Geneva Writers’ Conference

Centers of Wisdom, by Olivia Wildenstein

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Conferences are hubs of knowledge and talent. They fuel the imagination and broaden social networks. They are important for every trade, but especially for writers, since writing is such a solitary job.

In Geneva, on the weekend of the 19th of March, a large group of authors and agents came together at Webster University to discuss writing and publishing. It was an exciting weekend, jam-packed with workshops and Q&As that shed light on how to transform your manuscript into a gripping masterpiece, and land that coveted publishing contract or self-publish it with success.

The first time I put a book out into the world, Ghostboy, Chameleon & the Duke of Graffiti, I did it without a master plan. I just wanted to publish my story, because I loved my characters and thought they deserved better than being locked up inside my computer, along with all the others I’d made up over the years. Also, I wanted to be able to say ‘yes’ when people asked if I’d published anything. I wanted to feel like a real author. Now, after the conference and the months of work I put into the launch of my second novel, The Masterpiecers, I realize that I should have had a master plan. Not because Ghostboy wasn’t received well—it was—but because it took me a year to slip it into the hands of more or less five hundred readers.

 

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At the conference, I gleaned new strategies from other self-published writers like Jill Marsh, who emphasized the importance of finding your tribe, because they are the people whose criticism will be the most constructive and whose encouragements will be the most sincere. Where do you find your tribe? In targeted Facebook groups, at conferences, in writing groups. In today’s ultra-connected world, the possibilities are endless. Even if you live in the most remote town in Switzerland, you can join websites dedicated to people who write in the same genre as you do.

Liz Jensen’s workshop was not to be missed. Her novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, is currently being turned into a film. She wasn’t exuberant in her way of ‘teaching’, and she didn’t throw around big smiles to charm us, but she explained the mechanics of storytelling in a way that made you want to pick up a pen and write the best book of your life. She used examples like Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment, where children were all given a marshmallow and told that if they waited, they would get a second one. Some ate it, some waited. Forty years later, the people organizing the study looked up these children. The ones who’d waited had been more successful in life than the others. Jensen used the example to demonstrate that giving your character a desire, but not fulfilling it on page one, will create greater gratification for the reader at the end.

Then we played around with different plot techniques to raise the stakes in a story. Your character needs to get from point A to point B, but things keep happening that hinder his journey. Here’s the example Jensen used: you need to go to the hospital because your mother is ill. There’s a traffic jam. Then you find yourself involved in a car accident where you’ve hit a person. A mother and her child. The mother dies. When you search for papers to phone the baby’s next of kin, you realize she was an immigrant, and therefore carries no papers. There’s no one around. This will create a great dilemma for your character, and dilemma is essential to a terrific character arc. “Put your protagonist through hell,” advises Jensen.

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The other author whose workshop I attended was a prodigious show-woman and storyteller: Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle. Unlike Jensen, she used her workshop hour to explore a selection of short stories, such as Raymond Carver’s Popular Mechanics and Alice Walker’s The Flowers. Studying writing is essential to writing, which made the time well spent. We analyzed how writers can create tension and satisfaction using very few words. The other memorable moment of Hood’s workshop was when she shared with us something she’d heard from author Grace Paley: “No story is one story. There’s the one on the surface and the one bubbling beneath. And the climax is when they collide.”

So once you have that great story written down in a neatly edited pile of words, what do you do with it? Enter the agent. You hook one, they champion your work and sell it to a major publishing house, and then you’re gold. Although part of this is true, it’s a simplistic view of the publishing system. There is still a lot of work involved on the author’s part: social networking, building a mailing list, accumulating reviews and entering competitions. An agent will help with some of this, but they won’t do your job for you. And that mammoth publishing house won’t either. Very few books are even allotted a marketing budget. But you do have a team to assist you with cover design, manuscript edits and placing your book in brick-and-mortar shops and libraries. Those are not trivial parts of the publishing process, but in a way, for having done it twice now, they’re the easiest part.

Conferences will challenge you, unlock new prospects and instigate key relationships. But most importantly, they will make you a wiser writer, and wisdom is tantamount to success.

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Olivia Wildenstein lives with her husband and three children in Geneva, Switzerland, where she’s an active member of the writing community.

http://oliviawildenstein.com/

 

 

SWAGLit

SWAG is a new online magazine about the literary scene in Singapore. Its Events Calendar brings all the writerly happenings to one convenient place, while the quarterly journal features author interviews and new writing. Its editor, Jo Furniss, dives in to share the SWAG.

