Barrelhouse Literary Magazine

Conversations and Connections - Barrelhouse Magazine's 2019 DC Writers Conference

I feel like I need to open with a disclaimer, which is namely that I am currently participating in Barrelhouse Magazine’s Short Fiction Boot Camp, so this conference was also a chance to meet instructors, and one classmate, from the program. Do what you will with that and all the praise I am about to heap on this conference.

I suppose I shall open with my criticisms. They are frankly few. So, Barrelhouse team pay attention to this part and not all of the nice stuff I’m going to add below (unless, you are having a bad day, then maybe you need a boost and you should just skip ahead).

  1. On the schedule provided in the programming, or on a separate bundle, please provide the names, bios, and social media contact information for all of the cool people you brought into the conference. At least their names.

  2. Please, provide an area to congregate or tables or something similar for us to mob the featured authors and poets after their session so we can get autographs and mingle without them signing books on their thighs and clogging up the space where a subsequent workshop is scheduled.

However enjoyable other conferences are, however extensively I’ve been able to network at them, however many great connections I have made, taking all the howevers into consideration of many other enjoyable writer conference experiences, I think this one delivers the most return on the conference fee. I deeply appreciate that.

I don’t think I have been to a writing conference, yet, and felt like it was a waste of time and money. I have a stack of signed books from authors I deeply admire and authors I was introduced to for the first time at conferences; I have pages of notes I’ve taken at workshops and panels; I have a stack of business cards, and a clutch people who occasionally notice me on Twitter, acquired from conferences. Afterwards, I am energized and excited to get back to writing. I am following new authors and literary magazines on social media platforms and excited to see what they have to say and more importantly what and where they’re writing. Literary conferences are awesome. Go! Learn! Enjoy! Get energized! Expand your network!

So, they’re great, but I think Barrelhouse Magazine may have put together the winner. Because however enjoyable other conferences are, however extensively I’ve been able to network at them, however many great connections I have made, however many great new reads I’ve purchased—-taking all the howevers into consideration of the many other enjoyable writer conference experiences I’ve had and will continue to have, I think this one delivers the most return on the conference fee. I deeply appreciate the value they place on my cash.

As at other conferences, you will meet authors, editors, publishers, etc. As at other conferences, you will find panels that provide insight into the business of being a writer, discussions of craft, and the inner workings of authorial approaches or best practices. As at other conferences, you will have an all-conference session with awesome authors.

So much you expect; but the team at Barrelhouse offers more. As part of your conference fee (a fairly standard $75 for a single day conference based on my experiences) you get the following:

  • A literary magazine subscription (choose from a selection of four)—I selected Barrelhouse

  • A copy of one of the featured author’s recent published work—I selected Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Stories, because Ivelisse Rodriguez had already signed a copy of Love War Stories at the Slice Literary Conference (and then I bought Randon Billings Noble’s Be With Me Always and Kyle Dargan’s Anagnorisis).

  • One 10-minute speed date with a lit mag editor—I was matched with Marisa Siegel from The Rumpus—and participants could spend $5 to go on more speed dates with other editors. The literary magazines get the cash.

  • And finally, not entirely unheard of but I think infrequent, in each time slot there was at least one workshop in which attendees participated in a guided writing activity and actually produced written work—I attended Kate Finegan’s workshop on description and had a fruitful writing session.

Now, I didn’t take enough pictures at the event because I was learning too much, thinking too much, and having too much fun, so content yourself with the photos above from the featured authors—the readings and Q&A were fantastic!

Here concludes the unironic superlatives.

Ways to Get Better at Your Craft Without Making DeVoss Richer

Fig. 1: The Common's Weekly Writes, Volume 2; Fig. 2: Barrelhouse’s Short Fiction Boot Camp; Fig. 3: Scheduling workshops within your writer community

I have a Masters in History and I’ll be honest, I am totally reliant on future legislation to alleviate the weight of this on my back. Needless to say, an MFA, no matter how much I would love to get one, just isn’t in the cards.

I am stuck trying to figure out how to get better at what I most want to do. Because, guys, I need to get better. So. Let’s talk options.*

Literary Mags

I have found that as I explore more literary magazines, many of them have instructional opportunities. Tin House, soon to be an exclusively online literary magazine as they focus more on education (ding, ding, ding) and their book publishing efforts, offers workshops throughout the year as well as retreats. One Story also hosts a week-long intensive onsite each summer, web-based workshops throughout the year, and a yearly fellowship which gets you access to all of their educational resources plus direct assistance with your works in progress.

Carve as a magazine, is a writers magazine. There are so many resources for writers in a single issue. Each published author is also interviewed extensively about the craft and their decisions in their art. One of my favorite pieces in each issue is the section where they look at an author whose work they rejected and talk to them about what they did to later get the same piece published elsewhere. As a subscriber, I also heard back much faster from them than others, and the editorial note they added was both encouraging and clarified something that wasn’t landing as I’d hoped it was for folks who didn’t hear me tell them what I was trying to do in the first place. Damn helpful.

