Tuesday, June 28, 2016

You Can’t Sit in the Shower in Queens: The Jackson Hole Writers Conference

It’s difficult to be who you want to be when surrounded by people who know you as you are. The last two times I went to the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, I had no idea what to expect, was consumed by an irrational fear of strangers, anxiety in crowds, and had as of yet to comprehend the “click” of business partners and how niche sci-fi really is.

Despite all that, I managed to make some friends many of whom, through the course of this last weekend, promptly introduced me as painfully shy. “A heart of gold with a bitch exterior,” they said. Fantastic lead in, guys. I’ll call you when I need an introduction to my acceptance speech.

While in the last year I’ve grown in confidence and savviness of strangers’ tendencies, having people act like you’re going to be awkward tends to encourage it, and it became a game of seeing how much of my weight I needed to lean on their foot as they enthusiastically revealed the truth of things.

Being that this particular writers conference catered to other kinds of authors—memoirists mostly, nonfiction, travel, a few “literary” seekers, with a variety of contemporary “commercial” works, and not anyone dying for something in the speculative fiction category—I did not concern myself in the least about what these agents or editors thought of me personally this time around. Rather, my predominant focus was to catch any tips for the final polishing stages and practice socializing. My biggest hope for the conference was to find some long-term peers, to just talk to people like I was a normal, functioning human being.

A friend of mine was signed with an agent over the last year. He came to the conference with similar goals—to socialize, learn some things, enjoy himself. He, however, has always been a social butterfly, and had already inserted himself into a group by the time I walked out into the cocktail party at the end of the first night. I positioned myself next to him (haven’t had seen him in over six months), and found myself engaged with two friendly women. Turns out, I had accidentally entered into a group of agents and editors. Leave it to him to talk to them like they’re regular people.

Now, they’re not always excited to talk to you. At the same conference two years ago, the speakers refused to engage with anyone. But this time around, they were all ready for conversation, seemingly aware that they had to do a little hand holding for the new, terrified folk. My friend talked everyone into going to his favorite restaurant, and suddenly there we were, in an intimate setting, in which I could speak with real New Yorkers about the city and Star Trek and Hamilton the musical without feeling extra aware of the weight of my limbs.

At that table, as we talked about random shit people do, an editor told us, completely unintentionally, the most important thing I realized from the conference this year. The one thing that could sum up my experience in those three days. It was about a showerhead.

In most showers, the showerhead sits on the thin wall, facing the length of the bathtub. In hers, it is positioned directly in the middle of the long wall. Her friend, who had a problem with the borough in the first place, came out of her bathroom announcing, “I could never live in Queens. How do you sit down when taking your shower?”

“It never occurred to him,” she said, laughing, “that not everyone takes showers that way.”

Most our time was spent in the main auditorium, luxurious red curtains hanging behind the podium, successful authors giving us motivational talks. The first guy had the audience laughing, inspired many of my friends, but he was very opinionated about how art should be, what your goals are, and disparaged things like ego and expressing yourself. It is more so, he claimed, about listening to others.

Which I can’t disagree with. Not out loud anyway. But like many, he had not lost his ego in his youth like he claimed. He still had this sense of ego about him—and that was part of his charm. There is something to be said for focusing on story rather than showing off prose, but there are too many books in the world to insist that everyone needs to fixate on the same aspects. In an infinite number of options, some books can be good for their turn-a-phrase instead of immersion. At the very least, we want people to try to tackle the assumptions of what a good book is, to do something different than what conventional advice insists is true. And as for “listening” being superior to talking, that’s not a conversation. Every introvert has been told that people love to talk about themselves, but the truth is you’re not going to get someone going until you’re willing to open up a little bit too. As someone who saw a huge influx in the number of business cards she handed out this year, my best advice to anyone trying to socialize is that you must be willing to do some of the talking too.

It never occurred to him that not everyone works that way.

