Jennifer Kan Martinez

"Sailing on Light"

Welcome, writers and storytellers.  As you soar through life, wings flapping furiously, may this be a little rock for you to perch upon, rest for a while and maybe find some inspiration.


writing lessons from the university of iowa "how writers write fiction" mooc

They say the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I'd like to share what I learned in my University of Iowa MOOC. So, we'll go through the eight-week course with the following syllabus:

- Welcome week

- Starting with character

- Expanding on character: cast and dialogue

- Working with plot

- Using character to produce frame and arc

- Voice and setting

- Immersion in setting: description and world-building

- Embracing revision

So, we're winding down 2015, preparing for lots of holiday gatherings, and, if you're like us, buying presents for young family members. So, enjoy the last few weeks of this year, and I'll be back in January with some valuable fiction-writing tools.

Happy holidays, and I'll see you next year. 


preparing for nanowrimo


All right, fellow scriveners, it's almost NaNoWriMo time, and if you're like me and get itchy/a bad taste in your mouth just thinking about outlining and prefer to just wing it, check out Chuck Wendig's hilarious post on the virtues of outlining plus a variety of options to get you more organized.

He's absolutely right, by the way. The last time I did NaNoWriMo was five years ago, and I "won," but with 50,000+ words of disorganized rambling junk. So, I'd like to avoid that this time. I'm all for flying by the seat of my pants in most situations, but for my next novel, I want to actually have some solid content to edit when NaNoWriMo is over this time.

If you're visual like me, you might want to try the method that I found most intriguing: using a mind map to get your story ideas down, and Iain Broome shares this great post on how he organizes his. So, if you're gearing up for NaNoWriMo (or just have a project in mind that you'd like to sort out), I hope you find some clarity, too.

Here's to more effective writing!


more self-education



I just attended the Central Coast Writer's Conference a little over a week ago, and now, I'm participating in my first MOOC. And they were both free to join. I wasn't sure if I would participate in the writer's conference since I just had my baby two months ago, but I entered my local library's competition for free admission to the conference and won (yay!). The competition may not have been that stiff for the little beach town I live in, but hey, a $200 ticket to a conference I was excited to attend is great, whether I competed against five people or 500 for it.

The conference was educational and inspiring—and better than I expected. The main lesson I learned from this conference is that some people are great teachers, and some people are interesting speakers. Some of the instructors provided nut-and-bolts information and tools we could apply to our writing immediately, and others just told stories from their own experience. My initial take was that the practical skills were better, but part of attending a conference is also seeing what is possible in your field. 

It was inspiring to hear full-time writers, novelists, and screenwriters tell the stories of how they got from writing at 3am with full-time jobs and families to becoming bestselling authors. It was motivating to hear that many had gone through a decade of rejections before they landed their prestigious publisher/agent. It makes a fledgling writer want to keep at it and not give up, and that's a priceless reminder for anyone.

And this MOOC has been a revelation. The University of Iowa is often considered the bastion of creative writing in the U.S., and the opportunity to take a fiction course with them for free, on my own schedule, and from home was too enticing to pass up. There were 1680 people on the map from all over the world the last time I looked, so it's physically impossible to have meaningful and intimate classroom discussion, but it's also a course that spans a few months, so there's time to connect with talented and like-minded writers.

More importantly, it's fun. The writing prompts have been engaging and push us in different directions. It's exciting when someone reads and comments upon your work. It's both entertaining and instructive to read others' interpretations of the assignments. And maybe I'll get to make some writer friends, which is always a good thing in such a solitary vocation.

So, love live self-education. Whether you have a full-time job or kids or both, you can still pursue your passions and hone your craft. No time for an MFA? No problem. Just keep working, keep learning, and eventually, you'll get there. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes about 10,000 hours to develop proficiency in something, so we better get cracking...




One of the best lessons I learned in graduate school was that I didn't need a college degree or a Master's degree-- that once we were independent learners, we could pretty much teach ourselves anything. Interested in day trading? Read up on it and start some practice portfolios. Curious about the history of elevators? Or virtually anything else? Read up and become an expert.

So, what's the point of formal schooling then? I was told it was the professors and instructors—the value they add in personal experience and the perspective and insights they share may not be found in the books. It might even be the way to think about a concept or approach a problem. Or maybe it's the shared-interest peer group—you may never find such a passionate group of people who swoon over 19th century British literature/physical chemistry/string theory to befriend again.

But for many people, going to college or graduate school isn't always an easy option, especially if you're working full-time or have started a family, so I like the idea that I can self-educate on pretty much anything I'm interested in learning more about. An MFA in writing seems like a dream (a very expensive one, potentially!), but if that isn't a feasible option, you can read up on writing technique and learn a lot on your own. There's a Portable MFA from the New York Writers Workshop (which isn't anywhere near an actual MFA but gives you some perspective on one), an endless number of books on writing, and at the end of the day, it seems the only way to truly improve upon one's craft is just to keep on practicing.

So, rather than letting life give you excuses to not write, if you are passionate about writing and want to truly become a writer, then we must remember that it's a verb, and one that writes is a writer. So, go forth, practice your craft, read and learn on your own, practice some more and then keep on practicing, and one day, you will become the prolific and/or profound writer you've always dreamed of becoming. Good luck.




5 lessons from my first writing conference


When my writing group started discussing an upcoming writers' conference, I decided (as someone who had never been to a conference of any kind) to research this writing-conference thing to see what it was all about.

