My First AWP Conference Experience

This past week I attended my first writing conference. The AWP Conference was held in San Antonio this year (AWP stands for Association of Writers & Writing Programs). There was a concern about travel and a confirmed case of the COVID-19 virus in/near the city just before the conference was set to begin. This ended up causing a lot of people to withdraw from the conference. It was my first time, so I did not know quite what to expect. Many of the panels I wanted to attend ended up being canceled. There were plenty that weren’t and the cancellations actually allowed me to attend the book fair more often (which I am really glad I did). Before I vomit my entire experience onto the page, I’m going to give it a bit of structure.

I was hesitant to attend the conference. Not so much because of the virus though (which has become a large concern). I was hesitant because I wasn’t sure if I really belonged with this particular group of people. But how could I not be sure I’d fit in with a bunch of writers? I am a writer. Well, even within the world of writing there are cliques and niche areas and different conferences for different types of writing. AWP consists, in my opinion, largely of academic writing, poetry, nonfiction, and reality based fiction, historical fiction, and pedagogy. I like to write a lot of speculative/science fiction and fantasy. Both of which still hold a stigma within the writing world despite becoming massively popular. So I wasn’t sure if I’d fit in with this particular crowd. I’m happy to say that I was wrong…mostly. There was very little at the conference specifically toward genre fiction, but I was surrounded by writers. Many of whom loved science fiction. Most did not write it themselves, but they appreciated it. I mainly wanted to know what it was like being in a building with thousands of other writers. I met many cool people and ran into a few former professors of mine. Admittedly, I did have a second reservation about going to this conference. Part of not knowing what to expect included not being sure if there would be a lot of academic snobbery or large egos. There were a few, but there were many more down-to-earth people who enjoyed all different areas of writing and entertainment. It’s really a great crowd of people.

Being my first time, I did over-prepare a bit. I built a schedule of events that had me in panels all day long. There were so many that it was hard to just pick one for each time slot. I really enjoyed most of the ones I did attend. There were a few that were canceled and I knew about ahead of time, which let me go to a second-choice panel, while others were canceled without notice. But again, this let me attend the book fair which I will talk about shortly. What I didn’t realize when making my schedule, was that most seasoned attendees only go to maybe three panels per day instead of a full five. It can be difficult and tiring attending so many but I wanted the full experience. The panel topics ranged from starting a project to teaching writing to what to do once publishing your book and everything in between.

The off-site events that happen in the evening are often sponsored/hosted by literary magazines or writing programs and often include a reading of some sort. These are really fun, relaxed events and great ways to meet new people. I highly recommend them even if you end up burning the midnight oil. The conference is three days and you need to make the most of the entire experience. My last day, Saturday, I attended an event described as simply “come have a drink and talk about books, no readings, etc.” and of course I was in. It was hosted by the Ashland MFA program and I met many of the current and prior students who are a fantastic group of people. This ended up being one of the highlights of my trip.

The book fair. The AWP book fair is an incredible experience. From talking with people there, I came to realize that this particular conference was about 2/3 of the previous year and many people talked about how it was much more relaxed and friendly. Apparently things can get a little overcrowded and everyone was enjoying not being packed in the aisles and actually having time to have actual conversations instead of passing comments with attendees. The book fair holds a ton of literary journals from all over the country, writing programs, publishers and writing services (such as editors), among many others. I bought a set of metaphor dice which I thought was a super cool idea and I look forward to using them. Most journals and books are discounted from normal prices and you can get great deals on subscriptions as well as books. I met Ted O’Connell at a publisher’s booth that was selling his debut novel K. I’m looking forward to diving into it. I also met an upcoming historical fiction novelist, AJ Wells, who is currently finishing his masters degree in Alabama (I can’t remember which university, sorry AJ). Keep a look out for his work in the future. In a nutshell, the book fair is probably the best part of the conference and you can spend all day in just that area. There is a day pass for the book fair on Saturday only, so if the conference is held in a city near you, definitely hit up the book fair to see all the cool stuff. The pass is usually $5 and it is definitely worth it.

