Saturday, September 6, 2008

East of Eden

I’m giving a breakfast keynote talk at the (Can you be one of three keynotes? A minor key, I guess) East of Eden conference this morning. This is what I’m going to be saying. If you read aloud, it’ll be just like you’re there with me. Except for the sweaty hands and jumpy stomach.

I think this advice stands just as well for quilting, crafting or most things in life. Here goes:

I stand in front of you as an example. This is what a writer, a published writer, looks like. I’m a member of California Writers Club and alumna of this East of Eden conference.

I am the owner of two three-book contracts, from two publishers. I had two books released this month. The fourth book is at the publishers, and I’m working on the fifth. And I’m going to let you in on my secret.

Kurt Vonnegut put it like this: Get a Gang.

The one thing that added the most to my success was joining CWC and meeting other writers.

I’d always wanted to write, but I think I was a little afraid to be an Author. After all, Hemingway shot himself, Plath put her in head in an oven, and Fitzgerald drank himself to death. They seemed like an unsavory lot, a sure road to personal destruction.

Instead I dreamed about writing. A lot. I was forever composing the first scene in my head, trying to capture exactly how the curtain looked when the wind chuffed in inside the room. Without ever putting pen to paper.

Oh, I did write a book. In the mid-eighties, I got laid off from a job, we got a new computer and I sat down every morning to write. There was a book out then called How To Write A Romance, so I sent for the guidelines and wrote a romance.

The only thing I remember about that book was a hot scene in the locker room. The feeling of the cool metal against the heroine’s bare…

Not surprisingly it was rejected. I'd written it alone, in my attic (okay the room down the stairs from the attic). I'd written it without knowing another writer.

Fast forward a dozen years, a move to CA and a library author talk. Laurie R. King. A local author, with two great mystery series and a few standalones. And very real. Edie Matthews was there and encouraged me to come to a CWC meeting. So I did.

Amazing things began to happen. I took classes from great writing teachers like Elizabeth Lyon. I learned about screenplays, comedy writing, writing fast, writing slow. Writing queries. I heard wonderful writers speak, John Lescourt, Ron Hansen, Mary Shaughnessey, Stephen Saylor, talking about their process.

I met Becky Levine, which led me to my critique group, the single most important element in getting published.

I came to this conference when it was new and I was new. I’d submitted my first chapter for the Fiction Writing contest. My precious chapter, written and rewritten within an inch of its life. And I was thrilled when it won third place and I was able to come up on the stage with other writers.

I came in 2004, slightly abashed. I wasn’t a famous author by now, I wasn’t agented, I wasn’t even finished with a manuscript. I tried to be confident I was going to find the agent, the editor interested in my work. Or I would find that tidbit of information that would make my manuscript sparkle. I found instead a community.

Vonnegut’s advice for a long and healthy life is to find yourself a group of people who accept you for who you are, who get you on a deep level. Who are happy for you when you succeed and who can truly empathize when you fail.

Each time I went to a meeting or a class or a conference I met a few more writers. A few more soul mates. People who got it. Who get me. Who understood what is what like to face a blank page everyday. Who understood the importance of pacing, and character arcs and crossing the threshold. I added to my gang.

They were there the story wasn’t flowing, when my protagonist snuck off to have sex in a truck instead of solving the mystery.

A gang is especially necessary for mystery writers. The average person doesn’t like to discuss blood spatter and poisons over the dinner table. It gets people a little nuts when you suggest that their barbecue fork would be the perfect murder weapon or that their Aunt Susan is a teeny bit scary.

I came back to this conference in 2006, with an agent, and two newly minted contracts. That week I’d gotten two calls from Jessica, my agent. First a three-book deal with Midnight Ink, and then several days later, a 3-book deal from Berkley Prime Crime for a rubber stamping mystery. Again, I stood on this stage accepting the kudos of people like me. Taking in their good wishes.

So look around you. These are your peeps. People who share the dream that you have. Of seeing their words in print. You need them as much as you need to know the difference why particples shouldn’t dangle and which agency is looking for a paranormal vampire love stories.

Learn your craft. Meet the agents and editors. Get to know the market. But if you can take home one thing from this conference, I wish you’d take home a new writer friend.

Do that, and you’re on your way.


Camille Minichino said...

You're so right, Terri.

I finished the first complete draft of my 4th book in the miniature series yesterday, and today I took 10 copies of it to the post office, to mail to My Gang. Their critique means a lot to me and I wouldn't think of submitting it until they see it.
Besides this phase, I have critique partners who see it chapter by chapter.
I know others write without this support, but I couldn't!

Monica Ferris said...

A writers group paved the way to my getting published. It is incredibly important to find your "peeps" to encourage, criticize, support, cheer, condole, and show the way to getting published. As Terri said, "They get it." They're on your side. Hint: lot of writers groups are formed by attendees at writers classes. Sometimes the only thing of value that comes out of a class on creative writing is a writers group.

Terri Thayer said...

I'm back from the conference. Thanks to Camille for posting my blog for me! That's the kind of support that I'm talking about.

East of Eden was a fun conference. I'm dog tired and can barely speak, but always worth it.

Anonymous said...


Betty Hechtman said...

I was in a writers group for a long time, but a couple of years ago it fell apart. So for now, you,my blog sisters are my gang.