Midwest Writers Workshop: Things

Today we’re talking about the things of MWW, the Midwest Writers Workshop – if you’re just jumping in, we’ve already covered the people and places and you can find those posts just before this one.
I’ve divided this post into two sections – things I brought to the conference, and things I bought at the conference. I actually, for once in my life, felt I finally struck the perfect balance between packing light and having everything I needed, and this might be the greatest travel accomplishment of my adult life. No lie.
Things I brought to the conference:
The regular clothing things, of course, because I believe in clothes. And I think those at the conference appreciated it. I brought both jeans and shorts, as well as a skirt and dress, and I had both t-shirts and nice shirts. There was a very comfortable mix of styles, and it seemed that most people went with business clothes, like dress jeans and a blazer or a dress with sandals, but some had completely casual wear, some were dressed up fancy, and one guy was wearing a kilt. So you can pretty much bring whatever you want. Definitely bring comfortable clothes that you like and feel good in, and put those qualities above thinking you need to look a certain way. I recommend flats or sandals so you can run around wherever without getting achy feet, and bring a cardigan or sweatshirt in case of chilly buildings. Don’t forget pajamas and undergarments 😉
Make it easy on yourself and don’t bring every ounce of makeup you own or your best conditioner or anything like that. Bring what you can do quickly, because you’ll be so tired that waking up to get pretty won’t be nearly as appealing as usual, and you’ll want to be able to do everything efficiently and swiftly. Also, you always run the risk of leaving things at the conference or in your hotel room, so don’t bring things you adore.
For the actual conference I brought a notebook, a handful of pens, business cards, gum, ibuprofen, snacks, and my MS. I used my ipad for internet, and I recommend using a smaller machine if you have it because you’ll be hauling your stuff around with you all day. I brought an over the shoulder purse so I could have my hands as free as possible, and this worked really well. I wouldn’t have really needed to bring my MS because I got too sore carrying it around and left it at the hotel all but one day.
Things I bought: I got one of the sweatshirts at the conference, because I’m from Minnesota and I own more long sleeve, fleece lined garments than the average Antarctic dweller. And also, it is purple and I love it.
I also got a coffee travel mug because how can you say no to that?!
But the best things I got were, of course, books. I purchased Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger (and yes, I was too chicken to ask him to sign it, learn from my nonexistent courage and don’t let this happen to you!), All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry, and two craft books: Save the Cat and Bird by Bird. I definitely advise bringing cash to make purchases at the actual conference, because it was much more convenient than using a card, and I advise planning on buying books because if you’re like me and you can’t resist them on a regular day, you definitely can’t resist the drool-worthy titles in a place where people only judge you when you DON’T buy books!
And that’s my Things post – things bought, things acquired. One bonus item I didn’t mention – I purchased a car charger for my phone at Target in the dollar section (it was five dollars, but you know) and it was an excellent decision since travel is murder on a phone battery.
You’ve made it this far, now come back tomorrow and talk about the meat of the week: Ideas!


