At this year’s DFW Writers’ Conference, Donald Maass spoke eloquently about “the 21st Century Novel,” citing interesting statistics about what sustains a good long run on the NYT Bestseller List these days. The upshot is that books with staying power, books that last not just two or three or eight weeks on the list but which stay there for months and even years – the blockbuster books – are not just “commercial fiction,” and they’re not the hardcovers. The trade paperbacks, the literary fiction, are selling at blockbuster levels. And there’s an emerging label in the industry we should take note of: “literary/commercial fiction.”
Maass stated what many of us already know intuitively: there are two elements of literary fiction which make books of all genres a success, and those are beautiful writing and great stories. For someone like me, who writes fantasy and magic realism and poetry and who comes from a very lit-fic, academic background, hearing this felt very validating. I’ve always argued – sometimes, I’ll admit, a little vehemently – that good writing is just good writing, and that good writing can transcend story type/genre, and so people who read only lit-fic and bash on genre fic beause it’s just not as good as anything they’ve ever bothered to read can just politely take a step back, thank you very much.
Okay, rant over. But can you tell this matters to me? (Blame it on my university experience, back in a time when so many of the professors who were there had a bias against anything not written by a middle-aged white man.)
This workshop with Maass was the first half hour of a full weekend of excellent and intellectually nourishing classes at DFWCon, and I’ll admit it set a really positive tone for me. The other three and a half hours of the Maass workshop were excellent, too, leading me to a breakthrough in my current novel revisions. And while I happily participated in several really great sessions over the next couple of days, I want to highlight a few things that really stood out.
First, I have to mention two classes by Kay Honeyman and Suzanne Frank, who teach in the Dallas area; Frank is actually the program director for The Writer’s Path at SMU. Their first course, “Sparks Fly: Designing Characters for Conflict,” elaborated on a thesis all storytellers know, which is that Conflict is necessary for Story. With entertaining analogies and insightful examples, they talked about how to build conflict into a character – and more importantly, how to recognize the conflict already embedded in a character’s agenda and worldview.
Their second course, “The Writer’s Path,” compared the writer’s journey to the Hero’s Journey in ways that both commiserate and encourage this challenging way of life. And while these comparisons might seem obvious, they actually offered a lot of helpful, experienced advice on how to cope with and enable ourselves out of the darker portions of the journey, such as the Refusal of the Call and the dreaded Supreme Ordeal – or as I the English teacher usually call it, the Descent into Darkness and Death. And I don’t know how they did it, but Honeyman and Frank made all of this funny as well as insightful.
In “Tackling Major Novel Revisions (Without Having the Story Fall Apart),” Julie Kibler and Natalia Sylvester led a practical workshop on outlining and evaluating one’s manuscript that is good for plotters and pantsers alike. I came out of there having developed a strong template for outlining my current novel, a real feat for a pantser like me, and more than enough optimism about the process to get it done.
Jonathan Maberry, who delivered an excellent and engaging keynote at Saturday’s lunch, inspired me with two solutions to problems I struggle with most of the year, when writing isn’t my only full-time job. One is to make a tip jar for myself, and each day when I meet my writing goal, I’m going to put a dollar in the jar, and at the end of whatever project I’m trying to finish, the money will be used for something fun. Anytime I don’t meet my goal, I take out a week’s worth. The other is to divide my time between writing and social media – a necessary part of the writing career in the 21st century – in strict ways so that I’m not getting bogged down in answering emails and reading my Facebook or Twitter feeds all day. He suggested that for every hour of work, fifty minutes would be spent writing and ten, doing social media. This seems like a good ratio to me, so I’m going to try it out this summer and see if it helps me stay on top of things.
There were so many wonderful parts to this conference, not the least of which was connecting with other writers, seeing old friends who live in other cities and meeting new ones. Even when the classes at a particular conference aren’t that good (which hasn’t happened at the conferences I go to very often, but I know it does occasionally happen), connecting with other writers in what can sometimes feel like a solitary profession is so, so good.
Looking forward to DFWCon 2015! And to putting the wonderful new ideas I got from this year’s sessions into practice.