The Un-Conference Kitty

November 12, 2014Author comments, Life

Image: AMI Wallpapers

Image: AMI Wallpapers

A week ago I was in Salem, MA, attending the very first Writer UnBoxed UnConference. During the first evening, I sat at a table with a group of people I’ve been online friends for at least three years. We were a motley group from all over the U.S., but also from Australia, Canada, and Spain.

Before the start of the conference, we communicated via the Un-Con page on Facebook. At some point there was an informal poll about introverts and extroverts, and it appeared the conference would be attended by a majority who are shy and reticent by nature.  And yet, I believe many of us fibbed. With the exception of one person out of eighty attendees, we were a boisterous group with enough words spoken to fill pages and pages of books. Now I am dubious when a writer says he or she is an introvert (and I should add that I’m not as aloof as I’ve claimed in the past).

Before leaving for Salem, I was nervous. Skittish I would miss the turn-off to the Mass Pike and end up somewhere in the deep south (I didn’t). Anxious whether my roomie and I would get along for five days (we’ve become friends). Uneasy about the WIP and how long it was taking me to write (so what? There are others in the same situation). These were silly worries, but I had real apprehension about who we are online versus who we are in the actual world of hard knocks.

Eighty writers. Think about it for a minute. Eighty individuals with a knack for observation and eavesdropping. Eighty people who use real settings, real problems, real people for inspiration to craft a story. Eighty artists with opinions about good versus bad writing. Eighty coffee drinkers; eighty imbibers of spirits; eighty neurotics of varying degrees.

I’ve participated in workshops and writing groups in the past—both on and off-line. I stopped attending because many fostered a mean-spirited competitive environment. The first workshop I attended one writer proudly announced she never read a Stephen King book. Her scorn for King and his readers set a nasty tone for the entire workshop, dividing the class into those who read horror and popular fiction versus those who read literary fiction. Did I get anything out of it? Just a $600 hole in my checking account.

In another workshop egos were bundled in neat packages along with the notebooks and sample WIP pages. Cliques formed (the instructor led one); harsh and unconstructive critiques ridiculed both the story and writer felt like those ALS buckets of ice water dumped on you. Another $600 hole in my checking account with the added hurt and humiliation.

Suffice it to say I was nervous about spending so much money for what could  amount to an unstatisfactory experience. The surprise—and a breathtaking one—was all egos where checked at the door. Published authors shared their trials and tribulations about writing, marketing, and frustrations about the industry. Newly agented writers shared their stories of rejections until they landed a prized agent; writers who were struggling to get their stories right commiserated. There was no genre snobbery. We were all united. We were all equals. Our online selves were no different from our offline selves. We were and continue to be genuine, or borrowing Therese Walsh’s term: velveteen.

Therese Walsh, co-founder of Writer Unboxed, The Facebook Writer Unboxed Moderator Team—Vaughn Roycroft, Valerie Chandler, Heather Reid—have nurtured a community of writers where we feel safe. No head or guilt trips; no public shaming. Instead we share our concerns about a competitive business; perservering and continuing to tap away at the keyboard; our insecurites and struggles; our stories. No judgments, but encouragement to keep writing. The same spirit we have online was alive and thrived in Salem.

I have $1000 less in my checking account, and although I didn’t play in the nightly poker games, I feel as if I won the entire kitty.

Is It Safe?

March 16, 2012Workshops

“Is it safe?” This always pops in my head whenever I’m at the dentist. If you don’t understand the connection, it’s part of a scene in Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. The screenplay and novel was written by William Goldman (also author of the Princess Bride, the book is better than the movie, trust me).

In Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman plays a graduate student and he manages to get into the hands of Olivier who’s a dentist. But this is no ordinary DDS. Nope. It turns out he was a dentist at Auschwitz and he’s looking for a hidden cache of diamonds. Hoffman is indirectly connected to the dentist because of his brother and girlfriend. However, to cut to chase, he’s kidnapped by Olivier’s goons. Poor Hoffman finds himself in nasty position strapped in a chair with Olivier hovering over him with an electric dental drill and hissing, “Is it safe?” Hoffman is clueless and Olivier drills him sans novocaine and keeps on with grilling. Now you know why I always think of this scene when I’m at the dentist. Watch the movie or, better yet, read the book.

Is this post about creating tension in a scene? No—although, it is a great example. You can feel the ache in your teeth and smell the burning enamel when you watch it. And I have to say that I will always associate Olivier with this role and not Hamlet. Today’s post is about what happens when you share your work with an online critique group.

I wish I could say this is a hypothetical situation, but it isn’t. It happened to someone I know who is part of a critique group that supposedly has guidelines about submitting and critiquing work. The number one rule is that whatever is posted is meant for the group and only for submitting and critiquing. It can’t be shared with outside workshops and or with friends and family. Thus if I submit a Julius chapter, it stays within the group for the sole purpose of receiving a critique.

But this didn’t happen to my friend. She submitted a summary of her young adult novel for a work-in-progress grant proposal. Within that work, she included outlined chapter plots individually covering a common plot element, incorporating it very carefully in victory/or failure scenarios. She did quite a bit of research and worked hard at coming up with a story idea and structuring it in a unique way that would capture and maintain the attention of middle grade and teen readers.

And then something very bad happened …

She received comments on the summary from a critter who liked her idea of incorporating this particular plot element and how she structured the novel. In fact, she liked it so much that she decided she was going to use it for her novel too.

Okay, so she liked how it was structured. There are plenty of authors who write books about structure and outlining and use their own stories as examples. But those books have already been published. And in this case the critter also wants to use the same plot element for her book that’s targeted to the same audience. Oy gevalt!

To make this whole scenario even more meshugga, the critter had the chutzpah to email my friend for advice! My friend emailed the critter and asked her to please not use the same structure and plot element because both books would most likely be too similar in scope. The critter wrote back and basically said, “Nope, I don’t care. You’re SOL. I’m using your structure, your plot tools. And by the way, my local workshop thinks I should as well.” Wait … she shared this with other people who are not part of the online group? Isn’t that against the rules?

So now this has turned uglier. My friend emails the online groups’s admins, explaining what transpired.  The admins write back and say, “Ideas cannot be plagiarized.” No, they can’t, but the underlying rule of the online critique group is that work-in-progress is submitted for critique only and cannot be shared with anyone outside the group. The admins are missing the point entirely.

My friend is worried about the similarities the two books might share should they be finished at nearly the same time and that two queries might cancel each other out when agents and editors read them. It’s a legitimate concern, but mine is more on the question of ethics and that the admins aren’t enacting the rules.

The comeback can always be caveat emptor. You run the risk of having work stolen when you participate in any writing workshop–online or otherwise (or even blogging about it). But siding with the person who flagrantly ignored the guidelines and basically said “Fuck you, I’m using it” has made me rethink my position of ever wanting to participate in this workshop, which has received kudos from Writer’s Digest (and for the curious, I’ve written about this workshop often. You can do a search). I doubt anyone would steal my premise, but it’s the principal of sticking to the rules and enforcing them.  In my opinion, this participant should be booted from the group because of her disrespect and disregard.

So it all comes back to “Is it safe?” Apparently not.