We had several speeches, and though I have long learned that these things tended to be autobiographical, that the “it’s not that big a deal, just do fucking it already” attitude is usually being directed to their past stubborn selves, as I listened to the variety of writers on their advice and their opinions, the more I realized that what we think is normal, what is true for everyone, might be our own little freak ticks.

Obvious, I know. Still. It seems obvious that not everyone would sit down in the shower, and yet…

At this particular writers conference, you can pay for critiques. When I first heard of it, I thought, “Well, that sounds a little scammy,” but I later found it to be the best part of the program. And I say that as a negative asshole, so take it as you will. It is, bare minimum, enjoyable, but it is also a time to really see the diverse ways authors, editors, and agents look at something. Plus, it’s a critique you can count on, and that’s rare in itself.

I discussed about my concern on the critiques when I first signed up for the conference. To surmise, I had some off-putting experiences with some of my potential readers—most in situations unrelated to the conference—who I’d be paying for. Mainly it was either a disagreement of writing philosophies  or, for a few, it was their attitudes and the way they conveyed their opinion. Some of them I felt were being intentionally obtuse or vague, giving neither me nor my readers any credit. They confused condescension for confidence. Considering I had rewritten the beginning once again, and was feeling very good about it, but I was terrified of being demotivated. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being told it could be changed. Specific criticisms don’t scare me, but passive-aggressive blanket statements, or just overall apathy, can suck the excitement you have for your work in one lethargic shrug.

However, when I arrived, I ran into several of my past critique partners. I remembered something about my high school self then. Absence makes the heart fixate and blow things out of proportion. I never disliked them as people by any means, and when we were discussing pretty much anything outside literary ideology, the negative association disappeared and my anxiety left. In some ways, it was like closure, and while I had initially feared running into them, I left feeling better about our interactions.

The critiques typically allow for two writers and either an agent or editor. My first writer gave me an unexpectedly expected response. He offered up some polishing here and there, discussed dialogue, but ended by he telling me it was probably at the stage where it just needed to be submitted because “Things can be overworked.” If it didn’t go anywhere, to try something else. He said he was impressed by the piece, especially the dialogue, though I could tell it didn’t pique his interest in the way I’d like. He did offer to read some more pages if I wanted, however, which was honestly encouraging as this work had yet to receive a lot of that kind of offer (compared to some of my others.) Considering he was not a sci-fi writer and didn’t seem to be interested in the genre, I took his compliments sincerely and interpreted his logical praise and lack of connection as hope that it could find a place with the right person. In the end, his opinion of it mirrored what I had been feeling.

The next critique, an editor from Harper Collins, was like most of the reputable experts I’ve worked with and was extremely respectful of what I was trying to do despite not being too familiar with the genre. She had a very similar reaction as my first response; she admitted first off that she did not do much with science-fiction, but she was honestly impressed with the voice and atmosphere, and that I gave her faith as a writer. We discussed the demographic, whether it was targeted to adults or teens, and when I said I wasn’t sure, she felt it was too sophisticated to be marketed as a young adult. When I asked about how much I should consider information in the query or book jacket to be “conveyed” by that point in the story, she told me that she never read the queries agents sent her, but read the manuscript first. She seemed to have a good comprehension on the characters and what I was doing, but explained she wanted to understand the rules of the world sooner, especially the terminology. We ran out of time before she could go into details. I left with us both laughing.

The third was a mystery writer. She was running late and I sat down, nervous for my meeting directly after her.

She began by handing me a “three-act structure” sheet and immediately I thought, “Uh oh.”

She treated it like a workshop and explained to me certain rules of writing: plot arcs, telling me not to use adverbs, or prologues or have backstory in the first act, and all of what Google would tell you about writing.

On a positive side, she was very specific about what she didn’t understand and pointed out the exact terminology the editor hadn’t had time to specify.

