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 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.

About One Story’s next online class and how to become your own best editor

Will PhotoIn the summer of 1996, a few months after I finished my MFA at Ohio State, I got the luckiest break of my writing career: I landed an editorial job at Story, the fabled literary magazine that prided itself on discovering great new writers, from J. D. Salinger and Carson McCullers in the 1930s and 1940s to Junot Díaz and our own Hannah Tinti in the 1990s.

I say it was the luckiest break of my career because even though I’d been writing fiction for eight years, editing stories taught me how to write them much better. My job at Story also gave me insight into what I could expect when the day came that I’d be working with an editor myself.

In this latest incarnation of our popular editing course, you’ll get a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the editorial process. You’ll also learn to bring the same sharp editorial eye to your own work that the editors of One Story bring to each issue. Daily online lectures will guide you through a case study of a One Story debut, issue #191, “Claire, the Whole World,” by Jonathan Durbin. You’ll follow the story from first draft to publication—studying actual marked-up manuscripts—as the author and editors work together to make the story the best it can be.

In addition to drafts of “Claire, the Whole World,” the ten-day course (November 13th – 22nd) will include daily online lectures, assignments, and a message board where you can share ideas and manuscripts with other writers who are committed to becoming better editors of their own work. To find out more about this course, go here. Deadline to sign up is November 13th.

I hope you’ll join us!