July Third Thursday Wrap-up

How to Be Good A Literary Citizen

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by WLT Intern Hailey Clement

July’s Third Thursday focused less on writing techniques and instead covered how to be part of the writing community. Creating and finding a place in the writing community is both important and fulfilling, but how to do so isn’t always obvious. To help us navigate this social and professional group, our panelists discussed a variety of topics, advice, and stories. But most of all, they described what it means to be a literary citizen, and how to be a good one.

Reflecting the diversity of writers in the audience, the panel consisted of a varied collection of writers, no two coming from the same background. But despite that, the message was clear: To be a good literary citizen, you must be above all, an authentic human. That may sound a little strange, and sometimes it is a little strange to do, but it is key.

Being part of the literary community involves contributing something, somehow. That can manifest in multiple ways depending on personality and availability. For some, it will be having engaging conversations on Twitter, going to writing events in town, or writing reviews and raving about books to friends.

Jennifer Hill Robenalt, tapping her wisdom as an experienced communications professional, emphasized being authentic. Even over the Internet, it’s clear when someone is lying or just doing something for the attention. So, it means a lot when posts or reviews are sincere and personal. That touch of humanity does come across and helps connect authors as people.

Adding to this sentiment, Cory Putman Oakes asserted that “networking doesn’t have to be creepy!” Done successfully, it’s a great way to make actual friends and connections. These relationships can be personally fulfilling and may lead to professional help from friends, perhaps in the form of blurbs or reviews. Oakes also emphasized that an important part of being in the community is being thankful to those who are helpful and supportive. Just like in real, face-to-face life, common courtesy goes a long way toward building connections with other writers.

François Pointeau brought forth his twofold opinion of bringing people together, and respecting when they want their distance. A good citizen pays it forward constantly, creating or engaging in spaces for writers. For him, this is often through his radio show on KOOP Radio, “Writing on the Air,” but also through attending local events. Meeting someone in person is often the first step to an actual relationship, and events are great ways to find like-minded people. But there will be times when someone declines an invitation or a manuscript. That’s not a problem; it’s just part of the process. The best way to react is respectfully and to move on.

Perhaps the easiest strategy discussed was Michael Noll’s. He strongly believes in reading more books. It is a straightforward and enjoyable way to support fellow writers. Not only do sales help, but that creates the opportunity to write reviews or recommend books to friends. Reviews on GoodReads and Amazon show solidarity with authors, can help with metrics, and or can help a book find a good spot on those virtual bookshelves, but they can also simply make the author feel good. A well written review coupled with tangible support is one of the most direct ways to be an outstanding literary citizen.

What do you do to be a good literary citizen for your community?

Join us at Book People on August 20th for our next Third Thursday panel “Picture This: Creating Illustrated Children’s Books” where Jeff Crosby, Liz Garton Scanlon, Mary Sullivan, and Emma J. Virján will discuss the intricate and delightful world of writing a picture book. See you at 7 pm!

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Third Thursday Wrap-Up

Writing About Poetry:
Passion, Process, and Publication

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By WLT Intern, A.R. Rogers.

For May’s Third Thursday, The Writers’ League invited four poets to define poetry and the practice of their craft. When we bring authors from the same genre together, often we find a rose called by another name, as the world of poetry is, perhaps, the most eclectic of literary arts. Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (The Year of No Mistakes) and Derrick C. Brown (Our Poison Horse) shared ideas from the slam and spoken word traditions. Their lives have been interweaved for nearly two decades since they were both young slam poets, touring the country and sleeping on various couches. They have come a long way since 1996. Aptowicz was the recipient of an NEA, the 2014 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award for Poetry, as well as numerous other awards and residencies; Brown was the winner of the 2013 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award for Poetry, and now runs Write Bloody Publishing.

Sasha West (Failure and I Bury the Body) and Carrie Fountain (Instant Winner) spoke on growing up with poetry in the home and growing up with the absence of poetry respectively, and how each of these environments continue to affect their practice. Though West was surrounded by poetry, it took her well into her adulthood to acknowledge poetry as more than a hobby. Fountain grew up in a blue collar family where poetry was virtually nonexistent.

