Writing advice from the pros

The sixth edition of Islanders Write was a literary wonderland.


If you weren’t among the 600 to 700 people on Monday who trooped to the sixth annual Islanders Write conference at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs, here’s a short list of stuff you missed at a full day of writing and publishing panels:

  • Writing about your parents and writing about sex are a lot alike. You have to be careful with both.
  • It is possible, if you are truly committed, to have a panel discussion about national politics without speaking the name of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
  • Apparently, you have a better chance of being hit by a meteor than of having your book made into a movie, even if you’ve been paid several times for option rights.
  • It may not be easier to get a book published than it was six years ago, but the pathways and options are much better defined, so it feels more possible.

And so it went, a nine-hour foray into a variety of writing and publishing-related environments. Attendees roamed the air-conditioned halls of Featherstone, dropped into writing workshops, visited the authors’ room for a schmooze or to buy a book. They walked and sat on perfectly manicured grounds, reading and chatting. A brilliant, soft summer day that felt luxurious.

Cooking with love

A further nugget is that books about food used to consist of recipes with stories sometimes attached. Now they are storybooks, with recipes often attached. Authors Tina Miller (moderator), Jessica B. Harris, Susan Branch, and Susan Klein, with an estimated 50 books among them, described a changed publishing landscape in which the story, family connections around food, an adventure, a substantive event or tradition, create motivated buyers.

“I think it would be very difficult to get a traditional cookbook published today with social media [providing information],” Miller said. “Food is about experiences. We are not going to talk cookbooks today, but about a generation [millennials] obsessed with food,” she said. And for the next hour, the panelists talked about food the way you might hear antique car buffs or first-edition book collectors speak about their passion.

“Cooking is about love and the story behind it; your perspective is important,” Susan Branch said. 

“People love to talk about food. And the Idea of feelings with food. Resonance is key in writing about food. I do workshops around that, and people won’t go home; it turns into a four-week workshop,” Susan Klein said to laughter.

The idea of how to market food books is a happy place for Jessica Harris. “I feel like I’m more in tune with this generation in outlook than my own,” the longtime doyenne of food and cookery and creator of 38 food-related podcasts said.

Telling on your parents

Three well-known offspring of well-known parents took on the joys and challenges of writing memoirs starring their celebrity parents: Alexandra Styron (William Styron), Bliss Broyard (Anatole Broyard), and Victoria Riskin ( Fay Wray and Robert Riskin). All three wanted to know their parents in a completely different context, as adults separate from their adult parents.

Styron was clear in her opening remarks. ”I wouldn’t have written (“Reading My Father,” 2010) if people didn’t know who my father was. Dad died at 81. Earlier in his life he had conquered his depression. He became the voice of depression [after writing “Darkness Visible”]. It returned in later years. My father died of depression, after hospitals, treatment, and madness. It was a story I needed to tell and people needed to hear.

“All three of us had well-known parents, but that isn’t necessary. Your story needs only to resonate, to show how your story is unique and universal,” she said, adding later, “We had the benefit of public documents, but the boxes in your attic are the same.” 

The authors each described to a very quiet room, a process they passed through in which they gave themselves permission to do the work necessary for their book, and that memories, photos, and particularly letters, unlock the past, and urged the audience to start excavating. “Things will come back to you. Some of the best memoirs are memory-driven,” Riskin said.

Science writing if you’re not Bill Nye

This one, really a discussion of pollution and climate change, was an eye-opener. All science is rocket science to me, but New York Times science reporter Tatiana Schlossberg, author Ronnie Citron-Fink, and moderator Suzan Bellicampi have turned the looking glass around. They used the micro approach rather than the eye-glazing macro enormity of the big picture to offer actionable options for us. Things like the 2,100 gallons of water required to make one pair of denim jeans. And hair dye.

“Seventy-five percent of women dye their hair. We are putting millions and billions of chemicals down the drain, going through groundwater and into the ocean,” said the gracefully graying Citron-Fink, author of the new book, “True Roots: What Quitting Hair Dye Taught Me About Health and Beauty.” 

Schlossberg is not a science person, but she is a dogged reporter who requires sources to abandon technical yadda-yadda and speak in terms that she and readers of the New York Times can understand. Bellincampi, director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary here, opined that a nature walk is the best way for science-averse people to approach the subject.

“The Internet, fuel, fashion, transportation, energy are all interconnected around the world

in climate change perspective,” Schlossberg said. Panelists agreed the battleground is about money and power. “We have the answers to fix our environment right now. This is not rocket science. We need the will to do it,” Citron-Fink said.

Politics: The big-hair elephant in the room

Sam Fleming, Matthew Cooper, Melinda Henneberger, and Walter Shapiro made a preconference pact not to use President Trump’s name in a national political discussion.

They were making a subjective point, but it felt, well, good to have a discussion framed around the job the press did last time, and how to do it better this time, without a Trump-dominated environment.

