The writing life is fueled by faith. No one commits to the daily discipline of the search for meaning through language without the belief that whatever truths they reveal will find their way to an audience ripe for revelation. That is the hope that sustains the writer through hours spent wrestling with words and the constant, hissing demon of self-doubt. There is no way to predict the distance between those trials and recognition. The vigil of isolated introspection kept to discover a voice is the sacrifice the universe demands for that gift. But once that offering is made, the will of the world beyond the writer begins to click in alignment with his own.
How else am I to describe the series of serendipitous events that marked my recent attendance at the “Muse and the Marketplace” writers’ conference in Boston? It began with the same ritual most of us perform at the start of each day: an email scan. There was an invitation from Grub Street, the Boston organization devoted to supporting and advancing the writing community. When I saw that the open invitation for “A La Carte” presenters at their annual conference invoked the same goddess I’d named in my talk on my novel-writing process, I sent my synopsis of “Mastering Your Muse” in for consideration.
I’d given the presentation a couple of times in my home state of Maine, sponsored by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. It’s birth began after my first completion of my first novel. I devoured a couple dozen books on the craft along the way. That learning finally convinced me to rip the guts out of my book (taking a few of my own along the way). But after rebuilding my tale I understood the basic principles of storytelling that any published novelist knows. Whether my manuscript ever sees the light of an editor’s lamp is still an open question. But there was no doubt that I’d discovered the braided arcs of plot and character that made the work better. A lot better.
I used my skills as an ad agency Creative Director to shape a presentation that distilled an overwhelming trove of information on novel-writing into a tool a writer could actually apply to his work. The response from my first two audiences affirmed the value of that effort. Still, the small pond of Portland felt a long way from Boston. But to my surprise, a few weeks later my inbox offered up the email announcing my acceptance at Muse. Click.
I boarded the bus for Boston with my head and hard drive full. My thoughts drifted between my presentation, the glorious mess of the start of my next novel and the first 20 pages of the one I’d recently completed: The Winter Queen. I’d given the latter a final polish for a Muse agent’s review. It would be my first professional critique of that work. Beyond that, I had no idea what to do with it. Though my writing group had shared plenty of their strategies, I stood frozen between the choice of traditional or self-publication.
After pulling into South Station I saw another sign that my trip to Muse had put me on the path I was meant for. It fluttered next to its twin: one of the long purple banners that marked the entrance to Emerson College. I couldn’t help but smile when I recognized the school that my novel’s heroine, Anna, attended. It had been a place I only knew from the web pages I’d scanned in my research months before. The only better way life might have imitated the art of my story was for Anna to appear in the flesh. She did, twice, an hour later, in the form of two Grub Street “Grubbies,” the young interns whose names echoed Anna’s. Jenna, Hannah and I shared warm coffee and tales of our work at my first breakfast as Muse. When the conversation led to the title of the novel I’d embedded as a key plot point in my own, Hannah’s grin widened. “East of Eden is my favorite book,” I told her. “Mine too,” she replied. Click.
I’d picked an even mix from Muse’s twin-focus on classes on the art and business of writing. After a quick fist-bump with the Grubbies, I got down to business in my first one. There I was awarded the first key that might unlock the door to publication. Publicist Sharon Bially revealed how the skills I’d already acquired in my business and essay writing could be used to lay the foundation of a media platform. Her insight on how to target the online market for my work gave me a glimpse at the path between my commercial career and the editors and agents I sought. Click.
Art and craft became play in the morning’s next session. The game of “Truth or Lie?” that author Kristopher Jansma led my classmates and I in offered new tips for kicking the tires of plot and character to ensure a story runs. That focus on proofing for plausibility affirmed exactly where my eyes had been trained on the final rounds of revisions I’d made to The Winter Queen. Click.
Then came the descent into the hotel’s basement for my “Manuscript Mart” session with the literary agent Katharine Sands. As I queued with the rest of the crowd I saw just how well our location served to keep our dreams in perspective. It was hard to get our hopes too high with an army of published authors circling overhead. But Sands gave me the advice that I needed to hear: a mix of commendation for the skills I’d mastered and a challenge to surrender control over my characters. That was the jump I needed to make to let them lead me to my work’s next level. Click.
I almost stripped my gears as I hurried upstairs next to change from student to teacher. What I saw on the small sea of faces turned to me at the beginning of my presentation reminded me that every writer should be both. The lessons I learned from their questions underscored that the author’s mandate to keep his heart and mind on his audience was a charge for the teacher as well. And the class’s echoed request for a follow-up workshop was the best confirmation I could ask for of the value of what I shared. Click.
I got back to business that afternoon when literary agent April Eberhardt helped me picture the pros and cons of self-publication. Literally. It would take my subconscious a few hours to work the canvas, but on the bus ride back to Maine my hand flew over the pages of my notebook as April’s model took shape. A few minutes later I studied the infographic I’d sketched. There, in black and white, was the epiphany that proved self-publication was a path I needed to explore. Click.
The day was capped with editor Jane Friedman’s keynote address: a historical perspective on the personal and financial rewards of the writing life. To an audience braced for the whiplash changes of a publishing industry moving too fast to predict, Friedman’s long-term view of the love and money that fuels our work was a welcome rest along that ride.
On Muse’s final morning I just had time to tweet and eat before slipping into Ann Hood’s class. Her candid, comic reading of the critical tome she received in response to her polished manuscript was the perfect preamble to a detailed lesson on self-editing. It reminded us that humor can be the best balm to ease the sting of a critical review. But I left Ann’s class with an even greater gift. For weeks I’d been engaged in the kind of self-flagellation that only a writer enjoys, berating myself for the wimpy word-count that stood as the start of my next novel. I’d certainly been working on it - obsessing over the plot and people in my head as I drove and walked and clicked through my day. But when the accomplished novelist at the front of the room began describing the long ruminative period I was in as a regular part of her artistic process, she gave me the license I needed to finally put my whip down. Click.
My last class would be a measure of my own. I was eager to hear how Dawn Tripp’s tips on story structure might validate the novel blueprint I’d walked my own students through. But while Dawn’s whiteboard sketch authenticated the map I’d been using, it unfolded to reveal terrain I’d missed. Like the simple fact that a character arc is something to plot not only for your protagonist, but for every major character as well. I left the room with just what I’d hope for: assurance that I was teaching a sound model – and a way to make it better. Click.
The Park Plaza’s imposing Imperial Ballroom set the stage for the literary legend who closed the show. But a pro like Walter Mosley knew how to work the words that would make an intimate connection with every writer in the room. His talk of our shared calling had me nodding in warm recognition of its costs and gifts, but he expanded that awareness too. He spoke of the literary life as something larger than the relationship between author and publisher, a birthright that extended to anyone who’d ever cracked a book to get lost in the pages inside. I stayed standing after our ovation and thought of my own place in that world. I made my way to the mic below the stage to get some advice on my next turn. “When,” I asked Mr. Mosley, “does a writer know that it’s time to devote some of the energies used to refine his craft towards seeking publication?” “Easy,” he replied. “You work and work and work. When you can’t make the work any better – when you’ve reached the absolute edge of your abilities – it’s time.”
I know my novel may never make it out of the depths of my hard drive. But I also know that for now at least, I can’t make it any better. So I came home from Muse and put the new one aside. Then I dusted off my website and built the blog you’re reading now. It’s the first step of the platform that I hope will lead to publication. That’s what the small crowd of my brethren in Boston showed me I must do. The weekend I spent with them was a pivotal point in my writing journey, the turn I needed to make to connect art with audience. After so many hours of keeping the faith, I’d finally arrived at the one place I needed to be. Click.