Emerging Writers Festival Unpacking: Keynote, Fiction Intensive, and Against the Algorithm

So going over all my notes from the Emerging Writers Festival is helping me recap everything I learned and make sure I put it into practice in my own writing life and practice. In addition, I’m hopeful this might be helpful for others who weren’t able to attend some of the sessions, for whatever reason.

So here are some tidbits and wisdom from the first few sessions I attended at the festival!

Catherine Chung and Tayla Bruney

Catherine Chung and Tayla Bruney

The Keynote with Catherine Chung. She talked about her second novel, The Tenth Muse, with moderator Tayla Burney (a journalist and book reviewer for the Washington Post. She also writes a weekly email newsletter of author events and literary happenings around DC called Get Lit DC; you can subscribe to that here).

  • Cathy said that she had to rewrite her novel several times. “I had to let my narrator have this amazing life. I found sometimes I was the oppressive societal force holding my protagonist back.”

  • She said that she’s had writing retreat experiences where they just feed and house you and you just write all day. “It’s the most quixotic, ecstatic writing experience where you never have to leave the world you’re writing in. It ruins you for life.”

  • At one point, the company she worked for actually did a Christmas skit making fun of her ambition to be a writer. [Isn’t that SO SCREWED UP, seriously??]

  • “Writing rules are silly.” One professor claimed that if you don’t write every day you’re not a writer, but she said that while she was researching for her second novel, there were maybe years where she went without writing. She’s clearly still a writer.

  • For her first novel, she wrote all the time and threw out at least 1,000 pages as part of her process. It seemed like she was just accumulating pages and then throwing them away. But eventually it all came together and she figured out the structure. Her second novel was more structured from the beginning and was a different beast entirely.

  • A friend gave her a headsup before her novel came out: “Every writer gets depressed when their book gets published,” regardless of how well it does in the world or anything. Because you’re going from living entirely in your head to releasing it and waiting to hear what people think of it. Waiting is a terrible feeling. So ahead of her second novel’s release, Cathy decided just not to care.

  • She named the protagonist of her second novel Katherine as a joke, since so many people thought her first novel was an autobiography. However, it kind of backfired because many people still thought her second novel’s protagonist was autobiographical. At one point her wikipedia said that she was a 74-year-old woman; she was kind of sad when it got corrected.

From novelist Catherine Chung’s Fiction Intensive Workshop:

  • Cathy talked a bit about how she found it really interesting to see what people believe and what they don’t believe, as all of fiction is about making things up that people go along with. Sometimes we’re willing to believe the most ridiculous things, and in the current political climate, there’s a constant debate about what is true and false. What determines the stories we believe? What determines the stories we tell and are allowed to tell? (I believe most of the statements in this paragraph are actual quotations from her, but I didn’t notate it well enough in my notes to know for sure, so I’m paraphrasing a bit.)

  • “When you figure out the technical parts of a story, everything else falls into place” – who is the narrator, the audience, what is the shape of the audience.

  • She had us do an exercise where we wrote a letter to someone close to you in which you told them something you’ve never told before. As Cathy said, this premise sets up the central tension of a story from the very beginning. “There’s a reason you haven’t told them this thing before, and there’s a reason you’re telling them now. There’s a potential of how it will change everything.” When there’s an audience member for a story that’s very specific, it puts the tension of the story at the forefront. She pointed out that we don’t usually think about the fact that the speaker in a story is different from the author, and the intended audience and the actual audience are not always the same. Once she started thinking about this, it helped her unlock some things she’d been working on for her first novel.

  • Cathy said her first and only college writing professor said you have to be absolutely subjective about everyone you write. You have to be able to see it from their side, no matter how horrible they are. But you also have to be absolutely objective about yourself.

Against the Algorithm Panel with Lupita Aquino (co-founder and co-moderator of the LIT on H St Book Club at Solid State Books, instagram book reviewer), Amanda Nelson (executive editor of Book Riot), and Kendra Winchester (co-founder of the Reading Women podcast). My notes from this were scribbled into a tiny notebook I bought last minute at Old Town Books while my laptop was charging, so they may not be as detailed or as…in complete sentences as other notes. :)

Panelists gave some great advice about the dos and don’ts of author marketing:

  • Lupita - Engage with people before asking them for a favor or a review. And pay attention to what types of books people are into.

  • Kendra - She suggests engaging in Middle Reader Thursday or other events designed to bring attention to your books. There are lots of hashtags and discussions out there particular to specific genres. You can even reach specific agents this way sometimes. She also suggests you experiment with your marketing; don’t be afraid to be imperfect.

  • Amanda - Be a community member before you start asking for stuff. Find book writers that write about your genre and reach out to them directly. Writers LOVE to hear from authors.

I basically didn’t take any photos on the Saturday of the writing festival at all except this one.

I basically didn’t take any photos on the Saturday of the writing festival at all except this one.

  • Regarding diversity in publishing and books:

    • Amanda - publishing as an industry is overwhelmingly white women at lower levels and white men at the higher levels. The inherent structure is racist and sexist. Her company has a diversity mandate where 30% of their reviews have to be of works by POC authors. They’re very strict about it

    • Lupita - Online, you notice the diversity issues more. We need the options.

    • Amanda- If you say “I just want a good story,” you're saying you just want to read what’s marketed to you. And those books are by authors who are overwhelmingly white, male, and cisgendered.

    • Kendra- You have to work to find the books sometimes and represent them. We need to see more people with disabilities in them. We need more than just Darcy’s cousin and a woman in the attic. She suggests following amazing women as well to learn from them.

    • Moderator Allison Punch - wants to make a distinction between what’s getting buzz and what’s actually written. People of Color have always been writing; we’re just now hearing about them.

  • What they do to help underrepresented authors

    • Amanda - Donates ad campaigns to some independently published books.

    • Kendra - a snowball effect can really help.

    • Amanda - looks out for debut authors in her marketing and tries to promote them.

    • Kendra - Points out that she thinks it’s unfair to debut authors that we expect them to be perfect. They need room to grow and become better.

  • If you want to become a book reviewer on social media

    • Kendra - be consistent with your postings

    • Amanda - have an interesting angle to it. Don’t just post a photo of fairy lights as your cover picture. Like she follows an instagram that only posts library books - she loves that, as it brings out books that are older. Do something unique.

  • How to support books besides tweeting and reviews:

    • Amanda - pre-orders! for libraries even, creates buzz

    • Kendra - create an evergreen post of a list of books - one of their most popular posts ever still is about Muslim women authors.

    • Lupita - pre-order giveaways

    • Amanda - pre-ordering from independent bookstores

  • Pitching to reviewers

    • Kendra - be specific and complimentary. Show familiarity with the reviewer’s work and guidelines.

  • To avoid drama on social media

    • Lupita - Set boundaries - practice self care

    • Kendra - ignore the drama and go to the people that support you

    • Amanda - Remember your job and ignore the rest. Avoid the petty crap.