There is so much to talk about but at the same time it’s difficult to describe such an experience. I am glad I attended. I will be attending next year since it will be in Kansas City, which is not far from where I live. Next year will also give me a better idea of what a full-fledged conference looks like (hopefully). It was definitely a silver lining that it was a smaller conference for my first time, but I’m interested to see it in full force. Even though it was a great time and I was surrounded by fellow writers, I still felt a little out of place. I did go by myself and I think going with a friend would greatly improve the experience. Overall, I believe it was a good step for my introverted self to go. I would recommend any writers who have not gone to see what it’s about at least one time. At the very least, I was inspired to keep working on my writing and I look forward to the day I get my first book published.

Who I Am

I haven’t posted in a while and it was bugging me so I decided to write something. I had a hard time deciding what to write about and then I finally had an idea. I decided to write about something I never really talk about: myself. I haven’t really talked about myself much on my own blog. Outside of my About Me page, I have maybe written about myself two times in the past three years. I have a few topics that hopefully give you an insight into who I am.

First, a quick update on my reading. I mainly post book recommendations and the next one will be about the book I’m currently reading, which is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I’m about half-way through at the moment and I plan to have it up soon.

Next, I have joined that most dreaded of arena’s: the gym. I say most dreaded because I think most people don’t like going to the gym, especially people who’s work and hobbies consist of mainly sedentary activities. I enjoy reading, writing, and playing videogames outside of work and my work puts me in front of a computer a majority of the time. I played sports growing up and throughout high school, but since then I haven’t been terribly active except for a few years during college. I had gained about 20 lbs my first semester in college and proceeded to drop 40 lbs the following six months by running and eating healthier. Over the past six years, since meeting my now wife and being in a comfortable and loving relationship, I have gained a steady amount of weight to place me at the heaviest I have ever been. So now I am doing something about it and my reasons are plenty.

The first reason is for physical health (obviously), but this reason connects to several others. Being physically healthy and in-shape has many other benefits. It gives me more energy in my daily life which is greatly beneficial since I have so many goals and interests. It also positively impacts my mental health in a big way. I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life. I am susceptible to heavy, dark topics and the pain of others, which is why I am always looking to help others so they don’t have to experience what I have. Luckily, over the years, I’ve been able to recognize the signs and prevent myself from falling too far into the darkness. Since I first met my wife, I’ve not had a bad episode so being in a great relationship helps, but maintaining my physical health also is a big benefit in this arena. Physical and mental health are not separate. There is only health.

Related to my mental health is my social life. I’m going to focus on the social media aspect here though. I have cut my time spent on Facebook by about 80% in the past several weeks and I must say that this has helped with my overall happiness. I never used Facebook much to begin with, but cutting my usage down (possibly down to zero one day) has been beneficial. Now my only social media use is on Twitter. I like this platform because it is easy to craft to your own use and it does have a great community for writers and authors. Even so, I don’t post much on Twitter. I’ll interact every now and then with some cool things, but I really use it to keep up-to-date with things going on. Unfortunately, that does involve news and politics, which really makes it difficult to keep the spirits up. But it is better to be informed than blissfully unaware until something terrible happens. Again though, there are many great people I interact with and follow who are uplifting positive forces. Certain authors like Gareth L. Powell and communities like #TwitterofTime are a few examples. As for why I don’t post much on social media, well, I don’t really feel like I have much to say. I only post my genuine thoughts and try to contribute to a positive atmosphere. That being said, I will try to post more often so those who are kind enough to follow me get a better sense of who I am and are hopefully intrigued or entertained by what I put out there.

