Old friends Mitchell Kaplan, President of Books & Books, USA and Les Standiford, director of FIU’s Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing, have been collaborating on the FIU writers conference for two decades. Camana Bay was the venue for their 2010 conference, drawing a healthy number of locals and overseas visitors alike, all excited at the prospect of improving their prose, perfecting their poetry and strengthening their short story skills.
Kaplan explains the role Books and Books (an independent book store located in Florida – Bal Harbour, Miami Beach and Coral Gables, and New York – Westhampton Beach, as well as Grand Cayman): “It’s always been our mission to serve the community in which we are located with events, seminars, readings and so on. The FIU conference is an important part of that mission.”
This year Kaplan says they “took the leap” to produce the conference in Cayman, although finding exciting and stimulating environments within which to hold the conference has always been intrinsic to their mission.
“We’ve taken the conference to several places in the 22 years in which it has run: Key West, Hutchinson Island (near Palm Beach), Seaside (a planned community in the Florida panhandle) to name a few,” Standiford says. “It’s important for us to find a location that inspires writers to be creative. Making you want to write is all part of the process.”
The location at which the conference is being held also benefits from such an event with participants usually taking time to enjoy the surroundings. Kaplan says this has certainly been the case with the Cayman conference.
“It’s a great way to create a buzz and encourage tourists to visit,” he states. “People are looking forward to visiting George Town and going to see the stingrays, and so on. Some are even considering extending their stay for a few days.”
Kaplan says it has been something of an eye-opener for some tourists as to how easy and convenient it is to visit Cayman from South Florida. He also states that the organisers could not have produced the event without the exceptional organisational skills of the Camana Bay staff.
“Everyone has been incredibly efficient and friendly,” he says. “The work here on the ground has been tremendous, from the administration to the sponsorship.”
Standiford echoes his enthusiasm: “I’ve really enjoyed the indoor/outdoor appeal of Camana Bay and the feeling that I’m part of the community straight away. Being here you really get a sense of the island.”
Kaplan fervently hopes that the conference will encourage individuals to write wonderful novels that will some day appear in his stores. “I want some wonderful writers to emerge,” he says with passion.
History of success
Standiford confirms that a good many established writers have emerged as a result of either undertaking the FIU’s undergraduate or graduate programme (rated as one of the top ten best in the US) and should feel inspired by a conference such as the one held at Camana Bay.
“A three-day conference, no matter how intensive and valuable, is generally only one thing of many that a writer-to-be will find of use in forging a career. For instance, no one would go to a three-day conference in painting or piano playing thinking that the conference alone would lead to great success as a visual artist or pianist,” he says. “Dedication, practice, talent, and yes, even a little luck are what finally commingle into success in writing, usually about in equal measure, though some of us have enjoyed a bit more of one component or another.”
That said, however, Standiford believes that a conference such as this can be a first step towards more assiduous study and practice as well as a valuable place to learn mistakes to avoid.
“It also gives a concentrated overview of the writerly world and marketplace as well as a source of inspiration,” he confirms.
“Furthermore, it affords participants the opportunity to network and forge communication with writers, editors and publishers, and other aspirants, as well as to take part in an interesting and enjoyable time in the company of others who share this passion.”
Novelist Maryanne Stahl (Forgive the Moon, The Opposite Shore) took writing instruction only at the FIU conference before she published her two books. Others who have passed through the conference and who have gone on to further study and great success include New York Times bestselling novelist Barbara Jean Parker (Suspicion of Innocence) as well as those on the alumni attending the Grand Cayman conference: Vicki Hendricks (Miami Purity), poet Elisa Albo (Passage to America), mystery novelist Neil S. Plakcy (the Mahu series), and award-winning short story writer Laura Valeri (the Kind of Things Saints do). In total the FIU has had had 65 novels published by alumni.
Although there is no distance learning programme currently available at FIU, Standiford says that overseas conferences are a great way for the University to reach out to a broader audience.
The directors say they intend to hold the conference at Camana Bay again next year when hopefully even more will enjoy the three days of sessions to get the creative juices flowing.
“We envisage a long term relationship,” Standiford says.
According to Les Standiford, writing for the first time can be a scary prospect.
“It’s an extension of yourself,” he says. “You are putting your nearest and dearest out there for all to see – it’s like walking around in your underwear.”
Standiford says the purpose of the conference, which has workshop sessions on writing exercises, fiction, non-fiction, revision, poetry, editing and agenting, as well as what writers need to know about the law, is to tamper fears.
“We want participants to feel comfortable while arming them with the tools they need. We keep expectations modest. Beginning is the most important part,” he says.
It is envisioned that attendees will come away from the conference with the tools they need to continue writing outside the classroom.
“We find the workshops give people the energy they need to sustain them,” Mitchell Kaplan adds.
“The workshops allow them to discover that faint voice within – a faint gurgle of sound that eventually becomes a loud voice.”
Cindy Chinelly, Associate Director of the FIU Undergraduate Writing Programme, gave a creative writing workshop and her ability to enthuse and energise participants was evident from the very beginning.
“Writers’ greatest fear is the blank page,” she began and thus a series of writing exercises duly followed to ensure that participants had properly limbered up and no pages were left blank. Participants were given three words – ‘radio’, ‘photograph’ and ‘window’ and required to record for around five minutes any thoughts and memories that these trigger words provoked.
“It’s best to write quickly so that your thoughts are allowed to flow freely,” Chinelly advised. “Writing quickly forces your subconscious to deliver material.”
From these initial short snippets, a short story or even an entire novel could be developed, she said.
“Bear in mind when you are writing that every good story starts with trouble,” Chinelly said.
“Get your character(s) fully immersed in the story straight away. Think about the small details of the scene at the beginning of your story, not the big picture. We need details in the placement of the character – a manicure not a manifesto. Setting the scene with some kind of conflict will make your reader want to continue reading further.”
Chinelly furthered that the kind of trouble that she was alluding to did not necessarily have to be violent or anything particularly major; but it had to be seen by the reader.
“The best stories see a character on some kind of a quest, trying to achieve a goal. The trouble they encounter along the way preventing them from their goal makes the best fiction. Seeing a central character change when they are faced with challenges is important – finding out what’s at stake, what matters to that character,” she stated.
She also explained that prose could be delineated quite neatly in two: “Action takes place above the line; but it’s not as interesting as what happens below the line – exploring values and motivation of characters. The interesting part comes when we see how a character deals with a situation.”
After we had all attempted to create something memorable on paper, Chinelly urged us to circle anything in our prose which we found surprising. “It might be an idea or a theme, but look closely at your work and see what surprises you,” she said.
After the initial process of putting pen to paper, Chinelly said that the real work came in the editing or revision process, where writers learn to fine tune their work and improve on their initial ideas. An entire workshop was devoted to this vital step in the creation process.
At the end of the intense three day course participants could not help but come away enthused and energised. Mitchell Kaplan – get your shelves ready for the deluge.