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Lessons Learned from an Ill-Timed Writing Workshop

Lessons from a Recent Writing Workshop

Earlier this month I took part in a "first pages" workshop on Inked Voices, a website that facilitates virtual writing groups. This workshop offered feedback from a literary agent for the bargain price of $75.

Unable to pass up such a deal, and desperate to make progress on a novel that has languished for two-plus years, I signed up.

In full disclosure, I was completely unprepared. The workshop evaluated those carefully crafted opening scenes that will either draw in a reader or consign your literary brainchild to the slush pile. My first pages consisted of a brain dump spewed out to test the direction of my latest outline, the fourth or fifth for this project. Submitting that garbage would have wasted everyone's time and my money, so I spent five days (when I should have been reading and critiquing) rewriting my crappy draft. This process left me with just over one week to read and review the work of my fellow participants.

At the end of the two weeks, I had spent twenty hours or so rewriting my pages and critiquing peer submissions. My takeaways from the experience include the following:

Deadlines are my friends. Having a specific submission date kept me moving forward. Even though I posted my pages late, I still made more progress than I would have on my own.

Studying craft is mandatory. Because I've struggled with this draft, I've read several books on structure in recent weeks. Doing so helped me to identify the flaws in my draft during the rewrite, and it allowed me to pinpoint what didn't work in peer submissions.

Apply what you learn. Learning the craft in theory only goes so far. We still have to figure out how to implement these techniques in our own writing. Going in, I had an excellent idea of which aspects of my submission worked and which ones were likely to belly-flop.

Critiquing work builds editorial muscles. We often struggle to recognize the flaws in our own work, but those same errors leap from the page when we didn't commit them. Practicing this type of objective review helps us apply the same critical eye to our own stories.

Different readers offer different value. Even though no one else read my genre (urban fantasy), their feedback as readers provided great insight into which sections needed more explanation. Part of the writing process involves learning how to determine which feedback enhances your vision of the story and which does not.

In the end, the exercise confirmed that I'm not only learning craft, but also discovering how to apply it to my writing and to my reading. Such tangible takeaways can be invaluable when undertaking a project that literally spans years, where the ultimate payoff may go no further than a self-awarded foil star for participation.

A member of the MWA-NY board, Mistina Bates made her short fiction debut in Indian Country Noir (Akashic Books, 2010) and is currently working on an urban fantasy/paranormal suspense novel. She slings words for a living as founder and president of Market it Write, a content marketing agency based in northern New Jersey.

MWA-NY Authors Teach the History of Mystery in Chatham, N.J.

Authors from the Mystery Writers of America, New York Chapter, will present four lectures covering the history of mystery and crime fiction at the Library of The Chathams in Chatham, N.J., throughout next month.  These lectures will be part of the library’s Chatham Adult Lifeworks Learning (CALL) program, an adult continuing education series partially sponsored by Friends of the Library of The Chathams.

Launched in 2016, this unique library series is intended to offer the local community an opportunity to learn a variety of subjects through a series of month-long courses facilitated by experts in the subject fields. “Reaching our community in new ways is something we constantly try to do,” says library Reference Supervisor Robert Schriek. “The CALL program is a way for the library to offer academic opportunities to residents who now have the time to learn new things and are looking for affordable classes.” In the past the series has covered topics such as: Classical Music, French Impressionism, and American Foreign Policy. The program has hosted university professors, political science experts, and educators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This year, in an effort to broaden the program’s appeal, the Library of The Chathams invited MWA-NY to facilitate a series of courses on the history of mystery and crime fiction. “It's great to get MWA involved because mystery is such a popular genre that the subject will have great appeal to the public,” says Schriek. The lectures will be held at the library on four consecutive Tuesdays in June. Each week will focus on a different period of crime fiction history beginning with Edgar Allan Poe and concluding with hardboiled crime fiction of the mid-20th century and today. Four MWA-NY members will speak on a different topic he or she specializes in for each week of the program. All programs will be held on Tuesdays at 1 p.m.

June 6 Peggy Ehrhart on "Edgar Allan Poe"
June 13 Jeff Markowitz on "Anna Katharine Green, the Forgotten Mother of Mystery"
June 20 Lyndsay Faye on "Sherlock Holmes"
June 27 Dave White on "The Hard-Boiled School of Crime Fiction in the U.S."

Registration through the library is required, and there is a fee of $40 for the four-week program. The library may be able to make exceptions at a fee of $10 per lecture for those who cannot attend all four lectures. You can register online and get further information by clicking here or by calling the library at (973) 635-0603.

—Robert J. Daniher

Robert J. Daniher lives in New Jersey where he works as an IT Support Technician for Madison Public Library and Library of The Chathams. He has been a member of MWA since 2009 and assists the MWA-NY Library Committee with planning author events at North Jersey libraries. His short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine for the Mysterious Photograph Contest and in the annual Deadly Ink Short Story Collections of 2007 and 2008.

Do You Really Need to go to Another Writers’ Conference?