The last few topics I wanted to talk about are related to the reason I started this blog: my writing. I’ve had a fun time maintaining this site and posting stories and talking about books. I’ve met new people like fellow bloggers other book enthusiasts. Overall, I’m happy I started and look forward to continuing. My initial reason for starting was for my writing. For my dream to become a published author. I have published one story (so far) but my plan is to publish books. I’ve had a lot to think about recently about this aspiration. Ironically enough, I believe it started several weeks ago when I read an article that was circulating Twitter that discussed what it is like to be an author in the 21st century. It covered how many things that used to be handled by publishing companies have become the author’s responsibilities. From promotions to book tours, many aspects that previously were handled by others have become a normal expectation of the authors themselves. It also discussed how many authors don’t make enough from advances or sales to make a living or even sustain their writing lifestyles. Needless to say, the article was greatly disruptive to my enthusiasm to reach my goals. In fact, I’ve begun doubting if my dream is attainable at all and I’ve delved into thoughts about giving up on that dream entirely.

The thought of giving up on my writing dream led me to imagine what my life would be without that desire. What would my life be without my dreams? Well, I would certainly have less self-doubt, but I know that I would not be happy. Even if I gave up wanting to be a published author, I would still need to write. I would still write books and stories regardless of attempting to find an agent and publishers or trying to get my stories out to the public to read. This realization has only confirmed that writing is a core part of who I am. My doubt and thoughts of quitting has only confirmed my need to continue this craft. It isn’t just a hobby. It’s me.

My doubts were not completely abolished by this realization of course. I don’t think they ever will be. I am going to my first ever writing conference next week and I hope that it will ignite my ambitions and inspire me toward my goal. I also hope to meet many new writing friends. Reviewing the events and preparing for the conference has already encouraged my writing dream and I’m excited to go.

And now for my final topic. My current work/life/dream balance. I greatly enjoy my job and I work with a phenomenal team, but I it’s also not exactly where I want to be. It does not necessarily allow me much room to work on my craft. It is in the field I want to work in but I’m not in the role I wish to make my career. I guess I really don’t need to be so ambiguous. I want to be a creative writing and/or literature teacher at a university. My current role has me in an academic support role for both students and faculty. I greatly enjoy it, but I’m conflicted because I continue to feel the pull to be in the classroom.

When I get home from work, I often don’t want to sit in front of a computer and work on my writing. I’ll either read or watch a show or do something that doesn’t take much thought. Outside of work, I hang out with friends and family. I find it hard to find time to write but I know I need to sit down and carve out the time and just do it. I was fairly productive this January but the past several weeks have been unproductive. Partly because of those creeping doubts. I am happy to say that those doubts had nothing to do with the quality of my work now that I think about it. I guess that is the silver lining to all of the overthinking I’ve been doing. I have many difficult decisions to make in the future but ultimately I need to ensure that I don’t give up or let the years go by where I dream of what might have been. I need to take steps toward where I want to be. I need take action to make my dreams a reality. It’s time for something to change and I’m sure I’ll find out the path I need to take with just a little more time.

So there I am. Or a glimpse into who I am. An overthinking kid with a million interests who wants to learn all the things but ultimately wants to create a life that can be sustained by writing books. Crafting stories that inspire and entertain others. Some day. One day. Let’s aim for a three year timeline for the first novel. It’s no longer a time to just dream. It’s the time to act, and I’m going to reach my first goal of finishing my first draft by my next birthday. Wish me luck and thank you for reading.

How Do You Rate a Book? – A Commentary on the Goodness of Goodreads

A few weeks ago I noticed a small trend/discussion on Twitter from several authors commenting about their distaste for Goodreads and it got me thinking. Some of their points were extremely valid while others came across as simply complaining. What really sparked my thoughts was how exactly do we “rate” a book?

Before I go into my thoughts about how we rate books, I want to give some context as to what these authors were grumbling about. They claimed not to like Goodreads because people could “rate” their work without having actually read it. I remember now what sparked the conversation. Certain people or bots were creating accounts on Goodreads and rating books with one star. Some of these accounts were mimicking several authors who were and were not active on Goodreads, and crazily enough, they were giving some books one star whereas the real author had given the book five stars. Goodreads apparently had not acted or responded to several requests that these fake accounts be deleted.