“We’ll talk about ‘him,’ sure but the press is under attack, it’s having an effect. Can we do better?” moderator Sam Fleming started off the discussion. Roll Call and New Republic columnist Walter Shapiro hopes so: “The press corps has learned nothing. The focus on [reporting] poll numbers as if the election were tomorrow, not more than a year away.

It’s nonsense and fluff. We spend far too much time on fake White House dramas and not on how Democratic candidates would govern, behave, and staff the White House.” 

Henneberger said, “His supporters think we’re the liars, that’s the biggest change. People have always disagreed on policy but agreed on the facts. That’s no longer true.”

Matthew Cooper, who prefers the Island to Washington, D.C, agreed. “This is a particularly fluffy time,” he said, leading to a discussion of the impact of cable news channels driving the public discussion despite having 10 to 15 percent of network news viewership. 

Handicapping the Dem candidates’ chances of victory, there was general agreement that Biden and Warren have the best chances to hold up in the ongoing campaign marathon, and that after some early mistakes, Warren and her campaign have smoothed out her approach. 

The pitch panel

This one fills the room every year. Five candidates are chosen to pitch their books or book ideas to a panel of honest-to-God publishing people who actually could, you know, buy it. So there is often the element of sixth graders reading out load to the school assembly, no matter how grownup the presenters may be.

Much-published author and writing coach John Hough Jr., publishing big hitters Torrey Oberfest and Gretchen Young, and savvy longtime agent Rosemary Stimola heard the timed three-minute pitches.

Three historical novel ideas created the most excitement on the dais, with advice on how to shape and form future presentations with an emphasis on limiting story scope and stronger character development

The panelists’ general advice to pitchers and the audience was, essentially: Be clear, be brief, and be gone. Avoid hyperbole, arrogance, or self-deprecation. Include text in your pitch rather than talking about the text.

The idea of how best to achieve a carpe diem moment in a fast, overloaded environment was underscored in the next panel on the Path to Publication when Dawn Davis, an unusually empathetic publisher (37Ink/Simon & Schuster) gently reminded an audience questioner that over-the-transom efforts are likely to fail. “While anything is possible, I would say that 98 percent of the books we consider come from agents,” she said, explaining that agents vet books and bring them to the publishers of that book’s genre.

The path to publication is most visible away from the Big Five publishers, panelists said, outlining four other successfully used options: small presses, niche presses, a hybrid of self and professional publishing (à la the late, lamented Vineyard Stories), and self-publishing. Writing is an individual job, but publishing is a multiperson job, panelists noted, particularly in marketing — which writers typically compare with root canals.

Attendees were reminded that reality can be harsh. “Jane Austen couldn’t get her books published today, and if she could, it wouldn’t work out because no one would know it was out there,” Bunch of Grapes bookseller Dawn Braasch said.

 The big screen and writing about sex

The final two panels were a total hoot, underpinned with some solid and sobering advice.

On the ultimate author fantasy, making a movie from your book, the ever-impish Pulitzer prizewinning Geraldine Brooks told the room that four of her first five books were optioned, one of them three (3) times, and she now uses option contracts to make outlandish author rights demands, such as control over scriptwriting.

“I demanded script control [in an option negotiation] and they said, ‘No way that’s going to happen,’ so I said, ‘ OK, let’s not do [the deal],’ and they immediately said, ‘OK, you can have it,’” she said.

But no movie. “Now, I think up the most outrageous things I can, like 10 first-class round-trip flights for my boys and their friends to the shooting locations,” she said to laughter. The producer had no problem with that demand, but again, no movie.

Wicked successful filmmaker Doug Liman optioned “The Bourne Identity” after a last-minute purchase of the novel before a flight to LA. Another came from a book he got for Christmas from his girlfriend’s mother. Susan Wilson had one of her two options made into a TV movie, but didn’t know it until a month before it was scheduled to run. “I had no idea. They [CBS] just made it,” she said.

Then panelists on writing sex scenes recommended a purposeful approach to writing sex scenes in a novel. Moderator Elizabeth Benedict wrote “The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers” in 2002. It is the gold standard on writing about sex, and she maintains — spoiler alert — that writing sex scenes should be like every other scene in your book, designed to move the story and build characters.

She says that writing to titillate is the province of pornogrpahy, that a good sex scene can include bad sex, that a sex scene should include another desire, unrelated to sex, by the characters in the story. 

Co-panelists Nicole Galland and Jean Stone agreed with that, though Galland noted that her first and steamiest novel, “The Fool’s Tale” (William Morrow, 2005) had 24 sex scenes, as her editor pointed out. “Yeah. When I was stuck for ways to add tension to the story, I said ‘I know. I’ll add a sex scene!’” she admitted to a laughing crowd, appreciative of her candor.

Both novelists today say they write far less about sex, and that some scenes they wrote 20 years ago would be politically incorrect today. They cited studies that indicate that a core demographic, millennials, are having less sex than any generation in the past 60 years. We learned earlier in the day, however, that millennials are now obsessed with food.

That’s the nature of Islanders Write: We learn how to connect dots, which dots to connect, and find some dots we never knew about.