NYS Summer Writers Institute: 5 More Lessons from Skidmore

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This second, and final, week of the New York State Summer Writers Institute brings with it a new teacher for my Advanced Fiction course, Paul Harding (Pulitzer Prize winner for  Tinkers), and an ongoing full schedule of visiting authors to share their work in readings and craft talks.  As my time at Skidmore draws to a close, here are 5 more lessons I will take with me at the end of the week, along with duffel bags full of mementos for my family and many, many signed books to read for the first time (or enjoy again). Although I will return home soon, I find great comfort in knowing, as is true with most formative experiences, that NYSSWI will never really leave me.

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  1. Do the student reading organized for Sunday afternoon.

    So many of the student writers at Skidmore were nervous or hesitant to put their names down for the reading. For those of us who did, I can tell you that every author I spoke to said they were glad they went for it. Sure, you get nervous before you have to go–I teach in front of 200 undergraduates throughout the year, and it surprised me how raucous the butterflies in my stomach got before my turn–but the opportunity to share your work aloud with writers you’ve befriended over the last week is special, to say the least. For days following, I saw fellow writers approach each other to comment on the pieces shared, on exquisite lines spoken aloud, and to ask each other about their inspirations for their work. In other words, the student reading helped bring us closer together as a writing community. An added bonus, Bob and Peg Boyers attended the student readings and later spoke with several students to comment on their pieces. Totally worth the butterflies.

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With Paul Harding after class. . .

2. Having tandem teachers is beneficial to your growth as a writers.

We were all sad to say goodbye to Amy Hempel at the end of our first week at Skidmore. It felt like, just as we were getting comfortable with each other, our classes with her were done. Two classes into Paul Harding’s portion of the workshop, though, the wisdom behind having two instructors for the workshop is apparent to me. Amy and Paul offer their unique styles to molding developing writers and, by the end of the two weeks, a student has a wealth of diverse techniques and recommendations from both writers to process as they proceed with their own writing career. To offer just a few pieces of wisdom from these accomplished writers:

Avoid vacuums in your writing, because the reader will fill it in for themselves. (Paul)

Read Mary Robison. (Amy)

Slow down. (Paul)

Humility as a writer is a powerful protection from feelings of inferiority. (Amy) 

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Ask yourself: Does the story begin where it should? (Amy)

Fiction tries to describe human existence, not explain it. (Paul)

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3. Go see the horses at the racetrack in the morning.

I find horses to be captivating animals, so perhaps this lesson won’t work for those who are ambivalent towards or afraid of them. But, for those who are like me, there is nothing like watching a horse be groomed, petted, walked, and tended to with gentle precision to inspire your engagement with the world. I went to the stables around 7am (it’s about a 30 minute walk from Skidmore, or a 5 minute drive) and saw the horses being washed with an attention to detail–especially their legs and hooves–that could only be described as tender.  The groomsmen and the horses were reliant on each other in that moment–the horse for proper care to keep it healthy, the groomer that the horse would not harm him as he provided this care–and their symbiotic need for each other struck me as utterly beautiful. So go and watch–I dare you to not be inspired.

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4.Watch out for the Sidewalks.

On a more practical note, if you go to watch the horses or on any other amble about town, beware of the treacherous sidewalks. I used my morning run as the means of transporting myself to the racetrack, but ended up tripping on the uneven and disintegrating sidewalks of this otherwise well-tended town and scraping myself up. Although there are worse things than being reminded of what it was like to 8 years old  (skinned knees, elbows, and all), I recommend being careful where you step.

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Having fun at The Wine Bar after the student readings.

5. Make friends and spend time going off campus with them.

I can assure you that you will make friends at Skidmore. The climate here is cultivated such that it is supportive, rather than competitive. Your fellow writers will be there to encourage and challenge you constructively to become a better artist, and will cheer on your successes as you would cheer on theirs. A few highlights from the social side of Skidmore:

The Merry Monk has fabulous food, beer, and frites. Go for the garlic aioli mayo.

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The Wine Bar, along with our friendly waiter Colin, was a chic setting for drinks and munchies after the student reading on Sunday. Many stories of adolescent hijinks were shared over excellent bottles of wine.

Uncommon Grounds might be pricey for coffee, but their lattes are well worth the extra pocket change.

