The Muse and the Marketplace | Day One

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by Jessica A. Kent

Today was Day One of the three-day The Muse and the Marketplace conference, hosted by GrubStreet at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. I wanted to give a little recap on how the day went, let you know about the vibe, and about the sessions I went to. If you were there, too, I hope you’ll add your experiences in the comments. If you weren’t there, or maybe have been on the fence about coming to Muse, I hope you’ll consider attending in the future!

The Muse and the Marketplace (“Muse”) is the only conference of its kind in Boston, featuring multiple days of workshops and sessions for writers on both the craft of writing and the business of writing (something which is lacking in traditional writing programs, but more on that for another blog post). Muse doesn’t just feature writers, but hosts editors and agents as well, who not only give behind-the-scenes advice, but will actually read and critique your manuscript. There’s something for everyone here, but most importantly, you can’t really be passive at Muse. I ended up at some of the bigger sessions, but even those were interactive. I know some of the smaller sessions were conducting writing exercises and full-on discussions in seminar settings. And everyone was into it. Can I mention that I showed up this morning and breakfast was loud and ruckus? Writers were sitting at tables with other writers - maybe people they didn’t even know! - at 8:00am, making noise. That’s when you know something is special about this conference.

Welcome
Eve Bridburg, founder and executive director of GrubStreet, and Sonya Larson, director of the Muse, kicked it all off with a welcome, and the recognition that each person there was putting "writing at the center of your life for one weekend.” (That theme would come back around with Min Jin Lee’s magnificent keynote talk.) They talked about the JENGA puzzles that either towered or scattered in the middle of all the tables, each piece containing a rule of writing that everyone was encouraged to play with, as one of the themes emerging as the conference cohered was the idea of ruling-breaking. Organize the rules, then pull out the rules one by one. And then, of course, they addressed the passing this week of author Anita Shreve. Shreve was significantly integrated into the Grub community - friend, board member, teacher, leading Muse sessions, and more - and a scholarship and fellowship are being created in her name.

Min Jin Lee - “Keynote: How to Stay a Writer”
Min Jin Lee, author of last year's successful Pachinko, and winner of a Guggenheim fellowship just yesterday, took the stage and did what I could only describe as set the tone for the conference. She’s fifty, quit her full-time job twenty-four years ago to become a writer, and has only two books published - she wanted us to know that first. She wanted us to know that she saw how much of a financial sacrifice being at the Muse may be for some. She wanted us to know that she understood our desires, to want to be able to create, to want signs and lessons and reassurance, to want companions on our journey, readers of our writing, perfect agents, brilliant editors. “I wish I could give these things to you,” she said. When she first started writing she couldn’t afford an MFA, and instead took free classes and saved up to attend conferences like this one. She said she understood wanting to ask questions but maybe being too afraid to, “that lump in your throat filled with the longing to be recognized.” She got emotional; so did all the rest of us, because we all understood. In hearing the life story she laid out for us, one of health and significant illness, becoming a lawyer for security and then becoming a writer for the desire to tell stories, of taking years to write a novel and then scrapping it, only to pick it up years later and write it again, Lee’s journey has not been easy. She told us of the party the National Book Award nominees have, where she invited her entire family…only to lose. She talked of not getting fellowships, not getting teaching positions. Yet she possess a joy in the journey, a gratefulness for all she has, it seems, in awe of all she’s gained. And in many ways, she was the perfect start to the Muse. We may have gotten some early successes as a writer; we may be getting older and have yet to see a publication. We may have been passed over for fellowships, too, or seen our time devoted to family or illness or in other ways away from our writing. Min Jin Lee’s story is not the "30 Under 30" success story, something unattainable. It’s relatable, and encouraging, because it could be anyone of us, who keeps at it until it happens, day after day, pushing towards the dream. To wrap up her talk, she noted that “art is valued incorrectly all the time,” and encouraged us to see the value of our writing, even as something to be loved.

