The Perks of Writing Conferences and Workshops

Still riding high from my positive experience at the James River Writers Annual Conference last weekend, and preparing to participate in NaNoWriMo and attend The Tesseract: A Week of Experiments in Writing next month, it occurs to me to reflect on just why I so love writing conferences and workshops–and why you might want to attend some, too, if you haven’t already. Here are the six reasons I was able to distill from my general enthusiasm.

Exposure to Agents

Because of my attendance at the James River Writers Annual Conference, I have had the opportunity to pitch my novel on two different occasions, to two different agents. I was woefully under-prepared (or perhaps completely unprepared is more accurate) the first time, but this second time I came equipped with a few workshops and practice queries and pitches under my belt, and my pitch went much better. Instead of feeling incurably anxious, I felt hopeful and excited. And those feelings continued when, at the close of my seven minutes with an agent who I had a lot of fun taking with, she asked me to go ahead and send her the first 20 pages of my manuscript. I don’t know where things will go from here, but that was a small step in the right direction, and it would not have been possible without the Annual Conference.

In addition to taking advantage of the chance to talk with an agent one-on-one, I have heard valuable advice from a variety of agents, which can help me improve the marketability of my novel, my writing in general, and my query letter and pitch.

Networking

When you attend conferences and participate in workshops, you meet fellow writers, editors, and bibliophiles who can help guide you on your writing journey. What we can learn from each other is amazing. I feel so fortunate to have met people like Kris Spisak, Valley Haggard, Judy Witt, and Mary-Chris Escobar, who have helped me with writing activities as diverse as author interviews, workshop experiences, advising the high school literary magazine and creative writing club, and participating in a critique group that has been immeasurably helpful.

Inspiration

In 2014,  I attended my first Master Class as part of the James River Writers Annual Conference. I do not recall the name of the two or three classes I attended, but one of them focused on helping writers compose synopses of their novels or memoirs, in preparation for writing query letters or pitching. I am a naturally verbose person, so the task of squeezing something as large as a novel into something as succinct as a synopsis was (is) daunting–made even more daunting by the fact that at the time, I didn’t even have a novel or memoir in the works. The closest thing I had to a novel in the works was a piece I had started (and stopped) writing in a Composition notebook four years prior, in 2010.

After some instruction and examples, the instructor gave us some time to quietly craft our synopses. Because I didn’t have anything about which to write a synopsis, I harkened back to the book I had begun writing four years before, even though I hadn’t added a single word to it in all that time, and truth be told, didn’t even know where the Composition book was.

Because I didn’t have anything about which to write a synopsis, I harkened back to the book I had begun writing four years before, even though I hadn’t added a single word to it in all that time, and truth be told, didn’t even know where the Composition book was.

When most of us were finished–or as finished as we were going to be–the instructor asked for volunteers to read what they had written, opening themselves up for feedback from both her and our fellow writers in the class. I did not volunteer at first, desiring to hear a few examples and learn whether or not I had been on the right track. After listening to maybe three or four volunteers, I raised my hand, and read my synopsis. The response I got was so overwhelmingly positive, that I felt inspired to go home and tear my house apart in search of the Composition book. When, after surprisingly little effort, I found it, I set to typing up what I had already written. From there, I continued the story, and now, two years, three Annual Conferences, and six drafts later, I have something like a finished product.

When we attend a conference, we are surrounded by people who not only share a dream similar to ours, but who also share a love of writing, and who take us seriously as writers. This atmosphere of support and encouragement can remind us first, that we are not alone in our goal, and second, that other people believe in us.

Had I not attended that 2014 Annual Conference, I would never have finished my novel, a source of great pride and pleasure for me.

One more thought on inspiration: We writers (at least, I speak for myself) experience much more rejection of our work than we do acceptance and publication. It can be easy to feel discouraged at times, to ask: Why am I doing this? Am I really good enough? Can I even call myself a writer? But when we attend a conference, we are surrounded by people who not only share a dream similar to ours, but who also share a love of writing, and who take us seriously as writers. This atmosphere of support and encouragement can remind us first, that we are not alone in our goal, and second, that other people believe in us.