Since technology can easily be used to manipulate markets and flood our screens with targeted information, are such systems meant for social interaction and shared interests safe places that provide us with relevant information? Or is that information being changed on a whim by computer algorithms?

A loaded question, I know. I agree with many of the authors concerns. I don’t necessarily think it is fair that even authentic accounts can go in and provide a rating for a book they have not read or did not finish (DNF). The rating system so ingrained in our culture has pros and cons but is definitely at risk of manipulation. Think about how ratings impact your decisions. Do you ever decide not to buy something, say on Amazon, because the average rating is low or you found a similar product with a higher rating? Do you peruse what the reviews say about the product or check to see how many people were included in the average rating? Are you someone who uses reviews to make decisions but never leaves reviews of the products you buy?

We use the information and opinions of thousands of strangers as a basis for finding good products. But how does that work with books? How can one rating system be suitable for a medium that spans hundreds of years and millions of interests? To me, Goodreads (or similar programs) is a tool I use mainly for personal use. I don’t have too many “friends” on Goodreads and I don’t really use the social aspect of the program. Though I do think it is great that you can find people who love books and see what your friends are reading and what they like since a friend’s recommendation holds much more weight than a mass of strangers. I personally only take recommendations in person when it comes to books. I also write book recommendations on this blog as my own way of giving actual feedback about the books I read.

I use the rating system simply for myself, but lately I’ve been questioning my own method of rating books. If I DNF a book, I will not rate it because I don’t believe you should rate a book you did not read. That would be like saying something tastes good before actually taking a bite. You don’t have the full experience. Sure it looks good, but it could taste terrible and vice-versa. I hardly ever give two stars or lower. If I don’t care much for a book, I usually don’t care to comment on it. I give three stars if I like the book, four if I really like it, and five stars if I absolutely love it and have already recommended it to all my friends (which is really the highest “rating” you can give a book). These ratings are my opinion. I think they allow any stranger that looks at my profile to see what I like and give them an idea of what I like to read. I love it when two people can rave about the same book. Books have the ability to form friendships and encourage passionate discussions. This is one reason I love them and want to write books of my own (it will be interesting when my own books show up and get rated on Goodreads, which will likely provide a different perspective for me).

But again, how do you rate a book? How can you rate books in the same system when they have nothing in common? I like to branch out and read new things. I’ve recently been reading much more nonfiction. So how do I rate a nonfiction book seemingly in comparison to a book of fiction? If I give them both three stars, does that mean I liked them equally despite having totally different experiences? Usually not. It is just in the moment after finishing the book when I consider if I liked it and how much. I then give the rating. I don’t compare the book to others I have read (with a few exceptions like if the book is better than other in the same series). I don’t think about how that rating may impact the overall rating for that book, which in turn may influence a complete strangers decision to read the book or not. I hope no one (or not many people) actually makes a decision to read a book based on a rating. Books are not kitchen appliances. But ratings do influence opinions and sales.

As with any rating system or criticisms, there are plenty of books people rate highly that I thought were just alright and there are books I love which others didn’t seem to enjoy. Some people love to gripe about anything. I worked in customer service for years and 90% of the interactions where a customer needed my attention as a manager was when they were dissatisfied. Rarely did anyone come up and praise anything or say how much they enjoyed their experience. I don’t think the same necessarily applies to rating books, but we use the same scales for businesses and the internet emboldens those grumpy customers to post one-star ratings on Yelp or Google or whatever they use. Sometimes they will use several so their nasty opinion can do the most damage. Some people just suck.

I use Goodreads and its rating system. But it is strictly for my own purposes. I refuse to be nasty about anything because I don’t need to add to that pile of poison already rotting the internet. I also use Goodreads to keep lists of books I want to read. I could not rate books and still use Goodreads simply to keep lists. Perhaps I may make that change. The program is a tool after all and can be used however you like. Just like any tool, it can be misused by the wielder. I do think Goodreads should authenticate accounts and remove any bots that try to alter ratings with false input. However, I also choose to read books based on my own interests and will not let a simple rating deter me from potentially discovering an amazing book. I will decide for myself if I like it. I am my own person. As are you.

