The Muse and the Marketplace | Day Two

by Jessica A. Kent

The Muse and the Marketplace continued today (take a read through Day One!), with more fantastic sessions and speakers and topics and interactions. I chatted with a woman this morning who’s a frequenter of literary conferences, but it’s her first Muse. She said she was significantly impressed by it, but mostly by the presenters - they not only know what they’re talking about, they’re great teachers as well. 

The day kicked off with eager early-risers gathering for breakfast, and I had the chance to chat up the table I was at, find out where people were from (Boston, very far from Boston), and what they were working on (fiction, memoir, YA). It’s been a pleasant surprise this weekend to find that so many people are mid-project, and it’s been a delight to hear what everyone is working on. What’s even more encouraging and fantastic is that everyone is making an effort to tell a story they have inside of them. It’s a small world as well: Two people at the table found out they have a former teacher in common!

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Peter Ho Davies - “Appropriation: Uh-oh, No-no, or #Appropro?”
GrubStreet is asking the big questions. In almost a continuation of last night’s Spotlight discussion on racism in Boston, Peter Ho Davies gave the mid-conference keynote about cultural appropriation in fiction. Davies, who joked about appropriating his British accent from John Oliver, explained that it was a conversation worth having, albeit a little uncomfortable. The trouble began with writer Lionel Shriver, who, at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival, delivered a speech about “fiction and identity” that ended up with her in a sombrero insisting that writers should be able to write whatever they want, and that anything else is censorship. The talk, which quickly went viral in the writing community, provoked (quite literally) the need for a conversation around cultural appropriation - who can tell what story? Davies’ response is that fiction writers can’t write in a vacuum, and that identity doesn’t exist in a vacuum either: You can’t write about blackness without whiteness, and even Joyce couldn’t write about Dublin without writing about London. A writer can write what they choose, but must be humble about it and bear the responsibility; be thoughtful and respectful; look inward and know your own limitations. Ultimately, it’s hard to do well. Davies also shared a story about his own missteps in appropriation when he “borrowed” a private story of his wife’s to use in a piece of fiction. His wife, who later wrote an essay about the experience, felt the story was “stolen.” What the exchange revealed is that you need to question whether the story is yours to write, if it’s not actually your story. It also revealed a power dynamic that is oftentimes behind this: the more successful writer “borrows” stories from the less successful writer, or the more privileged white writer tells the stories people of color can’t. After his talk, local author Celeste Ng and one of Davies’ former students, joined him for a Q&A. They agreed they were tired of talking about Lionel Shriver, but the larger questions and discussions she incited have been meaningful.

Sorche Fairbank and Ayesha Pande - "Query Clinic: Live Feedback on Query Letters”
You can never get too much advice about crafting query letters. In the style of Writer Idol (which would take place Sunday), attendees were encouraged to bring a query letter for their current project, which was read out loud. Literary agents Ayesha Pande and Sorche Fairbank raised their hand when they would stop reading, and gave feedback on the letter. They got through a dozen of them - fiction, memoir, YA, and more (again, people are working on fascinating things!) - and some of the advice that surfaced was as follows: don’t clutter up the letter with multiple names - keep it to no more than three; a cluttered query letter may signal a cluttered novel; mention a few comp books in your query, usually published in the past few years, to ground the agent in what your project is like; keep the query under a page; there’s a lot of memoir being sold right now, so you need to have a fresh take on it; generalities won’t work, so don’t be afraid to go deep and personal; agents are looking to see if you can tell a story; give your themes and the big picture up front; don’t tell the agent your book is awesome, let them decide by telling a great story; always include a bio, which should be the intersection of you and your project; and finally, get as many details out of the way first (title, word count) so the agent can focus on your story.