Swag Logo
While criss-crossing from one side of this small island to the other, there’s a building I often see which has a single word emblazoned on its side in giant illuminated letters: CREATE*.
This is a snapshot of Singapore. Ever since Sir Stamford Raffles peered up the Singapore river in 1819 and thought, “Hmm, free trade? That could catch on!”, the city-state has been a boom town.
While the drive to create has long been focused on business and science, a recent concern with fostering creative thinking has led to a boom in the arts. As always, Singapore puts its money where its mouth is: this year’s inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize paid out S$20,000 (USD15,000) to winning Singaporean author O Thiam Chin, the Singapore Writers Festival has positioned the country as a regional literary hub, and the National Arts Council supports projects that would otherwise prove uncommercial in Singapore’s relatively small domestic market.
While SWAG may not have an invitation to this financial banquet, the morsels tumbling from the table put the fire in our bellies to start a magazine: all this zeal for the arts means there are so many literary events going on in Singapore—workshops, book launches, critique groups—how can a writer keep across it all?
My lightbulb moment: an online events calendar that incorporates all the disparate venues and groups would benefit the writing community. A quarterly magazine would allow me to potter about and speak to interesting people. I could even dust off my old BBC microphone and podcast my interviews.
My colleagues at the Singapore Writers Group (900+ members and counting) were supportive and funded the new website. The name SWAG came to mind, partly as a grateful nod to SWG, and also because I like the idea of literary loot; the magazine is a curious collection of our begged, stolen and borrowed riches.
I also reached out to Jill and Libby (The Woolf’s co-founders), having followed The Woolf’s tracks long after leaving Zürich. Their enthusiasm was energising and, perhaps more importantly, their practical advice made the project feel achievable. Like The Woolf, SWAG will be quarterly, themed, rangy.
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Image courtesy Swag Literary Journal

The first edition is about BEGINNINGS. As well as interviews with two very different Singapore-focused writers, we have an in-depth feature on three ways to get started in publishing. We look at Late Starters – writers who bloom after 50. And Singapore’s publishing houses also forecast the literary weather for 2016.

And we’re running new fiction: submissions are open to all, though we prioritise pieces that have some connection (however oblique) to Singapore. I’m also open to being told what to do—events or editorial—all contributions are welcome.
Find us at: www.swaglit.com
We’re on Facebook: www.facebook.com/swaglit/
And Twitter: @swag_lit
* CREATE is really the Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise at the National University of Singapore, in case you were wondering.

 

 

Notes from the Unexpected: Les Millionnaires

Images and text by D.B. Miller

On a prim cobblestone lane that makes nearby Bahnhofstrasse look like a strip mall, there is a showroom. It stands out a bit, what with the kaleidoscopic marble arches and golden sweep of letters announcing, in case there was any doubt, that those who enter have arrived. Inside, however, the hush and impeccable glass cases suggest a typical Old Town affair—for about a second.

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NFTU - Les Millionnaires 2Les Millionnaires. This is the jeweler steeped in the tradition of turning Zürich’s discreet aesthetic on its head, yet appealing to folks who, if held upside down, might start raining coins—to adapt an image furnished by co-founder Urs. But long before the acclaim, international expansion or foray into watchmaking, Les Millionnaires boasted just five rings and an ironic name. That was over 30 years ago, when Urs, designer Francine and goldsmith Ernst were sure of only one thing: they had no idea what they were doing.

“We’re a little crazy, all three of us,” says Francine, not without a hint of pride, while trying to recount exactly how jewelry inspired by fairytales, the animal kingdom and the dark sparks of their imagination took them this far.

Les M by DB Miller

The first three Millionnaires: Ernst, Francine and Urs

“My designs can’t always be sold,” she goes on, happy enough to defer to the experts, in particular Ernst. With his magic hands and years of experience, he is better placed to work out which ideas can be painstakingly brought to life for a limited series, one-off, or not at all. I think of the startling sculpture with the snail perched on an olive-sized stone—around here, called “a ring”—and have to wonder what never made it past the cast. Are there limits as to what can and can’t be done?