When asked to define poetry, each poet provided their own unique and insightful answer, but all agreed that poetry involves both the acts of noticing and then distilling something larger from life’s everyday smallness. When prompted to outline their personal writing routines, Fountain spoke of her 5:00 am discipline, which she arrived at by means of necessity as a mother of two small children. West admitted that she doesn’t write every day, and doesn’t know if that will ever be her path. Concerning the actual act of creation, Aptowicz dared to go there: get off of Facebook. While the crowd laughed at this, it’s something we all need to be reminded of. Fountain warned of finding “too much footing” in a poem, and encouraged poets to, instead, teeter on the edge of a poem, while West gave some of the most intriguing advice of the evening, telling us to push every poem as far as we can, and suggested when we think a poem is complete to ask ourselves, “Can you break the poem open?”

Join us at BookPeople for our next Third Thursday on June 18. Our topic will be practicing your pitch with panelists Ellie Scarborough Brett, Tracy Sutton Schorn, and WLT’s own, Becka Oliver.

Third Thursday Wrap-up

Funny Business:
Writing That Makes Us Laugh

 

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by WLT Intern, Max Friedman.

As the humidity finally began to break in Downtown Austin, the third floor event room of BookPeople began to fill with writers and comedy lovers. Tonight’s topic of discussion was writing humor, and as the panelists settled into their seats, they already had smiles on their  faces. To get the ball rolling, the first question was simple: What do you think is funny? Wendi Aarons, an award-winning contributor to McSweeney’s and US Weekly, has always found comedy in ordinary things. “I like comedy that is relatable and pointed, but not mean.” Growing up, she admired the comedic musings of James Thurber and the antics of Carol Burnett. Les McGehee, a comedian and improv pioneer, was quick to make the distinction between “humor” and “comedy.” “Humor is something you have inside of you, and it’s not always a part of comedy.” He went on to say that he admired humor more than comedy, and that interactions with people around him were often funnier than professionally produced content. Neal Pollack, an acclaimed author and journalist, took a more basic approach to answering the question. “I like poop, burps, farts, sex — really anything to do with genitals.” He went on to add that he loved satire, and grew up watching Monty Python, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. Susan Schorn, an author and self defense advocate, said she actually finds comedy in violence. “Most humor is inherently violent if you think about it — that’s why they call it a punchline.” She believes that a joke is funny when it works against some larger social structure, taking a large problem and reducing it to a simple perspective.

The discussion then moved to the idea of humor writing as a career, and how each panelist developed over the years. Wendi said that she has always looked at the funny and absurd aspects of life, and that the desire to write about them was natural. Les remarked: “I’m insufferable, and I never saw an alternative. I saw that I could make some money out of it, and so I kept doing it.” Neal agreed, saying that nothing else ever occurred to him. When asked what he would be doing otherwise, he responded “Only drugs.” As a martial artist and self defense advocate, Susan stated that writing is just one of the three things she does. “I write because I never shut up. I think of things that would sound odd in conversation a lot of the time, so I write them down instead.”

Though the writers all work in similar territory, each of them described different writing processes. Wendi likes to use social media, where she can work with other writers that are alone in their offices too. “I can put jokes out there, and tell right away if they’re duds or not.” Les takes an ordered approach, blocking out time early in the day to work, often relying on deadlines for motivation. Neal agreed with this idea, stating that he forces himself to write at least 5,000 words a week, adding: “If I miss a couple hundred one day, I’ll add it to the next.” Susan relayed a more frantic process, saying that she mostly writes little notes down on scraps of paper. “When the time comes, I’ll force myself to put it all together, and hopefully some kind of cohesive idea begins to form. I can usually clean it up, and they never know how messy it originally was.”