Midwest Writers Workshop: Places

So, the places of MWW 2014. Well, a number of them come to mind, but I’ll focus on just a handful – a couple of gas stations, our hotel, and the conference center itself.
On the way to the conference, I stopped at a gas station in Iowa shortly after picking up my friend/travel buddy Rena. There are several things to look for when choosing a great gas station at which to prepare yourself for the journey ahead. The most important are that it’s actually open, that at least one pump isn’t covered by a plastic bag saying out of order, and that the ladies room has both toilet paper and soap. Unless you’re a man, in which case the last one is irrelevant – although I do hope your facilities have soap as well.
This gas station had all these wonderful things, with one super spectacular bonus – a trucker, who as I approached the building and removed my sunglasses, announced in a Mickey Mouse voice “I see you now”.
My new friend also followed me to the coffee counter and asked if it was too early for coffee. Nay, my friend, 10 am is much, much too late for the first cup.
So a tip for those of you who may stop in just such a gas station on YOUR way to a writing conference – be prepared for irrational questioning and people who just don’t understand the coffee-soaked life.
We stayed at the Baymont in Muncie, and it was a great hotel. Aside from our room key not working at first, our room was clean and everything in working condition, and the buffet breakfast was very well stocked. The hotel was quiet and we were able to get all the extra things we needed. For the price, it was a good value and I am glad I can recommend it…believe me, there have been other hotels I wouldn’t go within 500 miles of.
The conference center was a very nice facility – once I found it, after fifteen minutes of u-turns and dodging campus parking security – with plenty of room for everyone and a layout that was easy to understand. The signs were clear and easy to understand, and despite the lack of control over the thermostat, it remained quite comfortable for the most part. A couple recommendations for you: plot out which sessions you’d like to attend as much as possible ahead of time, and find the places and routes to get to them on the map so when one session ends and you’re to move to the next one you already know where to go and can navigate the crowd instead of looking around so much. Bring water, chapstick, and a sweatshirt or sweater – it was very dry, and I spent much of my time desperately thirsty despite the amount of beverages the conference did provide.
On the way home from Indiana, Rena and I stopped at a gas station in a town that consisted of two stations and a Dollar General. The bathroom there was the stuff of legends – not only did it have a machine of adult products and a pay-per-weigh scale with flashing lights, but also a cologne machine with seven different options. Sadly, my adventurous sense failed me and I did not sample any. I did, however, by a one dollar bottle of soda, so here’s an additional tip when it comes to gas stations: look for the ones with easy on, easy off from the road, in smaller towns. While some can be very creepy (see: my trip to Florida) many of them are very clean and the prices for things are often cheaper than they are closer to the city. And as an added bonus, they always carry weird stuff ripe for being slipped into stories.
One of the places I didn’t go that I wish I would have is somewhere in Muncie. I was exhausted every night and just went back to the hotel, but hopefully next year I’ll have the time and energy to do at least one activity away from the conference, something that fits the spirit of Muncie 😉
So there you have it, a sample of the places I encountered in my MWW adventure. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s conference review feature: Things!

Midwest Writers Workshop: People

This is the first post recapping my five days at the Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana, and today we’re going to chat about people.

The first thing I need to say about people is that I was quite nervous about a) meeting up with some long time writer friends I know through my computer and not through face time, and b) meeting lots of people who called themselves writers. The first one is explanatory, and you can bet there was great rejoicing when we all verified we were not murderers. But the second one was scary to me for a more complicated reason: I felt like all these people, who would call themselves writers and do writingy things and spend hours in front of their keyboards or buried in books, would know immediately on seeing me that I am a fraud. They’d take one look and know I actually can’t write at all, I’m quite incapable of communicating and as far as stories go, you might as well just take a nap.
Thankfully, this didn’t happen.
What did happen is that all these writers were creative, energetic, sweet, and 90% of them looked as scared as I was. They were easy to speak with, and knowing that we all were there for the same reason made starting conversations easy. So in terms of people in general, what you must know about conferences is that the people will only make your experience better!

The next thing about people is a few specific names y’all need to look up and fall in love with (in a super totally not creepy way like me).
The first name is William Kent Krueger. I attended his intensive session on Thursday, which dealt with the basics of writing a novel and highlighted each of the components, and I don’t think I’ve ever learned more in a short period of time. He is a supremely gifted writer and capable of being simultaneously encouraging and hilarious, which is a rare and precious quality. Plus, major bonus points, he’s from Minnesota and since I am Minnesota born and bred that fact made my day.
He also managed to sell me on one of his books, Ordinary Grace, just by reading us the first line in class. I’ll share it here, in case it can rope you in too:

“All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota, sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota.”

You can buy it here.

Another person for you to watch is Jess Lourey. She’s another Minnesota writer (this is my triumphant dance of home state pride) and a very talented teacher. I took her workshop on the seven steps of writing a novel, and despite the fact that I have historically been more pantser than plotter, I found the information incredibly smart and helpful and I’m looking forward to using it to make the orchestra book much better.

The third person for you to find and follow is Kelsey Timmerman. He’s doing incredible work combining writing with social justice, and his Buttonhole the Expert talk on using the things you’re passionate about to create things no one else can was one of the absolute highlights of the conference for me. He’s started a project pairing writers with people who have stories to tell – about hunger, homelessness, drug addiction, autism, and much more – and creating books to share those stories with the world. This is something I have always been equal parts curious and passionate about, and I plan to learn as much as I can about his model and, if I can work up the courage, perhaps begin something similar in my home town.

So there you have it – the people you need to know about from MWW! Come back tomorrow for a post on the places of MWW, and start thinking about signing up for next year’s conference!

