Thursday, June 19, 2008

Screw Iowa!

Six years ago, when I was VERY pregnant with Mr. B, I left my teaching job and determined to be a SAHM and try my hand a writing in my spare time (cue hysterical laughter from those of you SAHMs knowing better). I'd written a YA novel and sent out a stack of 50-ish query letters to agents and publishers with minimal success. I live in an area without a thriving writing community and no network to help me, so I attended a local writing conference that spring and met over a hundred people who had every good intention to write but no agent representation or accomplishment aside from self-published poetry chapbooks.

Not terribly helpful for a novelist with aspirations. Back to the drawing board.

I'd heard of the hallowed University of Iowa MFA program in Creative Writing, but obviously enrolling full time in a graduate program in another state was impractical. Then I learned of their Summer Writing Festival--a phenomenal opportunity for me to get some feedback on my latest work, meet and network with other writers and get a foothold in the writing community, and learn a few "secrets of the trade." The week-long conference was sublime (I highly recommend it if you're looking to attend a workshop or conference). While there I exchanged contact information with the best, most talented and most ambitious writers in the group in hopes that they'd continue to help me long after our workshop session ended.

In the year that followed I gained momentum with my new book, putting their feedback to good use and gleaning good advice on how to market my novel to agents (2 of them were represented). Weekly my new friends and I stayed in touch--exchanging pages for reader reaction, asking/answering questions, encouraging, and, most importantly, holding each other accountable for writing and not quitting.

There are millions of reasons to quit writing. I know 75% of them. What keeps me from quitting? My writing group.

The spring following the Summer Writing Festival, one of the women pitched an idea: What if we met and critiqued entire novels for each other--a book a day over the course of a week? (Most writing workshops limit the page count to 20 or less.) We asked the University of Iowa to host it, requiring only space, no faculty or facilitator. They declined our request--it wasn't a direction they wanted to go. "Screw Iowa!" we declared, "We'll do it ourselves!" (Now you know where that crazy name came from.)

We gathered at Marni's house in North Carolina and worked for a week--page by page critiques of one another's books, advice, questions and input flowing around the table like coffee out of the pots at 7 a.m. at the Sunrise Diner. We each left jubilant, our manuscripts in hand and work to do. It was the most valuable experience I'd ever had as a writer.

Through this group's help I've completed 3 books, had some work published online, signed with a literary agent, and have 2 new projects started. I never would have met 4 talented and diverse writers from 4 different states had I not gone to Iowa, and none of us would have experienced the same level of individual success without one another's help. The key idea here is that we went to a conference looking for writing partners and left committed to writing together. Because our method of working together has been so exciting and awesome, we want other writers to experience it, too.

To that end, we've created the Screw Iowa! website and written a book (hopefully available soon) describing the process by which we work. It sounds scary, connecting with strangers and getting their response to your writing--but when you do it right, it really works. is intended to be a writer's resource and a place to connect through the forum. There's no charge (unless you decide to buy the book someday--but you can't yet, so no worries!) and our group is taking our show on the road to writing conferences across the United States over the next few years. The key to not quitting your writing dream is to find encouragement and an audience. Nothing--writing conferences, MFA programs, literary agents, the publishing industry--encourages collaboration like writers really need. is a way to fill the void.

If you write, I really hope you check it out. I leave Sunday for my annual Screw Iowa! writer's workshop in Colorado for a week. The workshop we host ourselves--no fees, our agenda, no cutthroat critiques from ambitious writers jockeying for an instructor's favor--just writers helping each other to write--write well and finish the work they've started.

My particular point of pride is this website because it was my responsibility. So even if you don't write, check it out so you can admire my work! (And you can see what I look like because there's a group photo!)

Look! We even have an official logo!


  1. I am totally impressed. And I will be passing the word.

  2. AWESOME!!!

    I love it. Your group sounds amazing. I'm an on again, off again writer. Mostly, I just like books and reading. And I love YA!

    I can't wait to read one of your books. How exciting.

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  4. I spent some time on the new site yesterday and think its great - I may even have to work up the courage to send something in one of these days!


  5. What an amazing group/concept you've put together.

    After the workshops I've attended (even the 10 day one), my group stayed in touch for a few months, but never on this level. Impressive.

    What's really great is that you're all growing from it, too.

  6. Wow- what a great support system you have all created.


  7. Jenn passed this on to me, and I'm so glad.

    Right now, I'm in the midst of completing my YA manuscript, and your story inspired me.

    I'll definitely check out the website...and wish you best of luck with Screw Iowa! and your work.

    Thanks for sharing (and creating) this!


  8. VERY AWESOME, MELISSA!!! I am so impressed, and privileged to blog with you, and be a fellow BADGER! Hope you have an awesome time in Colorado!

  9. WHOO-HOO! How awesome to have a team that focuses on encouragement and building one another up.


Spill it, reader.