The Bow Tie Criterion Movie Theater is just a 20 minute walk away–we went to see the new Ghostbusters. Sharing laughs proved a great tonic for homesickness and forged friendships even further.

Char Koon might not be designed fully for in-house eating, but the food is delicious and the environment inside is quiet. It’s a good place to sit and talk about writing, and things other than writing, with your new friends.

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One bonus lesson: Go to the readings in the evening and the receptions to follow.

When else will you get a chance to talk to accomplished writers about their lives, their work, and writing in general? Be brave and start a conversation with an author you admire–at Skidmore, generosity, rather than ego, rules.

 

Bleak MidWinter Cures for the Novelist: Short-Story Recuperation

As a writer, it has been an exciting and productive year.  I’m now a contracted author with Pandamoon Publishing awaiting the publication of my debut novel, A Flash of Red in the Winter of 2016. I also finished my second novel, Dear Heart, and completed a working draft of my third novel, Child of Mine, during NaNoWriMo this November. Come the holiday season, though, I found myself exhausted and drained.  Although I love writing novels, the amount of research, plot structuring, and character development needed is estimable, to say the least.

To be blunt, I found myself needing a break, not from writing but from novel-writing.  Enter my talented fellow authors at Pandamoon. Many of them had recently published short-story works in various lit magazines and online venues and, after reading their captivating pieces across so many different genres and formats, I felt inspired to try short-story writing myself. Now, to all short-story authors out there who consider that their main creative outlet, I fully realize that novels and short-stories are two different animals.  But, as a novice short-story crafter, I can only say that the entire experience of developing a plot and characters in limited word-space (sometimes as limited as 100 words or even–whoa!–140 characters) has been revitalizing for me as a writer.

Without the burden of creating a complete and full world with an extended plot line that engages the reader for hours and hours of reading, I found myself experimenting with the written word in ways that I never expected. In the bleak midwinter of February, where everything surrounding us in the North seems gray and dingy, my inner writer’s life is more energized than ever.

Here are a few venues to check out (with links to some of my Pandamoon colleagues’ work for inspiration):

  1. Microcosms offers weekly prompts for essays limited to 100 words or less.  Check out their contests here. Then check out Dana Faletti’s (author of the upcoming novel Beautiful Secret from Pandamoon)  winning poem, The Maid’s Secret, here. It’s sure to inspire you!

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2. Submission Grinder

If you already have a short story piece that you are looking to publish, in whatever format (essay, flash, nonfiction, etc.), then move on over to The Submission Grinder.

At this site you can search for submission calls for any form of writing FOR FREE.  Their listings are diverse and also offer stats on submission acceptance and rejection waits, along with response times for certain journals.

3. Short Fiction Break is looking for stories under 2,000 words and publishes a few each week. You can submit a general piece or submit to one of their monthly theme weeks.  There’s plenty inspiration to be had from the work already published here, but check out Pandamoon’s very own Jason Huebinger (author of Fate’s Past coming March 2016), whose story, The Monster Awaits, will give you a nice surge of adrenaline to get you going!

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4. NewPages offers fresh listings of submission calls from a variety of literary magazines, including both online and print formats. They update their site regularly and the postings often offer detailed info about the types of pieces that are being sought after.

5. 101 Word Stories is looking for just that, stories in 101 words. Exactly. They also have a contest for–you guessed it–a 101 word story with a deadline approaching on March 23rd. Jason Huebinger has published here as well–for an example of the stories they publish, check out his work, Another’s Ocean.  Proof positive that you can write a compelling tale in just 101 words. Exactly.

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Finally, there’s one other portal you should be aware of to help you manage and track who you submitted to and when.  Most (certainly not all, but most) literary journals and sites use Submittable to track submissions, acceptances, and any other activity for your submission.  I’m particularly fond of their ‘Status’ column, which tells you when someone on the other end has actually checked out what you submitted. Making an account is easy and allows you the capacity to monitor all of the places you’ve sent your work and, importantly, allows you to withdraw your submission if you submitted it to several venues and it is accepted elsewhere.

So, if you have an idea that just won’t leave you alone but you don’t have the energy to both generate enough body heat to combat winter AND write a novel, try a short story. You might just get hooked.