Again I say, Wow, what a conference!
The main part of the conference kicked off Friday morning. There were several sessions during the weekend with conflicting workshops and I had a hard time deciding about the pre-conference sessions too. I ended up following the “Improve Your Craft” track for most of the conference, since the only feedback I’ve gotten from the only agent who’s seen Don’t Stop Believin’ has been that she couldn’t get involved with the characters.
Ramona Long kicked things off with the “Four Truths of Characters.” Every character has four basic facts or truths about them: Society (who they are in relation to the rest of the world); Family (who they are in relation to their family); Personality (everything about them); and Flaw (their weakness or vulnerability). We deconstructed some well-known characters (most from Pride and Prejudice), and it was amazingly helpful to look at Danny Cumberland from The Sad Girl through that lens.
My next session was “Psychoses and Psychopaths: Crafting Believable Characters” with Brent Maguire. This was a high-level session giving us background on lots of personality disorders and personality traits. Again, it gave me a new lens to look at some of my characters, and gave me and idea about how to handle one of them disappearing for a long time without killing her off.
Ramona was back for “Shaping Story Arcs,” and this was another big eye-opener for me, much as it was for Jeanette Grey. The important thing for me is that every character has an arc, and every major character must change. So how does Danny Cumberland change?
I took a workshop on Historical Fiction because I have had in the back of my mind an idea for a great epic Second Civil War novel, and I thought such a workshop would be helpful. It gave me some more books for my reading list, and a few ideas—especially “Be careful choosing your Truth during research.
That was it for my first day. I skipped the evening keynote, and after reading all the tweets, I’m regretting it.
Saturday morning I started off with Nancy Martin’s “Author-Agent Relationship” workshop. Best quote ever: “You can only write so much sex before you want to start killing people.” All sorts of tips here: Listen to body language when you’re talking to an agent – or anyone, for that matter. Read your genre! Visit the bookstore to see who gets thanked in your favorite books. Network with authors and agents at conferences. They really are normal people! Here’s the biggie: You’re looking for business partner, not a friend. If you become friends, great. But writing is a business first.
Nancy also pointed out that authors and agents want a lot of the same things in their relationships. They want good communicators. They want people who can help them make money (it’s a business, remember?). They want people who are passionate about their work. They don’t want jerks.
Agent Victoria Skurnick was next with the Dos and Don’ts of Finding an Agent. I missed part of the session as I was dealing with nails in my truck tires, but here’s what I did get. Younger readers are going away, but e-pubbing may be a salvation. 50% of agented books don’t get sold. Listen to consistent criticism – consistent being the key. Read agent guidelines. Even if the guidelines don’t mention putting the first few pages in the e-query, do it. She said most agents still read that.
The lunchtime keynote from Jonathan Maberry was uplifting, energizing, and eye-opening. He attended Pennwriters even with a book due Monday. He mentioned that after critique sessions Friday night, while I was whining about nails in two tires, he went back to his room and cranked out 6,000 words. Wow. I do 6k in a week, and I’m feeling good. The Really Cool Thing™ that he talked about though was the idea of community. The fable that writing is a fiercely competitive and lonely existence is just that. It doesn’t have to be, he pointed out. Join a writing group. Hone your skills with other writers. It’s not a competition. No one is going to steal your plots. The one thing that every writer wants – to be published – is the one thing that will help the industry succeed, and that’s ultimately what writers really want. If the publishing industry fails in some way, then writers lose.
I did Saturday afternoon sessions about “The Geography of a Novel” and “Acting For Writers,” both giving me more tools to sharpen my work. Place can be a character, and land has a rhythm. Senses draw you to a place—all five of them. Habits grow out of place, like dimming your lights when you come to a gated entrance because that’s what you did at military installations. Live with your senses on.
Sunday morning sessions were about “Breaking in to Business Writing,” and “Travel Writing.” Lisa Kastner—a past president of Pennwriters, and published author—had a great roundtable discussion about business writing, and how our fiction can help and be helped by that kind of work. For example, to write a speech, you must gain insight into a person’s speech patterns. You need to know how they normally talk, so you can write something that sounds like them. Where could that come in handy for fiction? Lisa thinks, and I agree, that getting the byline and building the portfolio are most important at the beginning, even if the first couple of bylines are free. Keep in mind too that the church newsletter or similar thing that you write on a volunteer basis can all be used to build your writing resume.
Don Helin was similarly helpful about Travel Writing. You’re really only limited by your imagination he pointed out. Don’t write a travel brochure – write a story. Bring the destination to life. Look for sidebar details too. Research your destination before you go. Take quality photos, and most of all, have fun.
I’ll have a wrap-up post Friday with what I think of as the main takeaway points.