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The Course That Helped Me Write My First Novel

by Gail Werner

gail-werner-photoThree years ago this month, I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw a post from my friend Cathy Day, an English professor at Ball State. It detailed her decision to offer her novel writing class online to anyone wanting to follow along.

Reading this news, I felt my pulse quicken. This is it, Gail, I told myself. This is your sign.

Except, it couldn’t be. Not when I had a 11-month-old son at home, a job at Ball State keeping me busy, and a photography business that was going strong.

I didn’t have time for signs, and yet something in my gut re-enforced what I knew was true: If I let the moment pass, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

With shaking fingers, I signed up, not knowing it was a move that would forever tilt my creative compass true north.

Over the weeks that followed, I read through the half-dozen books Cathy assigned on her syllabus. I dove into each with a zeal I hadn’t experienced since journalism school. It was intoxicating learning something new again, especially something I was so passionate about—learning how to write a book!

Using the skills I picked up that semester, I went on to finish my first novel. Ever since, I’ve kept going: reading more, writing more, learning more. Today I’ve reached the point where I’ve completed my second novel and am now querying agents, hoping one of them wants to help me publish my work.

Often times when I tell people I’ve written a book, they get a dreamy look in their eyes and admit they want to write one, too. What I always want to say (but haven’t until now) is writing a novel is almost impossible without learning a bit of craft first.

Which is why I’m elated to announce, in partnership with Midwest Writers Workshop and its new MWW Ongoing online courses and webinars, Cathy is offering another introductory novel-writing class this fall!

“It’s Time to Start Your Novel” will span four weeks beginning October 1 and is meant for anyone who’s ever thought, “I think I have a novel inside me.” (Newsflash: If you’re thinking this, it probably means you do.)

The cost is $150 and I promise (from the very bottom of my heart), it’s worth every penny.

What you’re about to learn from Cathy is what’s true of any goal worth pursuing—you’re gonna need time and preparation to tackle it. Consider this class your first step.

Or, as Cathy describes it:

“Think of ‘It’s Time to Start Your Novel’ as a cooking course in which you spend the first class cleaning the kitchen and prepping the ingredients. Think of it as a marathon-running course in which you spend the first class buying a good pair of shoes. Your chances of drafting an entire novel (maybe for National Novel Writing Month?) increase exponentially when you spend some time preparing yourself for the journey ahead.”

All of that makes sense, right? So I’m wrapping up this post hoping this opportunity finds a few brave souls yearning for the same creative challenge I was that afternoon I found Cathy’s Facebook post. I had no idea what I was getting myself into or how all of the work and second-guessing would be worth it to chase the creative high I’d experience as a result.

If you have specific questions about the course—which will cover topics like how to develop a writing regimen, along with how to create characters and scenes for your future novel—send them my way. You can also ask about signing up for Midwest Writers Workshop 2017 or, better yet, find out how to become a member of our new MWW Plus to get a 10-percent discount on Cathy’s class along with future webinars and workshops MWW has to offer!

So come on then … take this chance on yourself.

Learn how to fit writing into your life.

If you do, then someday (2017 resolution, anyone?) you can know the joy of holding your first finished novel in your hands the same way I did.

 

NEW intensive session! “Short Story Fellows Workshop” with Cathy Day

Midwest Writers is offering a NEW intensive session for our Part I format on Thursday, July 23, 2015! 

“Short Story Fellows Workshop” taught by (writer, teacher, bossy narrator) Cathy Day (Blog: The Big Thing www.cathyday.com) is limited to six participants who will spend the day reading and responding to each other’s manuscripts. It’s an intensive intensive.