Ideas

In addition to feeling inspired to complete works in progress, attending workshops and conferences often inspires new ideas, potentially leading you to write pieces that later develop into submittable work. For weeks after attending The Poetry Society of Virginia‘s 2016 Annual Poetry Festival and Conference in May, I was composing haiku in my head everywhere I went, dictating them into my phone for transcription later on. I have submitted several to various publications. I had a similar experience with the Life in 10 Minutes workshop I participated in during January and February of this year, though in that case, I was writing short slices of life in the form of somewhat sparse, stream-of-consciousness prose.

Opportunities

Every time I attend a writing conference or workshop, I learn about other relevant opportunities. For example, my attendance at an Agile Writers of Richmond meeting is the reason I found out about the Our Virginia poetry project, to which I have submitted two poems. I learned about Life in 10 Minutes through a Masters Class at the James River Writers Annual Conference, and through my participation in a Life in 10 Minutes workshop, I learned about The Tesseract: A Weekend of Experiments in Writing.

Information and Improved Skill

I cannot emphasize enough how much information one can take away from a conference or workshop–about craft, about the field, about publishing, about upcoming opportunities, about submissions, about other local writers, and about oneself. I have learned how to hone my vocabulary; how to write a query letter; how to craft a pitch; how to let go and really write, uninhibited–just to name a few valuable lessons. I have also learned about new tools and technologies, like dictation apps, and programs like Scribner (neither of which I use yet–but both of which I now know about, and knowledge is power). In addition, I have picked up little tips about things I never thought to do, but that prove helpful, such as tracking my daily word count (which was just suggested to me last Friday, and which I admittedly have not yet begun to do–but will). Finally, I have learned about valuable, supportive, and helpful Facebook groups, like For Love or Money (as in, do you write for the love of writing, or to make a living–and how does either impact your writing?).

 

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James River Writers Annual Conference 2016

In his essay “Why Soldiers Won’t Talk,” John Steinbeck surmises that one reason a soldier can return to battle despite the traumas of war, and a woman can bear more than one child despite the ravages of labor and delivery, is simply because neither can

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Every October, James River Writers puts on their Annual Conference at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

remember what the experience was like, rendering both incapable of experiencing the fear that might prevent them from entering into a similar experience again. “Perhaps,” he writes, “all experience which is beyond bearing is that way–the system provides the shield and removes the memory.” I think there is some validity to Steinbeck’s hypothesis. I see it evidenced in my own life, in at least two areas. The first is my husband’s willingness–eagerness, even–to engage in DIY home projects over and over again, despite the stress and anxiety they inevitably cause him. Not long after completing one painful project, he starts to get antsy for another–to the extent that we just purchased a second home, in part to help satisfy his craving for projects (and he is now completely embroiled in the pangs of a plethora of home projects). The second is my own experience with writing conferences, my favorite and the most accessible one to me being the James River Writers Annual Conference. I look forward to this three-day event with an enthusiasm approaching that of a young child’s at Christmas. But some years, I leave feeling defeated and discouraged: There are so many writers out there with so many stellar ideas, and we are all in competition for an agent, a publisher, a paycheck. I look around at the sheer number of writers in attendance at the conference and think: How can I possibly stand a chance against so many competitors? Frankly, it’s deflating.

 We come together as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community.

But at Friday’s pre-conference Master Class, “How to Hook an Agent–From the Query Letter Through the Opening Pages,” literary agent Michael Carr said something that helped me realize at least one reason (there are many) I look forward to the conference every year: “It’s important to get motivation from events like this.” He went on to explain that so much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together. We are among people who take us seriously as writers. We convene as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community. And it is in that spirit of the writer’s community that I share with you just a handful of highlights and takeaways from this weekend’s James River Writers Annual Conference.

For reference and in an effort to give credit where credit is due, here is a list of the sessions I attended:

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

On Revising

Sentence Structure

Be sure to vary your sentence structure. Reusing the same sentence structure can pull the reader out of your narrative, or, as Michael Carr explains it, can “wake him up from the fictive dream.” Two structures that Carr says are frequently overused, particularly by amateur writers are: 1) “Doing this, she did this” or 2) its inverse: “She did this, doing this.”

