Exploring the art of prose


The Muse & the Marketplace

The Muse and the Marketplace is a conference run by Grub Street, Boston’s premiere writing organization. Featuring keynote speeches, seminars on craft, pedagogy, and the business of publishing, and opportunities to meet with agents and editors, this conference is held annually in Boston, running for 3 days. It’s a practical conference, with most of the seminars and discussions providing attendees with information that can be immediately applied to one’s work. This year, there was much to be learned, many laughs, and a bit of snow. What else is to be expected from an April weekend in Boston?

Here’s our roundup of a few of the events that we attended at the Muse this year and the craft lessons we learned. Keep this one in mind for next year!

The conference got off to a great start with a keynote address from Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko. Throughout her talk, which was entitled “How to Stay a Writer,” Lee talked about her long writing journey (“I have failed for far more years than I have succeeded”); her failed novel (which was entitled Revival of the Senses and was, Lee said, “as pretentious as it sounds”); her belief in reading (“I was not a published writer but I was a great reader”) and her commitment to research. “Writing,” Lee said, “at least initially, is an act of imitation.”


The Blazing Thing: On Imagination in Fiction, Laura van den Berg

  • Title of the session is taken from a Steven Millhauser quote: “the blazing thing that deserves the name of reality”
  • When imagination is present in fiction we see the following things:
    • Rate-of-revelation (a shifting of the world, via Jim Shepard)
    • Illuminating details
    • Misfit details (bring the unexpected)
    • Complex emotions
  • To get imagination in fiction, we need:
    • Conflict, both internal and external
    • Specific details
    • To push against expectations
    • To inhabit a character’s experience
    • To think with and against your impulses
  • Readings included excerpts by:
    • Gabriel García Márquez, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings: A Tale for Children”
    • Edward P. Jones, “Marie”
    • Michael Kimball, Big Ray


Essentials of Characterization, Stacy Mattingly

  • How to render the complexity of being human on the page
  • The reader wants to be moved
  • The reader wants to feel the emotional center of the character
  • Mavis Gallant: “The first flash of fiction arrives without words. It consists of a fixed image, like a slide or (closer still) a freeze frame, showing characters in a simple situation.”
  • Readings included excerpts by:
    • Mavis Gallant, “The Captive Niece”
      • Use characters in conflict
      • Actions by character tell us much about who the character is
    • Chimamanda Adiche, “Apollo” and “Birdsong”
      • Full of richness/tension
      • Escalation
      • Past versus the present
    • Lara Vapnyar, “Waiting for the Miracle”
      • The way a character processes a decision is key
    • Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You
      • Play-by-play, meticulous description
      • Where is the character’s focus?
    • Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
      • Dialogue to show character


Dreams, Visions, and Hallucinations in Fiction, Tim Weed

  • We crave the experience of becoming part of someone’s else’s reality
  • Fiction explores the inner landscape better than any other medium
  • Dreams, visions, and hallucinations can provide fascinating insight into the characters’ psyche
  • Use the objective-correlative to express emotion
  • Readings included excerpts by:
    • Hilary Mantel, Bringing Up the Bodies
    • Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See
    • Tobias Wolff, “All Ahead of Them”
    • Cormac McCarthy, The Road
    • Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
    • Denis Johnson, Train Dreams and “Emergency”
    • Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things


Stick Figure Structure: A Quick and Easy Way to Finding Your Missing Plot Points, Hannah Tinti

  • Structure is the GPS of your story
  • Think of the structure of a joke: setup, buildup, punchline
  • A slightly more complicated 5-part structure: setup, propelling event, escalation, climax, resolution
  • Consider using this 5-part structure for each story, each chapter
  • A climax should make you feel; a resolution should make you think
  • What is the before and after for each character; a story should represent some sort of change or reversal
  • Tinti used The Cat in the Hat to illustrate these concepts
  • Reading: “Carpathia” by Jesse Lee Kercheval


Word by Word: An Exercise in Close Reading, Jim and Karen Shepard

Jim and Karen Shepard ran a wonderful session in which they asked 15 participants to write a sentence on the board. The class then voted on the best sentence, and the Shepards analyzed the sentences that received the most votes. What was common in these sentences?

  • The undermining of an assumption
  • Use of dependent and independent clauses to create tension
  • Some disorientation
  • Disruption of expectations in rhythm and meter
  • Change in emotional scale

Thanks, Grub Street, for a great conference! See you next year!