Barrelhouse hosts instructional programming every year (plus a couple of conferences—more on that below). I have just started their Short Fiction Boot Camp, with each editor taking on a different subject matter. This first week we’re talking about beginnings, appropriately enough, and already some of the reading and the discussions has suggested pointers that have given me ideas and confidence in restructuring existing stories. They also host writer camps.

The Common began hosting a ten-week story generating project last year that is entirely asynchronous, but includes: prompts, assigned reading from the magazine, and interviews with an editor which usually includes additional reading selections from the lit mag, and a grounding in their emphasis on setting. There is no feedback as with the Barrelhouse Boot Camp, but it is constructive reading, and upon completion, you can submit for free for up to 3 months afterwards. (One note: I found the prompts to be more anecdotally driven, then I would like, resulting in more autobiographical work, but I also want to spend more time to develop my work within their structure. I also feel like there is a non-fiction bias because of this.)

Other literary magazines, like A Public Space, also host fellowships for education and more personalized attention, plus Master Classes with authors.

Short Courses

GrubStreet hosts both onsite programming in Boston (including a robust youth writing program) as well as online short courses. The platform, Wet Ink, they use is a nice flexible platform and the faculty often utilize video lectures in addition to discussion boards. Plus, each story you post in the portal for assignments has an in-line feature, as well as a comment section (you can adjust settings to allow you to read in-line comments or hide them, too). I have taken a class with them and anticipate doing so again.

The others, below, include the options that I looked into for this year, but have not tried at this point.

Writer’s Digest University offers web-based short courses, craft articles, the Writer’s Digest craft magazine, and even one-off webinars, covering all areas of writing, from copywriting to novel-crafting.

The Writer’s Center provides a similar service as Boston’s Grub Street, but is located in Bethesda, MD just outside of DC.  

Catapult also hosts a large number of short courses in addition to its online publication of fiction, nonfiction, and craft essays.

In addition to these larger short course options, I have tapped into the local literary community in the Baltimore/D.C. area. Local organizations like CityLit (Baltimore) and The DC Center’s (an LGBTQ+ community arts organization) OutWrite host evening or one-off workshops, and literary festivals for readers and writers, including educational craft or business opportunities.

Writing Conferences

There are about a million of these, but the SLICE Literary Conference is the one I found that I made happen first and I am extremely loyal because I have started to recognize regular participants and because I appreciate how well-rounded it is. There are two things I have gained: Firstly, I have built up my writerly community by making connections with participants and these relationships have become important in improving my craft because we share things: our work, places to publish, new places/authors to read, craft-related resources, etc. But, secondly, I have gotten really important insights into the publishing world—things that both fill me with hope and also with a certain amount of trepidation; I have gotten solid advice on how to be a writer in the literary community and how to be generous in that role (even if I am still “emerging”); I have been exposed to more writers and their work; I have been able to engage with the questions that matter most to me as a writer; I have been given solid advice on craft and how to keep improving it.

Here in Baltimore we have the CityLit Project. While they are not currently hosting regular workshops, they host a number of annual events or participate in the larger literary community. For example, they have a stage at the Baltimore Book Festival for panels, they host a free annual festival, and they sponsor other literary events, like readings, in the city. Last year I attended a master writing class for something absurd, like $10, with Yrsa Daily Ward and it was fantastic—this year it’s $10 for sure.

Baltimore Writers Conference is hosted at local Towson University. They have a number of panels like CityLit’s, featuring authors, editors, and arts funding/community organizations. I have enjoyed the opportunity to connect with local publishers, authors, and leaders of local arts organizations in a more intimate environment than a larger lit con like Slice’s—which is still pretty intimate as these things go.

Barrelhouse Magazine hosts two regional writers conferences, one in NoVA and one in Pittsburgh. In addition to hosting authors, they also host a large number of lit mags for speed pitches. It has been on my radar and I haven’t had the chance to attend, yet, but I have heard some solid reviews about the culture at these and hope to attend one of them this year (the NoVA one conflicts with the CityLit conference, so… decisions).

Your Writing Community

Through these other avenues, I have met other authors and writers who I have pulled into my literary community both locally and beyond my immediate region. These fine people have different strengths and weaknesses that we can exploit for each other’s gain. I am most active with those who have joined my Facebook group just because it is an easy virtual place to check in and connect.

Here are some of the things we have done together:

  • Shared best practices

  • Shared in learning ops

  • Workshopping

  • Writing meetups

  • DIY writer retreats at out-of-the-way Air B&Bs (more distraction-free rather than isolated)

What are Your Craft-Building Strategies?

Any courses or orgs you’d recommend? Any conferences that you are loyal to? What have I missed or what do you have locally that you’d like to shout out?

*In this post, I am doing limited coverage of places that I have found specifically for instructions, not craft books or MFA programs.