So much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together.

Tension

Each scene of a novel needs tension to hold a reader’s interest. Some ways to introduce tension can include giving the character a goal–and creating a character who actively engages in reaching this goal, as opposed to passively waiting for things to happen to him. Secondly, there must be some opposition regarding the goal. Something must impede the character’s achieving the goal he has set. Another tool in the writer’s belt is dramatic irony. The reader’s experience of knowing more than the characters about which she is reading is a powerful means of creating tension. Finally, be sure to ask yourself if there is enough at stake. What will the consequences be if the character achieves his goal versus if he does not achieve his goal?

The Opening Lines

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Bill Blume moderated the First Page panel Sunday morning. During this session, several writers’ page-ones are read allowed and critiqued by three literary agents.

At least three different experts at the conference exaggerated the importance of starting in the right place, which could be as simple as deleting the first line or first paragraph, or as complicated as rearranging the order in which your chapters appear–as was the case with my novel. Initially, Goodbye For Now opened with Marissa Donnoway working at The Beanery, serving a difficult customer. Several people mentioned that the book started a bit too slowly. In response, I wrote a new scene, one in which two brothers are looking out over Lake Huron. Still too slow. I deleted that scene, and opened the book with the emergency room scene. That didn’t work logistically, and the book currently begins with Scott Wilder’s suicide.

Feedback

If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another.

Keep in mind that when beta readers, critique partners, critique groups, or other readers offer feedback, you are not obligated to take it–but deciding when and if you should follow someone’s advice can be tricky, and sometimes, so can not getting our feelings hurt. I thought Michael Carr’s comments regarding this issue were an insightful reframing of how to look at criticism. He essentially suggested that when someone responds critically to your work, it simply means he woke up from the fictive dream and didn’t “believe you.” It is not personal. It means you might want to revisit that part of your piece and consider how you can strengthen it. Sometimes, a reader might suggest a specific change to improve a piece–a change you disagree with. It’s important to keep in mind that you do not have to act on specific advice, but you would likely be wise to address the issue in some way, even if it is not the way your critic suggested. Carr also advised, “If the feedback resonates with you, address it. If it doesn’t, don’t.” Specific feedback itself might not be worth following, but reexamining each part about which a reader makes suggestions is worthwhile. In my case, the people who told me my book started too slowly only confirmed what I had suspected all along–so I addressed that issue (many times…).

I also appreciated what Natasha Sass of Busstop Press said about feedback: If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another. More on this, in the context of tropes, below.

On Writing to Market and Finding Your Audience

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Master Class “Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market,” led by Natasha Sass, delivered on its promise, living up to its title. 

Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but until attending Friday’s Master Class,
“Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market: Game-Changing Tips for Indie Authors (and Writers who Want to Up Their Game NOW!”, I was unfamiliar with the term “trope.” Now I know a trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre. The tricky part is that tropes change over time, so reading within your genre and subgenre can be an important way to keep up with what tropes are currently desirable in your area.
What does your audience want? What do they expect?

A trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre.

On Inspiration

Two important notions occurred to me as I sat in a session today, the final day of this year’s Annual Conference. The first was that this year was quite possibly my favorite Annual Conference thus far (though they have all been wonderful). The second was that I would likely have never finished my novel, Goodbye For Now, had it not been for the 2014 James River Writers Annual Conference. The idea for my novel was born in 2006, when I was studying abroad in Germany–an ocean away from my then-fiance (now, husband). I began actually writing the novel in 2010 (I think) in a black-and-white Composition book. After a few weeks, I got busy and just stopped writing. I even lost the Composition book. Four years later, at a Master Class that was part of the 2014 Annual Conference, I read aloud the synopsis I composed in the workshop that day. The response I got from the instructor and my fellow attendees was so supportive, I came home and dug through my attic space until I found the Composition book. My desire to write the novel was reinvigorated, but it would likely have remained dormant, safely stored away in my mental attic, had I never attended the conference. Now, two years later, the sixth draft of my novel is complete, and I feel equally excited, motivated, inspired, and encouraged. And I already can’t wait until next year’s conference.