Each of the panelists expressed an affinity for a humorous take on life, but came to writing comedy on different paths. Wendi was a movie producer at Warner Bros until she realized how much she disliked the business. “People always told me I was funny in e-mails, so I decided I’d try to be a copywriter at an advertising agency instead.” After getting laid off from that job she began writing for a magazine in Austin, which led to blogging and writing for McSweeney’s, and eventually to a book deal. Les was a comedian from day one, getting his start by filling time in a high school talent show. He then went on to perform improv around the country, which led to researchers at UT performing a study on him. “They saw me perform improv, and found it fascinating enough to make it the subject of research.” The attention the study garnered led Les to a publishing career as well. Neal found his way to humor writing through journalism, as he started off writing for a newspaper in Chicago. “I began writing humor pieces for the newspaper, and I would read them aloud in theaters around town.” He ended up compiling them and mailing them to Dave Eggers, who then published four of the pieces in the first issue of McSweeney’s. This process led to a long career in book publishing. Susan followed a similar path, beginning to find her comedic voice in graduate school. She found McSweeney’s and began sending work there, which actually led to a publisher contacting her for a book deal — an unusual occurrence in the industry.

As it came time to wrap up, each of the writers offered up pieces of advice for the crowd. Wendi suggested that writers read as much humor as they can. “You need to find what you relate to, and practice writing until you find your voice. But don’t force a joke. Don’t try too hard.” Les suggested that budding writers test their material on Twitter, and that they look to classic comedians to get the timing of comedy right. “Sometimes a bit will be funny just because of the rhythm, you need to be able to deliver jokes in that format.” Les also went on to add that comedians should never rely on using profanity. “No comedian has ever made money from repeating one word over and over again, and swearing is no exception.” Neal echoed Wendi’s sentiment, emphasizing that writers need to find a voice. “You have, if you’re human, something specific about you. Hone in on that.” Susan focused on the aspect of testing material in front of an audience, but also on having a expansive knowledge of comedic writing. “You need to go back to the classics: Thurber, Vonnegut, Jack Handey. You can’t just focus on current, relevant comedy because it’s too watered down. You need to rely on timeless jokes to develop a true comedic voice.”

If you enjoyed this discussion, come to our next Third Thursday panel at BookPeople on May 21 at
7:00 PM. Our topic will be “Writing Poetry: Passion, Process, and Publication.”

See you there!

Third Thursday Wrap-up

Writing About Texas

 

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By WLT Board President, Tony Burnett

Texas is widely recognized as a hotbed of literary talent. If you regularly attend the Writers’ League of Texas’ Third Thursday panels, this will come as no surprise. The March event brought stratospheric levels of accomplishment to the panel. Rarely can one find this much talent in one room.

The panel included author Stephen Harrigan, who was born in Oklahoma City but educated in Texas. He has written both nonfiction and fiction set in our great state. His works wrestle with the idea of Texas and why Texans are Texans. He has won numerous awards including the Spur Award for the Best Novel of the West. He is also an accomplished and prolific screenwriter. Carol Dawson is a native Texan whose ancestors settled in Texas along the Red River before Texas even became a state. She comes from a long line of educators. Her grandmother taught English to Bill Moyers when he was a student in Marshall, Texas. She has written extensively in both the nonfiction and literary fiction genres and is currently working on a 100 year history of the Texas Department of Transportation. A longtime member and supporter of the Writers’ League of Texas, she will be teaching a class on revision at our retreat in Alpine this summer. Elizabeth Crook has also won the Spur Award. Her most recent historical novel, Monday, Monday, is set at the University of Texas in 1966 when Charles Whitman tragically instigated the first school shooting in America. Her ancestors came from England but she calls Texas home, having lived in Nacogdoches and San Marcos. She feels her work will continue to be set in Texas as it offers a wealth of opportunity for storytelling. Though James L. (Jim) Haley was born in Oklahoma, he went to school in Fort Worth and is now a resident of Austin. He has written extensively about Texas history and government in both the nonfiction and fiction genres. He feels the old Texas voices still reside in the soil of rural Texas. Authentic folk tales and oral history permeate his writing. James is yet another Spur Award winner, and has won several other awards including the Tullis Prize from the Texas State Historical Association and the T. R. Fehrenbach Book Award from the Texas Historical Commission. He also writes for the Texas Bar Association.

As you can imagine the panel was a hotbed of information about writing within the historical framework of a location. Anecdotes about researching and fact-checking were exchanged with all the authors agreeing that the Internet has made this much easier, though sources on the web are not always reliable. Most agreed that when possible, it is best to interview living sources face-to-face.

