Hundreds of devotees of the writing craft packed into the Grange Hall on Monday for a set of fast-paced forums packed with tips on how to write better and how to get published across a variety of media forms at the third annual Islanders Write conference.
Islanders Write (IW), sponsored by MV Arts&Ideas Magazine and by the MV Times, has become a don’t-miss event for Island residents and visitors.
The 2016 edition was a high-energy affair that produced an intense level of interactivity between the audience and more than two dozen of the nation’s best and brightest authors and journalists.
The conference reached beyond the X’s and O’s of writing with a pull-no-punches panel on writing about race, a subject championed by moderator Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Island resident, and a separate conversation between Pulitzer Prize-winners Geraldine Brooks of West Tisbury and summer resident Junot Diaz, a top-rate literary mind and a bring-it-on brawler for the rights of immigrants and society’s underserved.
A howling laughfest broke out during an often-profane panel discussion on ”Fictionalizing Your Life.” The levity was fanned by Adam Mansbach, New York Times best-selling novelist and a truly nutty guy who managed to turn the panelists into an audience and an audience member into the subject, resulting in a hilarious intervention attempt by panelists after one woman revealed a dangerous plan to complete a book which could ignite a family civil war.
Attendees were welcome to try their hand as essayists on Monday afternoon in the Vineyard Writers Challenge at the neighboring West Tisbury library under the advisory eye of Island writer Niki Patton. Justen Ahren of Noepe Center for Literary Arts presented three workshops teaching the daily practice of writing. Co-sponsors of the event were Bunch of Grapes bookstore, Noepe Center for Literary Arts, and WCAI public radio. Chilmark Coffee Company caffeinated the crowd and breakfast Danishes and lunch were provided by the Scottish Bakehouse.
Six how-to panels focused on writing for radio, podcasts, personal essays, writing for tv, fictionalizing your life, mining history for stories, and mystery fiction writing, along with an angst-avoidance session dedicated to handling revisions and rejection.
Revisions, Rejection, and Moving On
Rejection slips hurt but very often are not a reflection of quality of work, moderator Alexandra Styron (“Reading My Father”) and panelists Dr. Peter Kramer (“Ordinarily Well”), Susan Wilson (“One Good Dog”) and John Hough Jr. (“Little Bighorn”) said.
“Often the determination to publish is made by the sales departments of beleaguered publishing houses,” Dr. Kramer said. “I wrote a novel under a two-book deal from ‘Listening to Prozac.’ The editor got cold feet and sent it to two junior editors who offered polar views on it. One wanted a more daring version and the other a more conventional one. Things go on in publishing houses that aren’t related to the texts in front of them.”
“I got my first rejection letter, from Reader’s Digest, when I was 10 and it crushed me,” Susan Wilson recalled. “Sometimes it’s just the wrong publishing house. I was rejected by one, went down the street and got a two book deal from a publisher who was better regarded. Boo-ya!”
“Things can happen fast. I was literally sobbing on my apartment floor when Columbia University called and admitted me to their Master of Fine Arts program. They asked if I had a cold,” Ms. Styron said. “I finished my first book before I finished my MFA.”
The speakers told the audience that making revisions, rewriting, is a matter of preference. Some write first drafts before editing, others read their work aloud to themselves. One panelist recounted a story of one poor soul who could not rewrite without retyping the entire manuscript.
Most were fans of showing unpublished manuscripts to only a few people. “Every reader will have a different opinion. So who should you listen to?” several panelists asked. “The first draft is for yourself, the second draft is for the reader,” Dr. Kramer said.
Attendees with questions were told agents are a must and that they should be prepared to market their books themselves.
“What if you don’t have an agent or aren’t good at marketing?” a questioner asked.
“Facebook,” Ms. Wilson replied.
Mining History for Story
This one might have been subtitled “Can’t Make This Stuff Up” as moderator Arnie Reisman (“Sodom and Costello”) and panelists Walter Shapiro (“Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer”), Joshua Hammer (“The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race To Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts”) and Meryl Gordon (“The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark”) explained how their books came to light.
Mr. Shapiro found the story of his shifty uncle who scammed Hitler, after years of hearing vague family stories that took shape only after internet searching allowed him to find records about the shadowy family character.
Mr. Hammer was an overseas Newsweek bureau chief with an unlimited travel budget and a yen to see Timbuktu, about which he knew nothing except its name. There he found an archivist of the ancient mideast culture who smuggled more than 350,000 volumes across the country to prevent them being destroyed by al Qaeda militants.
Ms. Gordon is a devotee of newspaper snippets and stories which have provided her with leads to stories about the rich and famous, a growth industry for the writer who researches and vets the facts about her subjects to provide authentic stories in book form.