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When I returned home from the third and final day of the conference this afternoon, I spent over an hour nestled in my backyard hammock, snuggling with my whippet and reflecting on all I had learned–only the tiniest fraction of which I had the time to relate in this blog post.

The Business Side of Writing: Record Keeping

In addition to the many writing techniques and skills I learned during my Master’s program in creative writing, I was introduced to the idea of a submissions spreadsheet. Although I had been submitting writing to contests and publishers as early as elementary school, when in fifth grade I entered (and won!) my first Young Authors competition, I was in my mid-twenties before it ever occurred to me to record my submission activities. Truth be told, it didn’t occur to me, exactly–a professor mentioned it in a course I was taking, and I thought: “Why didn’t I think of that?” And more, importantly: “Why haven’t I been doing that?” So, at the age of 25, fifteen years after beginning my publishing endeavors, I created a submissions spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel. Now, I keep it in two places: a flash drive in the original Excel file, and Google Sheets online.

What to Include in a Submissions Spreadsheet

At the very top of my spreadsheet appears the date I began keeping the record, in my case, September 21, 2009. Below, are categories of information I track.

Title of Work

The very first column in my file is the title of the piece. You may prefer to set up your record so that the first column lists a different detail of the work, but I find that the easiest way for me to quickly identify a work is by its title.

Genre

My second column lists the genre of the work–poem, novel, narrative essay, for example. This allows me to see which types of writing I have had the most success with, as well as which types I am most or least often submitting, or have most or least recently been submitting.

Submitted To

In the third column, I list the name of the agent, publisher, or publication to which I sent the work.

Date Submitted

The fourth column simply lists the date I submitted the work to the publisher, agent, or publication. Many publications will give you a time frame for when you can expect to hear back, 3-4 or 6-8 weeks, for example. If you know when you submitted work to them, you can also estimate when you can expect to hear back. As many agents and publications will respond only if they are interested in your work, knowing when the time frame has expired can be beneficial in letting you know when it is safe to send the piece elsewhere, especially when you are sending it to publications that may not allow simultaneous submissions.

Responds in…

My “Responds in…” column refers to how long I can expect to wait before hearing back from an agent, publisher, or publication, for example 3-4 weeks if interested, one month if interested, 6-8 weeks, etc. Knowing the date submitted as well as the “responds in,” or turnaround, time can help you determine when you should give up on a certain publisher, agent, or publication, and move on to other options.

If an agent, publisher, or publication responds, I return to this column and add the date I received the response and/or the amount of time that elapsed between my submission and the publisher’s/agent’s/publication’s response. This way, if I ever submit work to the same agent, publisher, or publication, I can estimate with even more accuracy when I might expect to hear back.

Accepted/Rejected

In this column, I track whether the piece was accepted for publication or not (I categorize pieces that were ignored as “rejected”). I have read of other writers who find the word “rejected” too harsh and discouraging, but I have found this whole writing business requires a tough skin, so if my writing is not accepted by an agent, publisher, or publication, I just call it what it is: rejected.

Date Published

If a piece of my writing is accepted for publication, I record the date it was published. This information comes in handy when updating my resume or my LinkedIn and Contently profiles, writing cover letters or query letters, or locating my work online. It also gives me an idea of when my dry spells and hot spells have been, allowing me to look for patterns and identify what factors might have led to publishing success in a certain time frame, but a lack of success in another.

Amount Earned

The last column of my spreadsheet details how much money, if any, I earned from a certain piece of writing. This can be helpful for tax purposes, budgeting purposes, etc.

You will need to decide what categories are most appropriate for your own submission spreadsheet based on your writing and your organizational style, but the above are some fundamental ones to consider in getting started. Others might include word-count or line-count, draft number, time elapsed from starting to finishing a piece, feedback received from publication/agent, etc.