to writing. This, however, was not to say that writing must, or even should, happen every day; in his words, “You have to identify for yourself what feels productive. You know when you’re doing the work.” Later, Satyal discussed the need for writers to allow themselves the space to think on a macro level, to have a sense of the larger ideas or themes they’re writing towards. “Be a good literary citizen,” he said, which, at its core, means treating writing as a legitimate and necessary profession. Up-and-coming writers, he said, can practice good literary citizenship by paying attention to what’s happening in the “literary world,” talking with others about their own writing and buying of books, and, instead of trying to emulate prominent authors, working on honing/owning their unique perspectives. Of perhaps the most importance, though, was his view on writerly self-compassion: “Let yourself know when you’ve done good work.” —Carly 

Day 6: Pay Attention To What You Pay Attention To

For the final craft lecture of our Summer Conference, our very own Ann Napolitano discussed the importance of writers living in service of their work. In the first of three sections, titled “Paying Attention,” Napolitano centered on the need for writers to pay attention to the things that hold their interest—namely, inexplicable obsessions that lodge themselves deep in their brains. Drawing on David Lynch’s book Catching the Big Fish, Napolitano explored the idea of the “internal magnet,” which she defined as certain ideas “sticking” to one’s subconscious in the same way magnets stick to a refrigerator door. There is often no discernible rhyme or reason for a particular idea to stick around, she said; something inside you decides, and one’s job as a writer is to lean into the resulting obsession with intention. “Your calibrating magnet is the you of you,” Napolitano said, and listening to it can lead to your best work. In her second section, called “The Inside Job,” Napolitano emphasized the need for writers to turn away from their end goal(s), instead focusing only on the work at hand. Through writing for oneself (instead of for external validation) and, as Rakesh Satyal spoke about in his lecture, having self-compassion, writers will, hopefully, realize that they have agency in choosing where their thoughts go. In turn, this could help writers to experience more mental clarity when writing. For her final section, “The Practical Side,” Napolitano gave practical advice on how to develop one’s writing life with intention and mindfulness, including a list of different lifestyle choices one can use to aid in the development of a regular writing practice. Quoting Annie Dillard, Napolitano said that “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” One’s writing—as well as one’s quality of life—improves when treated seriously. —Carly 

The One Storys Summer Writers Conference ended with memorable readings from all of our students and jokes from the One Story instructors and staff. Tears might have been shed. It has been a pleasure to talk with each and every writer who attended this week-long conference and helped create such a generative, supportive space. We hope your time with us was meaningful and that you created life-long literary friends.

As a parting gift for our fellow writers, some final words from Hannah Tinti: “Your writing is not you. It’s something you have done.”—Andrea

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.”

Irina Reyn reading/”Jeopardy!”

A fan and Irina Reyn show why Jeopardy loves What Happened to Anna KOn Friday, November 7th, Irina Reyn (author of One Story issue #89, “The Wolf Story”) joined us at Pianos to read from her debut novel, What Happened to Anna K. The book is a contemporary retelling of Anna Karenina, but Reyn has taken Tolstoy’s classic and made it her own. Irina is originally from Moscow and when you listen to her reading, you’ll hear my rusty Russian. It is also worth noting that Irina’s novel was recently featured as an answer on “Jeopardy!” She may be the first One Story author who has been mentioned on air by Alex Trebek.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008

The latest edition of the O. Henry Prize Stories is in stores now. Among the winners is the wondrous Alice Munro for a story from The American Scholar called “What Do You Want to Know For?”, William Gass for a story called “A Little History of Modern Music” from Conjunctions, and Alexi Zentner for “Touch” from Tin House (three delicious stories that I devoured yesterday in Prospect Park.) There are also stories by other great writers such as Yiyun Li, William Trevor, Mary Gaitskill, Edward P. Jones and Steven Millhauser. Among the seven recommended stories that weren’t chosen for the collection is One Story issue #89, Irina Reyn’s “The Wolf Story.” These recommended stories are excerpted on the O. Henry Prize Stories website. Congratulations, Irina!