“I had no one living to interview. I had only a 10-word telegram from 1917 that he sent to his parents,” Mr. Shapiro said, noting that internet searching allowed him to compile reams of research. The New York Public Library brought it to me on a rolling cart,” he said.
When you do have a living source, tenacity is key. “I would get ‘no’ until finally I built enough trust for sources to say yes. I spend an enormous amount of time getting people to trust me” Ms. Gordon said.
The Mystery of Mystery Writing
Moderator Michael Ditchfield and panelists Linda Fairstein, Cynthia Riggs, and Avram Ludwig explained that different approaches can work in a light-hearted discussion.
Mr. Ditchfield, an Island resident who is blissfully content with having six books under construction for decades, opened with “When I’m depressed, there’s nothing like a good murder to put me right.”
Ms. Fairstein, who’s sold millions of murders in her Alex Cooper, New York City DA series, said she enjoys a recurring cast of characters, including Manhattan itself, in her books. “Writing standalones is so much harder. I live with these characters in my head but it feels sort of like cheating to have them rather than starting over every time.”
Both she and Cynthia Riggs (author of 14 Victoria Trumbull thrillers) know that readers take comfort with the familiar. For example, “I like plants so each of my books has a plant or flower in the name,” West Tisbury resident Riggs explained.
Ms. Riggs’ plot lines often come from real life situations that lend themselves to a murder mystery. “My late friend Jonathan Revere picked up hitchhikers late one night while returning in costume from performing as the monster in a Frankenstein play,” she said. “You can imagine what happened when the hitchhikers opened the car door.” That event was the motivator for “Bloodroot,” her first thriller.
“I agree. So much comes from here and the people I see,” Ms. Fairstein said, noting she writes four or five chapters at a time to sense her book’s direction. “I write from the seat of my pants,” Ms. Riggs said. “The characters take it where it goes.”
Mr. Ludwig has a successful career as a filmmaker. He was working in Egypt on a project when the idea for his book “Shooting the Sphinx” came. “I had to write it, the corruption, the bizarre world of politicians and generals,” he said. Mr. Ludwig’s character is a reluctant sleuth. “He has no interest in solving murder but he has to do it” he said.
And so it went on Monday, with Island, regional, and national radio talent up next. Two of the best tips came from Jay Allison of the Moth radio hour: “Radio is another toolbox for me. I didn’t realize how many tools radio would give me. I come from print and I’ve learned that slowing down, emphasizing words, gives me more control (over the message.)
“I have to hear myself talk to know what I believe,” Nancy Aronie added.
Next, panelists on Writing for TV described a manic marketplace.
Misan Sagay was a doctor, a successful British pediatric hematologist who rocketed to film and TV fame and as a powerful black voice in the movie business with TV series and film projects like “Belle,” the true story of a young black woman embraced by an aristocratic 18th century British family. Ms. Sagay recently became the second black female screenwriter of the Academy of Arts and Sciences (the Oscars organization).
Ms. Sagay’s unlikely career track has put her in position to push for racial diversity in TV and film, a subject she warmed to as a panelist on “Writing About Race” later in the day. Moderator Tony Horwitz said: “I lobbied for this panel and I thank Kate Feiffer and Arts & Ideas for supporting it.”
Mr. Horwitz moderated the most passionate discussion of the day starring Ms. Sagay, WGBH-TV host and commentator Callie Crossley, and Bliss Broyard, who discovered her black family roots as an adult. Her father was writer Anatole Broyard, a Creole who lived as a white man and was the subject of “One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life — a Story of Race and Family Secrets,” Ms. Broyard’s account of a bi-racial perspective that has informed her life and work.
That perspective, together with the experiences of a black female British doctor and Ms. Crossley, a Baton Rouge native, produced a riveting colloquy with a point: Black stories have not been told and that black people must be welcomed to tell them.
“I feel like a translator,” Ms. Crossley said of her media role.
Ms. Sagay said “Black people are an audience parched to see themselves. Our story in history has been taken from us. Talking about ourselves to ourselves is an important thing.” Ms. Sagay added. “I write to tell my stories and be the voice of my ancestors who got a raw deal. That’s not a burden, it’s a privilege I’m honored to do.”
Ms. Sagay said room has to be made at the TV and film tables for black storytellers. “I am not the face of black America,” she said, calling for room at the table for black storytellers and a world where writers pitch “to someone who looks different than [the decision-makers] look now.”
“There is no way to solve the diversity problem other than solving it,” she said.
To read more about Sunday night’s Islanders Write event, see “Islanders Write panelists ponder ‘The Media and the Making of a President'”. Would you like to be notified of future Islanders Write events? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will add you to our email list.