Authors I’d Love to Have Coffee With (Time-Travel Edition)

That’s right, it’s the time-travel edition. These are all authors who I would have loved to have coffee with. Several of them had passed away prior to my even being born. Several were alive during my lifetime but I had not yet discovered their work and/or their fun nature. So, if I had a time machine, I’d use it to visit each of these authors to have a casual afternoon tea with (or beer or whatever). I definitely wouldn’t use a time machine for nefarious or benevolent reasons of course.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien AuthorOf course I would have Tolkien on this list. He has been a big influence on my life as well as millions of others throughout the years. A special thanks to my dad for introducing me to his work, and to Peter Jackson for his excellent film adaptations that I experienced during some of my earlier years. I became slightly crazed devouring Tolkien’s works when I first found them and though that craze has lessened, I still enjoy reading his stories. He will always be an influence in my life as well as my imagination. If you haven’t read the Tolkien biography by Humphrey Carpenter, I recommend it.

Philip K. Dick

Phil K Dick AuthorPhilip K. Dick unexpectedly became one of my favorite science fiction authors. I still have a lot of his work to read, but I’ve read several short story collections and I love most of them (some are a little goofy but most keep you thinking). He was truly an excellent write who could convey complex ideas through a simply told story. He made it look easy and Hollywood continues to use his stories for films and television. I would trade in a chance to meet him if doing so would have prevented his stroke. He could have lived so much longer and produced so much more work. His pseudo-memoir, which is really an interview transcription, titled What If Our World is Their Heaven? is a fascinating glimpse into who he was.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le GuinAlas, I discovered Le Guin only a few months before she passed away in 2018. I have much of her work yet to read, including her popular Earthsea series, but I will get around to it. Her non-fiction is fascinating and I believe she led important movements at a critical time in the development of science fiction and the publishing industry. There is much more change needed in publishing (I just read about the scandal with American Dirt), but Le Guin fought for what she believed in and that is admirable. She wanted science fiction to be taken seriously and she wanted more women writers in the world. She especially wanted women writers to stop using pseudonyms and own their work. I think we still need many people like her in the world to fight the good fight.

Robert Jordan

robert-jordanI read Robert Jordan‘s The Wheel of Time series last year and it was an experience. He rightfully deserves his fans admiration. And speaking of his fans, they are excellent people. I follow many who are part of the #twitteroftime group and they are simply fun people who love the series and love sharing about it. It’s nice to find a fandom that isn’t toxic like so many out there. Jordan’s work has brought a lot of people together and I am excited for the television adaptation, which is currently in production. Jordan is another author who had lived during my lifetime. He passed away in 2007. I would have been sixteen then, but I would have loved to meet him (if only I had discovered his series sooner). The series is quite large at ~4.5 million words across 15 books (14 and a prequel). I tracked my reading of the series on this blog. It does contain spoilers after the second book posting, but it was fun to track my thoughts and predictions as the story progressed.

Ray Bradbury

Ray BradburyI somehow had no idea that Ray Bradbury was alive during the same time I was. I naively assumed he passed away several decades ago. This is probably because I read Fahrenheit 451 in high school and almost everything else we read in school was by authors who lived a long time ago. I was wrong and can only claim youthful ignorance. Ray Bradbury passed away in 2012. I was, by then, a not-so-naive adult at age 21. What I wouldn’t have done to meet him had I known. I recently picked up his book Zen in the Art of Writing from my local library and am excited to jump in.

Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne JonesA somewhat recent discovery for me, I first discovered Diana Wynne Jones without realizing. I watched the film Howl’s Moving Castle and simply loved it. It was a few years later that I found out the movie was based on the book of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. I of course read the book. I love them both equally and separately. I have since heard many stories about Diana herself and she seemed like such a lovely person. She has been an inspiration to many and I’m sure my fondness for her work will grow. I recently was gifted her book Reflections: On the Magic of Writing and I am excited to read it also.