Those accepted into this intensive will have the opportunity to have their 5-10 page short story critiqued by the whole group. Specifically, participants will be working to improve their facility with scenecraft (when to dramatize, when to summarize), point of view, setting, suspense, and readability. All work will be discussed anonymously and read aloud. To apply, send a 5-10 page writing sample in manuscript form (as an attachment) to Cathy Day at cathy@cathyday.com. Applications will be taken until midnight on (DEADLINE EXTENDED) April 6. Participants will be notified of acceptance by April 18 so that they can sign up for another intensive if not selected. [Note: the writing sample submitted as an application does not need to be the same story you will workshop at the conference. Those who are accepted will be notified at a later date about sending their story for the workshop to Cathy.]

Day CathyCathy Day is the author of two books. Her most recent work is Comeback Season, part memoir about life as a single woman and part sports story about the Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl season in 2006. Her first book was The Circus in Winter, a fictional history of her hometown.  The Circus in Winter was a finalist for the GLCA New Writers Award, the Great Lakes Book Award, and the Story Prize, and has been adapted into a musical. [Strange but true: The Circus in Winter was the solution to the New York Times Magazine acrostic puzzle in February 2005.]

Currently, she lives in Muncie, Indiana and teaches at Ball State University, where she’s serving as the Assistant Chair of Operations in the Department of English.

We asked Cathy a few questions about this new intensive session.

MWW:  Why did you decide to offer a short story intensive, something that is new for MWW in recent years?

CATHY: I wanted to do this because I believe that the best way to help people become published authors is to actually read and respond to their writing.

MWW offers so many great pathways to publication, but there’s nothing better than good, old-fashioned writing instruction.

MWW: We sometimes think of short stories as “literary” as opposed to “commercial” so please let us know the types of stories you are open to receiving. (Is something with paranormal elements okay? Fantasy? Dystopian?)

CATHY: I’m open to anything. The craft elements I’m focusing on–scenecraft (when to dramatize, when to summarize), point of view, setting, suspense, and readability–apply to any kind of fiction.

MWW:  What would you say to someone who has never written a short story? Is this class for them or for the experienced short story writer?

CATHY: Honestly, I’d like to work with MWW veterans who come quite often and are looking for something new, something they haven’t gotten already. I know that this is something our diehards have said they’d like. That is why I’m reviewing the manuscripts beforehand–I would prefer that everyone in the class be writing at about the same level: intermediate to advanced. Maybe another year, I’ll do something for beginners.

MWW:  Since you’re accepting six students, what happens if you receive too many registrations?

CATHY: I will choose the six writers I’d like to work with. That’s why those in this workshop are “fellows,” because they were vetted ad selected. I want those in my intensive to feel a little bit special.

MWW:  What specific help will a person get on their manuscript?

CATHY: I do this in my classes at Ball State with much success. I read the story aloud and it’s projected on a screen. I do this without revealing whose story it is. It’s a great experience to be in the room when others are “reading” your work for the first time. You hear them sigh or laugh. You watch them fidget when things are dragging. Then we talk about the story, and you can join in too. There’s something about not knowing exactly whose story it is that frees us up somehow to be honest. At the end, we reveal who wrote what.

I rarely read work by people I don’t know because I do so much of that in my job at Ball State. But I’m offering to read your work, if you’re up for it, too. Every year that I’ve presented at MWW, people have asked if they can take a writing class with me, and I’ve had to say no. Now I’m saying yes. Come work with me. I’m very nice, and I don’t bite.

40th Midwest Writers Workshop given “5 Stars!”

What a way to celebrate the 40th Midwest Writers Workshop! At capacity (happily) six weeks before the workshop! First time establishing a waiting list. First time (sadly) turning away writers desperate to attend.

2013-07-26 10.37.07Participants traveled from 20 states, and according to the word eavesdropped in the Conservatory, the Library, Assembly Hall and all corners of the building, never have so many enjoyed so much.

A record-breaking 235 participants crowded into the Alumni Center, July 25-27, to listen, talk, write, share, pitch, question, eat, drink, laugh, challenge, commiserate – and, yes, sleep once in a while. Something special marked this 40th annual workshop that might be difficult to put your finger on, but anyone involved knew it was happening. “…very encouraging,” invigorating,” “awesome,” “5 stars!” “the best,”  “thrilling experience,” were just some of the comments which pointed in this direction.