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 1 BW“No,” she says, right before Ernst quips, “Yes.” And then they laugh in the way people who have spent hundreds of thousands of hours working together, might.

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In the atelier across the river, five craftsmen hunch over precious metal. They hammer and file, one thumbing through a plastic tub of diamonds, just as other Old Town jewelers once did before striking out on their own. In this métier, timeworn techniques die hard, even if they are now accompanied by tinny pop music and the stops and screeches of machinery.

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NFTU - Les Millionnaires 1Just off the basement workshop lined with tarnished rods and helmets, Urs weaves past the floor-to-ceiling shelves. They overflow with a jumble of twine, scraps and crates stuffed with the makings of Les Millionnaires’ offbeat displays. Elsewhere: dusty cases of champagne, swaths of iridescent velvet and wooden gift boxes, each carved by hand.

“Everything we’ve ever done,” says Urs, “comes from the gut.” 

We are a long way from the sleek and sterile—from creativity that can be deconstructed or cloned in bulk. Every glittering beetle, seahorse and gargoyle is birthed in this bunker. Every dream and walk in the woods lives in metal and stone. A geometrically imprecise shape is sometimes the most perfect, and a patch of shadow can split into a thousand tiny stars.

“The eye,” says Ernst, “tends to linger on what it can’t work out.”

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www.lesmillionnaires.ch, Storchengasse 13, 8001 Zürich

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DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Notes from the Unexpected: Zürich’s one and only lake speaks up

by D.B. Miller

On certain days, it’s uncanny: the turquoise shallows, cobalt drop and unrelenting shimmer for as far as the neck can crane. The Mediterranean, you could swear it—with a squint and some imagination, maybe even a cove around St. Tropez. Toss in a few gulls and those Boesch motorboats that cost as much as a watch, and you’re living the dream.

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Except the dream is right here, in a landlocked country, fertilizing the shores and giving the lucky people who live on them something to look at. On this, the locals and transient folk agree: Zürisee is the city’s crowning asset. Once an international trade route, today a playground, but still: 88 square kilometers of alpine aqua pura are reason enough to be proud, if not a bit punchy.

Because some have the nerve to call it small—but tell that to the gent who couldn’t quite get to shore on a morning swim. While it was traumatic for that poor girl, wading into his corpse at the Badi, he had to go! When you’re classified as potable, you have a reputation to uphold.

And is “banana-shaped” really the best the guide books can do? Show me the banana that can hike up rents, wow UNESCO and host spaghetti-themed cruises without irony. Show me any fruit that can turn from green to purple to steel in an hour, creeping to the edges like silence or a thousand little blades.

Mix it up, keep them guessing, show them who’s boss. Kick up the surf and blame the boats. Turn up the temp and call out the fleas. For every record-breaking heatwave, there’s ice in living memory. For every preening swan, a coot squeaks like bicycle brakes and never gets the bread. The banks that now teem with people once swarmed with disease. Come in, the water’s fine, but the parent who loses sight of a child for one second ages five years.

Postcards lie, but nature doesn’t. You just keep moving—east to west, glacier to river, liquid to cloud, surface to floor. You’re more than a pretty picture: you’re as deep as the darkness 136 meters down. So the next time your eye skips over the void to gaze at the twinkling hills, remember: lights seem brighter when they’re mirrored in black.

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DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Gallery of Zürisee images from @libby_ol‘s Instagram.

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Bringing Legend to Life

By JD Smith

One of the beautiful things about legends is that they are inherently shrouded in mystery, stories passed down through generations, twisted and changed and retold. They are history and at the same time they are fire-side stories, propaganda and bending of truth to favour the side of the storyteller.

old script by @libby_ol

To adapt a legend going back hundreds or thousands of years is to change history once more and bring a new angle to an old tale. We storytellers do it without thinking because we are born to explore characters, places and what might have been. We tread the path of the unknown, weaving our findings in and around knowledge recorded in poems, songs and books which have been passed on and retold through the ages.

Tristan and Iseult Cover MEDIUMTristan and Iseult is one such legend, made popular in French poetry during the 12th century. It may or may not have been a true story. It is the romance and tragedy of Cornish knight, Tristan, and Irish princess, Iseult, retold many times and influencing many stories to follow. It predates Arthurian legend and is considered to have been the basis for the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The legend first appealed to me when I read Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy, where he weaves into the story all the hallmarks of what makes Arthurian legend what it is, including Tristan and Iseult and their love for one another, but in a way that is truly believable, even the magic of Merlin. His masterly skill showed me there were ways yet to retell old stories in new ways, and a few years later I took up the challenge.