On the negative side, she seemed to have a comparatively low comprehension level which, in hindsight, makes me suspicious that she skimmed it. In the process of finding obvious mistakes to complain about, she missed basic information. She asked for details that already existed in the section she’d read. She would jump to conclusions about what I was trying to say or do or had done, and when those presumptions proved wrong, she told me it should be that way, or conveniently forgot all about it. Once she told me a word wasn’t necessary, and still, from her alternative solution, wonder if she knew what “pointedly” even meant.

Initially, I took her seriously. Admittedly, the second she handed me that piece of paperwork, she had lost some credibility; it’s important to remember the context of a critique, and when someone is responding in a one-on-one to the first 15 pages of a manuscript, discussing a formula for a full plot structure feels like a waste and borrowing trouble—why, unless it’s just a stock response? There’s reading and then there’s reciting, and I felt like she was just giving me something she had memorized from teaching people how to write. And—this is where I’m talking about the attitude thing—her behaving like she was there to “teach” me rather than to critique me was incredibly insulting. I started to think, “Have you ever done this before?”

But due to these growing biases, I tried very hard to listen and be sure it wasn’t just my abrasion of writing rules and her condescension that dictated my assessment. Because the last critiques had been more about conversation, my readers explaining their reactions and trying to give me solutions to best achieve what I was going for, I made the mistake of discussing things with her and quickly realized she wasn’t actually hearing what I said. I told her twice that the book was finished before she asked me if it was finished and then to talk about what I would learn when I finished it. When I mentioned that the specifics of her confusion were very useful as people had said similar things before, she latched onto it and kept bringing it up at random intervals: “But if people keep saying it!” And not in response to an argument either, more like an explosion of Tourette’s in the middle of her sentences. I think she was nervous.

Her specific solutions were really, shockingly terrible. She struggled with sarcasm and nuance of the language, shocked when she kept finding out that a character was lying or joking. This normally I wouldn’t fault her for and consider my failing, but she really seemed to have a harder time than other readers had. (Again, I suspect due to skimming and focusing on looking for easy complaints.) When she found out what they were trying to do, she would tell me to say things like, “He asked, already having an opinion on the answer but wanting to hear what she had to say about it.” I wrote it off as her pulling it off the top of her head, though still annoyed that she thought the answer was so obvious she could pull a ridiculous solution like that from three seconds of thought and it would be superior to something I’d spent a considerable amount of time deliberating and tweaking. (Though, as I said, she worked from the assumption that I was inexperienced and uninformed.)

I didn’t realize how little she understood until after the critique in which I read the actual words of her notes. When actually talking, she had mentioned something about the character being stated as “unfocused,” telling me what I should say instead. When I explained what the line was supposed to mean, “He’s thinking of other things,” she went wide-eyed with shock and said, “But that makes him seem hard!”

I nodded. It was kind of the point. Like the entire point of the scene.

“Well, that might make me not like him!” she said.

When I read her actual comment, she told me my words “made it sound like he wasn’t mentally present” where clearly I meant to say “his expression was blank.” When she realized I meant exactly what I said, she was appalled.

It never occurred to her that I might not want what she did.

Afterwards, I looked up all my critique partners and found her website—which Mcafee warned me might have a virus—where since 2002 she had written four books published by a small press, and reviews complained of typos and simplistic, “recommended for younger audiences” language that lacked in subtly.

None of these things proved anything on their own, but the critique was uniquely interesting in that had she held more respect for me and not accepted her own assumptions so readily, she wouldn’t have lost so much of my faith in the first place, and I wouldn’t have taken a look into her credentials. Her attempts to endow me with her wisdom while disrespecting any of mine made it more difficult for her opinions to work with mine harmoniously.

She did take a half an hour instead of the 15 minutes, which was generous, and we left with polite thank yous as I ran out the door to catch my meeting. Luckily, and I should have expected this, the guy I had an appointment with was already running late too and our times merged perfectly.