When asked about what audience a narrative would be written for, the answers varied. Jim suggested researching and running with it, generally writing for yourself and then letting the book find the audience. Carol admitted that different books have different markets. Novels, being about human interaction, have a wide audience but research is still required for the story to be authentic, and nonfiction is sometimes more specific in its target. Elizabeth writes for a specific audience open to human interest. If it’s moving and compelling it will find its niche. Stephen writes for a universal audience, not specifically Texan. He writes with curiosity, telling his own story in his own voice. If it’s accurate and authentic it will find the readership.

The writers agreed that writing in Texas is changing. The state is becoming more urbanized and losing some of its rural flavor. Though Texas was once sovereign with a small town atmosphere, its narrative must now be approached with new eyes as it continues to change. The deep rich history of our state and diversity of cultures allow for a wide range of approaches. From genre fiction to a narrow dispensation of factual information the rich heritage allows writers the opportunity to explore.

This is the type of information the Writers’ League of Texas presents monthly at absolutely no cost to the general public. Join us tomorrow, April 16th for the next Third Thursday. Our panel will be about humor writing with writers Wendi Aarons, Les McGehee, Neal Pollack, and Susan Schorn. See you there!

Tony Burnett has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 2010 and currently serves on the Board of Directors. His story collection, Southern Gentlemen, will be released January 10, 2015. He resides with his trophy bride, Robin, deep in the heart of Texas.

Third Thursday Wrap-up

When Less is More:
Writing Short Stories, Essays, and Flash Fiction

By Writers’ League Intern, Max Friedman

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As the clock struck 7:00, the attendees of February’s Third Thursday panel settled down into their seats. The panelists took small sips from their water bottles, preparing to tackle tonight’s theme: writing short stories, essays, and flash fiction. To begin, each panelist talked about their writing roots. Steve Adams, an accomplished short story and memoir writer and writing coach, started out in the acting program at UT. He claimed, however, that “The best thing that ever happened to me was getting kicked out.” From there, he found himself gravitating towards writing. Meg Pokrass, the widely-published short/flash fiction writer and author of Bird Envy, had similar beginnings. She was working in New York as an actor, but found herself moving towards writing and away from the stage. When speaking of the two fields, she said, “The two have a very similar skill set in terms of paying attention to sensation.” Steve agreed with this sentiment, going on to say that actors need to have a good narrative sense to keep a scene going. Kelly Luce, author of the short story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail (a 2013/2014 Writers’ League Book Awards finalist in fiction), did not come from an acting background, but was a science major in school. She found herself moving to writing gradually, doing it as a hobby until she finally realized it could be something more. Our last panelist, Robert Shapard, editor of the anthology Flash Fiction International, came into writing and editing after doing various odd jobs. He was always attracted to reading and writing, recalling that in his spare time “I would sneak into the back of college classes and listen to the lectures.”

The panelists then moved on to discuss their writing processes, and the advantages of writing short work. A common theme was the necessity of a coffee shop-like atmosphere, with a good amount of white noise. Robert added: “The worst place is a deadly silence.” Though, Kelly had a different opinion and feels that sometimes it’s better to separate yourself from others, “It can be better having an isolated space where nobody can bother you.” For each of the writers, their process of getting ideas proved fascinating. Meg usually gets a prompt from a newspaper, while Steve needs to distract himself until ideas come to him. Kelly likes to listen to people’s stories and take bits from strange news events, while Robert usually relies on images and things that come to him in dreams. In terms of the proposed advantages of writing short work, the panel shared similar sentiments. Steve believes, “It’s good to put the long form stuff down, and get some short work done. You get some confidence with short work.” Kelly echoed this idea, warning people against forcing themselves to sit in a room by themselves for months to write a long piece. In terms of technology, Meg believes that the mobile device revolution has made short form a lot more popular, as people can read it on the go.