From the new hands-on Tech Intensive Sessions to the wild Jeopardy game to the history celebration to the Message in a Bottle to the Buttonhole the Experts, and to all the useful and informative sessions taught by a superbly talented faculty, MWW13 jammed highlights galore into three exhausting days.

MWW Jama award foto - with inscriptionAfter the great energy and advice from Hank Phillippi Ryan’s banquet speech, another special highlight was the presentation of the Dorothy Hamilton Award to MWW director Jama Kehoe Bigger. The award, named for the co-founder of the workshop, is given selectively to a person associated with the workshop who exemplifies Dorothy’s strong personal interest in writing and assisting other writers in their careers.  The standing ovation for Jama confirmed this year’s choice was on target. (And she was also a bit overwhelmed when several long-time participants/friends created Jama’s Fan Club!)

Kudos from our participants…

  • “Great conference – great place to re-energize your enthusiasm for writing and to build relationships with writers and those in the publishing business.”– Stephen Terrell
  • “At every step of my writing process – from book idea to rough draft to final draft, to publishing, author platform, to agent representation – MWW offers help and people who know and love writing.”– Sandy Kachurek
  • “The Midwest Writers Workshop is a magnificent way to meet our peers and gain knowledge to perfect our craft. The authors and the staff are extremely generous with their time and knowledge. Having bestselling authors share their experiences and knowledge is awesome to the extreme. It’s like spending two whole days with the best possible mentors.”– William Markly O’Neal
  • “This conference is the best thing that could have happened to a ‘new writer.'”– Brittany Means
  • “Each year I attend I find there are ‘magically’ the exact classes I need for the stage I happen to be in with my writing at that moment.”– Carla Gillespie
  • “This is the best conference I could have attended. Friendly people, knowledgeable faculty, personalized options (like manuscript evaluations). This conference has helped me form new goals and equipped me with skills and resources to reach those goals. I feel much more prepared for the writing process – from first drafts, to revisions, to queries, and beyond – because of this conference.”– Kristen Metz
  • “This was my first conference, and I loved all of it. Everyone was welcoming. I made great contacts and even got two requests for full manuscripts. This conference is packed full of everything an emerging writer needs to step right into the world of publishing.”– Anne W. S.

Kudos from our faculty…

  • “As we say in Sisters in Crime, you write alone, but you’re not alone. Nowhere is this more gloriously apparent than the super-charged powerhouse of writing skill-the Midwest Writers Workshop.  From tentative newbie to experienced oldbie (!) -we all learned something useful, we all shared something special, we all made new friends, we were all inspired and – absolutely – we are all looking forward to the next time. A true triumph-and a must-do for anyone who’s  intrigued by the world of writing.” – Hank Phillippi Ryan (Mary Higgins Clark, Agatha, Anthony and Macavity award winning author, President of National Sisters in Crime)
  • “I left the Midwest Writers Workshop as a stronger writer…and I was on the faculty. I can only imagine what it does to attendees.” – Lou Harry
  • “The Midwest Writers Workshop 2013 lived up to its reputation as one of the best conferences in the country and certainly the best value. Any writer looking to learn the craft of writing, discover the tricks and tips to getting published, and meet a wonderful and accessible group of writers and agents, would be crazy to pass up this conference. MWW undoubtedly provides the best bang for the buck!” – D.E. (Dan) Johnson (The Detroit Electric Scheme; Motor City Shakedown; Detroit Breakdown; Detroit Shuffle, St. Martin’s Minotaur Books)
  • “The Midwest Writers Workshop remains at the top of my list of favorite conference experiences. The focused curriculum, helpful staff, and welcoming participants all make this one of the best organized writing events I’ve yet seen.” – Brooks Sherman, FinePrint Literary Management

Check out our videos! (produced by Matt Shouse)

Read more about the fun of MWW13!

