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.

The Inaugural Emerging Writers Festival in Old Town Alexandria!!

The last two weeks or so have been really rough, so I was really excited to attend my first writers festival in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia this past weekend!

It was the inaugural festival and was hosted by Old Town Books, which opened last year and is run by a bunch of really wonderful people with great ambitions and thoughts for the reading and writing communities! (I wrote a while ago about attending my first book club meeting there; the next one is in September and features the book “Coastalegre,” which is loosely based on Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter. As an art lover, I deeply appreciate this.)

This is a photo gallery, so you can click through and look at more than just like, my face and this one panel pic. I actually was so absorbed in all the speakers that I didn’t take nearly as many photos as I thought, but I got a good amount anyway. :)

I had so much fun and I learned a ton! I attended numerous classes and panels and volunteered at two of them. Honestly, I did WAY more than I even realized, once I started writing all these things down. I also met just a ton of wonderful writers at different points in their careers, which was so wonderfully inspiring.

  • Keynote Conversation with Catherine Chung, author of The Tenth Muse

  • Fiction Craft Intensive with Catherine Chung

  • Against the Algorithm Panel with Lupita Aquino, Amanda Nelson, and Kendra Winchester (all bookternet reviewers and leaders)

  • Polish your Pitch with Jennifer Baker (publishing professional of 16 years, host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, contributing editor to Electric Literature, essayist)

  • Publishing Masterclass with Jane Friedman (20 years of experience in publishing industry, author of The Business of Being a Writer and The Authors Guild Guide to E-Publishing)- I had to leave this early to go volunteer at the merch table, but the first hour was AMAZING and so useful.

  • Talk and signing with Tope Folarin (author of the novel A Particular Kind of Black Man, short story author)

  • Apply Yourself Panel - with Hannah Bae, Jennifer Baker, and Caits Meissner (PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program director, author), Kris Zory-King moderating

  • Writing the Personal Essay with Hannah Bae, journalist and essayist

  • The Path to the Debut Novel with Angie Kim, author of Miracle Creek

I was honestly going to write a whole blog post about ALL the things I learned in ALL the classes, but I just…do not have time fo rthat today. So i think I’m going to spread it out in more bite sized pieces, one or two classes a past for a while. I honestly gained so much useful knowledge

How I Got Back Into Writing Seriously

The Lifelong Dream

Honestly, I cannot remember a time when I have not wanted to write and be an author. Some of my earliest dreams and goals as a child involved writing as a career. My family LOVES books; literally every room in my parents’ house except the bathrooms have bookshelves and books in them. It was a wonderful place for a child to grow up. I eagerly read as many books as I could; they fascinated me and brought me to a whole other world. I wanted to make those worlds myself.

And in elementary school I did. I was always writing stories or poetry or songs or whatever. My output turned into mostly just poetry over time, as I discovered journalism and imposter syndrome. For a long time, I felt that nonfiction journalistic writing was the only thing I could do. Fiction seemed too hard. I tried doing National Novel Writing Month several times and never managed to finish; this made me feel like a failure. I had lots and lots of ideas written down in various places, but none of them ever came to fruition. I’d start and stop and get distracted and frustrated. For a while I had resigned myself to not really being a writer. I did do some writing and research on marital surnames, and had an inkling to turn it into a nonfiction book, but I wasn’t following through on any of it.

I usually write at the kitchen table these days, surrounded by books and journals.

I usually write at the kitchen table these days, surrounded by books and journals.

The Turning Point

So fast forward to my 30th year of life, when I finally got on a combination of treatments that actually treated my depression successfully. This really changed my life in so many ways. I had a focus and a determination that I hadn’t had previously; my depression was no longer a barrier dropping in front of me, but a curtain pulled to the side. I could see it and respect it and treat it carefully, but I could walk through it without a problem.

When my beloved Shakespeare troupe Britches and Hose announced that they were holding a New Works Festival and needed submissions of original one acts, I decided that it was time to take one of my favorite ideas and turn it into a play. That’s how “Most Horrible,” a one-act prequel to Hamlet set in Purgatory began. I was so excited and motivated by this success that I continued on - and turned the play into a project for National Novel Writing Month in November. I finished up the novel by the end of January (I have, of course, decided to add in a whole new historical context and many more subplots, so I have major edits and revising coming up, but that’s another issue).

Since NaNoWriMo had worked so well for non-depressed Me, I decided to set monthly goals for myself. January’s was finishing the novel, February’s was working on my nonfiction book proposal. I didn’t really have any plans to write short stories until I came across a fascinating writing prompt on the Internet - calling for short stories about Grumpy Old Gods, gods that in some way were shirking their duty. I was so excited about this concept that I outlined and wrote “Purr Like an Egyptian” fairly quickly, in only a week or two! And it felt so good to have a project wrapped up and submitted so quickly, that I decided I’d dedicate March to writing more short stories and poetry to submit to various magazines and publications. That’s how I also wrote “Big Dave’s Goliath” and “The Caterer.”


So here we are now. “Purr Like an Egyptian” was just accepted for publication in Grumpy Old Gods Vol. 2 and will be coming out later this month. “Big Dave’s Goliath” was published recently in Gypsum Sound Tales’ Colp: Big. I’ve also had a few literary nonfiction pieces published as well - on Talking Soup and The Drabble.

I also tend to write with my own personal demigod in my lap. (I’m writing a lot about ancient Egyptians lately- cats WERE their demigods)

I also tend to write with my own personal demigod in my lap. (I’m writing a lot about ancient Egyptians lately- cats WERE their demigods)

“The Caterer” was rejected, but I invested a lot of time into revamping and revising it to make it better, and then published it myself on Kindle Direct Publishing as an experiment. I’ve enjoyed the writing and promoting process for my own ebook so much that I am now writing another story in the series, with plans for more! Once I finish and publish my second volume (“The Vanguard”), I plan to get back to “Most Horrible” and revise it to add in the Danish reformation (no biggie, right?).

It’s a lot of work, as of course I have a full time job as a trademark examining attorney at the USPTO, participate in Shakespeare plays with my friends, and occasionally like to have some downtime to spend with my husband, but it’s been so worth it. I don’t know if I’ll ever make much money from it or if it will ever be my full-time career, but writing brings me so much joy on a regular basis that I don’t know if I even care anymore. I love coming up with titles for my stories. I love outlining a plot. I love all the research - from Egyptian goddesses to drones, to Ancient Persia and the Tower of London.

I just love writing. And I won’t let myself forget that again.