Jennifer De Leon, Jennifer Chen Tran, Patricia Engel, Eric Smith, Asata Radcliffe, Christine Pride - “Agents and Editors of Color Roundtable”
Now in its third year, the “Agents and Editors of Color Roundtable” was moderated by local author Jennifer De Leon, and consisted of a diverse group of publishing professionals - Jennifer Chen Tran is a literary agent, Patricia Engel is a writer, Eric Smith is a literary agent, Asata Radcliffe is a reviewer, and Christine Pride is an editor - who shared their experiences about the state of representation in publishing today. The first question was Roses and Thorns: What are some great things you’ve experienced, and what are some not-so-great things. The roses were great: A book I represent just came out, or made the NYT bestseller list, the emails I receive from readers thanking me for writing the book I did, encouragement from a respected colleague, being able to create a new kind of publication that fills a need. The thorns were not: Writers were hesitant to work with me, publishers didn’t want to publish me because they’ve “already published another book like this,” hearing respected colleagues brush off doing the responsible work of learning another culture, an author being expected to "perform" their culture. The next question was about how they got to where they are. Radcliffe shared about how she was initially asked to start reviewing books for Kirkus, and not only found little representation from writers of color in the books she reviewed, but found a lot of white writers writing about what they knew little of. She explained how getting reviewed means being in the catalogues for libraries; no writers of color being reviewed means no writers of color getting into school libraries, prison libraries, etc. (She announced the debut of the new 2040 Review, a literary review magazine featuring writers of color reviewing writers of color.) Tran stated clearly that she didn’t ask permission to get where she was; she was always interested in literature, and ended up starting her own literary agency, inserting herself in the business. She shared a story about meeting Junot Diaz, and how he told her to stick it out, because there were not many literary agents who looked like her, and the industry needed it. The discussion then curved towards the structure of the publishing industry today: Deep-seated traditions in the Big 5 that are slow to change; how traditional review sites hold long-standing relationships with publishers who were formed long before the Civil Rights era; how the starting salary for an assistant starts at $37,000 in New York City, effectively preventing anyone from a non-affluent background from getting into this industry; how much of the hiring is done through traditional means (hire your cousin’s kid because they’re available, going through Ivy League feeders, etc.), and should be revisited in order to get more diverse representation among the industry. Much time at the end was left for questions - What would you tell your younger self now? (“It’s not going to get easier,” “You never really arrive, so don’t wait for that,” “There’s always a way through”); Is diversity in publishing a trend or here to stay? (“Not a trend, but a movement,” “YA lit is already leaps and bounds ahead of the adult world [in the area of representation]”); and more.

Christopher Castellani - “The Art of Perspective”
Since you can never talk too much about POV and narrative voice (ask my friends), I wanted to attend GrubStreet artistic director Christopher Castellani’s session “The Art of Perspective," based on his book of the same name. Perspective, or narrative strategy, goes beyond whether the book is told in first person or third person; it goes to the heart of how the story is formed, and for what purposes. The narrator tells the story, but the story is also the narrator, and the reader learns everything they know though that narrator. Castellani very helpfully overviewed how he arrived at the narrative choices in his novel All This Talk of Love, and answered questions from the attendees on any issues they were facing in their works. We then spent a good amount of time examining examples of filtered consciousness (perhaps the most distant narrative technique) to free indirect style (the closest, most intimate technique) in the work of E.M. Forster.

Tim Weed - “Beyond Conflict: Sources of Narrative Drive in Fiction”
In continuing with an afternoon of digging into narrative techniques, I attended Grub instructor Tim Weed’s session on building narrative drive, or the thing that will keep a reader turning the pages. There are three sources of narrative drive (that go beyond just conflict). The first is inner conflict, or microtensions, where a character goes back and forth on feelings for another, for instance, familial duties, or between two opposing desires in their life. Weed explained that often these microtensions will come out naturally during the writing process, but that they can also be added during revision. The second source is informational scenarios, which includes mystery (the reader doesn’t know what the character knows, and reads to find out), suspense (the reader and the characters find out things at the same time), and dramatic irony (the reader knows more than the character). The third source is shadow description, similar to foreshadowing, but uses description of setting - cold winds, darkness, impending threat - to tap into the “archetypical shadow.” Each one of these instances creates curiosity, anxiety, and even dread in the reader that can only be cured by turning the page.

Lit Lounge & Spitballing
Once again, the Lit Lounge provided the opportunity to get to know other writers, and I had the chance to chat with a few people who were actually looking to embark on some bigger writing projects (novels) but didn’t necessarily have “the writing background." But they were here at the conference anyhow to get inspired, gain some writing knowledge, and seemed eager to chat about their vision. (I also had a this-world-is-very-small encounter that centered around the 25 hour Moby-Dick reading I go to every year, but that’s another story for another time!). The night finished up with “Spitballing,” where someone states a story they’re having trouble with (or makes up a story for fun, I think) and panel of spitballers came up with clever “what happened next” ideas. There was a cash bar at this event, so you can only imagine...

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!