Monday, May 7, 2012

Muse, Marketplace, Masters

by Pete Morin

I spent this past weekend at The Muse & The Marketplace, a very popular writers conference run by Grubb Street, a superb literary non-profit organization here in Boston. This is a sort of “report from the Front.”

I decided to attend my first M&M because of my previously reported travails that arose out of being a pantser. The program offered a number of seminars on plotting and revision, taught by published authors with superb credentials. The signature of M&M.

So I began Saturday morning with “The Organic Outline,” hosted by Josh Weil, a man with quite a resume, including fellowships and awards from the Fulbright Foundation, the Dana Foundation, the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, the James Merrill House, and the MacDowell Colony. When he started quoting Flannery O’Connor about the definition of “organic,” I feared I was in deep water. “Don’t impose the form upon the story,” he urged. “Allow the form to arise out of the material.” He described the organic outline as a “scaffolding or road map,” but with a lot of flexibility.

Josh referred to Stephen King’s mistrust of plot as the enemy of “spontaneity,“ what happens in the moment. A story makes itself, he said.  “The writer’s job is to give it a place to grow.”

This was promising to be a fine weekend, I thought. Josh had accomplished in just one hour what I’d failed to do in four months—he’d given me some reassurance that the process was indeed as mysterious and vexing for him as li’l old me.

Two further seminars on plotting and “writer as entrepreneur” delivered their own valuable nuggets, but the lunch was worth the weekend by itself.

M&M offers its participants a special opportunity on Saturday to share lunch with one of the M&M’s special guests. For an extra $75, one can eat a ginger & soy seared salmon with a star instead of eating dry chicken in the main ballroom.

I’d splurged, and been given my first choice, Barry Eisler (although I would have been thrilled with any of the special guests, who included dozens of published authors, literary agents, in-house and independent editors, publicists, etc.). Barry is a consummate gentleman, generous with his time and attention, and palpably intelligent. His shared some insights into what made a couple of recent films and novels stand above their competition, and was genuinely curious about our own paths.

But all due admiration for Barry, he was not the highlight of the lunch. It was the sudden realization that the man sitting to my right was Jason Ashlock, the founder and President of Moveable Type Management, a very successful (and young!) New York agency that has moved beyond the standard agency model to offer its writers more aggressive strategies and services in the digital marketplace. Jason’s personal interest is in the non-fiction market in history and politics, so we had some common ground there, particularly regarding my old friend Michael Beschloss. Jason asked about my self-publishing experience, why I did it, how it was going, and what I thought the future looked like. Sharp fella, and genuinely curious.

Also at the table, Ben Winter, a multi-published, multi-genre novelist and writing teacher, and Michelle Toth, a Grubb Street Board member and recent debut novelist. Both radiated their passion for fiction and interest in their colleagues.

All I can say is this:

You tend to learn something from hanging around these peeps, doncha think?

Saturday came to an exhilarating post-cocktail crescendo with the keynote address from Richard Eoin Nash. Nash’s resume is too long to recite here. Jet me just tell you that this man induced goosebumps at the three minute mark of his address, and if I mentioned his name ten times today, the goosebumps returned each time. He is a true visionary and boundary pusher, and you should rush off and see what he’s been up to at Small Demons, Red Lemonade and Cursor. You really won’t believe it.

Here was Nash’s preface: As traditional publishing frets about the threat to their loss of control in publishing, we need to be reminded that before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1450, authors were 100% “in control” of publishing their work.[1]

Is my enthusiasm seeping through here?

What could possibly top that, right? Surely, it was all denouement from here.

Eh, wrong.

Sunday began with Stephen McCauley (whose 1988 novel, Object of My Affection, was adapted to movie in 1998) and Alessandro Nivola discussing what makes a novel good fodder for a film. I knew McCaluey from an earlier social occasion, but truth be told, I’d never heard of Nivola before. Dumb me. Man’s got a rezzie. And he went to Exeter and Yale, so he’s smaht, too.

Of course, McCauley asked him, every novelist firmly believes his/her novel is destined to become an Oscar-worthy film. What does Alessandro want to see in a script?

A lovable rogue who’s a total mess, hot blooded and reckless, with a big heart. Sounds like Paul Forte to me!

What can fiction writers learn from screenplay writers?

Economy. Feeling of movement, rhythm. Something changing in every scene.  And subtext. People rarely say what they mean.

After a luncheon keynote address from the incredibly magnetic Julia Alvarez and  some useful tips and talk about marketing and promotion, it was time to get back into the nuts and bolts of the novel revision process. In this  final exercise (for me), I was dumbstruck to watch as Alexander Chee weaved us through his own process, as much tools as magic and mirrors, where I was once again reminded of what Josh Weil had mentioned 30 hours before – that the process of writing fiction is organic, has a life of its own, and if we do it right, we are not totally in control of where our stories go and must trust our characters and Muse to guide us.

I’ve felt since late 2011 that I was slipping into a bit of a funk, unable to complete my second manuscript or market my first with any vigor or enthusiasm. I needed a slap in the face and a pat on the back. Little did I know that M&M was going to give me both, delivered time and again by a roster of amazing and inspiring talent.

[1] Gutenberg was also the inventor of “moveable type,” although Nash credited his successor, Manutius Aldus with the more important inventions of the semi-colon and italics. He also credited the company named after him for the creation of Pagemaker, the first available tool for desktop publishing, as the beginning of the threat to traditional publishing.

Pete Morin is the author of Diary of a Small Fish and can occasionally be found swimming in his own pond.


Jean Oram said...

Here's to a slap and a pat! Cheers, Pete. Off to check out those links.

Lynn Proctor said...

i am loving that stephen king, more and more--not particularly a fan of his books, but i so agree with his writing philosophies

Paula said...

Fine post, Pete. Often the enthusiasm of people at writing conferences can get us working on stalled projects again, yes!

Jemi Fraser said...

Sounds like an awesome experience! Thanks so much for sharing :)

Pete Morin said...

I can't urge people strongly enough to look into this Nash fellow.

Check out and

Matt Sinclair said...

I've heard great things about that conference. Nice to see some of the nitty gritty. I'll check out those links.