Writing Residency 2021: 5 Things I Learned

That was one hell of a week! I learned a few things. Number one? Do not pack an entire week with only publishing, querying, and marketing workshops. Ever. If I loved business this much, I’d just go be an entrepreneur.

Still, it was useful to dig deeper into the entrepreneurial aspects of a writing career. Maybe most importantly, I learned a lot about what to expect as I transition from writer to author.

And hey, that’s part of the point of this whole Accessible MFA. Not only was I saved thousands on airfare, hotel bookings, and car rentals by doing my residency online. Not only could I prioritize recovery when I was in bed with migraines the first three days. But I could then work around my health needs to catch up on what I’d missed. And learning how to do that, how to navigate the inevitable flare-ups when a heatwave hits, can help ensure that I have a long writing career ahead. As long as our publishing houses don’t burst into flames as our planet warms…

Photo of bright sun in a red sky over a forest by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

So here are my top takeaways.

1. Figure out what you can sustainably do on a consistent basis.

This comes from Courtney Maum who suggested that if you’re working two or three part-time jobs with lengthy commutes, it might not be the moment to attempt the Great American Novel. Maybe short stories will be a better fit for your limited time and focus. Similarly, Jane Friedman offered up the poet Rupi Kaur as an example of how to do this brilliantly. She posted short poems on her Instagram account, a tactic known as micro-publishing, and she eventually turned these into a book. It was something she could do consistently that built her readership.

For me this means coming to terms with the fact that a traditional three-act novel is not something I can manage. I’ve been trying to force this for years since my migraines became chronic, and it just leads to one dead end after another. I’m still looking for the right structure, but it’s going to be something more like linked stories or carefully sequenced vignettes and short scenes (think Valeria Luiselli’s transfixing Faces in the Crowd). I need tiny pieces I can work on and complete one at a time, then slide around or cut when it’s time to revise. Figure out what you can do, then figure out how to make it work for you.

Photo of a woman writing on a laptop near a window by Christina Morillo from Pexels

2. Get to know the places where your story happens.

This is from Randall Kenan in his 2015 craft talk “Who Goes There?” at Hugo House. As a white person, I’ve always thought of place as sensory. It’s the color of the dirt, the scent of rain, the pitch of birdcalls in a particular place and time. I learned from Kenan that sure, it’s all that, but it’s also memory. And not just the character’s memory of that place, and all the associated hues of emotion, but the land’s memory, the cultural memory. “For some of us,” he said, “land is always haunted.”

Place is central to my novel, and I was embarrassed to realize I’ve spent years and years working draft after draft, revision after revision, and never really researched the land where I’ve planted the imaginary town I’m writing about. It turns out the Yakama War unfolded over that land, which was taken forcibly by the United States government. The 14 Indigenous tribes that had lived there and cared for it for thousands of years were displaced. Now, it’s mostly a canyon where people go fishing, surrounded by basalt cliffs and gentle hills where people hike. All that violence and treachery from the U.S. government just for a few more parks. So yeah. It turns out that in a novel about attempting to escape oppressive violence, the land itself holds a history of that.

Photo of low hills under clouds by Tatiana from Pexels

3. Use social media effectively. This means learning from the best, not amassing followers.

This got reiterated again and again. Every workshop, every book, every article repeated the same thing:

  • Pick one or two platforms you actually enjoy using
  • Engage with these regularly
  • Don’t obsess over your follower count; in fact, following people to get follows back is an easy way for publicists to spot writers who don’t know how to use social media (“You’ve effectively made social media useless for yourself,” Andrea Dunlop said in her Inked Voices workshop on book marketing.)
  • Follow writers and social media users you admire and can learn from
  • Promote other authors’ work and tag them in your compliments
  • Decide who you are online and be consistent with that “brand”
  • Do giveaways or offer other valuable things for free
  • On Twitter and Instagram, follow agents and presses you might want to query in order to learn their tastes and personalities
  • Use social media as an opportunity to learn more about your target readers (what their favorite books are, how they found them, why they loved them)
  • Share your work (see the Rupi Kaur example above)
  • Build an author website that’s easy to navigate

4. You need to be in charge of your own career while being a team player.

YOU can reach out to authors you admire for blurbs. YOU decide if you want to hire an outside publicist (well, if you have $15,000 to spare). YOU decide if things aren’t working with an agent and whether to terminate the agreement. YOU decide which offer to take on a book (personally, I take notes on every novel I read, noting the publisher as well as the agent and editor on the acknowledgments page).

This degree of control is a good thing because it should be about YOU knowing what’s best for your career (hint: it’s not always the bigger paycheck; sometimes it’s the strategic move that positions you with a team who believes more in your book, or better yet your vision for your career, even if they’re putting less cash behind it because, say, it’s a smaller press or imprint).

BUT you have to do all these things courteously and professionally. If you hire an outside publicist, you need to loop in both your agent and the in-house publicist. If you’re contacting authors for blurbs or bookstores for events or artists to design a cover for you, your author and editor really need to know these things (because the latter is a bit crazy, and they might have to stop you). Otherwise, if you really want to do everything on your own, you can self-publish. Or if you want a smaller team where you have more say, a small press might be best. It’s all about figuring out what you want, communicating that in a respectful and timely manner, and having a vision for your career. Not sure you’d be able to articulate that vision to an agent or editor? Go journal!

Photo of three women laughing in an office hallway by Alexander Suhorucov from Pexels

5. Don’t lose sight of why you’re doing this in the first place.

What I heard, over and over again, is that no matter how much success you have (you get a book deal! you get a HUGE advance! you sell the movie rights! you love the movie! you sell your second book! wheee!), you will also have a lot of heartbreak (things didn’t work out with your agent, but they still get to keep earning on that first book they sold with you… your publisher seemed to lose interest in your second book halfway through the process… your third book tanked, and no publisher bought your fourth, and you thought your career was over for a while there…). As they say, there’s no business like show business, and publishing is part of the entertainment industry. No amount of success protects you from pain, humiliation, or Goodreads critics. It’s best to recognize that it’s a rollercoaster, if you ever make it onto the ride to begin with.

So, coming full circle, it’s important to never lose touch with what you love about literature and writing. Always be reading other people’s books, especially books written by your contemporaries (contemporaries who you know are better than you). Not only can you learn, but it will keep you humble and grounded. It will make getting knocked off the horse less a shock and more recognizable for the inevitability that it is.

But here’s what I really learned. It’s important to know how to sell your writing, how to work well with others in the publishing industry, and how to build a career. But next time I take a week off to focus on writing, at least half of it has to be devoted to writing. Period. That’s what I’m here for. Writing. And if I’m not doing it, there’s nothing to sell.

Thanks for reading, folks. Here’s the link to the residency schedule if you want to look up some of these workshops for yourself. And hey, keep on keeping on.

***

Photo of a hand with nail polish writing in a notebook by Lisa from Pexels

Featured Photo of typewriter keys by mali maeder from Pexels

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