Conferences, Houses, Coffee

Wow, friends. Last week was a wild whirlwind, but so outstanding in so many amazing ways. Here’s a list of things I did:
Went to first OT appt
Signed papers at realtors office
Had lunch with a friend
Went to orientation at new job
Went out with sister
Signed more realtor papers
Left for MWW
Drove 14 hours
Went to an amazing intensive session on noveling basics
Found out my offer on a house was accepted!
Attended two more days of wonderful learning and growing opportunities
Drove 14 hours home again

So yes, lots of super great things and tons of learning I’ll be processing for awhile. But what I really wanted to post about is the conference- only I have way too much to say for one post. So this week I’ll be posting every day, making up for last week, and covering the People, Places, Things, and Ideas of my experience at Midwest Writers Workshop, and I hope you’ll stick around and share in my fun and learning!

Hope you’re all having outstanding Mondays…if there is such a thing. Here’s to real coffee, long naps, and abundant words.

Writing Through

So, any of you who follow me on Twitter know I’m currently engaged in The Great House Hunt, and also that it’s been incredibly stressful and distracting. For three days now I’ve sat down to try to write and been completely incapable of doing so. I looked around yesterday for some articles on how to cope with this, some tips and tricks for settling down enough to write, and could find nothing. What advice was out there said to give myself time and accept that I can’t write right now until things settle down, and I think this is good within reason. We are people, not book machines, and sometimes we need that time to process, recover, or otherwise cope with our lives. But stress is part of life, and I want to purposefully increase my ability to write regardless of circumstances. So, here’s a couple of ways I’m coping with my stress and getting myself to produce words regardless.

1) The running list

I keep a pad of paper next to the computer at all times, so that each time I think of a new task to complete or something that has to happen, I can mark it down. This frees my brain from the burden of trying to keep that list inside, and lets my thoughts return to the story.

2) Headphones

Finding the right music is always important for me, but doubly so when I’m under stress and trying to create. I find it helpful to use headphones, even if I’m the only one home, and turn up the volume. Yes, it’s not great for the ears, so I don’t recommend it constantly, but it’s very useful in drowning out the additional distractions which are maybe not an issue on a normal day but become especially distracting when you’re already stressed.

3) Running deadlines

Start early and lower your expectations. The goal here is to simply continue to produce, not to keep yourself at your normal levels. It’s okay to drop from a 2k daily pace to 1k or even 500, because you’re still moving forward. Place your deadlines as far out as you can, and give yourself wiggle room. Set smaller deadlines as well (finish chapter three by here, finish query by here, etc) so that you have plenty of accomplishments to celebrate, and so if you find on one day you really can’t write, you have some room in the schedule so the extra pressure of missing a day isn’t added to what you’re otherwise under.

4) Read

If you can’t write, read, or watch tv or movies that you really enjoy. This keeps you in touch with the literary side of yourself, and sometimes prompts a writing session by inspiration alone. This can also be a good way to settle down so you can get good sleep instead of staying up worrying, and sometimes it’s an opportunity to do some plotting, character sketches, or other things that don’t require the same level of brainwork but are still good prep for writing.

5) Commit

I do this thing where I tell myself golden things about tomorrow. Tomorrow I won’t be so distracted, tomorrow the story will make sense, tomorrow I’ll be caught up on other work so I won’t have those worries. But the thing is, tomorrow never comes. You’ll always have other pressing tasks, always have stress, always have something that’s going to feel like it’s in your way. Some days those things are going to seem insurmountable, other times they’re no big deal. But it always comes down to your commitment to your goals. If writing is just something fun and relaxing, then you can take some days off and it doesn’t matter. But if you’re here, I’m assuming you feel some guilt from time to time for letting too many days or too many excuses build up, and that guilt is a sign that writing means something more to you. So eventually, even if you write three words a minute, even if you spend half your time staring out the window, even if you chop out pages and pages in the editing stages to come, you have to sit and you have to put some words on the page. It’s the only way to make a book, and you may find that once you start it gets easier to ignore the stress. Or, you may find it never gets easier and every paragraph is war against the thoughts swirling in your brain. The things above might make this easier, but ultimately this last tip is the only one that matters. Regardless of the circumstances, the stress, the distractions, the things going on in life, eventually you have to make that choice – write, or don’t write.

I’m still not doing so hot at this myself – I feel a little bit like I’m just treading water in the many commitments I have, and I’ve had more than one little episode of tears in the past week, but I know that all things pass. And at the end of this, I don’t want to have been so caught up in the day to day that I lost sight of who I am and what my goals are. So my goal is to write, at least 500 words before I go to bed tonight. I have a million other tasks to accomplish before then and I’m terrified of letting anyone down. But that should include myself. So I’m going to write.