Jane Friedman‘s luncheon presentation: Audience Development for Writers: Your Life-Long Career Investment

Cathy Day: BSU + MWW: or “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”

Kelsey Timmerman: Midwest Writers Workshop Video

Summer Heacock: The Fizziest Midwest Writers Workshop Wrap-Up You’ll Ever Read

Sarah Wesson: “Calm Down. Write a Book.”: What I Learned at the 2013 Midwest Writers Workshop

Check our Photo Gallery and tag yourself on our Facebook Page!

So we’re patting ourselves on the back. And for just a while, basking in the bright light that was #mww13 before we move onto our 41st MWW, July 24-26, 2014.

Top 10 Reasons You Should Sign up for Social Media Tutoring at Midwest Writers

Top 10 Reasons You Should Sign up for Social Media Tutoring at Midwest Writers

by Cathy Day

All MWW13 attendees are eligible for a free, 50-minute Social Media Tutoring Session.

Here’s why you should sign up:

  1. It’s absolutely free. FREE!

  2. No other writers’ conference offers a Social Media Lab with hands-on assistance. (If I’m wrong about this, please let me know.)

  3. As a writer, you are the owner of a small business called being yourself.

  4. As a professional-type person, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself about technology.

  5. Since technology is constantly changing, this means that that process of educating yourself will never stop happening.

  6. There’s no point in whining about this. Besides, learning new things is actually kind of fun.

  7. If you sign up, you’ll be helping a young person get real-world experience, which is part of the mission of Ball State University.

  8. I applied for a grant from the Discovery Group in Muncie to hire this highly skilled group of Ball State students as interns. Don’t feel guilty about pumping them for knowledge. They’re getting paid!

  9. The tutors will leave the session feeling empowered: “Hey! This stuff I do for fun can actually be useful and help people!”

  10. You will leave the session feeling empowered: “Hey! Look who’s walking around with a bit more swagger? Me.”

So if you’re coming to Midwest Writers Workshop 2013, sign up!

 

Interview with Jane Friedman

This summer, Midwest Writers Workshop is offering two “Tech Intensives” in addition to our “Craft Intensives.” The always-amazing Jane Friedman will teach an all-day, hands-on class on “Creating an e-book.” For years, Jane has been coming to MWW to talk about why authors need to be tech savvy. This year, we’ll augment her message with hands-on lessons that will show you how to get those skills. Jane is the web editor for Virginia Quarterly Review and an e-media and publishing visionary with (lucky for us) Muncie roots.

Here’s Jane’s course description of her Tech Intensive:

Attendees will learn what you need to get started in e-publishing your work. There will also be assistants on hand to help you figure out the technology and work one-on-one. The industry has exploded with new and free opportunities to help you publish your work electronically, at little or no cost to you. Learn how to get visibility for your work by using online services that make your work available on major e-reading platforms such as Kindle, Nook, and iPad. While e-publishing doesn’t equal instant success (if you build it, they may NOT come), you’ll learn the principles behind the successful creation and distribution of an e-book, as well as the technical skill required to convert your work into different formats.

Jane was kind enough to answer a few questions for MWW, interviewed by committee member Cathy Day.

Cathy: We are so fortunate that you’ll be teaching this intensive class for us. I’m not going to ask you a question about e-publishing, because you’ve already said so much about this subject. I’ll just point people here and here. But I will ask you this: What should people bring with them to your session? How can they best prepare?

Jane: If people want to get the maximum practical value from the workshop, they should come prepared with a manuscript that they’d like to publish as an e-book. Most people will probably have a Word document to start with, and that’s perfect. However, even if you don’t yet have a manuscript or document ready for e-publishing, I guarantee you won’t be twiddling your thumbs. There’s a lot of territory to cover–both theory and nuts and bolts–and practice files will be provided for those without their own manuscript.