I went back to the heart of what makes Tristan and Iseult the people they are and stripped away the myth. What did we really know about these two people? What is the essence of their story? Tristan was nephew to King Mark of Kernow (Cornwall) and Iseult was the daughter to the Irish king Donnchadh’s. We know Lord Morholt seized control of southern Ireland, and we know he was defeated. And we know Tristan and Iseult loved one another, but that it was a forbidden love.

From there I wove a tale I believed in, a tale of simple love that echoes across the centuries. The characters would never speak the word but they would feel it and show it and know what it is to find a person they want to spent their life with but unable to because life doesn’t always happen that way. Love is not always easy and it is not always kind. Sometimes it is a sickness and we believe the other person to be the cure when really, only time and distance can starve the fever. The question for me was would love fade to nothing?

fade to grey by @libby_ol

I wove into this simple story other elements I found on my research travels; mentions of Iseult of the White Hands, Tristan’s mother, his cousin, the war against the Saxons, struggles against the Irish, and the mention at the very end of hazel and honeysuckle that features in some sources, but again, it is a hint of other tales and my own take on them.

For me, the tale of these two lovers was poetic and yet I am no poet. I took instead the immediacy of first person present tense for a legend over a thousand years old, bringing it rapidly into the here and now. Above all I am a cynic and I couldn’t write a story with an obvious love conquers all ending, although in some ways it does. My exploration of Tristan and his Iseult was not one of researching historical facts and discovering the truth of events and actions, but finding the true nature of love and loyalty and how it makes us the people we are.

Jane_12_LARGETristan and Iseult is a finalist for the Historical Novel Society Indie Book of the Year Award 2015. The winner will be announced in June.

JD Smith is the author of Tristan and Iseult, The Rise of Zenobia and The Fate of an Emperor, editor of Words with JAM and Bookmuse, and the mother of three mischievous boys. www.jdsmith-author.co.uk

Adaptation

Zürich is full of creative, imaginative, cultural nomads for whom adaptation is a way of life. Change and learning how to fit in means something different to all of us. It’s awkward, painful, enlightening, hard work, liberating and funny. Here, some Woolf readers talk about their own journeys of adaptation, growth and imagination.

Adapting

By Gabrielle Mathieu

http://martinakphotography.com/

Image: Your imagination can take you anywhere martinakphotography.com/ Creative Commons

Consider this: You’re raised by a former New York artist and a Swiss actress, who then converts full-heartedly to Hinduism. Your older half-sisters live in Brooklyn with their Jewish mother. Your older Swiss cousin absconds to Thailand, your younger Swiss cousin moves to Greece. You have no siblings or relatives nearby to show you the ropes as your tiny family moves all across the globe.

Now it is 1975 and you’re a bewildered teenager in the U.S.A. You do not know who Sonny and Cher are. You’re forbidden to wear blue jeans. Your schoolmates laugh at you often, and not from your own instigation.

You become an informal social anthropologist. You develop a life-long fascination with parsing cultural signifiers, including clothing styles, media preferences, and body language. Just the body language of a region can yield many observations: do people merely purse their lips when they are displeased, or will you get a tongue-lashing if you step in it? How long should you hold eye contact? What’s merely flirting, and what constitutes a blatant come-on that will get you in hot water?

And yet, the more you observe, the less you crave a full-scale adaptation. Certainly, you concede, a quick nod to cultural norms is indicated. You will not bare your midriff in a church, you will not laugh like a braying donkey with your Swiss friends, you will not be reserved and chilly on your vacation in Ireland. But the more you travel, the less you care about fitting in. You have never fit in, you will never fit in; you could never squeeze all your multicultural experiences under one hat.

Local community thrives on continuity and provides security, but it exacts a price. You cannot reinvent yourself, you must plod through the steps of being who you are, there are expectations and webs that wind themselves around you.

Remain free.

The world is full of people like you: born one place and living in another. That is your community. Those who adapt, and adapt again, but remain true to what’s inside.

 

Moving

Images and text: Hilarie Burke

Hilarie in Kindergarten Off and running.