Kelly J. Ford - “Networking for Reticent Writers"
Significantly inspired, we all spread out to the first session. Kelly J. Ford is an upcoming voice in Boston, with her first novel Cottonmouths having just been published. Also, I had to check out a session about networking for writers, which might be the most practical sessions at Muse, and a skill that writers especially don’t think they need, but do, in a world where marketing duties are falling more and more to the author. The general consensus is that writers are typically introverts, and networking as an introvert is challenging. She insisted up front that there was so much us conference-goers have in common already, and that approaching networking as what someone can do for us, rather than what we both can get out of the experience, is the wrong way of looking it. Ford broke networking down into a series of manageable chunks, which she progressed through with the attendees. First? What are your strengths. By naming your strengths, you’re able to build up your confidence before heading in. (Some of the attendees shared these.) Next, recognize areas of improvement to keep in mind. (Some of the attendees shared these, too.) She stressed creating goals for yourself in regards to networking, sharing past failures and successes, and insisting that it can be as simple as saying hello to one person, or getting one business card. Just like preparing for a job interview, you should prepare the conversation you’re going to have, and even practice a pitch. (Some brave souls did just that, and practiced their pitch on us!) Next was advice on how to join a group during those big cocktail hours; “Do you mind if I join you?” is all you really need. Finally, envision the worst case scenario. It probably will never, ever happen. But if it does? Just do better next time. Time ran out for the session, but her handout was like a workbook on preparing for networking, along with a list of resources on finding local writing communities.

Fauzia Burke - “The 3-Step Formula for Building an Author Platform”
In keeping with the theme of the business/marking/promotion portion of a writer’s toolkit, I attended this session with Fauzia Burke, a San Diego-based internet marketing expert who specializes in authors, and who has been working in this field for twenty years. First is design: Make sure that you have a real author photo, one that will leave a good first impression and make people want to work with you. (She showed us some photos that were…not up to standards!). Make sure you have a good website that people interested in you will want to visit. Make sure you’re interacting on social media (she recommended starting with two social media platforms, and working up if you need to). Make sure you have an attractive, applicable book jacket (not so much to worry about with traditional publishing, as the marketing department will take care of it, but something to worry about if you’re self-publishing and think your kid’s recent drawing would make a great cover). Second is engagement: Start blogging on a regular basis to show your potential audience that you can write. Interact with people on social media. Make a video. But most importantly, start an e-newsletter. Burke stressed that while social media followers don’t “belong” to you, your mailing list does. They are the audience you can cultivate, who want to hear from you. Once design and engagement are set, then there’s visibility: This includes blogging on your own site, or asking bigger sites to host your posts. This also includes publicity (which is free promotion building credibility) or advertising (which is paid promotion). It also includes doing book events - signings, readings, generally getting out there. Many people had a lot of great questions, but a few focused on one thing: Should I have one online presence for my different writing, or should I have each genre or project on a different site? The answer: Have it in one place, and let me follow your journey and evolution as a writer. 

Lunch and Wandering
There’s a bookstore, of course, run by the wonderful folks at Porter Square Books, in what they’re calling the Authors’ Bazaar. There, you can find more information about GrubStreet, some local literary magazines, information on getting professional author headshots, and more. In the main registration area were tables housing information on the Emerson College and Lesley University MFA programs, an organization called Dream of Travel Writing, info from the Mystery Writers of America, and the Editorial Freelancers Association. I walked back by the ballroom, and saw a few individuals at tables around the expansive room, and realized these were part of the Manuscript Mart, where attendees can sign up to have a one-on-one with an editor or literary agent, who has previously read twenty pages of the attendees manuscript. 

Pamela Dorman, Mira T. Lee, and Louise Miller - “A Rockstar Editor’s Perspective on Revision"
Mira T. Lee and Louise Miller, both of whom are local authors with recent releases, conducted an interview on their editor, Pamela Dorman - who happens to be enough of a rockstar editor to have her own imprint under Viking Penguin (how cool is that?). She’s worked with some pretty significant authors in her twenty-five years as an editor, and gave a neat behind-the-scenes look into what that’s like. Most of the time, she admitted, she was replying to emails, delivering copies of novels to sales people, building relationships, asking for blurbs (terrible!), doing publicity and marketing, and the like. But the thing she continued to circle back to, when asked what she looks for when she reads something for the first time, was that she wants to fall in love with it. It has to be something she can’t stop reading; the characters have to be engaging and interesting; she loves that moment when she begins reading something and goes “Oh my god, oh my god” (and needs to get money quickly to secure it!). As for when she acquired new books, the timing is up to when the writer finishes it, and when the agent sends it out to publishing houses. She gave some insight, too, into how editors acquire books through agents, either by preemptively paying for it, or by putting it to auction. Dorman, Lee, and Miller talked about the revisions process as well, how it’s different for each writer, and how they need to come to a trust with their editor while they make those revisions again and again. Lee remembered how after she got revisions, she was resistant to them, but as she started working through them it became easier; she didn’t want to rip up her novel again, but trusted Dorman (for instance, it was Dorman’s insistence that the sister relationship become the forefront of Everything Here is Beautiful). The entire session not only helped demystify the publishing process, but also showed that you can have an editor who is excited about your work, can be trusted to help shape it, and who will be your biggest cheerleader.

