I’ve long been a huge admirer of Litquake, which to me is one of the most vibrant and engaged literary festival anywhere in the world.
So I am delighted to have Ransom Stephens, Litquake host and organizer, participate in the “On Writing Well” series.
What would the best advice you’d offer writers about the writing process?
The best advice I have pertains to every endeavor: don’t worry about talent, worry about skill and be a student of your craft. This means taking classes, reading a lot, grinding through books on the craft and, more than anything else, write and rewrite constantly. Look at every sentence and figure out what’s its doing. Sentences have to be absolutely clear and should combine into paragraphs that accomplish multiple things at once. If a paragraph describes something but doesn’t expose any character points or unfold something about the plot – point of view, mood, theme, whatever – put your tools to work and if they’re not working, cut them.
Tell me more about Litquake. What is your favorite thing about it?
When I was in high school I used to hang around pool halls a lot. It was a good place to meet a varied group of people, goof around, make friends, and get into trouble. Litquake is like a big book-based pool hall.
This year I’m producing two events, one at each end of the spectrum
At the very advanced end, I’m doing a panel Got Soul? Science and the Quest for the Ephemeral at the Mechanics Institute Library. I’ve got a spiritualist and a psychiatrist, a physicist and a priest, and the most listened-to guy in town. It’s my fourth high brow panel for Litquake and, this year I’m not just producing it, I’m moderating it. And that’s kind of intimidating because Michael Krasny, the ultimate moderator from KQED, is one of the panelists.
My favorite, and arguably the best event at Litquake, is the Barely Published Authors event. We get eight of the sharpest new authors none of whom have ever published a book and they bring out their very best stuff. It’s like a burst of pent up talent. It has the energy of American Idol, but we treat our up and coming writers with the same respect as we do Pulitzer Prize winners and they live up to it.
How important is it for a write to have community support? What are the main benefits?
The funniest thing about being a writer is that, for most of us, the goal is to be left alone to write. But it’s like any other field, you need help. You need connections. When you’re manuscript is ready, you need real pros to read it, you need blurbs and referrals within the publishing industry. Then you need help finding readers and creating an audience. Writing is worse than most vocations because serendipity plays a bigger role.
What is the best way for a writer gain a strong community following?
Attend writing classes at book stores, community arts institutes, and schools; join writing clubs, go to writing conferences and workshops. If you have time, it’s most effective if you can volunteer and help out. It’s also cheaper. Pretty much everyone on the Litquake committee started out setting up chairs, babysitting authors, and handing out programs.
That’s where you go to make the connections you need. Here’s some advice on networking. The most important contacts you’ll make are your peers. Sure, it’s great if you make friends with a bestselling writer, a famous agent, an editor, but the who will help you the most are the ones who are on the same rung of the career ladder as you.
People’s careers develop at different rates and it’s easier to ask and grant favors to/of people with whom you climbed the ladder. When my first novel was ready to go, a guy I’d met at a workshop had a bestseller out. He gave me tons of awesome advice and a blurb for the cover of my book. I met a woman at one of the workshops I ever attended. We were both working on manuscripts. She ended up taking a different career path and, years later, she opened a publishing company and, yes, she published my first book.
I know a lot of people in this business now, but I can trace my introduction to them all the way back to the very first class I took at Book Passage. And six years ago, when I set out to become a novelist, I didn’t know anyone in literary circles. No one.
What is your favorite thing about HubPages?
I’m just hanging up my first Hubs now. I’ve written for a few similar sites and three things draw me to HubPages. First, the fine print of the Terms and Conditions. Similar outfits constrain the copyright, but at HubPages you really retain all your rights.
Another thing I really like is the metaphorical geometry of a “Hub.” It’s a natural place to build content on a given subject. I envision the first article as the “Hub” like a hubcap and the other articles as spokes in a wheel. Once you start getting crossover between different subjects, you can build a trail for your audience to follow.
My fiction revolves around cool scientific concepts. So I just put up four essays on the science of intuition. Something that I find fascinating and think I have a handle on. It’s the sort of content that my audience expects from me.
The third thing sort of surprised me. I find that I really enjoy choosing books for Amazon to advertise on my Hubs. It’s like walking a friend through a bookstore and pointing out all the books “you’ve absolutely got to read.”