"But you've written and published five books," my husband said. "Do you really need to go to another writers' conference?" It was a fair question. I've been writing for years. I have a shelf full of how-to books covering every possible subject from poisons to punctuation. There are endless online sources and courses. Did I really need to hear "Show, don't tell" and "Write what you know" for the bazillionth time? And on top of that, did I need to fly to Los Angeles to hear it?

Um — yes. Not to compare myself to the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), Roger Federer, but even he needs a little coaching every once in a while. A different voice. Maybe even saying the same thing but in a slightly different way. Or maybe reaching ears that weren't ready to hear it before the bazillionth time.

Last fall, I attended my first writers conference — as a listener, not a speaker — in years. And it was a revelation. The best conference I'd ever attended. I came away energized and with a whole new way of looking at my work-in-progress, which, truth be told, had not been progressing.

Were the speakers especially brilliant? Did they give attendees the secret handshake? The key to James Patterson-level bestsellerdom? In fairness, many of them were brilliant — James Scott Bell, David Corbett, Paula Munier. But, I already owned some of their books. The message wasn't new, but the delivery was. And maybe I was. And that's the difference between simply reading about what you should do and hearing it from the pros. Being able to ask questions. Get personal feedback.

On Saturday, June 3, our chapter is sponsoring a one-day Fiction Writers' Conference at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, Conn. Connecticut may seem like Canada to some of our members — but hey, aren't people going to Canada for Bouchercon this year? As a Nutmegger, I can tell you it's way closer. A short train ride from Grand Central. And way less expensive. Thanks to our president, Laura Curtis, and the rest of the MWANY board, this all-day event which features 10 sessions with publishers and Edgar, Agatha, Anthony and Black Orchid winners and nominees like Reed Farrel Coleman, Jane Cleland, Charles Salzberg, Lyndsay Faye, Chris Knopf, Dru Ann Love, Tim O'Mara, Jill Fletcher, James Benn, Linda Landrigan, Steve Liskow, Laura K. Curtis, Jason Pinter, and Maggie Topkis is being made available to MWA members for only $65. And that includes a continental breakfast, boxed lunch and wine bar wrap-up. Try getting that in the city 😉

I'll be there, notepad in hand. Listening and not speaking. Except to ask questions and learn from some of the best in the biz.

Check out the full schedule here.

—Rosemary Harris

Rosemary Harris is a former president of MWANY and of Sisters in Crime New England. She is the author of the Dirty Business mystery series featuring amateur sleuth Paula Holliday.

Year Two: The Leon B. Burstein Scholarship

The MWA-NY Board is pleased to announce that the Leon B. Burstein/MWANY Scholarship for Mystery Writing is returning for a second year. The scholarship, which has been made possible by a donation from one of our members, is designed “to inspire aspiring mystery writers by offering financial support to writers who want to take a specific class, attend a conference, or do specific research as demonstrably necessary to a mystery work they are creating.”

Last year, we awarded Burstein Scholarships to Becky Muth and to Mally Becker.

Becky Muth is an aspiring mystery writer and the wife of a disabled fireman. In her application, she wrote:

"Attending Bouchercon 2015 was a life-changing event. It defined the art of mystery writing for me in ways that books or websites alone couldn't achieve... After returning home from Bouchercon, I put what I learned to use. My local writing group says my voice is stronger and my writing has improved leaps and bounds over my early efforts. I believe attending events like Bouchercon help. In an industry that seems custom-tailored for introverts (like myself), conferences are the one place where mystery enthusiasts - cozy, thriller, anthology, true crime, urban fantasy, whodunit- can connect. These are my people. They get me."

Muth had plans of returning to Bouchercon in 2016, but financial hardship prevented her. Thanks to the Burstein Scholarship, she will continue to pursue her writing goals and will attend Bouchercon in 2017.

Mally Becker is currently attempting to sell her first manuscript. She wrote:

"When I began writing, my goal was simply to write a story. My historical mystery, Neutral Ground, tells the tale of the two unlikeliest spies in the colonies. Rebecca Parcell is a young widow who's too busy fighting for her own freedom to give a fig about the War for Independence. Daniel Alloway is a former prisoner of war who will do whatever it takes to leave the colonies and his nightmares behind. I'm astounded by how much I like the cacophony in my head as these and other characters argue with me about plot and the real villain's identity. I like — and sometimes hate — the challenge of wrestling the right words onto the page. And I appreciate the sweet irony of smiling at neighbors in local grocery store aisles while contemplating whether one of my characters should push another down the stairs. In short, I've discovered that writing mysteries makes me happy. It's as simple as that. Except that it's not."

Now Becker wants to learn more about the craft and the business of writing mysteries. Thanks to the Burstein Scholarship, she will have an opportunity to do just that, by attending CraftFest and PitchFest this summer at ThrillerFest.

At this time, we are pleased to open applications for the second year of the scholarship. We will accept applications until September 22. We expect to award two scholarships on or about November 8.

Aspiring writers can learn more about the Leon B. Burstein Scholarship and can obtain an application by following this link. Questions about the scholarship should be sent to outreach@mwany.org.

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