Kim van Alkemade - “World Building in Historical Fiction”
Because I am also a historical fiction writer, I selfishly went to this session, lead by Kim van Alkemade, the author of two historical fiction novels, Orphan #8 and Bachelor Girl. van Alkemade presented us with three calls to action: Build the physical world of the past, situate the characters in it, and recognize the diversity of the time. There are a lot of various methods to researching the physical world, and we talked about how to get a hold of primary documents (and why you should), how photographs can give you a view into what your characters would have seen at the time, and more. Overall, though, works of historical fiction are about the character’s emotional journey, not the history lesson (as much as we would like to stop and give a page of interesting facts). Sometimes you may read a dozen books and only use one tiny bit from it. van Alkemade gave examples from her work about ways historical facts suggested stories, and created touch-points for the characters and scenes in which to place them in. The thing to remember, though, is to make sure your characters are seeing the world through the context they have available at the time. Something that van Alkemade went back to a few times, which I think is something not much mentioned in writing historical fiction, is to not overlook the diversity at the time. People of color and of different religions and of different sexual orientation were present, but may have been spoken about in different ways unfamiliar to us now. As an example, van Alkemade explained the research she did around how a gay character in the 1920s would have been viewed - not easy to write, but necessary to presenting the time accurately. It was a smaller session, but she encouraged participation, and it was fascinating to hear what other people were working on, how they had gone about their research, and what tips they had for the group!

Lit Lounge and Shop Talk
During the dinner break, food and a cash bar was provided at the Lit Lounge, a chance to eat, drink, and network. Another interaction with agents was provided to attendees in the Shop Talk Happy Hour, hosted at Maggiano’s Restaurant nearby, where attendees were able to book a table with a literary agents - two literary agents to a table of three attendees. It’s an opportunity to ask the questions you want to ask of the professionals, and make connections. 

Spotlight: Race and Power in Boston
The final session of the day focused on the Boston Globe Spotlight team that produced the “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.” report that debuted back in December. Moderated by local journalist Latoyia Edwards, the Spotlight team - Andrew Ryan, Adrian Walker, and Patricia Wen - spoke about their experience writing the feature. It was sparked by two incidents last year: comedian Michael Che commenting that our city is the “most racist city in America,” and the incident at Fenway Park where a racial slur was called at a black player on the opposing team. Those incidents incited significant commentary from the community, and so the team decided to investigate the current state of things in Boston, and if there had been improvement since the piece they published addressing institutional racism back in 1983. The short answer is that it hadn’t changed. The team looked at specific areas, including hospitals, college, sports, politics (who gets to sit at the table?), and the Seaport district (which was supposed to be created as a neighborhood of diversity, but instead became another affluent white neighborhood). The questions Edwards kept returning to was “Why?” and “What really is going on?” And that’s where the conversation began, opened up to the audience, where nine audience members voiced their concerns about the open racism in the city, about what they believed the root issues were, what they saw playing out in the neighborhoods, and solutions to it. The session was only a little over an hour long, and nothing long-term was solved in the room. But these conversations are essential in trying to understand what actually is happening: Are too many people from outside of Boston moving in and diminishing populations? Is there institutional racism that’s so embedded nobody sees it anymore? Why isn’t Boston attracting affluent black professionals like other cities have been able to do? Why is Boston only one of two cities in America to have never had a non-white mayor? If the Seaport district has turned into an affluent white neighborhood, will GrubStreet’s potential future presence there change the writing center - or will the writing center be able to bring diversity, inclusion, and new voices into the area, the goal all along? This was a bold topic to have, and a bold move to have open up to conversation, but I think the dialogue tonight was needed, respectful, and hopefully able to get to something long-reaching.

Overall, a great first day, with a wonderful welcome and some great sessions. I got to meet some folks I had been wanting to meet, and learned some new things to put into practice on both the writing and business side. But literary conferences, with their full day of sessions and their connection opportunities, are no fun sick. (I was sick last year for AWP, same thing, what the heck?) But we press on, because things like this are too important and wonderful to miss (and at least I made it through the day without passing out!). Tomorrow I will be healthier!

Remember: I’m only one person and was only able to go to one session at a time, which only represented one of twelve sessions happening in each block. Which sessions did you get to go to? Let us know below!