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Lessons from AWP 2014

The first day of #AWP2014 ended brilliantly with Annie Proulx’s keynote, a witty, acerbic and delightful look at the history of publishing since the 1940s, the advances and retreats, the blindness of many to the changes until they were ‘cattle in the feedlot.’ With her hair sticking out in odd directions, a woman far older than I expected who rarely looked up from her script to make eye contact, she charmed the audience utterly and completely, nonetheless.

The panel discussions on craft were standing room only, all the aisles packed with people sitting on the floor, as opposed to the sessions on marketing or publishing. As this is my first AWP, I would say this is predominantly a writer’s conference, or maybe that they’ve underestimated how many writers vs. professors/publishers there are in attendance.

Interesting panel on “How Many Readers is Enough” with outstanding insights by Kelcey Parker who quoted from Virginia Woolf’s diaries in which she worried about her book sales, resigned herself to being obscure. Allison Hedge Coke spoke on the beauty of the ‘sleeper’ book, illustrating how the obscurity allows her freedom to create what she alone can create and talked about a musical analogy of the front-man of a band who takes the limelight, allowing the musicians in the back to create really ground-breaking material. Chad Simpson had a lovely piece on looking for “a dedicated cult following.” All of it was comforting to the audience, writers who struggle to maintain focus on art in this sales-and-money-driven world. Interesting, the panelists acknowledged that writers are somewhat depressed, and during the Q&A a young woman asked the panel, “how do you write and still be happy?” Food for thought.

The session on “Creating Emotional Depth” with Laure-Anne Boselaar, David Jauss, Tim Seibles, Karin de Weille and Robert Vivian was very informative, especially for prose writers who have limited exposure to analysis of poetry. David Jauss six key ways of infusing emotion into prose. 1) The abstract statement, which is the least effective. 2) The internal monologue. 3) The sensory statement, which has two pitfalls, he said, the ‘sensory bypass’ which can usually be detected by words like ‘seems to’ ‘obviously’, ‘appears to’, which requires the reader to insert the sensation; and the ‘sensory glosses’ which appear most frequently, he says, when the writer is talking about the characters eyes i.e. ‘her eyes blazed with anger.’ 4) Direct internal sensations, the most effective method. 5) External body language and spatial relationships. 6) The metaphor, which allows you to particularize an emotion. Metaphors are inherently sensory, he says. Excellent insight, IMHO (in my humble opinion).

Karin de Vielle used a paragraph from Virgin Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to show how form and syntax denotes emotion as well and the beauty of the piece just reminds me what a genius Woolf was and how much I adore her long, convoluted, utterly gorgeous sentences. Robert Vivian posited that play and seriously are not incompatible and that we need to play at writing, to rave as in party with it, as in scream it, to constantly risk absurdity. Laure-Anne Boselaar tells us we need to write keeping in mind the question “what is the emotion that makes the character unable to remain silent” and reminds us that while we are taught to show, show, show, good writing needs a quality of showing AND telling (here, here, I say). Tim Seibles suggests that tone of voice is a vehicle that shows what the writer feels in their gut about the material. Excellent advice, all.

“Creating Unsympathetic Characters” posited an interesting question: do readers demand a protagonist they can ‘like’ and what does that do to the Anna Kareninas of the literary world? Panelists agreed that motiveless malignancy doesn’t work in fiction, but that any character who is understood, can appear successfully in art.

Fascinating AWP panel on novellas: “Less is More than Ever: A New Time for Novellas” with Kathryn Locey, Janet Thielke, Lynn Pruett, Cary Holladay and Lorraine Lopez. The panelists have suggested that it’s time we stop thinking of a novella as a bloated short story or a failed novel but see it as its own art form. (Yes!!) What makes it a novella beyond word count? Panelists say ‘singularity and exclusivity of intent’, ‘definite time and limited setting’ and ‘careful compression and expansion of the narrative.’

Terrific panel on writing historical figures. The panelists reminded us that you ‘don’t have to give a diagnosis of the character’ being written about, which is why, in my opinion, it’s usually best to feature a fictional character who is one step removed from the historical character because you do want to have insight into character or, frankly, you’re not writing fiction. (Although in my new book, A Slender Tether, I do try to give emotional complexity to Christine de Pizan, who historians know but without a sense of who she was as a woman.) Panelists also commented that we struggle with ‘by-gone-eze’ in our writing, that oddly non-descript and irritating dialogue that’s supposed to denote the past.

Here are a few gems from the “Plotting the Realist Novel” panel: one panelist “puts people in extremis to see what they would do to get out or deeper in. All plot starts with an initiating incident or a catalyzing event.” Panelists recommended The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silver. And panelists agreed that “over-tending or making the prose perfect calcifies the action that you can’t break through” which is sage advice against picking at your prose in an early draft.