The two primary benefits mentioned again and again everywhere I looked were inspiration and connections with other people in the writing community, and that seemed a worthwhile pursuit, so off I went to sign up for everything-- the classes, the editor critique of my writing, and all of the events associated with this conference. I even forked over the $10 to have "free" business cards made online.

How do you make the most out of a writing conference?

Having just completed this conference this past weekend, I'm still enjoying the high from the classes (though some were certainly better than others), the readings (much better than I expected), and most of all, from meeting and connecting with other writers and people in the writing community-- editors, agents, publishers, etc. 

Lesson 1: Just dive in.

I decided to embrace all of it, including the less-than-stellar parts, focusing on the positive and ignoring the snafus. I went with a friend, and I read that it was unwise to spend the whole time with your friend—the whole point of a conference is to mingle and meet others. So, instead of spending the whole time making snarky comments and being too cool for school with her, I tried to mix it up and meet a variety of different people, and I'm glad I did. I ended up meeting men and women of all different ages, with all different kinds of experiences, writing about all kinds of things, and it was delightful to just be a part of it all.

How do you know which sessions to attend?

That old FOMO (fear of missing out) that I thought I'd outgrown came back, as I couldn't decide between which sessions (classes) to go to with so many enticing options available.

Lesson 2: Choose your instructors rather than your classes.

I read that you should choose your classes based on the presenter rather than the title of the session, and even though this requires that you spend time doing research on the instructors, it is well worth your time. I did a quick search and easily narrowed the list down to whom I thought I most wanted to meet. When I saw people in person, some of my preferences changed, but I still felt empowered making informed decisions about how I spent my limited time. I knew the two days would fly by, and I didn’t want to waste my time (or money).

Lesson 3: You don’t have to attend a session just because you signed up for it, and you don’t have to stay in a session if it isn’t benefiting you.

On the first day, I didn’t want to be rude and felt like I had to sit through this class on “how to become a bestselling author” that turned out be about how to “game the system” in self-publishing (now referred to more positively as "indie publishing"). It felt like sleazy self-promotion in the worst way, using words like "bestseller" to market yourself and your work after enough people downloaded your free ebook to get your amazon ranking to #1 for a few minutes (which you then take a screenshot of to prove your best-selling status). I know I’m an idealist, but it just doesn't feel honest to claim you have a “bestseller” if you didn’t sell anything to anyone.

I regretted not leaving the slimy self-promotion session earlier and was bummed that I missed out on classes that actually could have taught me something and/or honed my writing craft. So, on the second day, I left sessions right away if I felt I wasn't getting what I'd hoped out of them and rushed to other classes that sounded intriguing, and I'm so glad I did. I ended up learning a lot from the classes-- and much of it was stuff I'd learned before but was presented in different ways this time. And in listening to the presenters, I fell in love with writing all over again, which was a wonderful experience.

How do you make the most out of meeting all of these interesting people?

After the conference was over, I emailed a few people I was impressed by, and they were so kind and gracious. A writer/editor already offered to be my mentor, an agent said she'd be happy to look at my novel once it's completed, and the editor who critiqued my writing and gave me useful and encouraging feedback already feels like someone I could become good friends with. 

Lesson 4: Contact the people you’d like to stay in touch with right away, while they still remember who you are.

I happened to be the only Asian at the conference, so I signed my emails with “Jennifer (the only Asian at the conference)” so they could differentiate me from the other millions of Jennifers out there. I read that you should wear a distinctive scarf/tie/headband, etc. to be memorable, and while this sounds cheesy (“I was the one holding the green rose”), I can see where it comes from. You meet so many people; it’s hard to keep everyone straight.

Lesson 5: Stay in touch.

One of the presenters was also something of a community organizer, and she brought writers together for published anthologies and spoken readings. Many of them had known each other as friends and colleagues for years, and I was blown away and would love to be a part of something that powerful one day.

But does attending a writing conference actually make you a better writer?

Another unexpected benefit from attending the conference was the idea of taking yourself seriously as a writer. Barbara Abercrombie reminded us that being a writer is not some crown we wear on our heads; it's a verb, and we are writers if we write. (This is a good reminder to write more consistently, too.)

I didn't have a complete manuscript that I wanted to show off, but now, I'm eager and motivated to finish it (and have learned it will take even longer than I originally thought to execute properly) and then share it with the people I met this past weekend.

I do think attending a writers' conference makes you a better writer. You get back in the classroom and sharpen your tools. You get inspired and fired up, so you work harder and create more. You connect with other writers and become a part of a larger creative community of people who wax on about lovely descriptions with the same fervor you do.

You obviously don't need a writing conference to be a great writer, but I do feel very privileged to have attended my first one this past weekend and would encourage you to go if you have the opportunity. If money is an issue, stay local and just go for part of it. If you're a student or a teacher, you can qualify for scholarships. I saved $30 by signing up early and declining the $10 boxed lunch-- and was happy to have my PB&J in a plastic bag instead. 

And at the end of the day, if you really want to become great at something, you'll have to invest in yourself. So, here is one way to treat yourself to a rewarding experience that will also develop your skills and connect you to a greater tribe of people like yourself. Win win.

This year, it came up more often that I was a coffee shop owner than a writer. Next year, I hope to be another prolific writer in the group, saying I have a complete novel that I’m excited to share.