Shawn Klomparens is the writer of Jessica Z, a contemporary love story. When I was contacted by the head of the Writers Conference asking who I wanted to do the extended manuscript critique, I felt a moment of panic. The critiques were extra, and the extended put me over 500 dollars at a time when I was completely broke and borrowing the money from my brother. Critiques, classes, partners, beta-readers, editors, workshops… they have always been a game of high stakes Russian Roulette. Depending on you get can change everything. Have someone good, and it can be irreplaceable, have someone bad and it can hurt your work badly.

Lucky for me, Shawn was the jackpot.

The only option of my possible readers who dealt with sci-fi was someone who’d already read the beginning. I went through the list and not one of them was ideal; I couldn’t gauge who would like my sort of thing at all. Seemed like none of them would. Who would understand basic tropes and assumptions? Who would be interested in an inner personal sci-fi story?

I picked Shawn for the sole reason that Jessica Z appealed to me the most out of all the books.

Shawn started by asking me the rest of the story, and I was surprised at how terrible I was at telling it. I don’t talk about it much and so did the typical ramble you’d expect.

He expressed great appreciation for what I had done, claiming I had some “major tools.” As we went through the manuscript, he was clear about why he felt the way he did and used reasoning that worked for me. He was excited about my dialogue and made the personal point that, as conversation came fairly easy for him he tended to use too much of it, and having several pages of it started to make a stagnant pacing. Had he straight up said, “Don’t have more than three pages of dialogue,” I would have been annoyed and conflicted. His critiques, however, made sense to me.

More importantly, his respect for my choices made me more confident in his opinions. Plus, he had read the first 40 pages instead of the first 15, including the prologue, and he seemed to comprehend not only what I was going for, but the actual words themselves. (The novelty!) Sci-fi was something he’d read in high school, but stopped, considering it geekish. He followed the typical pattern of my past readers—those who read more than the first few chapters stopped complaining about being confused. I am afraid the early confusion will make someone put it down and hope that clarifying terminology as the editor said and the hierarchy as the mystery writer said will change that.

The best thing I got out of it was the discussion of the prologue. He himself didn’t have problems with it, didn’t bring it up, and said, when asked, that he had no problem with them in general. When I explained the situation, he gave me some valuable insight:

The prologue was intentionally unsettling.

I asked him what he’d do if it were his manuscript, and he said knowing what he did about agents and readers, he’d start with the first chapter and slip the prologue in later. The first chapter (this being the newly revised one) was extremely accessible while the prologue probably put people off, if he had to guess. I knew many people had struggled with it, but no one would/could be specific about why. I could only speculate that it was a “rule” issue—and for some I think it is. But when he talked about accessibility, especially after offering several thoughts and solutions, it really rang true to me. The prologue is unsettling, and it never occurred to me that the negative, unsolved issues introduced there would cause an undesired discomfort. Now it seems obvious.

He offered to read the rest of the manuscript. I told him I’d make the corrections and send it to him.

At the conference, I also happened to run into an aspiring writer who loved all of the books I did, was writing young adult fantasy and was extremely easy to talk to. I got her email and felt like she’s someone I’m really trying to target with this book, so I actually have to say by that alone it was a success. Having someone who I see as my “reader” brings me a great deal of excitement, and after talking to her for some time, I knew she could be an excellent critique partner.

Writers conferences could easily be a waste of money, and all critiques have a chance of going poorly, but having gone to three of them now with the same manuscript, I can see the alterations in people’s opinions and take their word on where I stand seriously. The book is about nearing ready for submission, three out of four felt that way. Instead of being left with apathy, I feel rejuvenated and more prepared to take the next step.

Meeting with the agents and editors, truly connecting with fellow authors, having a better sense of trust in where I stand, I would have to say that this year the Jackson Hole Writers Conference was a priceless experience. If you’re ever in town in June, I highly recommend attending. It is worth every cent.

Agents Panel

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