At this point in the night, the focus shifted more towards the publishing side of the process. Steve and Meg had different helpful tricks of the trade to share. Steve recommended a site called Duotrope, which offers information on a plethora of literary journals. He added: “if you go down to the bottom, and this is my big trick, it’ll say people who submitted to this journal also submitted to these other journals. So that’ll give you other options.” Meg offered her personal trick: “Go to the list of award-winning Flash Fictions, and see where they were published. There’s a list every year of the best 50.” As an important caveat, the panelists all stressed the need for a writer to be persistent in their submissions. Kelly shared the submission record of one of her stories, which in the end took 53 attempts to get published. Steve added: “This is what you have to do, it’s just the system.”

An aspect of writing that can be troublesome for many, is the necessity for critique and revision by others. Kelly stated that if you don’t have the time to come back to the piece, you should have your friends look at it. Steve agreed, saying you must show it to someone else, because they might be able to find a hole in the story that you can’t see. In the digital age, there are many online options for this process as well. Meg offered: “Zoetrope Virtual Studio is a great resource. It’s a free online writing community that you can get feedback from.” Another site mentioned was Fictionaut, which offers a similar service to Zoetrope Virtual Studio.

As it came time to wrap up, each of the writers offered up pieces of advice for the crowd. Steve said: “Realize that everyone makes it up on their own. Just begin with one step.” Meg urged the listeners to lower their standards and just write, stating that eventually they would get to something good. Kelly stressed the importance of staying excited about your work, “However you can trick yourself into doing that, as long as your way doesn’t involve smoking crack.” Lastly, Robert offered up the notion that a writer need not take classes. He added, “You just need to read, and read closely. It’s all there, you need to take it in.”

If you enjoyed this discussion, come to our next Third Thursday panel at BookPeople on March 19 at 7:00 pm. Our topic will be “”Capturing Texas: Writing About the Greatest State in the Union.”

See you there!

Max Friedman is a sophomore at UT studying English and Spanish. He enjoys exploring Austin’s culinary and live music opportunities in his free time, and writing for Texas Travesty, UT’s satirical newspaper. He edits poetry for UT’s AnalectaLiterary & Arts Journal, and his own work has been published in UT’s Hothouse Literary Journal.

Third Thursday Wrap-up

Writing About Loved Ones:
Telling the Truth without Losing Your Place at the Holiday Table

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By WLT Intern, Lily Angelle

We’re in the thick of the holiday season, so it seems appropriate that our last Third Thursday of the year dealt with memoir writing, and the personal and familial struggles that come with telling the truth publicly.

Our panelists were: Robert Rummel Hudson, author of Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey with His Wordless Daughter; Donna M. Johnson, author of Holy Ghost Girl; and Leila Levinson, author of Gated Grief.

These authors toyed with the idea of writing memoirs for years – Leila, who taught Holocaust literature at St. Edward’s Unviersity, delved into a lifetime of research after she found old WWII photographs of her late father that revealed him to be a liberator of a concentration camp. Completely boggled by this news she’d been completely unaware of until then, she began to research transgenerational trauma, or the notion of transferable trauma from one survivor to second and further generations.

Donna was a young child when she was immersed in her part-time stepfather’s Evangelist tent revivals along the Sawdust trail in the 60’s and 70’s. She held these experiences inside for years until college. She found herself writing about her evangelist upbringing in creative writing courses where, she joked, she always received A’s on her pieces.

Robert’s daughter Schuyler was born with a disability called polymicrogyria, a rare neurological disorder. He started blogging when she was very young, and then decided to incorporate his anecdotes, hardships and successes as a father into a book that became a sort of love letter to his daughter.

The panelists all agreed that with memoir writing comes a certain requirement of discretion toward yourself and the people you’re writing about. Donna spoke of her strong reservations when deciding whether or not to write a memoir that would make vulnerable the lies and deception that went on inside the tent revivals as well as her family unit; “What sort of person does this to her family? And I thought, ‘a writer.'” Leila experienced some conflict with her brother through the publishing of her memoir, explaining that it’s no easy feat when your family lives in the silence of the past, and as siblings living in the same household, they came away with two radically different perspectives of traumatic events. Robert’s publisher hired a lawyer to go over each sentence in his book, marking anything that could get him in trouble. Having included a chapter in his book detailing personal marital conflicts with his wife, Robert said that it’s one thing when you’re in your house with the lights dimmed, typing on your laptop, and another when the manuscript is being passed along between in-laws, and up for publication in major magazines. The panelists stressed that in a writer’s unyielding efforts to tell the truth and portray an honest image, remember that you don’t have to include everything.