I am an extrovert. I was born in Japan. My education started as the only non-Japanese among 30 Kindergarteners.  We moved to three Asian countries for 2-4 year stints before settling in the US at age 12. Additionally, I was a cross-eyed, toe headed dyslexic with glasses and eye patch. I learned, right off the bat, that I was a person among people, not part of the clan. I would never fit in, an early if unconscious realization that freed me from the agony of trying. Being open to the people around me, led me to folks of like mind, our energies matched. The idea that I might ever be able to actually ‘fit in’ never entered my mind, except to yearn for the impossible—thick, black Asian hair. I gained a broad sense of what community means. My good friends in each country were native to that country; an adaptation practice that goes a long way. Self worth could not be measured according to the approval of others. Paying attention to my own disapproving thoughts became an adaptive tool.

pakistan, hilarieWhen I listen to the conversation about immigration and the need for immigrants to adapt, I wonder. What does that mean? Ok, finding and keeping a job, and generally living by the laws and norms of the society one lives in. But even second-generation immigrants will always be part of the culture they came from, especially if there is a racial difference. It helps to recognize that they add great cultural wealth to the host country. Resistance to change is treacherous. Adaptation is core to the process of evolution. Integrating into a global society is a survival tactic.

I remain comfortable as an outsider living in Switzerland, and muddling through German. Knowing I will never be Swiss is liberating. If I have a clan, it is the international community. We share a big thing in common. We are all outsiders.

 

 

Notes from the Unexpected: Backstage at Kaufleuten

Text and images: DB Miller

Reflections Kaufleuten-styleUnder the glare of tube lighting, down the stairs off backstage left, the casualties from the weekend wait their turn. A red velvet stool rests on a table, its foot glued and clamped. Above a tangle of broken chairs, three chipped disco balls sag like rotting fruit. If the furniture could speak, oh, the tales! Then again, it’s just another day here in the Kaufleuten workshop—another reminder that for all the excitement of a Kaufleuten night, there’s always a morning after.

Kaufleuten“Something’s usually not working,” says Corina Freudiger, laughing but wary of the crystal chandelier that has been temporarily jacked up between a ladder and a speaker stack. The head of Kaufleuten’s cultural events and I are now in the concert hall, one of the lush spaces she and her team aim to fill—at least before bedtime. The Kultur department isn’t responsible for the nocturnal shindigs of the famed club, but rather the 200-odd concerts, author readings, cabarets and heady discussions the venue hosts each year. Ever since Lenin, Joyce and the Dadaists graced the stage nearly a century ago, Kaufleuten has been pulling in a mix of hotshots, rookies and loose cannons. And then there are the performers.

The Kaufleuten touchFrom Patti Smith and Cat Power to Michael Ondaatje and Amélie Nothomb, Kaufleuten has a knack for booking legends, sometimes before they’re called that, but anything can happen when the lights dim. Meltdowns, mutinies and flashes of soul-searing perfection are possible on any given night, even the same night. Wing nuts in the audience, an impromptu striptease on stage—Corina has seen a lot over the years and, clocking in at over 40 events, so have I.

And yet, there are no regrets. It’s part of, as Corina puts it, the “magic of the live moment,” if not the strategy. Kaufleuten, after all, is a business.

“We’re here to entertain people at a high level,” she explains, but later cracks a smile and adds, “I would like to experiment more, especially when it comes to the readings. I think a writer’s words are between the reader and the writer, but how you present the writing is important. It doesn’t always have to be the author on stage, telling the audience ‘the truth’ … I mean, when people come here for two hours, something has to happen.”

Corina Freudiger and the Kaufleuten touch

Corina Freudiger and the Kaufleuten touch

The urge to liven things up also goes for concerts, and not only to compensate for the glut of backstage requests for vegan and non-alcoholic fare. Audiences are changing too and, for some, maybe an old-fashioned rush of euphoria no longer cuts it. This could explain the rise in themed events, such as the open-air literary festival in the Old Botanical Gardens (co-run with the Literaturhaus) and the new three-day offshoot of Zermatt Unplugged.

Kaufleuten moodAll good, so long as I can still get my swirl of velvet, brass and beer straight from the bottle while art—or someone’s vision of it—unfolds and explodes across the room. Corina says just as much: “Glamour is part of the Kaufleuten myth, but messy is interesting.”

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By D.B. Miller
Writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter