Thursday, April 24, 2008

Writing Community

I’ve been really fortunate in the last few months to find some peer groups/ opportunities that are helping me grow as a writer. I thought I’d update you all on that aspect of my life.

Last summer, I tried out “Writer’s Block” an Austin group of writers that meets once a week and does writing exercises. The meeting time is really problematic, so I didn’t stick with it, but the few times I did attend were beneficial. The act of doing quick writes, reading the result aloud to others, and getting positive feedback was very encouraging and a positive experience to have when I was just starting out.

After that, I started attending a Meet-Up group called “Austin Writers.” This group was organized by a very interesting guy, and meetings would vary between write-ins, happy hour, critique & discussion, and writing games/exercises. Sometimes the meetings were really fun and productive, sometimes infuriating. It just depended on who else showed up and what the group dynamic was that day.

In February I applied for my first writing residency. There are about 30 writing residencies that are offered around the country – they differ in degree of support (some pay you, some just house and feed you, some you pay), stature, and duration. They also differ in how much it costs to apply, and how many letters of recommendation you need to submit, and of course, how difficult it is to get them.

So I pitched my second book idea in this residency application (because I really hope to be on the next book and done with this one by the fall). Book two is a historical fiction collection of short stories narrating events from torpedoes to internment in World War II California. The stories are themed around a sunken oil tanker off the coast of San Luis Obispo, torpedoed by the Japanese weeks before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Maybe I’ll write more about this project in another post, but the point is, I was awarded the residency.

I’ll be spending 7 glorious days at Wildacres Retreat in October, about an hour away from Ashville. I was hysterically excited when I got the email telling me I was selected – but I don’t think I really came to understand how valuable the idea of “retreat” is until I came here to the Institute, where I have manufactured an illegitimate residency for myself. Having accommodations, food, workspace and no responsibilities is a really excellent way to get a ton of work done. I get so much done here I don’t even feel escapist or guilty about long posts like this.

Back to writing community. I also found Austin’s Novels in Progress group. A fantastic mix of smart people who do a twice-monthly critique of one member’s work. I only attended one meeting in Austin before coming out to Jersey, but I have been critiquing from afar in hopes of keeping up with this group and soon getting a chance to submit my own manuscript sample. I feel really good about NIP, the dedication and feedback they give each other is very constructive.

Lastly, I submitted a writing sample to the Heart of Texas chapter of Sisters in Crime, a mystery writing group that hosts an annual mentoring program in honor of Barbara Burnett Smith. I’ve been paired with an author, who has emailed me a critique of my submission, and I will be returning to Austin specifically to attend the Barbara Burnett Smith Aspiring Writers Event mid May.

Because Sisters in Crime has a monthly newsletter, participation in the mentoring event has also led me into the realm of “selling myself.” I know this is something I am going to need to get comfortable and proficient at if I ever want to find an agent, so I’m trying to embrace the 100 word story synopsis and 200 word bio, and thanks to David for taking a headshot of me. Since you all will probably not receive the newsletter, you can have an advanced peek:

Synopsis of “Ursuline Sisters of the Gone”
By Amber Novak

When Key Montgomery quits her job as a newspaper reporter and returns home to Austin, she assumes graduate school will be a welcome distraction from watching her elderly mother die. Instead, her academic work plunges Key even further into the emotional waters that surround their relationship. Researching her family’s history, she unearths passions and horrors that have been carefully buried for generations. With the unexpected assistance of an out-of-work architect who prefers microbrew to blueprints, Key discovers that the Montgomery women didn’t just keep secrets behind tight lips – but also inside walls and under floorboards.

About the Author:

Amber Novak has spent the majority of her adult life exploring the people, places, and stories of Texas while traveling the state as a freelance photojournalist. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Austin American-Statesman, Texas Observer, and Texas Highways magazine.

After a lifetime of attempting to quiet the make-believe voices of an oft-inappropriate and always overactive imagination, Ms. Novak finally acquiesced to their demands last summer. Setting aside her cameras she commenced in earnest to embrace her truest nature and write fiction.

The result is a literary mystery titled Ursuline Sisters of the Gone. Ms. Novak is in the rewriting stages of her novel and plans for it to be completed soon, if not before then. Ursuline Sisters of the Gone is set in Austin, Texas and intertwines multiple story lines spanning almost a century.

Amber Novak holds a bachelor’s of science in psychology from Brown University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas. She is a member of the Austin Novels in Progress group and was recently awarded a writing residency at The Wildacres Retreat. She is thrilled to participate in the Barbara Burnett Smith Aspiring Writers Event and would like to thank the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter for providing such a unique opportunity.

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