Cathy: Good to know! You’ve been coming to Midwest Writers for how many years now?

Kelsey Timmernan, Jane Friedman, Jama Bigger and Cathy Day chat in the atrium.

Kelsey Timmernan, Jane Friedman, Jama Bigger and Cathy Day chat in the atrium.

Jane: Since 2003! It’s like a family reunion for me. [She received the MWW prestigious Dorothy Hamilton Award in 2008 for her contributions to the on-going success of Midwest Writers Workshop.]

Cathy: So this will be your tenth anniversary then. I love to tell people about Midwest Writers. Why do you keep coming back? What’s special about this conference?

Jane: Two qualities combined make it very special: high-quality workshops and teachers in an accessible, friendly, welcoming atmosphere. It’s one of the few writers conferences where the faculty and the environment are so openly interactive and inviting of conversation.

Also, that sunlit atrium where people congregate. It may sound silly, but I think it has an impact on how cheerful the event is. It has an architecture of happiness.

Cathy: Thanks Jane. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to continue learning from you this summer.

Jane’s Part II sessions (Friday and Saturday) include:

  • Friday Lunch / Audience Development: Your Lifelong Career Investment
  • Publishing in a Brave New World Panel: Sarah LaPolla, Roxane Gay, Barb Shoup, Jane Friedman, D.E. Johnson
  • E-Publishing 101: Using Amazon and Other Major Online Retailers to Publish Your Work. This overview of the DIY e-book landscape will help you understand the major players, current strategies, and key challenges of successful self-publishing.
  • The Art and Business of Building an Author Platform. Writers are often scared or baffled by platform because it’s seen as a marketing and promotion mindset-antithetical to the artist mindset. However, there is a way to approach platform that isn’t about selling, but rather understanding human behavior (including your own!).

 

MFA + MWW: Why MFA Grads Need to Attend a Writer’s Conference

MWW committee member Cathy Day interviews MFA Grads & MWW Alums

Approximately 175 people attended the Midwest Writers Workshop in July 2012. Among them were two recent MFA grads: Aaron Hoover (University of West Virginia 2011) and Caitlin O’Sullivan (Minnesota State University–Mankato, 2012). I’d never met either in person, but had been Facebook friends with them for a while–Aaron grew up near my hometown, and I used to teach at Mankato long ago. These two saw me yakking about MWW on Facebook and asked, “Would this be good for me?” and I said, “Absolutely.”

CathyWhat made you decide to come to MWW?

O'SullivanCaitlin: Two things: first, I wanted a shortcut to learning everything I needed to know about being a published novelist; and second, I wanted to meet agents. While I came out of my program feeling confident that I could write a kick-butt novel, I knew I had a lot to learn about the business of publishing–how to find agents, write query letters, and build a writing career. I also had what I thought was a pretty strong manuscript in a genre that some of the agents at the conference represented. I figured it would be harder for them to turn me down to my face than in an email.  

HooverAaron: I have this novel I want to publish, and coming into MWW I knew almost nothing about what that would entail. Now I feel very positive about my chances once I’m ready to put the book out there. I also wanted to get back in touch with writing and renew my commitment to the discipline of daily work. It’s very easy, with a family and two jobs, to lose touch with that side of myself. Attending MWW kept me focused on my work and helped to inspire a very productive summer.

 

Cathy: When you say “writing conference” most MFAers think AWP, but MWW is very different. I’d say that it’s about equal parts “craft of writing” and “business of writing.” Do you think that’s accurate? How would you describe it? What can a recent MFA grad expect? 

Caitlin: The craft classes at MWW didn’t necessarily blow my mind, but that’s probably because I just finished a program in which I’d been thoroughly steeped in craft. I think a recent MFA can expect to learn the most at the business panels, which definitely cover material that they didn’t teach you in grad school.