When asked about the research and process of memoir writing, the panelists offered that memoir writing should be the act of opening yourself up to surprise. Donna said, “Hopefully you’re discovering your story as you go along.” Leila returned to her childhood house to find inspiration; she also took her family with her to the northeast to conduct interviews with survivors.

Donna mustered up the courage to return to a tent revival, wanting to take in the sights and smells and reacquaint herself with the specific drawl of the southern preachers. Robert’s research and subject was right there in his home. He said the real research is watching Schuyler grow up. When he wrote the book she was a toddler, but now, as he works on a follow-up book, she’s fifteen and is a self-actualized human who has more expectations of privacy.

If there was one obvious takeaway from November 20th’s Third Thursday, it was that memoir writing certainly takes courage. While there are clear personal struggles over what to include or exclude, the humility of loved ones hinge on your decisions. Deciding what to reveal may not be so easy, but then, so much can be learned when you just go for it.

Lily Angelle is an intern with The Writers’ League, and writes screenplays and short fiction in her free time. She aspires to have her work published one day in the near to reasonably eventual future. When she’s not writing, Lily is scouring thrift stores for cool old things or jogging around parts of Austin with ample foliage. 

October Third Thursday Wrap-up

Ghostwriting:
Unseen Authors Tell Their Tales

 

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By Tony Burnett

As the edge of night approached our fair city on the Third Thursday of October, passionate souls from across the region converged in the cavernous upper room of BookPeople to share in a long celebrated tradition. Throughout decades of history members and guests of the Writers’ League of Texas gather every Third Thursday of all months not beginning with the letter D to study their craft. This meeting was special. Though every Third Thursday is known for the sharing of means and secrets to strengthen skills, on this night the panel included three editors who have crossed over…. into ghost writing.

We weren’t talking about horror, or even light fantasy. This panel was about secrets, the behind-the-scenes careers of writers who take on a project for others who have a story to tell or an idea to sell but who aren’t interested or capable of producing a tome. Our panelists were: Lari Bishop, an editor for John Wiley & Sons and Greenleaf Books who now owns Draft Lab; Stephanie Land, a former editor for Random House  and Penguin’s Portfolio imprint, who has collaborated with a National Book Award winner and a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist; and Joni Rodgers, author of the best-selling memoir, Bald in the Land of Big Hair and who often collaborates with high-profile celebrities, politicos and other extraordinary people. Though these panelists came to ghostwriting from backgrounds as diverse as bluegrass bands, theater and the financial industry, they all established themselves as editors before becoming ghostwriters. All panelists agreed that to make any project successful required that they not only be invested in the concept, but a have passion for the idea. Anything less would result in catastrophe.

Though their stories were fascinating and often complex, the one commonality in the panelists was their unwillingness, for the most part, to share the names of their clients or the works they collaborated on. It turned out there were legal reasons for this. In most cases ghostwriters are contractually bound to secrecy. Though a ghostwriter may be mentioned in the acknowledgments, it is rare that they make it to the cover.

All panelists agreed that working with a celebrity or a business tycoon not only helped the ghostwriter have a greater understanding of their client, but also helped them gain insight into themselves. They all mentioned the necessity of asking the hard questions: Why is this important? Why now? Who is your audience? It’s also important to push the client into a self-examination in order to authenticate the story.

Ghostwriting requires experience, the willingness to see the world from your subject’s point of view and a strong grasp of the market and publishing process. It’s not easy, but it’s not scary.

Join us November 20 at 7 PM for our next panel, Writing About Loved Ones: Telling the Truth Without Losing Your Place at the Holiday Table.

Tony Burnett has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 2010 and currently serves on the Board of Directors. His story collection, Southern Gentlemen, will be released January 10, 2015. He resides with his trophy bride, Robin, deep in the heart of Texas.