 

Even after someone is gone, they are able to leave behind bits and pieces of themselves for others to discover. Some hold those pieces dearly, others simply enjoy them, and others will share them and discuss them with their friends. This is one of the greatest things about books and writing. I’m grateful to have discovered these authors and some of them have been influential in my life and they all inspire my own writing pursuits. I also simply love to read their stories.

*If anyone develops a time-machine and could loan it to me or wants to join on an adventure, contact me immediately.

8 Authors I’d Love to Have Coffee With

I must admit that I came across a blog post by N S Ford and I thought it was a fun idea. Now, I love coffee, but I have recently gotten into tea as well (partly in an attempt to reduce my caffeine intake), so this post is really a “authors I’d love to hang out with over a drink” post.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman AuthorI’ve talked about Neil Gaiman before and have recommended many of his books. I took his MasterClass about a year ago and may very well take it again soon. Neil is one of several authors (a few also on this list) whose writing I enjoy and whose personalities I find even more fascinating. You can find more of what I think about Neil by reading my post On Neil Gaiman which is part of my Authors Who Influence Me series.

V. E. Schwab

VE SchwabI cannot remember how I first discovered V, but as with Neil, I find her fascinating as well. She gave an excellent speech titled “In Search of Doorways” at the J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture at Pembroke College in 2018. She has an active Twitter presence and is a fun to follow.

Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff AuthorAnother author who I have written about in my On Authors series, Tobias Wolff is a prolific writer who I don’t think appears on many peoples radars because his work is primarily in the realm of short stories. I absolutely love his work and would love to have an informal talk with him about many things.

Gareth L. Powell

Gareth L PowellI first discovered Gareth L Powell on Twitter and only a few months ago. Others were talking about his book About Writing: A Field Guide for Aspiring Authors. I recently read it and greatly enjoyed it. I have yet to read his fiction but I plan to pick up Embers of War in the near future and dive in. He is an absolute delight to follow. He is engaging, uplifting, and an overall prime example of what social media can be used for as he offers encouragement and maintains positive enthusiasm.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm GladwellI never knew who Malcolm Gladwell was until I took his MasterClass on writing. I have since read all but one of his books. His most recent, Talking to Strangers, is my favorite of them all. I’ve learned so much from his research and skillful way of tying topics together around a theme that would beforehand seem unrelated. I’d have so many questions for him but would be happy just sitting there and listening to him talk.

J. K. Rowling

JKRowling_2016GalaYet another from my On Authors series, how could I not have J. K. on this list. I grew up alongside her popular character Harry Potter. By this I mean I literally grew up as the books were released and I was around the same age as Harry when each installment was released. Though I would like to have coffee/tea with her, I don’t think I’d really talk about Harry Potter at all.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret AtwoodSomehow I failed to read Margaret Atwood, or even know of her, until I took her MasterClass. She seems like a delightfully fun person and I know I would enjoy talking with her. I still have much of her work to read, but I will get to it eventually. Oryx and Crake is the next book of hers I think I will read unless I read The Testaments next as I’ve already read A Handmaid’s Tale.

Patrick Rothfuss

rothfussworldbuildersI first read Pat’s work about three years ago. I have since convinced several friends to read his Kingkiller Chronicles series and they both love me and hate me for it. I first discovered Pat through Twitter when someone (I believe it was a publisher) posted a video of him and Sabaa Tahir talking about writing and sequels and taking questions from fans. I thought they were both delightful and I read his book and loved it.

 

 

Those are eight authors who I’d love to have a drink with. I’m sure there are several others who would make such a list and many more who I have yet to discover, but we will save those for another time. Stay tuned for Authors I’d Love to Have Coffee With (Time-Travel Edition).

*If your name is on this list, the drinks are on me of course.