Aaron: I took more advantage of the business side of things than craft, because it was just what I needed. I quickly learned how the publishing industry categorizes work like mine, how to build a platform to promote my own work, and how best to talk and write to agents. All of this stuff was covered lightly, if at all, in my craft-focused MFA experience.

Cathy: What have been the biggest challenges of your post-MFA life? Did the conference help at all in that regard, and how exactly? 

Caitlin: I was lucky enough to have a bunch of brilliant, supportive classmates and teachers while I was in grad school. When I graduated, it meant that I didn’t get to see them on a daily or weekly basis anymore. While I also love the people I spend time with now, they’re not writers–their ability to help me learn to pitch my novel, fix plot holes, and work out character problems is pretty limited.

Aaron: Far and away the greatest challenges of my post-MFA life have been material. Squaring away the time and money to act like a writer is not easy for me because I do a lot of labor for little pay and have primary care responsibility for two young children.

Caitlin: MWW immersed me back in that writing-centric environment–and because it’s not a giant conference, I made friends that I saw several times each day of the conference. That “pretty strong manuscript”? My MWW friends helped me make it even stronger.

Aaron: This is worth saying too: this conference is amazingly well-priced. It also helped renew my passion for writing by clarifying my vision of how, exactly, I might become a successful, published writer.

Cathy: Why should MFA grads think about attending a conference like this?

Caitlin: Traditional MFA programs are great for instilling the fundamentals of good writing. They’re not so great when it comes to teaching writers how to market their writing, and what’s going on in the ever-changing publishing world. You know the saying “Smart people learn from their mistakes, geniuses learn from other people’s mistakes”?

Aaron: The MFA introduced me to the serious academic world, which changed my life; it connected me with a bevy of amazing artists who are now my friends and helpers; and it bought me some protected time to write a real manuscript. MWW got me out of the cozy, cloistered world of ‘art for art’s sake’ and introduced me to the world of the professional fiction writer – which is, I think, where many of us wanted to end up when we started the MFA.

Cathy: Let me say this as someone who has taught in an MFA program: you’re not being disloyal or ungrateful to your program by saying, “I didn’t learn a lot about how to publish.” I’ve written about this topic elsewhere, actually. (Should We Make It Our Business to Teaching the Business of Being a Writer?) Our MFA programs taught us how to write the best book possible. Without that, you’ve got nothing to sell anyway.

Caitlin: Right. MWW is probably good for skipping at least six months’ worth of crappy query letters, bad blog posts, and misguided social networking. If an MFA program is a writing boot camp, instilling you with skills and knowledge you’ll use throughout your career, MWW is the two-week specialized training that prepares you for your first mission: getting your first book published.

Aaron: I feel like I might, honest-to-goodness, be able to get this manuscript between covers and on the shelves of bookstores; I can see how that might unfold. So I have the kind of inspiration one gets when an important goal is not only strongly desired, but clearly in view. Also, if you were a little blue that your MFA program had little to say about ‘genre’ fiction, you’ll find that deficit remedied here.

Cathy: It would make me happy to see more MFA grads at our conference. Maybe MWW can become a kind of “publishing finishing school.” Thanks you guys for talking with me, and good luck with your books!

caitlinosullivan.com / @Caitlin_OSully
Aaron’s Facebook / And Blog, Such as it Is.

Cathy Day: Storyboard Your Novel

2011 Midwest Writers Workshop – “Creating the Storyboard for Your Novel” – Cathy Day. Most of us learn to write by focusing on short, manageable story forms, such as flash fiction, short stories, or essays. But how do we move from “the small thing” to “the big thing”? In this intensive prose session, author Cathy Day will offer practical advice on how to make this shift in your writing life, including in-class writing exercises that will help you create a blueprint or “storyboard” for the book you want to write. Participants are encouraged to bring a package or two of index cards or Post-it Notes (low-tech option) or a laptop equipped with a software program they are already familiar with, like Scrivener (high-tech option). Come with an idea for a book you want to write, not one you have already written.