What are some of your favorite articles on writing under stress? What do you do when you find yourself caught up in a really stressful time – do you write, or give yourself an extended time off?

Don’t Be Afraid

Okay y’all, this is your fair warning- I’m probably going to yammer on about myself a lot in the post. Possibly more than normal. So you feel free to flee if you’ll break out in hives or something 🙂

Why am I going to be so chatty today? Because on Saturday, I FINISHED A BOOK. Yes, it was just a draft, but it is a draft of a book I really love, a book that often scared me because I knew so clearly what I wanted it to be and couldn’t find the words to make it so, and a book I’m still just giddily excited about.

I don’t want to tell you too much yet, because we all know how much things can change in revisions, but basically this is a contemporary YA retelling of Phantom of the Opera, set in a Charleston youth orchestra. I might be able to post an excerpt here in a couple days, if y’all want to see.

The other reason I’m so full of chatter is yesterday was my birthday (yes, I’m still accepting giant boxes of books if you just weren’t sure)! Which is, naturally, the time where you sort of sit and take stock of your life, where you’re going, if you like that direction, and what you hope to accomplish in the next year.

This year was incredibly difficult in my personal life for quite a number of reasons I won’t get into here, but it was also a year overflowing with opportunities to learn, challenge myself, grow, and struggle with some important decisions and circumstances. On the writing front, this is the year I took it to the next level- I went from just straight up writing tons and tons of stuff all the time to writing with purpose, learning about the industry, and taking my first steps to a more professional pursuit of writing. In all, I wrote six novels this year- two MG, 1 NA, and 3 YA. I wrote a handful of short stories and some of them have appeared in places like Pen and Muse and a couple of upcoming anthologies you’ll hear more about later. I tried to blog fairly regularly, and I made some amazing friends in the writing community.

It was a very hard year, but also a very good one. I am so thrilled to see what this new year is going to bring, what adventures will unfold, and how life will challenge and deepen both me and my writing. If I had one lesson to give you from this past year, I think it would boil down to this: Don’t be afraid. Life is going to rock you, maybe sometimes overwhelm you, and almost never go as expected. Don’t be afraid. Embrace change as much as you can, put into the world what you want to receive from it, and love as an action even when you can’t love as an emotion. And don’t be afraid.

About Fear And The Things Beyond

Being afraid is a common theme in writing and conversations about writing. If you’re on Twitter as much as me (I’m unable to disclose the number of hours, otherwise I’d have to die of shame), you’re familiar with the kind of encouragement writers give to each other. Much of it is sympathy, connection, reminders that you always get through, all things come to an end eventually, and it just takes one step at a time. And it’s all quite true – the things we’re afraid of, like failure or blocks or stupidity, are much smaller when they’re chopped down into small pieces and in the end most of them never come true anyways.

I don’t have much new by way of advice for you today. What I do have is a reminder about fear.

If you’re like me, sometimes you’re almost afraid of being afraid. Afraid is a sense of looming, imminent danger, the possibility of messing up bad, the likelihood – not just the maybe, but the almost definite – that something is going wrong or is about to come crashing down. Afraid can send me scampering right back to wherever I came from, mumbling under my breath and giving that situation, interaction, or task a wide berth for as long as possible.

But fear can actually be a good thing, with just a little reframing.

What if fear was the sign we’re on the cusp of great things? What if fear is a green light, not a red one? What if fear is your reminder that you are courageous and bold, determined and disciplined, capable of marvelous things because you’re capable of trying them?

This won’t always be true. Certainly, when it comes to life and things like fire, sketchy people making advances, or diving off a giant rock into a shallow pool, fear is your friend when it tells you to book it in the opposite direction. Good judgement is another friend I recommend you make and keep in close contact with.

But fear shouldn’t automatically incline us to avoidance. Not until we’ve stopped and asked ourselves what’s beyond it. My gut instinct is often to assume that beyond the fear lies my worst imaginings – getting fired from a job, failing someone, making an idiot of myself, displeasing people I respect, failing to honor a commitment. Taking a path so far I can’t turn around and go back.

But this is rarely, rarely ever the case. So often, after I’ve given myself time to think and breathe deeply, what I truly see beyond the fear is growing, learning, becoming a better, more well-rounded, wiser, kinder person. Beyond the fear is improved writing, the courage to take other new risks, opportunities to make new connections, and chances to contribute something more.

I think if you take a few deep breaths, rest your shaking hands, and peer into that strange fog beyond your fear, you might find the same thing.